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.



Tuesday, 25 April 2023

Book Review - The Art of Darkness - The History of Goth by John Robb

2023 will surely be looked back upon as the year of the “Goth book”, with Heady Daze, the second volume of Wayne Hussey’s autobiography hot off the press, publications on the wider movement promised by journalist Cathi Unsworth and The Cure’s Lol Tolhurst, and this wide-ranging 540 page tome intriguingly entitled The Art of Darkness - The History of Goth by musician, journalist and media personality John Robb. But is the latter volume an essential purchase for die-hard fans of The Sisters of Mercy?

As bassist in the Membranes, the agit-punk Blackpool band since (on and off) the late 70’s, a time when he also founded his seminal Blackpool Rox fanzine, and in addition to his more modern Louder Than War website and magazine and his other books on music, Robb is a well-loved and respected media talking head on cultural and musical affairs.

The natural musical enthusiast has therefore been a keen follower and student of the alternative musical scene since the beginnings of what became later referred to as “goth”, and the fact that he was an active observer of the North of England alternative music milieu at the very time The Sisters of Mercy developed, allied to his band’s more recent touring experiences of the current iteration of Eldritch’s band, mean that he is in a unique position to comment on the band’s standing within and importance to the goth movement.

Crucially, most followers of “goth” in the 1980’s would not have considered Robb’s band or fanzine to be particularly relevant to the scene, as both seemed to focus on a more fundamental, angular and overtly political version of the punk and post-punk scenes, and it is this slight detachment whilst being so close to the epicentre of the scene itself which enables Robb to avoid some of the pitfalls of the rabid fan writer, leaving no place as a result for sycophancy or favouritism.

An outstanding fictional opening chapter (entitled "Floorshow"!), in which a young goth couple are followed through the stages, sights, tastes, sounds and smells of a typical night out in a goth club in a town in Northern England in the early mid-80’s reveals that Robb has both a real eye for detail and a way with words, recreating with ease an authentic ambiance which nostalgic elder goths will readily recognise (“Nighclubbing was the beating heart of goth … the audience was now the dark star!”). Any expectations that it will be Bela, Bats and Banshees all the way from here until Von’s inevitable appearance are immediately dashed by an impressively grandiose and ambitious attempt to examine the origins and development of the darker side of culture over several millennia, whether in literature, art, music or architecture. From Coleridge to Crowley, Dionysus to Nietzsche, Ragnarok to Artaud, Carl Orff to Screaming Lord Sutch, it's all there. This Wagnerian undertaking means that the reader has to wade through several hundred dense pages of impressively researched and linked cultural pre-history before the sacred cows of 1980’s goth music eventually get their own biographical chapters. As a history of alternative culture, it’s impressive stuff, but those who buy the book to read about The Sisters, Nick Cave and Killing Joke will be growing increasingly impatient as the interesting but not always directly relevant chapters continue to pass.

The book therefore loses its thread somewhat as the obsessive Robb disappears down cultural rabbit-holes, giving disproportionate amounts of space to artists who may have had a key role in the development of alternative culture as a whole, but whose relevance to what most potential purchasers of the book would consider to be “goth” music is incredibly tangential.

This criticism would be invalid were the scenes of the 1980’s/1990’s and beyond covered in similar detail, but bands which readers of this blog might consider to be key players at different times in the development of what became known as “goth”  – UK Decay, say, The Rose of Avalanche or Red Lorry Yellow Lorry – are dismissed in a couple of sentences or a mere mention en passant, far less space than the likes of Robert Johnson and Pink Floyd are accorded.

Having said that, it would be impossible to write about The Sisters without due reference to Iggy, Bowie, Bolan, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, Hawkwind, Cockney Rebel et al, and Robb excels in drawing together these different threads and their essential role in the development of goth, with a particular focus on Bowie. He is also correct to stress the links (largely fuelled by Bowie obsession) between the synth-based New Romantic scene and the guitar-based post-punk bands whose music was played back-to-back in the alternative clubs of the early 80’s, mirroring the current scene’s darkwave/coldwave divide.

With the very lengthy pre-History over, Robb finally arrives in the late 1970’s and after a chapter on the North/South divide based on contrasting analysis of The Batcave in London (where all the bands knew each other, as had been the case in punk) and The Phono in Leeds (in the northern region where bands like The Sisters, The Danse Society – largely overlooked here, New Model Army and Joy Division all developed independently of each other), we eventually arrive at the chapter entitles "First, Last and Always" on The Sisters of Mercy and the Leeds “scene”, such as it was.

Most of the chapters on the main players of the 1980’s scene (The Damned, Bauhaus, the Banshees et al) are enlightened by Robb’s own interviews with band members, some previously unseen, and so it is with TSOM. As well as some familiar quotes from Eldritch, there are extensive quotes in the twenty-six page chapter from a new interview with Gary Marx, who is as laconic, pithy, incisive and generous as ever, and these alone are worth the price of admission for the Sisters obsessive (sample quotes “Floorshow remains the peak of Mk 1 Sisters for me”; on why he called a halt to the FALAA sessions: "He was my friend, and he was ill"; and on a fourth member upsetting the band equilibrium: "it mattered not whether it was Ben or Wayne, really."). Robb successfully conveys the main reasons for the band’s enduring appeal, based on both image and music, and as with other artists his own enthusiastic admiration for the band is as clear as it is contained and proportionate.

Of other bands linked to The Sisters, The Gun Club and Suicide get similarly effective summaries, whilst anyone whose knowledge of some of the more fringe media-ignored players on the alternative scene is scanty, for example DAF, Coil, Throbbing Gristle and Laibach, will certainly find the book highly educational, and this wider context makes it easier to see the central role which TSOM played as the “goth” tag began to stick by goth’s annus mirabilis, 1985.

