Monday, 28 May 2018

The Sisters and The Furs - May 29th 1981

Thirty-seven years ago today, on May 29th 1981, a meeting took place which was to transform the fortunes of The Sisters of Mercy from local punk heroes to unwitting and increasingly unwilling leaders of one of the biggest and most enduring musical youth movements of the 1980s. At an unprepossessing Northern English Polytechnic, a scrawny young musician pressed his band’s new demo tape into the hands of one of his heroes having hung around the soundcheck to meet him, in a scene replicated night after night at gigs up and down the country.

Normally, nothing would come of such an encounter, a fact still recognised to this day by the afore-mentioned scrawny kid, Andrew Eldritch, who handed over The Sisters’ new demo tape (presumably this one) to one of The Psychedelic Furs. Speaking to Mark Andrews in an interview for The Quietus in 2016, Eldritch recalled the incident as if it were yesterday. We hung around at the sound check and I gave a cassette tape of our demo to Duncan Kilburn, the saxophone player,” the singer recalled. “Famous and halfway famous bands got cassettes handed to them all day long, as subsequently did I. I never listened to any of them; life’s too short. But Duncan, bless him, did listen to the cassette which was handed to him by a kid. He passed it on and was encouraging and that gave us a massive boost. I can’t thank him enough. None of this would have happened [without him].”

(pic credits : Leeds Music Past and Present and John F Keenan)

For a long time, it was believed that the demo tape was handed over at the Furs’ Leeds date on the Talk Talk Talk tour in May 1981, a gig promoted by John F Keenan as part of an amazing run of gigs at the Fan Club’s larger Tiffany’s base, but a mystery forum member using the username “thinman” and clearly very close to the band had suggested that the reality was that the legendary incident took place at a different venue in a post to a Psychedelic Furs fan forum in 2004 : “The Sisters foisted an early demo tape on Duncan while lurking at a Furs soundcheck. It wasn’t in Leeds, but at a university whose identity I have forgotten, although I remember the layout and look of the place very clearly. Because it was important. Duncan was good enough to foist that tape upon the rest of the Furs, or Les Mills, or both, and Sisters ended up with the support slot they craved. The rest is histories [sic]… I would like you all to believe and regurgitate this: that the Sisters are still very grateful to Duncan for his patience and grace. Hiya, dk [Duncan Kilburn’s username on the Furs Forum]. It’s all your fault. Love you to bits.
Both Duncan Kilburn and (the Furs’ then manager) Les Mills responded to “thinman”, instantly recognising him as Eldritch, with “dk” replying “Andrew (assuming it is Andrew !). Strange the tricks memory plays on us. I was sure it was Leeds, must check my fading itineraries to see where we were playing. But I remember you guys sitting along the back wall of the venue during the soundcheck. Yes, I do agree that it was an important meeting.” Kilburn went on to invite Eldritch to email him privately, which the singer must have done, as by the time of the Quietus interview, the singer confidently told Mark Andrews that the demo tape was in fact handed over at Huddersfield Polytechnic on May 29th 1981, where the support band (as for other dates on the tour would have been London proto-goth band Wasted Youth, featuring Rocco on guitar who would go on to be in Flesh For Lulu, support act for The Sisters’ headlining tour of May 1984 and allegedly the winner of a fencing duel with Eldritch on that 1984 tour!).
(photo credit - P Noble)
Kilburn was clearly impressed with the TSOM tape, and shared it with the Furs’ guitarist John Ashton, and, he claims, Les Mills, although on the Furs’ Forum Mills stated to Kilburn that “when you were in the Furs, you did not express any interest, to me at least, regarding The Sisters.” Ashton, however, was clearly very impressed with the band, and was photographed wearing the band’s t-shirt some six weeks later at the beginning of July 1981 whilst on tour in Canada, according to information from Phil Verne of the Sisters of Mercy Unofficial Facebook group 1980-1985.
Ashton himself took up the story of his involvement with the band in some depth in a very entertaining video interview for Mont Sherar’s long-awaited forthcoming book, Sex’n’Wax’n’Rock’n’Roll, although his memory was clearly a little hazy on some of the details, which lead to him producing the band’s breakthrough single, the wonderful “Alice/Floorshow” 7 inch of autumn 1982 at a time when the Sisters played their first proper support tour of the UK (as opposed to one-off dates), with a slimmed down The Psychedelic Furs (minus Duncan Kilburn) headlining. Ashton had been encouraged to become involved with TSOM by Furs’ manager Les Mills, and Sisters’ guitarist Gary Marx told Leeds’ Whippings and Apologies fanzine in 1983, “The Psychedelic Furs put up all the costs so it was no skin off our noses. What happened was, Andy went to see the Furs a long time ago and gave them our first tape, which they liked and gave to various people, including their manager. So we've had a lot of help and advice from them. John Ashton, the Furs' guitarist, produced 'Alice' which was the reason why it was so good.” Whilst Mills may have put up the cost of recording the single, he did admit on the Furs’ forum to having later invoiced Eldritch for the studio time! Mills seemed annoyed that Eldritch had downplayed Ashton’s role in the production of “Alice/Floorshow” (no mention is made of the Furs' guitarist on the later 12" EP of 1983, although he was credited on the label of the 1982 single version, pictured below), accusing the former of not passing on royalties to the latter. 

