Sunday 4 February 2024

On this day in history - a new guitarist and a new bassist for The Sisters of Mercy! - York, 5th February 1982

 As discussed on previous posts on this blog (for example here and here), The City of York has long since had an association with The Sisters of Mercy. Although none of the band was from the ancient county town, or studied there, the city’s alternative scene was just as important to Andrew Taylor’s musical development as the Leeds F-Club scene was, with the young Bowie fan southerner finding a second home in Priestley’s, the t-shirt shop, as mentioned by contributors to Phil Verne’s TSOM 1980-1985 FB group who knew him back in the late 1970’s and as discussed in a previous piece on this blog.

As many bands were to discover at the other end of the 1980’s (Inspiral Carpets, Carter USM etc), there was more money to be made for bands in selling t-shirts than in selling records, where the cost of hiring a studio, paying a producer/engineer, and covering the costs of test pressings, and of manufacture and distribution and promotion of vinyl records was often significantly greater than the band’s cut of the revenue. With his sharp intellect and head for business, Taylor (for as Mark Andrews’ excellent biography of the band’s early days, Paint My Name In Black and Gold asserts, the name Eldritch was not used until much later in 1982) was quick to spot this opportunity, and before the band was fully established, their distinctive head-and-star logo t-shirts were featuring in Priestley’s catalogue. Hanging out on the York alternative scene, Taylor established a loose network of contacts within the town, which would prove vital to the early stages of his masterplan for the group, including of course, getting early gigs for the band at the local university.

                                                             Original flyer courtesy of Garry H

The competitive nature of the Junior Common Rooms of the different colleges of the University of York meant that there was a vibrant gig scene on the campus, with the colleges vying with each to attract the biggest and best up-and-coming names on the alternative scene, with the young student promoters another opportunity for Taylor to exploit, and apart from those put on in Leeds by the legendary F-Club promoter John F Keenan, the university gigs (supporting Thompson Twins and Reluctant Stereotypes) at York were the band’s only other creative outlet at that time, given Taylor's reluctance to demean his project by accepting small-time gigs in local pubs. With their local reputation growing, and having proven their ability to bring a small and enthusiastic entourage through from Leeds to boost a gig’s attendance, in February 1982 The Sisters of Mercy were again booked to appear on a four-band bill at Vanbrugh College (named after famous dramatist and former Bastille prisoner Sir John Vanbrugh) on the University of York’s main campus at Heslington just outside the city. Gigs were held in the college’s Dining Hall, a glass-fronted building with distinctive “Toblerone” pyramid features on the flat roof) facing onto the campus’ main feature, the lake (the campus was formerly marshland and the excess water was drained to form the lake feature), near to the space age Central Hall.

pic credit: D S Pugh

Not only was this the only gig in the 1981-1985 period where Craig Adams did not perform with the band (he was away in the Canaries helping with a photoshoot), substituted by Jon Langford of The Mekons (and soon to be The Three Johns), a long-time friend of Taylor’s who contributed significantly to the band’s early development, but the gig also marked the live debut of Ben Gunn as the latest “fourth member” (rhythm guitarist). The latter was still at school at the time, completing his A Levels, leading to New Musical Express gig reviewer X Moore having a little fun at his expense by claiming that he was in detention, hence his late arrival at the gig (probably chauffeured there in his Mum’s Volvo, as the band would later be for the gig supporting The Clash at Newcastle City Hall some five months later, according to Gary Marx’s account in one of Mark Andrews’ pieces on the band’s early days for The Quietus).

Review of the gig from  NME

Although The Sisters’ reputation had begun to grow after the incendiary live shows of spring/early summer 1981 in Leeds and York, and the band’s energy and unique look had made them stand out amongst the early performers at the Futurama the previous September, Taylor would have been right to be nervous before the gig, with 50% of the band making their live debut with The Sisters, especially since the gig was reviewed in not one but two of the national music papers, the first time that a live review of the band had appeared in one of the London weeklies, save for brief mentions of the band’s appearance at the 1981 Futurama 3 event at Stafford's Bingley Hall (see blog post here). 

Ticket for the gig, courtesy of collector Robin C

Poster for the gig, courtesy of collector Ian P

Although the gig was one of the earliest, and hardly any artefacts survive from many of the other shows of that era, the Feb 1982 gig is a particularly well-chronicled event, as not only have a ticket, a flyer (with the plea “please support us, we are doing our best to give you good entertainment at the lowest possible price") and a rather impressive poster survived, in addition to the review penned by X Moore (Chris Dean, of former York band No Swastikas and then new act The Redskins, hence the cryptic comment in the opening line of his review – “This is York. City of red skins and blue collar rockers”) for the NME and the Sisters feature written by Adam Sweeting for the Melody Maker, there is a lengthier account of the show as part of a longer feature on the York music scene which Adam Sweeting had been dispatched to write, as the Melody Maker attempted its own “levelling up” agenda some forty years before it became politically popular, which was eventually printed nearly two months later in the 20th March edition. Eager to show that they understood that musical scenes were developing some way north of Watford, Melody Maker sent ambitious staffers to try to discover the next Liverpool (Echo and The Bunnymen/Teardrop Explodes/Wah Heat/Dead or Alive), Sheffield (Human League/Cabaret Voltaire/Artery) or Manchester (Joy Division/Magazine/Durutti Column), to try to counter accusations of metropolitan bias as they lazily bigged up unimpressive parochial London scenes (the “Oi” punk phenomenon for example) as if they were major new national trends, whilst whole new scenes went unreported because of their exclusively provincial base. As the centre piece the Awaydaze feature, in addition to lengthy comments on the local scene by guitarist Mike Gibson, then of York scene band Our 15 Minutes but who would go on to star in phenomenal punk’n’roll London band the Godfathers’ finest hours later in the decade, Sweeting had gone along to the four-band show on 5th February at Vanbrugh College, a gig which has assumed legendary status amongst Sisters fans. His article reveals that the promoter of the gig was Elissa van Poznac, “a former NME freelancer and currently in her final year at York,” who would go on to give a glowing review to one of The Sisters’ 1983 London shows for the NME, presumably another Taylor acquaintance of that era. Sweeting interviewed another JCR promoter for his Awaydaze piece, which gives an insight into how important it was for bands to cultivate contacts with these young enthusiasts who were often in post for just one year and were able to use their Ents budget to attract bands whom they personally admired. The journalist also reviews the other bands on the bill as part of his York piece, although clearly none made the same impression upon him as TSOM did. The Plainsmen, the “campus reggae band”, “droop through a soggy set” which nevertheless earns them an encore, whilst “lacklustre” local act Trains To Europe leave the stage to “dead silence” after “their final song sort of fizzles out.” Sweeting missed London act The Lost Boys, the headliners, as he had rushed off to interview The Sisters, anxious to catch the band – “definitely the event of the night” - before they caught the last train back to Leeds with their limited equipment. X Moore also seems to have beat a hasty retreat after three acts, delivering the rather unsubtle if accurate summary “The Sisters of Mercy are f*ckin’ great”.

