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Experimental music group Coil's live incarnation has a distinct legacy of its own. The initial performances took place in 1983, however they stopped playing live for 16 years after a mere four performances. The first Coil release, a collaboration with Zos Kia titled Transparent, includes a track from the first Coil performance as well as the last 1983 performance. According to the liner notes of Transparent, during Coil's second performance, which was videotaped by Peter Christopherson, John Gosling urinated on John Balance. Nick Cave, who was in the audience at the time, promptly left . Marc Almond is also credited for performing that night while Christopherson is only credited for providing back up tapes during the event.
On December 14, 1999, Coil performed elph.zwölf at Volksbuehne in Berlin. Although the performance lasted just under 18 minutes, it marked the beginning of a new era of what would become a series of legendary performances. Coil would go on to perform nearly 50 more concerts, with varied setlists as well as performers. Like the studio incarnation of Coil, John Balance and Peter Christopherson were the key performers and performed in most of the concerts. Other artists who participated in a significant number of performances included Thighpaulsandra, Ossian Brown (from Cyclobe) and Tom Edwards. Steven Stapleton (from Nurse with Wound) and other experimental musicians also collaborated in live Coil performances. Although Coil performed many shows at festivals and were involved in several tours, the majority of their live performances took place in 2002. In 2004 Coil embarked on their final tour titled "Even An Evil Fatigue".
Coil's performances were surrealistic visually as well as aurally. John Balance, Peter Christopherson, Thighpaulsandra and Ossian Brown were known to dress in fluffy suits, an idea inspired by Sun Ra. The suits would later be used as album covers for the release Live One - other costumes appear on the covers of Live Two and Live Three (straitjacket and mirror-chested hooded jumpsuit respectively). Video screens projected footage and animations created by Christopherson, while fog machines created a thick eerie atmosphere. Balance would often screech and howl during performances, which would add to the effect. However, the overall feeling of an individual Coil performance was extremely varied. Other props were used, such as mini tents for Christopherson and Thighpaulsandra created by the artist Ian Johnstone, as well as a sculpture which would become the cover art for Live Four, designed by John Balance and Ossian Brown and created by the London dressmaker and costumier David Cabaret. Cabaret was also known for working with the performance artist Leigh Bowery in the 1980s.
Balance's problem with alcohol would often reflect the way in which the Coil performances were carried out. While most live shows revolved around his vocals, Coil performed more than once without Balance (in an alcohol-caused absence) where Sleazy provided vocals which were fed into a computer and processed. His drinking problem became so well known that during the 2003 All Tomorrows Parties performance a fan asked if there was any "blood in his alcohol", a reference to the Coil song "Heartworms". Balance replied that there was no "alcohol in my blood at the moment", later adding "I've got horse tranquillizer for later".
Many Coil performances were released, including the limited Coil Presents Time Machines, Live In Moscow, Megalithomania! and Selvaggina, Go Back Into The Woods as well as the wider releases of Live Four, Live Three, Live Two, Live One and ...And the Ambulance Died in His Arms. Many of these releases have also been included in the boxset The Key To Joy Is Disobedience.
- John Balance: Performed vocals for almost every show, except for a few dates in 2003 where no vocals were present due to Balance's health.
- Peter Christopherson: Macintosh laptop, Ableton Live software , Nord Lead 2 synths
- Tom Edwards: wooden marimbas
- Massimo & Pierce: appeared nude as "stage performers" during many of the 2002 shows.
- Ossian Brown: Synthesizers
- Cliff Stapleton: Hurdy-gurdy
- Thighpaulsandra: Korg, Yamaha DX7, Kurzweil K2000, Nord modular synths, Theremin
- William Breeze: Viola
- Rattlebag Radio RTÉ interview; Dublin, Ireland; 22 October 2004
- "Supersonic". (unknown radio station) (12 July 2003). Archived from the original on 29 May 2008. Retrieved 2007-01-10.