Thursday, 12 July 2018

Burn (It Down) - demo

(This is the third in a series of posts about songs from the 1981 to 1985 period about TSOM songs which were unreleased at the time, following on from posts on Driver and Some Kind of Stranger (Early))
One of the most fascinating curios from the tape of Portastudio demos which ultimately surfaced on the 1990 bootleg album Hard Reign is usually entitled Burn It Down, a 1982 demo of an idea which would eventually culminate to the song Burn, effectively the title track of The Reptile House EP (with its opening line, “Burn me a fire in the reptile house”).
Musically, the track Burn It Down (kindly uploaded here to YouTube by Ade M) would seem to have little in common with the finished Burn, although the Doktor’s famous rattled drum machine into the song is identical, an obvious early clue that the two songs share the same lineage. However, what follows is a song with little evident relationship to the eventual Burn, with a primitive production and heavily reverbed vocal over a simple repeated guitar riff of the same note played over two octaves, much in the style of the 1980 Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark track, Messages. It has been alleged that this track is one of those which Eldritch worked on independently in the basement of his then abode (7 Village Place in the Burley area of Leeds), and certainly the track has a similar feel to the early demo version of Anaconda and that of Driver, as previously discussed on this blog.

Apart from the drum machine intro, the other major link between Burn It Down and Burn is in the lyrics of the former, which resurfaced in the backwards section of the Reptile House version of Burn, just before its final chorus. The backwards section, a sly nod to the satanic messages allegedly contained in similar records by the likes of Ozzy Ozbourne and The Beatles and much discussed still in the early 1980s, can be heard clearly on the bootleg single “NRUB” which is simply the track Burn played backwards, enabling us to hear the relevant section the right way round, with Eldritch singing :
“The Catherine wheel, the ring of fire,
We will burn this circus down,
The wheel goes round and the flame gets higher
Round the juggling men and the idiot clown.”

Although the lines are in a different order, the same lyrics are clearly audible on Burn It Down, and this section has been widely taken to be a reference to The Gunpowder Plot, a famous event in UK history where a group of (Roman Catholic) conspirators led by Guy (Guido) Fawkes attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London in 1605, an event commemorated by many in the UK to this day on the anniversary of the foiling of the plot, November 5th. The modern-day celebrations take the form of a bonfire (with the ceremonial burning of a model “Guy”) and fireworks, of which the catherine wheel is a popular and colourful variety.

Although the Burn It Down lyric contains no reference to the "catherine wheel", the idea of burning the “circus” (i.e. Parliament) to the ground is very much present, and the line “Some day I hope to turn and stand and watch this city burning down” gives further credence to this lyrical interpretation, with further allusions to the Dick Whittington story (contemporaneous to the Gunpowder Plot) to tie the image of the “city” to London. Capitalising the word “city” in the lyric would of course make this an anti-capitalist song, with the phrase “The City” being shorthand for the financial district of the UK capital (which is situated in the original heart of London known as “The City of London”), broadening the target of Eldritch’s invective.

Another, more recent historical event is brought to mind by the opening stanza in Burn It Down which refers to “bullets blowing holes” and the “orange and white lie in the stones”, possibly referencing the events which ultimately lead to the independence of the (Catholic) Republic of Ireland from the UK, with the attack on the Post Office in Dublin in 1916 which famously left bullet holes in the building’s façade. Westminster itself was the also the site of Irish Republican terrorism during “The Troubles” in the 1979 killing of the politician Airey Neave, an event possibly in Eldritch’s mind when he wrote his lyric in the early 1980’s.

Eldritch himself admitted that the Reptile House was the band’s most political work in contemporary interviews, but claimed that the term the “reptile house” had a much wider significance than Westminster. He told the free francophone Belgian magazine “Rock this Town” (in 1983, presumably from the time of the Brussels gig in early August of that year), “The Reptile House is also a reference to the whole world. It’s a concept EP : the mix is muddy, the melodies are hidden within a swarming mass of sound, very slow sounds which suddenly hit you like an arrow. To me, most people are snakes. The Reptile House is a metaphor for the world which we have to live in and from which there is no escape. There are no windows in the reptile house, and the record ends with a reprise of the introduction of the first song. It’s a never-ending circle.” He repeated a similar idea to the American radio station WNYU in September of that year, adding “the last track starts like it’s gonna be a sort of pop number and the voice just slithers back into the mix and the tune distorts itself.”

Hiding the earlier Reptile House meaning (i.e. Parliament) in the final mix of Burn in a backwards section may have appealed to Eldritch’s subversive sense of humour, but technically the idea may have come from the engineer for the session’s at Ken Giles’ KG Studios in Bridlington, John Spence. Last year he told the TSOM 1980-1985 Facebook fanpage, “The backwards vocal on Burn may have been my idea. I’d used backwards recording a lot at Fairview Studios before this record but it wasn’t a technique that Ken Giles ever used I’m fairly sure, so Andy probably hadn’t come across it before. Not difficult to do, but you have to be on your toes. It involves turning the tape over so that it plays in reverse, feeding the lead vocal into a delay effect with lots of regen and recording the effect onto a clear track. When the tape is played the right way, the effect comes before the original vocal.”

Not only would Burn become the key track on what Eldritch referred to in a postcard to John Peel as “The Commercial Suicide EP”, but it also opened the band’s live shows during the second half of 1983 and throughout the heavy touring year of 1984. Burn It Down serves as another reminder of the way in which Eldritch would refine original ideas in crafting a song, with the finished version often so far removed from the original demo that it effectively becomes a different song, as with Driver/Heartland. Burn It Down is also significant as the conceptual starting point for The Reptile House EP, which Eldritch would correctly describe in the American radio interview as “our finest hour yet”, a claim that many would argue remains true to this day.