Like the movement as a whole, the latter two-thirds of TSOM’s forty-plus year career is barely focussed upon in Robb’s treatise, and those attracted by the tome’s main title, The History of Goth, may be disappointed to learn that it is largely a pre-History of Goth with a few potted biographies enhanced by interview snippets, with only a brief, half-hearted examination of the last three decades which seems like a succession of lists with very little analysis, despite attempts to briefly cover Europe and the US in chapters which seem like add-ons.

Robb’s book is therefore like most goth music itself, imperfect (there are many typos in this first edition), sprawling and sometimes lacking in focus but at the same time it is undeniably an epic work from the mind of a creative genius. Like any list of the most important goth songs/albums/artists, by the very nature of a scene which didn’t coin its own name or rules, there will always be considerable disagreement about any book on this history of the scene’s terms of remit, and Robb’s take on this is arguably more valid than most, but had the book’s title been “A History and Pre-History of 1980’s Goth”, the book would have received the more unanimously positive reviews that Robb’s ambitious, informative and highly readable account merits.

John's excellent book, which helps to place The Sisters of Mercy within the wider rock pantheon, as Eldritch would demand, as well as cementing their reputation within the upper echelons of the gothic musical universe, can be obtained here.

Wednesday, 28 December 2022

No name across this land - the cancelled Temple of Love tour, Autumn 1983

 This new post on the blog is yet another in a series about cancelled gigs which never took place in The Sisters of Mercy’s early 80’s heyday. With their star very much in the ascendancy, The Sisters of Mercy set off in the late summer and early autumn of 1983 for their first dates in mainland Europe and the USA, gigs which we have covered in earlier posts on this blog, which were an opportunity for the band to tighten up their live sound before their first main headlining tour in the UK, which was to be in support of what was always going to be their biggest selling single to date, Temple of Love.

                    Picture by Paul S of the 1980-1985 TSOM Facebook fan group

With the test pressings completed as usual by the Mayking plant in France in August of 1983 for the release of both the 7” and 12” single versions of Temple of Love, the first time that a new single of theirs had simultaneously been released in the two prevailing formats of the day including of course the significantly extended mix on the 12" (this was the year of Blue Monday after all), the band seemed poised to make their major breakthrough on a national scale, but in the end, the single was released with very little fanfare, despite achieving impressive sales figures which made it their first number one hit in the UK Independent Chart.

That the accompanying tour was planned in some detail has been confirmed by this extract from a type-written letter from Andrew Eldritch to a fan back in the early summer, with the UK dates to straddle the two months of September (on the band’s US return) and October 1983, the tentative release date for Temple of Love. Incidentally, Eldritch has got his ex-Jam members mixed up, as it was drummer Rock Buckler's new band (Time U.K.) which The Sisters were on with in Sheffield, not Bruce Foxton's.

I personally have vivid recollections of seeing a TSOM gig advertised in a list of forthcoming attractions at the legendary Rock City venue in a local Nottingham newspaper during the summer of 1983, and of going to the club the next day only to be told that tickets for the show were not yet on sale. Before long, the gig was quietly dropped from the venue's schedule, and I have never subsequently been able to track down the precise date for the gig, tickets for which were priced at just £2.50, I recall.

The reason for the pulling of the proposed tour was, of course, the sudden departure of second guitarist Ben Gunn, who had become increasingly disillusioned with life in the band, as discussed by Eldritch in one of the New York interviews just three days before the tour was due to have started : "We've just cancelled a British tour that we were gonna go back and do, because we need to write some new songs and restructure the band a little. Ben's going, I don't know what we're gonna do about it, we could do almost anything!" After a brief dabble as a label Svengali, promoting his friends’ band Anabas, Ben Gunn withdrew from the back-biting world of the music industry and became in some ways the Syd Barrett of goth, enjoying to this day a normal existence of work and family life in his native South of England, away from the crazed world of goth fandom.

It was thought that one gig might have survived from the advertised UK trek. Allegedly taking place at Manchester’s Hacienda club, where the band had allegedly played a gig dressed fully in women’s clothing earlier in 1983 on the Gun Club tour (see above), although this may just be (we cannot but hope) NME humour and hyperbole extrapolating from Gary's choice of blouse that evening (and, as fellow Sisters fan Koen van T has reminded me, the tongue-in-cheek onstage apology made by Eldritch about the incident, the following night in Norwich).

This UK September survivor gig has long since been included in gigographies of the band, although there was and continues to be considerable scepticism about whether or not the gig went ahead, despite the existence of a poster advertising the gig alongside other future concerts at the legendary Manchester venue.

These doubts seem to have been largely removed, however, when Sisters fan Gary S looked into his archive and found a hand-written list (above) which he had penned, detailing gigs which he had attended in 1983/1984, with the September 22nd Hacienda not only clearly listed, but with a setlist attached –

Burn/Valentine/Anaconda/Heartland/Alice/Emma/Temple Of Love/Floorshow/Adrenochrome/Gimme Shelter/Body Electric

When he shared this on the unofficial TSOM 1980-1985 Facebook fan page, group administrator Phil Verne pointed out that this is the exact same track listing and in the same order as the New York Danceteria just a week before, the 15th September, a recording of which only appeared in the mid 1990’s. Whether this was a one off gig in the UK without Ben or whether it was his swan song, or whether it took place at all, has not yet been formally proven, however, and Mark Andrews’ outstanding recent biography of the band, Paint My Name In Black and Gold, is unequivocal about the fact that Gunn’s last gig was the second Danceteria show in New York, with only the three overseas dates (Stockholm, San Francisco and L.A.) being played at the end of the month, once the band had had the time to work out a temporary Plan B.

