Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Review of first ever TSOM gig found ! - York, 16th Feb 1981

That the Sisters of Mercy played their first gig at Alcuin College at The University of York on 16th February 1981 has long been an accepted fact, and indeed an event celebrated by the band themselves every decade with a pair of anniversary shows. Eldritch himself referred to the first-ever show when on stage at the York Rock Festival some three and a half years later, informing the audience that they had played their first gig in the city supporting The Thompson Twins, back when the latter were “groovy”, adding (Michael Caine style) “Not a lot of people know that.”

That the Thompson Twins played the gig has never been in question, with music press adverts having surfaced (like the one featured below, from the collection of Phil Verne) which feature the York date amongst others on their Feb 1981 UK tour which was both promoting their “Perfect Game” single (on their own “T Records” label) and also in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s “No Nukes” policy, a campaign aimed squarely at the younger politically-aware citizens of the UK. But the only evidence that TSOM played at this gig so far has come from Eldritch himself, primarily in the form of a brief description in the Biography section of the band’s official website. “The band makes its live debut on February 16th, somewhere between The Stooges and Suicide, or Motorhead and Chrome. Marx has connected his guitar to a record-player pre-amp which feeds back uncontrollably and Eldritch has shifted the vocal echo into overdrive. It’s metal dub without any spaces, on a shuddering mechanoid backdrop. The first-ever set kicks off with a twisted version of Cohen’s “Teachers”, and ends with a juggernaut howl which might have been “Silver Machine” but was in fact “Sister Ray”. The audience gets the point.”

Impressive stuff, but still clearly just Eldritch’s own recollections (albeit in the third person), written some years after the event, and yet the one online eye-witness account of the gig, by “Carl1960” on states, “Can’t remember anything about The Sisters of Mercy.” Finding some kind of bona fide evidence from the show – a poster, genuine live recording (there are several which claim to be from this show), ticket or review – became the holy grail for a generation of Sisters’ collectors, as I became aware when legendary aficianados Phil Verne, LG and Bruno Bossier started helping me with this blog a few years ago.
Phil in particular has made this a personal quest over the past thirty years. The closest he had come was finding online a scanned issue of well-known contemporary Yorkshire fanzine “Wool City Rocker”, but in the relevant edition the promised “Yorkshire gig guide” (which may have listed TSOM as support) apparently came as a separate fold-out poster, which was not scanned. After many years, LG finally tracked down a copy of the poster that came with WCR but sadly only the Thompson Twins were listed.

Having belatedly joined the hunt, I too found that the trail was cold, despite mentions of the gig on various York websites (which had seemingly taken their info directly from the TSOM official site). I was therefore delighted earlier this year to find on Ebay a copy of a very professional York fanzine from the early 80s, “Beaten to the Punch”, which contained “live” reviews from the latter part of 1981, and had clearly been in existence at the time of the 16th February gig, raising hopes that there might be a definitive mention of the gig in a previous edition.
Searching online, I was astonished to find that sections of a copy of the relevant issue of “Beaten to the Punch” (dated May 1981) had been scanned and featured on a superb fanzine archive blog by a user called “still unusual”, hosted by Tumblr (a recommended site for a lazy afternoon’s nostalgic browse). The author of the blog had chosen this issue to feature from his vast collection as it contained an interview with much-missed Leeds new-wave indie pop ensemble Girls at Our Best, which was reproduced in full on the blog. I could hardly believe my eyes when I read the next sentence of the blogger’s summary of the fanzine’s contents : “Apart from that … there’s reviews of recent gigs by the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Misty in Roots, Aswad and The Thompson Twins.” Sadly, however these sections had not been scanned into the blog post.

I quickly signed up for a Tumblr account and messaged the anonymous blogger, asking if he/she could possibly scan in the live review sections as I would be very interested in seeing them. I got an almost instant reply, “Don’t have much time for fanzines at the moment, but I’ll take a look over the Easter weekend.” I checked back on the Tumblr site regularly within the last month to read “still unusual”’s latest posts (incidentally a lot of cool but non-TSOM-related stuff), but nothing relevant appeared to have been posted, until earlier this week when I checked back on the “Beaten to the Punch” post, to find that it had been updated with the requested reviews, and incredibly TSOM are not only mentioned by the fanzine’s reviewer of the Thompson Twins gig, John MacLaverty, but reviewed in a brief section about the two support bands.
Whilst Eldritch feels that “the audience got the point”, MacLaverty takes a different view (see cutting at top of article). “As the assembling audience got tanked up in the bar, the two support bands failed to grab the attention of the few in the hall.” Fortunately, the fanzine journalist remained alert however, and was able to add a further sentence “Maybe Sisters of Mercy opened up a bit gloomily, all suitably bleak and industrial featuring the mandatory drum machine.” Harsh but probably fair, indeed not too dissimilar to Eldritch’s own appraisal of events on stage, but including a few epithets that hint towards the “goth” label which would soon be attached to the group and plagues them to this day. The reviewer clearly preferred the (sunk without trace) other support band Able Kars (which sounds like a taxi firm), before drily noting “lift-off failed and the bar did good business”.
The rest of the review rails at the audience for showing no interest in the political cause which the event was purporting to publicise, but includes a decent review of the (indeed then “groovy”) Thompson Twins. The latter were at that stage a seven-piece, and purveyors of a tribal funk-pop (influenced by Adam and the Ants, who had undergone a punk rebel to pop star route that both The Thompson Twins and The Sisters of Mercy were to follow) and creating an upbeat, almost party atmosphere amongst usually po-faced indie gig-goers. I once saw The Thompson Twins live myself (between this gig and the April 1982 split which would leave the chart-bound nucleus of three people), and vividly recall the band handing out drums/percussion items and encouraging the audience to join them onstage for the finale, as happened at the York gig described here, one of very few bands to risk such an audacious move in the post-punk days.

