Thursday, 29 October 2015

Balti and Soul

This has to be the most obscure of the venues (where the Sisters played) covered so far in this blog, and it’s also the earliest gig discussed here. There’s never been much to do in the West Yorkshire town of Keighley on a Monday night, but all that was to change in March 1982 when enterprising Bradford music fan Nick Toczek, founder of the local Wool City Rocker fanzine, leased the local Funhouse nightclub for a series of gigs under the name “Gory Details”.

If you head down North Street (the address listed on Toczek’s typically information-rammed hand-written flyer), you’ll come across a fine century old Edwardian cinema known as The Picture House, a venerable institution which as its own website points out, has “remained in continuous use as a cinema without suffering the indignities of bingo”. It did however also stage one off gigs featuring legendary stars such as Billy Fury and Marty (Dad of Kim) Wilde.

However, only if you were peckish after a trip to the cinema are you likely to stumble across the road to the location of the Sisters gig of Monday 29th March 1982, for the second Gory Details gig (like others in the series) took place above the current Mango’s take away restaurant, which as can be seen from the photo has an extensive menu from pizzas to Balti dishes! For information on this gig I am hugely indebted to former Keighley resident Graham Smith, a long-term Sisters fan who was at the gig and has provided much of the supporting material for this post. “The Funhouse entrance was next to what is now Mango’s and is shown on your photo as the Walayat Plaza apartments,” Graham told me. “You used to go through that front door and up a steep staircase to the club.”

Graham also pointed me in the direction of a YT video of his cousin’s band, The Shakes, shot at a Gory Details night at The Funhouse. Not only does it give some decent shots of the venue itself, but it also allows New Model Army fans a sight of a song (51st State) which was to be adapted and made famous by Justin Sullivan’s clog-wearing goth-folk rock ensemble. Keighley is also famous as the home town of Skeletal Family, and many locals started bands after being inspired by what they saw at the Funhouse.

As well as the Sisters, the bill on March 29th also featured labelmates The March Violets surely playing one of their earliest ever gigs here around the time they were to record their first MR single Religious as Hell (released in August of that year), and joining TSOM on stage for the first time (quite literally for the encore, an improvised Silver Machine over a typical Doktor Avalanche encore back-beat). Heartland Forum member Poisonheart, who was also at the gig told me “The Violets seemed quite excited by the gig as a whole to be honest. I can’t remember much of what the Sisters played that night but they definitely played my favourite song – Floorshow”. At the bottom of a memorable bill was ubiquitous ranting poet Seething Wells, better known as the late influential journalist Steven/Susan Wells (described by Everett True as “a tastemaker”) of the NME. 

Unfortunately, there is no recording of the gig currently in circulation, but as further evidence that this gig (for which there is no known recording) actually took place, Graham has kindly shared a second flyer for later gigs in the Gory Details series which lists the previous gigs in the “run”.
Although Southern Death Cult, Dance Society and Sex Gang Children also featured in subsequent events, Toczek increasingly filled the bill with the dying embers of the punk/oi movement, and Graeme, Poisonheart and others drifted elsewhere to the likes of Francs in Colne (covered in a recent post) and The Hellfire Club in Wakefield (to follow shortly) to see more bands from the emerging posi-punk scene. Promoter Toczek himself moved on to present further club nights in the Bradford area for the next couple of years, before (having married and started a family) returning to his original profession as a poet/writer, and he is to this day still very much in demand for school visits as a children’s author.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Pre FALAA at the Gala

A popular BBC celebrity dancing show reminds us that every British provincial town used to have at least one palais de danse, where in the twentieth century young citizens could go to ballroom dance, then jive, then rock’n’roll then disco dance. The Gala Ballroom in Norwich which opened in 1954 was one such venue, at the top of St Stephens Rd and in the wonderful archive photos below is decked out in all its early 70s splendour (pictures lent to author P Goodrum by J Polyblank and I Clark).

