(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.
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.