Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The March Violets : Mortality Pledge Project reviewed

(This post breaks with the recent tradition of researching 1983 TSOM gigs and like previous posts reviewing new releases by Leather Nun and Salvation, talks of a new album of interest to TSOM fans)

The Yuletide excitement of childhood returned this year for many ageing goths, with many sprinting down the stairs on Christmas morning to see if the kindly bearded gent had left the promised delivery. Expectation reached fever pitch as laptops and tablets booted up to discover the e-mailed link to the download of the latest March Violets Pledge project, Mortality, put together by said kindly bearded gent, Mr Si Denbigh.
The March Violets are unquestionably the band most inextricably associated with TSOM, initially (summer of 1982) proving more popular than the Girls themselves on Eldritch's Merciful Release label, and Si Denbigh's crew continued to be an (unwitting?) inspiration throughout the 80s. Twin male and female "beauty and the beast" image ? That's the Floodland band image sorted. Old school all-male leather-clad rockers (Batfish Boys) ? Quelle surprise, here comes Vision Thing. Although Denbigh and Eldritch may have fallen out in the early 80s with the Violets leaving to form their own label, Rebirth, the rift was soon healed and Si served for many years as "Nurse to the Doktor", an integral part of TSOM's live entourage, until the successful reformation of the Violets (initially in 2007, then more seriously from 2011) saw him leave to re-graze former pastures.

The Violets' return was concretised with the critical success of their 2013 Pledge project resulting in the Made Glorious album, comprising the best of the songs since the band’s reformation, covering a plethora of styles but with all of the traditional elements still in place : Denbigh and (original) female vocalist Rosie Garland's very different but well-matched vocals complementing each other, the faithful mechanised clank of drum machine Dr Rhythm, the six string alchemy of vastly under-rated guitarist Tom Ashton producing as full a sound from his one guitar as most goth bands manage with two, and the driving bass sound of then new recruit, Jo Violet. However, two years later, in August 2015, the latter's departure from the band was confirmed by Denbigh on social media, as he prepared to launch the new Pledge project for 2015, the Mortality Tour and Album. This innovative idea was to give fans the chance to virtually accompany the Violets on their North American tour in the Autumn, at the end of which the band would head into the studio for a few days to re-record some old favourites in time for Christmas download release. Although the idea only attracted a couple of hundred pledgers initially, those who did sign up received regular video updates from the tour, including video footage of rehearsals, life on the road and some of the weird and wonderful venues which the band were booked into.
Joining the band for this project as Joanna Moy's replacement was none other than American goth royalty William Coulter, better known by his stage name William Faith, and former member of (amongst others) Mephisto Walz and of course Faith and the Muse (his partner in the latter band, the iconic Monica Richards having contributed a remix to the double CD for Pledgers on the Made Glorious project). The tour itself was a great success, with the set list gradually evolving to include more songs from the early 80's and fewer from the reformation, and ending with a gig on (appropriately) Hallowe'en in Chicago where they were joined on stage by the legendary Mars Williams, saxophonist with the current line-up of The Psychedelic Furs, and who coincidentally can beheard on the new promo video by Satellite Paradiso, the latest project by former Furs guitarist and of course Alice/Floorshow producer John Ashton. Mars stayed on in Chicago to add his jazz noodlings to a couple of the tracks in the subsequent recording sessions, which the workaholic Denbigh then tweaked over the remaining weeks of the year whilst also providing Pledgers with a highly novel countdown to the release of the Mortality album download in the form of an online advent calendar, featuring further unseen footage from the tour. Finally, in the early hours of Christmas morning, the download was made available, and we had our first chance to hear the finished songs (although further production and indeed track selection may have taken place by the time the physical CDs and vinyl releases are available later in 2016).
The first thing that was immediately apparent was that we had one brand new track, as previewed during the tour, entitled Mortality, a dark and fast-paced song with an understated chorus which would have sat very happily on Made Glorious. Elsewhere, the final selection of the other nine tracks revealed that none of the songs from the debut Religious as Hell EP had made the cut, but that both A and some B sides of the subsequent five indie chart-topping singles (Grooving in Green, Crow Baby, Snake Dance, Walk Into The Sun and Deep) are all present and correct. It's fair to say that none of the versions are drastically different from the originals - with more "arch" vocal phrasing here, some extra bass motifs there, and a bit (or indeed a lot) of jazz sax squawking on the likes of Lights Go Out and Walk Into The Sun - but the production is much fuller, and the songs which have all stood the test of time sound all the more potent for it. For the anorak completist (guilty as charged m'lud) there is the pleasure of hearing Rosie's more dulcet tones on some of the later tracks (rather than Cleo’s less subtle and pitchier vocals), and Simon's vocal (rightfully) restored to Deep (as he was unceremoniously booted out of the band before the single's release, although he did sing on the earlier BBC session version).
So all in all another successful Pledge project for the Violets, with the latest tally getting on for 200% of the original target set, two more legendary figures (Williams and Faith) added to the mix, and proof that there is still a great deal of interest for Violets music both new and old. With other new songs potentially in the pipeline, plus a large number of unreleased songs from the early/mid 80s (Miracle of the Rose, Big Soul Kiss, Kill The Delight etc etc) still available for (or is this wishful thinking on my part?) a future Pledge project, although the Violets are clearly aware of their own Mortality, this latest offering shows that there is plenty of life left in the old dog yet. Play loud, play purple!

