Saturday, 18 April 2015

Waxing lyrical

The patch pictured above recently fell out of an old A4 brown manila envelope that presumably once held a copy of Underneath The Rock, and was a free gift provided to all Reptile House subscribers during the halcyon “glasnost” days of the early 90s. At the time, Eldritch was in his most political and most polemical phase, and my (unused, I am ashamed to admit) patch’s recent rediscovery made me realise that this blog has not yet really taken account of 50% of TSOM’s recorded output and arguably the part of which Eldritch is the most proud, i.e. the lyrics. I have to confess that with the honourable exception of the Buzzcocks (and to this day Pete Shelley’s paean to unrequited love You Say You Don’t Love Me can bring a tear to my eye), all of the songs which I loved at that time had earned their place in my affections as a result of the musical content alone, and The Sisters were no exception to this rule.
I was always a sucker for a deep voice, a bit of high tempo syncopated drumming, a descending bass line and a few power chords with the odd minor inflection. Although within a few months of first stumbling across the band I could repeat the words to every song TSOM had produced, I neither knew nor cared what the lyrics were about. For sure, some of the earlier singles (Alice or Anaconda for example) seemed to be third party cautionary tales, The Reptile House EP added an anti-establishment political vibe, and the FALAA era completed a shift to a more self-loathing first person narrative about drug dependency and relationship break-up, but to be honest, having never read Eliot or dabbled in poetry, at least 75% of Von’s lovingly crafted lyrics went right over my undemanding head. I got by perfectly well with only a very little understanding – for example, I have probably heard Floorshow more times than any other song in my lifetime, but if it contains a message designed to elucidate the mystery of life, I must confess that it still eludes me.

Inevitably, as the melodic and musical content of the band seemed to decline, the lyrics took on even greater significance (or perhaps I eventually reached some kind of maturity), and by the time VT was released at the turn of the 90s, my song preferences on the album came to be defined almost entirely by the quality of Eldritch’s prowess as a writer, and his eloquent punnery began to gain wider admiration. Whole articles in UTR (which again sadly, I did not fully understand) sought to demystify some of the imagery Von employed, and even today new recruits to the Heartland Forum can swiftly be divided by their response to the eternal question “You Could Be The One” - Yes or No ?

Unlike many bands of the early 80’s, TSOM were not often to be found playing at political benefits or expounding the merits of a particular cause or campaign, so Von’s overt espousal of the anti-Nazi movement in the early 90s was most welcome. Now where did I put that needle and thread…

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Influential supporters

For a cutting edge band who captured rock's zeitgeist for a couple of years between 1982 and 1985, The Sisters of Mercy had few real champions in the national media. Sure, John Peel gave them their first national radio plays and their first radio sessions, but once they signed with a major he seemed to lose interest as the band's material headed off in a drearier direction (cf the Peel session  version of NTTC or the Body and Soul EP lead track which he rightly lambasted on air).

Very few national journalists seemed to really "get " the band, incredibly failing to see any irony or innovation in the Girls' recorded work and seemingly immune to what were incendiary live performances. Whilst their colleagues were falling over themselves to fawn over the mundane likes of Green On Red or Brigandage, only a few hacks seemed to accept at face value Von's claim that the band knew their place in rock's pantheon and were there to praise as much as to subvert. Melody Maker's Adam Sweeting instantly realised that he was in the presence of greatness when he stumbled across the band in York in early 1982, and was a faithful proseytizer for the band's cause over the next few years, writing the programme notes used for the York Rock Festival and continuing to support the band when he switched to The Guardian in the mid-80s, a newspaper for whom he still provides rock obituaries.

If Sweeting was the earliest high-profile supporter of the band, the most enthusiastic was Dave Dickson, the legendary and idiosyncratic contributor to rock bible Kerrang! (their exclamation mark, not mine), who seemed enchanted by the band and made no secret of his admiration for both releases and live shows. Whether many of K!'s readership followed Dickson down this unusual furrow will never be known, but his influential prose helped to propagate the idea that herre was band that defied the simple posi-punk proto-gothic pigeonholing.

The third of the journalistic holy trinity for me was The Times' David Sinclair, who had only started at The Times months before the legendary Albert Hall gig, of which he write an erudite, positive and mellifluous review, pinpointing the band's key reference points and lending a real gravitas to their achievements. He then published a seminal interview with Von (above) conducted in Hamburg, detailing his life as an Englishman abroad and adding several layers of varnish to an already developing tale of Eldritch as a genuine, artful and enigmatically interesting artist. Sinclair also survives to this day as The Times' senior music critic, as like Sweeting his ability to both spot and then write engagingly about a real talent has not deserted him.