Extracts from the AwayDaze piece, including a photo of Gary Marx, from the collection of Dav E C

Sadly no live recording of this gig has yet surfaced, so it is difficult to assess exactly how well Gunn and Langford gelled with the band's original two members and Doktor Avalanche, but the enthusiastic praise heaped on the band by both reviewers clearly indicates that the show was a success. The band would return to York for a gig with The Psychedelic Furs during Freshers’ Week that October at Derwent College, the third of the York colleges to host The Sisters, and again a couple of weeks later back at Vanbrugh for a Merciful Release double-header with the then more-successful-than-the-Sisters March Violets. 

         Adam Sweeting's original piece about TSOM published in Melody Maker shortly after the gig

By the time Wayne Hussey joined the band and touring resumed in the Spring of 1984, The Sisters of Mercy had graduated to the “main hall” university circuit, and their three major UK treks over the following eighteen months would consist of a combination of Victorian/Edwardian civic halls, mainstream clubs and functional 1960’s/student union halls, with notable exceptions such as the new generation of alternative superclubs like Nottingham’s Rock City. The Sisters would return to the city of York just one more time during the Hussey era, for the infamous York Rock Festival in September 1984....

My thanks for their help with this blog post are due to collectors Dav E C, Robin C, Ian P, Garry H and to Phil Verne of the unofficial TSOM 1980-1985 FB fan group, which all fans of this era of the band are invited to join. If anyone has any further memories or artefacts of this or other gigs of the 1981-1985 era, please get in touch!

Friday 11 August 2023

40 Years Ago Today - The Pied Pipers of Goth: The Sisters of Mercy played two gigs on the same night in Camden!

Forty years ago tonight, The Sisters of Mercy played not one but two gigs back-to-back at iconic venues in the London borough of Camden, on a warm August evening which has gone down in Sisters folklore. Not only was it the only time that the band had played twice in one night, but if (as many fans believe) the listed gig at the legendary Manchester Hacienda the following month didn’t actually take place, then the second of the two gigs would have been second guitarist Ben Gunn’s last gig with the band in the UK.

Having recently played their first European shows at city centre outdoor festivals in Ancona (31st July) and Brussels (5th August), The Sisters of Mercy were booked to support avant-garde Dublin band Virgin Prunes at the Electric Ballroom venue on the evening of Thursday 11th August 1983, with tickets stating that the band would be on stage an hour after the doors opened at 8 p.m.

         The only known photo of The Sisters of Mercy's performance at the Electric Ballroom

The 1500 capacity venue is one of the few which the band played in their early days which is still trading as a music venue under the same name today, and the combination of two of the most talked-about bands of 1983 made the gig one of the stand-out events of what is usually a very quiet month on the gig-going calendar. Virgin Prunes’s album If I Die, I Die had found its way into many goth record collections thanks partly to the band’s striking visual image and attractive record sleeves and on the back of the single Baby Turns Blue, which remains an alternative club floorfiller to this day, but also as a result of their unique live show, which was exposed to the wider gig-going public thanks to this stunning performance on the sadly short-lived Channel 4 music show Whatever You Want. As much a theatrical show as a gig, no verbal description I could attempt here would do justice to the mesmerising spectacle to which Virgin Prunes fans were treated, as far removed from The Sisters’ then straightforward high-octane punk rock’n’roll show as could be imagined. Ironically, the Sisters’ own enduring popularity ultimately owes much to a similarly atmospheric one-off show less than two years later, the seminal Wake live video recorded at the Royal Albert Hall, with the dry ice, hats and shadow-play lighting as much a part of the band’s unique appeal at that time as the songs and the stark iconography of their own record sleeves.

Perhaps aware that he may seem somewhat static and old school compared to the headliners, contemporary reviews of the show refer to Eldritch upping the ante in his own frontman role, with Sounds reviewer Robin Gibson, whilst acknowledging the quality of his vocal performance, finding his stage persona “painfully arrogant”, whilst Ulster fanzine Youth Anthem’s reviewer accuses the band (and presumably the singer in particular) of “the worst case of heavy metal posing since Queen circa 1973” (which many would take as a compliment!). Sisters fan and Heartland Forum user Bearskin also thought that Eldritch was really trying to impress that evening: “I recall the Sisters performance was very posturing - Von was in full strut mode, acting quite the rock star. It was the first time I'd heard the Reptile House songs live.” However, both written reviewers also acknowledge that despite their own misgivings about the band’s music, the Sisters went down well with the crowd and were permitted an encore, which was not often the case with support bands.

The Sounds review highlights the growing importance of Emma in the set, and the overall quality of the show can easily be heard in the three recordings of the gig which have survived, such as the version uploaded onto YouTube (and featured below), which begins with the now traditional crowd chant of “God Squad” over the introduction to usual set-opener in 1983, Kiss The Carpet, which receives a lively reception. After Eldritch’s cheery “’ello!” and the then-obligatory audience shouts for 1969, the singer announces Anaconda, in which the sound mix slowly begins to settle, although Gunn’s guitar still seems a little out of tune, as is the singer’s final line. The heat was clearly getting to the band, as Eldritch announces “You’ve never seen my abs [? arms? arse?] before, have you? Next time we come we’ll have some new songs and I’ll take my trousers off for you.” Before he can elaborate further, the opening riff of what turns into a rather grungy rendition of Alice can be heard. Again the audience requests start as soon as the cheering and applause die down at the end of the song. “No, we don’t play Jolene no more….Settle down,” replies Eldritch.  A different  member of the crowd then shouts for 1969. “We don’t that any more either, this is Burn,” intones Eldritch, introducing a particularly fine version of the Reptile House track, which is followed by an equally epic Emma, and a stately, if not funereal, Valentine, for which Eldritch for once manages the high note for the first, if not the second syllable of the final word. "This is called Heartland, and we think we're going to put it on a record...soon!" is how the singer introduces introduces the next track, which picks up the pace significantly, as does the following Adrenochrome, which is shambolic almost to the point of being unlistenable at times from a guitar perspective. After a lengthy interval to sort the guitar sound, the opening Doktor Avalanche salvo of Floorshow is greeted by cheers, although the drum machine's solo is extended on this occasion until the guitars are sufficiently (de-)tuned to join in. The band return for an encore, with Eldritch announcing "Hello, Wakefield", before the band launches into a typically unhinged incendiary Body Electric to close the show.

On a Virgin Prunes site, fan Shaun Morris commented “The only down point of the night was the venue which was underground and unbelievably hot. As we left the show sweat was running down the walls. God knows what it must have felt like onstage,” confirming the searing heat in the packed venue that others who attended have mentioned in their own accounts.

Having finished the first show at the Electric Ballroom, The Sisters and their entourage then headed the short distance down Camden High Street to the Camden Palace, formerly a theatre, BBC radio studio and then in the 1970's a venue called the Music Machine, which had a recently acquired reputation as the coolest club in London after its makeover and rebranding in 1982 as the Camden Palace, when it became the centre of the New Romantic scene fronted by Richard Strange.

The Sisters’ gig was unadvertised, and most fans who had attended the show at the Ballroom were unaware that it was taking place. Fan Robert L, who had hitched from the South-West of England, was one such fan who was sceptical about the reality of a second show: “I was told about it and just thought 'sounds like bullshit, 2 gigs in one night?'. Having hitchhiked from Plymouth I wasn't prepared to travel across London on a rumour, and miss the Virgin Prunes... Someone also told me the admission price, which was far more than I had in my pocket at the time.”

