Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Aratta - a hard place (to find)

By 1983, TSOM had quite a cult following in the UK and even the nay-sayers could see that they were likely to be the Next Big Thing, so for most gigs finding tapes, flyers, posters, ticket stubs, photos, eye-witness accounts and the like is not too difficult a task, particularly with more and more “oldies” now using social media and indulging in healthy bouts of nostalgia now that they have a little more time on their hands, in many cases. The same is true of venues, often only too happy to boast of their part in the rise of what is seen as an influential and genre-defining band.
However, the situation is somewhat different in Europe, and getting even the most basic of details of some shows can involve painstaking detective work. Take the four date German tour undertaken as part of the first overseas jaunt, the Trans Europe Excess tour, under the auspices of Rough Trade Deutschland if the backstage pass available on the band’s official website (and reproduced here) is to be believed.

Three of the dates were, predictably, in large cities (Berlin, Munster, and of course, Hamburg) to which the band have returned time and time again, but little has surfaced from this inaugural visit.
The fourth gig was in the curious rural venue of the Aratta club near Moers, on the fringes of the Ruhr near to the Dutch border. This is a venue so seemingly obscure that one well-respected Bauhaus gigography still refers to the club as the “Ratter” and situates Moers in Belgium !

Although the Aratta is situated on the main road from Moers to Rheinberg, it is in a tranquil location not far from the Haferbruchsee lake, a well-known nudist hang-out in the 1980s. The club is still going strong today, partly as a result of its Outdoor Beach Party which was apparently all the rage in the 2006 football World Cup, which Germany of course hosted. The venue, which celebrated its centenary three years ago, caters for the “trance/rave” end of the market nowadays, but both the interior and exterior are largely unchanged from the time of the TSOM visit, as can be seen from the photo below from the club's website.

For the Sisters gig, there was a photo published in the German publication Spex as part of a review of the tour, which eventually found its way on to the Gallery at the Heartland Forum, and which I am reproducing below, showing the cramped low stage with mirrored backdrop that can be seen on other contemporary gig photos like the one underneath it.

In addition, one of the original posters advertising the gig on 2/9/1983 has also come to light, kindly shared on Heartland by one of the most hardcore TSOM collectors, another addition to an impressive archive cataloguing an era which many fans still regard as the halcyon days of the group in a live context.

Monday, 18 May 2015

What's my Nijmegen

There are many TSOM gigs which I would loved to have attended in the early 80s, but the one at Nijmegen in 1984 would probably have been more interesting than most, as the recording of this gig is regularly mentioned by connoisseurs as being amongst the best live Sisters bootlegs around.

If you arrive in that picturesque Southern Dutch city by train, just opposite the Central Station you will see an impressive piece of modern architecture which houses a vibrant arts centre, and bearing the legend Doornroosje, the name of the venue where the Sisters played that legendary evening back in Spring 1984.

Doornroosje, pronounced not unlike the name of the Neff’s first album, translates directly as “Thorn rose”(“Rose thorn”), and is the Dutch name for the eponymous heroine in the fairytale known in the English-speaking world as “Sleeping Beauty”. Closer inspection however will reveal that this swanky arts complex near the station only opened in 2014, and for the old venue one has to travel into the city’s southern suburbs, to a tranquil road named “Green Woods Way” (“Groenewoudseweg”), keeping the fairy tale theme going.

This photo purloined from Google Street View continues the idyllic theme. Two beautiful stout, respectable Dutch homes of the classic early twentieth style confirm the impression of a very well-to-do neighbourhood, but look closely down the heavily graffiti’ed  path between them to glimpse the front of a building which was once the local school, but became the home of the Doornroosje arts collective. According to Dutch Wikipedia it was “a gathering place for hippies” and “one of the first places in the Netherlands where hashish and marijuana were openly available”. This may explain not only the amazing popularity of this provincial venue with touring bands, but TSOM’s performance on the night of 5th June 1984, where according to one YouTuber, “Andrew Eldritch is chewing his face off in a moment of complete whizzadry (sic)”.

Von was certainly in good form that night, enjoying the inter-song banter with the audience, including a female heckler put-down which would not have been out of place in Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club : “Listen, love, we’ll do the show, you just do the clapping,” but the gig is best remembered for its lengthy and wild encore, which consisted of a nine minute Sister Ray, Fix, and then a seventeen minute Ghostrider/Louie Louie to round things off. Fortunately, the gig was recorded for posterity and shared amongst the Sisterhood.