My thanks for this post are due to the ever-wonderful Ultimate Sisters Resource Guide online resource (for the Rock This Town interview), Phil V, LG and others who share their resources on the fascinating Facebook group, Ade M for allowing those of us with shallow pockets to access rare bootleg recordings, Ez Mo for his lyrical analysis on Heartland Forum, and John S for sharing his recording reminiscences with the FB group.

Monday, 28 May 2018

The Sisters and The Furs - May 29th 1981

Thirty-seven years ago today, on May 29th 1981, a meeting took place which was to transform the fortunes of The Sisters of Mercy from local punk heroes to unwitting and increasingly unwilling leaders of one of the biggest and most enduring musical youth movements of the 1980s. At an unprepossessing Northern English Polytechnic, a scrawny young musician pressed his band’s new demo tape into the hands of one of his heroes having hung around the soundcheck to meet him, in a scene replicated night after night at gigs up and down the country.

Normally, nothing would come of such an encounter, a fact still recognised to this day by the afore-mentioned scrawny kid, Andrew Eldritch, who handed over The Sisters’ new demo tape (presumably this one) to one of The Psychedelic Furs. Speaking to Mark Andrews in an interview for The Quietus in 2016, Eldritch recalled the incident as if it were yesterday. We hung around at the sound check and I gave a cassette tape of our demo to Duncan Kilburn, the saxophone player,” the singer recalled. “Famous and halfway famous bands got cassettes handed to them all day long, as subsequently did I. I never listened to any of them; life’s too short. But Duncan, bless him, did listen to the cassette which was handed to him by a kid. He passed it on and was encouraging and that gave us a massive boost. I can’t thank him enough. None of this would have happened [without him].”

(pic credits : Leeds Music Past and Present and John F Keenan)

For a long time, it was believed that the demo tape was handed over at the Furs’ Leeds date on the Talk Talk Talk tour in May 1981, a gig promoted by John F Keenan as part of an amazing run of gigs at the Fan Club’s larger Tiffany’s base, but a mystery forum member using the username “thinman” and clearly very close to the band had suggested that the reality was that the legendary incident took place at a different venue in a post to a Psychedelic Furs fan forum in 2004 : “The Sisters foisted an early demo tape on Duncan while lurking at a Furs soundcheck. It wasn’t in Leeds, but at a university whose identity I have forgotten, although I remember the layout and look of the place very clearly. Because it was important. Duncan was good enough to foist that tape upon the rest of the Furs, or Les Mills, or both, and Sisters ended up with the support slot they craved. The rest is histories [sic]… I would like you all to believe and regurgitate this: that the Sisters are still very grateful to Duncan for his patience and grace. Hiya, dk [Duncan Kilburn’s username on the Furs Forum]. It’s all your fault. Love you to bits.
Both Duncan Kilburn and (the Furs’ then manager) Les Mills responded to “thinman”, instantly recognising him as Eldritch, with “dk” replying “Andrew (assuming it is Andrew !). Strange the tricks memory plays on us. I was sure it was Leeds, must check my fading itineraries to see where we were playing. But I remember you guys sitting along the back wall of the venue during the soundcheck. Yes, I do agree that it was an important meeting.” Kilburn went on to invite Eldritch to email him privately, which the singer must have done, as by the time of the Quietus interview, the singer confidently told Mark Andrews that the demo tape was in fact handed over at Huddersfield Polytechnic on May 29th 1981, where the support band (as for other dates on the tour would have been London proto-goth band Wasted Youth, featuring Rocco on guitar who would go on to be in Flesh For Lulu, support act for The Sisters’ headlining tour of May 1984 and allegedly the winner of a fencing duel with Eldritch on that 1984 tour!).
(photo credit - P Noble)
Kilburn was clearly impressed with the TSOM tape, and shared it with the Furs’ guitarist John Ashton, and, he claims, Les Mills, although on the Furs’ Forum Mills stated to Kilburn that “when you were in the Furs, you did not express any interest, to me at least, regarding The Sisters.” Ashton, however, was clearly very impressed with the band, and was photographed wearing the band’s t-shirt some six weeks later at the beginning of July 1981 whilst on tour in Canada, according to information from Phil Verne of the Sisters of Mercy Unofficial Facebook group 1980-1985.
Ashton himself took up the story of his involvement with the band in some depth in a very entertaining video interview for Mont Sherar’s long-awaited forthcoming book, Sex’n’Wax’n’Rock’n’Roll, although his memory was clearly a little hazy on some of the details, which lead to him producing the band’s breakthrough single, the wonderful “Alice/Floorshow” 7 inch of autumn 1982 at a time when the Sisters played their first proper support tour of the UK (as opposed to one-off dates), with a slimmed down The Psychedelic Furs (minus Duncan Kilburn) headlining. Ashton had been encouraged to become involved with TSOM by Furs’ manager Les Mills, and Sisters’ guitarist Gary Marx told Leeds’ Whippings and Apologies fanzine in 1983, “The Psychedelic Furs put up all the costs so it was no skin off our noses. What happened was, Andy went to see the Furs a long time ago and gave them our first tape, which they liked and gave to various people, including their manager. So we've had a lot of help and advice from them. John Ashton, the Furs' guitarist, produced 'Alice' which was the reason why it was so good.” Whilst Mills may have put up the cost of recording the single, he did admit on the Furs’ forum to having later invoiced Eldritch for the studio time! Mills seemed annoyed that Eldritch had downplayed Ashton’s role in the production of “Alice/Floorshow” (no mention is made of the Furs' guitarist on the later 12" EP of 1983, although he was credited on the label of the 1982 single version, pictured below), accusing the former of not passing on royalties to the latter. 

