Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Sisters XXXV The greatest gig ever ?

(Today, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of TSOM as a live entity, we have a special extra-long post examining what was possibly the greatest TSOM gig of all time)

What was the greatest ever TSOM gig ? Many would always say that it was the first or last time they saw the band (see what I did there?). Others would plump for one of the big event gigs, like the Royal Albert Hall showcase or the Reading Festival set which closed that year’s event. Others still would choose a favourite high quality recording from the Hussey era, such as Nijmegen, Newcastle or Milan. But for me, there’s one gig that stands out above all others, thanks to some low-fi grainy footage which was taken at the time, featuring the band in their prime, in the days before excessive use of dry ice, frock coat and fedora fancy dress, and increasingly large venues began to diminish the effect of the Sisters’ live potency.

The date at Peterborough Technical College on Saturday 23rd April seemed at the time to be a bit of an anomaly, as TSOM had been contracted to tour with the Gun Club around the UK at that time, and the latter were due to play at Sheffield Dingwalls that night, with TSOM billed to appear as support on contemporary flyers. However, the band clearly had a prior commitment in the Fens, (indeed the closest gig the band has ever played to Eldritch’s birth town of Ely), and so Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Patricia Morrison et al took to the stage alone in Steel City that night, staving off the nightly fear of being upstaged by the Northern upstart support. The Sisters’ own appearance in Peterborough caused something of a stir in the provincial town, not a major stopping-off point for most indie bands who preferred to play in Leicester or Norwich (as TSOM themselves had done previously). Johnny M on Heartland Forum (in 2006) said “I lived opposite the College at the time and only popped across to the gig as I had nothing to do and was curious. 23 years later…”  The gig had a similarly profound effect on others, like Jack K who told me “There were very few gigs in Peterborough back then, just the Destructors, awful “Oi” stuff” (of whom more later). Another HL member, Loki, writing on the Forum some twenty years after the gig, said “I only found out about it a couple of days beforehand, seeing my local bus stop plastered with flyers for the gig and I thought “why not?” I went to the gig … and came away shell-shocked”.

What was it about this gig that meant that it had such an impact on those present ? The clues are (unwittingly) in the comments above, but for further evidence I am yet again hugely indebted to the very generous LG and Phil Verne for opening their incredible archives of TSOM memorabilia to produce the following poster and press cutting (respectively) for the gig, confirming some key details. Crucial for me is the list of support acts, “Demons of Youth” and “Expozez”. Google these two names and you will not find the relevant artists, as Huddersfield punks Xpozez’s name has been misspelt (hardly surprising as TSOM have lost their article, typically shoddy fact-checking by amateur promoters of that era) and Demons of Youth is a pseudonym for that afore-mentioned band of local heroes, the hardcore punk band The Destructors, whose fame had spread amongst the dying punk movement far beyond their native Cambridgeshire, a pseudonym based on the title of their most recent album to date at that time (“Exercise the demons of youth”).

Not only did TSOM have to follow the local legends in front of their loyal and baying punk audience, but they had to do so after an incendiary set from The Destructors,  which they were clearly so happy with that it later formed the basis of their Live LP “Armageddon in Action” - and all played through TSOM’s own backline. The Destructors teenage (a couple of years younger even than Ben Gunn!) prodigy guitarist, Graeme “Gizz” Butt (pictured second left), whose own innovative and influential playing style made an impression on later US grunge stars and lead to spells with The Prodigy and recently even Fields of The Nephilim (!), told Ian Glasper in the well-reviewed book “Burning Britain : the History of UK Punk 1980-1984” “The tracks were recorded at a gig where we supported The Sisters of Mercy. They let us use all of their gear which sounded great. The guitars are mega-loud and the drums are compressed all to hell, so the sound is really powerful.”

The same can be said of the TSOM performance in the echoey sports hall, fortunately captured for posterity by a lone video cameraman on the balcony, a shortened low-generation copy of which is available for all to see on YouTube. Johnny M (again posting on Heartland Forum) sums up the situation beautifully : “Taped from the balcony so lousy acoustics and sound distortion as the Girls were too loud for whichever tiny audio mic was trying to record them. Rough ’83 fodder, but just the way we like it”. This was also surely one of the gigs which Gary Marx was referring to the following year on the Radio Merseyside interview when he said “We’re not used to playing at such volume, and when we do, there’s an electricity that runs through us.”

But what of the gig itself ? The video recording starts with “Heartland”, but an audio recording (far superior in sound to the fuzzy video) which contains the full gig predictably start with the usual 1983 opening trio of “Kiss The Carpet”, “Alice” and “Anaconda”, making the set the usual 45 minute mark. The band seem to relish the challenge of winning over an audience more used to the likes of The Exploited and GBH, and it is clear from probably the liveliest TSOM moshpit ever that any prospect of them being blown off stage was immediately banished. Jack Kearney remembers that “not many people were there”, but those who were managed multiple stage invasions, as there appears to be no effective barrier between band and crowd, and if there were any bouncers provided by the local rugby club as suggested in this article on the venue, they had long since fled.

