Thursday, 18 June 2015

RAH Thirty Years On - Remembering Craig Adams

Today marks thirty years since the famed TSOM gig at the Royal Albert Hall, the inevitable over-the-top conclusion of the band’s descent into pompous self-parody, and a concert which has become engrained in the consciousness of British alternative rock music thanks to the subsequent release of the “Wake” video recording of (most of) the events of that evening. My own personal festival of remembrance today however is to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the departure of the kingpin of the band’s rise from obscurity in 82/83, bass guitarist Craig Adams, whose near four year stint in the band ended that evening (along with that of a much more recent arrival).

A talented pianist, Adams’ first band experience had been as keyboardist in The (now reformed) Expelaires, but he was put in touch with Eldritch and Marx who were looking for a bassist. Adams borrowed an instrument off a friend, and armed with a fuzzbox, went along for what turned out to be a somewhat perfunctory audition. His first recorded contribution to the band was the “Body Electric/ Adrenochrome” single, but although his part is muffled somewhat in the rather muddy mix, one can already detect his trademark eight-to-the-bar steady driving riff style, with Peter Hook style motifs occasionally at the end of a bar. On both tracks, he plays a crucial role in the build-up to a final crescendo, his buzzing descending solo introducing the “The way is clear..” finale of Adrenochrome, whilst on BE his inverted riff on the final “Through the cables” section creates the claustrophobic conclusion the lyrics demand.

However, it was on the next three, crucial tracks that Adams really made his mark, his bass dominating the wordless opening minute of “Alice”, and then striking up the main riff in both “Anaconda” and “Floorshow”. The latter was probably his finest hour with TSOM, and my favourite clip of this is from the the Peterborough gig in April 1983 on this video , about fourteen minutes in. Not only does the (admittedly poor quality) recording capture the in-your-face scuzziness of his playing liveon that opening riff, but it also gives an insight into one of his key roles at those early gigs where there was no security between band and audience, as he stops playing momentarily to deal with a hapless stage invader in typically robust style. On the cramped and sometimes impromptu stages where the band had to perform, Von invariably stayed centre stage, with Marx staggering and flailing all over the (from an audience standpoint) left hand side. On the far right, Gunn had his own space and pootered to the back of the stage between songs to re-boot the oft-malfunctioning Doktor, leaving Adams to take up a spot directly behind Eldritch (a kind of early version of the diamond formation), but regularly wandering up to the front of the stage to stare at some unfortunate soul in the crowd who had annoyed him, leaving all four human members of the band in a line across the front of the stage, boyband style. At another favourite early gig of mine (Sheffield 1983), Von was plagued as usual by a few obnoxious locals (“Thanks…even to the man who keeps emptying his brain on my chest”), and used the threat of swift justice from his bassist henchman to put an end to the situation (“The thing is, he can see you even if I can’t, and he’s more vindictive than me. I’m the nice one. …And he’s got a very heavy bass guitar in his hands”).

Eldritch, always happy to give credit where it is due (but, crucially, only where it is due), freely admits that Adams played a defining role in creating the Sisters sound, although this was to change somewhat on his remaining releases. The slower Reptile House songs demanded that he show his versatility, from providing the opening drone on Kiss The Carpet to taking the lead on Fix. There’s even a wonderful moment in the instrumental passage of the imperious “Lights” where he starts a riff and one realises that he hasn’t been playing for the past twenty seconds. With Ben Gunn and Gary Marx now taking both primary and secondary melody parts and intertwining ever more successfully, as on Temple of Love, Adams’ role diminished further, and with the ambitious Hussey’s arrival, things got worse, with his bass barely audible on the opening two tracks (on most mixes) of FALAA (although he did have a key, if rather funky part on both “ARAAHP” and “Possession”). With Von becoming increasingly isolated in the group, and with new songs less and less to his taste, Adams decided to leave the band with Hussey in what would become an acrimonious split, with Eldritch and his former bassist not having been in contact with each other since.

After a successful spell with The Mission, whom he has recently rejoined, Adams successfully integrated various other bands of the era, including The Alarm, Spear of Destiny and (for a while) The Cult, and has even released a (surprisingly soft and melodious) solo album. In reality, he was never replaced in TSOM, and after various temporary incumbents (Patricia Morrison and Tony James being the most famous), Eldritch has dispensed with a live bass sound altogether, relying on a pre-recorded Midi version which has clearly diminished the band’s live power. Whilst most retrospectives to mark today’s anniversary will focus on the spat which developed between Eldritch and Hussey, I’ll be spending my time listening back through the “golden run” of singles on SGWBM as a tribute to a man who did more than most to cement the legend of TSOM.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Third Belgian trip 1985 pt 1

Little did I realise when I set off by National Express, British Rail, Sea Link Ferries and the NMBS/SNCB for my first TSOM gig abroad that I would be witnessing a piece of history, what would turn out be the first Sisters gig without founder member Gary Marx. Arriving in the historic Flanders city of Ghent, we had our first pleasant surprise, as not only did the McDonald’s (conveniently situated near the magnificent architecture of St Bavo’s Cathedral, St Niklaas’ church and the old belfry in the mediaeval town centre) serve the “extra large” French fries portion unavailable in the UK, but they also served beer to wash down your burger – how very civilised.

