Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Forty Years Ago Today - the first The Sisters of Mercy gig, York, 16th February 1981

 Forty years ago today, 16th February 1981, The Sisters of Mercy famously played their first ever gig, supporting The Thompson Twins at a CND benefit concert held at Alcuin College at The University of York, an event previously covered on this blog after the discovery just a few years ago of a contemporary review of this debut live appearance [this new post is intended as a companion piece to the previous one, containing additional background information, some of which has come to light since the original piece was posted here].

One of the most curious features of the first show is the city in which it took place, as most bands’ debut gig would tend to take place in their hometown. However, although The Sisters were very much a Leeds-based ensemble throughout the early 1980’s, the city of York plays a disproportionate part in the band’s early history for reasons which have never really been fully explained.

Eboracum, the Romans called it. To the Vikings it was Jorvik. York had traditionally been the British Isles’ second city, and to this day the Archbishop of York is second only to his Canterbury counterpart in the hierarchy of England’s long-established religious organisation, The Church of England. However, the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the need for fast-flowing rivers closer to the hills to power factory machinery resulted in the rapid development of cities like Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield, leaving the sleepy county town of Yorkshire dwarfed by its upstart neighbours.

Although it is situated only around 25 miles (40 km) from Leeds, few young Leodensians would normally venture out to York, as its shops, pubs and clubs were generally seen as much less lively or impressive than those in the larger cities, but Andrew Eldritch seems to have been irresistibly drawn to the town best known at that time for its chocolate factories (York is famously the home of the KitKat!) and as a railway hub as well as being a tourist trap for elderly visitors to its’ city walls, quaintly-named cobbled streets (“The Shambles”, “Whip ma’ Whop ma’ Gate” etc), celebrated tea rooms and lofty cathedral (York Minster).

Indeed, the earliest known individual photo of Eldritch (or rather Andy Taylor as he was still known in those days) was taken in the late 1970’s in York, more specifically at Priestley’s t-shirt shop, and as well as being in the earlier blog post on this topic, the picture in question was more recently also shared on the 1980-1985 The Sisters of Mercy unofficial Facebook fan group by Paul I, who explained that he had worked in the shop in 1978/1979. He remembered “Spiggy coming over from Leeds and hanging out in our shop with another guy called Tom. They wore biker leathers and boots. I think he dyed his hair black soon after!”

Ireson added in the Facebook group chat that at the shop they printed t-shirts, which they sold via small ads in the Melody Maker and on tours following bands (“SLF, Undertones”) another important detail when considering the Sisters’ early development. Eldritch is on record stating that they had made t-shirts before even making a record, and 80-85 FB group admin Phil Verne shared a copy of a Priestley’s catalogue from early 1981 which features the familiar head and star logo t-shirt amongst then far more established artists.

Those who have heard the band’s debut single will readily understand that the image of The Sisters of Mercy was far stronger than their music at this stage, and the logo with its distinctive Caslon antique lettering was of course to become an iconic symbol of the gothic fraternity, much copied by other artists. With the t-shirt already spreading the band’s name and minor local fame, obtaining gigs in the York area would have become easier, especially given the local movers and shakers who would have moved through Priestley’s and its near neighbour, Red Rhino Records, which was also the local distribution base for Yorkshire independent music, such as the then-recent “The Damage Done” debut seven-inch release.

Alcuin College, the venue for the first gig, was a particularly appropriate venue, given the band’s reliance on image, as it was named after an eighth-century (!) scholar from York who had great influence with the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, and who was credited with standardising the “Carolingian Minuscule” font that was all the rage in priestly (no pun intended) circles at the time and was the precursor of the “blackletter” style which would become the dominant script of the next few centuries, often referred to informally nowadays as… “gothic script.”




Commenting about the blog piece on The Sisters of Mercy 1980 – 1985 Facebook fan group, former York resident, Chris S, explained that the original concert venue, the Alcuin College dining hall, could no longer be seen because of the rebuilding works which necessitated the 2001 20th anniversary show taking place in the venue of the band’s other early York gigs, the rival Vanbrugh College, and posted this picture of the original venue, stating “This is the only picture which I could find of the old Alcuin buildings. The dining room where the Sisters played in Feb 1981 is the first floor building on the left behind the tree with the big windows, the college bar is underneath. This [photo] is looking at Alcuin from Langwith College. I think that the bridge over the road has also gone now.”

By all accounts, that gig on the 16th Feb 1981 was nothing to write home about, and the contemporary review featured in the previous blog post about this gig certainly damns the band with faint praise, a view echoed by those who were there. John L said “We only went as Peach [Gary Marx] had told us they were playing. To be honest, I’m not sure what we made of them. They got better!” His view was backed up by well-known TSOM fan Simon C who added “I know people who were present at that first gig as I have lived in York for 24 years and have gotten to know a few alternative types who are a few years older than me. By all accounts, the band at this time were sh*t. They’ve since admitted that the band were brilliant when they played in York again a year and a half later. Apparently they’d upped their game considerably by then.”

Gary Marx himself confessed that the band were far from the finished article in an interview included in Jane Hector-Jones’ riveting piece on post-punk Leeds for Louder Than War as recently as last November: “Andy used to work over in York at a firm called Priestley’s that did T shirt printing. He would go over, go to Red Rhino records and meet some people in there. We had next to nothing in terms of gear. Craig had borrowed a bass. Most of us didn’t seem to own anything at all. Craig’s clothing was like, a donkey jacket, really ill-fitting clothes, like he had put on someone else’s school uniform. For the gig, he borrowed a leather jacket with UK Subs on the back, and Kim who went on to be in the Pink Peg Slax had done his hair into a rockabilly quiff. I was still a skinhead, and I had got a grey Trutex skirt. I wanted to be like the Fall, anti-rock. But I was a spotty kid with a Trutex shirt. Andy was in a version of what he ever was, looking like Lenny Kaye or Joey Ramone. If you’re going to be in a band you may as well make a connection between what you all look like, but we just hadn’t got there.”

One person who could have given an impartial account of the band at that first gig was the one London music journalist who happened to be present, Robbi Millar, the Sounds hack who by coincidence had been the only singles reviewer of the four main music weeklies to give some column inches to The Sisters’ debut 7” just a couple of months earlier, justifiably slating “The Damage Done”. By pure chance, Millar (presumably the only national music journalist to have heard of The Sisters of Mercy at this point) had been sent along to accompany The Thompson Twins on a few dates to gauge the success of the “No Nukes” tour, and she included a brief account of the Twins’ York set in her published piece. However, no mention was made of the support bands, so it may have been that she didn’t see The Sisters’ set, but either way she missed out on another notable scoop.



