Wednesday, 25 July 2012

get your goth on...

Like today, the average young guy preparing for a night out in the 80's did not need to spend long getting ready. Put on the new shirt bought hours earlier on a lightning trip to Top Man, a quick comb of the hair and an over-liberal application of Joop and off he went. For the goth, however, things were much more complicated. The day would start early with a trip to Boots the Chemist for their legendary own brand black hair dye, reputedly the blackest on the market, followed by the lengthy rigmarole of applying the  pungent purple gloop and waiting for it to set. Then there was the inevitable scrubbing of skin areas the dye had seeped on to. There would also be an hour of crimping/backcombing and liberal amounts of hairspray to ensure everything stayed in place for the evening. Clothing-wise, it was barely less time-consuming, with studded straps to fit onto suede effect pixie boots, Astburyesque scarves to tie onto artfully distressed straight black jeans (with studded belt, natch), the agonising choice of the correct t-shirt (Sisters of Violets ? Lorries or Prunes ? Bauhaus or KJ ?), plus of course the obligatory biker jacket (with band artwork done in white paint by a Art student for a tenner). It's hard to say when I stopped putting the gear on for a night out, but it was probably around the time I started to enjoy a spot of gardening, reading car magazines and trimming my nasal hair. Nowadays, the average goth festival is full of paunchy, balding, grey haired goths who have kept not just the faith but the look, like those middle ages teddy boys we used to laugh at back in the early eighties. Andrew Eldrith may have changed his own appearance beyond recognition since the early days, but for a large part of the Sisters' following it seems that it will be forever 1985 ...

Friday, 25 May 2012

Sister Ray

The highlight of any live Sisters show in the 80s was undoubtedly Sister Ray, played as the final encore at the end of particularly successful gigs. From the first gig in York in Feb 81 until the European festivals of 98 the format would always be the same, based on a legendary repeated drum loop from the good Doktor. The drum machine would often rattle on for a good minute before the rest of the band plugged in for the Velvets' classic, and would also continue for another minute after the last guitar had been dumped on the stage in a squeal of feedback as the band left the stage one by one. In between times, Von would have "sung" his way through several other songs with a similar beat to Sister Ray, usually "Louie, Louie" and "Ghostrider" in the early days, but snatches of anything he fancied were possible on a good night. The overall impression was always of a band on the top of their game enjoying jamming together, with Eldritch's impassioned vocal rising and reverberating hypnotically around the venue. This week's welcome news (via Chris Catalyst on Formspring) that the band sometimes end up jamming the song including Hawkwind's "Silver Machine" gives hope that on day soon this Sisters classic will soon be restored to its rightful place.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Dust Up

The summer of 83 saw a new band on the Merciful Release roster, with Salvation seemingly replacing the March Violets as Eldritch's pet project once Simon Denbigh had formed the Rebirth label for his own band's future releases after their first two MR's.
The Salvation website confirms popular wisdom that through his friendship with Sallies' frontman Danny Mass, Von agreed to produce the band's first single on the MR imprint and took them off to Kenny Giles' Bridlington Studios just after recording The Reptile House EP there. Released in a white sleeve to differentiate Salvation's hippy roots from the usual black-tinged MR doom-rock, the Girlsoul EP was an indie chart hit and the A side was a regular on alternative radio at the time.
Legend has it that Mr E was paid in "speed" for his time and investment, and that is one possible explanation for the pure genius of the track lurking on the AA side of the 12" version of the Girlsoul EP. Whilst the title track (and the AA side of the 7" and second track on the A side of the 12", Evelyn) were fairly awkward, stilted pieces of sub-Sisters "North-doth-rise-again" drum machine (Dr A)-driven angst rock, "Dust Up" was a magnificent ten minute psychedelic wig-out that would presage Eldritch's interest in "techno" a decade later.
The total antithesis of the rest of Salvation's lukewarm recorded output, " Dust Up" remains one of the undiscovered highlights of Von's precocious talent, an unsurpassed mash-up of low-fi synthesised drum beats, blissed out guitars and insistent bass - if only "Gift" had sounded half as innovative as this.
Incredibly, the 12" of Girlsoul continues to trade for around ten dollars on auction sites despite the relatively small number of copies in circulation, as "Dust Up" continues to sneak beneath the otherwise very effective AE/TOM netscape radar. It still sounds ominously futuristic (in the proper sense of the word) today, but back in the summer of 1983 it was yet another (seemingly missable for the music press) sign for the cognoscenti that here was a major talent emerging, rather than just anther indie chart five-minute wonder. The message scratched on the run-out track says it all : "Salto nel vuoto" - "Leap into the Void".

