This year famously sees the fortieth anniversary of the release of the debut single by The Sisters of Mercy, The Damage Done/Watch/Home Of The Hit-Men, on their own Merciful Release label. This is an incredible milestone, meaning that the band’s first release is as distant in time from us now in 2020 as the beginning of World War Two and the Battle of Britain were at the time it came out. Andrew Eldritch always stated that he was embarrassed by this initial vinyl outing, effectively saying in interviews that it was pretty much a different band, that TSOM proper didn’t really start until Craig joined and the band began live performances and that he even wished that they had changed the band’s name at that stage so that the first single would not be part of their legacy.
Ultimately Eldritch has softened his view, not only allowing the debut to feature on the Some Girls Wander By Mistake compilation of pre-WEA singles and EPs released in 1992 (albeit towards the end of the album which is in vague chronological order of release but for the fact that it starts with the third – and breakthrough – single Alice), allegedly to prevent fans from having to pay astronomical prices to be able to buy a copy, but also posting a highly informative piece entitled The Making Of The First Single on the band’s own official website.
Eldritch’s account – which, it is assumed, readers of this blog are familiar with, this post being therefore intended to be complementary to it - focuses on the motivations and method of himself and Gary Marx as they made their first stab at fame, revealing that their main aim was to hear themselves on the radio (a fact we have now proven in a recent post) and spread word of mouth fame with sales of the band’s iconic t-shirt featuring the Merciful Release head-and-star logo.
In his inimitable style, Eldritch (assuming that it is him writing in the third person for effect) recounts how “our intrepid sonic explorers booked themselves half a day's studio time at Ric-Rac Studios, which was (and possibly still is) a shed in Wortley.” The studio does indeed still exist all these years after Eldritch penned that account, and is still in the same unlikely location, surrounded by houses as can be seen in this screengrab from Google maps and not exactly “the run-down industrial area” the singer describes.
Eldritch went on to describe the studio owner and his influence on the finished product – “the only one who knew how to operate the studio, so he did the engineering. With a beard. Our heroes found it difficult to convey to him what a non-cabaret act might sound like.” The latter is probably a reference to comedy folk ensemble The Grumbleweeds who also recorded at the studio, which had its own label, Luggage, a pun too obvious for the likes of Eldritch. Commenting on a post about the studio on The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 fan Facebook page, Si Denbigh (of The March Violets) commented that he recalled that the bearded owner Mick Robson had also engineered a Smurfs album, which he proudly exhibited on a wall in the studio, whilst Dave Wolfenden (Expelaires/Red Lorry Yellow Lorry) remembered him telling the late great Mick Karn (of Japan fame) that “his cat could play bass better” than him! Adding to the legend of the studio being the place of choice for Leeds post-punk bands to record, Kevin Lycett added that “He walked into a Mekons session with his cocktail chinking and said 'I'd rather record a cow farting in a bath'”, adding that Robson was however “one of nature's true gentlemen.” Robson went to not only engineer the debut Skeletal Family single Trees but also release it on the Luggage label, and he was still on the mixing desk for the follow-up The Night which was also recorded at Ric-Rac although released on Red Rhino (photo below courtesy of Sisters fan Luca G). Incidentally, TSOM fan Mark H, a friend of Robson’s son, told fellow Sisters fans that “as late as 84 or 85 there was still a reel to reel tape of this [The Damage Done] in a cupboard under the stairs.” The current whereabouts of this tape is unknown.
Although the recording of the debut single was Eldritch’s first experience of a studio, a point he refers to in the official website account, what is not clear from the singer’s piece is that Gary Marx had not only recorded with his previous band Naked Voices the year before, but that their four track demo had also been recorded at Ric-Rac studios. In the very early days of The Sisters of Mercy, Gary would in fact have very much been the senior partner in the emerging duo, a theory given extra credence by the fact that it was his (real) name Mark Pearman (and address) which appears on the receipt for the masters and acetate pressing of the single, and of course he also provides the lead vocal on two of the three tracks, a role he had fulfilled in his previous band.
Not only did Peel play the single twice on his late night BBC Radio One show, fulfilling Marx and Eldritch’s original dream, but since the post confirming that fact on this blog it has also emerged (on the wonderful Peel fandom wiki) that Peel played Watch a third time, this time on his BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) show aimed at members of the UK armed forces and their families stationed overseas (primarily at the very large British Army bases on the Rhine in what was then West Germany). On Thursday 13th November 1980, just before the title track from the then new Bauhaus debut LP, Peel plays the “Marx” side of the single and bemoans the fact that the labels were on the wrong side, as he did on the second of the two occasions on which he played the single on his BBC show.
Print reviews of the single would have been very much a bonus for the band, and Sisters fan Ade M recently unearthed a copy of the first local review of the band which was published in Leeds Student newspaper on Friday 14th November 1980. On the same page as live reviews of Darts, The Jam and Teardrop Explodes (the latter, incidentally, a gig hosted by John F Keenan’s F Club), the unnamed journalist describes The Damage Done as “a local band’s single. [It] sounds rather like one man trying hard to be Bowie. Musically it’s rather simplistic, especially the drums [!! – the mystery reviewer really seems to have it in for Eldritch!], which have one tempo that doesn’t match the singing at all, which is ironic as the singer is asking to be told the rhythm of the dance. Despite this though, it’s not all that bad.”
It was speculated that this might be the first ever review the band had received, but research by Phil Verne, the Admin of the 1980-1985 Facebook fan group reveals that the previous week Sounds had also published a critique of the single (in the edition dated 8th November 1980), courtesy of then well-known music journalist Robbi Millar, who was famous at the time for her writings on the emerging New Wave of British Heavy Metal. If the Leeds Student review was largely negative, it was positively fawning compared to Millar’s damning verdict. “Merciful this isn’t. I sometimes wonder if Ian Curtis knew what he was letting the world in for when he died for us. Certainly, the Joy Division circus hasn’t left us yet and its impressions grow increasingly gloomy by the day.”
Although many unsold copies of the first single were damaged in a cellar flood in the early 1980’s (not an unusual occurrence in York, where Red Rhino was based, and a fact recently confirmed by TSOM fan Jez d’N who worked at the store), Eldritch claims that “initially, Red Rhino sold almost enough copies to cover the manufacturing costs”, and this may or may not include those copies sold at a later date with a paper insert containing details of the band’s then history. It has been suggested that this re-release was around the time of Alice, but the lack of mention of any second guitarist (admittedly a common feature of the band’s official biographies) and the use of Marx’s contact details might date this artefact to the previous year, perhaps around the time of the more favourable word-of-mouth praise that was beginning to circulate around the time of the Futurama appearance in September 1981.
Either way, both Eldritch and most fans agree that the making of the first single in itself was more impressive than the sound of the end result. Visually, the record remains a stunning artefact for a first effort and was the template for the band’s subsequent releases. Aurally, however, although a competent debut, there was little to hint at the power, energy and originality that would characterise the Sisters’ releases from the second single Body Electric/Adrenochrome onwards.
My grateful thanks for this post are due to Phil Verne, Luca, Ade M, Jez d’N, Mark H and all others quoted for sharing their memories of the circumstances of this special release