Today sees the thirty-fifth anniversary of The Sisters of Mercy’s first-ever gig on the West Coast of the USA, one of three concerts the band played as a three-piece following the departure of Ben Gunn after the East Coast shows the previous month. Just three days after the Stockholm show, the remaining jet-lagged Sisters arrived in California with just their instruments for equipment, as Craig Adams told The Quietus for this excellent feature by Mark Andrews: “We didn’t even have guitar cases. You had a guitar in a plastic bag with your cable, fuzzbox and your other cable. That’s how we landed in L.A.”
Adams’ fuzzbox was of course one of the key elements in The Sisters’ sound, and one which would take an even greater role in these three gigs where they were just down to the one guitarist. As Gary Marx drily observed to Mark Andrews in the same Quietus article, “The idea to carry on and do the few shows we’d got booked in the autumn may have been partly to do with whatever relationship was going on between Andrew and Patricia Morrison.” Eldritch and the Gun Club bassist had become close friends when the two bands had toured the UK in April that year, and this may well have been a contributing factor in the very well-informed preview that appeared in the prestigious L.A. Times the week before the gig, which stated that The Sisters’ use of drum machine, throbbing bass and fuzztone guitar re-energised “the often dreary gloom of Britain’s post-punk sound with a revitalizing charge. With his deep low voice, Eldritch summons a psychodrama theatricality in the best Jim Morrison tradition. The Sisters’ set ranges from kinetic, melodic melodrama to dreamy, eerie textures.”
The author of this purple prose was none other than Craig Lee, a former bandmate of Patricia Morrison in seminal L.A. punk band The Bags, who was then playing his trade as a writer best known as the editor of Flipside magazine, as well as his regular contributions to the L.A. Times and L.A Weekly. Lee, who sadly passed away in 1991, wrote an equally positive review of the gig itself, published two days after the show, ending with the comment: “The recent loss of a second guitarist has left the band sounding a little thin. However, with strong originals like “Temple of Love” and an inspired reworking of Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”, The Sisters exhibit a vibrant rock’n’roll heart.” Marx too felt that the slimmed-down line-up still worked well. He told The Quietus, “The shows were actually great with the three of us. I knew I was going to be more exposed as a guitarist but by then it wasn’t quite the problem it would have been in ‘82”.
(items from the collection of Bruno B and LG respectively)
Apart from Craig Lee’s enthusiastic pre-publicity, another factor for the gig’s popularity would have been due to the promoter Gary Tovar'sGoldenvoice, who produced a plethora of flyers and posters for the show, many of which have survived and are now in the hands of well-known TSOM collectors. Goldenvoice went on to become major players in the gig promotion world, as Wikipedia will testify, but back in 1983 they had only been around for two years and were an enthusiastic team desperate to give punk bands the opportunity to play. Nowadays, they are AEG’s “cool” subsidiary which promotes the world-renowned Coachella Festival.
The Sisters’ LA gig featured no less than three support bands, all interesting in their own right. Legion, playing their first gig, featured future members of better-known bands whilst Cathedral of Tears was the new post-punk/new-wave outfit of legendary punk vocalist Jack Grisham, former leader of the band T.S.O.L, which had broken up earlier that year. The final act listed is the most intriguing, Unit Three featuring Venus. This was an incredible act, a kind of punk Partridge Family making music in the style of the B52’s, featuring Mom Patty Bondage on bass, Dad Henree Herd on keyboard and their pre-teen daughter Venus DeBaun on vocals. The latter had been only eight when singing B.O.Y.S.on the 1981 compilation Rodney on the Roq, which also featured the likes of Black Flag, Social Distortion, Minutemen and Redd Kross. The band is probably best remembered for “(I don’t like) Beer”, the single of the following year. Thanks to the wonders of social media, I managed to track down Venus, who went on to have a career as a PE teacher. Understandably, given that she was only ten at the time, she sadly had no recollections of the show.
(Pics - an early postcard view of the original lobby, and a fan photo courtesy of Paula H)
Craig Lee’s contemporary review of the gig makes reference to the “less-than-exclusive downtown” surroundings, and Craig Adams’ memories of the show, quoted in the Quietus piece concur : “It was a no-go area”. This might come as a surprise to those who have seen photos of a bearded Eldritch at the show, performing under an incredibly ornate ceiling. The Hotel Alexandria had been the jewel in L.A.’s crown when it had opened in 1906, playing host to Presidents and Hollywood stars alike, drawn to the Egyptian-themed opulence of its public areas. As can be seen from the above postcard, the roof under which Eldritch performed was originally above a two-storey lobby, but an extra floor had been inserted in a 1930’s re-design, leaving an incongruously low mixture of lighting fixtures and pipes, and has over the years, the "Green Ballroom" has become a favourite of film-makers and rock video crews (as in these famous examples featuring Lenny Kravitz and Adam Lambert). The Alexandria continued to operate as a hotel until earlier this decade, and the room where the Sisters’ played can be seen (renamed the “Mezz”) on this video footage of a tour of the hotel by a well-known chef, Ilan Hall (4 minutes 20 in). Since the 2015 redevelopment, with the upper floors turned into condos, the Mezz is now one of the Alexandria ballrooms, an events space currently booking for 2020.