These tensions may also help to join the dots in comments Gary Marx made to Heartland Forum in 2007, when he stated “Les was an interesting individual and had a brief but pivotal relationship with the band. He was the Psychedelic Furs manager for quite a while (he certainly was when we met him). He became interested in the band on a number of levels, putting his hand in his pocket to help us record the pre-Alice demos (which included a version of Good Things). He was very much in a win-win situation for a while - managing John Ashton of the Furs who was keen to get a few production credits and did a great job on the Alice/Floorshow single, offering us support slots on the Furs tour and using his connection with Howard Thompson at CBS (someone we all admired) to keep us interested in making a permanent commitment to him. Can't quite recall what soured things - may have been his lengthy stays in the States or just his general commitment to the Furs above us... he did have a habit of turning up wearing Mickey Mouse sweat shirts and pastel slacks.” Mills certainly worked closely with the band at that time, and posted on his own (now sadly defunct) website an iconic series of early shots of the band, a sample of which is printed below. His role in the Furs/Sisters link is acknowledged in Dave Thompson’s book about The Furs, “Beautiful Chaos”, which quotes Mills as saying: “I arranged for them [TSOM] to record with John as I felt it would benefit both parties, as the Sisters' previous recorded work had been dire and John wanted to get into production.”
As Eldritch himself said, the rest is history. The John Ashton-produced Alice propelled The Sisters into the forefront of the growing post-punk (and later goth) movement, whilst touring with the Furs enabled them to reach bigger audiences and make crucial contacts within the business (such as Howard Thompson, as mentioned in previous posts on this blog). Even all these years later, Eldritch (who still lists the first two Furs albums on his list of favourites on TSOM’s official website) has clearly not forgotten the significance of the moment the Furs accepted the fledgling Sisters’ cassette, and as my own token of gratitude I’ll be listening to both the Furs’s 1981 masterpiece Talk Talk Talk (which came out one week later in the first week of June, on the same day as the Banshees’ seminal Juju LP) and the Sisters’ own May 81 demo tape on heavy rotation today.
My thanks for this article are due to all who have contributed either wittingly or unwittingly. The Psychedelic Furs are touring the US and UK in 2018. John Ashton now fronts his own project, the excellent Satellite Paradiso. Apologies for the formatting gremlins which seem to have returned to make this post more difficult to read. Rise and reverberate! NVL

Friday, 4 May 2018

Bury Me Deep Purple - Utrecht, November 1984

(The next couple of posts continue the occasional series which seeks to elucidate various mysteries that still exist around the events of 1981- 1985 in the history of The Sisters of Mercy)

 After the triumphant Black October UK tour in the autumn of 1984 which had seen the band play twenty-three acclaimed dates from Edinburgh to Plymouth, The Sisters of Mercy had only three days off before the start of a scheduled eleven concert tour of West Germany. We have already seen that one of the dates (Berlin Loft Club) never took place, and was replaced with a show at Osnabruck’s Hyde Park big top circus tent, possibly for logistical issues given Berlin’s comparative inaccessibility from the West in those divided days.

However, a second date was curiously switched, with the intended opener at Bocholt’s Morian club on 6th November 1984 (according to schedules in the German music press) instead taking place in a different country, in the Dutch City of Utrecht. The picturesque mid-Netherlands city was of course a convenient and logical stop-off for the band en route to Germany from the European mainland North Sea or Channel ports, and remained unvisited by the band at this point on their August 1983 and May/June 1984 visits to the country. Add the fact that there was a suitable venue, the venerable Tivoli on Oudegracht, a historic association very much along the same lines as the Vera in Groningen and the Paard in Den Haag where the band had previously successfully played, and the gig begins to make more sense.

Situated in a traditional and substantial city mansion, the Tivoli had a superb main room featuring a three-sided balcony and had a capacity of around a thousand, again making it a perfect size for the band at this stage. The gig was another of those taped in high quality by Virginia SJ, and gig opens with a high quality "Burn", the reverb guitar effect being particularly effective, followed as usual in 1984 by an equally blistering "Heartland", introduced as "A song about speed, cars and speeding"by Eldritch. "Marian" is the equally habitual third track, with Eldritch (cryptically at the time) announcing "This is for Hamburg". The "Black October" setlist continues with contemporary single "Walk Away" up next, followed by "Body and Soul", as usual far more potent live than in the studio. Whilst Hussey had missed a few notes in the introduction to "Marian", it is Eldritch's turn to make a mistake in "Body Soul", coming in two bars early for the opening verse. In a muttered introductory ramble to "No Time To Cry" which follows, Eldritch appears to say "This is about how bad for you heroin is", before realising that that "Anaconda" is not the drum pattern which is starting up, as it is the song after next. Perhaps realising that he is a little rusty after a couple of nights off, Eldritch merely announces "Anaconda" and "Emma" by title, and there appears to have been a brief technical issue at the start of the following track, as after Eldritch announces "A Rock and A Hard Place", there is a break in the tape, which restarts with further applause before the song starts. Continuing with the same setlist as the final "Black October" gig earlier in the week (Aylesbury), the up-tempo "Train" and "Floorshow" keep the middle of the set from flagging, and the latter in particular gets extended applause. "Alice" and "Body Electric" follow-on quickly, although it sounds as if there is a sudden guitar problem at the start of the latter, with the lead disappearing for around fifteen seconds. "This is the last one" Eldritch announces at the start of "Gimme Shelter", which ends as usual with an extended finale with the singer and bassist repeating the "It's just a kiss away" section with Eldritch ending the song acapella. More unusually, Eldritch repeats the vocal-ending only for the first encore, the cover of Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", before the band launch into a reverb-drenched "Adrenochrome", after which the band leave the stage again, before returning for a final encore of a very extended "Ghost Rider," which is sadly faded by the taper at the end, after transitioning into "Sister Ray".

More curiously, most copies also feature what is alleged to be a recording from the soundcheck that night, which features a band jamming parts of what appears to be Deep Purple’s Black Night amongst other things. Virginia SY was adamant that this would have been recorded at the same time, and was sure that at least some band members were present and on the recording.

