Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Stairway to Heaven - Blackburn, March 1985

Many fans believe that the early incarnations of the band reached their zenith in the spring of 1985 on the “Tune In, Turn On, Burn Out” tour, the Hussey era line-up’s third major UK trek with a fuller range of songs to choose from. Most aficianados would agree that the Disguised in Black bootleg recorded at Newcastle Tiffany’s on Weds 13th March is technically the best recording from that era, but in my view a far more interesting gig took place at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall just over a week later on Thursday 21st March.

(generic photo of King George's Hall, not from the TSOM gig)

King George’s Hall was in many ways a typical piece of Northern British civic architecture, a large neo-classical public hall with an original capacity of 3500 in the main auditorium designed by the architects Messrs Briggs, Wolstenholme and Thornley (some familiar surnames to members of the Heartland Forum!) whose foundation stone was laid by the then King (hence the hall’s name) in 1913, although the facility didn’t finally open until 1921 because of the Great War.

The Pennines region (for those unfamiliar with the North of England, these are the hills which separate the historic rivals of the Wars of The Roses, the red rose county of Lancashire and white rose county of Yorkshire) had always been a Sisters stronghold, with early gigs in the smaller towns of Keighley and Colne, but whether it was the fact that it was a Thursday night, the fact that Blackburn was by far the smallest town (in terms of population) visited on the tour, or whether the gig in nearby Manchester two nights earlier was more convenient for many North-West based fans, it was evidently clear that the gig was heavily undersold – there were probably fewer than (atrocious John Lennon lyric pun ahoy!) a thousand souls in Blackburn, Lancashire’s finest concert venue that March 1985 evening, a fact referred to by Eldritch after the opening track, “First and Last and Always”, the singer light-heartedly telling the faithful, “Don’t worry, we ain’t going to take it out on you because the rest of Blackburn didn’t show up,” as can be heard at the end of this You Tube upload kindly once again provided by collector supreme Phil Verne. This recording also gives an impression of the wonderfully resonant acoustics in the cavernous concert hall, with the natural echo adding to the usual added reverb effects to enable the band to truly “rise and reverberate”.

Faced with a smaller crowd and largely preaching to the converted, Eldritch seemed particularly relaxed throughout the gig (as did the rest of the band, judging by the number of technical errors made by West Yorkshire’s finest musicians), enjoying the inter-song banter with the usual motley band of hecklers, barking “One at a time! You with the yellow flares!” in the style of legendary contemporary Question Time presenter Sir Robin Day, and later telling one audience member who has particularly riled him “Look, there’s a bus that goes now from out there, and you’d be advised…”

The gig is also memorable for a couple of rarities amongst the tracks played, including one of only three 1980’s playings of the album closing classic “Some Kind of Stranger”, Eldritch’s vocal straining against a particularly weedy guitar backing on this occasion, and most famously, the only Eldritch vocal on the opening section of “Stairway to Heaven”, a track which had featured on several occasions in instrumental form as part of the “Ghost Rider” medley (as in this example) over the previous twelve months, but which was strictly a one-off for this Blackburn show, having been also played in the sound-check according to eye-witnesses. At the Blackburn gig Eldritch introduces the Led Zeppelin cover with the words, “You’ve never heard us play this before, have you? Probably never will…This is a song which requires a respectful quiet introduction” in an attempt to pacify those crowd members frustrated at the customary lengthy guitar re-tuning episodes. Gary Marx recalled the unusual cover version in the Artificial Life interview recorded a week later, “We got about two verses into it and Andy said “etc.” because he couldn’t remember any more, so I don’t think we’ll do that again!” At the end of the second verse, the drum machine kick started the set-closing Sister Ray medley, and the rest of the encore seemed to proceed without incident.

However, a previously untranscribed section of the Gary Marx interview with Artificial Life sheds some light on a curious recollection of Eldritch’s in a 1987 interview, “The BBC would ring us up and ask, “What’s new, boys?”. We’d say, “Do you want the stories with or without the vomit?”. They’d reply “Without” and we’d say “Ha, we haven’t got any!” Listening to Marx’s Blackburn anecdote, in response to the interviewer's request for amusing tour stories, one imagines that this is the kind of thing which Eldritch had in mind: Nothing funny’s happened. We’ve thrown up a few times on various people but that gets tedious…In Blackburn I think it was, we were doing Sister Ray. Craig’s usually, well not introverted, but just sort of stands there on stage, quite happy to stand near his amp so that he can hear what he’s playing…In Blackburn, we were doing Sister Ray, he’s really going for it, he’s running about all over the place and suddenly it’s one of those bits where we all go all quiet for a bit, there’s the dry ice and I’d lost him for a minute, I couldn’t see where he was. I was looking all over, and then he starts playing again, and he’s up on top of the stack (of monitors/speakers) at the back. It’s all slowly building up, it comes up to the bit where we’re all going to crash back in, and he jumps off the top, off this thing to land perfectly in time, which would have been great, but because it shook him up so much when he actually jumped to the floor, he threw up, so he did this massive jump, threw up, then started rolling around in it. So I think he’ll just be stood there tonight, back to his usual position,” Marx laconically predicted, in the interview recorded on the afternoon prior to the first London Lyceum show (24th March 1985, just a few days after the Blackburn gig).

The Sisters have never subsequently visited the East Lancashire former mill town, but this unique visit will continue to live long in the memories of those lucky enough to have witnessed it. Like the band themselves, King George’s Hall is still going strong, hosting the usual current touring round of stand-up comedians, tribute bands and hypnotists, a combination which rather strangely reflects the unique act on stage one night thirty-two years ago.

I would like to thank all those who have contributed to this post, especially Phil Verne for the FALAA YT clip and the loan of the 1985 interview cassette, those who uploaded the other YT clips, and to Phil's fellow collector Bruno Bossier, from whose extensive collection the photo of the gig ticket is taken.

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