Thursday, 1 August 2013

Underneath the Rock

For those brought up on radio silence from LS3, the publication of UTR, the Sisters’ own magazine, during the early and mid 90s was a golden era of communication, with Andrew Eldritch himself writing replies to fans’ questions, interviewing his own heroes, and helping to keep the fanbase informed and interested during the long gaps between releases (little did we know …).
As soon as I saw a copy in 1991, I signed up as a subscriber, and noting that contributions were welcome, set about writing an article about the band’s cover versions, both live and studio, and the conclusions to be drawn from these choices. In those pre-internet days, checking sources and verifying facts was a lengthy and inexact science, but eventually the copy was in a form I was happy with and I submitted it, using the name of a local Chorlton (cum Hardy) estate agent (whose signs seemed to be everywhere locally at the time as the mini recession continued to bite in the North of England).
To my surprise and delight, the article was duly published, as were further features (on, for example, The Sisters’ support bands, a review of gigs at Brixton Academy etc) as the magazine went from strength to strength. This coincided with the Sisters’ most active period since the early 80s, and UTR reflected this, with Scot Kenny Garden at the helm, and the magazine went glossy (after its matt beginnings). These were the golden days of the gig at Sabine’s living room, the sponsoring of FC St Pauli and Sisters Gegen Nazis. Garden himself conducted what many believe to be one of the best interviews with Eldritch as the glasnost period of TSOM reached its zenith.

Sadly, as the band became more inactive once more, and subscriber numbers began to dwindle, the magazine became a visually impressive but content-light effort which seemed less related to the band themselves until the final issue (XV) appeared in late 1996. For many, Glasperlenspiel would fill the gap, for others the Official Website became the new go-to, but in reality UTR has never properly been replaced.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Heartland fanzine

When the Sisters went underground after the ’85 split, with the Sisterhood project and the relaunch taking centre stage, any focus on the early line-ups seemed to fade away, with Von refusing to talk about what he viewed as ancient history and there being no definitive history of the early days available.
So in 1988 into the gap stepped fan Andrew Pinnell, piecing together a readable if somewhat lacking (based as it was on press cuttings and personal opinion) chronological history of the band in his glossy fanzine Heartland, self-financed and printed A5 on glossy paper much in the same way (and retailing at the same exorbitant price) as an academic journal of the day. The first volume, sporting a red head-and-star cover, ran to 500 numbered copies, and featured a patchy version of the band’s history up to Ben Gunn’s departure, although the biggest section by far was devoted to Sisters’ bootlegs. In his introduction, Pinnell stated that his aim was for Heartland to become a “forum of debate for people interested in the Sisters of Mercy,” something which would only really become true some fifteen years later with the launch of the well-known on-line Forum of the same name.
Pinnell also requested the help of his readership in “the passing on of knowledge”, so having sent off to his Warminster base for a copy of Issue One having seen it mentioned in other publications, I duly sent him a lengthy letter detailing some personal reminiscences of that era, many of which now feature on this blog. On his personal “Heartland” headed paper in neat black print, Pinnell sent a reply thanking me for my contribution in a somewhat pompous tone (not dissimilar to my own at the time), adding that this information was helpful “more than you could ever know”.

A second volume (of 1000 copies in a blue cover with dustsheet) appeared around the same time (1989), followed by the third, and before long Pinnell had been contacted by an impressed Eldritch and asked to run TSOM Information Service a.k.a. The Reptile House, leading to the reissue of an updated Heartland anthology of issues 1-3 (including some of the info which I had provided in the narrative) and ultimately to the launch of Underneath the Rock. The fourth and final Heartland appeared in Summer 91 and brought the story up to date to that point, and featured a “proper” spine, colour plates and the word “Approved” across the Head and Star logo, a real achievement for a fan who had started the magazine three years earlier believing he “could produce something better than all the other Sisters’ fanzines available at that time."
Objective achieved.