The discovery of this wonderful artefact proves that TSOM did indeed play at the Feb 16th gig, their first ever.  Why a Leeds band’s live debut took place on the University of York's campus, situated in the village of Heslington, a few miles to the south of the flood-prone historic city is still not entirely clear, but TSOM became very popular with the Ents Committees responsible for putting on gigs in the JCR of their college (rather grandly, York uni modelled itself on Oxford and Cambridge in having a collegiate structure, a bit like the Houses at Hogwarts) as they would feature there several more times in 1981 and 1982. The fact that Eldritch was well-known for hanging around (and possibly even employed at) city punk t-shirt emporium Priestley’s, would certainly help to explain his connections with the movers and shakers of the York gig scene, however. This pic of a very young Eldritch in Priestley’s was posted on FB by Russ C who said, “It was taken by friend of mine, around the time the Sisters were conceived. As the taker of it rightly states (or words to that effect), “he was always, and even then, way head of the rest of ‘em.””

I will leave for others to discuss the long-running issues of whether the gig took place in Alcuin (as most now agree) or Vanburgh College, or whether the alleged live recordings are actually from this gig – and I imagine that the debate will rage on over on the unofficial The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 FB page. But for now, I would like to thank the blogger “stillunusual” for their key role in providing indisputable evidence that TSOM did indeed support The Thompson Twins in York on that February 1981 evening, and to Russ C, Phil and LG once again for sharing items from their vast collections with us.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Imperial Leather Jacket - London, 29th October 1982

As we have seen before, researching old TSOM gigs at a distance of thirty odd years can be a frustrating and often trying experience, but gradually information emerges that enables the obsessive fan to assemble the key details about a particular show and its idiosyncrasies in comparison to other gigs of that era.

One curious anomaly of the half a dozen or so London gigs the band played as they increasingly tried to impress the self-appointed metropolitan musical elite (crucial backers if the band were to break out of their northern stronghold) was the gig at Imperial College in the capital on Friday 29th October 1982. This gig is listed in all the usual gigographies usually accompanied by the phrase “nothing is known about this gig.”

This is not strictly true in this case, as the gig was reviewed towards the end of the band’s short breakthrough interview piece in the NME entitled “Do The Apocalypso”, eventually published in the first week of December. The paper’s editors had clearly sat on the piece for a wee while, given that the show had taken place five weeks earlier, but had clearly been hastily resurrected when rival paper Sounds stole a march on them by having TSOM as cover stars.

In the very positive “Do The Apoclaypso” piece, journalist Don Watson curiously refers to the audience as “unsuspecting students”, a phrase which had intrigued me since first reading it when it was first published, but which I now hope to be able to fully explain.

What had always been surprising about the Imperial College gig was the fact that there appeared to be none of the usual flyers and adverts, and that no photos, tickets or audio had emerged either, a situation totally different to the TSOM London gigs either side of it in those final months of 1982 as the word of mouth about the band began to really spread with the release of the ground-breaking “Alice/Floorshow” double A sided single. Indeed, all of the other gigs in London around this time seemed to feature two or more other bands, but on this occasion curiously no other band seemed to have been mentioned.

Like other colleges of the University of London, Imperial was a fiercely independent branch of the major institution, and like the other colleges had its own Students’ Union building (in this case housed in the magnificent red-brick building below) as well as having centralised services in the larger University of London Union (ULU), where TSOM were to play supported by the Smiths in June 1983.

On this occasion at the end of October 1982, however, I can now reveal that the band were booked at short notice to play at the Halloween Party of the Imperial College Students’ Union taking place that Friday evening. The attached advert, from the Imperial College student newspaper Felix, back issues of which are now digitised online, states that for the princely sum of £1 students would have access to the Halloween Party which would now feature a performance of TSOM (contrary to what had been previously advertised). One shudders to think at what an already “anti-goth” Eldritch would have said had he seen the amateurish witch with black cat illustration which accompanied the ad in Felix, surely the worst promo for the band since the classic “waving nun” on a John F Keenan poster some eighteen months earlier.

One can therefore imagine that many of the students attending would have been oblivious to the fact that there would be a band performing at all, let alone Leeds’ finest, and so the three-way split the journalist describes in the crowd is all the more understandable. “The audience becomes a mix of bouncing psychobillies, restrained consideration and open antagonism.” Eldritch later tells Watson “We always do that to an audience, there’s always the three distinct groups. We always get cut and dried reactions.”

Watson agrees with Eldritch’s assertion that the band are a different prospect “live” than in the studio, stating “Where the records restrain the power, the live sound takes it to almost ridiculous levels, as the band teeters on the edge of parody.” Little did he know that this was only the end of the beginning …

By the time the piece was published, the Sisters were a bona fide cause celebre in the musical world, being added to bills left, right and centre in the hectic pre- and post-Christmas gig rush in the capital, and no more would they need to effectively gate-crash student parties just to provide an opportunity for journalists and others to see them. If anyone was at the gig, or has any ephemera from it, the six thousand diehard fans over at the unofficial 1980-1985 The Sisters of Mercy Facebook group would love to hear from you!

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Iggy and Spiggy - Leeds, 2nd July 1981

If time travel is invented during my lifetime, I know exactly when and where I will set the dial for : the evening of Thursday 2nd July 1981 at the Warehouse club, Leeds. As I would discover a few years later, early July was a joyous time in Leeds when the tens of thousands of students would leave the city for the summer at the end of the academic year, leaving the locals back in charge of the cultural scene.