However, the inner circle of fans did know about the show, and in Mark Andrews' essential biography of this period of the band, Paint My Name In Black And Gold, Gary Marx is quoted as saying “It was a brilliant night because we hammered out one set and then went on…marching down the road taking our audience with us, Pied-Piper-style, to the next gig.”

In the book Rik B, a member of the band’s unofficial fan group The God Squad also recalls that “there was no guest list at the Camden Palace, so the Sisters had twenty or thirty ‘roadies’ that night…each person carrying a little bit [of equipment] down the street” and into the venue!

The gig at Camden Palace started some time after midnight, and is therefore usually listed as 12th August 1983, even though it was effectively on the same evening as the Ballroom gig. No reviews were published of the Camden Palace show, and only one, probably partial and muffled recording of the show has survived, and this extract, the possible opener Emma, shows both band and audience in fine form, with the latter joining in enthusiastically with Gary Marx’s impromptu rendition of Ghost Riders In The Sky before it starts. The lack of soundcheck is evident in the rather thin and reedy start, and the song gets off to a lacklustre beginning, with first Adams false-starting, and then Marx playing a few bum notes of his own in his opening riff. Even the perfectionist Eldritch is not immune to the gaffes, missing his cue for his own second line. The band recovers manfully, and by the end the seven-minute song recovers its full dramatic effect, although it does sound as if they are down to just the one guitar for the last minute or so, possibly due to a technical mishap. There is enthusiastic applause at the end however, which is repeated throughout the show, which ends with a second cover version, Gimme Shelter, which had not been played at the earlier show.

Heartland Forum member Original GS who did both gigs, recalls that “it was a mad day all round. A dozen of us in a van from Wakefield. We got home at about half past eight the following morning!”. A perfect summation for a unique evening, the last time that the band would play in the capital until the following May, by which time major changes had occurred...

As for Camden Palace, the venue was refurbished again in 2004 and renamed Koko, continuing to trade successfully until it was badly damaged by fire in 2020, something of an occupational hazard for venues which have hosted TSOM, but in this case the story has had a happy ending, as recounted in this BBC news report.

My thanks for this post are largely due to Phil Verne, curator of The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 unofficial fan group on Facebook who gathered most of the artefacts used in this post, but also to Robin, Rik, Robert, Shaun, Mark, Gary and others who have contributed, wittingly or unwittingly, to this account.


Saturday 29 July 2023

40 years ago today - Eldritch-produced Salvation debut EP out on Merciful Release

 Today (29th July) sees the fortieth anniversary of one of the seminal releases on the Merciful Release label, Salvation’s Girlsoul, the imprint’s first to be simultaneously issued in both 7” and 12” formats. Issued in a stunning white sleeve – a real break with MR tradition – the three tracks were recorded at Kenny Giles’ Bridlington studio and were produced by Andrew Eldritch, who according to the press release pictured which confirms the release date, was also managing the band at the time, using his own name (“Andy Taylor”).

These were not the only connections to The Sisters of Mercy however, with Doktor Avalanche moonlighting as Salvation’s drum machine and playing a prominent role on all three tracks, and lead singer Danny Mass being one of the band’s roadies at the time (and moving into 7 Village Place when Gary Marx moved out).  This was not an uncommon occurrence, with Noel Gallagher having roadied for Inspiral Carpets perhaps the most famous example.

The three songs for the Girlsoul EP were recorded during the winter and at minimal cost, as the band recall on their website that “it was snowing and the band were skint! Andrew knew that the band didn’t have any money and so, asked to be paid in kind with West Yorkshire’s finest stimulants. 3 sleepless nights and the Girlsoul EP was born!”

In Mark Andrews’ seminal biography of The Sisters of Mercy’s early years, Paint My Name In Black and Gold, Mass (real name Daniel Horigan) recalls that it actually took two sessions to complete the recording, the first being aborted after the singer “lost a tooth whilst I was eating a liquorice stick. We had to go back and complete the vocals after I had a crown.”

I myself was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Danny Mass for the legendary The Sisters of Mercy online fan group Heartland Forum on the occasion of Salvation’s thirtieth anniversary gig in 1985, and asked him about the recording sessions for the Girlsoul release, the first time he had been in a recording studio. “The studio time was fast and frantic,” he told me. “We didn't have long and had never been near a studio before. Andrew was keen and enthusiastic: he knew the desk and we worked well together. I love being in the studio - it was a great experience and set us on our way.”

Of the three tracks, the Girlsoul EP’s title track bore the greatest musical relationship to The Sisters of Mercy’s own output, with a simple, repetitive guitar riff courtesy of Mike Hayes, and James Kenyon's insistent bassline not unlike Craig Adams’ staccato motif on the Teachers demo, and of course the omnipresent and unmistakable presence of drum machine Doktor Avalanche in TR-808 incarnation high in the mix, although Mass’ vocal tone was lighter and more vulnerable than Eldritch’s own sonorous baritone.

The TR-808 was an expensive piece of kit upon its release in the early 1980’s, retailing at £795, and apart from with The Sisters of Mercy and their acolytes, was also popular with the hip hop fraternity, meaning that even today a good example will fetch eight times the original price, with fewer than twelve thousand units having been originally manufactured.

Eldritch’s growing skill as a producer, evident also on The Sisters’ own Anaconda single from the same era, is clear on the lead track, as explained by Heartland Forum member robertzombie, an expert in needledrop analysis of vinyl records: “Eldritch gave us a great mix with punch, dynamic range, and a reasonable amount of depth. The most intriguing aspect of this song is the way in which, on the 12" single, it gets louder and louder as the piece progresses, with each instrument piling on an additional layer of sinister repetition to draw the listener in (or perhaps repel them)”.

The immediate appeal of the title track of EP helped to propel it into the Independent Chart top thirty upon release, with the three tracks’ very different styles making it clear that Salvation’s music palette was going to be broader than that of their MR labelmates. When the songs were finally released by the band themselves on CD in late 2014, tragically just after the death of original bass player James “Elmore” Kenyon, along with the shelved Clash of Dreams EP (recorded in 1984, also produced by Eldritch but never released on Merciful Release in March 1985 as had been originally intended), I reviewed them in detail:

The title track was the most immediate, and was deservedly the first of the band's Independent Chart hits, whilst Evelyn has an almost Joy Division back beat. The real treasure, though, is Dust Up … one of the greatest MRs of all time. Danny and the band seem to be playing an obscure OMD b-side in the first couple of minutes whilst Doktor Avalanche rat-tat-tats impatiently on the studio door. The next ten minutes is pure psychedelic goth trance bliss, before the song ends in the same way it started. One can well imagine the band leaving Eldritch in the studio to finish the insipid original whilst they headed to the nearest pub to Ken Giles' studio in Bridlington to make last orders, returning the following morning to find Von slumped over the controls, exhausted by the all-night shift required to make his masterpiece. Possibly.”

The latter conjecture on my part was of course entirely fantasy, with Danny explaining in his interview with me the following year the true genesis of the fourteen-minute epic Dust Up, which certainly betrays a debt to US electro-punk pioneers Suicide, a major influence on not only Mass and Eldritch but on the whole Leeds (post-)punk scene: “Dust Up was supposed to be an improvised 'jam' like an early Velvet Underground kind of 'trip' thing. But recording in a studio with limited time isn't the best way to do that kind of thing so it was all a bit too structured (even though it doesn't sound like it) by the time we finished. It was a good idea but a little naïve on our part.” As further evidence of just how new a project Salvation was at the time, the band didn't make its live debut until 1985! 

