Monday, 17 September 2018

Danceteria, New York, Saturday September 17th 1983

Whilst most of the recent posts on this blog have sought to confirm that gigs listed on The Sisters of Mercy gigographies sadly did not in fact actually take place, it is pleasing to be able to report further confirmation of one of the less well-known dates from the band’s inaugural US tour in September 1983.

Initially, it was believed that only date had been played at New York’s legendary Danceteria venue, the show on Thursday 15th September that year, as this was widely advertised at the time and flyers confirming the date have been known about for many years. Indeed, one was found in one of the boxes of artefacts which belonged to one of the twentieth century’s most iconic figures, Andy Warhol. The artist had a long-standing interest in music, and the Danceteria flyer for that September week, which lists TSOM’s Thursday show prominently (but makes no mention of any gig on the Saturday), was mentioned in this blog post about the contents of one the many boxes in the Warhol archive. This has led to speculation that he may have attended the show, although no evidence of this has yet emerged.

However, a radio interview recorded with Eldritch that month suggested that the band had in fact played two nights at the Danceteria, the second on the Saturday night, two days after the first - “Thursday was better than the Saturday”as Eldritch told interviewer Ann Clark from Music View on WNYU radio the following April. Sadly, no other evidence surrounding this gig had ever emerged, but contemporary confirmation from the horse’s mouth, as it were, was sufficient to concretise the gig’s firm place in gigographies.

Further potential information about this show came from Russ Tolman, lead singer of True West, who supported the Sisters at their San Francisco show the following month. When I contacted Russ about that date, he confirmed that his band had indeed played the I-Beam show in San Francisco, and that the Leeds band had in turn supported them at the Danceteria, as Eldritch had suggested in his on-stage comments in San Francisco. This additional Danceteria show must therefore have been a last-minute arrangement, presumably referring to the Saturday 17th September show, occasioned by the band’s continued presence in New York and the wholly positive response to the Thursday night show.

The fact that the late Ruth Polsky was responsible for booking the bands in Danceteria at that time, and that the Sisters were being heavily touted by the equally influential Howard Thompson, a key figure on the A and R scene, would also have made this last-minute addition a smooth and natural process.  As Eldritch himself told a Canadian interviewer about the band's success in the US, “We have a few very good friends with a little bit of clout over there.” But over the last thirty- five years, no further corroboration had emerged, whether in terms of audio, photos or reviews. However, Howard Thompson recently discovered a tape of the show, his own recording, and shared pictures of the artefact with well-known TSOM archivist Phil Verne, founder of the popular and dynamic The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook group. and gave Phil permission to share this knowledge more widely (hence this blog post). The text used for the tape cover was from a review of the Sisters’ gig at London's ULU (with Laughing Clowns supporting) earlier that year (6th May 1983), a very favourable review described by renowned TSOM journalist Mark Andrews as “five of the best paragraphs the band have ever had written about them.” 

There would have been a veritable galaxy of stars at the Danceteria that Saturday night, as Russ Tolman of True West recalls that Tom Verlaine, punk icon and lead singer of the band Television, had come along to their Danceteria show in order to see if he would like to follow up on his initial interest in producing the band’s next album (which did not in fact ultimately happen),whilst also at the show with Howard Thompson was one of Eldritch and Marx’s heroes who had inspired them to form a band in the first place, Alan Vega of Suicide, who would go on to work with Eldritch on Gift. Sadly Thompson’s recording of the show contains lengthy passages of conversation between himself and Vega, which is why the audio recording has naturally not be shared. Howard Thompson also revealed that the enthusiastic Vega is audibly singing along to some of the Sisters’ songs!

However, Thompson very kindly listened through the cassette and provided the following setlist for the show: Burn (Instrumental), Valentine, Burn, Anaconda, Heartland, Alice, Emma, Temple of Love, Floorshow, Adrenochrome and Gimme Shelter. Although technical problems were the norm rather than unknown with opening tracks at many 1983 gigs, this was the only time that Burn got two airings at a TSOM gig, although there was a second occurrence at Nottingham Rock City in October of the following year. The Saturday show is also lacking the final encore from two days previously, with Body Electric not played this time, but otherwise the setlist is the same as for the widely-known Thursday evening show. Thompson also commented that the recording itself is of poor quality, being recorded in mono on a portable Sony cassette device.

Howard has no recollection of True West playing the show (but Tolman does state that they didn't come on stage until 3 a.m.!!), nor does he recall seeing Tom Verlaine at the gig, but it may be that he and Vega were only there to see the Sisters and left before the headliners took to the stage. Vega certainly showed up backstage to meet the band, as Gary Marx told The Quietus’ Mark Andrews : “He was wildly funny and could quickly take over a room, but he was drawn to Andrew rather than to the band.”