Thursday 2nd July was the night of a gig by one of Eldritch’s chief inspirations, Iggy Pop, at the local university. Pop was promoting his Party album with lenedary platinum-selling French band Téléphone in support, and their gig in Leeds came in the same week as I saw the tour myself in Nottingham at the Rock City venue. It was the strangest gig I have ever been to: Téléphone, accustomed to selling over half a million albums per release and playing stadia in France, being almost totally ignored apart from one would-be comedian shouting out the only French phrase he knew ""Machine à laver" between each song, and Iggy for me being a huge letdown, flouncing around in a bad mood, fleeing the stage when someone threw a plastic glass vaguely in his direction, baiting the audience in a half-hearted manner and (choosing my words carefully here) clearly not on great form (unlike the gigs later in the 80s when he had re-become the ultimate showman). 

I can't imagine that the Leeds show was much different, and most of the audience from the Leeds University show were enticed to the Warehouse after the gig, a venue where Claire Shearsby DJ’d, and TSOM were billed to play a late night set to capitalise on the large number of punks in town. Simon McKay of Newcastle fanzine Eccentric Sleeve Notes was one of many (“Not a night to forget” as he reminded me earlier this year) who made the short trek from the university after the Iggy gig past the Fav(ersham pub) and the hospital, through the city centre and down to Somers Street for the Sisters show at the Warehouse, a venue which was allegedly the inspiration for the song “Floorshow”. Also down at the Warehouse that legendary night was Paul “Grape” Gregory of the Expelaires, who remembers Iggy himself putting in an appearance at the gig. “The Warehouse gig was an amazing night,” he told Sisters fans on Facebook earlier this year. “The Sisters on stage, Iggy dancing all around the upstairs bar and all the best of LS6 [Headingley’s post code] in the house. Music For Pleasure had played Amnesia that night too so the place was jammed with everyone from these gigs….the beer, the gear, and everyone dancing like loons, an epic night followed by epic hangovers.”

(Contemporary advert for the Iggy gig at the university from the York fanzine, Beaten to the Punch. Note the self-publicity by Union Ents secretary and future radio DJ Andy Kershaw on the right)

According to an interview with promoter John Keenan on the now defunct "North Nights" website, Keenan himself was largely responsible for what happened that night. "Iggy was playing at the university on the same night [as the Sisters gig at the Warehouse which I was promoting] so I went up to the gig to hand out some flyers. The Sisters used to do a version of the Stooges' 1969 so I invited Iggy and the crew down. After the gig we were all having a few drinks together in the bar when Iggy got up and walked over to a poster on the wall advertising a New Romantic night. He went up to it and went "New Ro-f**king-Mantic" and ripped it off the wall. At that time, the Warehouse had a big gay barman called Chris who was about 6'4" but as camp as ever. He went over, picked Iggy right up off the floor, held him against the wall and in a really unexpected camp voice shouted, "That's my boyfriend's night!" Of course, Iggy was really shocked, but they're the kind of rock and roll stories you don't always hear."

The above press advert, which featured in the anthology of Heartland fanzine (and thanks to Phil Verne of the essential TSOM 1980-1985 unofficial Facebook group for this pic) shows just how far the band had come, less than six months from their live debut, with respected promoter Keenan sufficiently impressed to put them on at the Warehouse as headliners under the Fan Club banner after the band had played only half a dozen or so gigs. This July night is therefore a significant staging post in the band's history, the night they began to stand out from a very talented crop of local bands as the one with the potential to make it big. With the success of this gig and the buzz now beginning to build around the band, their relatively late addition to the line-up for Futurama 3 is all the more understandable.

When TSOM became more famous, stories circulated that the band had given Iggy a copy of a demo cassette which included 1969, but that the great man had been unimpressed. Presumably this incident also took place that night, as Eldritch had form for this sort of thing. Just six weeks earlier, the singer had pressed a copy of the tape into the hands of Psychedelic Furs’ saxophonist Duncan Kilburn who handed it on to guitarist and subsequent "Alice" producer John Ashton, an event recounted in some detail by the genial guitarist in a video interview last yearHowever, according Mark Andrews' definitive account of the early life of TSOM published last year, Iggy and Spiggy did not meet. 

The Warehouse remained a second home for some of The Sisters for a number of years, with the band playing their three times in the first four months of 1983. Later that year, Wayne Hussey was astonished to be treated like “a mini celebrity” on visits to the club just by virtue of having joined the band, as he recounted to contemporary DJ Mark Musolf in a video interview last year (twelve minutes in).

If time travel were invented, I would certainly take a Sony Walkman with me to record the gig on 2nd July 1981, as everyone was having such a good time (as Grape recounts) that as far as we know no-one thought of recording the Sisters’ appearance for posterity, either in audio or pictorial form (not even the John Keenan flyer mentioned above), a point on which (as ever) I would be only too happy to be proved wrong!

My thanks are again due to all the many people involved in the lives of TSOM in the early 1980s for their willingness to share their recollections of those special days.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Sisters for 50p! - Leeds Uni 13th June 1981

For the next couple of posts, we’re going to go back to a crucial stage in TSOM’s development, when they were establishing themselves as a live entity during the six months after their debut as support to the Thompson Twins in York on Feb 16th 1981, an era when they quickly built up a reputation and a fanatical local following despite not yet having a fully settled line-up.

