Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Christmas on Earth - London Lyceum 26th December 1982

December 1982 was one of the most crucial months in the rapid development of The Sisters of Mercy after the release of the breakthrough of the Alice/Floorshow double A side single the previous month. The band not only secured their first cover appearance on one of the very influential music weeklies with Paul Slattery's photo of the band accompanying their first major interview (in 'Sounds' on 18th December 1982), but the band played a series of gigs in the capital around Christmas as they sought to capitalise on the increased interest in their music as their third single rose steadily up the "Alternative" chart. Eldritch always refuted the idea that the band needed to move to London in order to succeed, but even he seemed to accept that they needed to give the industry movers and shakers an easy opportunity to see the band 'live', and so the band played three gigs in three different London venues over five nights straddling Christmas at the end of the month.

Having supported the newly renamed Spear of Destiny (formerly Theatre of Hate) and the Cocteau Twins at the Kilburn National Ballroom on Wednesday 22nd at a gig promoted (as were the other two) by Head Music, the Sisters moved on the Ballroom of the Clarendon Hotel in Hammersmith the following evening to support UK Decay, before ending the series of gigs with their final show of 1982 as part of a six band spectacular at the Lyceum Ballroom just off The Strand on Sunday 26th December, their biggest show in the capital to date.

(Ultra-rare poster of the December 26th 1982 show from the amazing collection of Bruno Bossier)

This rapid return to the scene of their triumphant support slot to Aswad the previous month (which had garnered a rave review from Mick Sinclair in Sounds) came as something as a surprise, and was the result of a late but significant change of heart from promoters of the Lyceum show, Head Music, who had emerged from the shadow of Straight Music (note that the backstage pass from the Christmas on Earth reproduced here - from the collection of Robin C - still bears the name "Straight Music").

Regular readers may recall that in September 1981 John Curd's organisation Straight Music had promoted the successful Daze of Future Past show at Leeds' Queen's Hall (causing John Keenan's Futurama 3, at which The Sisters had featured for their first big break, to relocate to Bingley Hall near Stafford), and later that year Straight Music put on an even more successful punk revival festival at Queen's Hall, entitled "Christmas on Earth". This brought together fans of the second wave of punk bands such as Vice Squad, G.B.H. and The Exploited alongside original punks Chelsea, The UK Subs and The Damned on 20th December 1981. This contemporary review claims that as many as 7000 fans gathered on a snowy winter's day for the indoor festival, so it would have come as no surprise that Straight Music's successors, Head Music, should retain the name "Christmas on Earth" for another punk extravaganza to be held on 26th December at the Lyceum in London three days after another Christmas punk show at the same venue headlined by The Anti-Nowhere League.

Whether it was poor ticket sales as "Punk's Not Dead" defiance finally gave way to the reality that the revolutionary movement had not petered out but merely evolved, or confusion caused by the fact that the original adverts claimed that the gig was on a Thursday, Head Music made the dramatic late decision to dump old school punks Discharge, Vice Squad and G.B.H from the bill, and replace them with post-punks Sex Gang Children, Alien Sex Fiend in a move which marked a symbolic and definitive moment in the rise of what would become goth. Curiously, 1977 punks The Vibrators remained on the bill, meaning that those who attended the show on the day after Christmas (but before the Monday Boxing Day bank holiday) was a curious mix of the two audiences. 

This is reflected in the contemporary review by Paul Roland (from the archive of Malcolm Argyle), who clearly felt that The Vibrators were the best received band on the day, with the "audience singing along" to several of their songs, something which fans of the newer scene would have been unable to do. Roland (a musician himself) is very complimentary about the Sisters though, stating that "the Ballroom filled up nicely" as they took the stage, and that not only was Eldritch's yelping "quite effective", but that the band's music was "a welcome change from the one look/one sound hardcore groups".