The gig was reviewed in a New York City based fanzine, All The Madmen, a snippet unearthed by top TSOM collector Trevor R, and it gives a real insight into the impact which the band had had on their first sojourn Stateside. The author writes, “Last time I saw him [Andrew Eldritch] was at Danceteria, the final night of the Sisters’ first tour of the US. The band was vicious, oh lord. Temple of Love was the new number and I remember thinking this band could take over the world with bone crushers like that. And attitude like that. At Danceteria they murdered the crowd, which was exploding after word got out about their electric performance in the same room the night before [sic]. Every death rocker, gutter punk and biker from the five boroughs made the pilgrimage to hear the Sisters, and we’ve all be living in Andy Eldritch’s world since then, (im)patiently awaiting the Sisters’ final ascent into rock and roll heaven.” A further review, in East Village Eye also referenced the shows : “Their riveting performances at Danceteria were highlighted by a haunting rendition of the old Hot Chocolate tune, Emma, and a straightforward cover of Gimme Shelter,” more evidence of the impact of the pair of Danceteria shows on that first East Coast jaunt.

Any further info about this gig – photos, flyers etc would be very gratefully received, but for now massive thanks are due to Howard Thompson for sharing the images and setlist of this landmark New York gig, and Trevor R for searching his extensive archive for some great finds!

Friday, 7 September 2018

Ahlen Summer Night Festival - 8th September 1984

Those who attended the 1984 York Rock Festival and witnessed The Sisters of Mercy’s lacklustre daylight performance, complete with technical issues and windswept sound may believe that they saw by far the worst gig by the band during the increasingly professional Hussey era, but those who attended the 7th Golden Summernight Festival at Ahlen in (then West) Germany two weeks earlier on 8th September clearly endured a significantly worse experience.
The Sisters were, truth be told, not in the best of shape in the run up to the gig, a time when they were supposed to be putting the finishing touches to the debut album First and Last and Always. Eldritch had collapsed in the studio as, according to Gary Marx, “He was completely exhausted; hallucinating. Despite this, part of him still wanted to carry on, although the other part knew that he had to stop because he was so ill.”

However, the decision was made to honour the commitment the band had made to three September outdoor festivals, with York following a fortnight after the back-to-back “Golden Summernight” one day festivals at Ahlen and Lorelei. The former was booked to take place in a Motocross Stadium on Am Morgenbruch in the southern suburb of the small town of Ahlen in Westphalia, just north of Hamm.

As journalist Alf Burchardt said in his review of the gig for German rock magazine Spex, “Whoever had been involved in drawing up the line-up must have had no musical common sense. Blancmange fans were also treated to Rory Gallagher, and followers of The Alarm were given the chance to see Frank Zappa. With such a bill, those who had come just to see the Sisters of Mercy had little chance to make new acquaintances, but nevertheless, this group made up a sizeable part of the audience because The Sisters, who often have two or three songs simultaneously in the upper reaches of the UK independent charts, have built up a respectable circle of fans in Germany with their records and (so far two) tours. Despite adverse circumstances, the band's followers were also satisfied on this particular day.”

Events were to conspire to make this unlikely line-up even less of a success than the infamous Public Enemy/TSOM joint headlining tour in the US in the 1990’s. First, the weather literally put a dampener on proceedings, with a contributor on a Zappa forum recalling that “it was raining heavily all day – we were drenched,” whilst in a recent discussion on the TSOM 1980 1985 fan page, Thomas Wübker stated that he had also attended, “but all I remember was the slippery surface. I fell in the mud and was dirty all over,” before drily adding “That was my last Open Air Festival.”
Spex reviewer Burchardt also emphasised that aspect in amusing fashion : “Name a relic from the sixties with fifteen letters? – That’s right: outdoor festival. The masses dozing to musical entertainment in the sunshine. But you can tell a lot about the meteorological quality of a 'golden summer night', when grog and glühwein turn into big sellers.”
So a near empty venue (Spex estimated that only around a thousand fans witnessed the TSOM performance), bad weather, and of course another enemy of The Sisters, daylight. Wübker recalls “The Sisters played in the afternoon in daylight. That was totally different to what happened in Hyde Park. No fog, you saw the guys clearly.” This aspect was not lost on either the Spex reviewer or indeed Andrew Eldritch himself : “Asking for the band’s opinion of the gig was therefore an obvious question to ask during the interview which took place afterwards in the caravan behind the stage. But songwriter Andrew Eldritch nobly held back from any criticism. After all, these performances are also an economic necessity. Yes, it was cold. Yes, a few more people had been expected to attend. But no, the bill was not that bad. He wasn’t bothered about Lake or The Alarm, but he would love to see Blancmange or the Waterboys. First and foremost, Andrew was bothered by the fact that a cloud-filled sky had resulted in only an inadequate blackout. Although the Sisters are not the “creatures of the night” that many believe them to be, they tend to operate best in the dark. "The element of darkness is not that important to our image or our music, but if you play in the daylight, it's hard to feel the music, there’s no room for imagination," Eldritch opined. It’s true, ruthless daylight really does not suit the band: only when darkness falls does the music reveal its full morbid beauty.”