The gig on 13th June 1981 at Leeds University’s Riley Smith Hall was organised by Si Denbigh’s Music For The Masses society, a part of the Students’ Union (as discussed in a previous post on this blog) entirely separate from the official Ents department ruled by Andy Kershaw. When a copy of the poster surfaced on the net a couple of years ago, I asked Si on FB what he could remember of the gig. “Not much, it was over 30 years ago” was his instant and honest (if disappointingly brief) reply.

Fortunately, there were others present whose memories of this particular gig were much starker, when the gig was discussed on Heartland Forum shortly after I joined it in 2011. “The Blogging Goth” (and former frontman of TSOM tribute band The Marching Men) “Tim Synyster” had found a reference to a Leeds band called Pink Peg Slax who were “original members of The Sisters of Mercy and The Mekons”. I was able to say that this in fact referred to the legendary Jon Langford, who had helped out both bands when needed, and that the Slax, although claiming to be “borne out of punk”, were in fact a neo-rockabilly outfit more like The Polecats than The Meteors (a comment which I did not intend to be a compliment). Fortunately, I did however confess that I “admired them for doing their own thing”...

Much to my surprise, Pink Peg Slax front man Vince joined in the debate, saying, “We weren't Neo Rockabilly, we were cajun-tinged jiveabilly. [!] The Sisters supported us in the Riley Smith Hall at Leeds University in July [?]1981. I couldn't take the Goth stuff seriously. It was just as pompous as Rush but with a rather unattractive vampire imagery. To me, punk was about pissing the hippies off. Doing jolly rockabilly songs amidst a sea of Goths was consciously subversive. I knew Andy via Clare and Tim Taylor (our bass player), and had known Craig and Grape via the Expelaires. I was in the Mekons in 1980 and did a Peel session and a couple of album tracks; forgot the track.” Interesting that the bands appear to have performed in the order on the poster, with TSOM on first, followed by the Expelaires, whom Craig Adams had played keyboards with for the past two years (featuring on their two singles of 1979 and 1980), and still featured (I believe for the last time together) both Paul Gregory (later of Leeds band 3000 Revs featuring future Sister Adam Pearson on guitar) and Dave Wolfenden (who went on to form Red Lorry Yellow Lorry). 

"Wolfie" reflected on his time in the Expelaires at length in a recent podcast interview, saying "We drank too much. We never took it seriously. We were far too young and too immature to realise what a good opportunity it was." (The Expelaires were one of only three bands signed to the Zoo label - Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes were the other two). The band only played about thirty gigs during nearly three years together (the reformed band have now played more and are well worth catching), as they were  more like "an organised drinking club with the possibility of some music at the end," as Wolfenden memorably puts it. Anyone wanting to understand the psyche of a Fan Club regular in Leeds at the end of the 70s could do worse than spend a couple of hours listening to the full podcast, with the witty and laconic guitarist skilfully interviewed by Martin Canning.

Later that same September 2011 night, another surprise debutant poster joined the Heartland Forum debate in the form of media mogul James Brown, godfather of the much-criticised Lads movement of the 1990s and founding editor of Loaded magazine. Editor of the local fanzine Attack on Bzag at the time, it turned out that he had also been to that Music for the Masses gig back in June 1981. “I went to the gig at the Riley Smith Hall. I was still at school but had been told about the Sisters by the afore-mentioned Jon Langford of the Mekons and The Three Johns, who had just released their [TSOM’s] single on his CNT label. He gave me a copy for my fanzine…There was a small poster for the gig in the old Jumbo shop. with the logo. As we arrived at the Riley Smith Hall someone was loading t-shirts with the [Merciful Release] logo on out of a car. The gig line-up was very strange. Expelaires, with Craig later of the Mission in a beret. Pink Peg Slax singing Rocking Robin as Rotting Robin I think. And the Sisters. Andy had big hair and big black sunglasses. There were certainly no goths there. They hadn't been invented as such. People like Claire just looked punk still or very New York, all black clothes and bleached hair. There were just the same clutch of people you'd see at gigs of unusual bands around Leeds. I remember going to school next day and writing [The] Sisters of Mercy next to Monochrome Set on my canvas RAF bag. They were different to the other local bands.” 

JB might have mis-remembered the exact order of events (the CNT Body Electric single didn't come out until the following spring), but the detail of the other bands on the bill mean that it is certain that he was talking about the same gig, and t-shirt sales had become vital to the band even at this early stage. The catalogue photo above (courtesy of Phil Verne of The Sisters of Mercy 1980 - 1985 Facebook fan page) which features the earliest "head and star" t-shirt is from early 1981 and was for mail order from Priestley's in York, one of Eldritch's weekend hang-outs in the early days. On the official TSOM website, Eldritch states that he had spent a couple of months "working part-time for a t-shirt printer in York. This job involved selling t-shirts on Undertones tours." (Incidentally, one of Hussey's early bands, Walkie Talkies, list The Undertones amongst the bands whom they supported, so Hussey and Eldritch may have first met years earlier than is commonly believed!).

                                                       (from the Sisters wiki)

As recently as last year more was revealed about this gig with the surprise addition of a photograph on the gigs page on the excellent Sisters wiki. The picture, taken by Claire (Shearsby), shows Craig nearest the camera, along with Eldritch, Marx (albeit hidden in the shot) and a very rare sighting of the early guitarist Dave Humphreys, who was still in the band when they played at Futurama three months later.

No audio recording has yet emerged of this gig, which appears to have been the first the band played at the university, in the very hall where they would support The Psychedelic Furs on the eve of the release of Alice some sixteen months later. As ever, more information on this show would be very welcome.