On the fortieth anniversary of its release, Girlsoul has rightly just been named as one of the “top fifty guaranteed floorfillers” in Uncut Magazine’s rundown of Goth Club Anthems in their “Ultimate Genre Guide: Goth” magazine, helping to cement the band’s reputation as more than just a footnote in the Andrew Eldritch story, whilst the current iteration of the band has just completed a few dates supporting fellow goth-adjacent Leeds legend The Rose of Avalanche. In 2021 the band released an acclaimed live album recorded in St Niklaas in March 2020, which is available (along with Clash of Dreams and other previous releases) on their Bandcamp page.

My thanks for this post are again due to Danny, QB and other members of the Salvation team for the 2015 interview and for the inspirational music!

Thursday 29 June 2023

Kings of Kingston - The Sisters of Mercy live at Knights Park campus, Thursday 30th June 1983

 Forty years ago tonight, The Sisters of Mercy played one of the final dates of their early summer UK mini-tour at Kingston Polytechnic in the outer suburbs of South-West London, a gig retrospectively memorable for three reasons: first, the existence of a taped interview with a fanzine writer in which a candid and relaxed Eldritch gives open and honest answers rather than the usual pre-rehearsed Sisters “manifesto” quotes; secondly, it was the first gig of that era at which that the band didn’t play their cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene which had caught the imagine of fans across the country following its broadcast (in session format) on BBC Radio One; and thirdly, it was the only date in the 1980's where they shared the stage with one of the other three big Leeds drum machine bands, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.

It is believed that the interview with Eldritch was arranged by the guy who promoted the gig, Dominic, who was in charge of the small students’ union at the Knights Park campus of Kingston Poly (now University). The campus, which housed the Polytechnic's world-renowned art department, had opened in 1939 with a fine art deco main block which had subsequently been added to along the banks of the Hogsmill river with a succession of functional 1960’s and 1970’s buildings, including the students’ union and bar.

In the interview, during which the Lorries can be heard soundchecking stonking versions of tracks like Strange Dream in the background, and throughout which there are the usual backstage interruptions – passers-by asking for directions to the toilets, jobsworths asking “Are you with the band?” “We ARE the band”. “Are you two on the guest list?" "We’re the band" etc  - Eldritch reveals that he has a cousin currently studying at the Poly, but fails to admit that he himself was something of a local, with the majority of his secondary schooling having taken place at an institution fewer than five miles away from the Kingston-upon-Thames venue. 

He also, memorably, tries to sell the interviewer his ticket for the forthcoming John Cale (ex-Velvet Underground) show in London which he will no longer be able to attend, as he was about to make a trip to New York to set up the band’s US distribution deal with Braineater Records and their Autumn tour in the States. The interviewer declines, having never heard of John Cale, leaving Craig Adams (who was also present but added very little to the chat, as usual) to taunt the now twenty-four year old singer about being old.

Interestingly, there is an early explanation by Eldritch of his desire to avoid any kind of label:

Interviewer: “You describe yourselves as a heavy metal band”.

Eldritch: “Yeah, that’s just to stop people from describing us as something else, next month we’ll be calling ourselves a folk band and we’ll do an acoustic number just to spite them.”

In addition, Eldritch confesses to liking some contemporary songs, such as those of the band Imagination, and the interviewer suggests that TSOM could start calling themselves a disco band.

“We are in many ways. That drum machine is pretty discoid I’d say,” is the singer’s retort.

Eldritch also expresses admiration for The Go-Go’s Our Lips Are Sealed and even the latest Buck’s Fizz single, which would have been surprising news to most of his band’s contemporary fanbase, and he is happy to confirm why some songs won’t be played that night: “slower songs” songs like Burn and Valentine are hard to play live “with a PA like this [the one here]”, whilst Jolene is being dropped from the set before it became “a millstone around our necks”, with the singer not wanting his band to be primarily famous for and forever associated with one particular cover song (a factor which was beginning to be the case for fellow Bowie obsessive contemporaries Bauhaus). He goes on to list a further selection of songs which the band might cover one day – Don’t Sleep In the Subway (Petula Clark), It’s Over (Roy Orbison), Close My Eyes and Count To Ten (Dusty Springfield, his friend Adrian’s suggestion He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss (by The Crystals, a Phil Spector production with a disturbing lyric about domestic violence) and even Cliff Richard’s Dynamite, one of the singer’s more obscure songs and a rare contribution to this interview by the other member of the band present. Needless to say, none of these covers ever materialised.

As the interview develops, the fanzine writer brings up the topic of Merciful Release. “We’ll have other people on it for a short while.” “Like Factory?” enquires the writer. “No, it’ll be funnier than them and will sell more records than them…And we won’t have any hippies on, or any bongo players … horn players or prats. Rule one, no prats,” Eldritch retorts, clearly pleased with his own response.

There is also some jocular discussion in response to the interviewer’s question about the difference between southern and northern audiences, a big talking point back in 1983: “They talk funny,” Eldritch quips about southerners, somewhat ironically, as in Leeds he himself was regarded as a southerner. “And their clothes are cleaner. And they’ve got money, some of them have got jobs. Some are students. And they don’t know as much about us, because we haven’t played in this part of the country before, so really, it’s the same all over, the main difference between audiences for us is how long they’ve known about us. So like in Leeds we’re big, Hull is big … It was a long time before we came down South, we didn’t really see the reason. We were quite happy playing up North, the South seemed like a duff place to be…. To get off the ground, I think a band does have to [come down South], the thing is provincial promoters in the North won’t book you unless they’ve seen reviews, you won’t get reviews unless you play London dates. The trick is to come down to London, build a base and then have the confidence in yourselves to go back again. And still base yourselves wherever, in our case Leeds… We’ve no intention of moving to London, most bands make the mistake of thinking ‘everything happens in London, we’ve got to start off in London, let’s move to London!’ – don’t move!”

That the evening’s gig was not massively well-attended is not therefore entirely a surprise, especially given the relatively obscure location, the end of the academic year and the particularly poor quality of the posters which advertised the gig, one of which, kindly shared by legendary TSOM collector LG, is reproduced above, but for just £2 it was possible to see two of Leeds’ finest on the same bill. Eldritch was a big fan of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, the only one of the Leeds drum machine “goth” bands not to have a member of the band moonlight in The Sisters for a gig – The March Violets’ Tom Ashton having played one show in November 1981, and The Three Johns’ Jon Langford having also filled in once in February 1982 – although guitarist Dave “Wolfie” Wolfenden did go on to do a lengthy stint in Craig and Wayne’s post-Sisters project, a band called The Mission. (Incidentally, Wolfie is currently touring as a member of another legendary Leeds goth group, The Rose of Avalanche, who are playing a series in UK gigs in July for a very reasonable £12 entry charge).

 In an interview with US trade mag Rockpool in June 1985, Eldritch was asked for his views on RLYL, replying “They’re very good. Under all that racket, they do write good songs. I expect that they write a really good song and then they trash it. But that’s alright.” Ultimately Eldritch would pay his own tribute to the Lorries, with the 2010’s iteration of The Sisters often covering A Gift That Shines, a mellower, more reflective and melodic RLYL song from 1989. The double bill at Kingston was not the original intention, however, as this list from an Eldritch letter to a fan from Spring 1983 will testify.