In the early 80s, it became the stop-off venue of choice for up-and-coming indie bands wishing to visit the geographic outpost of East Anglia (SDC, Smiths et al), and TSOM Facebook Group member Mike Read who worked there at the time remembers it well. "I used to help to set up the stage which was up the other end [than in the above photo]. The place was used as one of those synthetic ice rinks during the week, then lifted up and stacked for the bands at the weekends. I left for another job just before the Sisters played - gutted!" So it was that The Sisters of Mercy and The Gun Club were booked in to play there on their joint tour in April 1983, as this somewhat garish and definite article averse vintage poster (very kindly shared here by Belgian collector Bruno Bossier) will attest.
The hall’s ballroom past was referred to by Radio One DJ Richard Skinner, who when reading TSOM’s forthcoming tour dates when sitting in for the absent David Jensen and playing the band’s Reptile House era session tracks announced that “They’ll have to take the glitter ball down for that one !” As can be seen from the very original ticket below (again from the collection of the generous Bruno Bossier), the two bands could be seen for the princely sum of just £2.50!
Like many of the dates on that tour, the Sisters were arguably the biggest draw punter-wise although the Gun Club enjoyed the larger billing. The band certainly made a big impression, with two fans nominating it last year on the I-Spy Norwich FB page in a thread asking members to nominate the best ever gig they saw in the town, out od the many thousand possible contenders. Russell J Turner, a poet and actor based in Norwich,  recalled a “Storming gig. The Sisters of Mercy did versions of Jolene and Gimme Shelter, I seem to recall.”
Like almost all of the gigs on that tour, the show was bootlegged and a couple of tracks surfaced in 1986 on an Italian 7” single allegedly limited to 600 copies entitled “Nightmares”. The tracks were the afore-mentioned Jolene and Adrenochrome, but the sound quality was no more than adequate despite the sleeve claiming that the recording engineer was “Andy Taylor”. A full recording of the show has been circulating amongst fans for many years, and Eldritch was on his usual banterous form between songs, teasing the crowd about which cover songs would be played and then dedicating Jolene to “all the people that tolerated us in dresses at the Hacienda last night”, another famous incident which has itself since passed into TSOM folklore.
The Gala Ballroom itself closed shortly after TSOM’s visit, and left Norwich bereft of live venues at a time when with the likes of The Farmers Boys, The Higsons and Testcard F were riding in the indie and occasionallynational charts, it was at its creative height as a musical hub, which in turn led to the campaign which resulted in the wonderful Waterfront Arts Complex being built. The Gala building with its unique 50s architecture is still standing, but for most of the past thirty years has been trading as a laser gun venue – ironically one of the few places where one will see more dry ice than at a Sisters gig !

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

I Am A Quinquagenarian Sisters of Mercy Fan

(I am taking a one post break from the usual nostalgia-fest on this blog to review the wonderful TSOM gig in Glasgow last night - normal service will be resumed shortly!)