As usual, my grateful thanks are due to all those who have contributed (either willingly or unwittingly!) to this blog post. All assistance gratefully received!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The 1985 split, part IV - Victims of Circumstance

One of the major perceived factors in the band’s major split of 1985 was the future musical direction of the band, and in this post I will examine the complex and multifarious strands of what can, on the surface, seem to be a simple case of musical differences between the three parties concerned, Eldritch, Marx and the Hussey-Adams pairing.

The extent to which they wished to pursue a “commercial” path, the influence (real or perceived) of the major record company, Eldritch’s natural inclination to control every aspect of the band’s affairs, whether to focus on playing live or recording, health matters, outside relationships, all of these and more were factors in opening up the rift between the different factions which had already developed by the album’s release, as we have seen in earlier posts on the 1985 split here, here and here.

In this post I intend to look at further evidence on these key issues as provided by the band’s responses in various interviews during the Spring 1985 tours in the UK, Europe and America. Although the album First and Last and Always had already sold 50,000 copies in the UK by the time the band completed the Armageddon tour, just two months after its release (according to Wayne Hussey at the Stockholm press conference in May 1985), having reached the UK Official Top Twenty album chart, the lack of a breakthrough single (Body and Soul and Walk Away having reached the 40s but No Time To Cry only reaching no. 63 despite the new b-sides) was beginning to weigh more heavily on the band than one might initially imagine.

There certainly seemed to be pressure on the band to release a cover version of Emma as a single, and the band as a three-piece did record studio versions of both the former Hot Chocolate classic and another favourite cover Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door in June 1985. As mentioned in the previous post, Eldritch had stated in the Rockpool magazine interview in June 1985 that the band were going to record a studio version of the song which had caused such a stir on the John Peel radio show when recorded as a session track :

 When and how this was going to be released however, is unclear, although a bootleg (demo?) version of that June 1985 recording of Emma did indeed surface. In interviews, the band had always stressed that they would not countenance putting a cover on the A-side of a single as a shortcut to making the breakthrough, as Bauhaus (Ziggy Stardust - which reached number 15) had done in similar circumstances (The Passion of Lovers, Spirit and Kick in the Eye - twice - had all reached the top 60 but failed the dent the all-important Official Top Forty).

This was discussed by both Hussey (who, interestingly, seems more ambivalent as his answer develops) and Eldritch (who has the terse, final word) in this extract from The Day of the Raygun Cometh fanzine :

Question : “Would you ever go for a recognisable cover to give you that extra push into the charts?”
Wayne : “We have recorded covers. We wanna be successful but if it boiled down to the situation where if we did a certain cover version we would have a hit single, then no. If it was a song that we really liked and enjoyed playing and we could make a good record out of it, then yeah. It’s like “Emma”, I’m sure if we recorded and released that, it would be quite successful. If we were gonna make records purely for the money we wouldn’t be making the records we’re making. I don’t actually think that we could make a record just for the money.

Andrew : We’ve never put a cover on the main side

Gary Marx had also referred to this issue in the Artificial Life interview (above) in March 1985, stressing that Elektra were particularly keen to see Emma released, as a way to “break” the band Stateside, clearly a key ambition of the band’s at the time, given the frequency of their visits there (October 83, April 84, August 84, May/June 85), and Eldritch’s comments to Rockpool magazine (June 1985) about the American label show that their influence was growing on the band, although the singer clearly had strong ideas about the extent to which Elektra's influence should go ("It's promotion, not guidance, we're looking for.

The end section of the above extract emphasises the point that not only had the band failed to make the expected breakthrough in terms of single sales, but the band seemed to be stalling as a live draw, with older fans deserting the band (guilty as charged, m’lud) in smaller but not totally dissimilar numbers to those of new fans attracted to the band, a point which was discussed in the Piccadilly Radio interview in Manchester in March 1985 :

WH - the venues we’re playing on this tour are very similar to the ones we did on the last tour. We’re getting a few more people in, but I don’t think we’re not ready to go onto the big, big venues just yet.
Q – A lot of the elitism has disappeared out of music over the last four to five years, musicians in the days of the Clash will never do Top of The Pops.
WH - I think the elitism has disappeared with the musicians, but I think that it’s still there a lot with t’fans
AE -  A lot of the people we play to have got a lot of prejudices about people like WEA being involved and giving us money, putting glossy covers on records and stuff like that, it sort of offends them somehow, but they don’t realise that neither the Sex Pistols nor the Clash ever put out a record on an independent label…After so many years of maybe seeming to pander to that mentality, and after so many years of not really getting anywhere by way of rewarding ourselves, we’ve stopped taking [them] into account altogether now and if they have a problem with that I’m afraid it’s their problem.
Q – At the end of the day, they don’t own The Sisters of Mercy, and they’d be the first to complain if they couldn’t buy your records, which is what happens when a band reaches a certain level
AE – Absolutely, absolutely

