Wednesday, 28 September 2016

9 while 9:30 Washington DC, 10th September 1983

With the schedule retrospectively filling up rapidly, it’s difficult to believe that there are many more unlisted TSOM gigs in 1983 left to rediscover, but another show which definitely took place is the band’s first visit to the legendary 9:30 club in Washington DC on Saturday 10th September 1983 as part of their first US mini-tour.

Those who have only begun to follow the band more recently may well recognise the name of this venue, a stalwart of the DC live music scene for thirty-five years, as TSOM have visited the iconic club subsequently in 1999, 2006 and 2008, but by these shows the club had moved to larger and more salubrious premises than in 1983, when it occupied the rear lower floor of the Atlantic Building at 930 F Street Northwest, hence the name of the club. In those days, the club was synonymous with the capital’s vibrant punk scene, and the ambiance of the long entrance hall can be seen in this fabulous archive footage of a surprisingly normal looking audience filing in and out of a Minor Threat gig in 1983, proving that the American punk look was never more extreme than that modelled by Johnny Slash on contemporary US high school comedy Square Pegs. The hallway (inspiration for future Eldritch lyrics??) was the scene of a shooting after a Yellowman gig in October 1983, just a month after TSOM’s visit, as the club had begun to acquire a violent reputation very different to the original atmosphere of the early 80’s as described in the Washington City Paper in 1995 : “In addition to music fans, the club attracted gays, art-scene makers, and new wave socialites like Natasha Reatig. ‘The place looked absolutely beautiful,’ remembers Reatig, a regular during the early years. ‘It was dark and very spare. The back bar was very elegant.”

Originally rented as rehearsal space in the somewhat faded grandeur of the Atlantic Building (at the cutting edge of contemporary architecture when it was built in 1888), the 9:30 club inherited from its predecessor Atlantis the mantle of being the punk place to hang out in Washington, and The Police, Cramps, REM, Killing Joke, Dead Kennedys and Nirvana were amongst many up-and-coming bands who paid their dues at the 9:30, attracted by promoter Seth Hurwitz’s ambitious booking policy. According to the local history blog Boundary Stones, the “cramped, L-shaped space…legally only accommodated 199 patrons, but often attracted many more. In 1983, then-Washington Post feature writer Lloyd Grove described it as “a bit of down-town Washington awash in the New Wave, replete with exotic characters clad in biker jackets…It’s fairly cheap, usually a $5 cover – but it’s also almost unrelievedly, crashingly loud”, noting a total lack of seating inspired by New York’s Danceteria and intended to keep the punters dancing.
TSOM’s visit to the club in 1983 isn’t mentioned in the official gigography on the band’s website, nor is it listed on the increasingly accurate records of the Wiki gigography. However, Eldritch made a very brief mention of it in a New York radio interview later (on 15th September 1983), when discussing how the band had gone down on the US tour so far, a fact that ubiquitous collector Phil Verne had picked up on. “To me, records are for assessing, gigs are for participating, especially when you come over on tour, it’s a strange place and you have sound problems, you really need the feedback more than usual from an audience. In Philadelphia we didn’t really get it, Washington was pretty much the same, Boston was good.”
Intriguing, but hardly definitive evidence of the gig having been played at the 9:30. However, Phil also came across a fellow TSOM fan on FB who had been at the gig. Ginnie Hruz Miller was certain that she had seen the band in DC, but puzzled that it wasn’t listed anywhere. “I definitely saw them in Washington DC in the early 80s. It was at the 9:30 Club which used to have an early show and a late show for some bands (yes, two shows in one night). My friend and I got lost on the way from Baltimore to DC and we missed the first show and were very happy to learn there was a second one, which we saw in its entirety. It was at the former 9:30 location, which was very small, and I was right up in front of Andrew, literally within an arm's reach. It was thrilling. I also have a close up few photos taken by my friend who went with me. Sadly, I cannot find the ticket, but the 9:30 Club was a very small venue back in those days, so perhaps they did not issue officially printed tickets as they do nowadays. I do recall that my friend and I did not buy tickets in advance for the 9:30 Club show in DC. We just drove down there and paid admission at the door, which could explain why there is no ticket in my collection.” As well as her detailed memories of that night, Ginnie hopes to soon be able to locate, digitise and share some pictures from the show, as a tribute to her late friend Larry Rodriguez (RIP), who took the photos that night but who sadly passed away in 2005.