Back in 1983, however, the downtown area was, like the hotel itself, decaying rapidly, much like the infamous Tropicana Motel where Marx and Adams were marooned whilst Eldritch hung out with Morrison’s gang, as the guitarist told The Quietus. Adams’ memories of the show itself were that “the promoter had put out folding seats - well that didn’t last long!”
The gig was recorded and the bootleg tape is well-known to Sisters fans, containing a full record of the set, which opens with a reverb-drenched Burn, with Eldritch’s echoey vocal, which misses a few notes towards the end of the song, very much to the fore. The overall sound is impressively full and the song is well-received, despite the singer’s concerns about the lighting level: “Sorry about all these house lights, nothing to do with us.” Before launching into a perfect rendition of Valentine, he gives the audience his first impressions of L.A.: “People in Los Angeles have no legs – too many cars”. After the relatively slow start of a pair of songs from The Reptile House EP, the pace picks up immediately with a speedy version of Anaconda, with Eldritch’s vocal again very echoey, much like on the psychedelic demo version of the song a year earlier. Disaster struck in the middle section of the song, with Craig Adams breaking a string on his bass, leaving just Gary and the Doktor to carry the instrumental section of the song. Eldritch returns for the final vocal section, the first time the two (Marx and Eldritch) had been heard as a duo since the release of the debut single! There then follows one of the lengthiest pauses ever in a Sisters’ set, presumably whilst a new string is located and then fitted to Adams’ bass (we can all relive this episode thanks to Phil Verne of the 1980-1985 The Sisters of Mercy Facebook fan group who has uploaded the extract to YouTube). Eldritch complains about the mix: “I can’t hear myself”, before unwisely taunting those members of the crowd who are still seated – “You know you can get bed sores if you stay there too long.” To pass the time, Gary plays an extended solo version of Ghost Riders in the Sky, before Von shared the band’s latest news: “Next time we come there’ll be four people because we’ve got a new guitar player.” However, the crowd are clearly growing impatient, and bored punters begin to throw the chairs at the band. “Anybody got any more furniture ? I just stand here like a lemon,” quips the singer, clearly not fazed. Marx begins playing Yankee Doodle in a forlorn attempt to pacify the crowd, whilst Eldritch again tries humour to try to defuse the situation: “I’m perfectly happy with the number of teeth I’ve got, thanks. One less would not be very good for me. So that’s the last chair I’m going to accept up here. If you could just pass them the other way from now on….” Finally, Adams' bass is fixed, so the gig can resume, but sadly things get even worse. Flagship new single Temple of Love starts disastrously, with Eldritch missing his entry cue, and singing the opening line completely out of sync with Marx’s guitar. “We’re going to try again when this frank exchange of views has finished. We’re going to be very reasonable about this.... We’re blowing this amplifier up…We haven’t got another one you see...Maybe we should tell you some leper jokes, like we did in Boston. Are there any lepers in the house?” Not a “joke” which he would attempt in 2018, I suspect. After making their way – just – through Temple of Love, Eldritch jokes: “Sounded better like that, doesn’t it?”, before again complaining “I can’t hear myself up here. I can’t hear myself at all,” which evokes more jeering from the crowd, who even after an excellent Heartland are still very lively, as L.A. punk audiences were apparently wont to be. “So this is what sunshine does to you, huh? I think that I can live without it” is the singer’s cutting verdict, before announcing the “tear jerker” Emma, with its buzzing bass intro, and Gary using a flange effect on his guitar during the chorus to flesh out the sound, of the song, which nevertheless becomes a little loose towards the end.
With the next three songs the band finally win the crowd over, a punky Adrenochrome with a spectacularly good Eldritch vocal followed by Floorshow, with its usual powerful intro, but whose sound overall is noticeably thinner, suffering more than most from Gunn’s departure, and then a bass-driven canter through Body Electric . Eldritch engages in more banter with the audience who have requested songs which the band no longer play live “No we don’t play Jolene anymore.” Instead, the crowd are treated to Gimme Shelter, which works surprisingly well, with Marx skilfully switching between the two guitar parts, and it ends with a very lengthy Von/Craig drum machine-free coda. With the band having left the stage, there are enthusiastic cheers for an encore from an individual near taper, which are duly rewarded as the band return. “I’m Taurus” the singer replies to an unheard question, before the band launch into Alice, with the buzzing bass sound again dominant and the second guitar barely missed. Finally, Sister Ray brings what in many ways was a memorable show to an end, as wild as ever, and although the middle section is a little truncated and thin-sounding, Eldritch is at his Vega-esque best as he whoops and screams through the finale.
The Sisters would not return to LA until the late spring of 1985, when again they would be down to just the three human members, having not made it as far as the West Coast on their two 1984 visits to the States, although the California area had clearly influenced Eldritch's lyrics on Black Planet.
As ever, this post is very much team effort, with many fans having contributed to build up a picture of the events of October 1983 - especial thanks go to LG, Bruno B, Phil V, Paula H, Mark A, Venus, Being645 and everyone else who has helped.