Apart from the Rock City gig for which I personally saw an advert, other dates on the cancelled tour have emerged through flyers which have been shared on other Facebook pages in recent years. The  most interesting are a pair of ads for the Tin Can Club based at Fantasy in Birmingham, where The Sisters would famously go on to play their first gig with Wayne Hussey on 7th April 1984. It appears that the Ben Gunn line-up had been booked to play at the same venue exactly six months earlier, listed as being on stage on Friday 7th October in the blurry blue image. Nearer the time, however, their place has been taken by Under Two Flags on the second (clearer) white flyer.

The other date, midway between the Hacienda and the Tin Can gigs was due to take place on Friday September 30th according to the announcement listed on the bottom of this flyer from the Gala club in Norwich, which, like the Hacienda, had been a successful stop on the Gun Club tour in the spring of 1983, another gig already covered on this blog.

Clearly, other dates would have been sketched in – a hometown Leeds date almost certainly, a return to Glasgow after the packed Night Moves gig in April of that year, and a London show at the very least – but no complete list has yet been assembled. Gary S’ hand-written notes do also refer to a “cancelled” gig at Bradford University, but as he pointed out, in his own short-hand this often meant that his own plans were cancelled, not the gig itself, and it may be a reference to the May 1984 show at that venue.

Almost certainly, the UK trek would have primarily visited places where the band had a decent following (Birmingham being the most obvious example outwith Yorkshire), and whilst gigs in Newcastle (with the Gun Club) and Sheffield had been successful (and these cities would doubtless also have received a return visit on this tour), dates in the south earlier in 1983 (such as Bournemouth and Swindon) had been far less well-attended, and as a result there may well have been a northern bias to the tour overall. All this remains speculation, with just Manchester, Birmingham and Norwich dates known (in addition to the cancelled Nottingham gig from my own memory), but it is hoped that as more flyers emerge from dusty attics and newspaper archives become digitised, other shows from the cancelled UK sojourn will ultimately emerge…

My thanks for help with this post are once again due to Gary S, Phil Verne, Paul S, Koen van T, LG and other members of the unofficial The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 fan group, where more information on this era is shared and discussed. New members and rare artefacts always welcome!

Friday, 15 July 2022

Sussex and drugs and rock'n'roll

 As The Sisters of Mercy began to spread their wings beyond the confines of West Yorkshire after the first John Peel session and with the recording of the breakthrough Alice/Floorshow single complete, over the 1982/1983 academic year they played mostly in the two English major cities (London and Birmingham), with Manchester also featuring prominently on the gigography, but shows further south were few and far between.

The gigs at Swindon and Bournemouth in the spring of 1983 were notoriously poorly attended, but the band did pay two relatively successful visits to the coastal county of Sussex during that time, the first show being in Brighton in early October of 1982 as part of the support tour with The Furs, who were promoting their own classic Forever Now album. This handful of dates (Leeds, Manchester, York and Leicester were also visited) was the first real “tour” which the band had undertaken, and as with other high profile support slots earlier in 1982 (for example, with the Clash at Newcastle City Hall or the ZigZag Club in London with The Birthday Party), gave the band the chance to play in front of the fans of already established acts on the alternative scene.

This was especially true of the Brighton gig, for reasons which only became apparent after a relatively recent post on a Brighton musical memories Facebook page. Indeed, until the posting there by David McL of this picture of a flyer for the gig:


little was known about the show, other than the name of the venue, Sherrys, styled here as Sherrys Lazer Discotheque, to highlight the venue’s recent investment in the then must-have latest dancefloor enhancement (effectively a green lazer light which could be focussed on a mirror ball and other light refracting devices to create shafts of light, a technique well-known to fans of the Sisters’ stage show over the years).

Sherry’s (to give the venue its original name) was a well-known Brighton dance hall which had opened at the end of the first World War, and was something of a rite of passage for young people in the bohemian Sussex resort. Andrew Eldritch would have been pleased to hear that it even gets a mention in English writer Graham Greene’s seminal work Brighton Rock (first published in 1938), and after being restyled as a disco in 1969 (after a twenty-year stint as a roller rink and amusement arcade) and seemingly losing its apostrophe in the process, by the early 1980’s it was hosting bands on a Monday evening as part of a regular Futurist night, featuring shows by some of the coolest acts on the scene such as Fad Gadget, Heaven 17 and, erm, * checks notes * Blue Rondo a la Turk.

The night of the Sisters/Furs gig was a memorable one for local fans of post-punk music in West Sussex with The Damned (promoting their Strawberries album with punk band Charge – featuring their memorably-monickered singer Stu P. Didiot - as support act) also playing that evening at the Top Rank club, just across West Street in Brighton from Sherry’s! The enterprising local promoters of the Sisters gig (Kelitech and Dave Steward) clearly decided to stagger their start time in order to attract Damned fans, according to those posting on the Brighton FB page in response to the flyer. David McL, the curator of the page and who posted the gig advert, commented “The Sisters of Mercy as support and it started straight after The Damned had played over the road at Top Rank, so I saw both gigs!” to which another fan (Doug G) replied “Indeed, two gigs in one night and memorable for me as the gig that got me hooked on the Sisters of Mercy and led to me following them about the country.” Any doubts about whether The Sisters played that night were dispelled by a third poster, Dean D, who stated “I went to this gig myself, definitely the Sisters supporting...great night!”. A fourth, later commenter (Robin T) confirmed these basic facts: “The Sherry’s gig was the same night as the Damned at the Top Rank, so we did the Damned first than all headed over the road to the Furs with the Sisters of Mercy as the support act.” When the flyer was later reposted, another group member commented “I was at this gig. I remember The Sisters of Mercy very well. The Furs arrived late and wanted to soundcheck, so we had to move away from the stage. Microphone and bass cut out during their set.”