Taking care to avoid the silent trams (towns in the Low Countries having made the wise decision not to ditch this form of transport in the early 60’s, unlike in Great Britain) we made our way to the magnificent Vooruit venue, which turned out to be a real architectural gem.  Built in Art Nouveau style immediately prior to the first world war, the Feestlokaal van Vooruit had been built as a festival and arts centre by a socialist co-operative to enable workers to enjoy culture without being financially exploited, but had since had a chequered career, including use by the Nazis as a restaurant for their officers to dine in during the Occupation of the Second World War. Like many similar institutes across Europe, the venue gradually fell into disrepair in the 60’s and 70’s , before re-launching as an arts venue in 1983.

Arriving at the reception area at the front of the arts centre, we discovered signs indicating that the gig was sold out (fortunately we already had tickets) and were told by the helpful reception staff that the concert hall (Zaal Vooruit) where the gig was to take place was actually around the back of the building. Heading back outside, we noticed that the record shop opposite had wisely plastered its window with copies of the sleeve of FALAA, then riding high at number 8 in the Belgian album charts, and they still had the gatefold edition for sale, unlike stores in the UK where this had quickly sold out. Groups of fans were already beginning to congregate, and rumours began to spread that Gary had not travelled with the rest of the band, with various reasons being suggested as to why this might be the case. When Wayne Hussey emerged from the venue shortly afterwards clutching an already half-empty bottle of red wine from which he was swigging liberally (having presumably liberated it from the band’s rider after the lengthy soundcheck), he was immediately besieged by a small army of fans, a situation somewhat different to the UK, where aficionados tended to keep their distance.

We had more time to ponder the differences between the TSOM fans in the two countries whilst waiting around the back of the venue by the canal for the doors to open. The Flemish audience was younger, more brightly dressed, and less uniform than their UK counterparts. Not for them brooding in near silence in small black clad groups sucking their cheeks in and pouting in doomed attempts to look cool. Paisley shirts, exotic hairstyles of the type footballers have only recently started to sport some thirty years later, velvet trousers, there seemed to be an “anything goes” atmosphere of individuals expressing their own style, which seemed strangely liberating compared to our own uniform of leather and studs in which we sweated in the early evening sunshine. Once inside, we could appreciate the decaying grandeur of the venue itself, painted in a dark purple with gold fittings, and with a relatively low roof considering that it had a shallow balcony around all three sides, in the style of Leeds University Union’s refectory. Having acquainted ourselves with the venue’s European style bar system (queue up to buy ticket, queue up to exchange ticket for lager) –it would have been rude, not to, when in Rome etc – we found a suitable spot in the rapidly filling hall to enjoy the performance of support band Flesh and Fell, whose impressive performance I have previously written about in this blog.

(pic Bruno Bollaert)

Looking back, one can only imagine the nerves in the Sisters’ dressing room before they took to the stage that evening. Could they manage without Marx, the visual focal point of the live show, the shy Eldritch’s emotional crutch for the past five years ? I had my own doubts, not being a particular fan of Hussey’s past, his style or his naked ambition. However, from the first chords of FALAA, it was clear that he was more than capable of literally filling the void, the band putting on a focussed yet emotional gig which ticked all the boxes. Although it lacked the humour and unpredictability of, say, the gigs of 1983, it also lacked the cold pomposity of the RAH gig just two months later, when the band performed its own last rites in somewhat perfunctory style.  The well-respected then local newspaper Het Volk, reviewing the gig (a copy of which has been kindly lent to me by long-time TSOM uber-collector spiggytapes), complimented the band on their “surprisingly full sound” in a performance which the headline described as “disciplined and contemporary”. Von’s vocals were focussed and crystal clear, with Lurch’s bass more prominent in the mix for the first time for a couple of years, adding significantly to the overall aural effect. The euphoric feeling in the crowd lasted throughout a well-paced gig (much of which can now be audio streamed on YT), culminating in a relaxed “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, Hussey’s guitar singing as never before as the concert ended in triumph.
(pic from Sisters wiki)

