How The Fields Of The Nephilim Had The Last Laugh

Fields of the Nephilim perform on stage, United Kingdom, 1990
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Stop the press! Carl McCoy, the super-doomy Fields Of The Nephilim vocalist with the singing voice pitched eight fathoms below sea level, is roaring with laughter. Surely this man doesn’t laugh?

“Sex symbol? Me?” he guffaws incredulously after being asked whether he was a pin-up for the 80s alternative scene. “I don’t know what to say to that, really. Except that I found all of it a bit cringey. It was mentioned in a few features in magazines, I suppose. But to be honest, at the time all I thought was that if it got us on the cover of this or that, then it was just good publicity for the band.”

McCoy’s right that his good looks, still intact after all these years, certainly played their part in the rise of Fields Of The Nephilim from odd bods in the outpost of Hitchin, Hertfordshire, to top dogs of the UK goth scene. But there were undoubtedly other factors, too. The doom-laden, atmospheric, Velvet Underground-filtered-through-a-spaghetti-western music also played its part. And so did Mother’s Pride.

The band – McCoy, guitarists Paul Wright and Pete Yates, bassist Tony Pettitt and drummer Alexander ‘Nod’ Wright – got plenty of attention when they first emerged in the mid-80s because they had the habit of covering themselves in flour before going on stage. The obvious question now is ‘why?’.

“We had to develop something because we were such an odd-looking bunch,” says McCoy. “We didn’t look like a band, so we mixed the Victorian clobber that we tended to pick up from charity shops for everyday wear with some sort of Spanish/Mexican spaghetti western vibe and basically covered it all in a load of shit, so we at least looked like we belonged together. It was a bit of a response to all that post-punk glam thing that was around at the time too, that whole Hanoi Rocks vibe. We weren’t comfortable with that. We were from Hitchin! But we didn’t really think about the flour that much. It just happened.”

Floured up, The Neph backstage in 1990

Floured up, The Neph backstage in 1990 (Image credit: Getty Images)

It was inevitable that there’d be a Spinal Tap-style ‘mix up’, given the resemblance between the stage prop and nose candy.

“That happened at Nottingham Rock City,” laughs McCoy, again. “A lot of our fans used to get involved with the ritual of it all and they’d bring flour to the gigs in plastic bags to chuck up in the air when we came on stage. Well, some of them came back to the hotel after the show that night and a cleaner found one of these bags. She called the police and the next thing we knew we were being hauled out of bed in the middle of the night and marched off to the nick in handcuffs! They searched our tour bus and found 13lbs of what they thought was cocaine, but of course it turned out to be flour! They couldn’t work us out at all. They must have thought we were heavily into our baking! Still, it got us half a page in The Mirror, I suppose!”

Of course the whole business with the flour was a godsend for writers hungry for something to hang a story on. And not least because it seemed to be so at odds with the Nephilim’s po-faced persona. So was it really all so doomy, so serious?

“The thing is, we weren’t morose people at all,” says McCoy. “We had a good giggle a lot of the time. But for us the music was always very serious, even if maybe it wasn’t to other people.” The problem the Nephilim had was that many compared them to goth’s major-domos, The Sisters Of Mercy, another group who liked to wear hats and look mysterious and who had a vocalist – Andrew Eldritch – who sang in the same register as McCoy.

“I never understood that,” claims McCoy. “I think calling us Sisters copyists was very unfair. We had the hats and the smoke on stage, but we weren’t the only ones. I only sang the way I sang because I burnt my throat when I was a kid. I got hot food stuck down there and my throat got singed. I couldn’t talk for four weeks, but the effects lasted forever! And our music was totally different to the Sisters, too. Our sound to me was always like Pink Floyd mixed with the Velvets and even with a touch of jazz thrown in. Paul was a jazz-trained guitarist and that’s what helped make us sound unique.”

Regardless of the naysayers, the Nephilim quickly became major players on the UK goth scene after 1987’s debut Dawnrazor, and its follow-up, 1988’s The Nephilim, captured the imagination of the chicken-dancing brigade. McCoy is adamant that the band weren’t initially aware of the term goth.

Preaching to the faithful in London in 2015

Preaching to the faithful in London in 2015 (Image credit: Getty Images)

“As far as we were concerned goth was architecture. We knew we were part of an alternative scene, but we certainly didn’t consider it goth. I’m not even sure the term existed back then. And anyway, it’s all just music in the end, isn’t it?”

Indeed it is. And the Nephilim’s music really did touch a major nerve in the mid-to-late 80s as the band started headlining bigger venues in the UK. The likes of Jane’s Addiction were scrabbling to open for the band at the time.

“I vaguely remember them,” says McCoy. “I think they opened for us at the Brixton Academy around 1990. It might even have been the first time we headlined there. I seem to remember catching a glimpse of them, though I don’t recall a lot about them, to be honest. But a lot of the bands that supported us went on to bigger things than we did.”

He says this without a hint of jealousy. The Nephs burned bright for a short period of time, but with the release of 1990’s more polished Elizium album McCoy was already starting to have doubts about the band’s future.

“I didn’t want the group to be really big,” he explains. “I liked the idea of being a culty act. Huge commercial success didn’t interest me at all and I had a fear that things were going that way around the time of Elizium – so I split the band up.” Personal relationships had deteriorated after months of living out of each other’s pockets and McCoy wanted out. “I never saw The Fields Of The Nephilim as a big brand. I wanted more control than that.”

(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s been 21 years now since that first rush of Nephilimania struck. McCoy has since worked under a number of Neph-related guises and his latest project, a live Fields Of The Nephilim album and DVD, Ceromonies, has recently been released on EMI. The irony of a man who never wanted to be big being one of just a handful of 80s alternative artists still signed to a major label is quite delicious. But McCoy says this is no swan song, nor a nod to nostalgia.

“I’ve not got anywhere near where I want to be musically yet,” he says. “The band needs to be more mature before it can be fully appreciated. I’ve done my apprenticeship and I believe the future will be my strength. But I’m a patient person – and I’ll get there eventually.”

And then who’ll have the last laugh?

This article originally appeared in the 2012 special, The Cure & The Story Of The Alternative 80s.

For more on the Neph and their prog roots, then click on the link below.

The Outer Limits: Fields Of The Nephilim

Howard Johnson is a music writer based in France. The editor of Rock Candy magazine, he's also written for Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, RAW, Q, MoJo and Japanese rock magazine Burrn!, and is a French football correspondent for World Soccer mag. He has also written a book on AC/DC, Get Your Jumbo Jet Out Of My Airport.