Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Book Review: Paint My Name In Black And Gold – The Rise of The Sisters of Mercy by Mark Andrews


After a forty year drought, the past eighteen months had already seen the publication of two excellent books on the mid-80’s heyday of The Sisters of Mercy, Wayne Hussey’s entertaining autobiography Salad Daze and Trevor Ristow’s potted history Waiting For Another War, but this week’s long-awaited publication of Mark Andrews’ definitive biography of the band’s early years, Paint My Name In Black And Gold finally explains the fascinating genesis and enduring legacy of a Northern British provincial band whose influence is still felt four decades later.

Funded through a subscriber publishing site, Unbound, Andrews’ magnum opus took a while to reach its financial target when first mooted, and the global pandemic delayed matters further, but the appetites whetted by Andrews’ superlative articles about the band’s early years for The Quietus will be fully sated by the finished product, published in a pleasingly weighty hardback edition fully worthy of the subject matter within.

Whereas Ristow’s book lifted the lid primarily on the pivotal Autumn 1983 North American tour that saw the band spectacularly broaden its reach and horizons yet lose second guitarist Ben Gunn in the process, Andrews’ book focuses on an equally little-known period of the band’s history, its formation in the politically-charged post-punk scene in Leeds in the late 1970’s, for which only Eldritch’s own “official version” on the band’s archaic website was known.  Andrews’ skilful way with words and carefully chosen prose lends the same gravitas to the biography as Eldritch’s own utterances in contemporary interviews, making him the ideal biographer for a band for whom their fans’ never-ending and reverent fascination will only be heightened by this skilful demystification of the groups’ early days, which had been shrouded in a mystery as thick as the dry ice which enveloped the band’s mesmeric live performances.

Whereas the US-domiciled Ristow painstakingly reconstructed the band’s history by pulling together facts gleaned from a lifetime of study of previously-published interviews in oft-obscure fanzines and magazines, Andrews ventured forth from his Belgian base to interview the key players on the Leeds scene, from promoters and producers to members of contemporary bands, including, crucially, members of The Sisters of Mercy themselves. Andrew Eldritch did not participate directly in the book, but Andrews was able to use material gathered when he spoke with the enigmatic singer for one of the Quietus interviews, again adding to the authenticity of the text.

Interviews with fellow founder member Gary Marx from his brief solo career in the early 2000’s had revealed him to be a wry and pithy raconteur, with an excellent memory for detail, a self-deprecating wit and a ready ability to prick the pomposity which often surrounds the band, all whilst cogently analysing the reasons for the band’s successes and failures. It therefore comes as no surprise that quotes from Marx illuminate all sections of the band’s story, and his willingness to pin most of the credit on Eldritch, despite the acrimonious nature of his own departure from the band (and being let down by Eldritch on multiple occasions subsequently) reveal him to still be the modest and thoroughly decent man that those who followed the band in those early days recall.

Andrews’ real trump card however is having persuaded bassist Craig Adams to open up on his reminiscences, no small achievement given that even in the 1980’s Adams was famously taciturn and at best monosyllabic in interview situations. But here he also proves to be an entertaining storyteller, willing to share anecdotes particularly about the least glamorous aspects of life in the band, always delivered with the frankness for which he is well-known but with a surprisingly subtle and humorous touch.

Quotes from new interviews with the key members of the band’s wider entourage – Eldritch’s girlfriend and F-Club DJ Claire Shearsby, former roadies Danny Mass (who went on to become the vocalist with Salvation) and Jez Webb, legendary Leeds promoter John F Keenan, FALAA producer Dave Allen  and Bridlington recording studio owner Ken Giles, to name but a few – significantly enhance the book, adding colour and depth to a band understandably mostly viewed in monochrome.

Every page teems with fascinating new facts and details of life in contemporary Leeds and the idiosyncrasies in particular of the key protagonist (and enduring gothic icon) Andrew Eldritch. Andrews skilfully traces his development from jeans-wearing nerdy metal fan Andy Taylor to the almost cartoonish “godfather of goth” Andrew Eldritch persona. Eldritch’s gimlet eye for detail, punishing work ethic and all-embracing passions drove him inexorably towards an alternative superstardom that clearly came as little surprise to those who knew him, as most of his fellow travellers recognised his genius, however infuriating they found him to work with.

The most parochial portraits on offer here – a photo of Eldritch (presumably his most regular customer) with a local tobacconist, or tales of the band’s amicable relationship with the elderly couple next door to their infamous headquarters at 7 Village Place for example – paint an endearing picture of the non-descript daily lives of the amphetamine-addicted young men who created one of the greatest and most legendary rock’n’roll bands of the late twentieth century, and of their symbiotic relationship with the city that spawned them.

Incredibly for someone who never visited Leeds during the band’s age d’or, Andrews recreates the city’s multiple inter-connected facets utterly convincingly, allowing the reader to enter the world they inhabited and making their seemingly unique musical choices appear almost inevitable. Paint My Name In Black And Gold is not only a scholarly and in-depth examination of the history of the band, but also a stunningly accurate portrayal of the synergical relationships, both within and outwith the band,  that forged its unique image, ethos and music. It is also a frank and expurgated analysis of one of the alternative music scene’s great innovators, a figure mysteriously shunned by most journalists who lived in fear of his self-created reputation. Andrews manages to get beneath the shades and to strip away Eldritch’s carefully constructed artifice, yet as the smoke and mirrors are removed, the character who emerges is still intensely likeable and strangely enigmatic.

This astonishing and utterly essential biography stands as a tribute to all those who participated in it, whether band members and their entourage, veteran industry movers and shakers, Andrews himself of course (and his publishing team), and those many subscribers without whose faith and devotion to all things TSOM this project would never have happened. This belated tome may be the first serious attempt to chronicle the rise of Leeds’ finest, but it was certainly worth the wait.

Paint My Name In Black and Gold is now available via independent book retailers and online sellers, and is published by Unbound

Monday, 26 July 2021

RSD vinyl release – The Sisters of Mercy – BBC Radio Sessions 1982-1984 (Warner/BBC)

Die-hard fans of The Sisters of Mercy have had slim pickings in the 36 years which have elapsed since the split which followed the band’s final 1980’s gig at the Royal Albert Hall on 18th June 1985, an event covered in the most recent post on this blog. Whilst aficionados of other contemporary cult (no pun intended) bands have seen the vaults raided for previously unreleased tracks or alternate studio takes of know songs, apart from a couple of live B sides released on the flipsides of the two 12” versions of Dr Jeep in 1990 which were taken from 1984/5 bootlegs recorded at gigs in Bremen, devotees of The Sisters of Mercy’s 1981-1985 heyday had to wait until 2006 and the Rhino extended edition of First and Last and Always to hear something new, the Early (and very different) version of Some Kind Of Stranger, the sole escapee from the Eldritch archive from that era...until now. Whilst the Cadiz label continues to stall the vinyl re-release of The Sisterhood’s Gift, which originally looked as if it many contain additional, previously unreleased mixes, the announcement of this year’s Record Store Day releases shocked and delighted TSOM fans with the news that the band’s radio sessions for the BBC recorded for broadcast on Radio 1 in the UK in 1982, 1983 and 1984 would be issued as a double LP set on smoky (clearly a tongue-in-cheek reference to dry ice rather than the singer’s Marlboro addiction!) grey vinyl.

