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 

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