Safe From Harm: How Coil Helped AIDS Awareness On VHS

As Coil’s almost balearic soundtrack to long-forgotten VHS sexucational release Gay Man’s Guide To Safer Sex is released, Tim Murray looks at the strange story of the title and its score

Even within the weird and wonderful world of proto-industrialists, ambient terrorists, pharmacological experimenters and occult aficionados Coil, their involvement in pseudo-educational VHS release of Gay Man’s Guide To Safer Sex is a bizarre tale. Like much of the group’s history, it’s become lost in the mists of time after the tragic death of the band’s main protagonists; first John Balance, then Peter Christopherson. But like many of the other band members – ones whose compilations are, after all, called Unnatural History – it’s a fascinating and strange story.

For Coil and the band’s enthusiastic hardcore devotees, the soundtrack, finally released after more than 25 years in the vaults, is among their most commercial work. But within the mainstream, the VHS release itself – part pornography, part AIDS awareness and safe sex instructional tape – was groundbreaking in its content and what followed in its wake, at the same time as raising “tens of thousands of pounds” for charity Terrence Higgins Trust. “It’s hard to put it into context now,” says Tony Carne, a producer at a video distributor Simitar in the early 1990s, “and it’s difficult now to think back to what things were like. AIDS was like having a death sentence in some respects, being gay wasn’t widely accepted, and you couldn’t show erections, penetration, or anything on video under BBFC guidelines.”

In 1991, straight sex tape The Lovers’ Guide had been released on VHS under a welter of publicity and tabloid outrage. Approved by the BBFC, it effectively showed what would previously have been deemed as hardcore pornography, under the guise of being a sex education release. It sold by the bucketload, aided by acres of coverage; the press were still essentially opposed to both the video industry and the BBFC in the wake of the video nasties furore.

At the same time, the gay community – still ravaged by AIDS – was crying out for sex education, particularly when it came to safe sex. Sensing an opportunity, enterprising video producer Mike Esser hit upon a new idea. He’d combine the sex education and hardcore porn elements of The Lovers’ Guide, for gay men, but would add safer sex elements to the mix. “Mike first sourced some footage for a guide to better sex from America,” Carne explains. “He sent it to James Ferman, then started cutting it to his notes. But then we started looking at the gay market. It was all illegal, but we thought: why don’t we do our own version, something more than just a programme?”. Mike sourced the script, got people involved, including the Terrence Higgins Trust, and essentially made the programme. “Technically it was illegal,” says Carne, “we had to take heavy legal advice. As producers, it was procurement. And as soon as you put a cameraman in the room, it becomes gross indecency.”

Archives at the BBFC show there were preliminary meetings with Ferman, Esser and others, and, as Carne notes, “We went as far as we possibly could within [the BBFC’s] guidelines”. Barrie Dwyer was at the Terrence Higgins Trust allied Gay Men’s Health Education Group at the time, which was consulted on the release. “It broke a few barriers,” he says. “If you call something health education, you can get a lot more saucy with it.

“Normal porn goes from nought to 100, you don’t see people putting condoms on. We’d done research and a large majority of gay men were getting their sex education and sexual health education from porn, which is quite scary. Nobody wanted them to be dry and dusty, what’s the point? There’s no magic bullet that will hit all the people, you need multiple ways of working with people and getting the message across. This was seen very much as being a part of that.”

At some point – no-one is exactly sure when – Coil were recruited to provide the soundtrack.

“We pretty much made it at their house in Chiswick,” says Danny Hyde, sometime Coil member and collaborator. He joined the nucleus of Balance and Christopherson at some point in the 1980s after engineering studio efforts, and worked with them until both of their deaths. “With Coil, when you worked on a project, you’d start in 1987 and finish it in 1993,” Hyde says. “With that particular thing, the music was so different, we wrote the tracks on the spot. The whole thing was done in a day.” In keeping with Christopherson’s work as a video director for hire, this was, to all intents and purposes, contract work. A paying job. “We’d say let’s just get on with it, there’s a job to do,” says Hyde now.

And yet – this being Coil, it’s a lot more than that. “We wanted to do a pastiche of lift music, but what it would be if you were on something,” Hyde explains – while also noting they weren’t on substances in the studio, as they often were at this time. “It started along those lines. And whatever came out of the keyboards was accepted. We created a song in 20 minutes, then moved on to the next one. It was so immediate.

“All the years I’ve been in the studio, I’ve never been with anybody as easy to work with as Peter. He’d allow you to do whatever you wanted. For me, it was almost like trying to please your master. There were no constraints.”

Balance was not heavily involved (“there were no lyrics,” says Hyde), but his presence is strongly felt, not least through the club-based influences in the music. He’d embraced the acid house, and Gay Man’s Guide… songs are imbued with a, whisper it, balearic feel. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the back room at an early 90s Boy’s Own party in London, or to soundtrack an Ibizan sunset of the era.

“I was doing lots of remixes at the time”, Hyde says. “I had a large library of beats, it was easy to bring one up Geff [Balance’s real name] was pushing that way, he was going out a hell of a lot.”

