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 http://80sgothicrock.blogspot.com/ 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 http://www.jumborecords.co.uk/  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 !