These recordings had existed in bootleg form in various formats (and with varying degrees of sound quality) over the past thirty-five years, most notably on the Psychedelic Sessions boot, and were recently added to digital streaming services. The vinyl release for Record Store Day last Saturday, limited to 4000 copies for the UK edition, saw fans queuing for hours for what was the first official album of previously unreleased material by the band since 1990’s Vision Thing, with scalpers also out in force in the hope of making a quick profit on the release, although the high recommended retail price (£42.99) will presumably reduce their margin somewhat. The price seems a little steep for what is only a three-sided release, especially as the US version retails for under half the price, and the coincidental (?) release of The March Violets’ BBC radio sessions (containing twice the number of tracks) on Jungle Records also retailed for roughly 50% of the cost of The Sisters’ set . Experts in sound reproduction will no doubt fully analyse the technical quality of the new Sisters release, but given the lack of liner notes on the new release, in this blog post we are going to examine in more detail the content of the sessions and the circumstances in which they were recorded.

BBC Radio Sessions had existed before John Peel’s programme, but became synonymous with the legendary DJ given the quality and range of artistes he was able to tempt into the studio for his Radio One shows. Long before the Sisters’ first session in August 1982, acts as diverse as Bob Marley and The Wailers, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Joy Division had accepted the challenge of recording four tracks in one day with a BBC in-house engineer and producer, and The Clash had famously walked out half-way through their day’s recording, allegedly giving the rather non-punk reason that the studio wasn’t good enough!

                                            (Maida Vale studios, London, UK)

When Andrew Eldritch led his band through the grand entrance to the BBC’s famous Maida Vale studios in West London, now a Grade II listed building, he must have felt that things were finally happening for a band which was already two years old, a long time indeed in the ever-changing fashions of the post-punk era. Many of his idols, from David Bowie to the Birthday Party via Motorhead, had recorded Peel sessions en route to success, and the studio itself, although disappointing technically to opportunistic, corporate punks like The Clash, was nevertheless a significant step up from Ric Rac Studios in Wortley and Ken Giles’ glorified shed in Bridlington which The Sisters were familiar with. With another AE hero John Ashton on board to produce their forthcoming new single Alice, and having just played prestigious support slots to The Birthday Party and The Clash, things seemed to be on the up as they entered studio 4 at Maida Vale where most Peel sessions were recorded (Maida Vale 1, the largest studio, being the preserve of the BBC Symphony Orchestra). Robin Dallaway of The Cravats, contemporaries of TSOM, gave an amusing insight into how Maida Vale was different to other studio settings in this memorable quote: “Entering the warren of studios and corridors was like stepping into another world, a kind of time-warped, Ealing Films kind of world where blokes in brown stockmen’s coats scurried around fixing stuff and plugging our gear in. It felt like a thrilling culture clash, taking our abrasive jazzy punk mash up sound into this genteel, serious world. It felt like being in school after hours, wandering the corridors, … sneaking into vast orchestral studios, weird rooms and cupboards and going to the canteen that felt like stepping back into the 1940’s. We loved it. Being invited to record a Peel session felt like a badge of honour, like a huge endorsement, it meant everything to us.” One can easily imagine former public schoolboy Eldritch revelling in such an atmosphere, but in fact the lack of control over the band's sound was a source of major frustration, as revealed in the band's 1990's fan magazine Underneath The Rock in response to a question from a fan (which were encouraged in a section entitled Correspondence Thing where Eldritch would reply directly to fan queries) regarding a potential release for the BBC Radio Sessions:

However, all in the Sisters’ own garden was not rosy. The singer’s pride would certainly have been wounded, and doubts about his own prospects would have arisen, by seeing his proteges The March Violets surpassing his own project’s level of success within the first few months of their own existence: not only had their debut four-track EP become the first Merciful Release to reach the independent charts that month, but they had been invited to record their own debut Peel session the previous month, doing so on the very day The Sisters supported The Birthday Party at the ZigZag Club, a mere ten minute walk away (no pun intended) in West London. In addition, Merciful Release continued to have funding problems which had resulted in the previous single (Body Electric/Adrenochrome) being released on CNT Productions, and according to an interview in Cartel magazine Masterbag published that month, the second Violets single looked as if it would also be released under that imprint (although Grooving In Green would ultimately also surface on MR in fact).

For that first Peel session, recorded on Wednesday 25th August 1982 and first broadcast the following month, The Sisters were allocated the hugely experienced Roger Pusey as producer, who had been with the BBC since before the advent of Radio One in 1967, and would continue to work there on a variety of largely light entertainment shows over the rest of his career. Alongside him was the more youthful Mike Walter as engineer, and between them they successfully captured the essence of the band’s sound in the limited time available, with the broadcast versions now available on the new vinyl release of significantly higher quality than the band’s own demos (available as bootlegs), but not quite as polished as the versions of three of the featured songs (Alice, Floorshow and 1969) which were ultimately recorded with Ashton at the production desk and released later that Autumn (or on the 12” version the following Spring in the case of 1969). Eldritch’s vocals are rawer overall, and the Marx’s guitar sound punier and lower in the mix, but the buzz of Adams’ bass is rendered in full effect in particular on Good Things, the song which finally gets an authorised physical release this week after forty years as a fans’ favourite, despite Eldritch’s own apparent antipathy to the song.

The second session, recorded a month prior to the Gun Club tour on 6th March 1983 (and first broadcast just four days later), was for the David Jensen show (the DJ having reverted to his full name rather than the “Kid” Jensen nickname which he had used in his earlier career, as he now sought to establish himself as a diviner of new independent talent after years of purveying chart fodder) which went on air between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on BBC Radio One, i.e. immediately prior to Peel’s own two-hour slot, and which played a narrower diet of “alternative” fayre than the hugely eclectic and personal mix the bearded DJ proffered. The major difference between Peel and Jensen’s shows was in terms of sound quality as much as musical diversity: Radio 1 did not have access to FM apart from certain weekend slots (such as the Top 40 countdown late on a Sunday afternoon) with the exception of John Peel’s nightly (Mon – Thurs) show, meaning that Jensen’s programme was transmitted only on Medium Wave (on 275 and 285 metres at that time) at a time of day when the signal was famously unreliable and subject to interference from the powerful transmitters of northern European stations, meaning that my own recording of this session in 1983 sounded as if the whole output was being phased through a flanger.