If this is the start of the UK mini-tour, then it must be the Glasgow ABC. For the third time in four years, TSOM kick-start a short series of British dates with an appearance at the Sauchiehall Street venue, and the security staff checking the tickets are bemused as about half of those filing into the narrow entrance laugh in their faces when they state that there is to be no photography or filming “at the request of the band”, somewhat against the tradition of half of the crowd uploading every Sisters performance onto YouTube, seemingly with Elditchian approval. And so up the series of unpromising staircases to the venerable venue itself, built in 1875 and at various times in its past a cinema, ballroom, circus and even ice rink (plenty of potential here for lazy headline writers), but for the past two decades one of Glasgow’s top rock venues, with a standing capacity of 1300 and decent sightlines for all.
A quick trip to the merch stall – still piled high with the same old stock – confirms the feeling of déjà vu, and I make a mental note not to raise my expectations too high, as there will be surely few surprises ahead on what may turn out to be a depressing evening. The feeling of imminent dread grows as support band Black Moth file onstage to total indifference, their sub-Sabbath stoner riffs, regular time changes and so-so female rock vocals having failed to excite me on record. Strange bedfellows for a Sisters support one might think, but taking their fashions and musical influences from about 1971, they could be said to have more in common with the “spirit of Altamont” (often quoted by Eldritch as being part of rock’s rich lineage of which his band were the inheritors) than the Sisters themselves, and in a well-paced and faultlessly-executed set, they slowly win the crowd over, saving the punkier numbers (everything is relative) towards the end of their allotted half-hour and looking triumphant (rather than just relieved not to have been bottled off) by the end.
Enter the Sisters. And for once – possibly the first time ever – everyone can see them – not only is there less dry ice than at many past gigs, but the camera ban is being carefully policed, and with the average audience member nowadays pushing fifty (there were hardly any under 35’s in attendance) very few feel like clambering on each others shoulders these days, let alone building pyramids. Surprisingly launching straight into a rocking Lucretia My reflection, the band had the first ten rows bouncing from the off, but after a brief “Welcome. Welcome back” from Von, it was into the now traditional “Ribbons” and “Crash and Burn” as second and third songs, with the sound balance perfect by the latter, and the singer’s voice at its most powerful for a while. The next half hour was a little more hit and miss, Von clearly struggling these days on a truncated Body Electric, which was followed by a fairly standard Alice, a different sounding arrangement of ARAAHP and  the new cover “Police Car” followed by its soulmate medley “Dr Jeep/Detonation Boulevard”. The trickle to the bar was becoming a flood, but a vibrant “Dominion/Mother Russia” had the whole venue up and dancing for the first time to get things back on track. However. There was a further dip in intensity with an unfamiliar run of songs for the casual fan (Summer, Jihad – the first genuine surprise of the set-list, an under-rehearsed Valentine which saw Catalyst and Eldritch’s vocals clashing discordantly at the end, and Arms, which had the singer launching into his first rant of the evening against Americans), but one more word from Von “Meanwhile…” say the band launch into what in many ways has become their signature tune, “First and Last and Always”, and this time, the ABC audience was enraptured in a way which would remain until the gig’s end. The main set, exactly an hour as usual, ended with the customary second half of Temple of Love, at the end of which the singer introduced his acolytes “On guitar, Mr Ben Christo…and the fantastic Chris Catalyst” to rapturous applause. Not many bands could get away with playing two slow songs at the start of an encore after such a high octane end to the main set, but the live debut of “1959” certainly kept spirits high, inevitably fleshed out with Ben’s guitar noodlings. The first encore ended in bizarre fashion, with a typically lacklustre “Flood” interrupted by a bizarre rant from the vocalist at a guy in the front row who had been allegedly mocking the camera ban. “You’ve been doing that a lot tonight …” Von bellowed at him, wagging his finger in his face, at a moment when he should have been intoning the chorus of “Flood”. Back in the 80s, this would have been followed by a withering put-down that would have caused the offender to slink away in embarrassment. However, the singer unconvincingly continues “…and it’s not helping”. Hmmm. As it was, the band’s management asked security to intervene, and before the second encore the hapless (and physically slight) chap was escorted to the back by two burly bouncers. “Well that was weird” said Von, leaving the stage. You should have seen it from where I was standing.
Any feeling that things were going to end on a sour note were dissipated by possibly the best second encore since the days of Sister Ray, with Von and the boys launching into a crowd-pleasing more, followed by a vitriolic and incandescent Vision Thing, in which Von stated that he still hates Americans and ended by stating  loud and clear once again (in the words of the verse added to the song in the early 2000s “This…”. A final, sing-a-long “This Corrosion” ended the show, which saw the band receive a deserved and prolonged ovation from a crowd who had seen a rejuvenated band in top form.
This gig was the first in the UK since Chris recently completed ten years’ service in the band, and having given lengthy eulogies to previous guitarists who have had short but influential stints in the band, it’s only fair that I pay tribute here to the two young men (Ben next year completes his own decade of duty as a Taylor’s dummy, hired hand of God, or whatever other phrase you prefer) whose efforts have encouraged the reclusive Eldritch to keep the band on the road (albeit fitfully).
With their own (distinctly non-goth) musical interests keeping them fully occupied between the lucrative Sisters tours, both Catalyst and Christo are down-to-earth, decent guys who not only respect the band’s history and traditions (and Eldritch’s pre-eminent role in the band), but have been more than happy to engage with what must at times have seemed a scarily obsessive fanbase both in person and on social media. Equally importantly, both can cut in on stage, and as accomplished musicians have helped (via a couple of new songs and a variety of new arrangements of old ones) to keep the setlist fresh, even for the most recalcitrant long-term fan.
Even more intriguing, however, is that they seem to represent the Ying and Yang of Von’s own personality. Cataylst is at heart the snotty punk rocker, the creative  DIY musical impresario, with a ready self-deprecating Yorkshire wit, the living representation of Von’s Leeds reincarnation. Christo on the other hand represents Eldritch’s Southern English roots, the more feminine, sensitive side of his lyrical personality, and of course his long-term flirtation with classic soft rock of the 70s and 80s, the posing rock god. Both are now fully embedded in the band, as they are in the affections of long-term fans.
With Eldritch’s voice and health having seemingly started to fail, many of those heading into the O2 last night may have wondered if this might be the last time they would see the band live. However, on the (non-recorded!) evidence of this gig, rumours of their demise would appear to be premature.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Bournemouth (to be wild)