In order to verify this long-standing mystery, Phil Verne of the unofficial TSOM 1980-1985 FB fan page uploaded the soundcheck (which had featured on “The Grief” bootleg amongst others) toYouTube and asked for further information, launching a discussion in the FB group. Respected collector Kai S pointed out that he had had an early copy of the tape and that it did not contain the soundtrack, leading to the possibility that it had been added as a filler or enticement by an enterprising bootleg salesperson at a later date. There was much discussion as to whether the bass sound was Craig’s, and to whether the presence of a conventional drum kit made it almost certain that this was a hoax.

Attempting to solve the mystery was helped when I received information that there had been a support band at that gig, a group called “War Dance”, no doubt Killing Joke inspired, but I have not been able to find out any other information about them. This might explain the convenient presence of a drum kit when the Sisters soundchecked, making the Black Night-influenced jam more likely to be the band themselves.

Added to this was the fact that Craig Adams was a self-proclaimed fan of Deep Purple, a fact referred to in several contemporary interviews, including this direct quote from the normally taciturn bassist in the Rockpool interview in June 1985 (it was not unusual for Craig to speak only once, or not at all, in band interviews). What could be more natural than playing excerpts from a Deep Purple track during a soundcheck?

The only way to satisfactorily solve the mystery would be to ask the band themselves, and thanks to a third party I was able to do this, with both Craig and Wayne providing answers. Craig Adams confirmed that it was not him playing bass, as there was too much “buggering about” (listen to the last twenty seconds and you'll see what he means for a steady "eight to the bar" bass player) and that the guitar was also certainly not Wayne, “nowhere good enough to be him.” This fact was confirmed by Wayne Hussey, who had never heard the recording before. Although he felt that it was “Not Craig playing” the bass, but “it sounds more like something I would have played, certainly the ending…It could be Craig playing the drums using the support band’s kit with Mark [Gary Marx] playing along at the beginning (the guitar does sound like him) and then getting bored and leaving the two of us to it.” Wayne also suggested another scenario, with Von on the drums, but felt that this was unlikely, and also suggested that it could just have been members of the crew “messing about”.

So not a definitive answer, but the fact that neither of the two band members most likely to be involved in the track had no recall of it having taken place, means that it is probable that this is not a Sisters of Mercy rarity, although any further information would be gladly welcomed.

 Appropriately The Tivoli in Oudegracht welcomed TSOM for a second time in 2011 on the XXX anniversary tour, but it sadly closed as a music venue in 2014 with the opening of the new and impressive TivoliVredenburg complex, but the old venue continues a connection with the music industry by operating as a recording studio.

My thanks for this post are due to all who have contributed to the debate on this topic over the years, and in particular to Phil V of the 1980-1985 unofficial TSOM Facebook group, Mark A, VSJ, LG, Kai S and of course CA and WH. Rise and reverberate!

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Some Kind of Stranger (Early)

(This is the second in a series of posts on rare studio tracks by TSOM from the 1980-1985 period, following on from an earlier post on Driver)

In the twenty years that followed the release of First and Last and Always and the accompanying No Time To Cry single in March 1985, only the efforts of a series of intrepid bootleggers and tenacious collectors enabled any alternative or previously unreleased studio recordings from that era to surface, and by the turn of the millennium it was widely assumed that the vaults were empty and that there was nothing left to emerge. Whilst the original FALAA album had been repackaged and re-released on several occasions since its original launch, there was consternation amongst Sisters aficionados when it was announced in 2006 that Rhino (a division of WEA) was to re-release the three studio albums … with additional tracks. Not only did this mean that some songs were to be available digitally for the first time, but incredibly two previously unavailable tracks were to be included, an eleven minute version of “Neverland” on “Floodland” (unlike the brief “fragment” available on the original LP) and an “Early” version of “Some Kind of Stranger” on FALAA (click the link to hear it on YouTube). It was hoped that this might perhaps include an extra opening verse, as the released version started with the word “And (yes I believe in what we had)”, implying a continuation of a previous train of thought. Nothing, however, could have prepared said fans for the reality of what they were about to hear for the first time.

“Some Kind of Stranger” had by this stage become recognised as a key song of the Eldritch/ Marx/ Hussey/ Adams era, the centre-piece and dramatic climax of the venerated FALAA album. Every classic LP seemed to end with an epic song which elevated what was already an incredible album to legendary status – “The End”, “I Am The Resurrection” and “Champagne Supernova” being but three examples – and in the Eldritch/Marx composition “Some Kind of Stranger”, the Sisters showed that they could marry their new found pop sensibility (as on “Walk Away” or “Black Planet”) with the ability to construct a slow-burning symphony of a song, following in the tradition of “The Reptile House” EP. Save for SKOS and “(Amphetamine) Logic” which preceded it on the album running list, far more original fans of the band from the Gunn era would have deserted the band than had already done so. Disappointinglyhowever, the song was only played “live” on a handful of occasions (initially on the “Black October” UK jaunt which had been planned with the album release in mind, with the first playing at Birmingham's Powerhouse having been kindly uploaded to YouTube by Phil Verne, head honcho of the wondrous unofficial The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook group) , reflecting the physical and emotional demands of the song on the band and particularly singer as well as the difficulty in reproducing the multi-layered build-up with just (a maximum of) four men and an Oberheim drum machine. (Part of SKOS would return to the live set in the 1990s as a medley with the band’s cover version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.)