If The Sisters ultimately upped their game and went on to greater success, the same can certainly be said of The Thompson Twins, although both bands had to slim down considerably in number and move away from their more radical roots (this was a CND “No Nukes” benefit tour, after all) in order to make the Top 40 charts. Those intrigued by how The Thompson Twins sounded back in February 1981 can listen to this BBC session recorded in London just four days before the gig, with their then-new six-piece line-up. It was broadcast on the Richard Skinner Show on Radio 1, the 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. slot which was the “alternative music” bridge between the mainstream pop fluff broadcast during the day and the hardcore eclecticism of the John Peel Show (10 p.m. to midnight). Skinner succeeded Mike Read and preceded David “Kid” Jensen as the anchor for this key “homework” slot, and arguably had a more genuine ear for emerging talent than either of his fellow DJs. To get even more of an impression of The Thompson Twins' on-stage experience at that time, Phil Verne pointed me in the direction of this live performance recorded just a few days before the Alcuin gig.

Incidentally, The Thompson Twins’ drummer at this time was Chris Bell, who himself became something of a goth legend, playing on Spear of Destiny’s seminal Grapes of Wrath LP and Gene Loves Jezebel’s The House of Dolls album alongside a shift in Batcave regulars Specimen. Also in The Thompson Twins at that time was original saxophonist Jane Shorter (later replaced by Alannah Currie), who went on to work with Orchestra Jazira alongside the highly-respected Ben Mandelson, who in 1981 had had the unenviable task of replacing the legendary John McGeoch in the seminal post-punk band Magazine, featuring notably on the band’s final studio album Magic, Murder and The Weather LP.



The Thompson Twins’ tour itinerary did include a date in Leeds, which took place at the University in the Riley Smith Hall rather than (as advertised in music press tour ads) at the Poly, according to this contemporary review in Leeds Student, which notes that the Bradford band Cameras In Cars (who released one EP in 1980) were the support on that occasion. Cameras in Cars featured Martin Sadofski on vocals, who went on to be in the Passmore Sisters (some of whom in turn would join TSOM graphic artist David Ashmoore and ex-Salvation guitarist Choque Hosein in The Hollow Men), and guitarist Tim Beckham who later played in both AC Temple (on the Sourpuss album produced by none other than Mekon Jon Langford, who famously filled in for Craig Adams at another York university TSOM gig in early 1982) and the equally excellent local legends Dustdevils, showing just what an interconnected scene there was in West Yorkshire in the early 1980’s.

The Leeds Student review reckons that no more than 150 people attended the Thompson Twins show, a similar number therefore to the Monday night York gig, which was also competing forty years ago today with another interesting event flagged in this clipping from Leeds Student, a “performance” rather than a gig, put on by some of The Sisters’ then friends, the Music For The Masses society at Leeds University Union, who would promote one of the Sisters’ earliest Leeds gigs just a few months later, where they would link up with the very influential Howard Thompson (see the earlier blog post on this gig here) for the first time.





Teenage skinhead Mick Furbank’s show Lament From The Terraces was a bit of a cause celebre at the time, the two-room curated performance art combination of exhibition and one man show having courted controversy with the suggestion that (some) skinheads were closet homosexuals, repressing their true feelings and hiding behind a hard man image. In a city like Leeds, where the battles between anti-racist punks and NF-supporting skins at this time have been documented in several excellent recent articles (here and here for example), this was literally fighting talk, and this event might have been easier for some of the band’s wider entourage to attend then the trek to the far side of York to see the Sisters. February 1981 was in general a busy time on the gig circuit, and I myself saw original punks Siouxsie and the Banshees (supported by Comsat Angels), The Jam, and The Stranglers (supported by Modern Eon) that very same week, with the Some Bizzare tour also criss-crossing the country (with Monochrome Set and Fast Set playing Leeds Warehouse, also on 16th February 1981) and the 2002 revue (featuring a varied bill including Theatre of Hate, Fad Gadget and Classix Nouveaux) about to do likewise.

Forty years on, and because of the global pandemic there are no events planned to celebrate The Sisters of Mercy’s fortieth anniversary, unlike the previous three decades which saw elaborate (by the band’s plug-and-play standards) festivities. Eldritch had already indicated after 2016’s 35th anniversary tours that he had no intention of specifically acknowledging future anniversaries, a viewpoint which coronavirus has cemented into reality. Although no photo, audio (those tapes circulating claiming to be this first gig are wrongly labelled), video, poster or ticket have yet surfaced of that debut gig in February 1981 (although we live in hope…), fans around the world will  today be privately celebrating the day that what was largely a grandiose project on paper took the first steps towards an all-encompassing reality.

My grateful thanks for their assistance with this post are due to Phil V, Chris S, John L, Paul I, Jane H-J, Rob C and LG. And many congratulations to Andrew Eldritch on surviving forty years in the music business.

 

 

Friday, 10 July 2020

The Damage Done - XL !


This year famously sees the fortieth anniversary of the release of the debut single by The Sisters of Mercy, The Damage Done/Watch/Home Of The Hit-Men, on their own Merciful Release label. This is an incredible milestone, meaning that the band’s first release is as distant in time from us now in 2020 as the beginning of World War Two and the Battle of Britain were at the time it came out. Andrew Eldritch always stated that he was embarrassed by this initial vinyl outing, effectively saying in interviews that it was pretty much a different band, that TSOM proper didn’t really start until Craig joined and the band began live performances and that he even wished that they had changed the band’s name at that stage so that the first single would not be part of their legacy.



Ultimately Eldritch has softened his view, not only allowing the debut to feature on the Some Girls Wander By Mistake compilation of pre-WEA singles and EPs released in 1992 (albeit towards the end of the album which is in vague chronological order of release but for the fact that it starts with the third – and breakthrough – single Alice), allegedly to prevent fans from having to pay astronomical prices to be able to buy a copy,  but also posting a highly informative piece entitled The Making Of The First Single on the band’s own official website.

Eldritch’s account – which, it is assumed, readers of this blog are familiar with, this post being therefore intended to be complementary to it - focuses on the motivations and method of himself and Gary Marx as they made their first stab at fame, revealing that their main aim was to hear themselves on the radio (a fact we have now proven in a recent post) and spread word of mouth fame with sales of the band’s iconic t-shirt featuring the Merciful Release head-and-star logo.



In his inimitable style, Eldritch (assuming that it is him writing in the third person for effect) recounts how “our intrepid sonic explorers booked themselves half a day's studio time at Ric-Rac Studios, which was (and possibly still is) a shed in Wortley.” The studio does indeed still exist all these years after Eldritch penned that account, and is still in the same unlikely location, surrounded by houses as can be seen in this screengrab from Google maps and not exactly “the run-down industrial area” the singer describes.