It mattered little that we had missed the last train home, and after nursing a further couple of small beers (all we could afford) for a few hours at a North African restaurant/bar which the polite owner was clearly wanting to close up for the night (the town centre being strangely deserted to a British visitor, this being a Friday night), we had no option but to join the handful of bedraggled multilingual gig survivors (from Northern France and southern Holland as well as Belgium) already littering the sheltered part of the platform, forlornly attempting to get some sleep before the first trains started to circulate some time after 5 a.m. The band headed on to Genk (subject of my next post !) and the rest of the Armageddon over Europe valedictory tour, and the Vooruit itself went from strength to strength, being rightly recognised as a historic monument by the government and undergoing an expensive refurbishment throughout the 90s. TSOM never returned there, preferring the town’s (larger) sports hall on a subsequent visit in 1991, but I live in hope that one day they will return. A couple of years ago, when Chris Catalyst was explaining (in response to a query about his favourite venues on his excellent but sadly short-lived Formspring page) that he loved venues with character, like the Leamington Spa Assembly which TSOM had recently played, I asked a supplementary question asking his opinion of the Zaal Vooruit. Although he said that he had never heard of it, I’d like to think that I have planted a seed that will one day see the band return to the scene of one of their greatest ever shows.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Second Belgium trip - 1984

TSOM returned to Belgium for a second visit as part of their sophomore European jaunt in the spring of 1984 with the newly ensconced (and still psychedelic shirted and pre-hat) Wayne Hussey in tow for a pair of dates which were in fact linked festivals, in the style of the modern Leeds/Reading Festivals in the UK, the then very popular Torhout/Werchter Festivals in Belgium (which I went to that year to finally see Lou Reed, but that’s another story ) or indeed (and probably the best parallel) the indoor Futurama Festivals in Stafford and Leeds a few years earlier.

With the Low Countries (like the North of England suffering with the decline of Western European heavy industry) particularly receptive to the metallised clank of the loose “posi-punk” movement, a successful Belgian edition of Futurama had been held in the soulless barn still known today as the Brielpoort in Deinze (a small town south of Ghent) in September 1983 (with Xmal, Virgin Prunes, SPK,etc)  and another enterprising promoter engaged the same venue for an “Alive in June” Festival to be held on 1st June 1984, with the same line-up to appear the day before (the “May Follies” Festival on 31st May) in a sports hall strategically situated between Brussels and Antwerp, just north of the town of Duffel (as in “bag” or “coat”, in the heart of the Belgian textile industry).

The Pallieterhal in Lier, with its parabolic roof and vast dimensions, was probably very well-suited to the basketball games which it usually accommodated (the photo is from a basketball blog), but was acoustically not the best choice for the gig, and this was not the only error the organisers made. According to a very frank contemporary review in a French language newspaper stuffed with wonderful local detail, the promoters chose to sell tickets on the day from a van in the carpark, but unlike the orderly queues that form around your typical Flemish town square chip van, this soon became besieged by eager fans, a state of affairs which persisted long after all the tickets had been sold.

The gig itself started two hours late, with local heroes Front 242 struggling to inspire a crowd bathed in the daylight streaming into the cavernous venue. At least they fared better than the next act, a last minute replacement for (former Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen’s) Shriekback. Why the promoters thought that the fey whimsy of Prefab Sprout would go down well with an alternative crowd is hard to fathom, but the reaction was sadly predictable. In interviews collected on the Sproutology website, singer Paddy McAloon recalls “The audience were Neanderthal. These guys were 1977. They were still spitting !” and “We were treated like animals by animals”. They were canned off-stage, to be followed by TSOM. Coming on in such circumstances could have led to a triumphant return, but the contemporary reviewer notes that the band were “strangely passive and not very interesting”. Fortunately, legendary new wave photographer Philippe Carly was again in attendance and his pictures give a good impression of the band’s changing image, with Marx becoming ever bolder in his choice of shirt, a heavily side-burned Von wearing one black glove in addition to his equally dark frock-coat over his (guess what colour) shirt, and Adams sporting the long-haired, hat and leather coat combo that would see him through most of the rest of his career in various minor bands. Carly does not appear to have thought it important to take any snaps of the most recent hired hand at that time, sensibly saving his spools for the following day’s photo-shoot of Eldritch at the Sheraton (prior to the Brielpoort gig that evening at which Nacht und Nebel replaced Front 242 in an otherwise unchanged line-up, therefore including TSOM) which includes the infamous “no glasses holding a bunch of flowers” picture. Needless to say, a reasonable quality bootleg recording of the gig is also in circulation among collectors.

Connoisseurs of the early history of the Sisters will not be surprised to learn that the headliners for the pair of festivals were their old muckers The Psychedelic Furs, and the reviewer states that they saved the day, archly noting that they had brought a grandiose light-show and their own sound system, putting on a “brilliant and hyper-professional” performance, with Richard Butler in particularly sparkling form as they showcased songs from the (then) forthcoming “Mirror Moves” LP.

