Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Sisters Mysteries V – did Peel play Damage Done?

One of the more enduring unanswered questions about the early days of TSOM revolves around the first single, Damage Done/Watch/Home of the Hitmen, released in the Autumn of 1980. Did legendary influential BBC DJ John Peel ever play the lead track or not? No evidence has ever surfaced either way…until now, that is.
Those growing up in this multi-media instant access age must find it hard to comprehend the control which the state broadcaster the BBC used to have on the nation’s musical taste,  but for any aspiring new band, having the ear of veteran Radio One DJ John Peel was an essential pre-requisite of success.
In their official biography, Andrew Eldritch claimed that the fledgling band’s main raison-d’ĂȘtre for making the debut single was to hear themselves on the radio, something which they allegedly achieved according to the band’s own website: “Gary Marx and Andrew Eldritch made some t-shirts in anticipation, and huddled by the radio until…John Peel played the record. They swear he played it twice.”

This has led to the (perfectly reasonable) assumption that Peel played Damage Done, the Elditch vocal-based track which is regarded as the least offensive of the early efforts, but my research shows that Peel actually played Watch, the Gary Marx vocal track on the other side of the Damage Done single. Thanks to Peel fans who are gradually populating their wonderful wikia with soundfile recordings of vintage Peel shows, we can now enjoy again hearing him playing his wrongly-labelled copy (many of the original edition of Damage Done had the labels on the wrong side – “news had not yet reached Leeds that printers have to be reminded to put the labels on the correct side of vinyl” according to the TSOM webpage) for presumably the second time,  given his comments afterwards. On the evening of 4th November 1980sandwiched in between The Damned and a track from the (released the day before) Adam and The Ants Kings of the Wild Frontier LP, Peel told the listening millions: “These are The Sisters of Mercy on Merciful Release records, the labelling on this is immensely complex, but I think that this is Watch, it’d better be!” Fortunately for Peel, this was not one of the many endearing occasions on which he played the wrong side of a single (or at the wrong speed), but the angst-ridden nature of Marx’s vocal clearly has an impact on the DJ, who says at the end “The nation seems to be packed to bursting point with tormented young men who want us to stare deeply into their souls. There go a bunch called The Sisters of Mercy on Merciful Release records, that’s called Watch…the record does return briefly as it did last time I played it.. ….hardly noticeable though,” he adds as the opening chords of Home of the Hitmen strike up behind him. Thanks to the original uploader on the Peel wikia, and to Phil Verne’s YT prowess, we can now all enjoy hearing this momentous secondever playing of TSOM on national radio.
The Body Electric/Adrenochrome single having received very positive reviews on the whole in the music press (as well as repeat plays on the Peel show), it came as little surprise that TSOM were eventually invited to record a session for the programme. Before such an invitation was issued, Peel’s trusty produce John Walters would usually go to see the band “live” to ensure that they had the musicianship to complete the recording within the day’s studio time allowed for the recorded sessions, which would usually air about three weeks later. One can imagine that Walters may have seen the band supporting either Richard Hell or The Birthday Party in the early summer of 1982 at their first London gigs, with the result that they arrived at the BBC studios on 25th August 1982 to record Alice, Floorshow, 1969 and Good Things with BBC in-house producer Roger Pusey.
The session was duly aired in September, and by 12th October, an enthusiastic Peel was playing Floorshow from the new double A sided single, announcing it as by “The Sisters of Mercy, an element of which appeared at the BBC earlier in the evening.” (link) This was two days before the very poorly attended Klub Foot showcase with the Violets, and one can imagine that in the time-honoured indie fashion, Eldritch had waited outside Broadcasting House to hand the precious new release to the venerable DJ in person.
He was still playing the track in early 1983, featuring Floorshow on 30th January in between two tracks of roots reggae (which had become his latest big love) Black Roots and Misty in Roots on his British Forces’ Broadcasting (BFBS) show. At the end of the Sisters track, Peel comments “You may have got a bit of me humming as well, as a bonus”, showing that the band were still very much favourites of his at the time.
Later that Spring, on 17th April, Peel gives a spin on his BFBS show to the latest single Anaconda, damning it with faint praise . “Not one of their very best, but worth playing once or twice.” However, any doubts which he was beginning to have about the band dissipated with the next release, The Reptile House. Peel was taken as much by a frank note he received from Eldritch as by the tracks on the EP itself. On 14th June 1983 (link), he announces Kiss The Carpet by reading out in full the message from Eldritch, commenting on the very neat handwriting (which autograph hunters will also have noted): “Dear John, Here’s The Reptile House EP, our exorcism of the slow and serious, although it’s working title was “Slither, you ..” and here follows a rude word, so I can’t say that on the radio so I’ll say “Kenny Everett” instead. We’ve since taken to calling it The Commercial Suicide EP and we’ll understand perfectly if you feel it’s too dirge-ridden to play on the radio. It seems to take most people about six plays to understand how and why it works, another six or so to like it, it’s available as of now with a retail price of £2.99. Don’t let it grind you down. Love from Leeds’ Finest.”  Five days later, on his BFBS show, Peel admits that he is feeling a little down, before going on to talk about The Sisters’ new release.  “This is a record which is really appropriate to the mood of the hour, it’s from a new 12” by The Sisters of Mercy. As I say, they admit themselves that it is profoundly depressing and rather boring, it’s called The Reptile House. They sent me quite an amusing letter, I like a band who can admit to being boring. This they see is being like the central track on this EP, it’s called Kiss The Carpet.”
The EP became a fixture on both his Radio One and Forces’ Service shows, usually with reference to the self-deprecating letter which had accompanied it. For example, on 6th July 1983 after Death Cult’s Horse Nation, he announced: “Another one from The Sisters Of Mercy from their, by their own admission, extremely gloomy EP The Reptile House, this one according to the reviewers anyway is the finest track on there, I’m not convinced, but it’s alright, it’s called Valentine. After the track has aired, Peel again emphasis its dark atmosphere : “I’m sure that they’re a real bunch of fun if you ever get to know them, but on the evidence of this record they’re very depressing indeed.”
Later in the summer, on August 30th, Kiss The Carpet, clearly his favourite track gets another playing : “This is TSOM this is one of the five tracks on their doom-laden 12”EP, The Reptile House, which even by their own admission is profoundly distressing, this is Kiss The Carpet,” with another tongue-in-cheek back-announcement. “The Sisters of Mercy in carnival mood(!), I think we need something to lighten the mood after that.”

