Thursday, 17 March 2016

Remembering Ben Gunn : the best Gap Year(s) ever ??

Ben Gunn’s recruitment to TSOM coincided with the “golden run” of singles in the eighteen months from “Body Electric/Adrenochrome” (April 1982) to “Temple of Love” released in October 1983, the month he left the band, but although he played with the group at what many contend to be their “live” peak, he has been relegated to a footnote in Sisters’ history, whereas the equally brief smoke’n’hats era of his replacement Wayne Hussey (84/85) has commanded thousands of column inches, and still continues to do so.
Benjamin Matthews, like Andrew Eldritch, was a Southerner by birth, but his family moved to Leeds from Clapham (South London) when he was in upper primary school, and a few years later he received the call to join TSOM whilst still at high school during the winter of 81/82. “I joined the band about 18 months ago,” he told Leeds fanzine Whippings and Apologies in 1983. “I got to know the band through some ex-Expelaires [former group of Craig Adams and of Wolfie from the Lorries] and things went on from there.  They rang me up one day and asked if I wanted to join their band and I said “no” at first because I was in the middle of my A Levels. So they spent ages convincing me that they were going to be the biggest thing Britain had seen since The Stones or The Beatles. I didn’t really believe it and asked them for the name of the band. They said, “We’re The Sisters of Mercy” and I said ok, I’d join straight away.”

Matthews (rechristened Ben Gunn after the character in RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island) was in situ by the time the band played York in Feb 1982 (famously reviewed by Adam Sweeting and with Jon Langford guesting on bass as Craig was on holiday!), with the journalist noting : “As Dr Avalanche pumps through the PA like a battery of AK-47s, the bespectacled Ben Gunn cowers behind his guitar at the back of the stage. A slight and tremulous figure, how could he be caught up in this hideous barrage of sound ? He won’t tell me, and he won’t have his picture taken.”

Although Gunn seemed to come increasingly out of his shell thereafter, and became more of a part of the band’s image with his longer “fright”-cut-and-overcoat look (as shown in this photo from the legendary Peterborough gig kindly provided from the collection of Phil “Spiggytapes” Verne), his move to the front right-hand side of the stage as Craig took increasingly to the rear, and his role as Nurse to the Dr during lives shows, Eldritch remained ambivalent about his importance. On the one hand, in another 1983 interview he opined, “Ben’s got a much more open mind on things. The balance of all these four [ie himself, Craig, Ben and Gary] is what makes it work”, but a decade later, interviewed by Kenny Garden for UTR, he played down Ben’s part in the band’s rising fortunes at the time ; “He was there a lot longer than some of the others. On the other hand he didn’t really do anything so it’s fair enough [that you never hear about him]. He’s never made out that it was much to do with him at all…He never really got the plot. That was one of the fun things about having him around, cause … he always looked like the archetypal dork and in a lot of ways it made sense…it was another way of saying this is not cock-rock.” Seeing as Matthews’ lawyers had recently (rightly) demanded his cut from the royalties of the SGWBM compilation in 1992, Eldritch had a vested interest in diminishing Gunn’s role in the band, but the simple fact of the matter was that the addition of a permanent second guitarist in 1982 (after short shifts by the likes of Tom Ashton and Dave Humphries) fleshed out what became the definitive Sisters sound, heard to best effect on the 1983 live cover versions of Emma and Gimme Shelter for example, Gunn’s chords and riffs on his trusty Vanguard adding depth and rhythm to the mix.
Unfortunately, the growing rock’n’roll pantomime surrounding The Sisters began to take its toll, and the guitarist left the band shortly after their first US dates on the East Coast in September 1983, during which he and Eldritch were interviewed by Khaaryn of Truly Needy magazine, which gave some insight into the growing rift between singer and guitarist. (Khaaryn : What do you try to do on stage ? Ben : Performance-wise ? Do you mean the way we project ourselves ? I don’t know…I’m …I just try and project what I…I’m…I don’t know.   Andrew : Ben projects a great deal of confusion!) Ben’s departure left the band to perform as a three piece for the Stockholm and Californian gigs in late October, by which time Hussey had already been recruited as his replacement.. The following year he told Jayne Houghton in ZigZag magazine “They were always taking the piss out of the system, which is why I was in the band, until they started taking themselves more seriously. Now [the Hussey major label era was well underway by this time] they’re no better than anyone else. Worse, in fact.” Gunn was of course five years younger than Eldritch, and with the latter now beginning to see TSOM as a viable career option and seeking a deal with a major record label, with all the restrictions and obligations that such a move would inevitably entail, it was clear that Gunn had a different agenda. A more neutral observer and fellow escapee, Gary Marx, was quoted by Heartland Forum boss Quiff Boy in 2014 on the issue : “I asked Marx about Ben a few years ago now, and he said that he [Gunn] was a quiet John Peel indie kid who loved the intellectual side of guitar playing and hated the “sex drugs and rock and roll” side of The Sisters. I [QB] gather that he wasn’t too comfortable as Eldritch immersed himself in the sub-Led Zep rock and roll lizard king schtick. It figures that he’d leave in about ’83 when the band were getting more and more into that “mode”.”
When asked about the line-up change at the time , Eldritch told the German “Spex” magazine in 1984 “He left us to go to university. He had to get something into his head. It was a necessary evil”. Thus it was that Matthews, after a brief spell as a rock svengali, setting up Flame On records to release the first single by Mel Cockshutt’s Anabas and allegedly trying to set up his own band, the Torch (“We never really existed. That was just another piss-take to get me a few extra lines in the music press. It worked!”), went off to Liverpool University to study Economics. Whilst there, he was apparently in a “comedy” impromptu blues band called Stanley The Counting Horse after a local equine mathematical genius celebrity, clearly further indulging his love for taking the mick out of the music industry. Effectively however,  he had by then left the music business for good, after what must have been the craziest Gap Year(s) in history.