Coil later eschewed more straight-up beats, delving further into experimental and ambient soundscapes, but, as Hyde adds, “That particular job was light relief. We’d get a groove going, build on and up, it was a fun job.”

The soundtrack was, as one examiner noted (and is contained in the BBFC archives, viewing by appointment), rather nice too, and fitted in with Gay Man’s Guide’s tasteful aesthetic: “It’s tastefully filmed and lit, in soft-core focus, well-choreographed, with pleasant music rather than pounding synthesised muzak”.

The rest of the BBFC examiner’s notes make for fascinating reading. It was scrutinised in some detail, anticipating what could be a furore, with Ferman himself seemingly closely involved too (although BBFC archives do redact staff names). They also reveal some of the conflicting views and mores, not just within the BBFC’s Soho HQ, but in liberal London and beyond.

“Repellent, offensive to me,” noted one, but adding: “The tape is aimed at a specifically gay audience, not at the general public, so offensiveness is irrelevant.

“I would not fancy taking the stand in the tape’s defence, if it were prosecuted, especially outside London. Initial reaction was revulsion. I found sitting through it an uncomfortable experience.”

The tape’s use of bad language was an issue, for, as one said, the frank sex talk was shocking, even if important, as advised by the likes of THT.

“Unlike The Lovers’ Guide,” they note, “this tape calls a spade a spade and a fuck a fuck.”

Others were more equivocal in their support. “I think the gay community can be rather proud of this tape,” was the potentially patronising opening statement from one BBFC examiner. “Sex is a natural activity, no matter the participants. Marlene Dietrich long ago accepted the fact. It’s high time we in this so-called modern age, followed suit. If this tape is not passed 18 unit, there is something seriously wrong with the Board as also with the society which it claims to represent.”

Finished, and classified, the release was initially put through mail order and the likes, with a stall at Pride, but then retailers got on board.

The first to come on board was Virgin Megastores, its then chief video buyer was Mark Oakley, now owner of gay club and bar The Eagle in London’s Vauxhall, and home of Horse Meat Disco.

“Legitimately, it was the first time someone could walk in and purchase something showing full gay sex,” he recalls. “It was an absolute first. Something like this came along and we embraced it, we sold tens of thousands of copies. We sold out the first initial shipment and put it in the main window of all our stores. Someone threw paint all over one of the windows at one of the Scottish stores.

“There were no access points for gay males to find this kind of thing unless they went to Soho and paid extortionate sums for a tape in a dodgy shop. But it was pioneering and groundbreaking, raising awareness in terms of safer sex. The educational slant helped it get released. People were scared and there were those ads on the television with the gravestones.”

The outcry, expected in some quarters, didn’t extend beyond angry individuals throwing paint or trying to attack Virgin stores. “We had a meeting with the News of the World,” says Tony Carne. “It was really funny, we knew what they were like, but they ran a really nice positive piece. For them to run a supportive piece was fantastic. But at the same time it was disappointing – we wanted the outrage.”

The tape didn’t need it though – it sold in tens of thousands. “We were selling copies hand over fist,” says Carne. “We sold it to countries around the world. We gave thousands to Terrence Higgins Trust, at least one cheque was for more than £50,000.” Esser used the clout to help launch his Pride video imprint, at the same time he himself told Carne and colleagues that he was HIV positive, sadly dying a few years ago.

Both original Coil members have also passed, with Danny Hyde one of the close allies administering their legacy. It was him who gave the nod to label Musique Pour La Danse’s plans to release the soundtrack for the first time. “I’ve still got the VHS, shrinkwrapped,” he says, “I’ve never watched the video. A company got in touch with me, saying they were thinking of releasing this. Why not put the thing on a proper format and a proper release? Why should it just reside in torrents and buggy little streams taken off VHS? You can tell the sharks and the guys genuinely doing something.”

Hyde has kept recordings he was involved with, detailed notes included, and approves of those for release. “I’m very careful, I only do deals on things I know I’ve got publishing on, certain tracks I know I had nothing to do with, I won’t touch them.”He has received what he says is flak from Coil devotees, noting, wryly, "Coil fans are so… let’s call it dedicated”.

He concludes: “I know in my heart, I don’t believe in the afterlife, but I know Peter would be up there looking down and he’d have no problem with it. If I’m lucky, I’ve got 15 to 20 years left on this planet, it’s crazy to keep it packed up in my archive. I look at projects and I think: Is this going to die with me? If it seems like a good project, go for it.”

More than a quarter of a century on, the story, particularly the censorship and the groundbreaking nature of merely releasing adult material, seems quite quaint, given what is now available and how accessible porn is. “It went from there as the law softened and changed,” concludes Carne. “It was a moment in time, maybe the world was about to change, maybe we helped it along a bit. For a lot of people now, it’s just history.”

Coil’s soundtrack to Gay Man’s Guide To Safer Sex is available now on Musique Pour La Danse. A second pressing, in green vinyl, is due on October 4.

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