Although both Alice and Temple of Love made the annual listeners’ poll The Festive 50 in 1983, as Walk Away and (the session version of) Emma did in 1984 and the FALAA side-closing stand-out pair of Marian and Some Kind of Stranger in 1985, Peel’s love affair with the band was soon on the wane.

He complained on air that Body and Soul “rather lacks the vitality of their previous work”, and he seemed less than impressed by the “work in progress” tracks of the second session the band recorded for him on 19th June at Maida Vale studios with Mark Radcliffe (a future DJ in his own right) at the controls. The band had been hard at work writing new material whilst on tour for the debut LP and although Walk Away is virtually complete by this time, it is very much a beta version of No Time To Cry that also made it onto the nation’s airwaves. A first studio version of Emma (Peel would describe this as having “possibly the longest fade in the history of recorded music” when playing it on the Festive 50, where it reached the highest ever position for an unreleased session track) and another future B side Poison Door completed the set.

What was mere disappointment with TSOM’s musical direction was to turn into contempt, as he revealed in 1987 in conversation with John Walters. “Every time I do one of my terrible gigs…people come up and say to me, “Can you play something by The Sisters of Mercy?” I just say, “Under no circumstances whatsoever am I going to play anything by The Sisters of Mercy.” With the band by now seeking commercial success with This Corrosion, Peel’s approval was no longer needed, however, and daytime radio helped it to make the UK Top 10.