Sadly little else has surfaced from the Sisters’ performance – no photos, or audio for example (although there is one picture of Richard Butler, the singer of the Furs, and even one of the DJ at the club that night!) – and the venue continued under a variety of names (from The Pink Coconut to its final incarnation as Hedkandi) until its demolition in 2021, as reported by local newspaper the Argus. The Sisters would go on to headline at the Top Rank themselves, both on the Black October and Tune In, Turn On, Burn Out tours in October 1984 and April 1985 (Gary Marx’s last gig) respectively.

The following year, The Sisters made a return to Sussex, being booked to play at The Crypt venue in Hastings in East Sussex, another well-loved local club which, I am pleased to report, is still going strong today, unlike the majority of the venues which the band visited nearly four decades ago. The gig is usually listed as having taken place on Wednesday 16th March, as this was the date that was read out by David “Kid” Jensen when playing the band’s BBC Radio One session (recently released on CD and vinyl), amongst the list of the band’s then-forthcoming shows.

Since then, despite extensive searches, and appeals on a Hastings music forum and on Phil Verne’s seminal The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook fan page, no further information about whether the gig had actually taken place had surfaced, except for a photo of some graffiti in the band room at The Crypt, which read “The Sisters of Mercy played here ‘83”, under which some wag had added “+ ‘69” a reference to the Stooges cover.

Last year, however, a flyer advertising gigs in March 1983 at Rumours club (as The Crypt was temporarily renamed in the early 1980’s) was posted on a Hastings music memories Facebook page, with not only a different date but also featuring the name of the support band, The Dicemen. The new date, Friday 18th March, seemed most likely to be more accurate than the previously circulated one, as the venue’s other gigs also took place at weekends, and The Sisters tended to play most of their own shows at that time on a Friday or Saturday night.

Under the FB post containing the flyer were a series of comments, with Myles D stating “I was at The Sisters of Mercy gig” and James J saying that “the 18th was a great night.” Even better, Richard J B commented, “That was a highlight, supporting The Sisters of Mercy. My favourite band at the time!”, clearly implying that he was a member of the support band, The Dicemen. A quick google confirmed that there was indeed a member of the band with that name, so I contacted him directly and asked him if he had any memories to share with this blog.

I was delighted when he confirmed that he had indeed been in The Dicemen and would be happy to talk about The Sisters gig at Rumours, which he remembered very well, despite it taking place over 39 years ago! After confirming the date as the 18th March 1983 by double-checking in a contemporary diary – but “the poster wouldn’t have been wrong” – Richard informed me that not only did he perform at the gig, but that he was also involved in the decision-making process which resulted in The Sisters being engaged to play the venue in the first place: “I remember the booking of the gig. We had already seen the Sisters in London, at the Klub Foot I think, and I had Alice on 7”. They were my favourite band of the moment. [My band] The Dicemen had a support residency at The Crypt and, as we were so young, the guy who booked the bands used to ask our opinion on who he should get. When he asked us whether he should get a band I don’t remember or The Sisters of Mercy, we jumped for joy!” Asked about what he remembered about the actual gig, again Richard’s memory was clear: “I remember the Sisters as being tired, as they had just travelled all the way from Leeds, having played a gig the night before I think.” According to the band’s gigography, there was no gig in Yorkshire the night before (and I would have been there if there had been one!), although for a while it was thought that they were a late addition to the Sex Gang Children/Play Dead bill at the Brixton Ace on Friday 17th March, because of a recording (later proven to be of a different gig) which circulated amongst collectors with that date and venue attribution. A mystery to resolve another day …

In terms of the actual show, Richard added “The Sisters played a great gig, and it was a highlight of my career to grace the same stage!”. Wondering about the size of the crowd, given the famously low attendances at Swindon and Bournemouth, I asked Richard if he could remember how well-attended the show was. “I think that there were more people than usual that night, but there was a low threshold for The Crypt those days!” he told me.

In addition to those enticed to the show by the presence of the Sisters and their growing fame, The Dicemen were a local attraction in their own right, and as well as featuring on a website about musical memories in that part of Sussex, also have their own page on Discogs, courtesy of their only release, the Shadows EP which was also released in 1983. Did they come close to making it big, I wondered? “The Shadows EP got us a distribution deal with Rough Trade and some radio plays in the South-East,” Richard told me, “but in those days it was hard to tell...” Along with fellow Diceman Nick B, Richard went on to form a second band, Play for Today, some of whose music he has uploaded to YouTube in the recent past. With The Cure also hailing from the county of Sussex, I surmised that Richard must have also been a fan of Robert Smith’s ensemble (whose song Play For Today featured on the first of their gothic trio of albums, Seventeen Seconds). “Yes, I am very much a fan of The Cure, the darker side anyway!” he told me, before filling me in on his projects since then. “I'm still involved in music using computers, but the last proper band I was in was Mood For Tuesday around 1986.” The latter band had a track featured on a 1987 compilation of indie bands, copies of which now sell for over £30 on Discogs.

As with the Brighton gig, no audio or video evidence exists of the Sisters’ performance in the historic town of Hastings (non-UK readers may not be aware that the decisive battle of the Norman invasion of England occurred just outside the town in the year 1066 and remains its main claim to fame), but the recent discovery of not only flyers for both shows, but more crucially, the detailed memories of those who attended the gigs, means that both concerts can now be confirmed in the band’s official gigography, albeit with an amended date for the Hastings show.