These tensions may also help to join the dots in comments Gary Marx made to Heartland Forum in 2007, when he stated “Les was an interesting individual and had a brief but pivotal relationship with the band. He was the Psychedelic Furs manager for quite a while (he certainly was when we met him). He became interested in the band on a number of levels, putting his hand in his pocket to help us record the pre-Alice demos (which included a version of Good Things). He was very much in a win-win situation for a while - managing John Ashton of the Furs who was keen to get a few production credits and did a great job on the Alice/Floorshow single, offering us support slots on the Furs tour and using his connection with Howard Thompson at CBS (someone we all admired) to keep us interested in making a permanent commitment to him. Can't quite recall what soured things - may have been his lengthy stays in the States or just his general commitment to the Furs above us... he did have a habit of turning up wearing Mickey Mouse sweat shirts and pastel slacks.” Mills certainly worked closely with the band at that time, and posted on his own (now sadly defunct) website an iconic series of early shots of the band, a sample of which is printed below. His role in the Furs/Sisters link is acknowledged in Dave Thompson’s book about The Furs, “Beautiful Chaos”, which quotes Mills as saying: “I arranged for them [TSOM] to record with John as I felt it would benefit both parties, as the Sisters' previous recorded work had been dire and John wanted to get into production.”
As Eldritch himself said, the rest is history. The John Ashton-produced Alice propelled The Sisters into the forefront of the growing post-punk (and later goth) movement, whilst touring with the Furs enabled them to reach bigger audiences and make crucial contacts within the business (such as Howard Thompson, as mentioned in previous posts on this blog). Even all these years later, Eldritch (who still lists the first two Furs albums on his list of favourites on TSOM’s official website) has clearly not forgotten the significance of the moment the Furs accepted the fledgling Sisters’ cassette, and as my own token of gratitude I’ll be listening to both the Furs’s 1981 masterpiece Talk Talk Talk (which came out one week later in the first week of June, on the same day as the Banshees’ seminal Juju LP) and the Sisters’ own May 81 demo tape on heavy rotation today.
My thanks for this article are due to all who have contributed either wittingly or unwittingly. The Psychedelic Furs are touring the US and UK in 2018. John Ashton now fronts his own project, the excellent Satellite Paradiso. Apologies for the formatting gremlins which seem to have returned to make this post more difficult to read. Rise and reverberate! NVL

Friday, 4 May 2018

Bury Me Deep Purple - Utrecht, November 1984

(The next couple of posts continue the occasional series which seeks to elucidate various mysteries that still exist around the events of 1981- 1985 in the history of The Sisters of Mercy)

 After the triumphant Black October UK tour in the autumn of 1984 which had seen the band play twenty-three acclaimed dates from Edinburgh to Plymouth, The Sisters of Mercy had only three days off before the start of a scheduled eleven concert tour of West Germany. We have already seen that one of the dates (Berlin Loft Club) never took place, and was replaced with a show at Osnabruck’s Hyde Park big top circus tent, possibly for logistical issues given Berlin’s comparative inaccessibility from the West in those divided days.

However, a second date was curiously switched, with the intended opener at Bocholt’s Morian club on 6th November 1984 (according to schedules in the German music press) instead taking place in a different country, in the Dutch City of Utrecht. The picturesque mid-Netherlands city was of course a convenient and logical stop-off for the band en route to Germany from the European mainland North Sea or Channel ports, and remained unvisited by the band at this point on their August 1983 and May/June 1984 visits to the country. Add the fact that there was a suitable venue, the venerable Tivoli on Oudegracht, a historic association very much along the same lines as the Vera in Groningen and the Paard in Den Haag where the band had previously successfully played, and the gig begins to make more sense.