The original album version of SKOS could hardly be more bombastic, starting with a somewhat pretentious and vaguely ominous crescendo of echoing sound unlike anything else the band have recorded, ambient and harmonic. After a couple of seconds of dramatic silence, Marx’s complex riff kicks in, playing solo for a couple of bars before the other band members join the fray. Barely twenty seconds into the de facto start of the song, and a couple of bars earlier than might have been expected, Eldritch’s booming baritone intones the opening line, "And yes I believe in what we had". Marx’s riff is certainly a step beyond those produced in the early days, and he alluded to this in comments to Robert Cowlin for his excellent blog article on FALAA : “Any fans from the pre-Warner’s era would doubtless say that, for all its strengths, there isn’t a guitar line to match Alice anywhere on those finished tunes.” The guitarist had certainly moved away from the one-dimensional single string riffing which had become famous for and which he himself mocked with typical self-deprecation on the Ghost Dance website: “’All on one string and job’s a good ‘un’ as Choque from Salvation was keen to point out….the riff steps up half-way through the verse on the early Sisters stuff…Alice, Floorshow, Good Things…kind of a nod to bands like The Cramps who we all loved.” Indeed, on the studio reels from the Strawberry Studios session, the then untitled Some Kind of Stranger is referred to as “Little Wing”, presumably because of its fleeting similarity in terms of rhythm and melody to the legendary Jimi Hendrix’s riff on the song of the same name, a comparison Marx could not have dreamt of a couple of years earlier.

The album version of SKOS had boasted a lengthy introductory section in which a self-justifying Eldritch seems to be explaining why a long-term relationship has come to an end despite all of his own best efforts, and how a communication breakdown had been a key factor (“words got in the way”, “Lord knows I tried to say”, “heard a million conversations going where they’ve been before”,  “all of my words are second hand and useless” etc), suggesting the narrator’s belief that language is an ultimately unsatisfactory medium for communicating deep human emotions. He then goes on to excuse presumed infidelities (“the world is cruel, and promises are broken”) by expressing the view that wordless (“don’t give me whys and wherefores” “I don’t care for words that don’t belong”) passion with a stranger is somehow more intense, true and important than working through the ups and downs of a long-term relationship. Whilst his view “And I don’t care what you’re called, tell me later if at all” may seem callous, it is clearly an honestly held view, as he implores the “beautiful” “angel” with the “unknown footsteps in the hall outside” to “come inside” through his “door open wide”. Hardly a novel approach for a rock lyricist (everything from Extreme’s “More Than Words” to, erm, Right Said Fred’s “Don’t Talk, Just Kiss” express the same sentiments albeit in less poetic form), and the theme of a rock star seeking satisfaction in meaningless sex with nameless groupies is as much a rock’n’roll cliché as shades and dry ice.

However, the lyric had added personal poignancy for Eldritch who (according to Gary Marx interviewed in 2003 by “Quiffboy” for Heartland Forum) at that time “was effectively splitting with his long-term girlfriend and I was leaving the band. The two things led to a number of references in the lyrics which seemed to cover his farewells to us both. ‘Walk Away’ may or may not be about me, I don’t care because I don’t particularly like the song.” Unlike SKOS, Marx was of course not responsible for the melody and therefore felt no sense of betrayal for ‘Walk Away’. The same could not be said for SKOS: “The one lyric which always bugs me is the line from SKOS which says, ‘Careful lingers undecided at the door’, which I definitely took as a shot at me.”

Marx had already light-heartedly complained about Eldritch’s lyrical take on SKOS in a March 1985 interview for Artificial Life fanzine. “I would think that SKOS is the best attempt to sort of come out totally the opposite of what it was when I started it. It’s Andy’s big ‘woman song’…it’s his ‘I want every woman in the world’ song and I wrote it [the melody] totally from the opposite standpoint. When I wrote the music it was my version of the ‘Wedding March’. It was like a real, lasting relationship song…very strong, too! It works well because it’s quite emotional and to me it’s sort of tucked between the two because it’s like one person saying ‘I want every woman in the world’ and the other saying ‘Ah but when it all boils down to it, when you’re on your death bed, there’s only one that you’ll want to see’…and that makes it really emotional. It might not to other people because they might think, ‘I want every woman in the world as well!’”

In another interview from that month published in Sounds, Eldritch explains his own vision of the song. “The thing is, with a band like us, people figure that they know us inside out already. All the basic emotions and stuff are very public. And so casual sex isn’t really that casual. It just bypasses all that ‘Shall-I-take-you-to-the-pictures-for-five-weeks-before-we-start-feeling-up-each-other’s-jumpers.’ With SKOS, the visual picture was very hot and humid, sort of one door closes, another door opens. But the way it turned out – unfortunately, I’ve got the sort of voice that sounds desperate, and the higher it gets, the more desperate it sounds. It just sounds like a dirge to me.” The tales of an exhausted Eldritch having to be forced up to the studio microphone to provide a distressed vocal for a long-finalised backing track ring true no more so than on the album version of SKOS, but all of what has been discussed so far pales in significance when compared to the Early version that was finally released on the 2006 Rhino CD edition…

The Early version is still recognisably the same song both sonically and lyrically, but with enough significant changes to make it a very different experience for the listener. The Early version, listed as “Andy’s Little Wing” on the studio reels, dispenses with the ambient soundscape before the song begins, beginning instead with a particularly echoing drum beat. The second surprise is that that the vocals miss their usual cue…by several minutes. Instead the listener is able to focus on the subtleties of Marx’s composition, with Adams’ bass to the fore, and keyboard adornments prevalent from relatively early on. At 1:41, the first keyboard flourish is heard as the song builds in complexity in the style of Kiss The Carpet, making one wonder whether this song was considered as a potential set opener for the FALAA era. The main keyboard riff that features towards the end of the album version makes it first appearance in the intro here, around 2.15, over some rather rough-around–the-edges guitar chords that would probably have been rounded off in any final version for contemporary release.

After such a lengthy instrumental introduction, it comes as almost a surprise when Eldritch eventually starts singing at 3.40. Even more surprising are the opening lyrics themselves, which give a completely different slant to the song. Whereas the album version can be read either as a farewell to Marx and an appeal to a glamorous (LA based?) “angel” to join Eldritch’s next project, or as a farewell to his long-time love and as an explanation for his on-tour dalliances, the Early version paints a different lyrical picture.

