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