One final curious note on the Peel show, some of the versions of the songs seem slightly different to the ones on the commercial releases. Hopefully someone with more encyclopaedic knowledge than me will be able to reveal how these came about, and whether these versions are still in existence.

My thanks for this post are due to Phil Verne, Heartland Forum member Mothra, to all the Peel fans who have done such a wonderful job on the Peel Wikia, and of the late, great John Peel.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The 1985 split - Von's final pre-split interview

The more one studies the 1985 TSOM split, the more complex the situation becomes. In the first two blog posts looking at the timescale and precise events leading up to the split (here and here), by far and away the most revealing sources have been contemporary fanzines both in the UK and abroad, and in this third post examining the protagonists’ expressed views at the time, we are again going to focus on the comments of the prime mover, Andrew Eldritch.

The administrator of the wonderful Sisters wiki, Heartland Forum member Being645, recently drew attention to an item which had appeared on Ebay, an American publication entitled Rockpool from June 1985 which promised “Conversation with The Sisters of Mercy”. Realising the significance of the magazine – the in-house publication of Rockpool Promotions, the highly influential original new wave promo company who had been responsible for the creation of the New Music Seminar showcase at which TSOM had played in NYC the previous year -  and its timing, I alerted well-known collector Phil Verne who subsequently bought the item, which turned out to feature an extensive interview with an on-form Andrew Eldritch and a typically taciturn Craig Adams (the garrulous Wayne Hussey was not present).

From comments made during the interview, it is clear that it took place on the afternoon of Thursday 6th June, on the rest day between the shows at Boston Channel Club on the 5th (still currently unlisted on major gigographies) and the final date of the US tour on the 7th. Somewhat surprisingly, both Eldritch and the interviewer seem excited looking ahead to their (separate) visits that evening to see Madonna (!) live in NYC, allowing us to date the interview with a degree of certainty. This would therefore make it last known interview with Eldritch before the split, making it a very significant addition to the overall collective TSOM archive.

Eldritch is clearly delighted that the arduous UK, European and US tour (which started three months earlier on 9th March) is coming to an end,  but seems more positive than in the Italian interview some three weeks previously, although the presence of Adams may have had a limiting effect on his candour. When asked, “So is this only LP you’ll make, FALAA?”, Eldritch replies “There’s still a chance. It’s certainly the first and last LP by that particular configuration, which is important. It’s definitely like a chapter”.

What’s more, Eldritch clearly has plans for the continuation of the group in the current three-piece line-up, which explains the events of the summer and autumn when the aborted sessions for “Left On Mission and Revenge” took place. “Around Christmas time we’ll do …a Far East tour”, he states, clearly referring to the Jan 1986 shows in Japan which were scheduled (and subsequently cancelled – it would be a further 25 years before an incarnation of TSOM finally performed in Japan) for which posters have surfaced, whilst the band also clearly has more immediate plans, with the singer stating “We did [tour a lot] but after tomorrow things may change a lot. We’ve got one final date in Britain and it’ll be Gary’s last. A sort of memorial day in more than one way. Then we’re gonna rest up, write and recharge our batteries.” He is then asked about going back into the studio soon and he replies “Yeah, we’ve gotta finish up ‘Emma’ and stuff like that”.

Eldritch’s “memorial day comment” is clearly a reference to the fact London’s Royal Albert Hall is best known for hosting Great Britain’s annual national Festival of Remembrance, hence the name of the gig (“Wake – a festival of remembrance”),  the silver paper dropped from the roof at the end of the gig like the poppies during the minute’s silence at the normal Remembrance Day commemorations in the RAH, the stark formal programme and the organ interlude on the night – Eldritch had clearly  planned this ‘live’ finale for some time, and coming from a Forces family he would have been aware of the significance of the venue. That it had now turned out to be likely to be Gary’s final appearance clearly added to the experience in Eldritch’s opinion, although ironically Marx didn’t ultimately appear at the show and it was in fact the final appearance of both Hussey and (listening here) Adams, of course.