(At the time of writing, it is still possible to "pledge" on this highly recommended project - http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/mortality )

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Wake(y) Wake(y) ! Choruses from behind the chippy ?

Leeds may be by some distance the largest city in West Yorkshire, but traditionally the county town and the site of the local cathedral was the “Merrie City” of Wakefield, some nine miles away and now dominated by its much bigger neighbour. TSOM always had a strong following from the area at early gigs (the self-appointed “God Squad”) and Gary Marx has connections with the town, but gigographies of the band list no concerts by the band there, despite persistent rumours to the contrary. Another Sisters Mystery waiting to be solved?
Heartland member PiB, an authority on most things TSOM from the eighties era, states in a discussion thread on the Forum that the “God Squad” were originally roadies and various hangers-on from the town and that TSOM played “at least two secret gigs for them at a pub in Wakefield. It was the pub where they started. I do know for definite that there was a gig at the Hellfire Club, before the Reptile House tour, and that a tape exists.”

All this remained the second-hand reporting of an ex-roadie’s reminiscences until a few weeks ago, when new Heartland member Poisonheart (describing himself as a “citizen of Wakefield”, a phrase often used by Eldritch to describe the followers back in the day – see the mention on the label of the 7” of 1983’s Temple of Love – “Thanks to Pontiac (Detroit) and the Citizens of Wakefield”) on mentioning how much he’d enjoyed the recent (October 2015)Manchester gig by the current line-up, the first time he’d seen the band since ’84 having increasingly lost interest after the release of The Reptile House EP. Astonishingly, in response to further posts he then revealed, almost en passant, “I’d also swear that I saw the band in Wakefield [in addition to early Leeds gigs], but can’t be 100% on that, but if we did I would say The Strafford Arms ?” This would certainly fit in with PiB’s information, but when the latter joined the conversation to suggest “The Hellfire Club” as the venue, Poisonheart agreed that that was indeed most likely the case.
The Hellfire Club was a noted posi-punk/goth club night based at Heppy’s nightclub, a somewhat unusual venue in the town. Situated in an alleyway off the Bullring, Heppy’s belonged to Frank Hepworth, an old-school nightclub impresario and entertainer known (according to his obituary in the Wakefield Express in 2001) for his “madcap anecdotes and exploits” and who sang with his own band The Kalahari Bushmen, a big local draw.  
He and some friends had converted an old workshop premises into Heppy’s Fish and Chicken restaurant with a nightclub at the rear in the 1960’s in the town’s Radcliffe Yard, and like many clubs at the time, took advantage of a loophole in the licensing laws which meant that punters who were dining could be served alcohol. Effectively, patrons were given a burger or a bag of chips (which they would often instantly bin) with their entry fee, enabling them to be served alcohol! “I always found it strange walking through the chippy to get into a club,” says Poisonheart “but it was part of its character.” The club had already had success in the late 60’s as The Place, a noted Northern Soul night, and tried its luck again in 1983 with a regular series of gigs promoting the cream of the posi-punk movement.
Test Dept, Virgin Prunes, The Fall (Brix Smith’s first ever gig with the band), Flesh for Lulu and The Meteors are just some of the bands who appeared at the venue (on the now renamed Radcliffe Place), with the latter’s performance video-ed and now available on DVD from Cherry Red, who have placed a couple of extracts on YT which allow us to have some idea of the club’s internal dimensions. The club is also mentioned as a seminal outpost of the nascent gothic movement in a couple of recent publications, Dave Haslam’s history of clubbing “Life After Dark”, which quotes David Peace (author of “The Damned United”) as a regular attender,  and the rather more patchy (and bizarre) history of The Batcave scene written in French by Thierry F. (“Le Boucanier”) who toured the UK with his band, Troops for Tomorrow”. “We loved the Hellfire Club in Wakefield which was even dingier than The Batcave and where they played darker, more obscure goth tracks. They even projected the film “The Evil Dead” behind us on stage whilst we played” (the venue having one of the North’s biggest video screens at the time, used mainly on more regular “meat market” clubbing nights during the rest of the week).

Sadly, as this unfocussed aerial photo proves, like its colourful former owner Heppy’s is no more, being now a car park seen towards the centre of the shot.  But what about TSOM - all that was now needed was to ascertain a definitive date for the early Wakefield gig, apparently in Spring 1983. Enter another Sisters veteran fan, one of the founder members of “The God Squad”, “a name that started in Wakefield in early 1983. There were only a few of us at first, but many other people became involved,” he told revered Sisters archivist Phil Verne. Bad news was to follow : “I do not remember the Sisters playing a gig in Wakefield between 1982 and 1984…A few of us used to take turns to DJ at The Hellfire Club. For one night a week we would help convert the club into an indie venue. We had a huge camouflage net that we fixed to the roof and played “horror” videos on the big screen…We were lucky enough to find a copy of “The Evil Dead” before it was censored…. Many bands played there, Gene Loves Jezebel, Living in Texas, 1919 etc…but I am pretty sure that neither the Sisters nor the Violets ever played there. There was quite a bit of damage at the club after one of The Meteors’ gigs, and the owner was not very happy!!! So it was like the beginning of the end of the club.”

This authoritative account is surely also the beginning of the end for this Sisters mystery … unless anyone can prove otherwise?

As usual, many thanks to all who have provided information for this post, including the anonymous veteran Sisters fan, Poisonheart, PiB, Phil Verne and others. Thank you for your generosity in sharing your memories.