Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Eldritch and The Botha Boys ?

It has often been retrospectively claimed that Andrew Eldritch played all of the instruments on many of The Sisters of Mercy’s early releases (for example The Reptile House EP), sometimes by the great man himself, and his performance on the drums (dropped sticks’n’all) is there for all to hear on the first single. However, his prowess on the guitar has been less a matter of public record, excepting a tale that the only reason Temple of Love didn’t feature regularly in the live set in the 1983-1985 era was that Eldritch was the only one who could play the song all the way through without making a mistake.

However, a German press clipping (probably from Spex magazine) which had lain in a major collector’s filing system for many years sheds light on a more public possible Eldritch appearance on guitar, alongside many other legendary figures on the Leeds music scene in the early 80s. As part of the magazine’s piece on the Three Johns, there was mention of an earlier, post-Mekons incarnation called the Botha Boys, who had also done a “hugely impressive” version of English White Boy Engineer, the first Three Johns single which was released in 1982, the year after the band was formed in Leeds. The song was written by Langford and originally recorded by him for a Mekons BBC John Peel session in December 1980, and satirizes self-justifying middle-class British engineering graduates who would accept inflated salaries to work in apartheid South Africa, then of course ruled by President PW Botha.

The German magazine then quoted Jon Langford (who famously filled in for Craig Adams at a York University TSOM gig in February 1982) as saying, “The Botha Boys were actually The Mekons. It was a long time ago, but on stage there was me, John Hyatt from the Three Johns, Kevin, the Mekons’ bassist on drums, and Andrew Eldritch from The Sisters of Mercy was playing guitar, I believe”. Langford went on to describe the circumstances of the song. “Basically it was an attack on one member of the audience…She started crying and had to leave. We were living in the same house at the time, and her boyfriend had moved to South Africa, which we used to argue about all the time. All she could ever say was rubbish like “he’s going over there to make things better”, so she deserved it. Naturally she didn’t like the song, and she sent me a postcard from Zimbabwe some time later. I hate people who go to South Africa.” The lyric, "You won't know until you've been there, there've been changes since last year, blame it on the Afrikaner, English White Boy Engineer" was a withering attack on her attitude, so typical of the numerous shoulder-shrugging Leeds engineering graduates who took the krugerrand route to fortune.

The Kevin mentioned in Langford's Botha Boys roll-call is Kevin Lycett, whom Andrew Eldritch credited (in Mark Andrews’ wonderful article on the band’s early years for The Quietus last year) as being a major formative influence on his career : “I owe a lot to him. He encouraged me in my quest to learn a little bit about being in a band and scrimp and save for visits to the studio and keep hammering away at it. By the time he stopped being that kind of mentor, we still had nothing to show for it, but his encouragement never wavered.”

The exact date of the alleged Botha Boys’ show has never been established, but the live version of English White Boy Engineer which the German magazine was referring to appeared on a UK indie compilation on Norwich based Grunt Grunt A Go Go records in 1985 called Good Morning Mister Presley. The LP featured a variety of excellent bands including The Bomb Party and Marc Riley and the Creepers, and featured a front cover designed by Langford (see pic below from Discogs website).

I contacted Kevin Lycett to see if he could shed any more light on the story, but he had no recollection whatsoever of the Botha Boys, and certainly didn’t think he had ever played drums on stage at any point, so wondered if something had got lost in translation for the initial interview. He added that it was not Eldritch’s style to take part in such an ad hoc ensemble (although of course he did join Skeletal Family on stage in Hamburg in 1985, and famously strummed a bass at a charity benefit gig in 2001).

Undeterred, I tried to get in touch with Jon Langford himself, to see if he could confirm the details in the German magazine, albeit some thirty years after the event, but sadly no further information was forthcoming. Langford has recently spoken extensively about his very brief time in The Sisters, and has not made any mention of the Botha Boys, so it seems likely that the original tale is apocryphal. However, as ever, I would be only too delighted to be proved wrong.

My thanks to collectors LG and Phil Verne of the unofficial FB TSOM 1980-1985 group (where discussion of this post will no doubt continue), journalist Mark A, and Kevin L for their help in exploring one of the enduring TSOM myths.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The first interview - March 1981

On this blog we’ve revealed a number of firsts for The Sisters of Mercy over the past couple of years : a review of the first ever gig, the re-discovery of the first Leeds gig and the amazing story of the first gig abroad to name but three.

In this post we’re going to look in detail at the band’s first-ever interview, with the Leeds fanzine Whippings and Apologies, which was published in September 1981. The interview first re-surfaced in the voluminous archive of the revered collector LG, and was first shared to the wider fan community by Phil Verne on the Heartland Forum two years ago. At the time, it was acknowledged to be the earliest existing interview with Eldritch, and the contents were dissected both on Heartland and then again last year when Phil again shared the interview on his then newly-created unofficial The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook fan group (which after only fifteen months in existence already has nearly seven thousand members, demonstrating the continuing interest in this seminal phase of the band' career).