(Stanley the Counting Horse - photo by Jason Barnard)

Subsequent sightings have been rare, mainly word-of-mouth anecdotes or information gleaned from a Friends Reunited profile, but he clearly wishes to enjoy his privacy and not seek to profit further from his time in the band, a right which I shall naturally respect. His tenure in the band and subsequent departure may have been less controversial than Hussey’s, but for many Gunn was a key and essential member of the definitive TSOM line-up.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Sisters XXXV The worst TSOM gig ever ?

(Following the previous post, to continue to celebrate the 35th anniversary of TSOM as a live entity, we look at what was possibly the worst TSOM gig of all time)

If Peterborough 1983 was (one of) the best Sisters gig ever, nominating the worst is equally easy for me. There are many who would state that one of the mumbling and barking, fogbound performances of the last decade, with no “live” bass and (initially) rookie, unknown guitarists, would easily take that accolade, but there were many off-days “back in the day”, as Von himself has testified.
Indeed, the misfiring drum machine, stage invasion pauses, forgotten lyrics and more than occasional bum guitar notes were as much a feature of the early gigs as the white-hot atmosphere, the impassioned vocals and the throbbing basslines. And listening back to a recording of the gig described to me by champion concert cassette collector Phil Verne as “chaos”, one cannot but put forward the view that the gig at the then Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) Students’ Union in October 1982 was the ropiest of them all.
Gary Marx stated that the first proper tour the Sisters undertook was in March 1983, and as headliners this was most certainly the case, but the previous autumn they had played a series of dates in support of the Psychedelic Furs around the universities of England, as the links between the two grew stronger (Furs’ manager Les Mills was a noted fan, as was guitarist John Ashton who had just done production duties on the iconic breakthrough “Alice/Floorshow” single released at that time).