You have to feel sorry for Boscombe. Not only did it lose its weekly exposure on Saturday sports results shows when current English Premier League football club AFC Bournemouth changed their name (from Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic) in 1972, but the venue of The Sisters of Mercy’s only stop on that part of the South Coast has also dropped the town’s name, being now known as the O2 Academy Bournemouth (see photo from their website below) as opposed to the Boscombe Academy moniker it enjoyed back on Friday 29th April 1983. Following the end of the tour with The Gun Club, the band dotted around the country getting gigs where they could as their fame began to spread, and performed in Boscombe two nights after the Swindon Solitaire gig and the night before the Nottingham Union Rowing club concert.

A recording of the gig now resides in the comprehensive Dark Circle Room vault along with a description of the gig by the person who provided it : “This was a spectacularly good gig…I wish I had the promotional poster for this gig as they were listed as the Sisters of Mersey! Eldritch mentions this in a rare spoken moment on the tape.” Before the band launched into a blistering version of Jolene, Von clearly intones “We are NOT the Sisters of Mersey”. The setlist contained no surprises, but favoured Valentine over Gimme Shelter, with the tape provider adding, “I’m not sure if they played a short set because they came on early, the main band being an appalling local New Romantic crowd.” (could this have been CaVa CaVa, a short-lived but much-hyped band from that area ?).
Looking at the venue in its magnificent refurbished glory (£3 million was spent on the Grade II listed building in a refurbishment of 2006/7), it might be hard to imagine the air of slightly faded grandeur which what was originally (back in 1895)the Boscombe Grand Theatre had in the early 80’s, but thanks to the wonderful Arthur Lloyd website we need imagine no more, and I am grateful to them for their permission to reproduce this photo taken by Ted Bottle in 1985, one of several on their site which shows the interior of the building..
With a sound and light system now worthy of the third millennium, and with old tour mates Public Enemy booked in to do a show in December, this is another venue which is well overdue a visit from the band.

Monday, 5 October 2015

A rock and a Paard place

 One of the main accusations levelled against the current “live” incarnation of TSOM (apart from the fact that the bass is now also not played live, that there are few new songs and that there is too much dry ice) is that Von now longer sings, he mumbles and growls, to such an extent that it is often difficult to discern anything he is saying. Although fans from the early days will recognise some of these complaints with a wry smile, Eldritch was always very proud of his lyrics and enunciated them very clearly…with one or two famous exceptions. Take A Rock And A Hard Place, for example, and the line “One from the church and the valley of the …”. The valley of the what ???