The original Doornroosje is currently being used on an ad hoc basis as a rehearsal and recording space by local indie bands, with plans to make this a more permanent arrangement now in place, a fitting new role for this unique venue which is remembered with affection way beyond Gelderland.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Armageddon in Italia 3 - Home in Rome

Anyone for a game of bingo ? There can be few fates more ignominious than becoming a bingo hall for a once proud concert venue, but that is what has become of the Teatro Espero in Rome, another staging post of the Sisters’ 1985 Italian tour.

The Espero had been built in 1953 as a cultural focal point of a new neighbourhood of the capital as it spread further and further into its seven hills, and Sisters fans would have had quite a trek out into the subuebs to the Monte Sacro district to see the band behind the rather unprepossessing façade "behind the mid-street petrol station" (not quite as glamorous as "above the chemist") on what is now known as the via Nomentano Nuova, but which was originally called the via di Ponte Tazio (just to confuse any keyboard researcher).

On May 2nd 1985 the band were again in great form for a three-piece as they adjusted to life after Marx, and the performances were all the more remarkable as they were clearly just fulfilling contractual obligations : the band had already decided to split with Von continuing to sail the ship alone, as this remarkable interview originally published in the Italian magazine Il Mucchio Selvaggio (and now posted by the interviewer Federico Guglielmi on his blog) will attest.

The Sisters gig that night was recorded for several high quality bootlegs, including Black Planet and the picture disc “We’re All Aware Of That”, most of which can be found on YouTube nowadays.
Many other bands followed on from the first gigs at the Cinema Teatro Espero which formed the First Italian Punk Rock Festival which took place rather belatedly in 1980, and featured a live performance from Cap’n Sensible. Wall of Voodoo, Christian Death and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (correctly named by Eldritch in the interview as the best of their contemporaries) also played the venue in the mid-80’s, as well as a legendary gig from metallers Mercyful Fate (which I'm glad I didn't attend judging by the hopefully embellished web accounts), but the venue closed and became a clothing shop of the well-known VISA brand in Rome in the 90s before turning into the Bingo Espero Palace, a role it sadly retains today, as can be seen in the photo. Hang on, isn't that a Mercedes parked on the right outside the hall ???

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Armageddon in Italia 2 - The Darks were WHERE ?

One reason that the Italian gigs of ’85 have entered TSOM folklore is the fact that they were all recorded to a high audio standard by local bootleggers, amongst the most sophisticated in Europe at the time, and it didn’t take long for said recordings to surface on the (appropriately) black market.

One of the best known “live” recordings of the time is “The Darks were in Milan” from the gig at the Odissea 2001 in Milan, which as you can see by using the building on the left of each photo as a point of reference, is now the site of some very upmarket flats.
If you head out of town towards the San Siro, you may well take the via delle Forza Armate, which as its name suggests takes you past a very large barracks. This street name is usually given as the location of the Odyssey 2001 club, but it was in fact situated just off it, up a street named via Ernesto Bensenzanica. As can be seen from the photo on the left (lifted from the website of well-respected newspaper “Corriere della Sera”), the Odyssey was a popular club in the early 80s, and was a regular stop-off for UK positive punk bands on tour. The Cult, Bauhaus and Danse Society are all bands whose performances at the suburban venue were heavily bootlegged, and as can be seen from the Corriere’s photo of the inside, the relatively low roof was perfect for both acoustics and atmospherics.

Sadly, its heyday did not last long, and after becoming for a short while the Prego and then the Zimba (specialising in African and jazz music), it enjoyed a new lease of life as the Rainbow Rock Club, which is still fondly remembered in Milanese heavy metal circles, so much so that a young artist Oliver Pavicevic has created a “virtual visit” of how the club was, which can currently be enjoyed on YouTube. Apart from the rainbow lighting effect, this virtual tour gives some impression of what it would have been like to be at the Sisters gig on Monday 29th April 1985.