Eldritch went on to describe the studio owner and his influence on the finished product – “the only one who knew how to operate the studio, so he did the engineering. With a beard. Our heroes found it difficult to convey to him what a non-cabaret act might sound like.” The latter is probably a reference to comedy folk ensemble The Grumbleweeds who also recorded at the studio, which had its own label, Luggage, a pun too obvious for the likes of Eldritch. Commenting on a post about the studio on The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 fan Facebook page, Si Denbigh (of The March Violets) commented that he recalled that the bearded owner Mick Robson had also engineered a Smurfs album, which he proudly exhibited on a wall in the studio, whilst Dave Wolfenden (Expelaires/Red Lorry Yellow Lorry) remembered him telling the late great Mick Karn (of Japan fame) that “his cat could play bass better” than him! Adding to the legend of the studio being the place of choice for Leeds post-punk bands to record, Kevin Lycett added that “He walked into a Mekons session with his cocktail chinking and said 'I'd rather record a cow farting in a bath'”, adding that Robson was however “one of nature's true gentlemen.” Robson went to not only engineer the debut Skeletal Family single Trees but also release it on the Luggage label, and he was still on the mixing desk for the follow-up The Night which was also recorded at Ric-Rac although released on Red Rhino (photo below courtesy of Sisters fan Luca G). Incidentally, TSOM fan Mark H, a friend of Robson’s son, told fellow Sisters fans that “as late as 84 or 85 there was still a reel to reel tape of this [The Damage Done] in a cupboard under the stairs.” The current whereabouts of this tape is unknown.




Although the recording of the debut single was Eldritch’s first experience of a studio, a point he refers to in the official website account, what is not clear from the singer’s piece is that Gary Marx had not only recorded with his previous band Naked Voices the year before, but that their four track demo had also been recorded at Ric-Rac studios. In the very early days of The Sisters of Mercy, Gary would in fact have very much been the senior partner in the emerging duo, a theory given extra credence by the fact that it was his (real) name Mark Pearman (and address) which appears on the receipt for the masters and acetate pressing of the single, and of course he also provides the lead vocal on two of the three tracks, a role he had fulfilled in his previous band.

Not only did Peel play the single twice on his late night BBC Radio One show, fulfilling Marx and Eldritch’s original dream, but since the post confirming that fact on this blog it has also emerged (on the wonderful Peel fandom wiki) that Peel played Watch a third time, this time on his BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) show aimed at members of the UK armed forces and their families stationed overseas (primarily at the very large British Army bases on the Rhine in what was then West Germany). On Thursday 13th November 1980, just before the title track from the then new Bauhaus debut LP, Peel plays the “Marx” side of the single and bemoans the fact that the labels were on the wrong side, as he did on the second of the two occasions on which he played the single on his BBC show.



Print reviews of the single would have been very much a bonus for the band, and Sisters fan Ade M recently unearthed a copy of the first local review of the band which was published in Leeds Student newspaper on Friday 14th November 1980. On the same page as live reviews of Darts, The Jam and Teardrop Explodes (the latter, incidentally, a gig hosted by John F Keenan’s F Club), the unnamed journalist describes The Damage Done as “a local band’s single. [It] sounds rather like one man trying hard to be Bowie. Musically it’s rather simplistic, especially the drums [!! – the mystery reviewer really seems to have it in for Eldritch!], which have one tempo that doesn’t match the singing at all, which is ironic as the singer is asking to be told the rhythm of the dance. Despite this though, it’s not all that bad.”



It was speculated that this might be the first ever review the band had received, but research by Phil Verne, the Admin of the 1980-1985 Facebook fan group reveals that the previous week Sounds had also published a critique of the single (in the edition dated 8th November 1980), courtesy of then well-known music journalist Robbi Millar, who was famous at the time for her writings on the emerging New Wave of British Heavy Metal. If the Leeds Student review was largely negative, it was positively fawning compared to Millar’s damning verdict. “Merciful this isn’t. I sometimes wonder if Ian Curtis knew what he was letting the world in for when he died for us. Certainly, the Joy Division circus hasn’t left us yet and its impressions grow increasingly gloomy by the day.”

Although many unsold copies of the first single were damaged in a cellar flood in the early 1980’s (not an unusual occurrence in York, where Red Rhino was based, and a fact recently confirmed by TSOM fan Jez d’N who worked at the store),  Eldritch claims that “initially, Red Rhino sold almost enough copies to cover the manufacturing costs”, and this may or may not include those copies sold at a later date with a paper insert containing details of the band’s then history. It has been suggested that this re-release was around the time of Alice, but the lack of mention of any second guitarist (admittedly a common feature of the band’s official biographies) and the use of Marx’s contact details might date this artefact to the previous year, perhaps around the time of the more favourable word-of-mouth praise that was beginning to circulate around the time of the Futurama appearance in September 1981.

Either way, both Eldritch and most fans agree that the making of the first single in itself was more impressive than the sound of the end result. Visually, the record remains a stunning artefact for a first effort and was the template for the band’s subsequent releases. Aurally, however, although a competent debut, there was little to hint at the power, energy and originality that would characterise the Sisters’ releases from the second single Body Electric/Adrenochrome onwards.

My grateful thanks for this post are due to Phil Verne, Luca, Ade M, Jez d’N, Mark H and all others quoted for sharing their memories of the circumstances of this special release


Friday, 19 June 2020

Eldritch's crowning glory? - The Reptile House EP



No record sums up the unique and lasting appeal of The Sisters of Mercy more than The Reptile House EP. In his book on the genre, The Dark Reign of Gothic Rock (with the telling subheading In the Reptile House with The Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus and The Cure, author Dave Thompson states "All that Gothic Rock would ever become is captured on this one EP," and the deep resonance the release caused both at the time – released as it was, right in the middle of the key year of 1983 - and subsequently gives some substance to that claim. In every respect, The Reptile House typifies, exemplifies and to a certain extent defines the degree of Eldritch’s obsession with every aspect of the band’s development at this stage.  In interviews the singer always railed against the idea that “independent” was synonymous with “amateurish,” and explained his approach to Melody Maker’s Adam Sweeting in 1984: "I always took a very grandiose view of things. That was tempered with a willingness to see the bastard thing through and make it work."

After three amphetamine-fuelled fast-paced singles, Eldritch’s uniquely meticulous approach to his craft reached new heights with the slower-brning songs of  The Reptile House EP, in every aspect of the release, from the recording to the marketing of the new songs. Endless negotiations with a variety of major labels, wrangles with fellow band members, and personal health and relationship issues over the next two years would cast a growing shadow over the subsequent releases,as the pressures of being singer, lyricist and manager began to take their inevitable toll, but Eldritch's own perfectionism, a key feature of the band's rise to fame and future chart successes, seems to have reached its early zenith on The Reptile House.




The 12” extended play vinyl was released in the early summer of 1983, within six weeks of the 12” version of the penultimate Alice/Floorshow single, although the exact actual release date is, as with many Merciful Releases, a matter of some conjecture. Most sources list 16th May for the EP’s arrival in the shops, but in fact that was the date of the second test pressing, necessitated because Eldritch wasn’t happy with the sound of the first (17th March) at the Mayking plant in France, to where it had to be returned. It is hard to imagine that this was a frequent occurrence for cash-strapped independent bands, but such was the singer’s single-minded obsession with every detail of TSOM that he regarded the delay and extra expense as not only acceptable but essential.