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Chinese at Leeds

It's strange to think that like many things in life, the Sisters of Mercy would never have happened were it nor for a series of coincidences which brought people (in this case Marx and Eldritch) into each other's company. Andrew Taylor was clearly a highly academic linguist as a young man, having acquired sufficient proficiency in both French and German (two languages being a minimum there in the late 1970s) to satisfy the dons at Oxford. Having failed to make the most of that educational opportunity, where weekly essays and tutorials during the infamously short terms push even the most asiduous undergraduate to breaking point, his previous qualifications were impressive enough to grant entry onto Leeds University's Chinese B.A. degree programme, an intensive four year ab initio course and one of the few universities in the UK offering such a course (there having been a UK government plan to promote Far Eastern languages as long  as fifty years ago, long before phrases such as "tiger economies" were coined).
Most language degrees require(d) students to spend the third year of their course in a country where the language was spoken, but Leeds students of Chinese, most of whom were total beginners, spent their second year abroad, after only a year's exposure to the language (the average European language undergraduate would in contrast have spent a decade learning French or Spanish, for example, before living abroad for a year). The fact that unappetising stories about the year in China - students were allegedly housed in a bleak academic residence outside Beijing and chaperoned on all excursions by "guides" - were circulating in the student community at the time made the year in China seem even more unappealing to some, and Eldritch was not the only student to bail out rather than face the apparent ordeal of the year in China at a time when most students were still struggling to master basic characters and intonations, despite Leeds' ground-breaking language labs.
Dropping out for a second time, Taylor's academic career had clearly come to a grinding halt, and it would be interesting to speculate as to which path his life may have taken him had his initial partnership with Marx not blossomed within a few years into the innovative and dramatic rock beat which we all know and love.

Monday, 16 April 2012

The March Violets

Of all the gigs I paid to see in Leeds back in 1983, the best value by far must have been a triple bill on May 14th at the legendary Riley Smith Hall at the Uni. U2 proteges The Alarm, promoting their latest single "Marching On", which they played twice that night, were the headliners, with Mike Peters' combo touted as the new Clash in the more easily excitable quarters of the music press. The Alarm had been support on some of U2's recent "War" tour but The Nightcaps did the honours for the Leeds Uni refectory show some two months earlier.
The main attraction for most local music aficianados however were the other two bands on the bill that night, The Three Johns and The March Violets, both vying with the Sisters in the indie charts at that time and featuring the distinctive Leeds drum machine sound. The Three Johns featured (and still do) ex-Mekon Jon Langford on guitar who had played with the Sisters for some very early live shows but now kick-started (literally) the pedal-operated drum machine track that was the backline to the Three Johns live sound,with singer John Hyatt's Lydonesque croon soaring melodically over the scattered shards of Langford's jagged chords. This was the time of their more indie rock second single "Pink Headed Bug" ("I was a pink headed bug, crawling up the side of the City Hall") which brought them greater success than the angry anti-apartheid debut single "English White Boy Engineer", which was also aired that night in an energetic performance which showed why they were to become Indie Chart residents over the next five years. (Incidentally the band are back and touring in 2012 and seem to have lost none of their youthful vigour).
Second on the bill but main focus for many were The March Violets playing a homecoming gig on their Tetragrammaton (goth ? us ??) tour, back in the days when Rosie still shared vocal duties with Simon (think Ben Gunn to Cleo's career-minded Wayne Hussey).  Visually the Violets seemed to be the template for Floodland-era Sisters, Denbigh bearded and full of cock-rock testosterone, Garland the feminine counterpoint. Tom and Loz created a rather diluted version of the Girls' rock beat but which was nevertheless still powerful, and songs such as The Undertow, 1-2 I Love You and Children on Stun all had more impact live than on record. New single Crow Baby and breakthrough hit Grooving in Green were the highlights though, and it seemed as if the band had the potential to go as global as the Sisters already seemed destined to become.
And back in May 1983, three bands of the future for a measly two pouns ticket cost seemed like the bargain of the century - a shame there were only about 250 there !

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Rock City

Along with the Colmbiahalle in Berlin and Leeds Uni, Nottingham Rock City is one of the legendary venues synonymous with the Sisters, having received no fewer than six visits from the Girls over the years, three in the lengthy UK treks in 84/85 thanks to the WEA advance as they built up a devoted fanbase, and three at the turn of the millenium as touring became the band's main focus. The club has topped the polls as best venue in the likes of the NME and Kerrang! over the years, no mean feat for a provincial concert hall. Rock City first opened its doors to a music starved Nottingham public (the East Midlands town having had no suitable venue for several years since the Sandpiper closed down shortly after the Sex Pistols' visit) in December 1980, with Edwyn Collins' Orange juice the first band on stage in support to Pell favourites The Undertones on their "See No More" tour in front of a capacity 1400 crowd. That accolade would have fallen to Di'Anno era Iron Maiden had Rock City not failed its' fire certificate test earlier in the month, with gigs by Human League and Magazine also cancelled as a result. An all-standing venue with a wide stage, three bars and a balcony, as well as a smaller club-wihin-a-club downstairs, Rock City soon became a favourite with bands and fans alike, and it was inevitable that The Sisters would end up there. Indeed, they were billed to play there in early October '83 as part of a tour to support the release of Temple Of Love, but with internal problems becoming more apparent, the shows were pulled and the club had to wait another seven months before a more confident and professional band took to the famous stage for the first time. A stage probably overdue another visit ...

