Thursday, 25 January 2018

...then we take Berlin - August 1983

(This post is the final one of four covering the West German tour of late summer 1983: the other three gigs being in Aratta, Munster and Hamburg)

West Berlin in the late 1970’s/early 80’s. Bowie. Decadence. Iggy. Drugs. Squats. Christiane F. Heroin. Nick Cave. Nightclubbing. This was the received wisdom, the slideshow playing in the mind of any British alternative band as they made their way to the unique Western enclave on the “wrong” side of the main sweep of the seemingly impenetrable Iron Curtain, trapped in a timewarp, and one can imagine that it would have been just the same for Eldritch, Marx , Adams and Gunn as they made their way to the divided city from Amsterdam to start the West German leg of their first continental jaunt, the Trans Europe Excess tour at the end of August 1983.

Arriving at the venue, the famous Loft Club would have done nothing to shake their prejudices, as the club was basically the upper floor of a venerable old Berlin landmark, the Neues Schauspielhaus. This noted example of Art Nouveau architecture had been completed in 1905 as a theatre with a concert hall (the “Mozartsaal”) above, although the latter had served as a cinema until it was heavily damaged by allied bombing in the Second World War. Incidentally, before being closed by the Nazis in the early 30’s, the main (ground floor) theatre auditorium had been adorned with stage sets by John Heartfield, the anti-Nazi artist and credited inspiration of Siouxsie and The Banshees’ song Metal Postcard/Mittageisen.

The wonderful fa├žade and the cinema largely survived the bombing raids unscathed, and the latter was renamed the Metropol in 1951, becoming a club in 1977 as the silver screen began to decline with the advent of the VCR and the growth of colour TV, with the upstairs “Loft (im Metropol)” staging up and coming US and UK acts primarily from March 1983 onwards. However, the clientele was not simply junkies and punks, as one might have suspected, but like the other German gigs on the tour, the audience was partly composed of serving UK soldiers, as canny local promoters sought to exploit the “khaki deutschmark” burning a hole in the pockets of bored young British servicemen. I recently “overheard” a FB conversation between members of two of the leading post-punk groups at that time, reminiscing about their similar experiences at this venue: “British squaddies came to visit and decided we were great…the only thing was avoiding anything that would send them into fight mode,” commented one, who played the Loft very shortly after TSOM, conjuring up images of the lively scenes at the Sisters’ Munster gig (described in an earlier post). The other old post-punk replied, “We had a wee riot when we played there, as the local fascists and anarcho-punks decided to sort it out on the last number. It looked quite surreal under the strobes.”

The Sisters’ own gig seems to have passed off more peacefully, as can be witnessed in a fantastic thirteen minute video featuring highlights from the set. This is taken from a compilation tape of bands performing at the LOft that year (the Killing Joke footage from the same year is from the same video cassette), so presumably the whole show was filmed (although no tape has yet surfaced). Of the three songs featured, the first is the penultimate song of the set, Kiss The Carpet, with white-shirted Eldritch posing somewhat awkwardly when the lengthy introduction begins, (rather than dramatically appearing when the main riff kicked in, as was his wont in UK gigs when the song had been the traditional set-opener). The singer appears glued to his mic stand, hunched over the shaft as he surveys the audience which is clearly several hundred strong. With Marx (and sometimes Adams) on the dark side of the stage, and Eldritch unemployed for the first couple of minutes the camera focuses largely on Ben Gunn, and the discomfort referred to by Gary Marx in the recent Quietus interview (“I often looked across at Ben who seemed a bit unsure how to behave when he was doing so little”) is plain for all to see, as the unresponsive crowd also fail to appreciate the song’s slow-burning qualities. This is of the course the last footage of Gunn on stage with the Sisters, as he was to leave the band the following month on returning from the East Coast US tour. Here, he looks closest to the style that the band would adopt in its next incarnation, with his indie haircut and black shirt, whilst Marx has again gone for the open gilet look, Adams in a t-shirt and Eldritch in a hippy-ish white shirt which he also worn at the Paradiso, and which clearly sports a substantial rip on the left sleeve. Things improve dramatically with final encore “Body Electric”, a subdued Marx staying to his corner of the stage during his solos on the relatively small stage, and by the time the song ends, the band leave the stage to a rapturous reception, the singer saying “Goodnight and thank you” then waving to the audience as they exit stage right.