Whilst this may be true, the Sisters' performance that early evening was not a huge improvement on those on the Psychedelic Furs support slots two months earlier (including the gig which I uncharitably dubbed their worst ever in a previous post on this blog), and was again beset with technical difficulties, many of the band's own causing, as can be witnessed in an audio recording of the show kindly lent to me by Phil Verne of the 1980 - 1985 The Sisters of Mercy unofficial Fan page on Facebook. Gary Marx has stated that the band liked to start the "live" set with Kiss The Carpet as it enabled them to iron out any technical difficulties, but here the opening section is both chaotic and discordant, the guitars clashing on several occasions where they appear to be playing in different keys, before Gary's key riff disappears in the mix just after the Doktor ushers in the change of tempo to kick-start the set. Apart from some feedback and sound level issues, the rest of the opener passes without incident as Eldritch's reverberating vocal takes over. "Floorshow", already becoming a favourite on the indie club dancefloor, increases the pace of the set, with the singer's bloodcurdling screams again the dominant feature. The third track, "Adrenochrome" gets off to a terrible start, Adams seemingly playing the wrong notes whilst the guitar is lost in a sea of feedback, but again the singer impressively keeps going by staying in tune against the odds for the opening stanza, after which the song gets rapidly back on track. Before moving on to the next track, Eldritch announces "We are the Sisters of Mercy. This is a new one. What's it about? It's about sex...and violence...and television...and (inaudible)" as the band launch into "Valentine", given its second ever playing and now uploaded to Soundcloud by Phil Verne. Although musically identical to the Reptile House version, lyrically the final verse is different, with Eldritch singing "I see no need for this, I see no reason, reason" before returning to the more familiar "For a million empty faces" line and the song's impressive climax. He had sung the same unusual couplet but at the start of the second verse for the song’s live début three days earlier at the Klub Foot (as can be heard in this version kindly uploaded to YouTube by Ade M), but by the time of the Portastudio demo, the final lyrics are in place, apart from a transposition of adjectives towards the end (“hollow faces”…”empty smiles”). Less than a month after the Lyceum show, though, at Leeds Warehouse on 20th January 1983, Eldritch sings the full Reptile House lyric of the song, just a month before it was recorded for the EP. The pace of the Lyceum show increases again with "Alice" over a more metronomic than usual Doktor Avalanche introduction, before early single "Watch" is given another airing. Now shorn of the "dark room" section, this had become one the longest-standing songs on the set and one of the most potent, with the bass and drum machine "Watch us fall, falling down" (better suited Eldritch's than Marx's vocals) section forming an extended, guitar-free ending.
Unfortunately it was at this point that the traditional 1982/1983 Doktor Avalanche technical gremlins returned, with the "Body Electric" drum pattern only kicking in successfully at the fourth attempt, and then Ben's guitar seeming slightly out of tune on the first section, and again in the instrumental section in the middle of the song, as can be heard here on YouTube, again thanks to Phil Verne. Once more it's Eldritch's vocal that sees the band through, with Marx's final soloing even more off-the-wall than usual towards the end.
Eldritch has a brief altercation with a member of the audience ("That's right in my face") before the band launch into a primitive, staccato version of next single "Anaconda", another song which betrays the fact that as the third band of six on a busy bill, they would have had little time to soundcheck. Again, Eldritch rises above the feedback with another tour-de-force vocal performance, and the band save the day with a typically unbridled "Sister Ray" finale, the only cover version in the set with "1969" having been recently dropped.
The Sisters would return to the Lyceum for what Eldritch would late describe as their best ever gig, supporting the Gun Club some four months later, and it remained a favourite venue for the band on subsequent tours. Having started life as a theatre, the Lyceum had had its stalls removed and become a ballroom after the Second World War, and prior to hosting gigs had been the home of the televised "Miss World" competition. The lack of seats made it an ideal venue for gigs in the punk and post-punk eras, but it closed in 1986, eventually reopening as a theatre a decade later after a lavish refurbishment. Anyone who has visited London since 1999 will know it as the the home of the hit Disney musical The Lion King, appropriately for a venue which has completed its own, erm, circle of life.

Curiously for a show which was put together at the last minute, the show is well-documented, including this ticket belonging to well-known post-punk archivist David M who attended the show, with more evidence available than for any other show of that era.

My thanks for this post are due to Phil, Malcolm, Bruno, Robin, David, Ade and all those who have shared memories of this final gig of the breakthrough year of 1982.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

On The Wire - Hyde Park Circus Tent, Osnabruck, 15th November 1984

Of all the weird and wonderful venues visited by The Sisters of Mercy during their 1981-1985 ‘live’ heyday, the sight that awaited the tour-bus as it arrived in Osnabruck on 15th November 1984 on their West German tour that followed the Black October UK jaunt was probably the most bizarre.

As can be seen on the ticket reproduced above, the gig really was held in a circus big top (formerly belonging to the Althoff travelling circus), the temporary home of Osnabruck’s “Hyde Park” club. The Hyde Park had originally been set up in 1976 in an old riverside restaurant, the picturesque “Schweizerhaus”, but as the years passed the venue gained a reputation for alleged drug dealing, and by July 1983 the exasperated authorities had decided to close it down. Local punks had other ideas, leading to a riot where a thousand protestors took on the police. An uneasy stand-off followed, with further sporadic outbreaks of violence, and a temporary solution was found in the shape of the circus tent which was pitched on an industrial estate near a sprawling cement works and therefore much further from prying eyes.