Although the Rainbow was closed down and then demolished in the noughties, and nothing now remains of the rock institution that was the Odisseia/Rainbow, the various projects to keep the name alive (such as the one below mean that we have more than a block of flats to remind us of one of the many lost venues from the Sisters’ legendary tours.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Armageddon in Italia I

What’s in the photo above ? A missile silo in the Middle East ? A nuclear bunker in the former East Germany ? A farm storage unit that won architectural awards in the misguided 1970’s ?
It is in fact one of the more unusual venues visited by TSOM over the years, the site of one of the dates on the Armageddon tour in Spring 1985 which followed the departure of Gary Marx and preceded the Albert Hall gig. European readers will doubtless have instantly recognised the building in the photo as an out-of-town disco, deliberately situated miles from the nearest housing and endowed with a car park large enough to cope with the swollen ranks of weekend revellers, who could enjoy themselves in the wee small hours without having to disturb local residents, before (presumably) drink-driving back into town.
The Puntacapo club near the village of Budrio outside Bologna was one such club (and is of course the one featured in the pictures), and an enterprising promoter hit upon the idea of hosting gigs there in the early 80s ; before TSOM’s visit on 30th April 1985, bands as diverse as The Sound and Bauhaus had drawn decent crowds to the isolated venue, exploiting the success amongst northern Italian youth of the nascent dark wave sound.
Thanks to the excellent Italian blog “Sniffin’ Glucose”, we can relieve those heady positive punk days, and the entry about the Puntacapo even contains this review about TSOM’s evening under the silver dome, with the reviewer going overboard in his praise of the Sisters’ Dantesque vision, whilst noting the appreciative but unusually quiet and reverential reaction of the large, young crowd (if my rusty Italian is to be believed).
Eagle-eyed readers may have noted a word painted in yellow near the entrance to the club on the Google Streetview images shamelessly displayed above, a reference to the venue’s more recent incarnation, the Palomar Land Disco. Although it looks entirely derelict on the photo and therefore one might assume defunct, this is in fact the default daytime appearance of the typical Euro club, and I would imagine that then as now it would look suitably impressive with clever night-time lighting to its young patrons.
Although what became the gothic scene enjoyed huge popularity in Italy, TSOM rarely returned to there on future European tours bar the odd date in Milan for example, and Bologna itself had to wait until 2009 for its only return visit, when the band played the Estragon club, more typically situated on an industrial estate near the ring-road, to a small crowd estimated by Heartland Forum members to be only 500 strong in a venue that can hold four times the number.

Monday, 4 May 2015

New York, New York

In most interviews when TSOM were beginning to gather a bit of momentum, any discussion with Von would focus on a few key areas. Where did the band name come from, what kind of music influenced you, why don’t you have a drummer, are you planning on releasing an album (plus ça change …) ? etc etc. And for any interview taking place south of Watford, a further question would rear its ugly head, i.e. the band’s “northern-ness” and a perceived need for the band to establish a following in London rather than “just” in Leeds.

The reasoning was varied, but basically Von’s argument was that journalists were lazy and that they would not travel to see and review a relatively new band “in the sticks”, hence the many appearances by TSOM in the capital in the twelve months beginning October 1982, recently lovingly catalogued in some detail by legendary Sisters’ collector “Spiggymr7” (aka “spiggytapes”) over on the Heartland Forum.

What is true for London in the UK was also the case at that time for New York and the USA, and therefore approximately one year later phase two of the meisterplan evolved, i.e. to establish a foothold in New York to build a TSOM groundswell of support in America. Fortunately the band were not short of allies, with Englishman Howard Thompson of Elektra Records already a big early fan of the band, and his friendship with the likes of the late Ruth Polsky, then booker of legendary but sadly long-gone multi-storey NY club Danceteria (and photographer of the famous “Detroit” Sisters pic) and Andy Dunkley (ex Aylesbury Friars and Hawkwind’s resident DJ) of top NY venue (then and now) Irving Plaza, must have helped to “grease the wheels”.

Although interviews and reviews surfaced from some of these early dates in 83/84 (e.g. the first Danceteria dates in September 1983) fairly quickly, much less was known until fairly recently about the Irving Plaza date (6th August 1984). However, just last week Danse Society drummer (both in the original form and the more recent reincarnation) Paul Gilmartin posted an anecdote about the gig on the TSOM fans’ Facebook page, stating that The Chameleons had played with TSOM (as they did at York a month later) and Danse Society that night, and that the latter had won a coin toss with The Sisters to see who crucially went on stage last as “headliners”! (I was thinking of asking him who called what, but thought better of it).