For this session, again recorded in a single day, the producer was former Bowie collaborator and ex-Mott The Hoople drummer Dale Griffin, and one can imagine keen music student Eldritch using Griffin as a source of anecdotes and advice as much as for sonic assistance. The band selected two tracks from the recently recorded Reptile House EP, Burn and Valentine, with Eldritch’s vocal a little pitchier on the latter and the backwards section somewhat different on the former on what are ostensibly very similar versions to those which were Merciful(ly) Release(d), along with a slightly shorter Heartland (which would surface later in the year as b-side to Temple of Love) and a stellar studio cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene, which was briefly a high point of the band’s live show (although like other covers, is was retired early – in June of that year – so that it didn’t overshadow the band’s own compositions). The psychedelic swirl of the guitar, the Doktor’s metronomic beat and Eldritch’s impassioned vocal on this unlikely choice of song, which is the second (and final) song on the new release to finally get an official vinyl outing this year, make this retrospective an essential purchase for many fans of that era.

The final BBC session was recorded the following year on June 19th 1984, two months after the band resumed activities after the five-month hiatus caused by the recruitment of Wayne Hussey and the signing of the WEA deal, but this time in Maida Vale 5, a smaller studio more recently used as Radio One’s Live Lounge. Recorded again for John Peel, who would sadly pass away aged 65 in 2004, the producer’s chair on this occasion was occupied by ex-Skrewdriver drummer (before the band embraced Nazi ideology) and future DJ Mark Radcliffe, who would brieflymake the unlikely move to Radio One breakfast show host alongside ex-Fall guitarist Marc “Lard” Riley over a decade later. Eldritch’s writing method is clear in the fascinating early version of No Time To Cry in particular, with the early verses not yet finalised, leading to an over-reliance on the “just a feeling” lyrical fragment and the singer’s own rather dubious falsetto vocals. That the song was in this state on the eve of entering the studio to record the band's debut album should have been a hint of the troubles which lay ahead. Walk Away, which would of course be the next single and also feature on FALAA, is in more finished form, the lyrics having been finalised during the European tour which preceded this recording, although the Doktor’s part and certain vocal inflections are different from the FALAA version, notably at the start of the chorus, as is the more muscular sound with Craig’s bass more prominent, leading to many fans preferring this version to that ultimately released by Warners. Like the previous sessions, the main brace of songs were accompanied by a future b-side Poison Door and a cover version, Hot Chocolate’s 1974 hit Emma, the centre-piece of the Sisters’ live set at this time, as the BBC often encouraged bands to try something slightly different for the Radio Sessions, to differentiate them from acts’ existing releases and offer something new to the audience. The version of Emma certainly captivated the Peel audience's attention and would become the only unreleased track in that year’s Festive Fifty (the listenership’s collective favourite songs of the year), but despite several attempts, the 84/85 line-up never managed to produce a studio version of this live favourite which they felt was worthy of release, although of course Eldritch did eventually release a virtually solo effort of the song (with Hugh Jones producing) as the b-side to Dominion three years later, ensuring the latter’s chart success as older fans flocked to finally get a vinyl rendition of Errol Brown’s masterpiece.

This session could have provided a rare opportunity for fans to hear someone other than Eldritch sing, as Gary Marx almost ended up doing the vocal for Poison Door, as he later told Glasperlenspiel: "I can remember singing Poison Door at the BBC for a session we were recording (because I’d just written it and I was teaching Andrew how it went). I came into the control room where the band and some of our friends were listening back to it – it sounded great. Andrew suggested leaving it with my vocal on, but I told him to have a go at a take and see what it sounded like. Needless to say as soon as he opened his mouth there was no contest. I was never a frustrated singer in those bands - I was frequently frustrated by the singers in those bands."  Marx had of course sung on two of the three songs on the debut single (Watch and Home of the Hit-Men), and Eldritch famously disliked singing others' lyrics (including, famously, Garden of Delight) except for those cover versions which he had personally selected, so Marx was pleased that his lyric had been accepted on this occasion without the need for changes by Eldritch. 

The BBC radio sessions were never destined for commercial release, although in the mid-1980’s Clive Selwood’s Strange Fruit label negotiated the vinyl release of many contemporary sessions, but sadly The Sisters never featured on their roster. The eventual release of these recordings in 2021 has seen a big response from the band’s continuing global fan base, raising hopes that more songs from the band’s considerable live and studio archive may one day see the light of day, with or without the singer's approval. In the meantime, the BBC Radio Sessions album will be released on CD at the end of next month.

My thanks for this post are due to Matthew F for sharing the Violets interview from Masterbag, to the legendary Lee EMWK for reminding me about the Poison Door anecdote, and to members of the unofficial 1980-1985 TSOM Facebook page for other comments.



Friday, 18 June 2021

Thirty-Six Years Ago Today - , Wake, The Royal Albert Hall, London - June 18th 1985


Today marks the thirty-sixth anniversary of arguably the most famous gothic music event of all time – it would seem churlish to describe it as a mere “gig” – when The (remaining) Sisters of Mercy took to the stage for the final time in the 1980’s, in the suitably grandiose surroundings of London’s Royal Albert Hall, in the early evening of Tuesday June 18th 1985.

It mattered little that the promised “last stand” of founder member Gary Marx never happened, that guitarist Wayne Hussey was still suffering the after-effects of a heavy night out and that singer Andrew Eldritch was in chronic pain from a rib injury.

It mattered little that the gig was heavily undersold (what would have been the first of two planned nights on Monday 17th June 1985 never even reached the advertising stage), that the unusually early start time meant that many fans missed the beginning of the band’s final performance, nor that many also missed the final encore which took place after the house lights had come on, the traditional signal that the night’s entertainment had reached its conclusion.

The crucial fact was that the performance was professionally recorded and released as a live video the following year, as the split between the Eldritch, Marx and Hussey/Adams factions drew deeper, guaranteeing all-important inches in the columns of the then-influential music press. As a result, rather than the four thousand or so souls present on that warm London evening, many hundreds of thousands of (potential) fans were able to witness the band’s magisterial performance from the comfort of their own living rooms, spell-bound by the punishing metronomic beat of Doktor Avalanche rising and reverberating around the Royal Albert Hall’s impressive dome, the deep incantations of mysterious singer Eldritch echoing evocatively around the cavernous venue, the pulsing basslines of the static Adams making the ancient walls shake and the joyous, ringing guitar tone of Hussey swirling around the hall.

That the next release of The Sisters of Mercy (This Corrosion) was a worldwide hit was no doubt in no small part due to its catchy chorus, the outstanding production skills of the late Jim Steinman, the classic Beauty and the Beast pairing of the visually stunning Patricia Morrison and the bearded biker chic of Eldritch, and of course the donkey work done by The Mission in slowly building further a willing market for goth-tinged product. Absence is said to make the heart grow fonder – witness the sudden rise to significantly wider prominence of Joy Division after Ian Curtis’ untimely death in 1980 – and the band’s split, with the wonderfully fitting epitaph of the Wake video release of the performance of the final show a year later, certainly grew both the band and the brand at a time when Eldritch was sheltering behind the low-key and enforced Sisterhood releases whilst finalising the next stage of his masterplan.