My thanks for this post are due to all those who have contributed their memories to local Facebook sites chronicling the concert history of their areas, and in particular to David McL for posting the artefact from the Furs gig, and especially to Richard J B for his contributions regarding the Hastings gig. Anyone with an interest in Sisters’ gigs and history of that era is warmly invited to join the twelve thousand members of The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 unofficial Facebook fan page.


Saturday, 25 June 2022

TSOM at the Free Concert, The University of Sheffield, Saturday 25th June 1983

 (This is a second post about this particular gig, to be read in conjunction with what was one of the very earliest posts on this blog in its embryonic phase)

My favourite Sisters show of the 81-85 era took place on the last Saturday of June 1983, at the very end of the university year, and the finale to my own first year of living away from home whilst a “fresher” at the University of Leeds, three terms gradually but increasingly illuminated by the music of local bands The Sisters of Mercy, The March Violets and The Three Johns, who were all starting to make waves on the national alternative music scene. Many students had already left Leeds to return to the welcoming arms of (the bank of) Mum and Dad by the time exam results were published in mid-June, but I’d managed to eke out my grant with a few meagre savings and was able to continue to enjoy  the student lifestyle with my new-found friends to the bitter end (of the accommodation contract), the lecture-free weeks punctuated still with regular trips to the Phono.

With funds running low, you can imagine our delight when lurid lime green posters began to appear in studentsville (aka the Headingly/Woodhouse/Hyde Park districts of Leeds) advertising an appearance of The Sisters of Mercy just down the road in Sheffield, at a free end of term gig at the rival redbrick university there. Having already embraced the Yorkshire dictum of never refusing “owt for nowt”, the chance to see the Sisters again was too good to miss, so we quickly made plans to attend, working out the cheapest way to travel and organising someone’s house to crash at. Although I’d already seen the band five times that academic year, TSOM hadn’t played in Leeds since the Gun Club joint tour in April and would not do so again until the following May, so this turned out to be a wise decision.

The poster, a copy of which is now (in all places) in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (which hosts the national design archive), made it clear that there would be “no entry restrictions, all welcome, no union cards needed”, so with the new band of a founder member of The Jam (my first musical love half a dozen years earlier), Rick Buckler’s The Time (U.K) also on the bill, we decided to make sure that we were there by the 7 p.m. “doors open” time to ensure we didn’t have a wasted journey.

Indeed, by the time we arrived, the queue already snaked all the way from the main door to the university’s Students Union, over the broad footbridge which led to it and onto the pavement alongside the road which ran past it. Looking around, there were a lot of familiar faces, and it seemed as if half of Leeds had decided to head down the M1 for the gig, with very few “neutrals” or obvious fans of soul diva Ruby Turner, new romantic great white hope Matt Fretton or mod revivalist Rick Buckler on what was a typically eclectic bill for that time.

For geographical context, on the attached pic from Google Maps 3D, the Union is the building bottom right, with the Octagon Centre, where the band would play on future tours to the left. The Octagon was, if memory serves, still being constructed at the time of the June 1983 gig. The handsome red-brick Edwardian buildings higher up the hill on the other side of A57 (the main and very picturesque route from Sheffield to Manchester, passing Ladybower reservoir and the infamous Snake Pass over the Pennines) by Weston Park are original university building Friary Court and its neighbouring Rotunda, once the university library and clearly the source of architectural inspiration for the Octagon.

After about half an hour’s wait, presumably whilst the final band loaded in and soundchecked, the crowd was finally allowed into the venue, which was the downstairs refectory. Once inside the main doors, it still took an age to get down to the venue, but it soon became clear that the blockage was due to one Mr A Eldritch, who was chatting to his then-girlfriend Claire Shearsby and a few others from the God Squad inner circle halfway up the stairs, with people either stopping to gawp or engage with the diminutive singer as they made their way down.

Eventually we made it into the hall, hoping that TSOM would be on first, but to our disappointment the compere first introduced Matt Fretton (cover star of that week’s edition of Smash Hits). He wailed and nervously posed his way through his then minor synthpop hit It’s So High over a backing tape (featuring an Oberheim DMX of all things) to a mixture of jeers and indifference. How he must have wished that night, during his mercifully brief set, that he had stayed true to his punk rock roots, rather than becoming the latest major label clothes horse. After his very short-lived pop career, Fretton later had a successful career as a classical music agent, but tragically he passed away in 2013.

                               Pic of Andrew Eldritch onstage, Sheffield University June 1983 by NVL

Back in Sheffield, with the growing crowd becoming ever more impatient by the minute, The Sisters came on next, to the then-traditional set-opener Kiss The Carpet, that on-stage opportunity to complete the pre-set tuning up (which always needed repeating between virtually every song, such was the punishment Marx inflicted on his guitar), with Eldritch musing “Back in the smelly city…” at the end, as this was just two months since their show at the city’s Dingwalls in the city known around the world at that time for its pungent metalworks. With bright sunshine streaming in through the gaps in the already inadequate garish curtains, it was a strange mixture of lighting compared to the usual near darkness, but neither band nor followers seemed to care.

If you’ve heard the recording of the show – and thanks to one of my fellow moderators on The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook fanpage, you can find the entire gig song-by-song on YouTube, you’ll know that Eldritch was in fine form that night, not just vocally but in terms of the inter-song banter, none more so than when Doktor Avalanche lost the plot at the start of Emma (with a sheepish Ben Gunn banished to the back of the stage to sort the problem).