Situated in a traditional and substantial city mansion, the Tivoli had a superb main room featuring a three-sided balcony and had a capacity of around a thousand, again making it a perfect size for the band at this stage. The gig was another of those taped in high quality by Virginia SJ, and gig opens with a high quality "Burn", the reverb guitar effect being particularly effective, followed as usual in 1984 by an equally blistering "Heartland", introduced as "A song about speed, cars and speeding"by Eldritch. "Marian" is the equally habitual third track, with Eldritch (cryptically at the time) announcing "This is for Hamburg". The "Black October" setlist continues with contemporary single "Walk Away" up next, followed by "Body and Soul", as usual far more potent live than in the studio. Whilst Hussey had missed a few notes in the introduction to "Marian", it is Eldritch's turn to make a mistake in "Body Soul", coming in two bars early for the opening verse. In a muttered introductory ramble to "No Time To Cry" which follows, Eldritch appears to say "This is about how bad for you heroin is", before realising that that "Anaconda" is not the drum pattern which is starting up, as it is the song after next. Perhaps realising that he is a little rusty after a couple of nights off, Eldritch merely announces "Anaconda" and "Emma" by title, and there appears to have been a brief technical issue at the start of the following track, as after Eldritch announces "A Rock and A Hard Place", there is a break in the tape, which restarts with further applause before the song starts. Continuing with the same setlist as the final "Black October" gig earlier in the week (Aylesbury), the up-tempo "Train" and "Floorshow" keep the middle of the set from flagging, and the latter in particular gets extended applause. "Alice" and "Body Electric" follow-on quickly, although it sounds as if there is a sudden guitar problem at the start of the latter, with the lead disappearing for around fifteen seconds. "This is the last one" Eldritch announces at the start of "Gimme Shelter", which ends as usual with an extended finale with the singer and bassist repeating the "It's just a kiss away" section with Eldritch ending the song acapella. More unusually, Eldritch repeats the vocal-ending only for the first encore, the cover of Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", before the band launch into a reverb-drenched "Adrenochrome", after which the band leave the stage again, before returning for a final encore of a very extended "Ghost Rider," which is sadly faded by the taper at the end, after transitioning into "Sister Ray".

More curiously, most copies also feature what is alleged to be a recording from the soundcheck that night, which features a band jamming parts of what appears to be Deep Purple’s Black Night amongst other things. Virginia SY was adamant that this would have been recorded at the same time, and was sure that at least some band members were present and on the recording.

In order to verify this long-standing mystery, Phil Verne of the unofficial TSOM 1980-1985 FB fan page uploaded the soundcheck (which had featured on “The Grief” bootleg amongst others) toYouTube and asked for further information, launching a discussion in the FB group. Respected collector Kai S pointed out that he had had an early copy of the tape and that it did not contain the soundtrack, leading to the possibility that it had been added as a filler or enticement by an enterprising bootleg salesperson at a later date. There was much discussion as to whether the bass sound was Craig’s, and to whether the presence of a conventional drum kit made it almost certain that this was a hoax.

Attempting to solve the mystery was helped when I received information that there had been a support band at that gig, a group called “War Dance”, no doubt Killing Joke inspired, but I have not been able to find out any other information about them. This might explain the convenient presence of a drum kit when the Sisters soundchecked, making the Black Night-influenced jam more likely to be the band themselves.

Added to this was the fact that Craig Adams was a self-proclaimed fan of Deep Purple, a fact referred to in several contemporary interviews, including this direct quote from the normally taciturn bassist in the Rockpool interview in June 1985 (it was not unusual for Craig to speak only once, or not at all, in band interviews). What could be more natural than playing excerpts from a Deep Purple track during a soundcheck?

The only way to satisfactorily solve the mystery would be to ask the band themselves, and thanks to a third party I was able to do this, with both Craig and Wayne providing answers. Craig Adams confirmed that it was not him playing bass, as there was too much “buggering about” (listen to the last twenty seconds and you'll see what he means for a steady "eight to the bar" bass player) and that the guitar was also certainly not Wayne, “nowhere good enough to be him.” This fact was confirmed by Wayne Hussey, who had never heard the recording before. Although he felt that it was “Not Craig playing” the bass, but “it sounds more like something I would have played, certainly the ending…It could be Craig playing the drums using the support band’s kit with Mark [Gary Marx] playing along at the beginning (the guitar does sound like him) and then getting bored and leaving the two of us to it.” Wayne also suggested another scenario, with Von on the drums, but felt that this was unlikely, and also suggested that it could just have been members of the crew “messing about”.

So not a definitive answer, but the fact that neither of the two band members most likely to be involved in the track had no recall of it having taken place, means that it is probable that this is not a Sisters of Mercy rarity, although any further information would be gladly welcomed.

 Appropriately The Tivoli in Oudegracht welcomed TSOM for a second time in 2011 on the XXX anniversary tour, but it sadly closed as a music venue in 2014 with the opening of the new and impressive TivoliVredenburg complex, but the old venue continues a connection with the music industry by operating as a recording studio.

My thanks for this post are due to all who have contributed to the debate on this topic over the years, and in particular to Phil V of the 1980-1985 unofficial TSOM Facebook group, Mark A, VSJ, LG, Kai S and of course CA and WH. Rise and reverberate!