Friday, 2 March 2012

Some Girls Wander ?

By the time the Sisters releases up to and including Temple of Love finally saw the light of day as a CD release in 1992, Eldritch had become embarrassed about the band's "baby photos", and was keen to point out that they were largely being released to help to fulfil the terms of the band's contract with WEA, along with later compilation Overbombing, as well as to prevent fans from having to pay ridiculous sums to obtain the rarer early 45s. Although the sound production and studio techniques had clearly evolved since the early days, particularly on Floodland and Vision Thing, the earlier releases had advantages which those which were to follow would struggle to match : none of the later albums have the energy and swagger of the Merciful Releases, and as the Doktor became more complex and more subtle, so one of the attractions of the band - the clinical, pulsating drum-machine-n-bass rhythm section - melted from view. The early Merciful Releases stand up as songs, but also as objets d'art, with the iconic sleeve designs which eschewed the trend at the time for band photos (usually black and white against a graffittied wall or in a disused factory), band member listings and other fan-friendly information. Compare the Some Girls .. original singles and EPs against their contemporaries - Bauhaus, X Mal, the Batcave crew et al - and both sonically and artistically (as artefacts), they stand out as design and musical classics. Although Eldritch still claims to be unenamoured of the early singles, the fact that three singles were subsequently re-recorded for WEA release and that even the unloved Anaconda and the lyrically primitive Kiss the Carpet have featured on the 30th Anniversary tour show that his attitude to these early classics, as on so many topics, is mellowing.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Temple of Love

My second year at Leeds begin with Jumbo Records’ window a sea of green with the instant release of the latest Sisters’ single, Temple of Love, simultaneously on both 7” and 12” for the first time. Early October releases were very popular with all labels at that time with record companies keen to cash in on the student pound as grant cheques arrived for the start of the academic session, and one year on from the game-changing  Alice/Floorshow 7” the Sisters seemed to be at the height of their powers. The title track, a new song for all aficianados as it had never been performed live (a fact that was to remain true for many years), came in extended version for the indie dancefloor on the 12”, and featured a neat drum solo for the first time by Doktor Avalanche. Even better was the inclusion of a stonking version of live favourite Gimme Shelter, Von’s much professed tribute to the spirit of Altamont from someone who genuinely wished he had been around in 1969. The cover remains one of their finest hours, Marx’s shimmering solo soaring above Gunn’s open chords and Adam’s buzzing repetitive bassline, with a multi-tracked Eldritch intoning the sombre lyric in his finest baritone. The other b-side was the disposable yet inexplicably popular Heartland, more of a riff than a song (like many of the more recent compositions in that respect), with Eldritch repeating the two word chorus ad nauseam. The title track’s dark, gothic (with a small g) lyric and subtle arpeggios which also feature in the other two UK top ten hits (TC and More being ultimately joined by the later version of ToL) gave the glossily produced track hit potential, and despite the lack of accompanying live dates it shot to the top of the indie charts. However, with gigs cancelled and rumours of unrest in the camp, what should have been the launchpad to major global success seemed within weeks to be a fine epitaph for a departing band, with news of Ben Gunn’s departure leaking out and the Sisters withdrawing into a media silence which would last into the New Year …