“From England in the morning
I haven’t slept for days
I haven’t kept the promise made”

The opening line (“From England in the morning”) suggests that the narrator has just arrived in a foreign country after an overnight flight or ferry, and is addressing a female acquaintance in the overseas territory, whilst the following line (“I haven’t slept for days”) seeks to either impress or elicit pity. Whether the insomnia is caused by travel, amphetamines, studio recording sessions or romantic shenanigans is not elucidated. The third line to not make the final cut of the song, “I haven’t kept the promise made” seems the most portentous, the vocal line descending over a minor cadence in the style of an ominous line in a stage musical, or the final line of the slow section in Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (better known to Marc Almond fans as “If You Go Away”). As with most Eldritch lyrics, again this line is open to various interpretations. To whom had a promise been made? Himself? His former partner in England? The overseas friend? And what was the promise? To dump his former love definitively? To remain faithful? To keep off the drugs and take better care of himself? Whatever the explanation, there is a clear admission of guilt in this phrase, a stark contrast to the self-justification evident in the final album version lyric. The song then goes straight into the middle section of lyrics from the album version, “And I know the world is cold but if you hold on tight to what you find etc”, addressed to the “stranger”, meaning that there is none of the “And yes I believe in what we had, but words got in the way etc” addressed to the former friend. The Early version is therefore entirely aimed at “some kind of stranger”, and is lyrically less dense as a result.

If Eldritch was worried about how desperate his upper range sounded on the finished album version of the song, one can understand why the Early version was kept well-hidden for twenty years, as the “And I don’t care what you’re called” section which heralds the jump in octave reveals a wild, raw and emotionally bare tone previously unheard from the singer. Robert Cowlin’s definitive guide to the FALAA recording sessions points out the vocal take is very much in the style of the guide vocals provided on other demo versions from the sessions, and certainly Eldritch’s vocal here is well below the polished, professional standard of the final FALAA mixes, but all the more emotive for that.
Equally disconcerting for the listener is a bizarre guitar solo which commences at around 4:35. A muffled jazz-blues solo totally unrelated to anything else heard on a TSOM record, the early comments in 2006 by the denizens of Heartland Forum were not kind, likening the somewhat intrusive (particularly when heard through headphones) sound to “someone sitting on a puppy”, and the solo wails along faintly in the background for the remainder of the song in free-form style. This four-minute climax is entirely filled with Eldritch seemingly extemporising on the “I think you’re beautiful, angel/some kind of stranger come inside” theme, like he did with the early live versions of “Walk Away” or on the “No Time To Cry” Peel session before the lyrics for those songs were finalised. Sounding ever more impassioned, Eldritch’s grip on the melody, which might be charitably described as “pitchy” throughout, becomes almost painfully out of tune just before the seven and then eight minute marks, and then once more in the final phrase at 8:30. The song then fades rapidly over a guitar outro, meaning that a full version would have weighed in at over the nine minutes mark, two and a half minutes longer than the final album version (not including the soundscape intro).

As well as giving another insight into the TSOM songwriting process, Some Kind of Stranger (Early) is a stunning song in its own right which is some way best reflects the on-edge atmosphere within the band during the second half of 1984.

My thanks for this post are due to Robert Cowlin, Phil Verne, and others who have contributed either knowingly or unwittingly.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

...then we take Berlin - August 1983

(This post is the final one of four covering the West German tour of late summer 1983: the other three gigs being in Aratta, Munster and Hamburg)

West Berlin in the late 1970’s/early 80’s. Bowie. Decadence. Iggy. Drugs. Squats. Christiane F. Heroin. Nick Cave. Nightclubbing. This was the received wisdom, the slideshow playing in the mind of any British alternative band as they made their way to the unique Western enclave on the “wrong” side of the main sweep of the seemingly impenetrable Iron Curtain, trapped in a timewarp, and one can imagine that it would have been just the same for Eldritch, Marx , Adams and Gunn as they made their way to the divided city from Amsterdam to start the West German leg of their first continental jaunt, the Trans Europe Excess tour at the end of August 1983.

Arriving at the venue, the famous Loft Club would have done nothing to shake their prejudices, as the club was basically the upper floor of a venerable old Berlin landmark, the Neues Schauspielhaus. This noted example of Art Nouveau architecture had been completed in 1905 as a theatre with a concert hall (the “Mozartsaal”) above, although the latter had served as a cinema until it was heavily damaged by allied bombing in the Second World War. Incidentally, before being closed by the Nazis in the early 30’s, the main (ground floor) theatre auditorium had been adorned with stage sets by John Heartfield, the anti-Nazi artist and credited inspiration of Siouxsie and The Banshees’ song Metal Postcard/Mittageisen.

The wonderful façade and the cinema largely survived the bombing raids unscathed, and the latter was renamed the Metropol in 1951, becoming a club in 1977 as the silver screen began to decline with the advent of the VCR and the growth of colour TV, with the upstairs “Loft (im Metropol)” staging up and coming US and UK acts primarily from March 1983 onwards. However, the clientele was not simply junkies and punks, as one might have suspected, but like the other German gigs on the tour, the audience was partly composed of serving UK soldiers, as canny local promoters sought to exploit the “khaki deutschmark” burning a hole in the pockets of bored young British servicemen. I recently “overheard” a FB conversation between members of two of the leading post-punk groups at that time, reminiscing about their similar experiences at this venue: “British squaddies came to visit and decided we were great…the only thing was avoiding anything that would send them into fight mode,” commented one, who played the Loft very shortly after TSOM, conjuring up images of the lively scenes at the Sisters’ Munster gig (described in an earlier post). The other old post-punk replied, “We had a wee riot when we played there, as the local fascists and anarcho-punks decided to sort it out on the last number. It looked quite surreal under the strobes.”