Despite these multiple setbacks, the gig could and should still have been a success, but as so often in 1983/1984, technical problems were to disrupt the set. As Burchardt wrote, “Guitarist Gary Marx broke a string per song, and since he had already successfully combated the cold with alcohol, fitting a new one always caused him considerable difficulty.” (!) This is clearly audible on a sharp audio recording of the gig, shared in various formats in recent years by Ollie C, who says that around the taper there are some German guys in the audience who do not like the Sisters and are booing and shouting...but this doesn't really affect the listening pleasure.”
Eldritch’s opening vocal line is also virtually inaudible in the set-opening Burn (the setlist having more in common with the Spring gigs than York or the subsequent Black October tour), before the singer introduces the second song : “This one’s called Heartland. [Cheers from the crowd] I don’t know why…. I don’t care”. However, the first guitar problem arises suddenly some fifty seconds in, leaving bass and slightly out-of-tune rhythm to fill in for a few seconds. There are more problems with the top guitar line towards the end, but Eldritch himself is in fine vocal form with strong upper notes in the song’s climax.
Before Body and Soul which follows, Eldritch addresses TSOM’s long-term live sound engineer Pete Turner with the question ”Can you hear me, Peter?...You wouldn’t remember Stanley Holloway would you, he had this catchphrase which was ‘Can you hear me, Peter ?’” Eldritch is clearly thinking of another music hall star, Sandy Powell, whose catchphrase “Can you hear me, mother?” was already out of synch with modern humour by the 1980’s. A fast-paced Anaconda wins the crowd back over, despite further problems with the sound balance of two guitar lines, then more problems with Gary’s guitar solo between the first and second verses as he attempts to make light of having one string fewer than usual. This gives the opportunity for Eldritch to indulge in further banter with the crowd before Walk Away, “Do what?   Don’t talk to me about Manchester, I can puke that far...Football rears its ugly head.” There are further major tuning problems with the guitar in the middle section of the forthcoming single, but again Eldritch rescues the song, singing the middle eight an octave higher than usual.
Marx’s problems reach their zenith in Emma, which features a lengthy flanged introduction without the usual solo initially, and then there are further guitar issues when it is finally attempted some two minutes in. However, the singer delivers his usual impassioned performance, and the crowd respond raucously and positively at the song’s end.
Whilst the guitars sound much better (despite some feedback) on the following Floorshow, Craig’s seminal bass intro is nearly inaudible, and the sparse bass sound is also very low in the mix in Alice, which sounds unusually minimalist with only one fully functioning guitar.
Barely pausing now, the band head straight into Body Electric, both guitars now functioning fully again, and although not perfect, it’s the best performance of the show so far. As the intro to Gimme Shelter starts up, Eldritch announces “One more”, and again the band give a near perfect rendition of the Stones’ classic. Anyone arriving at this stage would have had no idea of the technical problems that had dogged the set. The encore is Sister Ray, the guitars still relatively cacophonous but Von continues regardless, ad-libbing more than usual, and ending the show with a cheerful “Goodnight” and a heartfelt “Danke” to loud cheers and whistles of approval.

The whole bill played again the next day further south at the somewhat more picturesque location of Lorelei on the Rhine, in the Nazi-built amphitheatre which still hosts concerts to this day. There appears to be no trace today however of the Ahlen Stadion, however, as Google maps shows a housing estate on north side of the Am Morgenbruch road and an industrial estate on the south side. However, an old autocross video on YouTube of the Morgenbruch Ring from 1984 reveals that the word "stadion" is a little euphemistic for what was little more than a dirt track around a field, and the electricity pylons visible at the far end of the track, which can also be seen on some photos of TSOM from the gig (behind the stage, as on the Eldritch photo above), still stand today, a hundred meters south of the Am Morgenbruch road, allowing us to pinpoint more accurately the location of the gig. The Sisters did return to nearby Munster later in the year, with the equidistant Bielefeld also receiving a visit in 1985.
My thanks for their help with this particular post are due to Phil Verne, LG, Ollie C, Thomas W and others who have provided information or memorabilia.