Leeds venues

Apart from Le Phono and The Warehouse, the main venues for gigs in the City were Leeds Uni and Leeds Poly, although the rather run-down Brannagan’s catered for the dying embers of the punk movement (Vice Squad, G.B.H., UK Subs et al), the tired aircraft hangar of Queens Hall could cater for big gigs and the Fforde Green was used by John Keenan for lesser touring acts. Whilst the Poly only had its cavernous Students’ Union hall, with its echoey acoustics and soulless feel, to host bands, the University’s union building hosted three venues. The main hall was the Refectory, basically the respectable student and staff self-service restaurant serving glorified school meals and salads during the day, but transformed into a rather unconvincing venue in the evening. The balcony added some atmosphere, and also gave more extrovert performers like Bono and Lux Interior somewhere to climb up to during the inevitable “look at me !” phases of their gigs. The sisters didn’t play here until their first major(in every sense) tour, in May ’84, returning subsequently for future tours and indeed anniversary gigs in 1991 and 2001. The second hall, the Riley Smith, was the main debating hall of the university and home of the weekly political bearpit, the OGM (ordinary general meeting), where party hacks of the future lined up to take on the all-powerful SWP. The Riley Smith was where the Who had played thie legendary “Live in Leeds” LP set, and the purple drape curtains either side of the stage certainly seemed to help the acoustics. The RSH was the scene of my first Sisters gig in October 1982, and may also have been the venue for their two listed 1981 gigs (before my time in Leeds), although they are more likely to have taken place in the dreaded Extension bar, the “disco”/bar extension built onto the back of the sturdy brick Union building in the 70s and which was all angles, steps and supporting buttresses as the land fell away down the hill. The acoustics and soundlines were terrible in here, but it was where new bands were expected to play, those who would draw around only on or two hundred revellers. I witnessed some great performances here (one by The Godfathers stands out), but most bands really struggled to create any kind of vibe. With venues like these, it's amazing that anything of note came from the city.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Red Rhino

Whilst on the subject of DIY indie bands in the early 80s, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute here to the late Tony K (who passed away four eyars ago), founder of the York based Red Rhino Records. A record shop which was a "must" on any trip to York (in its famous  premises at 9 Gillygate), Red Rhino branched out into becoming a record label of mixed quality and fortunes, being home to avant-garde band Zoviet France amongst others, but it was only the success of Killing Joke copyists 1919 riding the posi-punk (i.e. goth) wave in 1982 that heralded an era of success which would be dominated by the recorded output of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry until they signed to Situation 2 at a point when their fortunes were starting to wane. Most importantly from the Sisters point of view, Red Rhino had become an even more successful distribution company, one part fo the new national Cartel system, allowing bands like TSOM to retain their independence on MR long after it should have been possible. The enthusiastic Mr Kostrzewa helped bands like the Sisters to afford studio time to produce the singles which would be his future profit stream. Not a flawless business plan, as it turned out, but like promoters Nick Toczek and John Keenan amongst others, he played a crucial role in allowing a young genius to cut his musical teeth.

Monday, 6 February 2012


In the digital age, you can record a decent quality demo on your laptop, set up your MySpace site and broadcast yourself on YouTube, and within hours you will have diehard fans contacting you from all over the globe. Back in early 80s Yorkshire, any dreams of rock star adulation had to be put on hold whilst the arduous tasks of arranging gigs, studio time for a demo tape, artwork, getting finance to press and then distribute a small pressing of a 7" single came before people even having heard of your band.
It's difficult to imagine now what it must have been like for Eldritch and Marx in the early days of the band - sadly no-one was chronicling their early history - but we can get some idea by checking out the diary of the manager of the Barnsley pop-punk band Party Day, South Yorks contemporaries of the Girls back in the day. Steve Drury's diary of his time working with the band - particularly chapter two of his memoir  - poignantly details some of the trials and tribulations of a band struggling for recognition. Highly recommended !

Friday, 3 February 2012

Nottingham Union Rowing Club, spring 1983

Another legendary gig from the halcyon days of Spring '83. Nottingham had always been a musical desert - to this day it's hard to think of a famous band from there (Paper Lace anyone ? Tindersticks ? Thought not) - and until Rock City emerged in the early 80s it didn't even have a decent music venue. The punk era had seen Sandpipers in the now gentrified but then decaying industrial Lace Market host the Pistols amongst others, but when that closed attention had turned again to those most unlikely of venues, the rowing clubs that line the banks of the Trent on the towpath down to the ground of then European football champions Nottingham Forest. Back in the 60's, the enterprising owners of the Britannia had used the bar and function room above the ground floor storage facility for Boat Race style rowing boats to put on gigs, and after the Sandpiper closed the neighbouring but almost identical Nottingham Boat Club took over the mantle. Thus it was that in 1980-1981 the local punters could see the likes of U2, Killing Joke, Siouxsie and the Banshees (a Futurama warm-up under the name Janet and the Icebergs), the Dead Kennedys and UK Decay in their prime, before Rock City gradually took over. However, bands on the way up had nowhere to go, so the third of the boat clubs, the Union Rowing Club, was hired by a local promoter and thus it was that the Sisters were engaged to headline at the 400 capacity URC, which was packed for the occasion. Support was from Oz punk legend Ed Kuepper (of The Saints of (I'm) Stranded fame) touring his more eclectic Laughing Clowns project. The low ceiling and low stage did not make for the best of gigs, with sweat dripping from the former as the temperature inside soared, and the inexperienced bouncers didn't know how to deal with an ecstatic yet non-aggressive crowd. Still, one storming set later, Eldritch announced that the band would just play the encore straight away, as it seemed pointless to leave the stage to come back when this would require passing through the crowd in both directions en route to the "dressing room". It's funny to think back to such ramshackle surroundings when the band play some slick, huge outdoor festival these days, but as the Boat Club list above shows, all bands went through this in those days, and in the NZ radio interview last year Eldritch too looked back on such days with the same nostalgic affection with which I attempt to write here ...