Whilst there was no firm date for the show, it was now certain that the gig took place, although no audience recording has yet surfaced from the show, nor contemporary posters or flyers.
However, after days of fruitless Googling, I decided to do a digital search of the Washington Post’s archive, which threw up a fragment of a gig review from the issues dated Monday 12th September. Reviewer Joe Sasfy was clearly less than impressed, stating that the band showed such “witless passion and conviction” that the venue became a “musical morgue”. The reviewer mentions that the gig took place on “Saturday night, therefore cementing 10th September as the definitive date for this gig. Ginnie has tracked down the full, very poetic text of the critical yet fair review, which appeared in the respected paper’s Performing Arts pages, and in which Sasfy admits that at their best, “songs uncoiled in dramatic waves of droning guitar dissonance,” whilst Eldritch “hung and writhed diabolically on his mike stand, groaning and moaning through a wall of reverb.” How delighted the singer must have been with such a mention in a major national paper, which would be unthinkable back in the UK for such a defiantly independent Northern band.

However, the 9:30 club was destined to ultimately move on to bigger and better premises, and sadly the Atlantic Building was gutted as the area was gentrified in the early years of this millennium, with only the unique fa├žade retained, with no trace or indication of the location’s pre-eminent place in the capital city’s musical development. The 9:30 has recently commemorated its 20th anniversary in its current, larger location, and its 35th overall ... much like TSOM themselves.

My particular thanks for this post are due to Phil Verne once again - check out his TSOM 80-85 FB group, to Ginnie Hruz Miller for sharing her wonderful memories,  and to the many Washington music fans who have ensured that this iconic venue has been properly archived on the internet.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Love for the Party - Futurama 1981

As the current incarnation of The Sisters of Mercy continue on their sporadic "tour" of minor European festivals, this weekend marks the 35th anniversary of the band's first festival appearance. 

Of all the TSOM gigs played in their maiden year as a “live” band in 1981, by far and away the most populous and important was Futurama 3, the third edition of the “World’s First Science Fiction Music Festival”, the first two versions of which had been staged in Leeds’ cavernous and dilapidated Queen’s Hall in the preceding years. Organised by legendary Leeds promoter John F Keenan, who was the man behind the seminal late 70's F Club punk gigs where Eldritch met Marx, and who still organises gigs in the city to this day, the third edition of Futurama took place in the slightly incongruous surroundings of Bingley Hall, Stafford. Hearing that name one might imagine a venerable red-brick provincial town centre English concert hall with neo-classical pillars at the entrance (like many of those played by TSOM on their 1984 and 1985 tours), but New Bingley Hall, to give it its full name (to avoid confusion with a venue in the nearby Birmingham area), was nothing of the sort : it was in fact (and still is) the main show hall of the Staffordshire County Showground, the hangar-like pavilion where once a year the region’s prime bullocks and tractors were displayed to an admiring trade audience.

I got in touch with John Keenan and asked him about the change of venue from the previous years, and he told me that the move had not been intentional. "The 1980 Futurama was very successful, and I was looking forward to establishing the event. Unfortunately, I went on holiday after the show to wind down for a while. When I came back, John Curd, a promoter from London, had booked the Queen's Hall for the following September with a copy-cat, two-day indie festival called "Daze of Future Past". It was my first introduction to the unscrupulous world of the music business. It took me a lot of ringing around to find another venue. It was an enjoyable event, fun to do, but with all the messing about it didn't make any money. Eventually, John Curd's company, "Straight Music" (ha!), went bust and I moved back to the Queen's Hall in 1983."

Early adverts for the gig fail to list TSOM amongst the participants, as they were a late addition to the bill, but later posters and flyers did indeed list them, and as the stage times attached indicate, they had a half-hour mid-afternoon slot many hours before the big names (Theatre of Hate, Bauhaus, Gang of Four, all of whom ironically were also to go on to appear at the "Daze..." event) took to the stage on Saturday 5th September 1981. Again John Keenan can clear up the mystery of the band's last-minute appearance on the programme : "Andy and Craig were friends of mine, I used to see them every week at the F Club. When I first started compiling the 1981 festival, they weren't ready. Nearer the date they came and asked if I could put them on, and I fitted them onto the bill." Incidentally, the band "Cry" listed as second band on has been confirmed by Paul Gregory as the final incarnation of Expelaires, featuring Paul himself, Dave Wolfenden, and the late John Plumb and Phil Dye. The band finally split later that year.

A wonderfully laconic post by “Loki” on Heartland Forum in 2004 provides some fantastic background detail about what it must have been like to attend the two-day festival, one of the first real gatherings of the positive punk crowd that would ultimately be saddled with the dismissive “goth” label. “The gig took place in what I can only describe as a very large cattle-shed/warehouse thing. I’m surprised it had electricity and it smelt bad. The only other facilities were some portaloos and a little club-house pavilion thing bar that wouldn’t have been out of place beside a cricket village green. We had draconian licensing laws in 81 so it only opened 12-2pm and 7-10pm…. Everyone was kicked out of the shed at the end of the night as we weren’t allowed to sleep with the beer cans [!].However there was a cattle parade ring outside and they did allow us to sleep in the little grandstand that overlooked it. The organisers even handed out black bin-liners to kip in. A thoughtful gesture…. So after forty-eight hours in the same clothes we trudged home. Much like a modern two-day festival but as kids we weren’t rich enough to own a tent to be burgled”.