The whole atmospheric was euphoric, a celebration of a band who “knew what they were fighting for” with their “God Squad” followers, an air of invincibility and a certainty that here was a band that would make it big. There was an air of camaraderie and of friendly banter which those who still go to see The Mission these days report, but with the crucial difference that we knew that this band was at the cutting edge, the very epitome of cool and almost certainly the next big thing, all on its own terms. Eldritch really was in imperious form, the band were now technically suitably proficient (with the notable exception of the good Doktor!) but still looked like they were enjoying themselves, and the venues were still small enough for the band and audience to feel that essential electricity between them. I managed to sneak a couple of photos for posterity when down at the front, one of which is also attached to this post, before the set ended all too soon, apparently with an electrifying Body Electric (but I had to look that up, so there could have been a further encore).

As soon as the band had finished, the black-clad masses headed for the exit, leading to the desperate compere’s futile attempts to coax us back with promises of “the legendary Ruby Turner”. I’m sure that she was excellent entertainment (and I feel a bit guilty that the four hundred strong crowd the compere was no doubt excitedly promising to the artists backstage had dwindled in a matter of minutes to a mere handful of locals), and I would imagine that The Time (UK) were also not bad but rather dull (as they were on record), but like many others we headed down the road to the Leadmill club instead for what was an excellent night, until we unwisely stayed on the dancefloor for what turned out to be a “winner takes all” Sisters fans versus bare-chested (although my memory might be exaggerating somewhat here!) flat-topped locals slamfest which suddenly erupted in the chorus of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”. We quickly decided on self-preservation and therefore the latter of the options suggested by Mr Jones, but we still ended up getting chased half-way back to the house of the local who’d offered us floorspace for the night. A strange end to a great night!

Flyer for The Sisters of Mercy's May 1984 show at the Octagon, University of Sheffield.

 A recently rediscovered flyer for TSOM's next visit to Sheffield the following May attests to the success of the June 1983 show, stating "Those of you who saw them in the Lower Refectory last year will already have bought tickets. Not only did they delight their hardcore fans but they also made many more friends with their classic Alice and Temple of Love. Look out for their version of Dolly Parton's Jolene." Of course, The Sisters hadn't in fact played Temple of Love live in 1983 (indeed, it wasn't played at any UK shows in the 1980's), and Jolene had been retired from the setlist almost immediately after the Lower Refectory show, but this hand-written tribute (clearly to drum up further sales for the Octagon visit) captures perfectly the impact of that memorable night.

Thanks as ever to Phil Verne, Ade M,  LG and other archivists, collectors and members of the unofficial 1980-1985 TSOM fan page for their contributions to this post.




Sunday, 15 May 2022

Rare radio interview with Andrew Eldritch from March 1985

 To celebrate Andrew Eldritch 63rd birthday today, the blog is publishing the summary of an extremely rare radio interview conducted during the March 1985 UK tour.

Discovering an interview with The Sisters of Mercy from the 1981-1985 era which you’ve never come across before is always a real treat, and even more so if it’s an audio recording, where you get to hear Andrew Eldritch's words uncensored and unedited by a journalist looking for an “angle” on The Sisters’ story, which was so often the case “back in t’day”. In most audio interviews Eldritch, contrary to the ridiculous taciturn-yet-rude “Godfather of Goth” stereotype, invariably comes across as extremely patient, tolerating the most ridiculous of questions and slowly and carefully reciting his well-rehearsed masterplan for sometimes barely-interested interviewers, although on rare occasions his legendarily sharp tongue does get the better of him and the journalist is put in his/her place with a piece of withering sarcasm.

When Phil Verne of the unofficial 1980-1985 The Sisters of Mercy Facebook fan page (a private group whose membership is now well into five figures - genuine new members always welcome!) told me that he had been given temporary streaming access to a digital copy of a rare cassette marked “Leicester interview 1985” to listen to and authenticate, I offered to transcribe the interview, particularly as Phil had told me that the quality of the recording was not great and that as a non-native speaker of English there would be sections and subtleties that would be difficult for him to decipher. The owner (the collector LG) generously agreed that the contents of the interview could be shared via this blog as a gift to TSOM fans, in order to add to the archive of contemporary interviews about the band.

This somewhat fuzzy partial recording of what sounds like a radio interview for a BBC/independent local radio station (BBC Radio Leicester? Mercury?) starts in the middle of a sentence with Eldritch clearly talking about the city of Ely, his place of birth back in May 1959.  Although under 60 miles as the crow flies from Leicester, the apparent locus of the broadcast, Ely is in the neighbouring region, East Anglia, and therefore not particularly within the daily consciousness of a Leicester resident, but clearly conversation had strayed onto this topic. “Most people get to see where they were born,” intones Von, pausing for dramatic effect. “But not me.  I was only there for a week!” the singer comments, in a rare reference to his early life pre-Sisters as mere Andrew Taylor, whose family was nomadic as a result of his father's career.

As tracks from the then recently released First and Last and Always album continue to play in the background (a well-known radio trick for eking out a short interview into a longer segment whilst simultaneously allowing listeners to experience the music under discussion – in this case a longer interview had clearly been edited out-of-sequence with short bursts played between tracks from FALAA) the next interview snippet covers life on the road, with the interviewer asking, “Having been on the road for a bit, do you feel..?” only to be interrupted by a clearly relaxed Eldritch, who in a jocularly overdramatic tone replies “I feel stateless.” Joining in the badinage, the journalist suggests other words with the same suffix. “Stateless? Homeless? Witless?” Cackling, the vocalist’s retort is “Talentless!”, a summary which even his harshest critic (the NME’s Paul Morley) would have disagreed with.