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Damage Done

By June 1983, my Sisters vinyl collection was virtually complete. A copy of the CNT single (Body Electric/ Adrenochrome) had turned up in the 2nd hand section of a branch of Selectadisc, whilst everything else was still available at any independent record shop (and was clogging up the upper reaches of the indie charts). With uni virtually finished for the year, earlier in the week that would see the Sisters play the legendary free gig at Sheefield Uni, the Steel City also hosted a second memorable gig, with a rapidly disintegrating Bauhaus touring the incendiary (and as it turned out, largely unfinished) Burning from the Inside swansong. An early arrival in the capital of the Republic of South Yorkshire (at the time under David Blunkett's quasi-communist council) meant a bit of time to kill (no 24 hour pubs in those days !), and a chance to browse the record stores. There, incredibly, in the "Reduced to 50p" box at one store were two mint copies of the Sisters' debut single, Damage Done. Heading to a gig is not the best time to buy a single, but the opportunity seemed unique and so the purchase was made (sadly only one copy !) and the vinyl made it back to Leeds in good condition, and it still has pride of place in my collection to this day. Within months, copies of DD would be changing hands for £30 and enterprising bootleggers were knocking out fakes of various quality ; meanwhile smug so-and-so's (like me) were swapping "Where did you get yours ?" stories like anniversary celebrating couples remembering how they first met ...

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

ZigZag magazine

Always a breath of fresh air compared to the predictable music weekly inkies (Sounds, Melody Maker NME), ZigZag had started life back in the hippy days of the late 60s, but after 1977 under Kris Needs it established itself as a genuine punk voice bringing a wide variety of new music to a discerning public. I remember in particular an early interview with Killing Joke around the time of Turn to Red - it seemed like a national fanzine compared to the corporate sheen of Julie Burchill and co. As punk turned into a distant memory, sales fell off, and the broad range of music covered each issue (Bauhaus and Shalamar anyone ? UK Decay and Funkapolitan ? Thought not) proved its death-knell. But the rise of posi-punk, championed by new star writer Mick Mercer persuaded someone to pour some money in and so "new" ZigZag edited by Mercer appeared on the shelves in September '83. The fact that The Sisters name appeared on the cover (along with other contemporary faves such as X Mal Deutschland) convinced me to part with my 75p, but I soon wish I hadn't. For the trip up North, Mercer (not a Sisters fan) had sent another sceptic, "Rex Garvin", and the subsequent article entitled "Suffragette City" (still widely available on the Web) made my hackles rise. As was my wont as an angry young man, I penned a lengthy diatribe to Mercer, using the pseudonym based on a couple of Bauhaus tracks which I had recently adopted - and have recently resurrected - pointing out that the London hacks' dislike and mistrust of the band stemmed from the fact that they refused to play their game. To my surprise, Mercer published my letter in full in new ZZ issue 2 the following month (with his own lengthy self-justifying reply including a repetition of the ridiculous claim that Southern band The Mob were enjoying greater success than the Sisters). Despite the fact that I had said in my letter that I wouldn't be buying ZZ again, I carried on getting it for the next two years before it finally folded, having a few more letters published, but Mercer's antipathy to the Girls seemed to remain and he was only too happy to give Ben Gunn maximum publicity (during the Anabas/Torch phase) as the first refugee from the band. How deliciously ironic (I can imagine a sly smile beneath a certain pair of shades) that Mr Mercer has eked out a living peddling warmed-up rehashes of the finest moments of the Girls and their contemporaries.

Monday, 23 January 2012


Back in the 80s, most of the pubs in Leeds were real dives - probably still are in many cases. Around the university, most of the pubs catered for a specific crowd - the Union for the terminally broke, the Eldon for Engineers, the Original Oak for the Headingly crowd, and the Fav for the more financially well-off students living in the expensive Charles Morris Hall, university accommodation of choice for ex-public school types (yes, even in Leeds). The Faversham Hotel, to give it its full title, had delusions of grandeur, all polished brass and wood with prices to match, even though it was just round the corner from the legendary Terry's All-Time CafĂ©, the only establishment in a city of over half a million people which remained open all night, and a de rigueur stop for us on the way back up t'hill from t'Warehouse. The Fav certainly drew a disparate crowd on any given evening, but was definitely more gown than town. Whereas other hostelries, the vast Hyde Park or the off the beaten track Chemic (which we virtually lived above, pun intended), drew a healthy mix of locals and students (and any pretension from the latter would be greeted with a well-deserved chasing by the former), the Fav was definitely for the more well-heeled student crowd, which makes it ironic that it was the only pub where (on a rare visit) I ever bumped (almost literally) Eldritch and crew, given his oft-repeated claim that the band were definitely not aligned with the student crowd. Even in '83 their presence caused much pointing, nudging and outright fawning, and I can only imagine that things got worse before the move to Hamburg. Still, not the best choice of pub for a quiet night ...