Good quality live footage of The Sisters of Mercy in their 1981-1985 heyday has always been hard to find, to the extent that this year’s (re-)discovery of somewhat shaky material from their 1983 Retford Porterhouse and 1985 Gothenburg gigs has been treated almost like the discovery of the Holy Grail by hardcore fans. Wake however stands alone as the only multi-camera professionally shot film record of the band, giving huge extra significance to what was always going to be a momentous gig.

This recently rediscovered review of the show, published in June 1985 in trade magazine Music Week, reveals just how perfectly the video captures the spirit as well as the sound of the evening. Journalist (and future Britpop promoter) John Best enumerates the reasons why The Sisters attracted (and indeed, continue to attract) such devotion amongst their fanbase. Humorously adding a word to the opening couplet of Rosemary Clooney’s famous song Sisters from the classic Irving Berlin film White Christmas, Best focussed as much on the crowd as on the band, fascinated by the rituals which they had adopted both independent from and inspired by the group itself.

Whilst the music on offer was, to most hardened hacks who had seen it all before, a basically tired re-tread of the bloated rock behemoth which punk had gleefully banished – referenced here in the first paragraph with the mention of time travel, unfashionably (in the 1980’s) long hair and the obligatory Led Zeppelin reference (the “house of the holy” pun) – the antics of the crowd, who “did strange dances atop each others’ shoulders, piercing smog-choked shafts of light with flailing limbs” never failed to fascinate, and director Mike Mansfield and his team captured this from the very beginning of the Wake video, with the famous freeze-frame at the end of the introduction to set-opener First And Last And Always. This incident was later referred to in a discussion about this gig on Phil Verne’s excellent unofficial 1980-1985 TSOM Facebook page, with Steve F commenting “We (Gilly and Scooby) were drinking on the Albert Memorial when someone shouted over that the Girls were coming on. We legged it across the road and straight into the dance floor. Neil T was straight up on somebody’s shoulders and you can see him waving his arms and freeze-framed on the video as the FALAA intro launches into the main riff.”

Another little-known contemporary review, published by London’s prestigious national paper of record The Times and written by David Sinclair, also acknowledges the importance of the staging in the overall impact of The Sisters’ live show, referring to “shafts of light…from the back like sunlight though disused castle windows … while burning red orbs hovered above the floor like Jupiter’s moons shining grimly on a version of Hades.” Dramatic and poetic stuff, and a glowing tribute to the work of Phil Wiffen, the band’s long-time collaborator who recalled the gig in 2018 for the 50th anniversary of Entec (the Royal Albert Hall gig having been chosen as one of the company’s “50 Golden Moments” for a celebratory website retrospective:  “By the time of the Albert Hall gig, I had been with the Sisters for nearly three years. My design was similar to the approach I’d taken for recent tours and, at Andrew’s request, smoke effects played a huge part. For this show, I positioned smoke and wind machines in front of some balcony boxes, so at any given moment I could blast the auditorium with smoke. With a light behind that, I could achieve a really stunning effect – in fact, despite everything else that was happening, the smoke is what most people remember about that night, The thing is, if you use too much, everything starts to look a horrible brown! In terms of lighting, I concentrated on floor-based fixtures and side lighting with bars of six Thomas PARs on tank traps, or bars of 12 as was the case when we got to the Albert Hall. As there was no drummer, Andrew programmed the band’s new Oberheim DMX drum machine [a.k.a. Doktor Avalanche] and I accentuated the high energy beats and fills with plenty of fast changes on the Alderham 60-way console. As this was being filmed, we had to rig some Profiles on a back truss to gain height. I remember we had nine- and 12-inch Lekos, and I used either break-ups or the shutters to create a slit of light. At this point in the band’s history, The Sisters Of Mercy logo borrowed the head from the cover of ‘Gray’s Anatomy’, inside a star, and I was able to create that by using five Profiles. Due to the amount of smoke, you could easily distinguish a star shape. Moving lights had begun to come on to the market but they were beyond our budget. Of course, this presented a great opportunity to be creative and conjure something interesting from a less sophisticated palette of tools. These tools also included strips of black cloth that were used to break up the background. It was quite normal for bands to have painted backdrops of their latest album cover but the Sisters didn’t want anything like that. In the Gothic tradition, the black strips which broke the beams up  were very effective when blown by a wind machine. Earlier in 1985, I had joined the BBC, so I was using up part of my annual leave [to do this show]. Due to my very limited availability, there was a lot of rush and dash, but Entec were very helpful with the preparation, and I ended up having great fun.”

Whilst the contemporary reviews and the Wake video certainly captured the essence of the evening, they don’t tell the full story. The three songs which were omitted from Wake for example - Train presumably because it didn’t seem as good a way to end the video as Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, which therefore had the portentous closing comment “Thank You … And Goodbye” (which actually followed Train) tacked on after it; Gimme Shelter, because according to the band’s official website “The Rolling Stones apparently refused to grant the so-called ‘synchronoisation rights’ which are necessary for visual cover versions”; and Ghostrider/Louie Louie because (same source) “by the time we hit the stage for the last encore, some of the necessary machines had been switched off. Various film technicians had decided that we had finished….The band hit the stage again - but too speedily for the aforementioned technicians. There was some audio-visual material from the last encore, but Polygram "lost it" shortly after the film was edited and released."

The video also omits some classic Eldritch banter, with a pointed dedication of Walk Away to “the Wakefield branch of the Pete Best Fan Club”, clearly a dismissive reference to Gary Marx, although prophetic in that the next iteration of the band went on to major success (albeit nowhere near as stratospheric as The Beatles) without Marx in the band, and a reference to Christopher Marlowe (author of Dr Faustus) – “where are you when your country needs you?” which clearly amused himself if no-one else, hardly a novel experience for the erudite and literate singer.

And however good Wake is, nothing can replace the spirit of actually being there, as the following comments from fans who have joined in discussions on the 1980-1985 Facebook fan page will hopefully demonstrate:

Vince B: “They must have come on pretty close to, or just after 7.15pm as they played an hour set for Wake, disappeared for 15-20 minutes, then about 8-10 minutes for the medley at the end. As I was leaving after the final encore, people were coming in, expecting the Sisters not to have started yet, which must have been around 9pm. There was still some daylight outside as we left.”

Adrian R: “[At the end of the main set] My mate Pete said ‘Bloody hell, look who that is!’ and we turned round to see (I'm almost sure) it’s Ian Astbury, Lemmy and Youth from Killing Joke. Being young and stupid were too scared to say anything when suddenly the music started again .We were shocked and looked around to see very few people in the Albert Hall. The band did the encore and we thought ‘Wow’ and we got ushered out very quickly.”