Reading through Eldritch’s confident manifesto, it’s astonishing how little has changed in the intervening thirty-six years, as his mantra will be familiar even to those who have only recently discovered the group. Given the band’s lowly status, having played only a handful of gigs, it’s perhaps understandable that many in the music press found the singer to be arrogant, given his pronouncements on the band’s place in the wider history of rock music, but his charisma, single-minded determination and detailed understanding of the inner workings of the industry are there for all to see.

In terms of the detail, Eldritch makes it clear that he has no interest in the pub circuit (The Packhorse and The Royal Park are both pubs in the university district of Leeds, close to opposite corners of Woodhouse Moor), and reveals that the band has only played the three gigs up until this point. The latest of these, supporting a fledgling Altered Images at the city's Warehouse club, is mentioned in the context of the dreadful sound mix the band had to suffer, and the first was the well-known York University debut show the previous month. The “middle” gig is now known to be the Reluctant Stereotypes support show at the Warehouse on 10th March.

This assumed chronology was confirmed only last week, when Mark J, one of the creators of Whippings and Apologies fanzine, commented on Phil’s thread on Heartland Forum, stating that he had himself conducted the interview “in a little cafe on Briggate” in Leeds, adding the statement, “It happened to be the first interview they had ever done.”

I asked Mark on the thread if he could recall how the interview had come about, and whether the photograph which accompanied the original interview was taken at the same time and place, and he replied with some wonderful detail about the day.  “Andy brought the photo with him to the cafe. As I remember it was the only band picture they had at the time. At the end of '79 and into '80, Steve [fellow creator of W+A] and I started going to the F-Club, downstairs at Brannigans. All the same faces went there every Thursday regardless of who was playing so we all knew each other to nod to, dance with or snog 😝. Andy and Craig were regulars as well and Andy used to go out with Claire the DJ. It was obvious he was a Stooges fan cause he sometimes wore silver trousers like Iggy. Anyway, me and Steve made our first fanzine 'Primitive ' and sold it down the F-Club. Andy saw it & told us he had just started a new band and asked if we would interview them and do a piece for issue 2. Which we did. I saw them supporting Altered Images at the F-Club but they were awful cos of the bad sound. We interviewed Clare [Grogan, singer of Altered Images] & co after the gig in the dressing room then arranged to meet 'The Sisters' a day or two later. I brought my tape recorder but Steve forgot his camera, so Andy gave us the picture that we ended up using. The newspaper quotes were made up. It was done in the little cafe in the arcade next to the old Virgin Megastore on Briggate. The rest as they say is history.”

The location and date of the photo therefore remain a mystery, but certainly predate the Altered Images gig. However, Mark J’s detailed account confirms that the interview itself took place between that gig on 19th March 1981 and the next gig on 22nd March, and as he has stated, the band confirmed to him that this was their first-ever interview.

One interesting comment sees Eldritch stating that the band might be seen with four five or six members on stage, although the most likely combination would be just the three of them. This is presumably a reference to an early, embryonic version of the band referred to in the biographical slip of paper which accompanied later, re-distributed copies of Damage Done (see above). With Eldritch still on drums at this stage before the purchase of the Doktor, this version featured a “Leeds face Keith Fuller” on vocals, with Eldritch’s muse Claire Shearsby on keyboards, and a guy called Johnny on bass, according to guitarist Gary Marx in his Glasperlenspiel interview in 2003, and confirmed by Paul Gregory of Expelaires in Mark Andrews’ definitive account of the very early TSOM years for The Quietus.

Whippings and Apologies was started by (Sparks fans) Mark J, Steve T and Mark C "in 1980 after leaving school.. Back in the day, there were one or two “glue and felt pen” fanzines knocking around in Leeds so Steve and I thought that we would chance our arm and produce our own. We didn’t expect it to last for eleven issues between ’81 and ’86. Sorry to disappoint, but the [Eldritch interview] tape was lost in the mists of time. At the time, there was nothing to indicate that the Sisters would go on to be the force that they eventually became. We hadn’t even heard them properly. It was just so early,” Mark J told me on Facebook.

The discovery of this interview and the contextualising commentary from the man who conducted it give a fascinating insight into Eldritch’s solid masterplan, with the silence of the other members present a common feature of band interviews until Wayne Hussey joined some three years later. My grateful thanks are extended to both LG and Phil Verne for their willingness to share their TSOM treasures with the worldwide on-line fan diaspora, and of course to Mark J for the local detail which has added some gravitas to earlier suppositions.