Friday, 24 March 2017

Sisters for 50p! - Leeds Uni 13th June 1981

For the next couple of posts, we’re going to go back to a crucial stage in TSOM’s development, when they were establishing themselves as a live entity during the six months after their debut as support to the Thompson Twins in York on Feb 16th 1981, an era when they quickly built up a reputation and a fanatical local following despite not yet having a fully settled line-up.

The gig on 13th June 1981 at Leeds University’s Riley Smith Hall was organised by Si Denbigh’s Music For The Masses society, a part of the Students’ Union (as discussed in a previous post on this blog) entirely separate from the official Ents department ruled by Andy Kershaw. When a copy of the poster surfaced on the net a couple of years ago, I asked Si on FB what he could remember of the gig. “Not much, it was over 30 years ago” was his instant and honest (if disappointingly brief) reply.

Fortunately, there were others present whose memories of this particular gig were much starker, when the gig was discussed on Heartland Forum shortly after I joined it in 2011. “The Blogging Goth” (and former frontman of TSOM tribute band The Marching Men) “Tim Synyster” had found a reference to a Leeds band called Pink Peg Slax who were “original members of The Sisters of Mercy and The Mekons”. I was able to say that this in fact referred to the legendary Jon Langford, who had helped out both bands when needed, and that the Slax, although claiming to be “borne out of punk”, were in fact a neo-rockabilly outfit more like The Polecats than The Meteors (a comment which I did not intend to be a compliment). Fortunately, I did however confess that I “admired them for doing their own thing”...

Much to my surprise, Pink Peg Slax front man Vince joined in the debate, saying, “We weren't Neo Rockabilly, we were cajun-tinged jiveabilly. [!] The Sisters supported us in the Riley Smith Hall at Leeds University in July [?]1981. I couldn't take the Goth stuff seriously. It was just as pompous as Rush but with a rather unattractive vampire imagery. To me, punk was about pissing the hippies off. Doing jolly rockabilly songs amidst a sea of Goths was consciously subversive. I knew Andy via Clare and Tim Taylor (our bass player), and had known Craig and Grape via the Expelaires. I was in the Mekons in 1980 and did a Peel session and a couple of album tracks; forgot the track.” Interesting that the bands appear to have performed in the order on the poster, with TSOM on first, followed by the Expelaires, whom Craig Adams had played keyboards with for the past two years (featuring on their two singles of 1979 and 1980), and still featured (I believe for the last time together) both Paul Gregory (later of Leeds band 3000 Revs featuring future Sister Adam Pearson on guitar) and Dave Wolfenden (who went on to form Red Lorry Yellow Lorry). 

"Wolfie" reflected on his time in the Expelaires at length in a recent podcast interview, saying "We drank too much. We never took it seriously. We were far too young and too immature to realise what a good opportunity it was." (The Expelaires were one of only three bands signed to the Zoo label - Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes were the other two). The band only played about thirty gigs during nearly three years together (the reformed band have now played more and are well worth catching), as they were  more like "an organised drinking club with the possibility of some music at the end," as Wolfenden memorably puts it. Anyone wanting to understand the psyche of a Fan Club regular in Leeds at the end of the 70s could do worse than spend a couple of hours listening to the full podcast, with the witty and laconic guitarist skilfully interviewed by Martin Canning.

Later that same September 2011 night, another surprise debutant poster joined the Heartland Forum debate in the form of media mogul James Brown, godfather of the much-criticised Lads movement of the 1990s and founding editor of Loaded magazine. Editor of the local fanzine Attack on Bzag at the time, it turned out that he had also been to that Music for the Masses gig back in June 1981. “I went to the gig at the Riley Smith Hall. I was still at school but had been told about the Sisters by the afore-mentioned Jon Langford of the Mekons and The Three Johns, who had just released their [TSOM’s] single on his CNT label. He gave me a copy for my fanzine…There was a small poster for the gig in the old Jumbo shop. with the logo. As we arrived at the Riley Smith Hall someone was loading t-shirts with the [Merciful Release] logo on out of a car. The gig line-up was very strange. Expelaires, with Craig later of the Mission in a beret. Pink Peg Slax singing Rocking Robin as Rotting Robin I think. And the Sisters. Andy had big hair and big black sunglasses. There were certainly no goths there. They hadn't been invented as such. People like Claire just looked punk still or very New York, all black clothes and bleached hair. There were just the same clutch of people you'd see at gigs of unusual bands around Leeds. I remember going to school next day and writing [The] Sisters of Mercy next to Monochrome Set on my canvas RAF bag. They were different to the other local bands.” 

JB might have mis-remembered the exact order of events (the CNT Body Electric single didn't come out until the following spring), but the detail of the other bands on the bill mean that it is certain that he was talking about the same gig, and t-shirt sales had become vital to the band even at this early stage. The catalogue photo above (courtesy of Phil Verne of The Sisters of Mercy 1980 - 1985 Facebook fan page) which features the earliest "head and star" t-shirt is from early 1981 and was for mail order from Priestley's in York, one of Eldritch's weekend hang-outs in the early days. On the official TSOM website, Eldritch states that he had spent a couple of months "working part-time for a t-shirt printer in York. This job involved selling t-shirts on Undertones tours." (Incidentally, one of Hussey's early bands, Walkie Talkies, list The Undertones amongst the bands whom they supported, so Hussey and Eldritch may have first met years earlier than is commonly believed!).

                                                       (from the Sisters wiki)

As recently as last year more was revealed about this gig with the surprise addition of a photograph on the gigs page on the excellent Sisters wiki. The picture, taken by Claire (Shearsby), shows Craig nearest the camera, along with Eldritch, Marx (albeit hidden in the shot) and a very rare sighting of the early guitarist Dave Humphreys, who was still in the band when they played at Futurama three months later.

No audio recording has yet emerged of this gig, which appears to have been the first the band played at the university, in the very hall where they would support The Psychedelic Furs on the eve of the release of Alice some sixteen months later. As ever, more information on this show would be very welcome.

As usual, my grateful thanks are due to all those who have contributed (either willingly or unwittingly!) to this blog post. All assistance gratefully received!

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