The band’s frustration is evident in their responses, as they audibly warm to the interviewer who can clearly empathise with their situation. The departure of Gary Marx was likely to alienate further some of the remaining hardcore faithful, with no guarantee that a more commercial sound would recruit a similarly devoted following, as other bands (The Danse Society, The March Violets and, ironically, Gary Marx’s Ghost Dance project) would discover. In one of the Stockholm interviews one month before the Wake finale, Eldritch clearly states that the band had planned to play two nights at the Royal Albert Hall, but with the first show failing to sell out, the second was never announced, symptomatic of the lack of a genuine breakthrough which both band and record company had been expecting.
That these would be the final concerts for a long time seems to have been a major influence on Eldritch’s decision making, a fact reiterated in one of the Stockholm 85 interviews. When asked what the plans were for after the American tour which was to follow the Swedish show, Hussey replied, “Have a holiday…and write some new songs.” Eldritch couldn’t help adding “And then have another holiday … and then write some more songs,” clearly not contemplating a live return at all, unlike Hussey’s comment in the Piccadilly Radio interview a month earlier that “we don’t intend to tour again in Britain until at least the autumn by which time we’ll have another single out .” Marx’s stated antipathy to lengthy studio sessions had set him on a clear collision course with Eldritch, and it is clear that Hussey also hankered for a “live” return after only a few months away from the road, another pressure driving the pair apart.
As stated in the introduction to this post, the comparative lack of progress in commercial terms in the FALAA era, with the band failing to reap the rewards which their herculean efforts deserved, was but one aspect in a “perfect storm” of factors which conspired to drive the band apart. Whilst superficial press reports at the time encouraged fans to take sides and blame one member or another for the band’s demise, having examined the vast amount of evidence available to the inveterate interview consumer, it is clear to me that Marx, Hussey, Eldritch and Adams were all simply (in the words of the bootleg compilation of their unfinished business from this era) ... Victims of Circumstance.

For this latest post, my grateful thanks are due as ever to the kind collectors who have shared items from their collections with me, particularly LG and the incomparable Phil Verne, founder and curator of the wonderful (and now six thousand members strong) unofficial Facebook group The Sisters of Mercy 1980 -1985, where many extraordinary items from that era are regularly revealed and discussed

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Sisters Mysteries V – did Peel play Damage Done?

One of the more enduring unanswered questions about the early days of TSOM revolves around the first single, Damage Done/Watch/Home of the Hitmen, released in the Autumn of 1980. Did legendary influential BBC DJ John Peel ever play the lead track or not? No evidence has ever surfaced either way…until now, that is.
Those growing up in this multi-media instant access age must find it hard to comprehend the control which the state broadcaster the BBC used to have on the nation’s musical taste,  but for any aspiring new band, having the ear of veteran Radio One DJ John Peel was an essential pre-requisite of success.
In their official biography, Andrew Eldritch claimed that the fledgling band’s main raison-d’être for making the debut single was to hear themselves on the radio, something which they allegedly achieved according to the band’s own website: “Gary Marx and Andrew Eldritch made some t-shirts in anticipation, and huddled by the radio until…John Peel played the record. They swear he played it twice.”

This has led to the (perfectly reasonable) assumption that Peel played Damage Done, the Elditch vocal-based track which is regarded as the least offensive of the early efforts, but my research shows that Peel actually played Watch, the Gary Marx vocal track on the other side of the Damage Done single. Thanks to Peel fans who are gradually populating their wonderful wikia with soundfile recordings of vintage Peel shows, we can now enjoy again hearing him playing his wrongly-labelled copy (many of the original edition of Damage Done had the labels on the wrong side – “news had not yet reached Leeds that printers have to be reminded to put the labels on the correct side of vinyl” according to the TSOM webpage) for presumably the second time,  given his comments afterwards. On the evening of 4th November 1980sandwiched in between The Damned and a track from the (released the day before) Adam and The Ants Kings of the Wild Frontier LP, Peel told the listening millions: “These are The Sisters of Mercy on Merciful Release records, the labelling on this is immensely complex, but I think that this is Watch, it’d better be!” Fortunately for Peel, this was not one of the many endearing occasions on which he played the wrong side of a single (or at the wrong speed), but the angst-ridden nature of Marx’s vocal clearly has an impact on the DJ, who says at the end “The nation seems to be packed to bursting point with tormented young men who want us to stare deeply into their souls. There go a bunch called The Sisters of Mercy on Merciful Release records, that’s called Watch…the record does return briefly as it did last time I played it.. ….hardly noticeable though,” he adds as the opening chords of Home of the Hitmen strike up behind him. Thanks to the original uploader on the Peel wikia, and to Phil Verne’s YT prowess, we can now all enjoy hearing this momentous secondever playing of TSOM on national radio.
The Body Electric/Adrenochrome single having received very positive reviews on the whole in the music press (as well as repeat plays on the Peel show), it came as little surprise that TSOM were eventually invited to record a session for the programme. Before such an invitation was issued, Peel’s trusty produce John Walters would usually go to see the band “live” to ensure that they had the musicianship to complete the recording within the day’s studio time allowed for the recorded sessions, which would usually air about three weeks later. One can imagine that Walters may have seen the band supporting either Richard Hell or The Birthday Party in the early summer of 1982 at their first London gigs, with the result that they arrived at the BBC studios on 25th August 1982 to record Alice, Floorshow, 1969 and Good Things with BBC in-house producer Roger Pusey.
The session was duly aired in September, and by 12th October, an enthusiastic Peel was playing Floorshow from the new double A sided single, announcing it as by “The Sisters of Mercy, an element of which appeared at the BBC earlier in the evening.” (link) This was two days before the very poorly attended Klub Foot showcase with the Violets, and one can imagine that in the time-honoured indie fashion, Eldritch had waited outside Broadcasting House to hand the precious new release to the venerable DJ in person.
He was still playing the track in early 1983, featuring Floorshow on 30th January in between two tracks of roots reggae (which had become his latest big love) Black Roots and Misty in Roots on his British Forces’ Broadcasting (BFBS) show. At the end of the Sisters track, Peel comments “You may have got a bit of me humming as well, as a bonus”, showing that the band were still very much favourites of his at the time.
Later that Spring, on 17th April, Peel gives a spin on his BFBS show to the latest single Anaconda, damning it with faint praise . “Not one of their very best, but worth playing once or twice.” However, any doubts which he was beginning to have about the band dissipated with the next release, The Reptile House. Peel was taken as much by a frank note he received from Eldritch as by the tracks on the EP itself. On 14th June 1983 (link), he announces Kiss The Carpet by reading out in full the message from Eldritch, commenting on the very neat handwriting (which autograph hunters will also have noted): “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.”  Five days later, on his BFBS show, Peel admits that he is feeling a little down, before going on to talk about The Sisters’ new release.  “This is a record which is really appropriate to the mood of the hour, it’s from a new 12” by The Sisters of Mercy. As I say, they admit themselves that it is profoundly depressing and rather boring, it’s called The Reptile House. They sent me quite an amusing letter, I like a band who can admit to being boring. This they see is being like the central track on this EP, it’s called Kiss The Carpet.”
The EP became a fixture on both his Radio One and Forces’ Service shows, usually with reference to the self-deprecating letter which had accompanied it. For example, on 6th July 1983 after Death Cult’s Horse Nation, he announced: “Another one from The Sisters Of Mercy from their, by their own admission, extremely gloomy EP The Reptile House, this one according to the reviewers anyway is the finest track on there, I’m not convinced, but it’s alright, it’s called Valentine. After the track has aired, Peel again emphasis its dark atmosphere : “I’m sure that they’re a real bunch of fun if you ever get to know them, but on the evidence of this record they’re very depressing indeed.”
Later in the summer, on August 30th, Kiss The Carpet, clearly his favourite track gets another playing : “This is TSOM this is one of the five tracks on their doom-laden 12”EP, The Reptile House, which even by their own admission is profoundly distressing, this is Kiss The Carpet,” with another tongue-in-cheek back-announcement. “The Sisters of Mercy in carnival mood(!), I think we need something to lighten the mood after that.”