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Reptile House EP

I can remember when the Banshees' "difficult second album" (music press clichĂ©) Join Hands came out in 1979, the Sounds reviewer (possibly Dave Henderson)  complained that two days with the LP and no lyric sheet was a disorientating, somewhat disturbing ordeal. Similar things were written about Unknown Pleasures on its release, and the third of the triumvirate would be The Reptile House. When it was announced that the Girls planned to release a mini-LP of the slower burning songs, only those who had seen the songs played live, or who had heard the rather rudimentary versions on the Jensen session (see earlier post) could have guessed what was to come. After Alice, still riding high in the Indie charts along with follow-up Anaconda, the average posi-punk fan would have been as shocked - but surely impressed - by the contents. Doktor Avalanche's supply of speed seemed to have been replaced by Mogadon, meaning that none of the tracks would find favour in the rapidly expanding network of indie clubs across Europe. Moreover, on only one of the tracks, Lights, did Eldritch deign to start singing within the first minute of the song, thereby making the tracks virtually unplayable on radio.Commercial suicide ? It should have been, yet it was The Reptile House EP which cemented the band's reputation as a force to be reckoned with. Lead track Kiss The Carpet may be derided for its low-brow lyrical content (indeed all the songs seem to be written in a way which allows the words to be interpreted either as cod-Freudian sexual references to the lyricist's inadequacy or as a confession of his increasing alleged reliance on illegal substances), but it continues to this day to be a fantastic gig-opener. The studio version takes over three minutes to really get underway, even longer than Joy Division's Dead Souls (like contemporary lazy journalists, I find it hard to write about RH without reference to JD), with Gunn's initial solo superceded by Marx, then Adams and penultimately the Doktor before Eldritch kicks in with the lyrics with nearly three and a half minutes on the clock, a time by which both Alice and Anaconda would be over ! Lights sees a reverb-bathed Eldritch deliver one of his most impassioned vocals, and was potentially the most commercial of the tracks, whilst Valentine's spartan arrangement and crescendo ending was the highlight for many at the time. The half-whispered Fix had more than a few echoes of the Velvets' Venus in Furs, the guitars having a bowed, almost hurdy-gurdy like sound. Burn, the title track about the fire in a reptile house (many lyrical interpretations possible here !) suffered from too many vocal effects, whilst the final reprise of KTC was clearly an attempt to boost the track count, being barely more substantial than Home of The Hitmen. The Reptile House was far from perfect : two of the tracks, Lights and Burn, suffered from Eldritch's bizarre predilection for singing one section of the song seemingly in a different key (the second "sodium haze" section, the latter "in the fire in the reptile house" section, and like the much later "everything will be alright" section of NTTC), whilst the overall production was a little dull. I can still remember the day in May '83 when the word on the street was that Jumbo Records had had a delivery of the new Sisters mini-LP, and £3.49 later I was sitting in my flat looking at a real departure for the band, for there, along with the house style record cover, containing no extraneous info or photos of the band (crucial for Von's "man of mystery" persona), was a lyric sheet, which also contained the band members' names, and details of where the recording ahd taken place and with whom. The EP seemed ground-breaking at the time and has lost little of its initial power, and heralded a summer of slowed-down indie choons, with Hull's Red Guitars releasing the seminal Good Technology barely a month later, and even hard-core punk darlings Blitz coming up with goth-synth TelecommunicationsThe Reptile House EP proved that The Sisters were here to stay ...

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Jumbo Records

In the not so distant days before downloads, getting hold of the latest vinyl meant a trip to the Merrion Centre , as there, in the middle of an unprepossessing corridor of mock-Georgian shopfronts cunningly situated between Morrisons (the student supermarket) and the Phono, was the now legendary Jumbo Records. The DIY punk revolution had given a real raison d'etre to independent record stores, and Jumbo stocked the kind of vinyl which Woolies and HMV never would. In the early 80s it was definitely the place to get the latest Merciful Releases too, as seemingly weeks before the London music weeklies announced the release of a new Sisters release (almost a monthly occurence in early 1983), the usual Jumbo window display of a patchwork of sleeves the latest releases would be replaced with multiple copies of the latest Sisters release, with the classic iconography (see the excellent for details of where the Sisters and other similar bands found their inspiration for their artwork and logos) a clarion call to the local fans to get the latest EP, before facing the long walk back up Woodhouse Road to hear (over and over and over)  how the live favourites had translated into a studio setting. That Choque Hosein (and his unique wardrobe) worked there around this time only added to its reputation as being an utterly cool place to hang out, a bit like the shop in the film version of About A Boy. Jumbo Records (still with the same logo) may have relocated to the more upmarket St James Centre later in the decade, but as a cursory glance at their current website  will attest, the original spirit very much lives on.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Radio Aire