Monday, 20 May 2013

1969 - XXX

Another TSOM thirtieth anniversary is upon us – the release of the 12” version of Alice (MR021), which heralded the first official release of a cover version from a band which was quickly developing a reputation for live renditions of other people’s songs. The Stooges’ 1969 was a perfect choice for the band’s official first studio cover (Leonard Cohen’s Teachers had featured on the 1981 demo tape and 1969 had already been heard in Peel Session format) for a variety of reasons. Not only was it one of the high points of the live set at the time, and not only was it an excellent choice for what was originally to have been a US only release (via Braineater), but for Eldritch it also spoke volumes for the Sisters’ place in and relevance to rock’s pantheon. On one level 1969 confirmed Iggy as one of Eldritch’s main influences, whilst on another the lyrical content gave further clues to those originally tempted to lump the band in with others that this was a unique group with no “scene” mentality. Whilst the nihilism (…war across the USA...nothing here for me and you…another year with nothing to do) was familiar to those whose punk odyssey had begun with the Pistols, the age of the protagonist (Last year I was 21) was that of Eldritch when he began to include the song in the live set, and the two chord blues riff was perfect for a band still finding their way musically, the year itself (1969) gave a greater clue to AE’s own musical vision. He had a fascination with this period, when the hippy dream turned sour and the American Dream became quagmired in an amalgam of acid and napalm, race riots and retribution. It was a theme he would return to a year later with Gimme Shelter, and in interviews both at the time and subsequently he namechecked the Altamont Free Festival (with which the song was synonymous) as “when rock music stopped for a second and we began”. With the UK’s 1981 riots and punk reduced to the cartoonish Exploited mohawks and the radical Crass movement, Thatcherism and unemployment promising both No Future and No Fun for the nation’s youth, the timing was perfect for a band who understood the rock life cycle to emerge. Though as a Teenage Sisters Fan in 1983 with little knowledge or interest in Altamont, 1969 was just another welcome slab of merciful madness and magic, Doktor Avalanche’s somewhat brutal beat offset by the mechanised hand-claps, and Eldritch’s angst-ridden screams echoing ear-piercingly over Marx’s strangled one note guitar squall, whilst Adams and Gunn plodded through repetitive bars of soulless punk blues. As the only new recording on MR021, 1969 guaranteed healthy sales for the band’s first 12” release, and gave a further boost to the original double A-side songs which were the first real recruiters of a national following that still remains strong three decades later.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Flesh & Fell

One of the best bands I saw supporting TSOM in the 80’s was Flesh & Fell, the Belgian group who had the distinction of supporting the band in their own home country on their first dates after the departure of Gary Marx in 1985. The original duo of Cathérine Vanhoucke and Pierre Goudesone had had an EBM darkwave club hit with their début single The Hunger on the legendary Belgian label PIAS (Play It Again Sam), produced by Jean-Marie Aerts, guitarist in the legendary (in Europe, if not in the UK) TC Matic. By the time the band supported The Sisters at Gent’s Zaal Vooruit, the band had fleshed out into a four piece, with the addition of a guitarist and drummer, and their powerful electro-goth kept the audience enthralled during their short set, a kind of cross between Nina Hagen and Fad Gadget. Cathérine had a strong stage presence, a whirl of blond curls and (obviously fashionable in Flanders) brown leather, and the band got a positive response to their set, the highlight of which was their own cover of Hot Chocolate’s Emma, which was also by then the focal point of TSOM’s own live show, and the Sisters’ Peel session version had made the dizzy heights of number 15 in the previous year’s Peel’s Festive Fifty, a rarity for a song yet to have a commercial release (at that stage). With the break-up of FALAA Sisters, F&F took advantage to release their own version of Emma, to critical acclaim in the Low Countries. That was as good as it got for them, sadly, but despite having a career of only two maxi-singles, the band remained cult favourites and like so many contemporaries of that era, various versions of the band have played intermittently over the past five years. In 2008 Goudesone spoke to Peek-a-boo online magazine about their time supporting the Sisters and the Emma cover : “The pricks sabotaged our set because of that and especially of not delivering the substances we were supposed to offer them as a support-act. Later on we recorded Emma, I knew Calvin Hayes (son of Mickey Most owner of RAK records and the label of Hot Chocolate) and gave him a tape, Mickey showed interest in our version and we had a meeting with him in London, but finally it happened with EMI Belgium and the rest is history.”

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

Of all the West Yorkshire bands (the March Violets, The 3 Johns, Salvation etc) lumped in with the Sisters by lazy journalists in the early 80’s, none enjoyed greater success on their own terms than Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. OK, almost all their early releases had black sleeves with no band photo or details, they had a drum machine, and Chris Reed had a deep voice, but the differences between the bands were greater than their similarities. RLYL took their influences from the arty new wave bands from the original punk scene, such as Wire and The Stranglers, and Reed’s near-spoken vocals mixed low in the mix, with bass-driven melodies and powerful guitar chords to the fore, were reminiscent of those bands. A tight unit live, their gigs were more about honest toil and an outlet for angst than the more celebratory affairs The Sisters’ fans enjoyed, and although many Sisters fans also got into the Lorries, the impression was always of a band who were making it on their own terms rather than needing any patronage from any scene leaders. Never going fully down the goth root fashion-wise, the band remained on the fringes of the nascent scene, and being based on York label Red Rhino, they didn't hang out the same Leeds dives (Fav, Phono, Warehouse etc)as the afore-mentioned bands, but having said that their more anonymous appearance (no beards, hats or unfashionably fashionable long hair) would have allowed them to blend in if they did. Although peaking roughly around the same time as Eldritch’s crew in the mid-80s with their albums Talk About the Weather and Paint Your Wagon, RLYL arguably moved even further away from their darkwave roots than even the Sisters by the early 90s, although more recent live shows have seen them back to their 80’s best. Time for a RLYL revival ?