Martin W: “Billy Duffy was there. He was just leaving one of the boxes as we were making our way out after the shower of tickertape. I remember he was wearing a jacket with something about Vietnam painted on the back of it....”

Jack K: “Dave Vanian sat behind us too.”

The final word must go to Craig O: “A night I'll never forget. The streets of London paved with Sisters fans and Von lookalikes. The end of an era for me, very sadly. A fantastic night though.

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Forty Years Ago Today - Announcement Of Tie-Up Between The Sisters of Mercy and CNT Productions

 Exactly forty years ago today, on 30th May 1981,  well-respected UK trade magazine Music Week (named Music and Video Week at that time, to reflect the growing influence of the video medium in those pre-MTV days) published a small news item in the regular Tracking column on the recently instituted Independent Labels page of the magazine. Nothing unusual about that, as each week news items about minor and largely unknown bands were published in the column, but this particular item is fascinating as it suggests that the link between The Sisters of Mercy and the CNT label goes back further than previously thought.

The Sisters were mentioned almost en passant in the snippet, as the news item really concerned The Mekons, already established Independent Chart regulars whose earliest releases had featured on the seminal Fast Product label from Edinburgh, alongside records by the likes of Scars, The Human League and Gang Of Four, who would all go on to sign for major labels. The Music Week article informed readers that The Mekons had signed with “newly-launched York label CNT Productions”, and had recorded a new single, Sporting Life. In fact, it was not until October of that year that the now renamed This Sporting Life was the first release on the CNT label and given the catalogue number CNT 1, simultaneously also released in Germany on Dusseldorf punk label Pure Freude. The sleeve for the 12” CNT edition reveals that the song had been recorded at Spaceward Studios in Cambridge in April 1981, i.e. one month before the Music Week article.

The following year, This Sporting Life would get a re-release on CNT as a 7”, with the catalogue number CNT 008, but curiously the A side was described on the sleeve as “edited by Bob Worby at K.G. Music Studios, Bridlington”, a recording studio which is of course synonymous with TSOM singles from Body Electric to The Reptile House EP. The sleeve of the 1982 version also contained the information that “In October 1981, a limited edition of one thousand copies of This Sporting Life was released by CNT Productions of Leeds in a 12 inch format”, revealing that the base of the label had seemingly moved along the A64 at some point in the year which followed the original Music Week news snippet.

When stating that “CNT’s only other act at the moment are [sic] Sisters of Mercy” (is this the earliest example of the omission of the definite article in the band’s name?), the press release seemed to imply that TSOM was the first band signed to the new label, albeit with releases coming out “via their own Merciful Release label”. The final phrase, “who have recorded an EP called Lights” further implies that the Lights EP was scheduled to become the band’s first release on CNT (via MR), whereas it would be over nine months before the one and only CNT The Sisters of Mercy release, the Body Electric/Adrenochrome double A side, would see the light of day.

By the time of the Music Week article, what is referred to here as the Lights EP (featuring the Teachers/Adrenochrome segue and an early, less grungy version of Floorshow in addition to the title track which would ultimately surface on The Reptile House EP) was already doing the rounds on cassette and touted there as a "demo for projected Floorshow EP", on the demo tape (featured on an earlier blog post here) which also featured the tracks of the first TSOM single (The Damage Done/Watch/Home Of The Hit-Men) and which was referred to by Eldritch in the band’s first interview (again, covered in this earlier blog post here), with Leeds fanzine Whippings And Apologies, which had taken place in mid-March 1981, i.e. six weeks before the Music Week mention. Although it was never officially released on vinyl, and (with the exception of the band’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Teachers) the songs did ultimately appear on future singles in significantly re-recorded form, the tracks for what CNT would term the Lights EP (presumably because they felt that Lights was the better track) did subsequently feature on many bootlegs, most notably as the Floorshow EP.

Not much was widely known about the CNT label itself until 1985 when a compilation album, They Shall Not Pass was produced, cashing in on TSOM’s new-found fame by featuring both sides of the then (as now) hard-to-find CNT single Body Electric/Adrenochrome (similar to the re-release of Fast Product’s The First Year Plan compilation which featured The Mekons when The Human League topped the charts) with all profits going to support the striking miners. Such a political gesture would come as little surprise to those who knew that CNT was the name of a Spanish Trade Union, Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo, with the label’s revolutionary slogan slogan hijos del pueblo a las barricadas, en discos, appeared on all releases. When the They Shall Not Pass (a translation of the communist Spanish Civil War dictum No Pasaran) compilation appeared, the NME published an article by Paul Du Noyer tracing the label’s history, and explaining that the men behind the label were Mekon Jon Langford, who would famously filled in for Craig Adams at a widely-covered TSOM gig in York in early February 1982, and two non-musicians called Colin Stewart and Adrian Collins. Intriguingly, the NME piece suggests that the Sisters were signed because “Collins had prior involvement with the Leeds band.” Quite what that “prior involvement” was, the article did not say, but it did trace Collins’ connection to the music scene back to his work with Red Rhino in York, who had put up the money for (and distributed) The Sisters’ debut single The Damage Done. Collins went on to become manager and producer of the band Redskins, who opened the York Rock Festival in September 1984 at which also TSOM famously played, staying with the band after they left CNT having been responsible for the label's final single in August 1983.

Langford was asked about his Sisters links in an interview with CLRVYNT recently, and he gave this account: “We formed CNT, a record label with one of the guys from Red Rhino [one of the bigger distributors in Northern England at the time], Adrian Collins. We put out some Mekons stuff … a single from the Redskins, and a bunch of other bands. Adrian was working on The Sisters of Mercy, so we went and recorded them in KGM, a small 8-track studio in a guy called Ken Giles' garage in Bridlington, Yorkshire that we had a long relationship with. Two of the guys from the label and the guys from the band in a confined space. So, I knew [Andy] socially and Craig [Adams, then-bassist of Sisters of Mercy] was also a friend of mine. The Body Electric / Adrenochrome single came out on CNT. I heard at those sessions that Craig would be going away and they had some gigs. We were their record label, so … if memory serves, Craig was working in the Canary Islands as a photo shoot assistant.” 

It has always been assumed that TSOM’s association with CNT was as short-lived as Langford’s own stint in the band, but the new re-discovery of this Music Week cutting suggests that it was longer and more significant than previously believed, whilst the NME article suggests that the main link between TSOM and CNT was not Langford, but Red Rhino man Adrian Collins.

Hopefully Mark Andrews' forthcoming book on the early days of The Sisters of Mercy will shed more light on this key phase of the band's development.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Forty Years Ago Today - the first The Sisters of Mercy gig, York, 16th February 1981

 Forty years ago today, 16th February 1981, The Sisters of Mercy famously played their first ever gig, supporting The Thompson Twins at a CND benefit concert held at Alcuin College at The University of York, an event previously covered on this blog after the discovery just a few years ago of a contemporary review of this debut live appearance [this new post is intended as a companion piece to the previous one, containing additional background information, some of which has come to light since the original piece was posted here].