Like many of the venues from the European tours of the 80s, the Pallieterhal gradually fell into a period of decline, unlike the Brielpoort which has continued to host TSOM on their regular tours over the past twenty years. As can be seen from the two Google Maps satellite shots shown here, the Pallieterhal (between the football ground and the building with the orange roof which is visible also in the shot at the top of this page) was demolished earlier this decade to make for a wider access road to the new municipal centre of Lier comprising council offices and the police headquarters. The Sisters have however continued to make Flanders their spiritual “live” home, and will be returning there for their first 2015 gig at the Suikkerock festival in Tienen.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Plan K failed

Of all the concerts listed on TSOM gigographies, the one I had hoped most to find some evidence for was the one usually listed as having taken place at Plan K, Brussels, on 24th August 1983 on the Sisters' Trans Europe Excess inaugural trek overseas.

It just seems too perfect. A quick return to the city of their incendiary first overseas gig at the Mallemunt Free Festival (held in the Muntplein or Place de la Monnaie on 5th August) and the city of their subsequent arrest by Belgian Police, memorably captured in Philippe Carly’s fantastic contemporary photos (see here and make a donation !) . What an atmosphere there must have been at the Plan K that night, imagine the word-of-mouth amongst the hip Belgian in-crowd, the fever pitch excitement that they were attending an event as much as a gig. In an interview conducted for a local magazine at the time of the Malemunt gig, Von himself had said that only Belgians really seem to "get" the band's music and attitude, which is arguably still the case today.

And then of course, there is the venue itself, today known as La Raffinerie (see above) and home to the Charleroi Danses network, and exactly the kind of venue TSOM still love to play this day, a proud symbol of Northern Europe’s industrial past, like Dresden’s Alter Schlachtof (“Old Slaghterhouse”), Vienna’s Gasometer, or the Rockhal built on the site of the old steelworks in Luxembourg's Esch-sur-Alzette, all stops on the 2014 tour. The six-storey brick-built Raffinerie was built in the 1880’s, and as its name suggests, was a former sugar refinery of the Gräffe brand, converted in 1979 by Michel Duval and Annik Honoré into the Plan K venue, and it was here that they hosted a multi-media event which has become the stuff of legend. On 16th October 1979, William S Burroughs and Cabaret Voltaire were among the performers, but it was the presence of Joy Division and the fact that they debuted Love Will Tear Us Apart at the (appropriately named) rue de Manchester venue, as well as Curtis’ friendship with the late Honoré, which have made this particular concert a focus point for JD fans. On the thirty-fifth anniversary of the event, ran a fascinating retrospective piece which included a great quote from the ubiquitous Carly, whose images of Curtis that night helped to make his name : “Sometimes it was a bit weird when concerts took place at the same time as dance shows on the upper levels. On their way out, dressed up bourgeois would peek at this strange crowd of leather clad punks listening to noisy obscure bands. But the Plan K was all about this : mixing genres, crowds, events, concepts.”

One can almost imagine that Carly is describing a Sisters gig here, but curiously, despite his clear interest in TSOM, there are no photos of TSOM there. Nor has a live recording emerged, despite the occasional raising of hopes when a cassette allegedly of the performance emerges from a minor collector, only to be proven to be another mislabelled copy of the 5th August Mallemunt gig. (Arguably) the most  respected Sisters live tape collector told me privately that he has “a whole cardboard box full” of what turned out (after expensive investment) to be Auguest '83 Brussels fakes puporting to have taken place at venues as varied as the AB and the Plan K (and on dates including the 17th, 21st, 24th and 27th).

So even the uncertainty of the alleged date of the TSOM Plan K gig adds to suspicions that it did not in fact take place. The otherwise authoritative Sisters wiki gives it as 17th August 1983 but can provide no evidence for this, whilst the official website does not list it at all, but adds to the confusion by attributing an incorrect date to genuine Mallemunt gig. The sad fact agreed by the elite of Sisters cognoscenti (i.e. several rungs above my own level of obsession) is that, wherever the date originally arose from, the gig at the Plan K did not take place in reality.

Like a pre-teen clinging on to the concept of Santa in the face of increasingly overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, I still live in the hope that one day, perhaps in the late Honoré’s private collection of Plan K posters (referred to in a Belgian newspaper interview), in a previously forgotten film spool in Carly's dark room or on a long-lost decaying old C90 which has a familiar Home Counties voice intoning “Bonsoir, Plan K” (which I assume is pronounced a bit like the English insult “plonker”), evidence will emerge of a Sisters gig at the venue, which like the Danceteria, the Doornroosje or the Leamington Spa Assembly, was a perfect match for their music, their image and their style. But to be honest, there's sadly more chance of a new TSOM album being released than that.