However, the owners continued to have problems with local inhabitants, as the sound from discos and concerts easily traversed the canvas walls of the big top leading to complaints. Heating the tent in the winter months and surviving storms were also problems for the owners, and the tent closed for the final time on 30th November 1984, just two weeks after the Sisters visited. A new, more permanent structure based on a tent shape finally opened in 1985, and the current Hyde Park is the fourth incarnation of the venue, opened at the turn of the millennium.

Great photo of the tent in the snow, from the Hyde Park memories FB page

The Sisters’ own concert at the tent was very successful, despite there being no wall or ceiling sound insulation to help create the necessary reverberation, and the dry ice rising unfettered to the top of the big top. Legendary collector Phil Verne has never heard a top quality sound recording of the gig, as all suffer from the relatively poor acoustics, but the best available shows the band in typically slick form at this stage, having played almost exactly the same set for the past two months. Like all 1984 gigs, the show opens with the mid-paced pair of “Burn” and “Heartland”, the sound crew working wonders to provide decent balance from the start, and Eldritch coping admirably with his vocal digressions towards the end of the opener. The only spanner in the works is some antagonism between Eldritch and a member of the audience, who is told to “F--- off” in the pause between the opening two tracks. Eldritch says little between tracks, with the exception of the occasional “Danke schön”, and a fine concert, clearly well appreciated by a large audience who “hoi-hoi-hoi” along with the opening of their favourite tracks (such as “Alice”) in true European style and are treated (as are we, thanks to Phil having uploaded this to Soundcloud) to a truly magnificent ten minute medley of “Ghost Rider” and “Sister Ray”, with the former possibly the best version that I have heard. This takes the overall gig past the eighty minute mark, one of the longer shows of that era, an impressive fact towards the end of a gruelling tour that would bring the singer to physical and mental exhaustion.

After the gig’s conclusion, a female announcer tries to placate the enthusiastic crowd, although it would have been plain to anyone following the tour that TSOM had no more songs left to play anyway! Neverthess, she apologises to the crowd, stating that the police have been called by neighbours and that there will be no further encores.

However, the only contemporary review of the gig which I have found (from a German fanzine) is withering in its criticism of the band, rueing the changes which had taken place over the past twelve months, the writer presumably having seen the band in nearby Munster in autumn 1983 or early 1984. (Like Munster, and Bielefeld, Osnabruck was home to a very large British military base in the 1980’s, and it is highly likely that there was a strong “squaddie” presence at the gig, as British bands gigs were always well attended in this region – Detmold was also in this compact geographical area).

Starting “Let’s get to the worst concert of Autumn”, the author soon vents his spleen on the “embarrassing” spectacle which followed, as the Sisters “must have spent their entire WEA advance on military-grade fog grenades”, complaining that “dry ice fog was stupidly blown into the circus dome throughout the band’s set.” The reviewer also turns his vitriol on the music, stating that it was “muffled, boring and droning…everything sounded the same, the Sisters parodying the Sisters,” with accusations of “stealing riffs from early Banshees and Cure”, with even Gimme Shelter and an “over-cooked” Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door failing to rise above the mire. In a final put-down, the writer concludes “Grobschnitt fans, watch out. This band is for you from now on.”

Unlike his contemporary readers, I had never heard of symphonic comedy psychedelic pop band Grobschnitt, but a mere glance at this photo of the ensemble in their, erm, heyday, should suffice to indicate that the comparison was not intended as a compliment. According to Wikipedia, the band were famous “for live performances which included pyrotechnics and German comedic sketches” (the mind boggles), with performances “frequently exceeding three hours” and “utilising humour in the form of unexpected noises and silly lyrics” (in addition, presumably to the costumes). So perhaps not so far-fetched a comparison after all.

The Sisters have successfully played in marquees on many further occasions, usually on the Festival circuit (at Sonisphere for example), but this initial attempt was probably the least successful gig of that time since the September outdoor festival appearances.

My thanks for this post are due to the wonderful German punk archive site Tape Attack for the fanzine review, to Phil Verne of the 1980-85 The Sisters of Mercy Facebook Fan Page for the audio clip posted on Soundcloud, Ollie Cornaculix for the translation of the German and all others who have contributed, willingly or unwittingly.