Wolfie, however, remembers the Kingston Poly gig well, commenting on Phil Verne’s wonderful The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook fan group “I actually remember this gig. It was a beautiful summer’s evening and everyone was drinking outside. I think it was next to the river. Very kind of them for the support slot… They also had my old 4×12 onstage to stick the drum machine through. They were good, but not as good as at Leeds Uni on the FALAA tour. Emma that night is still one of the best things I've ever witnessed.”

Wolfie was correct in his geographical reminiscences, as the Students’ Union and bar are indeed right on the banks of the river, with picnic benches on the riverside walkway where revellers could spill out to enjoy the summer sunshine. Another attendee who remembers the gig well was Dave P, who also commented at some length on the Facebook group about what he could remember of the show: “You asked for memories of a particular gig [to mark 40 years of The Sisters’ as a live act in February 2021], well I will select Kingston Polytechnic, Thursday 30th June 1983. Right in the middle of A level exams! Me and a mate had made it to Brixton the night before which was excellent, they were really turning it on by then (although the Smiths were ok too). Got back to suburbia about 2 a.m. Exams next day and then a lift with Rob in his 1966 Hillman Minx with Mike along for the ride through hot and sunny west London past Richmond Park to rock up at Kingston Poly having found out the gig was on through John Peel, I think.” This is correct, as Peel read out a list of forthcoming dates when playing tracks of The Reptile House EP which had just come out. “Got there early to make sure we got a ticket, only to find no one there! We just wandered in and found the band in a big classroom/small gym setting up and sound checking on a low stage, so we watched for a while with a few others to see if they would play anything but it was just Andrew Eldritch tuning the Doktor and then his vocal mike echoes... it went like this: One, One, One.....Two, Two Two...One, One, One....Two, Two Two real slow all with various echo effects, which was really quite mesmerising. When that little show was over, we found the bar which was lovely in the early evening sunshine and overlooked the river and proceeded to socialise with the few other Sisters followers there. Things didn't really liven up too much, there just weren't the students coming in: we reckoned they'd all gone home for the year by then. We were all getting merry though! I reckon there were 100-120 max by the time Red Lorry Yellow Lorry came on. They were really good, then it was time for the Sisters to march through the 'throng' to the stage. But big shock in store - no Kiss the Carpet! Tangible disappointment but you could hardly blame them for wanting to knock this one out and get home. So it was a short set in the end but we tried to liven it up with some dancing to show our appreciation and had a great view as they were only a foot up and about 6 foot away! Sound was good, not mega loud, and I remember they finished with Sister Ray during which Gary appeared to go nuts, climbed the PA stack and maybe threw his guitar off or threw it down and stormed off for a good rock and roll ending! So back to suburbia for us, more A level exams and off to Hemel Hempstead the following night for Bauhaus. Guess what - I failed the A levels but didn't care, I've done alright since. I think the reason I remember this gig so well was the fact it was so different to the packed-out Bauhaus/Theatre of Hate/TSOM gigs we were going to at the time. And it was a lovely day!”

                      (Aerial view of the site with Students' Union entrance highlighted)

Another fan, Michael K was also at this gig and confirmed: "Kingston Poly gig '83 in a room not much bigger than a classroom and the stage was just a foot or so higher than the floor. It felt tiny. Reckon there can't have been more than 90 or so people there if that even. All going well until about three-quarters in when Gary Marx got the right hump, about what I am not sure, un-tethered his guitar and stormed off the tiny platform. End of gig."  (click here for current pics of the Students Union bar, which has changed little over the past four decades)

Although the band did end with traditional set-closer Sister Ray, the setlist appears to have covered only eight songs, fewer than most other shows at this time, particularly when The Sisters were headlining. Given the problems Doktor Avalanche was experiencing with Emma at the time (for example at the previous weekend’s Sheffield gig) it came as little surprise to see that the Hot Chocolate cover had been shelved. Sisters follower Declan A also remembered the gig “I was ‘studying’ at Kingston Poly at the time. I distinctly remember some idiot repeatedly shouting "Mike Read" at Eldritch.” (Eldritch was reputed to be a younger lookalike of the Radio 1 DJ).

As already stated, one recording of the gig is well-known amongst the Sisters fan base, and thanks to the generosity of Sisters live audio guru Phil Verne I have again had access to a low generation copy of the original recording, which starts with Alice, unlike most 1983 gigs. As the tape starts with the very beginning of the song, with new introduction, it’s not clear whether this was indeed the opening track or whether the taper only began recording part way through the concert. Although the sound of the first song is typical of those early gigs, with changes of level and speed of Doktor Avalanche, the shrill, rougher punky mix is already well-established during Alice, with Craig’s scuzzy thudding bass sound dominant despite the presence of the two intertwining guitarists.

Although not apparent from the quality of the version of Alice, Eldritch has clearly struggled in the cramped conditions, and after the opener, after the enthusiastic applause of the small crowd dies down, the singer tells them “It sounds better when we’ve have got the PA on, don’t it? It’s not a very good PA, there’s nothing I can do about that … well I did break it”. The Doktor however has already begun the mechanised clank of the ferocious introduction to then recent single Anaconda, although there are some extra beats, introducing momentary fears of a repeat of the weekend’s Sheffield gig and with its multiple drum machine malfunctions. As was often the case, the guitars on Anaconda are a little rough and ready, but this is more than compensated by a perfect Eldritch vocal, beautifully enunciated and note perfect (apart from the yelped final word) in a way that modern audiences can only dream “I’m having difficulty moving  up here, because the stage is coming apart underneath my feet, because every time I move backwards the PA goes bang. Thus! … Otherwise, this is Burn.”

The singer’s fears about playing the slower songs live are to a certain extent justified by this rendition of Burn, which is a little slower than the set-opening version from most gigs the following year. Eldritch struggles for pitch at times and the guitars duel scratchily in an ever-changing mix. Before announcing Heartland, the singer answers “I don’t know, I don’t know” to an unheard question, but the sound problems seem to be resolving on the band’s signature song with Gary’s guitar line soaring to the top of the mix. The song ends with another unintentional extra flourish from the good Doktor. “Some things get in your way” the singer cryptically adds after the song. “Turn it up!” shouts a lone voice, whilst a female fan shouts “Mike Read”, having clearly spotted a slight resemblance between the singer and the radio jock. “You’re looking in the wrong direction,” is the singer’s retort, possibly to the heckler.  After discussing the matter with her friends, the latter shouts again “It is Mike Read, give us your autograph”. Ignoring her, Eldritch tells the crowd "We cut out the slow ones tonight,” implying that this gig was indeed shorter than the previous night’s gig in nearby London (there was no Valentine for example).  The band have already begun the Adrenochrome intro however, which the singer enthusiastically back announces. “Soon you’ll be making the highlights tape,” the singer intones in a manner which implies that he found this a witty retort, but the context is lost on anyone listening to the audio some forty years later. “This is called Floorshow” is the introduction to the Alice double A side, but clearly there are some technical issues again, with Craig playing a few bum nots and Eldritch changing the line “I see the bodies steam” to “I see the bodies…upside down” for reasons best known to himself (unless he taken a tumble on the disintegrating stage?), but the screamed ending to the song is as perfect as ever. There is no banter at the end of the song, but a fan can be heard sardonically referring to “leather gloves”. As Eldritch announces what will be the set closer Gimme Shelter, the recording has not even reached the twenty-four minute mark, and another superlative Eldritch vocal performance up and down the octaves will be undermined by an uncharacteristically high number of Adams errors in the early sections of the song, although the buzzing finale, with just the bassist and singer finishing without drum machine and guitar backing is superb. “Yeah. Bye bye” is Eldritch’s parting comment. The recording resumes with the delighted reaction of the crowd as the band return to the stage, to shouted requests of 1969 and Jolene. “We played Jolene for the last time yesterday, we haven’t played 1969 for a very long time. We haven’t played THIS for a long time” over a surprisingly competent beginning to Sister Ray. After Eldritch’s trademark scream of the song’s title to flick the starting switch for musical chaos, the guitars seem particularly unhinged, with just Gunn’s solid rhythm guitar audible for a long time due presumably to problems with Marx’s guitar, reflecting the comments of our reliable eyewitnesses, although he does return in time for Eldritch’s “Good night!”, but the song ends fairly abruptly shortly thereafter, presumably at the time of the incident described earlier in this article.