Alongside BBC Radio One, a commerical, regionally based rival had started to appear in the 1970s, and in Leeds this meant Radio Aire. An unprepossessing glorified bunglaow on the Burley Road on the way to Kirkstall, it was pretty much a Sisters-free zone in the early 80s. In 82/83 the DJ roster was dominated by late night phone-in shock jock James Whale, who had only a passing interest in music, future Radio 2 DJ and Guardian journalist Martin Kelner, whose late afternoon banter was popular amongst students, and alternative show host Andy Kershaw. The latter's appointment meant that the Sisters were now thwarted for local airplay by the very man who had refused them gigs as the university's Ents secretary (gig booker), as he was only too keen to tell me on my one and only visit to the Radio Aire studios back in Spring '83. The occasion was a visit from the Creatures, the Banshees off-shoot started by Siouxsie and Budgie whilst Severin was off with The Glove and McGeoch engaged with Visage. By '83 they had followed up Miss The Girl with their debut LP and were on a UK promotional tour to try to boost sales. Siouxsie's presence for an interview had been announced the day before, and a quick phone call had established her ETA. We were a little overawed when the great lady arrived at the Radio Aire reception area, sporting a blue streaked black bob rather than the back combed fright wig style that we were used to, but after the on air interview she and Budgie happy to chat,sign autographs and pose for photos before being whisked off for their next appointment. Whilst we were waiting, the ever laconic Kershaw had cheerily popped over for a chat, and in conversation we revealed that we were massive fans of the Sisters and wondered why he never seemed to play them. His view was very much that he had moved on (to psycho garage punkabilly - he had yet to discover Africa !) and that The Sisters were heading nowhere. With another avenue closed, the Sisters would have to rely even more on word of mouth to spread word of their brilliance ...

Friday, 13 January 2012

Radio One

In the days before t'Internet, radio was the major way of hearing new music and in the UK that meant BBC Radio One. In the early 80s, daytime R1 was basically wall-to-wall chart fodder, with indie music tolerated from 8pm onwards. Initially, a mere three years after punk (the BBC did always respond quickly to new trends), Mike Read filled this slot, playing what might best be described as a mixture of mod and power pop between 8 and 9.30 pm. He was replaced by another 30-something pretending to be down-with-the-kids, newsroom escapee Richard Skinner, but by the time the Sisters were making radio waves it was Canadian David (formerly "Kid") Jensen in the hotseat, another late conversion to post-punk sounds. After them, of course, at ten o'clock came the perennial Peel, playing his eclectic mix of whatever he liked, reggae one minute, hardcore punk the next. I recall hearing the first Sisters studio session on his show on Radio One (in the days when they were recorded days in advance rather then the Live Lounge of today), but not being a particular fan of the band yet by September 82 it was not one of those nights where you sat huddled next to your radio cassette player with Play, Record and Pause depressed ready for the next session track. Things had changed by six months later and the first chance to hear studio versions of some of the slower burning classics from the live set that would form the basis of The Reptile House was an ocasion not to be missed. The Sisters had recorded a session for the David Jensen Show, but the host was on holiday and his predecessor Richard Skinner was in the DJ chair that week. Skinner seemed a little bemused by the band's sound, and when reading out the list of the band's forthcoming gigs (the official tour supporting the Gun Club rather than the solo dates beforehand), he mentioned the gig at Norwich Gala Ballroom and said "they'll be taking the mirrored disco-ball down for that one." He also managed to do a time check over one of the songs, but I played the tape I recorded of the four songs until it wore out and the official version of the EP was released - minus Jolene, of course ...

Monday, 9 January 2012

T shirt envy

Having got into the band's music and the Sisters taking over from the Banshees, Magazine and Killing Joke as my favourite group, my next task was to track down a TSOM t-shirt. At the time, the only ones I'd seen down at Le Phono had been black with the classic head and star logo in red, presumably dating from the time of the Body Electric/Adrenochrome single on CNT released earlier in the year ("black and red boys", the red on black Velasquez/Bacon sleeve), but wherever and whoever I asked, no-one seemed to know if they were any left on sale. In the end I was reduced to the shame of making one (!) and sporting my home made embarrassment on top nights out in the various dives of Leeds city centre. Unfashionably white with a black head and star motif, with an ill-advised attempt at Rise and Reverberate around it - I cringe at the very memory of it. Still, from a distance it looked the part, and over the next few months proved to be a real conversation opener, mostly positively. By the end of the academic year I'd managed to acquire a proper black t-shirt with the head and star logo on, still the classic sisters tee, and a March Violets one from the Tetragrammaton Tour (with backprint) which shrank by about 10% every time I washed it (not often - I was a student after all) and within a few months I had to wear a plain black tee underneath so as not to offend public decency. Nowadays some of the early t-shirts can change hands for vast sums and proud collectors post photos of their prized possessions on Heartland, but like my the Dinky Toys of my childhood, mine were sadly never kept in a condition that would have made resale a possibility.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

