Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Black October - Colchester, 20th October 1984

Of all the gigs covered thus far in this blog, not one has been from possibly the most defining tour of the 1980s (or indeed any other era’s) incarnation of The Sisters of Mercy, the Black October tour, a gruelling trek which saw the band play sixteen shows in eighteen days after a relatively sedate start (seven dates in the preceding twelve days), at a time immediately after Eldritch’s health issues earlier in the late summer/early autumn of 1984.

The Black October tour was a crucial moment for the band, for whom word of mouth support had continued to grow over the summer, and took place crucially at the start of the academic year when students flush with previously untold riches (in the form of the legendary grant cheque) would flock to see bands on the say-so of new friends like at no other time of the year. With a catchy new single (“Walk Away”) being released to coincide with the tour, and with merchandising finally reaching professional industry standards, this was indeed a make or break moment for the band, with heavy major label support under pressure with continued delays to the debut LP and the lukewarm reception given to previous single “Body and Soul”.

For many fans of the era, the Black October tour marked the high point of the Hussey era, with several FALAA songs given their first “live” outing and the band yet to suffer from the personality issues and clashes which would make the following spring’s tour a more overwrought, bombastic and ultimately soulless experience. The very name of the tour saw the band flirting as much as they ever would with the imagery of what was rapidly becoming the gothic “scene”, with the more psychedelic touches of earlier in the year becoming distinctly more sombre.

The tour showed to what extent the band’s popularity had grown. As we have seen in previous posts, TSOM would often struggle to attract a crowd of more than a couple of dozen punters to their incendiary 1983 live shows outside of their Northern fiefdom, yet by autumn of the following year, “Sold Out” signs would appear in the most unlikely of places. One such show was that on the 20th October, bang in the middle of the 23 date tour, held at the University of Essex, a 1960’s concrete and glass “new university” situated on a leafy campus at Wivenhoe Park on the outskirts of Colchester.

As a town, Colchester seemed to have been on a steady decline since its heyday as the principal garrison town of the Roman army back in the days when it was known as Camulodunum, and its musical claim to fame (in these pre-Blur days) was that the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was composed there. Like most campus universities, Essex had a thriving Students’ Union, whose basement Dance Hall had hosted gigs since its opening, with a capacity of about 1000 concert-goers.      

The Sisters’ show had clearly not been expected to be a sell-out as the official-looking poster now residing in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (no less!) promises that briefs will be available on the night, although the other poster hastily produced for the show (and kindly shared by collector David Manlove) did warn, with typical Students Ents Committee hyperbole “tickets possibly available on the door – buy early.”

Long-term fan Paul Scrutton told me, “I was at this show. The venue was really nice. The ceiling had a mega acoustic treatment with foam spikes all over it.” This is possibly the reason why the recording of this show, available on the bootleg double LP Black Pack and also on the superior sounding bootleg CD Revelations, is generally regarded as being one of the best recordings of the Black October tour, with a crisp if a little trebley sound mix with Doktor Avalanche very high in the mix, and so much reverb on Eldritch’s vocals that his inter-song banter is almost totally unintelligible.

Other reasons for this particular show being such a success are hinted at in the fascinating minor detail of the tour schedule, a document (kindly shared by legendary Sisters fan Lachert) which shows how much planning now went into a Sisters tour. As well as what must have been a depressing revelation for a band becoming infamous for bacchanalian over-indulgence (“no spirits on rider”), the late hour at which the band was to take the stage would also have been to the band’s liking.

The show began with a lively “Burn”, whose sound is a little muffled at times, possibly because the taper may have had to momentarily remove his/her Walkman from public view to avoid detection. Eldritch gives it laldy, however, adding an extra vocal section full of “whoas”. A relatively new addition to the set, Marian, was another highlight, whilst the encore of Ghost Rider/Sister Ray features extensive soloing/riffing on the first half of the medley which lasts a full eight and a half minutes before morphing slowly into Sister Ray. Thanks (once again) to the generosity of Ade Matthews, all of the show can now be enjoyed via the wonders of YouTube (for example, Train, Adrenochrome, Walk Away, Emma and Gimme Shelter) whilst Phil Verne has provided this wonderful photo of Eldritch mid-scream, the only known shot taken at the Colchester gig.

When Jem of Artificial Life fanzine interviewed Wayne Hussey in 1985, he referred to having been at the Colchester gig the previous year, where he had been amazed at what he had seen. “You attract a wide audience, at Colchester there were hippies, flat-tops, punks and everyone….I went to the Colchester gig ready to slag you off. Well when I got there, and you came on, I realised that this was the best gig I’d been to in ages, there was a great atmosphere too, it was the fullest I’ve ever seen the place (appreciative noises from Wayne).”

This reaction was typical of the shows on the tour, with the Sisters finally inching towards the commercial and critical success that “First and Last and Always” would finally achieve.  The band may never since have returned to Colchester, or to several other stops on the lengthy Black October trek, but these gigs were an integral part of the creation of the legend which sustains such a cult following over thirty years later.

A huge thank you to all who have helped with this post, including regulars LG, Phil Verne, Bruno Bossier and Ade Matthews, plus Paul Scrutton, David Manlove, Lachert and others. This blog is very much a team effort, and all contributions (whether physical ephemera or simply personal memories) are always very gratefully received.

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