It’s unusual to find the singer in such openly good-humoured and self-deprecating form in an interview, and he clearly feels that he is on the same wavelength humour-wise as the interviewer. The discussion has obviously now moved on to the band’s fanbase, and from the next extract it sounds as if the DJ has passed comment on the people who had attended the then recent (and now infamous) Blackburn gig. Given that the Leicester gig on that March 1985 tour took place the following week, it’s perfectly plausible that the journalist had travelled to East Lancashire from the East Midlands to witness the Blackburn gig and conduct the interview, to be broadcast shortly before the gig at Leicester’s Mr Kiesa’s club, to drum up interest in the latter show.

Photo of the Leicester Haymarket shopping centre from the late 1980's showing Mr Kiesa's "International Discotheque and Night Club" on the first floor behind the bus.

“(There’s) weird hippies in Dusseldorf, you know, and there’s sort of crazed [“fans”] in Japan some place, and there’s a few strange people everywhere that get off on it and they’re not all like the people you’ll see turning up in Blackburn. That’s just a part of it.” The interviewer immediately picks up on this point, asking somewhat philosophically “Do you think that the people turning up in Blackburn are particularly strange, because inevitably however strange they may look inevitably they’re all very ordinary…?” Again, Eldritch talks over the end of the question: “Everyone’s very ordinary, people generally just get marked out by the way they dress which doesn’t mean very much at all. It’s not the fault of the [“fan”] in Japan or the weirdo rocker in Dusseldorf that that he looks the way he does. Although I dare say it involves a fair degree of training! We just go out and play songs with good tunes, loud and somewhat violently and we leave it up to everybody else to form tribes or wash dishes or whatever the hell people do out there when they listen to our records.”

This is typical of Eldritch’s rejection of the black-clad hordes at that time, and he always liked to stress the broad range of the band’s appeal. Incidentally, I have substituted the word “fan” to describe the archetypal Japanese aficionado the singer refers to here, although he appears to use a word which would nowadays be considered to be an unacceptable racial slur. However, the audio quality of the tape is not perfect and I may be doing Von a disservice as he may in fact have used a different word. For those with more fevered imaginations, as far as I am aware “wash dishes” is meant literally and not a euphemism for one of the more rock’n’roll activities which Eldritch and in particular the other members of the band of this era were normally associated with. In fact, Eldritch referred to this fantasy of being a “housewife’s favourite” several times in interviews of that period.

Following Eldritch’s claim that the Sisters play “loud and somewhat violently”, the discussion then turns to The Sisters of Mercy’s contemporary WEA labelmates, East Kilbride’s finest, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and again Eldritch’s playful mood is very much to the fore. When the interviewer asks him, “Do you think that violence is returning to rock music, with The Jesus and Mary Chain, and you talk about your band..?” Eldritch is yet again not in the mood to allow him to finish his question. “It’s not returning because of four pre-pubescent Scottish wimps who are probably trying to prove something, God knows what, probably something everyone proved ten years ago,” the singer says, scathingly. “No! Not that we’ve got anything at all against The Jesus and Mary Chain, God bless their little cotton socks,” he quickly adds in a faux-chummy tone before whispering close into the mic what appears to be “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you”!

Sticking to his original theme, the DJ asks Eldritch “Do you think that you have an overtly violent..?” only to have the singer again start speaking over him, this time in a fake angry voice, “Isn’t it strange that you can really learn to hate some people really quick,” before adding, sotto voce, “but of course, nothing to do with The Jesus and Mary Chain,” continuing in a mock angry tone “I really want to kill them bad!”. Rather than steer clear of the topic, the interviewer gamely sticks to his guns, again mentioning The Jesus and Mary Chain. “Fine boys!” interrupts Eldritch, continuing the banter, “Always said so, fine boys!”. “But going downhill very fast,” counters the journalist, before adding either ironically or sycophantically, “unlike The Sisters of Mercy who are on the way up, and up and up”. Suddenly, Von is back in regular interview mode and spitting out the soundbites most fans of the band will have heard many times before. “Everyone gets their fifteen minutes (of fame), we just decided to play the game by a different version of the rules and try to get rather more.”

After another short musical interlude, the interviewer questions the singer’s typically grand plans and self-important sense of place in the rock pantheon: “Do you think that you have to do everything on a grand scale? Do you think that you deserve it?”. Without pausing for thought, Eldritch retorts “That’s just our taste, we were brought up that way,” a familiar theme which he will return to later in the interview.

Those (especially Andy R!) whose interest in TSOM began more with the band’s image than with the music will be delighted with the rather more prosaic next line of questioning, with the broadcaster asking the singer a more Smash Hits-style query, “Where do you get your taste in hats from?” There is an ominously long silence from Eldritch, one which those who interviewed him at the time always found very disconcerting. Presumably, this was when he was asked a question for which he hadn't pre-rehearsed an answer, rather than saying something off-the-cuff which might come back to bite him. Eventually, he retorts: “Stealing, mostly. I mean, there’s some Leeds phrase which runs something like, ‘Thieves can’t be choosers’ [the last phrase said in a very poor approximation of a Craig Adams-style Leeds accent]. We’re not very good at stealing from, like, really flash places and you make do with what you can get. This one was stolen from Birmingham, this one…” (presumably on the Black October tour the previous year).

Returning to a more intellectual line of questioning more likely to engage Eldritch in lively debate, the journalist asks “Where did you get this love of ritual from, is it too much religion at an early age?”. Eldritch returns to the theme that none of this was his choice, that it was in his DNA: “It’s part of the English subconscious, it’s like people going out of a weekend and parking on a common, it’s amazing that they’ll park in regimented rows, in the middle of nowhere they’ll do it. Can’t help it, an accident of birth, heritage...”