Although both Alice and Temple of Love made the annual listeners’ poll The Festive 50 in 1983, as Walk Away and (the session version of) Emma did in 1984 and the FALAA side-closing stand-out pair of Marian and Some Kind of Stranger in 1985, Peel’s love affair with the band was soon on the wane.

He complained on air that Body and Soul “rather lacks the vitality of their previous work”, and he seemed less than impressed by the “work in progress” tracks of the second session the band recorded for him on 19th June at Maida Vale studios with Mark Radcliffe (a future DJ in his own right) at the controls. The band had been hard at work writing new material whilst on tour for the debut LP and although Walk Away is virtually complete by this time, it is very much a beta version of No Time To Cry that also made it onto the nation’s airwaves. A first studio version of Emma (Peel would describe this as having “possibly the longest fade in the history of recorded music” when playing it on the Festive 50, where it reached the highest ever position for an unreleased session track) and another future B side Poison Door completed the set.

What was mere disappointment with TSOM’s musical direction was to turn into contempt, as he revealed in 1987 in conversation with John Walters. “Every time I do one of my terrible gigs…people come up and say to me, “Can you play something by The Sisters of Mercy?” I just say, “Under no circumstances whatsoever am I going to play anything by The Sisters of Mercy.” With the band by now seeking commercial success with This Corrosion, Peel’s approval was no longer needed, however, and daytime radio helped it to make the UK Top 10.

One final curious note on the Peel show, some of the versions of the songs seem slightly different to the ones on the commercial releases. Hopefully someone with more encyclopaedic knowledge than me will be able to reveal how these came about, and whether these versions are still in existence.

My thanks for this post are due to Phil Verne, Heartland Forum member Mothra, to all the Peel fans who have done such a wonderful job on the Peel Wikia, and of the late, great John Peel.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The 1985 split - Von's final pre-split interview

The more one studies the 1985 TSOM split, the more complex the situation becomes. In the first two blog posts looking at the timescale and precise events leading up to the split (here and here), by far and away the most revealing sources have been contemporary fanzines both in the UK and abroad, and in this third post examining the protagonists’ expressed views at the time, we are again going to focus on the comments of the prime mover, Andrew Eldritch.

The administrator of the wonderful Sisters wiki, Heartland Forum member Being645, recently drew attention to an item which had appeared on Ebay, an American publication entitled Rockpool from June 1985 which promised “Conversation with The Sisters of Mercy”. Realising the significance of the magazine – the in-house publication of Rockpool Promotions, the highly influential original new wave promo company who had been responsible for the creation of the New Music Seminar showcase at which TSOM had played in NYC the previous year -  and its timing, I alerted well-known collector Phil Verne who subsequently bought the item, which turned out to feature an extensive interview with an on-form Andrew Eldritch and a typically taciturn Craig Adams (the garrulous Wayne Hussey was not present).

From comments made during the interview, it is clear that it took place on the afternoon of Thursday 6th June, on the rest day between the shows at Boston Channel Club on the 5th (still currently unlisted on major gigographies) and the final date of the US tour on the 7th. Somewhat surprisingly, both Eldritch and the interviewer seem excited looking ahead to their (separate) visits that evening to see Madonna (!) live in NYC, allowing us to date the interview with a degree of certainty. This would therefore make it last known interview with Eldritch before the split, making it a very significant addition to the overall collective TSOM archive.

Eldritch is clearly delighted that the arduous UK, European and US tour (which started three months earlier on 9th March) is coming to an end,  but seems more positive than in the Italian interview some three weeks previously, although the presence of Adams may have had a limiting effect on his candour. When asked, “So is this only LP you’ll make, FALAA?”, Eldritch replies “There’s still a chance. It’s certainly the first and last LP by that particular configuration, which is important. It’s definitely like a chapter”.