Everyone will have their own favourite song from the video footage of the show, despite its poor technical quality, and mine is definitely the start of “Floorshow” (the audio version of which has been very kindly uploaded to YouTube by Sisters collector Phil Verne for us all to enjoy), where Craig stops playing in his intro solo momentarily to “encourage” an over-enthusiastic punk stage invader to leave the stage, only for the latter to appear back on stage a few seconds later to ruffle both Gary’s and Ben's hair (the latter was admittedly a very tempting target, as can be seen in the photo below which was taken at the gig, arguably the best live shot of his time in the band). You wouldn’t get that level of disrespect down the Warehouse. Other 1983 footage (London, Glasgow, Amsterdam for example) is of far better technical quality, but the sound level is lower and the crowd too static to give the impression of the real excitement of a live 1983 Sisters show, something which the Peterborough film effortlessly renders.

“Heartland” and “Valentine” both showcase the slower, more powerfully melodic new material the band was working on at the time, but “Jolene” ushers in the first stage invasion as a dancer is ushered off stage by subtle use of Marx’s guitar. After an incendiary “Adrenochrome” and the full-throttle “Floorshow”, the punks seem to have had their fun and are less evident in the crowd shots from an ear-bleeding “Body Electric” (which closed the main set) onwards. The first encore of “Gimme Shelter” sees fans up on shoulders and finds Gary Marx struggling to pick out the melody, a state of affairs which continues in a somewhat shambolic wall-of-noise “Sister Ray”, which Eldritch’s ultra-echoey vocal somehow manages to bring back on track during the quieter passages. The song ends chaotically with Adams suddenly taking off his bass and leaving the stage, quickly followed by Marx (who had been lying on his back at that stage) and Gunn, leaving Eldritch to bring things to a close a capella, as he had on the previous song.

Remarkably for those who have seen the full footage of the gig (and not the abridged YouTube version), the cameraman left his camera running for six minutes after the end of Sister Ray, enabling us (except for viewers in Germany, thanks to copyright issues with the post gig music) to uniquely watch the band casually inter-acting with each other and with their followers after the show (again thanks to Phil Verne's generosity in uploading this). The post-gig tape music (an obscure king Sunny Ade track, fact fans) is even initially interrupted by an enthusiastic Ben Gunn, who encourages over the mic those remaining to come to see the band supporting the Gun Club the following evening in the Lyceum in London. After a panning shot across the college’s main hall (allowing us to see the sixty or so fans who remained), we see Claire who appears from the moshpit carrying a large boogie-box and puts it down on the edge of the stage, and then chats with Andrew who is kneeling at the front of the stage. The latter, scarf still dangling from his belt then goes down into the pit and chats with Craig and Ben who have also left the rest of the stage tidying task to the roadies. Gary can also be seen walking past, his shoe held together by tape. This mingling with fans before and after shows was a regular occurrence at shows of this era, and Jack K remembers a roadie asking him if the band could sleep at his place that night, and to his eternal regret, he declined !

The band also found time to sign a few copies of the Alice/Floorshow 7” single for the local indie record shop, rare copies indeed with all four signatures, one of which was bought by a Jayne P and later sold on to Phil Verne, who reveals that Ben (clearly unused to signing autographs) had also initially signed it on the back ! Perhaps unsurprisingly, not many other bands seem to have played the Technical College after TSOM, and it changed its name to Peterborough Regional College in 1987, and in 2009 the College opened a new satellite campus of Anglia Ruskin University called University Centre Peterborough. 

The Sisters never returned to Peterborough, but their performance there made a lasting impression not only to the lucky few locals who attended and were turned into long-term obsessive fans, but also those of us who have come to enjoy the band at their wildest and most potent, loud and punky, Eldritch snaked around the mic like a cross between Jim Morrison and Joey Ramone, Marx careering out of control across the stage battering the hell out of his guitar whilst somehow (occasionally) picking out familiar riffs, Gunn providing an extra dimension to fill out the sound, whilst Adams prowls the stage as the enforcer at the same time as laying down the scuzziest of bass riffs since the first Motorhead album. If they have ever bettered the second half of that gig – Jolene /Adrenochrome / Floorshow /Body Electric /Gimme Shelter/ Sister Ray – I would love to hear it. If anyone is still in any doubt, in one interview Andrew Eldritch himself acknowledged this period as the band’s live zenith, nominating the London show with the Gun Club the next day as the best the Sisters ever played. 

As ever, I would like to acknowledge the huge amount of assistance given to me in compiling this post, particularly by inveterate colllectors Phil Verne and LG who have once again generously shared items from their treasured collections. If you have any old Sisters memorabilia gathering dust, they would love to hear from you! Thanks to to Jack K and others who were lucky enough to be at the show and have shared what they can remember from what was a very special evening.