This Machiavellian approach would cost Eldritch many band-mates over the years, starting with the departure of Ben Gunn before the next single (Temple of Love) hit the shops less than six months later. The increasing divergence of standards between the singer and the rest of the band had already become apparent in the studio, as comments kindly shared in The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook fan group by John Spence, who engineered the recording session at KG studios in Bridlington will testify. "I was involved from the beginning but Ken Giles spent a good bit of time showing me the set up he had used for recording the drums from the Roland TR 606…When I was happy with it, Andy would step in and start tweaking it. He would sit for hours listening to just the bass drum mic and fiddling with the EQ, then the same with the snare channel and the high channel. At first, I assumed that he was trying to achieve a certain sound, but I later realized that he didn't actually know what he was doing, he was just finding out what each frequency sounded like… The rest of the band spent most of the time lying around in sleeping bags on the studio floor and I don't remember who did what. Recording the vocal was challenging because Andy sang very, very quietly. I suspect it was the only way he could hold the pitch in the lower register. … He always wanted his voice to sound lower and deeper. The mixing process was not difficult but very time consuming. I would bring up the drum track on a desk channel, set a basic sound and level then Andy would sit for 3/4/5 hours twiddling with the EQ and sends into a couple of effects. During this time, I would hover around, smoke, drink coffee and read. When he declared himself happy with the drum sound, I would then bring up the bass and the process started again followed by the guitars and vocals. I would balance up as we went along and take care of the technical side. One very distinct memory I do have is of when we'd finished the mixing and I'd edited the 1/4" tape to make a Production Master (tracks in the right order with the right gaps etc), Andy brought the rest of the band in to listen to it. When it finished, there was no invitation to comment or offer any creative input...just "There it is"… I was still very much learning myself and was interested in Andy's approach. He did things I wouldn't do, some of them worked, some didn't. It taught me the value of experimentation.”

Eldritch would lay claim to having been responsible for even more of the finished product in 1992 interviews when promoting the Some Girls Wander By Mistake compilation album, which featured the entire The Reptile House EP alongside other early singles. “On records like 'Reptile House' or 'Temple of Love' they [Gary Marx and Craig Adams] didn't even play. They weren't into recording that much, they just wanted to play live. They were sleeping in some corner until I woke them up after I had played and recorded everything on my own. When they asked me how their guitar and bass parts had turned out, I used to say to them they performed very well. Gary didn't even listen to 'The Reptile House EP' until it had been released on vinyl and I handed it to him with the words, 'This is our new record, you'll like it!'" Eldritch told the German magazine Visions.

Earlier this year, a copy of the first Test Pressing of The Reptile House EP became available for sale on EBay, selling within a couple of hours for its £1000 “Buy It Now” price. What made the record unique was the extensive notes which Eldritch had hand-written on the plain white sleeve of the pre-release, a tactic he employed to great effect to communicate with the London-based movers and shakers of the UK music industry from his Leeds stronghold. This particular copy had been sent to a sympathetic journalist, Steve Sutherland, who was infamous at the time for an interview which he conducted with Bauhaus in front of the band’s baying audience immediately prior to the Northampton band’s October 1982 show at London’s Lyceum Theatre. Having taken umbrage at a scathing Sutherland live review published in the NME the previous year, Sutherland had bravely faced a very hostile Bauhaus audience in an “interview” at which he had to defend his thesis that the band were mere Bowie copyists, a viewpoint made considerably easier by the band’s contemporary releases of their Ziggy Stardust single.




In 1983, Sutherland was the lucky recipient of the following personal message from Eldritch on his copy of the (first) test pressing: “Dear Steve -  This record is completely unarguable: take it on its own terms bearing in mind that it doesn’t give a damn whether you like it or not. The mix is obtuse, the pace relentlessly, unyieldingly slow. The last track [Burn] especially promises something to hold on to and then proceeds to recede away before the reprise of track #1 puts you right back where you started – the door of The Reptile House has swung shut behind you again. Welcome.”



Another message elsewhere on the sleeve features more clues as to the musical and lyrical claustrophobia of the record’s contents. “There are no windows in The Reptile House, and there is no handle on the inside of the door. The rules of the game are house rules, and it will take you a long time to understand them.” “Such,” said Mr Eldritch with a pompous and smug leer, “is Life. Goodnight children.” Here endeth the twenty-third lesson.” A unique insight into the singer’s frame of mind and view of his own place in the wider scheme of things, and enough for a well-known Belgian collector to immediately part with a four-figure sum to add another jewel to his personal TSOM treasure trove.

Eldritch had sent similarly detailed, personalised missives to Radio 1’s John Peel, read out on air  by the DJ on 14th June 1983 (link), surely a date which is closer to the real release day of the EP:  “Dear John, Here’s The Reptile House EP, our exorcism of the slow and serious, although it’s working title was “Slither, you ..” and here follows a rude word, so I can’t say that on the radio so I’ll say “Kenny Everett” instead. We’ve since taken to calling it The Commercial Suicide EP and we’ll understand perfectly if you feel it’s too dirge-ridden to play on the radio. It seems to take most people about six plays to understand how and why it works, another six or so to like it, it’s available as of now with a retail price of £2.99. Don’t let it grind you down. Love from Leeds’ Finest.” 




Despite – or maybe because of – the “dirge-ridden” contents, The Reptile House EP remains for many fans their favourite of the band’s releases, and it continues to inspire Eldritch’s fellow musicians. For example, Mark Sayle of the currently touted darkwave band Mark E Moon told the online magazine White Light/White Heat, “One of the first records I bought was ‘The Reptile House’ EP by the Sisters of Mercy. It’s still one of my favourite releases and that dark, cold sound has informed a lot of my songwriting.” Asked about the band’s 2019 album Refer, Sayle added “If I had to pick a favourite song it would probably have to be ‘Abandon’. It’s an epic gothic dirge that would sit comfortably on an early Sisters Of Mercy record. The darkness and the bleakness is palpable. I just love the imagery and the music….”

This recent release certainly confirms Dave Thompson's view in The Dark Reign of Gothic Rock that "all that a hundred, a thousand bands have tried to recapture in their own variations was blueprinted across those five songs" (of The Reptile House EP), emphasising the significance of the release to the genre as a whole. Trevor Ristow's excellent recent biography of The Sisters of Mercy's golden age takes it title Waiting For Another War from the lyrics of one of the more overtly political songs on the EP, Valentine, and Eldritch has often said that it represents his most political writing of the early days, with one interview referencing the Houses of Parliament (as alluded to in the backwards section of Burn) and another stating that it was a modern day Pilgrim's Progress. Both lyrically and musically the band struggled to recapture the intensity they achieved on this EP, although sections of side 2 of First And Last And Always and some of the B sides of the singles from that era came close. With rumours circulating the current iteration of the band is close to breaking Eldritch's near thirty year recording silence, he would do well to reflect that he has yet to top what was largely his first solo effort - The Reptile House EP.

My thanks for their help with this post are due to Phil Verne, Bruno Bossier, Trevor Ristow, Mark and Phil of Mark E Moon, John Spence, Dave Thompson and others who have helped to shed light in this most seminal of releases.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

The Sisters and The Cult


There was a certain inevitability that two bands emerging at roughly the same time, from neighbouring provincial cities, and appealing to the same cultural dynamic would be endlessly compared in the music press, and so it proved for The Sisters of Mercy and The Cult (originally The Southern Death Cult and then Death Cult), despite the very obvious differences in sound.