The following night, the band capped a busy week with their second show at Dingwall’s in Hull, with Valentine and Body Electric added back into the show and with Ghostrider/Louie Louie wisely replacing Sister Ray, with the band not gigging for the rest of July until the final day of the month when they made their legendary European debut at the Parkingang festival in Ancona, a gig covered by this blog a few years ago.

My thanks for this post are due to my long term collaborators Phil V and LG, to Dave P for his fantastic memories of the gig, and to Wolfie and others who subsequently added their own reminiscences to discussions on the TSOM 1980-1985 Facebook fan page.



Thursday 11 May 2023

Book Review - Season of the Witch - The Book of Goth by Cathi Unsworth

 After the back-to-back publications of two great biographies of The Sisters of Mercy a couple of years ago after a forty year drought, it will come as no surprise to seasoned Sisters watchers that we now have two equally complementary Histories of Goth, with Cathi Unsworth’s volume (Season of the Witch -The Book of Goth) appearing just a matter of weeks after the publication of John Robb’s dissection of the UK goth scene of the 1980’s.

Unsworth was herself a goth (unlike Robb), a point which she makes in both the introduction and the conclusion of her book which is published today, and she has also enjoyed a thirty-five year career as a professional writer, initially on music weeklies such as the Melody Maker, before launching a successful career as a novelist specialising in contemporary dark fiction, and as a result her gothic meisterwerk is not only well-observed but beautifully written.

Most importantly, she is well-known amongst Sisters diehards as a huge fan of the band herself, not to mention a close associate in the 1990’s, when they were at the height of their commercial fame, making this new book of particular interest to long-term TSOM aficionados.

However, as Unsworth was only born in 1969 (ok!), she was herself only ten years old when her Book of Goth begins, and was only able to travel to gigs from her family home in the “flat fields” of Norfolk once the main artists of the genre were already well-established and arguably past their creative peak.

Her book usefully seeks to site goth within the prevailing social and political context of the UK, so it begins with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, (the year of Bela Lugosi’s Dead, the first Killing Joke EP and the debut Joy Division album Unknown Pleasures), and Unsworth compares the dominant and most wilfully divisive political figure of the 1980’s somewhat surprisingly with Siouxsie Sioux, as two female radicals breaking the mould in male-dominated professions through not dissimilar tactics. Writing at a time when Britain’s contemporary Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) shared a moon-faced tousled haired look with the then King of Pop Ed Sheeran, this similarity must have seemed more than coincidence, but despite Unsworth unearthing Sioux quotes which seem to suggest that her politics were not as far from Thatcher’s as one would imagine, the singer will be no more flattered by the comparison than Robert Smith, whose own background is compared to a notorious serial killer from Crawley.

With the chapter on Leeds beginning with the reminder that the Sisters formed at a time when fear reigned in the city where the Yorkshire Ripper was still at large, one half expects Unsworth to compare Andrew Eldritch to the serial killer on the grounds that he once grew a straggly beard, but instead the chapter turns out to be one of the most free from personal reminiscences. As elsewhere, Unsworth quotes heavily from other publications but also has comments from key Leeds figures such as Jon Langford, Annie Hogan and Claire Shearsby, rather than the band members themselves. Unfortunately, in a rare error in an otherwise meticulously researched book, Unsworth states that the York gig where Langford stepped in for the absent Craig Adams took place in May 1981, rather than the actual date of 5th February 1982, but otherwise the chapter is suitably effective, although the other bands on the Leeds scene at the time – with the exception of The Three Johns -  are barely mentioned. Entertainingly, some of the best quotes in the TSOM dominated chapter come from novelist David Peace, then an aspiring God Squad member who states: “I know it’s a Sisters cliche but the Ben Gunn line-up was the best….The Sisters WERE the Gothic, industrial, Ripper Leeds…and I still think that The Reptile House is the most Leeds record you can ever listen to.” Amen to all that.

This kind of insider analysis – like Unsworth’s identification of Magazine’s Secondhand Daylight and The Banshees’ Juju as other gothic masterpieces – is exactly the kind of knowledgeable narrative that readers would have been hoping for, and in all artists held up for major analysis, the detailed biographical research is impressively forensic.

Elsewhere, Unsworth does not shy away from some of the more unpalatable aspects of early goth groups, particularly what appeared even at the time as an unhealthy interest in Nazi iconography (eg the band name selection of Joy Division and New Order, Theatre of Hate’s SS Record label or Siouxsie’s sporting of swastika armbands for shock), or to evidence coercive control by individuals within their private relationships.

As one might expect for a novelist, the well-read Unsworth has a particular interest in the literature which inspired the first generation of goth artists, and the book has a lengthy and impressive appendix suggesting further fictional reading material and a filmography for those wishing to have a greater understanding of the cultural context of some of the main players.

The book also successfully and uniquely links key artists within their genre and their music with the key events of the 1980’s whether the election of Ronald Regan, the Falklands War, the Greenham Common Protests, or the Miners’ Strike in a manner which rarely feels contrived, and which seems more relevant than it did at the time, although the occasional passages where Unsworth brings the overall narrative back to her own personal circumstances at the time are a little less well-integrated.

In terms of being an accurate history of the genre, Unsworth gives greater prominence to key artists (including, fortunately, UK Decay, bizarrely omitted by Robb), at the expense of less well-known acts (the March Violets and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry for example), avoiding the rushed, list-based catch-all effect of the Blackpool media pundit’s own tome, but therefore the book is not as comprehensive as some might have wished.

In other ways, however, there are strong parallels between Unsworth’s book and Robb’s: the former also details at length some of the “Godfathers and Godmothers of Goth” (with, notably, an equal number of each), but neatly inserts them as mini-chapters between the main sections of the book. Unsworth’s appraisal of the non-UK scene also focuses on many of the same acts as Robb did, with Nick Cave, Einsturzende Neubauten. The Cramps, Diamanda Galas and The Gun Club getting particular prominence again.

