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.

No comments:

Post a comment