The video tape resumes with what had been the mid-set “Floorshow”, which is preceded by a bizarre incident in which a tiny punk with a most impressive mohican, who looks no more than ten years old, enters the stage to place something (a drink?) down for Eldritch, who responds by quipping into the mic, “This is my manager.” No-one bats an eyelid. Only in Berlin.As was often the case, the backbeat to the song starts a little slowly, and Eldritch appears to tell Gunn to speed the Doktor up (which duly happens) before Adams begins the familiar scuzzy main riff. The singer, cigarette in hand and black gloves clinging to the microphone stand, is in great form as he sings and yelps his way through what was becoming the band’s signature song. The footage ends suddenly with Gunn and Adams deep in discussion over by the Doktor before what would have been “Adrenochrome”, and no further video footage of the gig has been discovered despite extensive searches, although a full audio recording is in existence and features on a bootleg LP entitled Echoes Vol 1. The set list of the gig is unusual, with apparently no “Sister Ray” final encore and the order of the songs is somewhat different to other gigs on the band’s first European tour. The show did begin though with the usual set opener “Burn”, preceded by a confident “’Ello” from the singer. The mix is unusually clear, as if none of the usual effects were being employed, and at the end of the song Eldritch tells the sound crew “The sound’s very dry up here, Martin.” “Valentine” which follows, sounds barely different, with Eldritch clearly straining for the top notes, and it is no surprise to hear him request “more effect return up here please, Martin.” However, “Anaconda” is similarly anaemic, which does at least allow us to hear how the guitar riff on the “rush hour traffic” middle verse had modified during the year, but a clearly happier Eldritch just says “Danke” to the audience.

(generic TSOM West German tour poster - minus the definite article - from the collection of LG)

The sound gradually improves as the band move on to “Heartland”, quickly followed by “Alice” with Craig’s bass sounding suitably scuzzy and Eldritch’s vocal featuring more reverb. The central point of the set is reached with the epic “Emma”, the vocal bleeding slightly in the mix when Eldritch’s vocals begin some two minutes into the song, and on this tour Gunn delays the louder rhythm guitar chords that habitually started with the “Darling, I love you” section (in the Hussey era) until the next chorus. The pace of the set picks up with “Temple of Love”, with Eldritch introducing the song (and the band) in German, telling them “We’re called the Sisters of Mercy”. After “Floorshow” (which made it onto the video highlights), the set ends with a slower version of “Adrenochrome” and a dramatic “Gimme Shelter”, where Eldritch has some pitch problems in the “storm is spreading” section, but recovers to end the set alone on the stage for the then-traditional a capella ending, followed by a casual “Bye bye”. These covers went down particularly well with the crowd, with fanzine journalist Umberto Savignano recalling the gig wistfully when reviewing the Munich gig in November 1984 for “59 to 1” fanzine (on page 9): “A year and a half ago, when I saw TSOM for the first time in Berlin, hardly anyone knew that this band made music that was so melodic, melancholic and yet at the same time with such heavy guitars (more so than today).”

The Sisters returned to the Metropol (the main hall downstairs, that is) in 1985 on their final tour of the 1980’s, and then played at the Berlin Eissporthalle in November, one month after the official Reunification of Germany. But they had also originally been booked to play in the Loft on the November 1984 West German tour, as this advert will testify, although on that date the Sisters ultimately played the Hyde Park circus tent in Osnabruck instead.

(My thanks to the generosity of LG, Ollie C, "Travis B" and others who have contributed to this post. Phil Verne will be revealing more about this show over on the unofficial TSOM 1980-1985 Facebook page.)

Thursday, 4 January 2018

First, we take Manhattan - Bradford, January 1983

Thirty-five years ago today, The Sisters of Mercy played their first gig of the crucial year (for them) of 1983 at The Manhattan Club in Bradford. Or perhaps thirty-five years ago yesterday. I don't know for sure, to misquote Albert Camus, but we will return to the issue of the exact date later in the post. 

Although only a week after the 26th December 1982 "Christmas on Earth" gig in front of a large and appreciative audience at the London Lyceum at the end of their run of shows in the capital to round off their breakthrough year on a high, it seems to have been a much more focused and slick Sisters who took to the stage of the more modest Manhattan Club in Bradford just a few days into the New Year in 1983. With the students of Bradford and Leeds yet to return to their garrets, and with local punters watching their pennies with the long and impecunious month of January stretching ahead, there must have been a relatively small crowd in the Manhattan that evening early in the first week of the year, judging by the size of the audience response between tracks on the audio recording of the gig, both on the "Rough Diamonds" bootleg LP and on the various cassette recordings which have emerged.