After Goth’s annus mirabilis of 1985, with She Sells Sanctuary, Love Like Blood and The Shadow of Love all in charts and First and Last and Always a staple on bedsit turntables, the scene began to fragment, and Unsworth gropes around for the strands to draw together, with a scattergun approach that gives brief biographies of such strange bedfellows as Zodiac Mindwarp, Cardiacs and Crime and The City Solution whilst focussing on the latter careers of the Cocteau Twins and New Model Army amongst others, who were no longer at their most potent and innovative at that time

Those hoping for coverage of the last three decades, scenes outside the UK, US, Australia and Berlin,  or even early UK “second wave” bands like Balaam and The Angel, Gene Loves Jezebel, Play Dead and Fields of the Nephilim will be disappointed to hear that they do not feature, but Unsworth’s is very much a personal and political take on the scene, and a welcome and essential addition to the bookshelf of any self-respecting goth.

Season of the Witch - The Book of Goth is published by music specialist Nine Eight Books (part of with a RRP of £22 and can be ordered via links on Cathi's own website.

My grateful thanks to Cathi and to her publisher for the advance PDF copy of this excellent book which I read in a weekend!

Friday 28 April 2023

The Sisters of Mercy and the Battle for the Heart of Punk

 Labelling or pigeonholing of artists into specific genres and the development of youth cults along these tribal lines was very well-established by the time The Sisters of Mercy emerged in the early 1980’s. As mentioned in the band’s own online biography and examined in much greater detail in Mark Andrews’ seminal Paint My Name in Black and Gold biography, The Sisters developed very organically out of the Leeds punk and post-punk scene of the late 1970’s, which was very loosely centred around gigs promoted by John Keenan under the F Club banner.

Whilst The Sisters remained true to the quintessential tenets of the early punk movement, with the DIY ethic extending beyond the usual rudimentary inability to effectively master instruments (a charge however which Gary Marx readily admits to) into the more political elements such as founding their own record label rather than (as most of the original punk icons ironically had) signing deals with major record labels and effectively working for “the man”, the music scene had fragmented considerably with a number of competing musical movements fighting for dominance.

The Futurist trend, with its more synth-based sound and (Bowie-obsessed) androgynous looks was spreading out from its Blitz club base in London into the UK provinces at the turn of the decade, with Soft Cell the most prominent exponents in Leeds, whilst the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (dominant in the West Midlands and North-East of England), moving back to simpler song structures (influenced by punk) as expounded by Black Sabbath and Motörhead also emerged in the very late 1970’s.

Add to this the Mod revival (especially in the broader South-East region), with fans of The Jam also following the many groups (Purple Hearts, The Chords, Squire etc) inspired by sharp-suited 1960’s Britpop as exemplified by The who and The Kinks, and the multi-ethnic Two-Tone ska revival (again in the West Midlands as well as London – Madness, the Specials etc), and the UK charts were awash with an eclectic mix of styles and influences, with British reggae acts (Aswad, Black Uhuru and, erm, Musical Youth), American rockabilly revival (Matchbox, The Stray Cats)  and Travolta-inspired disco acts all enjoying increased popularity.

The ever-changing musical landscape was summed up by the lyrics to old skool punk band Vice Squad’s 1981 track (Another) Summer Fashion, bemoaning the fickleness of youth as their own favoured genre, punk, became increasingly distant from the mainstream. (“1977, be a punk, 1978 be a mod, 1979, be a skin, 1980 another summer fashion…”).

The complex and seemingly fragmented and compartmentalised musical scene confused the music industry, with shorter-lived trends making investment in individual acts and scenes more risky, with bands able to seamlessly shift from being considered avant-garde cutting edge acts to mainstream megastars almost overnight (eg Adam and the Ants, The Human League) in a way that would seem impossible today.

The reality was that many teenagers were happy to dip in and out of different scenes, with the emerging Futurist/Alternative nightclubs finding that their punters wanted not just synthpop, but also the harder-edged sounds of post-punk, and most music fans were happy to profess affection for bands of different genres beyond tribal lines.

Andrew Eldritch himself, or rather Andrew Taylor, is an excellent example of this. A Motörhead/Hawkwind fan whose favourite record in his final year at school (according to an old schoolmate on the website Friends Reunited a few years ago) was apparently Rainbow’s Rainbow Rising, by the time he began his undergraduate degree at St John’s College, Oxford, he was a Bowie obsessive in the words of a fellow student. By the late 1980’s, with Leeds dominated by the agit-prop post-punk of Gang of Four, Mekons and Delta 5, Eldritch had naturally gravitated to this movement, following the musical zeitgeist, with his appearance also evolving along the lines of punk icon Joey Ramone.

With the benefit of hindsight, The Sisters of Mercy have not only been categorised as Goths (a label Eldritch has always fervently rejected), but often lauded as the de facto leaders or quintessential act of the genre. But in their early years, certainly pre-1984, a combination of factors (the band’s insistence on staying in the North) and the difficulty in squeezing them into any musical pigeonhole (with the band publicly distancing themselves from the Batcave posi-punks) can be seen as a significant factor in the music industry’s inability to recognise a major new talent despite rave live reviews, rapidly increasing sales and an ever-growing number of t-shirts and leather jackets sporting the famous head-and-star logo amongst the nation’s youth.

That The Sisters of Mercy were shunned by the punk scene from which they developed might be considered surprising, given that they clung to the DIY ethic longer than the vast majority of bands (Crass being a notable exception), but by the time the Sisters released their first record in December 1980, punk had itself fragmented. Whilst many of the original more opportunistic art school or ex r’n’b pub rock punk bands were still recording and making the charts at that time, they had moved away from the three powerchord blueprint to explore other genres (The Clash’s street reggae obsession being a prime example), leaving a gap exploited (pun intended) by working-class provincial acts who were almost a bleaker, no-nonsense, uncomplicated caricature of the original “can’t play” “no future” mantra, such as the bands on Bristol’s Riot City label (such as Vice Squad), Stoke’s Clay Records (GBH, Discharge), Nottinghamshire’s Rondelet Records (Anti-Pasti), and the main label likes of Angelic Upstarts, UK Subs and Cockney Rejects, not to mention the capital’s whole skinhead Oi movement with its (to my view as an outsider) strong British nationalist (i.e. racist) undercurrent. As the studded leather jacket and mohawk look became a more prominent punk uniform in shopping centres up and down the UK at this time, the music itself had also become less creative and more cartoonishly formulaic, meaning that the original shock and outrage had long since lost its lustre. (Incidentally, this would be mirrored in the late 1980’s with the second generation of “goth” bands gleefully adopting the epithet which the original artists shun to this day, and willingly draping themselves in the most obvious lyrical and visual tropes of the genre).

Derided “hippy” affectations and concepts which the Year Zero mentality of 1977 had seemingly blown away made a steady return for those prepared to move away from the “destroy” caricature of punk, with original punks Siouxsie and the Banshees, John Lydon’s P.I.L and Howard Devoto (ex-Buzzcocks, now Magazine) using more sophisticated time signatures and chord progressions to maintain the original excitement and novelty which punk had aroused in its listeners, earning the label “post-punk” at the time.

A further group of bands had independently taken these baby steps away from hardcore punk sounds and developed ideas further, such as Killing Joke, Bauhaus, Theatre of Hate and UK Decay, whose records and gigs would appeal to many of those who had originally been fans of bands from the darker side of punk, such as The Stranglers and The Damned.