The Sisters’ own gig seems to have passed off more peacefully, as can be witnessed in a fantastic thirteen minute video featuring highlights from the set. This is taken from a compilation tape of bands performing at the LOft that year (the Killing Joke footage from the same year is from the same video cassette), so presumably the whole show was filmed (although no tape has yet surfaced). Of the three songs featured, the first is the penultimate song of the set, Kiss The Carpet, with white-shirted Eldritch posing somewhat awkwardly when the lengthy introduction begins, (rather than dramatically appearing when the main riff kicked in, as was his wont in UK gigs when the song had been the traditional set-opener). The singer appears glued to his mic stand, hunched over the shaft as he surveys the audience which is clearly several hundred strong. With Marx (and sometimes Adams) on the dark side of the stage, and Eldritch unemployed for the first couple of minutes the camera focuses largely on Ben Gunn, and the discomfort referred to by Gary Marx in the recent Quietus interview (“I often looked across at Ben who seemed a bit unsure how to behave when he was doing so little”) is plain for all to see, as the unresponsive crowd also fail to appreciate the song’s slow-burning qualities. This is of the course the last footage of Gunn on stage with the Sisters, as he was to leave the band the following month on returning from the East Coast US tour. Here, he looks closest to the style that the band would adopt in its next incarnation, with his indie haircut and black shirt, whilst Marx has again gone for the open gilet look, Adams in a t-shirt and Eldritch in a hippy-ish white shirt which he also worn at the Paradiso, and which clearly sports a substantial rip on the left sleeve. Things improve dramatically with final encore “Body Electric”, a subdued Marx staying to his corner of the stage during his solos on the relatively small stage, and by the time the song ends, the band leave the stage to a rapturous reception, the singer saying “Goodnight and thank you” then waving to the audience as they exit stage right.

The video tape resumes with what had been the mid-set “Floorshow”, which is preceded by a bizarre incident in which a tiny punk with a most impressive mohican, who looks no more than ten years old, enters the stage to place something (a drink?) down for Eldritch, who responds by quipping into the mic, “This is my manager.” No-one bats an eyelid. Only in Berlin.As was often the case, the backbeat to the song starts a little slowly, and Eldritch appears to tell Gunn to speed the Doktor up (which duly happens) before Adams begins the familiar scuzzy main riff. The singer, cigarette in hand and black gloves clinging to the microphone stand, is in great form as he sings and yelps his way through what was becoming the band’s signature song. The footage ends suddenly with Gunn and Adams deep in discussion over by the Doktor before what would have been “Adrenochrome”, and no further video footage of the gig has been discovered despite extensive searches, although a full audio recording is in existence and features on a bootleg LP entitled Echoes Vol 1. The set list of the gig is unusual, with apparently no “Sister Ray” final encore and the order of the songs is somewhat different to other gigs on the band’s first European tour. The show did begin though with the usual set opener “Burn”, preceded by a confident “’Ello” from the singer. The mix is unusually clear, as if none of the usual effects were being employed, and at the end of the song Eldritch tells the sound crew “The sound’s very dry up here, Martin.” “Valentine” which follows, sounds barely different, with Eldritch clearly straining for the top notes, and it is no surprise to hear him request “more effect return up here please, Martin.” However, “Anaconda” is similarly anaemic, which does at least allow us to hear how the guitar riff on the “rush hour traffic” middle verse had modified during the year, but a clearly happier Eldritch just says “Danke” to the audience.

(generic TSOM West German tour poster - minus the definite article - from the collection of LG)

The sound gradually improves as the band move on to “Heartland”, quickly followed by “Alice” with Craig’s bass sounding suitably scuzzy and Eldritch’s vocal featuring more reverb. The central point of the set is reached with the epic “Emma”, the vocal bleeding slightly in the mix when Eldritch’s vocals begin some two minutes into the song, and on this tour Gunn delays the louder rhythm guitar chords that habitually started with the “Darling, I love you” section (in the Hussey era) until the next chorus. The pace of the set picks up with “Temple of Love”, with Eldritch introducing the song (and the band) in German, telling them “We’re called the Sisters of Mercy”. After “Floorshow” (which made it onto the video highlights), the set ends with a slower version of “Adrenochrome” and a dramatic “Gimme Shelter”, where Eldritch has some pitch problems in the “storm is spreading” section, but recovers to end the set alone on the stage for the then-traditional a capella ending, followed by a casual “Bye bye”. These covers went down particularly well with the crowd, with fanzine journalist Umberto Savignano recalling the gig wistfully when reviewing the Munich gig in November 1984 for “59 to 1” fanzine (on page 9): “A year and a half ago, when I saw TSOM for the first time in Berlin, hardly anyone knew that this band made music that was so melodic, melancholic and yet at the same time with such heavy guitars (more so than today).”

The Sisters returned to the Metropol (the main hall downstairs, that is) in 1985 on their final tour of the 1980’s, and then played at the Berlin Eissporthalle in November, one month after the official Reunification of Germany. But they had also originally been booked to play in the Loft on the November 1984 West German tour, as this advert will testify, although on that date the Sisters ultimately played the Hyde Park circus tent in Osnabruck instead.

(My thanks to the generosity of LG, Ollie C, "Travis B" and others who have contributed to this post. Phil Verne will be revealing more about this show over on the unofficial TSOM 1980-1985 Facebook page.)

Thursday, 4 January 2018

First, we take Manhattan - Bradford, January 1983

Thirty-five years ago today, The Sisters of Mercy played their first gig of the crucial year (for them) of 1983 at The Manhattan Club in Bradford. Or perhaps thirty-five years ago yesterday. I don't know for sure, to misquote Albert Camus, but we will return to the issue of the exact date later in the post. 