Gary Marx himself also recalled his memories of the gig in response to a question from a Ghost Dance fan on his later band’s forum. “The Sisters’ line-up that day included a certain Dave Humphries on 2nd guitar (it was actually his last Sisters gig I think). Not a name I’ve seen mentioned too many times in the Sisters’ story.” Marx also recalled a classic bit of early Von banter, the first attempt at distancing himself from the nascent gothic movement. “My memories are of playing very early in the day and Andy walking onstage and yelling “Bring out your dead” to the few Bauhaus and Theatre of Hate fans scattered around the largely empty hall.”

Marx is almost correct in his assertion, although Eldritch in fact uttered the immortal words after the set-opening Floorshow (set to very different Doktor Avalanche pattern, and with somewhat wayward Eldritch vocals in the latter stages), as can be heard at the end of an audio recording of the song now available on YouTube thanks to "endemoniada75". The rest of the show is also available from the same source, featuring a primitive rare live recording of “Good Things”, plus the more familiar “Watch”, a barely recognisable “Damage Done”, “Adrenochrome "(this link leads to a superior version kindly uploaded to coincide with this blog post by TSOM live tape tsar Phil Verne), the latter following on as was then the custom from Leonard Cohen's “Teachers”, plus the other usual covers of "1969" and the set-closing “Sister Ray”, already becoming the band’s signature tune, and like the Banshees’ “Lord’s Prayer” played differently every night (although it barely weighs in at three and a half minutes on this occasion). The band have more of the angular guitar sound heard on the first single, with the Pere Ubu/Gang of Four/ Joy Division influences significantly more apparent than in what was to follow.

Not only was the gig's audio recorded, but it was also videoed, although no physical evidence has ever surfaced amongst collectors. Organiser John Keenan told an online Leeds music forum some years ago “Yes, Futurama 3 was filmed, some great footage of Simple Minds, Gang of Four, Bauhaus and early Sisters," a fact he was happy to confirm and explain further. Asked about a rumour that the video tapes had been stolen, he told me : "They never disappeared, I still have them! They were recorded, on bad advice, on Sony U-Matic tape and I suspect that because the tapes have been stored for so long, they will have 'bled' and are probably useless now. There may have been a few VHS demos recorded at the time, but I don't have any. I know that we edited a lot of it, including a full set by Simple Minds. Virgin Records [Simple Minds' label] were supposed to be paying for it, but changed their minds at the last minute and the guy running the film crew was crooked. They tried to charge me weekend rates at double time, even though they hadn't worked for me before! I do remember co-editing a 20 minute version of Sister Ray by The Sisters - they didn't have many songs in their set at that time!"

Loki stated that he “doesn’t remember The Sisters playing, but a mate who was also there has assured me that they did.” However, the band made a much bigger impression on Robin Wardell : “I went to see UK Decay, Bauhaus, Bow Wow Wow and Theatre of Hate but came home with The Sisters of Mercy in my head as a band to keep an eye on.” Futurama changed location again the following year, with Wayne Hussey’s Dead or Alive on the bill at the Deeside Leisure Centre in North Wales alongside the likes of The Danse Society, The March Violets and Southern Death Cult, before returning to Leeds for edition 5 in 1983 (RLYL, KJ, NMA, Play Dead etc) and a final three day edition 6 at Bradford University in 1989  featuring Salvation and The Rose of Avalanche, by which time a Belgian festival of the same name was doing good annual business at the Brielpoort in Deinze (a venue well-known to Sisters fans), although this too was the result of another unscrupulous promoter according to John Keenan : "I called to ask him why he was using my festival name. He answered, 'It's not a rip-off, it's a tribute to you!'". 

With his enthusiastic promotion style and eye for a decent band, John is still regularly promoting gigs to this day in West Yorkshire (including a forthcoming Brudenell Social Club date by Theatre of Hate, to bring things full circle, a band reformed in 2014 to support the Damned at the request of....John Curd!). Meanwhile the Stafford County Showground and New Bingley Hall go from strength to strength, and this year are holding the UK Parrot Society’s annual show, the national Chrysanthemum Show, and the annual Christian youth festival Soul Survivor amongst other equally eclectic offerings.

My thanks for this post are due to the ever helpful LG, who has once again opened up his vast treasure trove of early TSOM artefacts, Robin and Loki for the reminiscences, and to the afore-mentioned generous long-term fans Ade Matthews and Phil Verne (host of The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 FB page) for uploading the songs on to YT. In particular, I would like to record my enormous gratitude to Leeds legend John F Keenan for taking time out of his still-busy schedule to answer (and in such entertaining detail) questions which he must have heard many times before.