With the Sisters rarely talking to the London press (or was it vice versa) in the early 80s, the Sisters’ fans had to rely on word-of-mouth, flyposters and the local press for news of forthcoming gigs and releases. The university union’s own weekly paper, Leeds Student, a freebie published each Friday of term-time, gave very little prominence to the band, a situation I would have been able to remedy earlier had I not waited until my final year there to sign up as a budding music journo. The fanzine movement, which had started in London on the back of the punk revolution, had gradually spread its influence and, although Leeds had nothing to rival Bradford’s Wool City Rocker, by 1982/3 several very readable publications were giving support to the Merciful Release bands and other local heroes such as Colenso Parade, Edward’s Voice and Ipso Facto. The main three fanzines at this time were Roar, which had the advantage of being free and could be picked up at gig or record shops, Attack on Bzag which was the work of James Brown who went on to greater things media-wise, and Whippings and Apologies, the work of three young lads (Mark, Mark and Steve) whose photo always appeared in the front of each glossy issue. Although printed (black and white) on superior paper, W+A was fairly standard fare, but had a keen interest in MR bands, with regular interviews with the likes of the Violets, Anabas and the like, plus reviews of Sisters’ gigs and lots of other gossip. I still have an issue of Attack on Bzag (only 20p as opposed to 35p for W+A) which had a feature on the Sisters which I assumed at the time was merely the reproduction of an MR press release, but turns out to be the results of James Brown’s legendary interview with Gary Marx, which he later referred to in both a Guardian article and a post of the Sisters’ unofficial Heartland forum. Eschewing the traditional question and answer with an intro (we met guitarist Gary in the Chemic pub blah blah blah) style beloved of all other fanzines, Attack on Bzag showed a highly original creative mind at work, and although only a school pupil at the time, Brown went on to work for the NME and subsequently as the editor of lads’ bible Loaded, ironically becoming more fanmous in the process than any of the bands he interviewed back in the day !

Monday, 2 January 2012

Sisters for free - part deux

Having seen the Sisters of Mercy for free during my first few days in Leeds in October '82, I managed to see them at another free gig on Sat 25th June '83 at a time when The Reptile House was being portentously announced as the "next big thing" and the Girls still also had the Alice 12" riding high in the indie charts. At that time, British university Students' Union Ents (Entertainments) Committees were busy balancing their books for the end of the academic year, and Sheffield Uni had obviously underspent their budget, and decided to blow the remainder on a multi-band free gig to celebrate the end of term.
The misguided soul responsible for booking the bands decided that British soul legend Ruby Turner, up-and-coming pop puppet Matt Fretton and the Sisters would make a good mix, but the poor guy whose job it was to compere the evening probably had a premonition things weren't going to go well when he first stepped on stage that evening. (The republic of) South Yorkshire's enlightened policy of virtually free public transport meant that hundreds of Sisters fans had made the trip from West Yorkshire and outnumbered local students many times over, and it was a leather jacketed crowd that snaked into the venue, down the stairs where a chain-smoking Von with his Home Counties inflection was holding court (and holding up the queue) and into the venue where the blazing sun shone in through the thin, flowery curtains. The nervous compere introduced the hapless Fretton as the first act, and the latest New Romantic clothes horse jerked his way through a small number of songs over a backing track, culminating in his then current minor hit, a synthpop reworking of the old standard  The Wall ("too high, can't get over it" etc etc). Already heavily heckled by a jeering Sisters crowd, he wisely beat a hasty retreat, and eventually the compere returned to introduce the Sisters. At the top of their game, the classic five-piece line-up (Von, Dok, Marx, Adams and Gunn) ripped through a blistering set, which included another early outing for Hot Chocolate's Emma alongside the usual Gimme Shelter and Jolene. As soon as the houselights were up after a storming performance, the vast majority of the crowd headed for the exits (and ultimately the Leadmill), leaving the haunted features of a desperate compere announcing to a few bemused students and the backs of hundreds of departing leather jackets "That's not the end of the show - we've still got headliner Ruby Turner to come ..." In the local vernacular, a Top Night Out !