Not for the first time, my thanks are due to long-time fan Ali H, for whom this was her first view of the band, and who has unearthed her unusually colourful entry ticket that night (photographed by Phil V), with TSOM just listed as “support” and give the same billing as the disco. This would probably have reflected the views of most of those who were in attendance, who had almost exclusively come to see the Furs, who at that stage had just released their third LP, the acclaimed “Forever Now”, which featured the likes of breakthrough single “Love My Way” and firm fan favourite “President Gas”. Ali’s plans also reflected this hierarchy : “We used to stand and play on the old arcade machine (the caterpillar game) whilst the support bands were playing. But funnily enough, THAT night, we were busy playing, then I said “Hang on, these sound good”, went to watch, and lo and behold it was The Sisters of Mercy”!
However, although the band's overall sound was enough to entice Ali away from the arcade machines, listening to a recording of the gig leads one to agree more with Andrew Eldritch, who in the 1990s began to grow tired of those who constantly viewed the mid-80's version of the band and their live shows through rose-tinted spectacles. In a landmark interview with Kenny Garden in Underneath The Rock, he moaned, "But people paint a very pink picture of that time...I was there. And I remember on how few occasions we played everything right."
The Leicester gig had more than its fair share of wrong notes. Last year Phil Verne shared this recording of Body Electric from the gig, the earliest (yet) known recording of the song played live, which is almost unlistenable due to some discordant noises coming from one of the guitars, despite the lengthy period of time required to prepare the guitars for the track. These lengthy pauses were what Eldritch hated about live performance, and his legendary inter-song banter with the crowd (here restricted to a rather unsubtle dismissive comment to a heckler before Body Electric eventually starts) was for him a necessary evil, filling the silence to cover his embarrassment.
At this gig however, there seemed to be almost as many bum notes as correct ones, starting with a discordant Kiss The Carpet so chaotic that I was initially unsure that it was actually the Sisters themselves, the normally pitch perfect Eldritch missing the opening cue by at least half an octave. Things barely improve as Floorshow, after a more promising start, threatens to grind to a halt, rescued only by Von, as the band struggled for whatever reason - poor sound mix on the monitors on stage, pre-gig "refreshments" or lack of soundcheck time, to name but three possible reasons. The next two tracks (an early as yet incomplete version of Anaconda and the new single Alice) saw matters deteriorate further, as this new extract provided by the ever-generous Phil Verne will prove. Like most TSOM (and indeed Ghost Dance) guitar solos, the key riff of Anaconda was largely designed to be picked out on one string, hardly a major technical feat of guitar showmanship, but it goes badly wrong here, in a very early outing for the song which was being premiered on this tour. The October ’82 version features incomplete lyrics, with large swathes of the final version seemingly not yet written. Intriguingly, the chorus features different words, with a subtle shift of emphasis. Eldritch’s “We will walk away” seems to be offering a threat of withdrawal of support should the protagonist fail to kick the drug habit, whereas the final version sees the narrator simply observing the addict’s descent to “the other side”.
The similarly straightforward Alice intro suffers a similar fast-fingered fretwork fault fate. This was sadly by no means a one-off experience (check the Glasgow Night Moves video footage for further evidence), and by the York Rock Festival in 1984 Wayne Hussey can clearly be seen playing the opening “Alice” riff, with Gary joining in only when the bass really gets going in the second half of the intro. Hussey was of course a far more experienced guitar player, having played his trade with Dead Or Alive and Pauline Murray to name but two, yet was visually also a much more static and sober (at least in one sense of the word) player. Marx's more chaotic and energetic performance was a key part of the band’s live appeal, bringing a punky anarchic spirit to what can otherwise be a very dry live aesthetic. Certainly, by the time the band headed out on the road for the Body and Soul promoting tour in Spring 1984, there was a new professionalism about the band, which was largely to last through to the end of the next decade.
Most recordings of the Leicester Poly gig follow “Alice” with just the one further track (the version of “Body Electric” discussed above), seemingly sealing Leicester Poly’s fate as the worst gig ever. But a full recording of the gig, somehow unearthed all these years later by supreme Sisters collector LG, picks up somewhat after that, despite continued guitar issues and occasional pitch problems from Von, with a vibrant “Adrenochrome” (preceded by Von announcing “We haven’t played this one for a long time”), a passable “Watch”, a largely decent (pre-retirement ) “1969” and a typically robust if raw “Sister Ray” before the “Body Electric” encore finale. For all the mistakes and glitches, shows like that at Leicester Poly in October 82 capture the band at their most exhilarating, when every gig was an event and the band were at the cutting edge of alternative culture, a potent mix which makes researching and revisiting these old gigs in unpromising soulless venues such an absolute delight. The Leicester Poly arena survived as a gig venue after the rebranding as De Montfort University, famously hosting a warm-up gig by Kraftwerk in 1992. Very recently, as can be seen from this StreetView image, the Students’ Union area on Newarke Close down by the River Soar has been refurbished, as the university continues to expand.

Once again, my (indeed our) thanks are due to Ali H, LG and Phil V for their extensive contributions to this post. If anyone was at a 1981-1983 gig not yet covered on this blog, please do not hesitate to get in touch