One of the most curious features of the first show is the city in which it took place, as most bands’ debut gig would tend to take place in their hometown. However, although The Sisters were very much a Leeds-based ensemble throughout the early 1980’s, the city of York plays a disproportionate part in the band’s early history for reasons which have never really been fully explained.

Eboracum, the Romans called it. To the Vikings it was Jorvik. York had traditionally been the British Isles’ second city, and to this day the Archbishop of York is second only to his Canterbury counterpart in the hierarchy of England’s long-established religious organisation, The Church of England. However, the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the need for fast-flowing rivers closer to the hills to power factory machinery resulted in the rapid development of cities like Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield, leaving the sleepy county town of Yorkshire dwarfed by its upstart neighbours.

Although it is situated only around 25 miles (40 km) from Leeds, few young Leodensians would normally venture out to York, as its shops, pubs and clubs were generally seen as much less lively or impressive than those in the larger cities, but Andrew Eldritch seems to have been irresistibly drawn to the town best known at that time for its chocolate factories (York is famously the home of the KitKat!) and as a railway hub as well as being a tourist trap for elderly visitors to its’ city walls, quaintly-named cobbled streets (“The Shambles”, “Whip ma’ Whop ma’ Gate” etc), celebrated tea rooms and lofty cathedral (York Minster).

Indeed, the earliest known individual photo of Eldritch (or rather Andy Taylor as he was still known in those days) was taken in the late 1970’s in York, more specifically at Priestley’s t-shirt shop, and as well as being in the earlier blog post on this topic, the picture in question was more recently also shared on the 1980-1985 The Sisters of Mercy unofficial Facebook fan group by Paul I, who explained that he had worked in the shop in 1978/1979. He remembered “Spiggy coming over from Leeds and hanging out in our shop with another guy called Tom. They wore biker leathers and boots. I think he dyed his hair black soon after!”

Ireson added in the Facebook group chat that at the shop they printed t-shirts, which they sold via small ads in the Melody Maker and on tours following bands (“SLF, Undertones”) another important detail when considering the Sisters’ early development. Eldritch is on record stating that they had made t-shirts before even making a record, and 80-85 FB group admin Phil Verne shared a copy of a Priestley’s catalogue from early 1981 which features the familiar head and star logo t-shirt amongst then far more established artists.

Those who have heard the band’s debut single will readily understand that the image of The Sisters of Mercy was far stronger than their music at this stage, and the logo with its distinctive Caslon antique lettering was of course to become an iconic symbol of the gothic fraternity, much copied by other artists. With the t-shirt already spreading the band’s name and minor local fame, obtaining gigs in the York area would have become easier, especially given the local movers and shakers who would have moved through Priestley’s and its near neighbour, Red Rhino Records, which was also the local distribution base for Yorkshire independent music, such as the then-recent “The Damage Done” debut seven-inch release.

Alcuin College, the venue for the first gig, was a particularly appropriate venue, given the band’s reliance on image, as it was named after an eighth-century (!) scholar from York who had great influence with the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, and who was credited with standardising the “Carolingian Minuscule” font that was all the rage in priestly (no pun intended) circles at the time and was the precursor of the “blackletter” style which would become the dominant script of the next few centuries, often referred to informally nowadays as… “gothic script.”

Commenting about the blog piece on The Sisters of Mercy 1980 – 1985 Facebook fan group, former York resident, Chris S, explained that the original concert venue, the Alcuin College dining hall, could no longer be seen because of the rebuilding works which necessitated the 2001 20th anniversary show taking place in the venue of the band’s other early York gigs, the rival Vanbrugh College, and posted this picture of the original venue, stating “This is the only picture which I could find of the old Alcuin buildings. The dining room where the Sisters played in Feb 1981 is the first floor building on the left behind the tree with the big windows, the college bar is underneath. This [photo] is looking at Alcuin from Langwith College. I think that the bridge over the road has also gone now.”

By all accounts, that gig on the 16th Feb 1981 was nothing to write home about, and the contemporary review featured in the previous blog post about this gig certainly damns the band with faint praise, a view echoed by those who were there. John L said “We only went as Peach [Gary Marx] had told us they were playing. To be honest, I’m not sure what we made of them. They got better!” His view was backed up by well-known TSOM fan Simon C who added “I know people who were present at that first gig as I have lived in York for 24 years and have gotten to know a few alternative types who are a few years older than me. By all accounts, the band at this time were sh*t. They’ve since admitted that the band were brilliant when they played in York again a year and a half later. Apparently they’d upped their game considerably by then.”

Gary Marx himself confessed that the band were far from the finished article in an interview included in Jane Hector-Jones’ riveting piece on post-punk Leeds for Louder Than War as recently as last November: “Andy used to work over in York at a firm called Priestley’s that did T shirt printing. He would go over, go to Red Rhino records and meet some people in there. We had next to nothing in terms of gear. Craig had borrowed a bass. Most of us didn’t seem to own anything at all. Craig’s clothing was like, a donkey jacket, really ill-fitting clothes, like he had put on someone else’s school uniform. For the gig, he borrowed a leather jacket with UK Subs on the back, and Kim who went on to be in the Pink Peg Slax had done his hair into a rockabilly quiff. I was still a skinhead, and I had got a grey Trutex skirt. I wanted to be like the Fall, anti-rock. But I was a spotty kid with a Trutex shirt. Andy was in a version of what he ever was, looking like Lenny Kaye or Joey Ramone. If you’re going to be in a band you may as well make a connection between what you all look like, but we just hadn’t got there.”

One person who could have given an impartial account of the band at that first gig was the one London music journalist who happened to be present, Robbi Millar, the Sounds hack who by coincidence had been the only singles reviewer of the four main music weeklies to give some column inches to The Sisters’ debut 7” just a couple of months earlier, justifiably slating “The Damage Done”. By pure chance, Millar (presumably the only national music journalist to have heard of The Sisters of Mercy at this point) had been sent along to accompany The Thompson Twins on a few dates to gauge the success of the “No Nukes” tour, and she included a brief account of the Twins’ York set in her published piece. However, no mention was made of the support bands, so it may have been that she didn’t see The Sisters’ set, but either way she missed out on another notable scoop.