One American fan who attended the gig blogged about it a few years ago: Richard (“Echorich”) told his readers that the gig was a showcase under the auspices of the very influential publication CMJ, who specialise in music for the lucrative College Radio sector, where TSOM and co were already beginning to make inroads. However, the advert featured above (from New York's "East Village Voice") shows that early August 1984 was in fact the time of the rival New Music Seminar, an annual event which started in 1980 to showcase new talent (the CMJ Extravaganza taking place in October). Although the period the ad covers crucially falls short of the Sisters date, there is an intriguing early reference to The Red Hot (Chili) Peppers, recently signed to EMI playing another NMS showcase that same week.

But back to Richard's reminiscences about the TSOM show. Unfortunately, his main memory of what was supposed to be an important gig for the band was of “the Sisters’ continually faulty drum machine that night...”, not an uncommon complaint sadly in those days, but one hardly likely to impress the media and A and R gurus one can imagine had been reluctantly gathered together for such an event. The Sisters of Mercy played a further gig in the Big Apple that week three days later, supporting Rollins-era Black Flag, but judging by the lukewarm support given in the States to the release of FALAA the following year, presumably the damage had been done, to misquote a phrase, and it wouldn’t be until mk. 3 of the band that a degree of success would be achieved Stateside.

Friday, 1 May 2015

(The) Leather Nun - Whatever

Regular readers may be surprised to find a review of a new CD with no ostensible connection to TSOM, but Sweden’s Leather Nun (or Lädernunnan if you prefer) and West Yorkshire’s finest always seemed to have been separated at birth. Both bands were formed at the turn of the 80s, both had a name referring to female religious orders, both had a charismatic and instantly identifiable vocalist (who couldn’t actually sing according to purists), and both claimed the same rock lineage. They also shared the same dislike of musical pigeonholing. Take this quote from Jonas Almqvist “We’re not punk rock and we’re not alternative … we’re just rock’n’roll”. Sound familiar ? Both bands did a tongue in cheek cover of Abba’s “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme”. Both released three imperfect but different albums in the late 80s/early 90s, and both had been silent on the recording front since then.
Until now, that is. This week Leather Nun released their first album in 24 years, “Whatever”, which contains all the elements fans of the band in the 80s would expect : an eclectic mixture of styles ranging from classic in-your-face rock to piano-based whimsy, all topped with the honeyed vocals of Almqvist. The release is the result of a five year plus project by the singer, and real aficianados will already be familiar with many of the songs which have previously appeared on his own (Jonas A) MySpace or that of his other recent project Godtherapy, who released a promo CD containing versions of many of these tracks back in 2010. More bizarrely, one song, For The Love of Your Eyes appeared on the two Nun releases of 1985, Lust Games and (the live) Alive.
As a result, “Whatever” is more Vision thing than FALAA, a real curate’s egg which brings together the diverse elements of the difficult chapter of Almqvist recovering his musical mojo and having enough confidence in the new material to resurrect the Nun name, to which this collection does full justice. Openers “All Those Crazy Dreams” and “Outside My Window”, along with first single “Just Like a Dream”, stomp along with the glam mix of four-to-a-bar Heartbreakers rock and U2 guitar sheen familiar to those who enjoyed the more upbeat moments of Bowie’s recent “The Next Day”, topped with Jonas’ heavily accented English. Earlier Nun releases always exuded a certain louche after midnight wrong-side-of-the-tracks vibe, and the sleazy, decadent swagger of “Mainstream” and “Red Hot Gwen” maintain that tradition, in a style which will remind older listeners of former TSOM support Flesh For Lulu (and younger ones of Marilyn Manson in his prime). There are a few bizarre moments (“Dancing In The Rain” and “Star”) but all is saved by Almqvist’s world-weary vocals on the closing trio of tracks, where his half spoken delivery recalls Lou Reed at his effortless best.
Whilst this CD, like many of its predecessors (mini-Lps, side projects etc) betrays its difficult genesis, it’s a more than welcome return, and is for me the first essential purchase of 2015. With a live return imminent, the good news is that Almqvist has already begun work on the next LP, which will hopefully enjoy a smoother trajectory and be with us before the end of the decade. And therefore well before anything emerges from TSOM ....