By the time the band resurfaced as a live band in rather more cock-rock pantomime style by the time the 90s began, other critics rushed to praise the over-staged and somewhat ropey live performances, which lacked the previous charm, guile, immediacy and the feeling that things could and probably go wrong at any second, ushering in an age of increasingly bland interviews and insipid and unconvincing live reviews. All of which makes the purple prose of Messrs Sweeting, Dickson and Sinclair even more impressive. Gentlemen, I salute you.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Remembering Gary Marx

It was thirty years ago today that Gary Marx appeared for the last time as a Sister of Mercy, in the Old Grey Whistle Test studios of the BBC, the day after his final gig at the Brighton Top Rank.
Many members of the band have come and gone over the past thirty odd years (some with more fanfare than others), but it's worth commemmorating the day that one of the original two members (in the words of the song) chose to walk away with quiet dignity, after a short period of lingering undecided at the door.
If anything, the Sisters were Gary's band more than Von's, as the latter confessed in one of those radion interviews in the 1980's. Gary had invited him to play drums in his band, rather than vice versa, and from that conversation the band we know and love eventually emerged.
Since then Mr M Pairman has had a successful second career as a music lecturer, initially at LIPA (Paul McCartney's celebrated "Fame" school), and had a low-key solo career after modest indie success with Ghost Dance on leaving the Sisters, but he clearly would have liked to work again with Von in the mid-1990's according to later interviews, although the plans never got beyond the embryonic stage.
Whilst other anniversaries (30 years of FALAA, 25 years since Floodland etc) attract a fair deal of media coverage, today's anniversary will doubtless slip by unnoticed, as his original modest departure caused only a minor ripple compared to those which were to follow.
Without Gary Marx there would have been no Sisters of Mercy, and his one-string riffs and wild live thrashing about were definitive parts of the live performance in the early days. The picture above is another which I took from the moshpit at Sheffield Uni in June 1983, a happy memory of the halcyon days of four men and a drum machine chugging up the M1 in a Transit to play blistering live sets to an unsuspecting audience of a few dozen curious locals. As someone appropriate once said, all men are born equal, but some are more equal than others : Von might be Last and Always, but Gary Marx was the First Sister of Mercy. 

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

From my collection 4

There's nothing better than finding an old box in the garage and finding something which you thought had been lost in a house move many moons ago. The cassette pictured above was my favourite of the many "live" Sisters tapes which I had amassed in the 80s, featuring a particularly impressive performance by the band recorded almost exactly thirty years ago on 19th March 1985 at The Ritz in Manchester on the Tune in Turn On Burn Out tour (to coincide with the release of the much-delayed debut album, First and Last and Always, which had originally been intended to be ready for the Black october jaunt the previous year).
This Manchester gig was of course one of the final dozen gigs by what some consider to be the classic line-up of Eldritch/Avalanche/Hussey/Adams/Marx, before the latter left after a final concert performance in Brighton (thirty years ago today, fact fans). Whatever the (obviously considerable) personality clashes off-stage at the time, the band were certainly on top form on it at that time, as this performance testifies. Even the more insipid Merciful Releases of the era ("Body and Soul", "Possession" etc) have so much more power and drive in a "live" setting, whilst Eldritch's vocal range and imperious control are unrecognisable from more recent bootleg recordings.
Although expensive vinyl bootlegs were beginning to appear around that time, most fans were happy to buy and/or trade cassettes of live performances, with poorly xeroxed paper inlay slips detailing details of the concert and (in this case incomplete) setlist. Openly traded (despite being illegal) at stalls in various markets up and down the country, and reliant on the latest Sony Walkman technology, tapes of cult bands like the Sisters were always in high demand and meant that any obscure encore or classic performance could be quickly circulated amongst the fanbase.
For some, file-sharing technology has taken some of the romance out of tracking down an elusive recording, and the obsession is now with obtaining the best quality loss-less version available, regardless of the quality of the show it represents. But for all the hiss, the sibilance, the sudden major EQ issues, the occasional (or indeed frequent) audience chatter during a favourite song, and the surprise intrusion at the end of the show of a recording of a different (and clearly less popular) band whose "live" show was being recorded over, these old cassettes somehow conjure up more of the real spirit of the Sisters as one of the top live bands of their generation.