The Bradford band’s debut single, Moya/Fatman, came out in the same month (December 1982) that The Sisters of Mercy’s own breakthrough single Alice was climbing the indie charts and indeed in the same week that the Leeds band enjoyed their first cover article in a British music weekly (Sounds), and the bands’ fortunes followed a similar trajectory, with a series of well-received singles but no debut album (with the exception of the posthumous The Southern Death Cult compilation LP containing a mix of studio, session and live tracks) until September 1984, when The Cult released Dreamtime, originally to be followed the next month by the Sisters’ ultimately delayed debut set which of course had the working title Black October. By that stage, neither band had experienced the longed-for main chart breakthrough, and even going into the spring of 1985, despite all the extra column inches devoted to Ian Astbury’s band, The Cult’s top official chart position was when Ressurection Joe (sic) scraped the bottom reaches of the Top 75, whilst both Body and Soul and Walk Away had narrowly missed the Top 40 for The Sisters.

For all the similarities, the bands’ paths never really crossed, with TSOM and The Cult playing the Futurama festival in different years for example, and despite the increasing focus on the Yorkshire goth scene, the reality is that groups like The Sisters, The Cult and The Danse Society were all plugging away independently in their home cities rather than hanging out in some Batcave-type communal and mutually supportive lair.

Somewhat bizarrely for two bands whose origins were firmly in the punk movement, The Cult and TSOM began to converge over a shared and growing love of one of the old school rock titans initially swept away by 1977’s Year Zero ethic: Led Zeppelin. Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams would increasingly mention the Plant/Page-led combo in interviews, and even Andrew Eldritch was not immune to the band’s charm, enthusiastically intoning their classic Stairway to Heaven in soundchecks and namechecking the band himself on several occasions. In interview with Kerrang!’s Dave Dickson in March 1985, Eldritch spoke enthusiastically about Led Zep: "I think it's time we did a Zeppelin number just to show the public what's what!" enthuses Eldritch. "Wayne and I tend to raid the freebie cupboards at WEA more than anyone else - Wayne particularly is a whizz at it; he has a knack of walking out with hundreds of albums without anyone actually noticing that he's had his allowance! But Wayne took the whole of the Zeppelin back-catalogue out a month ago and neither of us since have been able to live without it! They wrote great songs, which is my primary criterion for what makes a great band, wore really silly clothes. And they were Gods, not only because of who they were and what they did, not because they could play something - apart from Jimmy Page - really fast, or because they did more drugs than anybody else...they were Gods because they were Led Zeppelin! They were awesome! If they'd cut all the guitar solos out of the records there wouldn't have been any question in the late '70s that they were still awesome, and I think they'd still be seen as the rule for what makes a rock band. But for some of us they still count for a lot; we have other criteria as well, but we haven't forgotten them. It's about time someone got up and said something as crass as: Led Zep - ace! We're a great deal thinner...and we're slightly younger.. we don't wear flared trousers, although our sleeves have been known to get very similar... our hair? Pretty much the same overall, I'd say; Craig's looking good these days and Wayne's certainly letting it all hang out...we don't have such a big backline but our crew is certainly groovier...and we have the same backing of Warner Com. So we shall see!"

This extremely overt endorsement of a band considered as pariahs by most punk and post-punk fans was echoed by The Cult, who were rapidly moving in a “rawk” direction, for which the May 1985 single She Sells Sanctuary would be the catalyst, moving on to the distinctly heavier album Love in November of that year and the out-and-out Led Zep-obsessed follow-up Electric in April 1987. With both bands now citing Zeppelin as a major influence, it was inevitable that The Sisters would be asked about their West Yorkshire contemporaries in interview. In the fanzine Day of the Ray Gun Cometh, interviewer Louise (a noted fan of The Cult) at one point states “You’re often mentioned alongside The Cult..” to which Eldritch immediately retorts, “Not by us we’re not.” In the Kerrang! interview he went further, when reminded that the Bradford act were laying claim to the same heritage and asked what made TSOM’s claim more legitimate, stating "I'm wearing the hat! … We do no get on with Ian Astburys (The Cult) of this world, or the Andi Sex Gangs (Sex Gang Children), or the Alien Sex Fiends, or the Nick Caves (ex-Birthday Party) of this world; we do not get on with a good deal of people as it happens. …But the fact is we find The Cult intensely embarrassing... Billy Duffy apart; Billy, every time I meet you I think you're a great bloke and it's never embarrassed me to talk to you, OK? But Ian… ouch!" 

Astbury himself was much more magnanimous about The Sisters, bigging them up on his apearance on mainstream UK breakfast TV show TV-AM in September 1985 in this clip kindly uploaded to YouTube by "Travis Bickle". As Mark Andrews highlighted on Heartland Forum, Astbury highlights (at around 5 minutes 15 into the clip) bands like The March Violets and in particular singles out The Sisters for praise when talking about how the scene was beginning to take hold.




Whilst Eldritch’s own view was clear, Wayne Hussey’s excellent and highly readable recent autobiography Salad Daze sheds a slightly different light on the personal relationship between the two bands, which he traced back to his decision to go to see The Cult at the Dortmunder Bierkeller on the outside of the Merrion Centre (the large brutalist mall which was also home to the clubs Le Phono and Tiffany’s) on their debut tour under that nomenclature in May 1984 (the 13th to be precise) when The Sisters enjoyed a rare night at home in Leeds during their own first major UK tour. "Craig and I donned our glad rags and caught the bus into town to go and see ‘em. With introductions made we shared a few drinks with them after the show and that was the start of a long association with The Cult for Craig and I. Billy Duffy, in particular became a very good friend of mine over the next few years. Typically, the ‘Dritch absolutely deplored the fact that we were fraternising with a band he considered the enemy.”



It was Astbury rather than Duffy, though, who lead Hussey astray on the night before The Sisters of Mercy’s crowning glory, the Royal Albert Hall gig in London on June 1985 that would prove to be his and Adams’ last with the band. The Cult’s singer had arranged to pick Hussey up to go to see The Damned at Hammersmith Palais, but on getting into the taxi Hussey discovered that legendary hell-raiser Lemmy was also along for the ride. Those who have read the guitarist’s account of that night out (in which the gig itself features only tangentially) will be amazed that he managed to put on such a stellar performance the following night at the Royal Albert Hall gig recorded for posterity on the Wake video, particularly as he believes (or perhaps it was a slip of the pen) that the headliners at the Hammersmith Palais gig he attended were Killing Joke and not The Damned!