Thursday, 28 February 2013


One of the main purported disadvantages of having a drum machine rather than a live drummer was a perceived lack of spontaneity, but at Sisters gigs in the early 80s, the opposite was true. Whilst Ben Gunn disappeared off to the back of the stage to re-programme the Doktor, Eldritch would be left front and centre stage, in the direct firing line of a motley crew of hecklers and jokers shouting out comments about his appearance (boy, would they have a field day nowadays), requests for songs, random words etc. Fortified like a stand-up comedian by the reassuring fact that most of the audience can only hear one side of the conversation, Von was happy to fill the inevitable gaps with a bit of banter with the audience, revealing himself as a master of the witty one liner, his rapier retorts as impressive as his fencing apparently was. This audience interaction was all part of the appeal in the early days, and in the late 80s one of the music weeklies even printed a chart of his best quotes, taken from bootleg recordings of live gigs. Sadly, as the venues became more cavernous and technological "advances" made the Doktor more and more like a real drummer, botht he lengthy pauses and Eldritch's fondness for banter seemed to decline. Indeed, these days the level of chat is reduced to the stage where it's hard to tell one gig's bootleg from another, with the great man on some nights having difficulty in exceeding Carl McCoy's average gig word-count of three ("Thanks, good night !")' despite the return to more modest venues. Last year's radio, press and TV interviews showed that his sense of humour and linguistic dexterity remain as sharp as ever, so let's hope that the next time the band are touring some poor idiot who's drunkenly shouting out for "home of the hitmen" at every opportunity will get the verbal roasting of his life. Bring back the banter !

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Anaconda XXX

Anaconda has always seemed to be the runt of the MR litter, barely played live between 84 and 93, the track shoved to the end of the SGWBM compilation, and the last single not to get a 12” release. Popular wisdom held that it was weaker than what preceded and succeeded it, a simple riff extended into a song, lacking the production sheen ofAlice/Floorshow, the bombast of The Reptile House, and the commercial hook of Temple of Love. Amazingly thirty years have passed since it seemed to almost leak out (different shops seemed to get the band’s releases at different times, and although the usual release date is given as March ’83, I seem to remember getting a copy only a few weeks after the Leeds gig of January 83), so maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the song. Its genesis can be heard in the Portastudio demo widely believed to have been recorded around the time of the Alice single, and it made its way into the setlist in time for the first Sisters gig I personally witnessed at Leeds in October 82. Ironically for someone whose attitude to drugs has often been viewed as ambivalent at best, Eldritch’s lyric is fiercely anti-drug. Following on from imploring a tranquiliser addicted Alice not to “give it away”, Von likens heroin’s grip on a female as being serpentine, extending the metaphor to include the constriction, drawing clear parallels between a user’s tourniquet and the anaconda’s preferred method of killing its prey. The addiction, like the snake will end up squeezing the life out of her, ending in her death, which the singer is unwilling to imitate “baby go where I don’t follow…to the other side.” As Eldritch said in a contemporary interview, “There's far too many smack songs which are a bit too callously irresponsible,” and here he was clearly intending to redress the balance. Although some of the imagery used - “china doll”, “marble figure” “face turn to a mask” etc may seem hackneyed, the extended metaphor works well and, unusually for an Eldritch lyric, the  message is both powerful and clear. Musically the song is also one of the band’s finest. The upgraded Doktor Avalanche gets a ten second solo at the start, as on so many songs of this period, and his beefed up beats and mechanised slaps pin reverberate through the listener before, uniquely,  Eldritch comes in virtually at the same time as the band to grab the attention. However, the fact that Craig Adam’s bass riff features so prominently in the mix makes him the dominant player on this track, as he had been on the classic Alice/Floorshow single which preceded it. Marx was reduced to a discordant riff between verses and Gunn virtually redundant until the song’s highlight, a magnificent fifty second instrumental section immediately after the first chorus, showing just what a tight unit the “other three” had become at this stage. The overall impression is of a more muscular Joy Division, a factor accentuated by the close similarity between the “let it wrap itself around her” riff and the main riff of Macclesfield miserabilists’ finest moment, Dead Souls, from the sequence of guitar chords right down to the high bass note at the end of the bar. Eldritch’s vocals, which increasingly dominate the rest of the four minute plus song, become more dramatic as the song reaches its inevitable cautionary lyrical denouement, but are never as mannered in a Bowie-via –Richard-Butler way as they were on Alice. Dismissed as lightweight at the time and ignored for many years, the song has enjoyed a millennial renaissance with fans and band alike as one of the old songs given new life by a faster pace (in pure BPM it was always one of the quicker tracks anyway) and a transformed chorus. The only disappointment was the B side, Phantom, the Spaghetti Western instrumental version of Floorshow, which would also turn up on the 12” of Alice originally allegedly intended only for the overseas market. This was the first inkling of the disappointing policy towards B sides which would dog the band in theFloodland and Vision Thing eras, with a few notable exceptions, but the A side was so magnificent that most diehard fans were prepared to forgive them anything.