If The Sisters ultimately upped their game and went on to greater success, the same can certainly be said of The Thompson Twins, although both bands had to slim down considerably in number and move away from their more radical roots (this was a CND “No Nukes” benefit tour, after all) in order to make the Top 40 charts. Those intrigued by how The Thompson Twins sounded back in February 1981 can listen to this BBC session recorded in London just four days before the gig, with their then-new six-piece line-up. It was broadcast on the Richard Skinner Show on Radio 1, the 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. slot which was the “alternative music” bridge between the mainstream pop fluff broadcast during the day and the hardcore eclecticism of the John Peel Show (10 p.m. to midnight). Skinner succeeded Mike Read and preceded David “Kid” Jensen as the anchor for this key “homework” slot, and arguably had a more genuine ear for emerging talent than either of his fellow DJs. To get even more of an impression of The Thompson Twins' on-stage experience at that time, Phil Verne pointed me in the direction of this live performance recorded just a few days before the Alcuin gig.

Incidentally, The Thompson Twins’ drummer at this time was Chris Bell, who himself became something of a goth legend, playing on Spear of Destiny’s seminal Grapes of Wrath LP and Gene Loves Jezebel’s The House of Dolls album alongside a shift in Batcave regulars Specimen. Also in The Thompson Twins at that time was original saxophonist Jane Shorter (later replaced by Alannah Currie), who went on to work with Orchestra Jazira alongside the highly-respected Ben Mandelson, who in 1981 had had the unenviable task of replacing the legendary John McGeoch in the seminal post-punk band Magazine, featuring notably on the band’s final studio album Magic, Murder and The Weather LP.

The Thompson Twins’ tour itinerary did include a date in Leeds, which took place at the University in the Riley Smith Hall rather than (as advertised in music press tour ads) at the Poly, according to this contemporary review in Leeds Student, which notes that the Bradford band Cameras In Cars (who released one EP in 1980) were the support on that occasion. Cameras in Cars featured Martin Sadofski on vocals, who went on to be in the Passmore Sisters (some of whom in turn would join TSOM graphic artist David Ashmoore and ex-Salvation guitarist Choque Hosein in The Hollow Men), and guitarist Tim Beckham who later played in both AC Temple (on the Sourpuss album produced by none other than Mekon Jon Langford, who famously filled in for Craig Adams at another York university TSOM gig in early 1982) and the equally excellent local legends Dustdevils, showing just what an interconnected scene there was in West Yorkshire in the early 1980’s.

The Leeds Student review reckons that no more than 150 people attended the Thompson Twins show, a similar number therefore to the Monday night York gig, which was also competing forty years ago today with another interesting event flagged in this clipping from Leeds Student, a “performance” rather than a gig, put on by some of The Sisters’ then friends, the Music For The Masses society at Leeds University Union, who would promote one of the Sisters’ earliest Leeds gigs just a few months later, where they would link up with the very influential Howard Thompson (see the earlier blog post on this gig here) for the first time.

Teenage skinhead Mick Furbank’s show Lament From The Terraces was a bit of a cause celebre at the time, the two-room curated performance art combination of exhibition and one man show having courted controversy with the suggestion that (some) skinheads were closet homosexuals, repressing their true feelings and hiding behind a hard man image. In a city like Leeds, where the battles between anti-racist punks and NF-supporting skins at this time have been documented in several excellent recent articles (here and here for example), this was literally fighting talk, and this event might have been easier for some of the band’s wider entourage to attend then the trek to the far side of York to see the Sisters. February 1981 was in general a busy time on the gig circuit, and I myself saw original punks Siouxsie and the Banshees (supported by Comsat Angels), The Jam, and The Stranglers (supported by Modern Eon) that very same week, with the Some Bizzare tour also criss-crossing the country (with Monochrome Set and Fast Set playing Leeds Warehouse, also on 16th February 1981) and the 2002 revue (featuring a varied bill including Theatre of Hate, Fad Gadget and Classix Nouveaux) about to do likewise.

Forty years on, and because of the global pandemic there are no events planned to celebrate The Sisters of Mercy’s fortieth anniversary, unlike the previous three decades which saw elaborate (by the band’s plug-and-play standards) festivities. Eldritch had already indicated after 2016’s 35th anniversary tours that he had no intention of specifically acknowledging future anniversaries, a viewpoint which coronavirus has cemented into reality. Although no photo, audio (those tapes circulating claiming to be this first gig are wrongly labelled), video, poster or ticket have yet surfaced of that debut gig in February 1981 (although we live in hope…), fans around the world will  today be privately celebrating the day that what was largely a grandiose project on paper took the first steps towards an all-encompassing reality.

My grateful thanks for their assistance with this post are due to Phil V, Chris S, John L, Paul I, Jane H-J, Rob C and LG. And many congratulations to Andrew Eldritch on surviving forty years in the music business.



Friday, 10 July 2020

The Damage Done - XL !

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

Friday, 19 June 2020

Eldritch's crowning glory? - The Reptile House EP

No record sums up the unique and lasting appeal of The Sisters of Mercy more than The Reptile House EP. In his book on the genre, The Dark Reign of Gothic Rock (with the telling subheading In the Reptile House with The Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus and The Cure, author Dave Thompson states "All that Gothic Rock would ever become is captured on this one EP," and the deep resonance the release caused both at the time – released as it was, right in the middle of the key year of 1983 - and subsequently gives some substance to that claim. In every respect, The Reptile House typifies, exemplifies and to a certain extent defines the degree of Eldritch’s obsession with every aspect of the band’s development at this stage.  In interviews the singer always railed against the idea that “independent” was synonymous with “amateurish,” and explained his approach to Melody Maker’s Adam Sweeting in 1984: "I always took a very grandiose view of things. That was tempered with a willingness to see the bastard thing through and make it work."

After three amphetamine-fuelled fast-paced singles, Eldritch’s uniquely meticulous approach to his craft reached new heights with the slower-brning songs of  The Reptile House EP, in every aspect of the release, from the recording to the marketing of the new songs. Endless negotiations with a variety of major labels, wrangles with fellow band members, and personal health and relationship issues over the next two years would cast a growing shadow over the subsequent releases,as the pressures of being singer, lyricist and manager began to take their inevitable toll, but Eldritch's own perfectionism, a key feature of the band's rise to fame and future chart successes, seems to have reached its early zenith on The Reptile House.

The 12” extended play vinyl was released in the early summer of 1983, within six weeks of the 12” version of the penultimate Alice/Floorshow single, although the exact actual release date is, as with many Merciful Releases, a matter of some conjecture. Most sources list 16th May for the EP’s arrival in the shops, but in fact that was the date of the second test pressing, necessitated because Eldritch wasn’t happy with the sound of the first (17th March) at the Mayking plant in France, to where it had to be returned. It is hard to imagine that this was a frequent occurrence for cash-strapped independent bands, but such was the singer’s single-minded obsession with every detail of TSOM that he regarded the delay and extra expense as not only acceptable but essential.