Leeds Student review of The Cult at Leeds University

Astbury and Hussey’s friendship had probably been cemented the previous month when The Sisters enjoyed a few nights off after the extensive and exhaustive European leg of the tour to support the release of First and Last and Always. By coincidence, The Cult were again in town, this time playing on 25th May at the Leeds University Union Refectory (main hall) in support of their chart-bound single She Sells Sanctuary. Released the previous week, rather than being an instant success, the song actually took some considerable time to make the top twenty, as chart positions of 68-50-43-41-41-35 and 30 over its first seven weeks of release will testify. One can only imagine the band (and record label)'s anguish when it stalled at no. 41 for two weeks, tantalisingly close to the all-important top 40 and the potentially breakthrough Top Of The Pops appearance that would go with it (although in fact this didn't happen until the song reached number 19 in mid-July!).

Once again, the sociable Hussey was unable to resist the opportunity to meet up with his new friends, an event recently recounted by fan Nick W on The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook fan page. “A group of us had tickets to see The Cult at Leeds Uni on the She Sells Sanctuary tour. We were stood on the steps outside the Uni and I saw a guy stood next to a purple Volvo and recognised him as Wayne Hussey. Me being a confident 18 year-old went over for a chat. Having seen The Sisters play at the same venue a couple of months earlier, I asked him what they had been up to. I thought he told me they had been to the USA but now looking at the dates he must have told me they were going to go to the USA.  He was very polite, but not very talkative. I went back to tell my mates I had just met one of the Sisters and thought nothing more of it. Then at the gig, Wayne came on with The Cult and played guitar - what a gig! I remember they played Moya at the end which was an old Southern Death Cult song and we being from Bradford were also massive fans.”



Hussey’s appearance on stage with another band – a rare event for one of the members TSOM at this time, although by the autumn Craig Adams would be moonlighting with The Dead Vaynes and Eldritch and Hussey would appear briefly with Skeletal Family in Hamburg during the ill-fated meet-up to salvage a way ahead - was also mentioned in the Leeds Student review of the gig: “The highlight of the evening was Wayne Hussey joining the band on stage for… guess what? … renditions of Wild Thing and Louie Louie, and horror of horrors, I really enjoyed it. Now there’s an admission,” confided reviewer “Clem Snide”. Thanks to the largesse of the doyen of the TSOM 8085 FB group, Phil Verne, we can all now understand Mr Snide’s reluctant enthusiasm via this audio extract from the gig. Astbury introduces his special guest thus: "Now then, he needs no introduction....Quiet then....We have to start this collaboration this evening because, basically, we couldn't sell enough tickets in Leeds (!) ..... because of this **** here…And so, just for you, for one evening only...I Wanna Be Your Dog." The Stooges’ classic has only a three-note riff, but on the introduction the second note is misplayed, hardly the most auspicious start, but the band recover well and after some lengthy and rather tedious teasing of the crowd, they finally arrive at the Moya finale. In between the two, the band had played a segue of Wild Thing and Louie Louie, with drummer Nigel Preston slowing down and speeding up the rhythm as appropriate, a novel experience for Hussey who had spent the last eighteen months playing over the metronomic precision (or mechanical failure) of Doktor Avalanche. The gig ticket displayed here is, unsurprisingly for regular readers, from the voluminous collection of the ever-generous LG.

The Cult would continue to play a large part in the lives of Hussey and Adams after the 1985 TSOM split, with the pre-Mission version of The Sisterhood supporting The Cult on tour in Europe in early 1986, and of course Craig Adams went on to become a member of the Bradford ensemble in the early/mid 1990’s for a while, featuring on bass on their self-titled double LP in 1994. Following The Cult’s mid-1980’s rock phase, Eldritch would return with his own goth metal iterations of The Sisters in the This Corrosion/Dominion/Lucretia, My Reflection/More/Vision Thing eras, and although TSOM eschewed many of the more obvious excesses of the Bradfordians’ Electric period, it was only by reverting to a more traditional 70’s rock sound that both bands were able to achieve the chart success that eluded them in their most creative and musically satisfying eras.

My thanks for this post are due to Phil Verne, to Robin and Mark, to Nick W, to LG and to others who contributed knowingly or unwittingly.



Friday, 8 May 2020

Book Review: Waiting For Another War, The History of The Sisters of Mercy Vol I

Just a glance at the cover of Waiting For Another War, a comprehensive new history of the early years of The Sisters of Mercy, gives you an idea of the sheer quality of this impressively researched volume by American fan Trevor Ristow: in a superb previously unseen photograph by Ulf Berglund, an unshaven, dishevelled and black-clad Andrew Eldritch, as tour-scarred as his battered black fedora, blinks in the Scandinavian sunshine through trademark aviator shades on a rare daylight trip outdoors at the end of a Stockholm press conference in May 1985, his first Marlboro cigarette of the day dangling from his lips, looking the very epitome of rock’n’roll cool.




In the two hundred and fifty pages within what is billed as “Volume I: 1980-1985” of “A History of The Sisters of Mercy”, Ristow meticulously reconstructs the band’s rise from ramshackle roots on the Leeds punk scene to a headlining slot at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall and their role as unwilling figureheads of the nascent worldwide gothic scene by stitching together quotes and facts amassed from decades of research which began when compiling the two volumes of Romance and Assassination, a much-loved compendium of press cuttings from both sides of the Atlantic published in 1986 and 1987. With academic rigour, the Columbia University graduate has scrupulously footnoted every quote and source, whether a UK music weekly, an obscure fanzine or a US college radio interview, lending real weight to his narrative and analysis.

But Waiting For Another War is far more than a mere wide-reaching update of Andrew Pinnell’s seminal biography of the band, Heartland, published in the late 1980’s (although that in itself would already have been a gargantuan achievement): Ristow’s account teems with a stupendous array of largely unseen photos of the 1983-1985 period, trenchant analysis of Eldritch's notoriously oblique lyrics and, from the singer’s first visit to the US in the spring on 1983 onwards in particular, fascinating extra detail about the band’s movements and development, gleaned from original interviews with some of those who were temporarily in their entourage as well as from a bewildering range of contemporary sources.




Although Eldritch himself pinpointed the release of Alice as the turning point in the band’s career, with the benefit of hindsight and objectivity, Ristow demonstrates that the group’s first US tour in September 1983 was in fact an epochal event, skilfully revealing the fatal attraction of both the band’s popularity with the growing post-punk audience on the other side of the Atlantic and of the “sex and drugs and rock’n’roll” lifestyle of the touring British musician, setting in course a musical and moral direction that would lead to the band’s implosion within eighteen tumultuous months.

Ristow, a film and TV producer by trade who as a callow youth saw the band’s San Francisco show in June 1985, wrote the book as a labour of love in sections over the period of a decade between 1999 and 2009, but the manuscript remained unpublished until he returned to it last year, updating it in the light of new information, and particularly with reference to Wayne Hussey’s wonderfully anecdotal account (Salad Daze) of his time in the band, a period which is covered by the second half of this lavishly illustrated (with photos by Berglund, Philippe Carly, Rudi Keuntje, the late Larry Rodriguez and an amazing set of shots from 1983 by Daryl-Ann Saunders amongst others) and beautifully-produced tome.