At this stage, the interviewer cleverly picks up on Eldritch’s last word to delve even deeper, sounding like Anthony Clare on famed BBC Radio Four programme In The Psychiatrist’s Chair: “Tell me about your heritage. Do you class yourself in the mould of the greats of English literature, Byron, Keats, Shelley..?”. This line of questioning is right up Eldritch’s street and he continues the list with a few of his sporting heroes: “Grace, Boycott…Don Revie. Yes, is the answer, simply. Not too grandiose for you? Thought not, Yeats, Eliot, Shakespeare, Joyce, Eldritch. It sort of fits, doesn’t it?” Is the singer being tongue-in-cheek here, or does he genuinely believe that his lyrics are worthy of such comparisons. Either way, Yeats, Eliot, Shakespeare, Joyce, Eldritch would make a great t-shirt slogan in the style of the recent copyright-side-stepping band member list vests (I for one would certainly buy one - Etsy rip-off merchants please note), or perhaps the title of the next TSOM album...

However, on this occasion the singer has seemingly met his intellectual match, with the DJ drolly replying (quoting a well-known English saying), “If the hat fits, wear it!” For once, Eldritch is out-bantered, his own instant reply “If your head’s not too swollen today, if you don’t have those funny growths coming out of the side..” falling somewhat short (even if it does interestingly hint that he would not permanently sport a titfer out of choice, an issue covered at length in recent books about the band, or perhaps a reference to the singer’s occasional cuts and bruises allegedly caused by jealous boyfriends…), especially as the interviewer is able to extend the analogy with his next question, “Do you think you may have stolen the crown off them, I mean, ..” Eldritch angrily interrupts, warming to a familiar theme, his dislike of the music weekly, the NME: “What have they got to compete with at the moment. Steven Wells? [a journalist] It doesn’t bear thinking about. It might as well be us, really.”

The radio interviewer sees this as his chance to dare to ask the one question on everyone’s lips at the time: “Do you mind being classed as a gothic rock band, because if you think of who the gothic writers were, I mean it’s good, isn’t it?” the latter phrase faltering somewhat, as if the journalist feared a vituperative response. Eldritch is now back on familiar territory: “Yes. Unfortunately, David Quantick [whose review of FALAA which mentioned Joy Division no fewer than five times had just been published] and the NME have got an awful lot to answer for. I hate the whole bastard ‘positive punk’ genre. I think the whole band does. As soon as we realised that we were lumbered with it, it’s a coincidence of time, when we were playing London at the same time as those bands did [this is probably a reference to the shows around Christmas 1982 in the UK capital when the band played gigs with UK Decay, Theatre of Hate, Sex Gang Children, Alien Sex Fiend and less well-known scene bands within the space of one week]. As soon as we realised that we were lumbered with it, we started playing at being really severe hippies to see what that would do to the media, but they don’t seem to have actually picked up on it, they don’t look at our records they don’t look at our shows enough anymore to see beyond their original impression which we definitely… .. don’t understand it, “quick, find a bracket” for us, “find a pigeonhole”.”

Having clearly not fully understood the “playing at being severe hippies” comment, the DJ refers to how the band had reacted to being lumped in with the black-clad gothic artists: “Is it fair then to say that perhaps the longer hair and the pink shirts is a conscious move?” Eldritch agrees, saying “Yeah, we always had ‘em, we didn’t use to look for them quite so hard!”.  Continuing the theme of the band’s current attire, the journalist wonders whether TSOM are looking further back in time for influences: “Do you see yourselves as a kind of return to the Doors kind of mystical aspect of rock, very ..” Yet again, the singer interrupts his question: “Yes, yes. We don’t go full-scale return to the Altamont, Woodstock era, hippy trash, which isn’t really very mysterious or very intellectual or even good at all. [this is a clear contradiction of other Eldritch statements about that era].  Not …even …good…We just don’t really pay much attention to our contemporaries. They’re very puerile, they’re very facile, they don’t excite us on any particular level, we find that in the older music there’s a good portrayal of some more levels, something that’s completely bozo, something ridiculously intellectual.”

The recording of the interview extracts end with a humorous exchange of further Eldritchian mock outrage about that NME review of the debut album, with the interviewer pretending to be very coy at bringing the topic up:

Interviewer:       “People often say that there’s a tendency..”

AE:                       “But well of course we’d kill them for saying it, wouldn’t we? But be careful, you bastard!”

Interviewer:       “But that there is quite, perhaps just a little, a tiny little bit, you probably wouldn’t notice it…”

AE:                       “Careful. Be nice.”

Interviewer:       “You wouldn’t notice…perhaps something that separates you from others, that you follow the better aspects of, perhaps some..”

AE:                       “He’s putting his guard up...getting his armoured clothing on…”

Interviewer:       “…some of the..”

AE:                       “…the boys have just come in with a baseball bat…”

Interviewer:       “.. just …”

AE:                       “…it’s looking bad…”

Interviewer:       “a little bit…”

AE:                       (imitating the public school teachers he had clearly endured as a teenager) “Spit it out, boy!”

Interviewer:       “…an insignificant little bit… … of Joy Division!!”

AE:                       “AAARRRGGGHHH!!!”

That would have been a perfect end to what has been an enjoyable interview for DJ, musician and listener alike, but instead there’s a further short extract that may have taken place earlier in the interview after one of the previous snippets (“older music”?), with Eldritch saying, seemingly a propos de rien: “We’re talking well early here, we’re talking Tyrannosaurus Rex”. “What’s going to happen next, do you think…?” asks the interviewer, leaving Eldritch with the final word: “We’ll probably hit you.  Do you mean after that? We’ll probably hit everybody else…”

 My thanks for this post are due to the indefatigable Phil V and to the collector LG, both of whom have been instrumental in keeping interest in the classic era of TSOM alive over the past thirty years.