On the other flank, The Exploited’s spring 1981 release Punk’s Not Dead was seen as a clarion call of defiance to those still clinging to the original punk ethic, but to more causal observers it appeared as a more desperate exercise in self-delusion, a counter-intuitive admission that the genre was in fact by now a busted flush.

Nevertheless, the phrase certainly galvanised elements of the music industry into believing that punk was a cash cow from which further filthy lucre could effectively be milked, the various Pistols releases from Sid Sings to The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle being high-profile examples of this phenomenon, and one further very tangible example of this was the launch of the glossy Punk Lives! magazine, which ran for eleven issues between 1981 and 1983, launched by the same publisher (the exclamation mark as well as the magazine format is the giveaway!) who was by then already enjoying success with the zeitgeist-riding metal-obsessed Kerrang!

The existence of this wonderful complete online archive of all eleven issues of Punk Lives!, combined with the known fact that The Sisters of Mercy were themselves at their artistic peak in the “golden years” of 1981-1983, allows us a retrospective insight into the complex scene at that time, and hints at reasons why the Leeds band’s rise to the top was slower than should have been the case.

Like Kerrang!, Punk Lives! was a tried and trusted mix of bedroom wall-friendly full page posters, band interviews, record and live reviews, and a lively letters page which makes for fascinating reading over four decades later.

Those familiar with the perennial tiresome “gatekeeping” debate amongst fans of what is currently described as “goth” on the contemporary scene (which in a nutshell means that fans of guitar-based “trad goth” deride darkwave Depeche Mode-inspired acts as “synth pop”, whereas fans of the latter would consign Sisters-influenced acts to the “heavy metal” category) will be saddened to learn that this mentality seems to be inherent in the inveterate music obsessive, as Punk Lives!’s readership let the editorial team know in no uncertain terms whether they should be focussing on more creative, “positive punk” artists like Southern Death Cult or Sex Gang Children, or whether these make-up wearing clothes horses should instead be banished from the magazine’s pages.

The front covers of each issue certainly give some indication of the very broad spectrum of bands contained within – would fans of The Danse Society be interested in Resistance ’77? – and this growing rift as the newer bands began to prosper was probably a reason for the magazine’s eventual folding, hastened by the positive punk lurch of (“new”) ZigZag magazine in autumn 1983. The divide is best summed up in issue 4 of Punk Lives! by guest journalist Al A of fanzine Kill Your Pet Puppy, who traces the dichotomy back to “1980: What was there? The Psychedelic Furs, The Cramps, Bauhaus: music without morals. Crass: morals without music.” A square the Punk Lives! journalist team vainly continued to attempt to circle, a financial necessity apparent after the lengthy absence between issues 2 and 3 with a (coincidental?) lurch away from traditional punk towards greater inclusion of what would retrospectively be termed “goth” bands.

Astonishingly, looking back through the editions, even though most of the proto-goth bands get frequent mentions in Punk Lives! as the editor attempted to ride several horses at once, The Sisters of Mercy merit only one mention throughout the eleven issues, a brief and not particularly informative review of the Anaconda single in the spring of 1983.

The Sisters should have been ideal fodder for the magazine, with a singer (still pre-hat) who would appeal visually to old Ramones fans, and an incendiary live show that was blowing established punk bands off-stage at gigs. Other bands of similar standing at the time – who, one might cynically add,  would have enjoyed the plugging of bigger record labels - fare significantly better. Alien Sex Fiend for example feature in five issues of Punk Lives! with live reviews, an interview and a poster as well as two cover mentions. Xmal Deutschland also feature in five issues and get the poster treatment, whilst Sex Gang Children, Theatre of Hate/Spear of Destiny, (Southern) Death Cult, Flesh for Lulu and even Skeletal Family feature significantly more prominently than TSOM, who had of course been cover stars of Sounds already by December 1982.

Ultimately, the real reason for The Sisters’ lack of column inches is revealed during the Punk Lives! interview with New Model Army, with Justin (still known by the DHSS-confusing nickname of Slade the Leveller in those days) in particular explaining very coherently the essential laziness of London-based journalists and labels who thought that talent would naturally beat a path to their door, an attitude deeply entrenched in the much-loathed (in the North, at least) editor of the first issue of Punk Lives!, the Oi-championing London-centric Garry Bushell. The NMA interviewer, “Old Shatterhead”, sadly dismisses the whole North v South issue as “pretty much old hat, one of those interview subjects which tends to arise now and again.” But instead of perhaps contemplating why that might be the case, Justin’s patient explanation that “it does create a bit of bad feeling” and the irony of the interview with the Bradford band taking place in a London pub is seemingly lost.

With gig reviews being based on shows in the capital or, somewhat randomly, at the Gala in Norwich (one of the journos visiting his parents on expenses?), Punk Lives! was destined to appeal mainly to London-based readers or those wanting to wallow in 1977 nostalgia, as provincial UK82 streetpunk scenes were also largely ignored as the magazine failed to move with the times.

The same charges of being both out-of-touch and somewhat obviously desperately searching for an audience (presumably no coincidence...) can also be levied at some of the other glossy music mags at the time. Although ZigZag magazine had always been always been a broad church, some of the issues by the early 80's would have struggled to find a regular readership amongst audiences who were increasingly identifying with sub-tribes. It's hard to imagine fans of Wham! being keen on reading about the Virgin Prunes, or Belle Stars aficionados being keen to find out more about UK Dekay (sic) in the July 82 issue, and the similarly eclectic mix of November that year (Dollar and the Damned? Bauhaus and Shalamar anyone?) continued a decline which continued until the magazine went "full goth" under Mick Mercer's stewardship in October 1983. 

Another somewhat bizarre and short-lived publication of that era which didn't survive into 1983 was Noise! (it's that exclamation mark again!), which eventually merged with the Record Mirror, having failed to find an audience for it's claimed holy trinity of "Pop, Punk and Metal", the middle genre sadly once more largely restricted to the skinhead and mohican bands of that era on the pages within, although some of the newer bands did feature, as can be seen from this great Kirk Brandon cover from the spring of 1982 (a couple of months after the infamous wobbly mic TOTP performance had briefly made them the talk of the nation's living rooms). Needless to say, The Sisters did not feature within Noise!'s glossy pages...

Whilst TSOM were featured in the Washington Post and other well-respected national media in the US throughout their 1983 to 1985 tours, and Temple of Love would garner a half-page review (see below) in Belgian’s high circulation comic strip magazine Tintin Weekly (Kuifje Weekblad), the Sisters were largely ignored by even the specialist music media in the UK even after signing to Warners in 1984, with their only UK TV appearance coming after Gary Marx had ultimately left the band and the first coverage by mainstream national papers tragically only beginning with the Royal Albert Hall gig, the original band’s last rites).

Andrew Eldritch’s own intransigence and frustrations when it came to the London-based music industry were clearly contributing factors when it came to the lack of wider exposure which the band should have been able to command in 1982 and 1983, but the music media industry itself, and its inability to spot what was happening around the country, as seen through the prism of the short-lived Punk Lives!, was clearly the major issue.

 My thanks for this post are due (once again) to TSOM fan and archivist Ade M for the Tintin cutting, to Tony P for the My Archive FB collection of magazines of the era and to the curators of the excellent Punk Lives! archive,  which is well worth a browse. Those with a keen interest in the early years of The Sisters of Mercy are most welcome to join the unofficial Facebook group covering that era.