Along with Hussey’s Salad Daze and the forthcoming publication of Mark Andrews’ Paint My Name In Black And Gold, which will be the definitive history of the band’s very early days drawing on new interviews with band members and key players on the Leeds scene in the early 1980’s, Waiting For Another War is a central part of a canon of authoritative accounts which are long overdue for this most enduring of cult bands of the post-punk era. Ristow has done himself and the band full justice, adding to as much as debunking (where appropriate) the legends and mystery surrounding the band, all whilst subtly analysing the group’s artistic, musical and social development: he correctly identifies the artful and wily Eldritch’s central role in all aspects of the band’s creative decision-making processes whilst also shining a light on some of the fatal flaws which would lead to the ending of some deep and long-lasting friendships, with the accompanying legacy of bitterness and distrust.

Fans will be delighted not only with the most precise, detailed and even-handed chronology to date of the 1985 demise of the Eldritch/Marx/Hussey/Adams line-up, but also the revelations about life on the road both in the UK and in the US from 1983 to 1985 (from fans who followed the band and from others who worked closely with them) and fascinating information for example about the track Ritual which is still unheard by all but Eldritch’s closest circle, but resurfaced much later in the band's career.


Waiting For Another War was produced with an initial limited and numbered print run of two hundred copies, which sold out in a matter of hours via a link posted on the Facebook fan group page The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985, superbly curated by fellow collector Phil Verne, who was instrumental in encouraging Ristow to finally publish this riveting and highly-recommended account. A second edition (probably paperback) is currently under discussion and will also initially be offered for sale on the same Facebook group.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Where spirits fly..... Manchester University, 4th May 1984


After the fanclub gig at the Tin Can Club in Birmingham to introduce new boy Wayne Hussey to fans and press alike, TSOM flew to the US to undertake their second East Coast tour to bed in their new guitarist before heading home to the UK for their first major headlining tour, which was entitled British Pilgrimage in the crew tourbook, to accompany the release of their first major label release, the Body and Soul EP. After the guitar shenanigans on the opening night in Rock City and the necessary last-minute mercy dash to Leeds en route for the second gig in Middlesbrough for Gary to obtain a strange-sounding (his description) replacement instrument, the third gig of the tour, in Manchester University Union’s Main Debating Hall, should have been a relatively straightforward affair.

                  (Andrew Eldritch on stage in Manchester, 4th May 1984 - pic Karolyn W)

Sadly, this proved to be far from the case for a variety of reasons, made all the clearer by Wayne Hussey in his recent excellent memoir Salad Daze, the final chapters of which focus on his near two-year stint with The Sisters. The guitarist explains that he and fellow “evil child” Craig Adams had made an early start on the band’s rider when the soundcheck was delayed, meaning that they could “barely stand up” by show-time. Hussey adds that Adams projectile vomited all over the audience at one point, not even missing a note of his bass part, and that whilst he himself was posing with a foot on the stage-edge monitor, the bassist had propelled him into the crowd, landing flat on his back. Recalling the incident much nearer the time, in a 1985 interview when he was asked about “the worst moment in your musical career", the guitarist stated that he ended up “lying on the ground amongst the audience – I don’t know what hurt most, my pride or my back! Anyway, I picked myself up and continued the show. Craig just laughed. Well, what else could be do? I had to go to the hospital afterwards though, but luckily my back’s better now.”

When this gig was discussed (pre-Salad Daze) on The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 unofficial fan page, Denise H had commented. “Wayne ended up under a bench in the Cellar Bar [a basement disco pub in the University Union building]. The band sent out a search party!”. This probably helps to explain why Eldritch (according to Hussey in Salad Daze) hosted a post-mortem at which is was decreed that at future gigs, the spirits and wine on the rider would only be delivered an hour before the band’s stage time...


(double-sided flyer for the gig from the collection of TSOM collector Bruno Bossier)


Listening to a recording of the show, kindly provided to me by live TSOM audio guru Phil Verne, who also curates the 8085 TSOM FB group (all welcome!), there does seem to be even more extensive tuning up periods between songs than at most shows of the era, but I had always put that down to Marx’s recently-acquired new guitar. However, apart from that, the band play a storming set, with an excellent version of Body and Soul (prefaced by Eldritch with “This is a new one we can’t play yet”), a blistering Anaconda (which, amongst other bits and pieces, you can hear here thanks to Monsieur Verne), a superbly plaintive and distressed vocal on Emma and a version of future single Walk Away which is probably as far away from the ultimate finished version that I have heard, with an unusually insistent Doktor Avalanche rhythm dominating proceedings.

Most of the other gaps between songs allow a seemingly good-humoured Eldritch to enjoy some banter with those screaming for songs the band largely no longer plays in its live set. (“I’m not making any promises”, ”You’re going to have to wait and see”, “There’s nothing special about that”, “Well, wouldn’t you like to know”, “This is for my friend in the front row who always wants this” etc). Marx himself niftily fills in the longest pause with snippets of Lawrence of Arabia and Hava Nagila, prompting the singer to quip “Quick tour of the Middle East!”.

Having read Hussey’s account of the gig, one or two of the other comments take on a different meaning. The otherwise innocuous sounding “Nice work!” at the end of Alice would seem to be possibly a barbed and ironic comment aimed at one or other of Adams’ actions, and the singer also warns the crowd not to wind up the bass player (not uncommon at any gig 1981-1985!) with the words, “I will not be responsible for his actions.”



Only towards the end of the gig and in the encores – presumably after a further top-up – do things start to get out of hand, with the guitar sections of Gimme Shelter unexpectedly discordant towards the end, almost duelling rather than intertwining, whilst the beginning of Ghost Rider, often a loose, improvised jam is particularly cacophonous and the recording is strictly for hardcore fans only.

Up until recently, apart from the live recording, the only known ephemera for this gig was a double-sided flyer in the possession of top TSOM collector Bruno Bossier and kindly shared online (and reproduced again  here), until my own brother unexpectedly found his ticket from the show and passed it to me to share on the 8085 site. Other fans produced their own copies of the ticket from their personal archives, and some of those who had attended the show commented (e.g. Neil Kell: “Great gig!”, David Roberts: “Top gig!”) showing that once again, the band had managed to put on an excellent show despite (because of?) their over-indulgence beforehand. More recently Karolyn W who followed the band extensively in the Hussey years shared these photos of the gig, and Craig Adams’ complexion is particularly pallid on this shot. Whether his attire was his first-choice outfit for the show (nothing would surprise me given the extensively garish wardrobe of a band reputed only ever to have worn black) or a last-minute improvised effort, only Craig will remember (or, given the circumstances, possibly not).

     (pre- or post-vomit? A pale looking Craig Adams, Manchester May 4th 1984 - pic Karolyn W)

So only three days into the band’s first major label UK tour and a key instrument smashed, the fans vomited over and a member of the band in hospital for checks to a spine injury. Hardly the most auspicious start to the first major tour by possibly the most iconic goth line-up of all time, but nothing that a resounding victory by the band leader in a fencing challenge with support band (Flesh for Lulu) guitarist and future designer spectacle king Rocco wouldn’t cure. Oh, wait…


My thanks for their help with this gig are due to Karolyn W for sharing her photos on the 1980-1985 TSOM FB page, Phil Verne who curates that group, Bruno Bossier (also one of that group's moderators), Neil Kell, David Roberts, Denise H and of course Wayne Hussey for his fantastically revealing autobiography Salad Daze.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Leaders of Men - Joy Division and The Sisters of Mercy


Along with how they met and where they got the band name from, all emerging groups are always asked about their musical influences, as (lazy?) journalists try to pin down their sound for readers and potential fans, and The Sisters of Mercy were certainly no exception in their early days.