Although only a week after the 26th December 1982 "Christmas on Earth" gig in front of a large and appreciative audience at the London Lyceum at the end of their run of shows in the capital to round off their breakthrough year on a high, it seems to have been a much more focused and slick Sisters who took to the stage of the more modest Manhattan Club in Bradford just a few days into the New Year in 1983. With the students of Bradford and Leeds yet to return to their garrets, and with local punters watching their pennies with the long and impecunious month of January stretching ahead, there must have been a relatively small crowd in the Manhattan that evening early in the first week of the year, judging by the size of the audience response between tracks on the audio recording of the gig, both on the "Rough Diamonds" bootleg LP and on the various cassette recordings which have emerged.

The Manhattan gig opens with a confident "Kiss The Carpet", the instrumental opening lasting a full two and a half minutes of intertwining bass and guitars, unlike the more chaotic versions of the previous fortnight in London. Unfortunately, as the main guitar riff kicks in just before Eldritch joins the fray, the lead guitar sound is lost for a few seconds, either because Gary selected the wrong pedal or because of an error on the mixing desk. "We're lost in the room ... (Inaudible)" states Eldritch at the end of the song in his only onstage comment of note during the entire set, another indication that the band are taking the gig seriously as a statement of intent for the year ahead. After a short Doktor misfire (with a random extra bar of "Kiss The Carpet"), the band tear into "Floorshow", which like several later tracks (e.g. an equally excellent "Adrenochrome" which follows) features Ben's guitar prominently in the mix, with a reverb-heavy Eldritch somewhat less dominant than usual. Keeping the singles flowing, the band then go (after the briefest of guitar tune-ups) into a near-perfect version of "Alice", with Marx again showing total mastery of the repeated main riff which had caused such problems on the Autumn 1982 tour with the Furs. Whereas later in 1983 the band would introduce a cover at this point ("Jolene" or "Emma"), in this transitional phase between the punkier 1982 set and the smoother Spring/Summer 1983 selection of songs, the Sisters continue with an up-tempo version of "Watch", one of the last half-dozen outings for the debut single which would soon be disowned in interviews, but it gets one of the best audience reactions here. It was of course much different from the original vinyl version, with none of the features of the lengthy "live" ending, i.e. Craig Adams' buzzing bass, Eldritch's histrionic vocal, and Doktor Avalanche's clinical backbeat havig featured on the "Damage Done" double A side. The pace slows further with the northern debut of "Valentine", which still features the "hollow faces"/"empty smiles" lyrical transposition in the final verse at this stage, before quickening again with the soon-to-be-released "Anaconda", with Eldritch opting to sing the middle verse an octave higher than usual and missing out many of the "she will"s, possibly indicating that his voice was not at its best that evening. Most recordings of the gig omit the next track, "Body Electric", which is a shame as it is a particularly intense version, quickly followed by the usual set-closer "Sister Ray", which after a very haphazard low-key start is soon running at full octane. A relatively brief set all in all, three songs shorter than the Leeds Warehouse show a fortnight later (another indication that someone in the band was not feeling 100% ?), but certainly one of the most technically competent of that era.

The Manhattan Club was a most unlikely looking venue on a suburban street in the Manningham district of Bradford called Cornwall Terrace. As can be seen in the Google photo here, the street is currently very much in the overhanging shadow of the main stand of Valley Parade Stadium, home of Bradford City FC, although back in 1983 the stand was a significantly smaller wooden framed structure dating back to the turn of the century. That stand would be tragically engulfed in flames in May 1985 during a match between Bradford City and Lincoln City in a catastrophe that cost the lives of fifty-six supporters, in the very same month as the Heysel disaster. The Manhattan Club was housed in the run of two-storey buildings on the immediate left hand side of the street, currently trading as a sort of community learning centre. 

Back in early 1983, the Manhattan hosted a series of indie gigs of which the Sisters was the first, and I remember having a flyer for the gigs posted on the pinboard of the kitchen of my student flat in Leeds at the time. If memory serves (and it will have to, as I haven't seen the flyer since those days) it made mention of the forthcoming "Anaconda" single and was one of those information-packed hand-written flyers which makes me think that Nick Toczek was probably the promoter. Internet searches reveal photos of The Cocteau Twins and The Fall from subsequent gigs in the series at the Manhattan (check out the purple curtain to the side of the stage to prove that these are from the same venue, as the Fall ones are erroneously listed as being taken at the 1 in 12 Club, a venue that didn't start promoting gigs until later that year) on Monday 10th January and Monday 17th January 1983 respectively. Given that Sex Gang Children also played the Manhattan on a Monday the following month, it seems reasonable to assume that the date of the Sisters gig was also a Monday, as promoters usually block-booked a venue for the same night every week with a club owner, which also had the advantage of building customer loyalty, which would make it the 3rd of January rather than Tuesday 4th January which is usually the date given for this concert (on the band's and on the Sisters wiki's gigographies, for example).  I discussed this possibility with well-known TSOM live audio cassette expert Phil Verne, and he revealed that he has seen both dates listed on inserts of cassette recordings of the show, but that the earliest generation tape in his possession lists the date as the 3rd of January.

Whatever the date, anyone who has heard the Manhattan show can be in no doubt that the band were now a live force to be reckoned with, thanks to an increasingly tight and well-paced set with fewer technical difficulties and limitations. The band was clearly now ready to move on to the next phase of development, from one-hit indie chart wonders to a potential stadium band.

If anyone can shed any further light on this gig, whether personal reminiscences, a flyer/poster/ticket, photos etc, then we would love to hear from you over on The Sisters of Mercy unofficial Fan Club Facebook page for the 1980-1985 era.

My grateful thanks for their help with this post are due to Phil V, LG, "Circle", archivists of The Fall and Cocteau Twins and others.