What’s more, Eldritch clearly has plans for the continuation of the group in the current three-piece line-up, which explains the events of the summer and autumn when the aborted sessions for “Left On Mission and Revenge” took place. “Around Christmas time we’ll do …a Far East tour”, he states, clearly referring to the Jan 1986 shows in Japan which were scheduled (and subsequently cancelled – it would be a further 25 years before an incarnation of TSOM finally performed in Japan) for which posters have surfaced, whilst the band also clearly has more immediate plans, with the singer stating “We did [tour a lot] but after tomorrow things may change a lot. We’ve got one final date in Britain and it’ll be Gary’s last. A sort of memorial day in more than one way. Then we’re gonna rest up, write and recharge our batteries.” He is then asked about going back into the studio soon and he replies “Yeah, we’ve gotta finish up ‘Emma’ and stuff like that”.

Eldritch’s “memorial day comment” is clearly a reference to the fact London’s Royal Albert Hall is best known for hosting Great Britain’s annual national Festival of Remembrance, hence the name of the gig (“Wake – a festival of remembrance”),  the silver paper dropped from the roof at the end of the gig like the poppies during the minute’s silence at the normal Remembrance Day commemorations in the RAH, the stark formal programme and the organ interlude on the night – Eldritch had clearly  planned this ‘live’ finale for some time, and coming from a Forces family he would have been aware of the significance of the venue. That it had now turned out to be likely to be Gary’s final appearance clearly added to the experience in Eldritch’s opinion, although ironically Marx didn’t ultimately appear at the show and it was in fact the final appearance of both Hussey and (listening here) Adams, of course.

The “’Emma’” and stuff like that” comment is arguably the most significant, as we will examine in a future post on the split, but for now it is sufficient to state that “stuff like that” refers in all likelihood to “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, the studio version of which (available along with a rough studio version of Emma on the much sought-after “Sins and Secrets” bootleg 7”single) was recorded by the three piece line-up in June 1985.

There were rumours of a covers EP being prepared for release, not least in German’s usually well-informed Spex magazine, who covered their information (and probably incorrect speculation) that it would include the band’s studio rendition of short-lived 1984 live favourite “Gimme Gimme Gimme (a man after midnight)” with  two uses of the word “allegedly” ("vermeintlich") in this snippet featured on the German TSOM fansite and shared by the impressive "Ultimate Sisters Guide" archive :

Earlier in the “Rockpool” interview, Eldritch has already confirmed Gary’s departure :

Interviewer : I heard a rumour that somebody’s leaving the band
Eldritch : Yeah, somebody already left. That was Gary
Interviewer : Are you going to get another guitar player?
Eldritch : No!

As those lucky enough to attend (like I myself did) any of the April-June 1985 shows in Europe and the USA , or who have heard bootleg recordings of those shows will attest, the ‘live’ sound sounded fuller than one might have imagined with just Wayne on guitar, so one can well imagine Eldritch feeling that a rhythm guitarist was a potentially argumentative luxury that he could do without. Curiously, the ”Rockpool” interview then immediately turns to an earlier episode at the time of the New Music Seminar New York trip in August 1984, a time when the singer and band’s well-publicised studio traumas reached their height.

Interviewer : I heard a rumour that you broke up.
Eldritch : I quit last year here at the Ritz. I said we’d do the album and the tour and that’s it.

This is an amazing revelation, and very much the train of thought to which the singer had returned in the two Italian interviews featured in the first of my blog posts on the split. How had the interviewer heard of this? The source of the rumour is sadly not touched upon, and Eldritch immediately makes a joke of the issue :

Eldritch : The others quit as well. We quit together.
Interviewer : Then you could all form a band.
Eldritch : Yeah, that’s pretty much how it turned out.

(incidentally, this is at odds with what Wayne had said in the "Day of the Ray Gun cometh" fanzine interview, remembering New York as "a week of excess, a week of not having to think about making records...we did a couple of gigs and then we had like three or four days off, it was good fun.")

So with this fascinating pre-RAH wide-ranging "Rockpool" interview, another piece of the jigsaw emerges, and on the evidence of this chat it would appear that on the evidence of the European and US tours he had started to believe that the three of them (Eldritch, Hussey and Adams) could make a go of things, leading to the subsequent attempts to make a start on the second album.

Tellingly, things began to deteriorate very soon, however. Absence is said to make the heart grow fonder, but a week apart from his remaining fellow Sisters immediately after the “Rockpool” interview had the opposite effect on Eldritch, as he recalled in a 1987 interview with MM “I thought it [the band] should still have gone on but know it wasn’t going to. The last time we actually spent any time together, at the end of the tour before the Albert Hall, we had some time playing in America and then we had a week off in Los Angeles. I went to Mexico for the day and the other two couldn’t think of anything better to do than go to Disneyland. And when I got back from Mexico a WEEK later, having got somewhat…uh…distracted, I thought, “God, what are these people whingeing about, really?” They just got so feeble.”

So who was to blame for the Sisters’ demise? Traditional explanations have included Gary’s silent unhappy “linger”ing ruining the atmosphere, Eldritch’s machiavellian masterplan allowing no place for democratic discussion or Hussey’s naked commercial ambition tarnishing the rock’n’roll dream ? But according to Eldritch’s comments, it turns out it was Walt Disney’s fault all along! Jesus may love The Sisters, but it was Mickey Mouse who split them up!

My thanks for this post are due to Being645 for alerting us to the existence of this fanzine, to and the Ultimate Sisters Guide for their fantastic work in chronicling the band's past, and to Phil Verne of the 1980 1985 TSOM fan group for sharing the interview with me (and by extension, readers of this blog). More on the 1985 split soon !