The “’Emma’” and stuff like that” comment is arguably the most significant, as we will examine in a future post on the split, but for now it is sufficient to state that “stuff like that” refers in all likelihood to “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, the studio version of which (available along with a rough studio version of Emma on the much sought-after “Sins and Secrets” bootleg 7”single) was recorded by the three piece line-up in June 1985.

There were rumours of a covers EP being prepared for release, not least in German’s usually well-informed Spex magazine, who covered their information (and probably incorrect speculation) that it would include the band’s studio rendition of short-lived 1984 live favourite “Gimme Gimme Gimme (a man after midnight)” with  two uses of the word “allegedly” ("vermeintlich") in this snippet featured on the German TSOM fansite and shared by the impressive "Ultimate Sisters Guide" archive :

Earlier in the “Rockpool” interview, Eldritch has already confirmed Gary’s departure :

Interviewer : I heard a rumour that somebody’s leaving the band
Eldritch : Yeah, somebody already left. That was Gary
Interviewer : Are you going to get another guitar player?
Eldritch : No!

As those lucky enough to attend (like I myself did) any of the April-June 1985 shows in Europe and the USA , or who have heard bootleg recordings of those shows will attest, the ‘live’ sound sounded fuller than one might have imagined with just Wayne on guitar, so one can well imagine Eldritch feeling that a rhythm guitarist was a potentially argumentative luxury that he could do without. Curiously, the ”Rockpool” interview then immediately turns to an earlier episode at the time of the New Music Seminar New York trip in August 1984, a time when the singer and band’s well-publicised studio traumas reached their height.

Interviewer : I heard a rumour that you broke up.
Eldritch : I quit last year here at the Ritz. I said we’d do the album and the tour and that’s it.

This is an amazing revelation, and very much the train of thought to which the singer had returned in the two Italian interviews featured in the first of my blog posts on the split. How had the interviewer heard of this? The source of the rumour is sadly not touched upon, and Eldritch immediately makes a joke of the issue :

Eldritch : The others quit as well. We quit together.
Interviewer : Then you could all form a band.
Eldritch : Yeah, that’s pretty much how it turned out.

(incidentally, this is at odds with what Wayne had said in the "Day of the Ray Gun cometh" fanzine interview, remembering New York as "a week of excess, a week of not having to think about making records...we did a couple of gigs and then we had like three or four days off, it was good fun.")

So with this fascinating pre-RAH wide-ranging "Rockpool" interview, another piece of the jigsaw emerges, and on the evidence of this chat it would appear that on the evidence of the European and US tours he had started to believe that the three of them (Eldritch, Hussey and Adams) could make a go of things, leading to the subsequent attempts to make a start on the second album.

Tellingly, things began to deteriorate very soon, however. Absence is said to make the heart grow fonder, but a week apart from his remaining fellow Sisters immediately after the “Rockpool” interview had the opposite effect on Eldritch, as he recalled in a 1987 interview with MM “I thought it [the band] should still have gone on but know it wasn’t going to. The last time we actually spent any time together, at the end of the tour before the Albert Hall, we had some time playing in America and then we had a week off in Los Angeles. I went to Mexico for the day and the other two couldn’t think of anything better to do than go to Disneyland. And when I got back from Mexico a WEEK later, having got somewhat…uh…distracted, I thought, “God, what are these people whingeing about, really?” They just got so feeble.”

So who was to blame for the Sisters’ demise? Traditional explanations have included Gary’s silent unhappy “linger”ing ruining the atmosphere, Eldritch’s machiavellian masterplan allowing no place for democratic discussion or Hussey’s naked commercial ambition tarnishing the rock’n’roll dream ? But according to Eldritch’s comments, it turns out it was Walt Disney’s fault all along! Jesus may love The Sisters, but it was Mickey Mouse who split them up!

My thanks for this post are due to Being645 for alerting us to the existence of this fanzine, to and the Ultimate Sisters Guide for their fantastic work in chronicling the band's past, and to Phil Verne of the 1980 1985 TSOM fan group for sharing the interview with me (and by extension, readers of this blog). More on the 1985 split soon !