Andrew Eldritch (almost always the sole spokesperson for the band until the garrulous – and more experienced - Wayne Hussey joined the group in late 1983) had clearly anticipated the question, and kept a mental list of bands which he would trot out, perming any half a dozen from a list that included The Rolling Stones, The Stooges, Suicide, The Birthday Party, The Ramones, Motorhead, MC5, The Psychedelic Furs and Hawkwind, to name just some of the usual suspects.

Apart from the Furs and The Birthday Party, very few contemporary bands were mentioned as the singer deliberately tried to distance his band from any of the emerging “positive punk” bands, and interviewers comparing The Sisters to Bauhaus, for example, or any incarnation of The Cult were given very short shrift.

However, there was one very obvious comparison, a band whom the singer seemed reluctant to name-check in the 1980’s, but whose spectre haunted interviews and reviews of the band in the early days: Joy Division. There were some obvious points of comparison – both bands had reluctant but hypnotic frontmen, both singers sang in a low baritone, both had bass players whose buzzing riffs dominated their sound, both had a clinical, electronic drum sound, both came from and were resolutely based in the North of England, both favoured black record sleeves with no photos or details about the band, both built up fearsome live reputations based purely on word of mouth, and both played a mean live version of Louie Louie and of the Velvets’ Sister Ray. Both had ferociously loyal local followings built up by word of mouth, and knew where they were heading, maintaining some of the mystery essential for creating a buzz in the music scene, staying away from major label control. The Sisters early sound was dominated by the guitar of Gary Marx, who played a Shergold – a brand used by both Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook.

Surely an open and shut case, m’lud. That there were equally as many differences – whether in terms of influences, vocal tone, lyrical subject matter, use of humour and irony, guitar style and tone, song structure, visual image and band management and direction – seemed to matter little to those eager to pigeonhole TSOM as mere Joy Division copyists.

In the printed media, these comparisons were initially few and far between (to coin a phrase), but were discussed even in the breakthrough Sounds cover piece in December 1982, with Eldritch opining “The problem is these days that there are so few people who sing in a low voice…I mean, when I started singing people said “Ooh, he sounds just like Jim Morrison,” then shortly after it was “Ooh, he sounds just like Ian Curtis” and now it’s Pete Murphy.” Sounds was a particular guilty party, with a review of the Alice single saying that it was “more obviously JD-derived” , a phrase repeated by Geoff Barton when he made The Reptile House EP “joint single of the week” the following year, calling it a “deviant, JD-derived diabolism”. Keeping with the theme, the paper also including the (rhetorical question) “Is there a snatch of Ian Curtis?” in their review of First And Last And Always, by which time such comparisons were clearly redundant as the Sisters moved inexorably in the direction of Led Zeppelin and classic rock in the hats’n’dry ice phase which remains their visual (and arguably, musical) zenith.

With Richard “Mr Spencer” Newson (Sounds) and Adam Sweeting (Melody Maker) very much onside and getting decent copy published in their respective magazines on a semi-regular basis, the NME published only short reviews of live shows (normally when they had ostensibly gone to review another band on the bill) or singles, which were often less than flattering - ”Choked voice delivers indistinguishable..message” (Body Electric), “The singer looked like Joey Ramone and yelped like a dog” (“Christmas on Earth” gig review), “a bit too dense for extended listening” (Alice), etc.





Already low on Eldritch’s Christmas card list, the NME further blotted their copy book with Paul Du Noyer’s major interview with the singer in March 1985, at a time when the band were being widely feted as the “next big thing”. “An exact definition of their appeal eludes me, but they do have something” was the best he could muster about a band who had surely earned their spurs as belated cover stars, a role given to hyped London-based bands often before a single musical note had been recorded! But this was as nothing compared to David Quantick’s self-congratulatory review the same month of First And Last And Always, which broke new records by referencing Joy Division no fewer than five times in four paragraphs, including in particular a reference to the similarities between New Dawn Fades and Some Kind of Stranger, which are not entirely without foundation, it has to be said.

The over-the-top nature of Quantick’s repetition of the JD reference was picked up on by Piccadilly Radio (ironically based in Manchester)’s excellent interviewer (Tony “the Greek”?) in a fascinating encounter with the band during the tour that accompanied the album release. The singer was only too delighted to expound his views on the NME’s failings in response, as can be heard in this extract kindly shared online by Phil Verne of the unofficial The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook fan group. “I think that they [the NME] feel about us the same way as they felt about Joy Division. It all happened up here, they missed out on it, they never quite understood it, they knew it was powerful, but they chose to ignore it and looked silly afterwards and that’s pretty much the same with us. I think they lump us in the same category because of that. They regard us as being northern and industrial and nothing we can ever do will change that because they just aren’t really interested in promoting rock bands from this part of the world any more than they ever were, I don’t think,” continued the exasperated singer at breakneck speed.

With the press finding new bands to persecute about their likeness to their musical forefathers (hello, Fields of the Nephilim) and focussing on the Hussey/Eldritch Sisterhood spat, the Joy Division comparisons receded and have not been heard since. With the passage of time, Eldritch has become more willing to talk about Joy Division and their occasional similarities to The Sisters of Mercy, such as in this 2016 seminal interview with John Robb: “I don't do cover versions. It's the same with Peter Hook.  He can't play any other songs at all and he has the best bass riffs other than mine.....That’s where Hooky [Peter Hook, Joy Division bassist] and me are the same – we just played up and down on one string and wrote songs. Me and Hooky have done the same thing since then. I loved The Stooges and Suicide and found myself in a band. I never saw them [Joy Division – who played at the F Club in Leeds] and if I did, I don’t remember it, but I loved the first album [Unknown Pleasures]. I had their poster on the wall. We were not to the side of Joy Division – we came from the same place as them. We were from the same place with The Stooges, Hawkwind and Suicide as the background and from a similar part of the world, with similar pressures on us, and it was kind of natural that we came up with something vaguely similar, emitting the [same] moody vibe.” The singer then intones a familiar “northern powerhouse” monologue which regular interview readers over the past four decades will be familiar with. “There were whole swathes of the country that were making that kind of sound – the Sisters called it the M62 sound, because the motorway that connected us to The Teardrop Explodes, Comsat Angels and all the other bands that we grew up with…that part of the country is narrow and we were on the same trains and buses and we were connected.”

The final word though must go to Geoff Barton of Sounds, whose review of what for me was The Sisters’ finest moment, The Reptile House E.P., ended with the following line: “If Joy Division drew blood. The Sisters cut right through to the bone. It hurts, but it feels so good.”