This Machiavellian approach would cost Eldritch many band-mates over the years, starting with the departure of Ben Gunn before the next single (Temple of Love) hit the shops less than six months later. The increasing divergence of standards between the singer and the rest of the band had already become apparent in the studio, as comments kindly shared in The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook fan group by John Spence, who engineered the recording session at KG studios in Bridlington will testify. "I was involved from the beginning but Ken Giles spent a good bit of time showing me the set up he had used for recording the drums from the Roland TR 606…When I was happy with it, Andy would step in and start tweaking it. He would sit for hours listening to just the bass drum mic and fiddling with the EQ, then the same with the snare channel and the high channel. At first, I assumed that he was trying to achieve a certain sound, but I later realized that he didn't actually know what he was doing, he was just finding out what each frequency sounded like… The rest of the band spent most of the time lying around in sleeping bags on the studio floor and I don't remember who did what. Recording the vocal was challenging because Andy sang very, very quietly. I suspect it was the only way he could hold the pitch in the lower register. … He always wanted his voice to sound lower and deeper. The mixing process was not difficult but very time consuming. I would bring up the drum track on a desk channel, set a basic sound and level then Andy would sit for 3/4/5 hours twiddling with the EQ and sends into a couple of effects. During this time, I would hover around, smoke, drink coffee and read. When he declared himself happy with the drum sound, I would then bring up the bass and the process started again followed by the guitars and vocals. I would balance up as we went along and take care of the technical side. One very distinct memory I do have is of when we'd finished the mixing and I'd edited the 1/4" tape to make a Production Master (tracks in the right order with the right gaps etc), Andy brought the rest of the band in to listen to it. When it finished, there was no invitation to comment or offer any creative input...just "There it is"… I was still very much learning myself and was interested in Andy's approach. He did things I wouldn't do, some of them worked, some didn't. It taught me the value of experimentation.”

Eldritch would lay claim to having been responsible for even more of the finished product in 1992 interviews when promoting the Some Girls Wander By Mistake compilation album, which featured the entire The Reptile House EP alongside other early singles. “On records like 'Reptile House' or 'Temple of Love' they [Gary Marx and Craig Adams] didn't even play. They weren't into recording that much, they just wanted to play live. They were sleeping in some corner until I woke them up after I had played and recorded everything on my own. When they asked me how their guitar and bass parts had turned out, I used to say to them they performed very well. Gary didn't even listen to 'The Reptile House EP' until it had been released on vinyl and I handed it to him with the words, 'This is our new record, you'll like it!'" Eldritch told the German magazine Visions.

Earlier this year, a copy of the first Test Pressing of The Reptile House EP became available for sale on EBay, selling within a couple of hours for its £1000 “Buy It Now” price. What made the record unique was the extensive notes which Eldritch had hand-written on the plain white sleeve of the pre-release, a tactic he employed to great effect to communicate with the London-based movers and shakers of the UK music industry from his Leeds stronghold. This particular copy had been sent to a sympathetic journalist, Steve Sutherland, who was infamous at the time for an interview which he conducted with Bauhaus in front of the band’s baying audience immediately prior to the Northampton band’s October 1982 show at London’s Lyceum Theatre. Having taken umbrage at a scathing Sutherland live review published in the NME the previous year, Sutherland had bravely faced a very hostile Bauhaus audience in an “interview” at which he had to defend his thesis that the band were mere Bowie copyists, a viewpoint made considerably easier by the band’s contemporary releases of their Ziggy Stardust single.

In 1983, Sutherland was the lucky recipient of the following personal message from Eldritch on his copy of the (first) test pressing: “Dear Steve -  This record is completely unarguable: take it on its own terms bearing in mind that it doesn’t give a damn whether you like it or not. The mix is obtuse, the pace relentlessly, unyieldingly slow. The last track [Burn] especially promises something to hold on to and then proceeds to recede away before the reprise of track #1 puts you right back where you started – the door of The Reptile House has swung shut behind you again. Welcome.”

Another message elsewhere on the sleeve features more clues as to the musical and lyrical claustrophobia of the record’s contents. “There are no windows in The Reptile House, and there is no handle on the inside of the door. The rules of the game are house rules, and it will take you a long time to understand them.” “Such,” said Mr Eldritch with a pompous and smug leer, “is Life. Goodnight children.” Here endeth the twenty-third lesson.” A unique insight into the singer’s frame of mind and view of his own place in the wider scheme of things, and enough for a well-known Belgian collector to immediately part with a four-figure sum to add another jewel to his personal TSOM treasure trove.

Eldritch had sent similarly detailed, personalised missives to Radio 1’s John Peel, read out on air  by the DJ on 14th June 1983 (link), surely a date which is closer to the real release day of the EP:  “Dear John, Here’s The Reptile House EP, our exorcism of the slow and serious, although it’s working title was “Slither, you ..” and here follows a rude word, so I can’t say that on the radio so I’ll say “Kenny Everett” instead. We’ve since taken to calling it The Commercial Suicide EP and we’ll understand perfectly if you feel it’s too dirge-ridden to play on the radio. It seems to take most people about six plays to understand how and why it works, another six or so to like it, it’s available as of now with a retail price of £2.99. Don’t let it grind you down. Love from Leeds’ Finest.” 

Despite – or maybe because of – the “dirge-ridden” contents, The Reptile House EP remains for many fans their favourite of the band’s releases, and it continues to inspire Eldritch’s fellow musicians. For example, Mark Sayle of the currently touted darkwave band Mark E Moon told the online magazine White Light/White Heat, “One of the first records I bought was ‘The Reptile House’ EP by the Sisters of Mercy. It’s still one of my favourite releases and that dark, cold sound has informed a lot of my songwriting.” Asked about the band’s 2019 album Refer, Sayle added “If I had to pick a favourite song it would probably have to be ‘Abandon’. It’s an epic gothic dirge that would sit comfortably on an early Sisters Of Mercy record. The darkness and the bleakness is palpable. I just love the imagery and the music….”

This recent release certainly confirms Dave Thompson's view in The Dark Reign of Gothic Rock that "all that a hundred, a thousand bands have tried to recapture in their own variations was blueprinted across those five songs" (of The Reptile House EP), emphasising the significance of the release to the genre as a whole. Trevor Ristow's excellent recent biography of The Sisters of Mercy's golden age takes it title Waiting For Another War from the lyrics of one of the more overtly political songs on the EP, Valentine, and Eldritch has often said that it represents his most political writing of the early days, with one interview referencing the Houses of Parliament (as alluded to in the backwards section of Burn) and another stating that it was a modern day Pilgrim's Progress. Both lyrically and musically the band struggled to recapture the intensity they achieved on this EP, although sections of side 2 of First And Last And Always and some of the B sides of the singles from that era came close. With rumours circulating the current iteration of the band is close to breaking Eldritch's near thirty year recording silence, he would do well to reflect that he has yet to top what was largely his first solo effort - The Reptile House EP.

My thanks for their help with this post are due to Phil Verne, Bruno Bossier, Trevor Ristow, Mark and Phil of Mark E Moon, John Spence, Dave Thompson and others who have helped to shed light in this most seminal of releases.