The Manhattan gig opens with a confident "Kiss The Carpet", the instrumental opening lasting a full two and a half minutes of intertwining bass and guitars, unlike the more chaotic versions of the previous fortnight in London. Unfortunately, as the main guitar riff kicks in just before Eldritch joins the fray, the lead guitar sound is lost for a few seconds, either because Gary selected the wrong pedal or because of an error on the mixing desk. "We're lost in the room ... (Inaudible)" states Eldritch at the end of the song in his only onstage comment of note during the entire set, another indication that the band are taking the gig seriously as a statement of intent for the year ahead. After a short Doktor misfire (with a random extra bar of "Kiss The Carpet"), the band tear into "Floorshow", which like several later tracks (e.g. an equally excellent "Adrenochrome" which follows) features Ben's guitar prominently in the mix, with a reverb-heavy Eldritch somewhat less dominant than usual. Keeping the singles flowing, the band then go (after the briefest of guitar tune-ups) into a near-perfect version of "Alice", with Marx again showing total mastery of the repeated main riff which had caused such problems on the Autumn 1982 tour with the Furs. Whereas later in 1983 the band would introduce a cover at this point ("Jolene" or "Emma"), in this transitional phase between the punkier 1982 set and the smoother Spring/Summer 1983 selection of songs, the Sisters continue with an up-tempo version of "Watch", one of the last half-dozen outings for the debut single which would soon be disowned in interviews, but it gets one of the best audience reactions here. It was of course much different from the original vinyl version, with none of the features of the lengthy "live" ending, i.e. Craig Adams' buzzing bass, Eldritch's histrionic vocal, and Doktor Avalanche's clinical backbeat havig featured on the "Damage Done" double A side. The pace slows further with the northern debut of "Valentine", which still features the "hollow faces"/"empty smiles" lyrical transposition in the final verse at this stage, before quickening again with the soon-to-be-released "Anaconda", with Eldritch opting to sing the middle verse an octave higher than usual and missing out many of the "she will"s, possibly indicating that his voice was not at its best that evening. Most recordings of the gig omit the next track, "Body Electric", which is a shame as it is a particularly intense version, quickly followed by the usual set-closer "Sister Ray", which after a very haphazard low-key start is soon running at full octane. A relatively brief set all in all, three songs shorter than the Leeds Warehouse show a fortnight later (another indication that someone in the band was not feeling 100% ?), but certainly one of the most technically competent of that era.

The Manhattan Club was a most unlikely looking venue on a suburban street in the Manningham district of Bradford called Cornwall Terrace. As can be seen in the Google photo here, the street is currently very much in the overhanging shadow of the main stand of Valley Parade Stadium, home of Bradford City FC, although back in 1983 the stand was a significantly smaller wooden framed structure dating back to the turn of the century. That stand would be tragically engulfed in flames in May 1985 during a match between Bradford City and Lincoln City in a catastrophe that cost the lives of fifty-six supporters, in the very same month as the Heysel disaster. The Manhattan Club was housed in the run of two-storey buildings on the immediate left hand side of the street, currently trading as a sort of community learning centre. 

Back in early 1983, the Manhattan hosted a series of indie gigs of which the Sisters was the first, and I remember having a flyer for the gigs posted on the pinboard of the kitchen of my student flat in Leeds at the time. If memory serves (and it will have to, as I haven't seen the flyer since those days) it made mention of the forthcoming "Anaconda" single and was one of those information-packed hand-written flyers which makes me think that Nick Toczek was probably the promoter. Internet searches reveal photos of The Cocteau Twins and The Fall from subsequent gigs in the series at the Manhattan (check out the purple curtain to the side of the stage to prove that these are from the same venue, as the Fall ones are erroneously listed as being taken at the 1 in 12 Club, a venue that didn't start promoting gigs until later that year) on Monday 10th January and Monday 17th January 1983 respectively. Given that Sex Gang Children also played the Manhattan on a Monday the following month, it seems reasonable to assume that the date of the Sisters gig was also a Monday, as promoters usually block-booked a venue for the same night every week with a club owner, which also had the advantage of building customer loyalty, which would make it the 3rd of January rather than Tuesday 4th January which is usually the date given for this concert (on the band's and on the Sisters wiki's gigographies, for example).  I discussed this possibility with well-known TSOM live audio cassette expert Phil Verne, and he revealed that he has seen both dates listed on inserts of cassette recordings of the show, but that the earliest generation tape in his possession lists the date as the 3rd of January.

Whatever the date, anyone who has heard the Manhattan show can be in no doubt that the band were now a live force to be reckoned with, thanks to an increasingly tight and well-paced set with fewer technical difficulties and limitations. The band was clearly now ready to move on to the next phase of development, from one-hit indie chart wonders to a potential stadium band.

If anyone can shed any further light on this gig, whether personal reminiscences, a flyer/poster/ticket, photos etc, then we would love to hear from you over on The Sisters of Mercy unofficial Fan Club Facebook page for the 1980-1985 era.

My grateful thanks for their help with this post are due to Phil V, LG, "Circle", archivists of The Fall and Cocteau Twins and others.