The emergence of soundboard recordings goes some of the way to resolving some of these issues, and the widely distributed, multi-bootlegged and now freely available recording from the gig at Den Haag’s Paard van Troje venue (A recording often billed as “Live at the Trojan Horse”) is clearer than most in this regard. (2017 update : a fantastic, crystal clear remastered version is now available on Phil Marsh's wonderful "Live and Loud!" blog - complete with a great written intro from veteran Sisters fan Ollie C, based on Phil Verne's master)

The bootlegs fail to give credit where it is due, and for this as for other Dutch soundboard recordings we must acknowledge the work of Virginia S Y who obtained the relevant permissions to record the gig directly via the mixing desk on a Nakamichi. The gig itself was notable as the band’s first on mainland Europe with Wayne Hussey in the line-up, and was separated from the other Dutch gigs on that tour (detailed elsewhere on this blog) by dates in Germany and Belgium. In interviews within the past decade, Andrew has let it slip that spends much of his time in Holland, by the sea, and there would be few better places to live than the achingly 'hip' historic, administrative and cultural city of Den Haag (known in English as The Hague) and its associated seaside resort Scheveningen. 

The Paard van Troje, like the Vera (Groningen), is a venue with a real history which continues to thrive to this day. A former girls boarding school, the venue which opened in 1972 is hidden behind a typically proud stone built façade in Prinsengracht, with the multi-coloured “P” sign the biggest clue to its presence. The date of the Sisters visit was significant for another reason, in that it was also Hussey’s birthday. Whether it was a result of early celebration or his novice status in the band cannot be verified, but certainly the standard of guitar playing was not quite of the standard which we came to expect, notably on Floorshow, Gimme Shelter and Heartland. At one point Hussey cheekily teases the crowd by playing the opening bars of Temple of Love, which famously had not been played live since the previous incarnation of the band, to the delight of the crowd, and Eldritch good-humouredly explains that the guitarist should be indulged because of his birthday! 

The singer himself was in fine form, and featuring prominently in the live sound mix, his words can be easily distinguished, allowing a couple of long-standing lyrical conundrums. For example, on Adrenochrome, the 7” studio version seems to trail off after the phrase “for the freedom of…”, and on most live versions Eldritch simply seems to make an “uh” sound. The magnificent Den Haag bootleg however seems to reveal the singer clearly saying the word “stuff” to end the line. Likewise, on this tour the band trialled the new song Walk Away, which was still in its embryonic form at this stage, with Von mumbling the opening verse lyrics as if unsure of them, in a sadly now familiar style. What is clear on this recording (and to a certain extent other recordings of this era) however is that the line that would become “And when the rains comes down" began life as “When the flies come down”, potentially leaving Von in single entendre Kiss The Carpet lyrical mode...

The recording of this gig is a fascinating insight into the band at a crucial moment in their development, with the band's sound fuller and more professional, the guitar lines more intricately delineated, and Eldritch's vocal clearer than ever, and all the more enchantingly vulnerable for it. Although the band can still punk up the older numbers, they retain much of the charm of the earlier incarnation, before pomposity and distance from the audience became more of a norm.

The gig was reviewed in the venerable Dutch rock magazine OOR (and many thanks to the legendary Phil Verne (of the unofficial TSOM 1980-1985 Facebook fan page) once again for allowing me access to his copy), and like many of those on mainland Europe at the time seems more favourable to the band. OOR (Dutch for “EAR”) reviewer Swie Tio says that the gig attracted a “reasonable number of fans…who did not come for nothing” for the band’s “brief but exciting set, steeped in intensity…despite slightly lengthy breaks” ( a phrase which would bring a rye smile to the lips of those who had seen the band the previous year). After comparing the two guitarists to a "college boy and a John Cooper Clarke lookalike", warming to the band’s “heavy but no less compelling discobeat”, the reviewer concludes “The encores were deserved. Next time there will be a full house. To sum up, the Sisters have got “it””. Amen to that.

My thanks for this post are due to Phil V, Ollie C, Phil M, Virginia SY and all others who have helped to preserve the sound and image of TSOM at their peak.