Forty years ago today, 16th February 1981, The Sisters of Mercy famously played their first ever gig, supporting The Thompson Twins at a CND benefit concert held at Alcuin College at The University of York, an event previously covered on this blog after the discovery just a few years ago of a contemporary review of this debut live appearance [this new post is intended as a companion piece to the previous one, containing additional background information, some of which has come to light since the original piece was posted here].
One of the most curious features of the first show is the city in which it took place, as most bands’ debut gig would tend to take place in their hometown. However, although The Sisters were very much a Leeds-based ensemble throughout the early 1980’s, the city of York plays a disproportionate part in the band’s early history for reasons which have never really been fully explained.
Eboracum, the Romans called it. To the Vikings it was Jorvik. York had traditionally been the British Isles’ second city, and to this day the Archbishop of York is second only to his Canterbury counterpart in the hierarchy of England’s long-established religious organisation, The Church of England. However, the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the need for fast-flowing rivers closer to the hills to power factory machinery resulted in the rapid development of cities like Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield, leaving the sleepy county town of Yorkshire dwarfed by its upstart neighbours.
Although it is situated only around 25 miles (40 km) from Leeds, few young Leodensians would normally venture out to York, as its shops, pubs and clubs were generally seen as much less lively or impressive than those in the larger cities, but Andrew Eldritch seems to have been irresistibly drawn to the town best known at that time for its chocolate factories (York is famously the home of the KitKat!) and as a railway hub as well as being a tourist trap for elderly visitors to its’ city walls, quaintly-named cobbled streets (“The Shambles”, “Whip ma’ Whop ma’ Gate” etc), celebrated tea rooms and lofty cathedral (York Minster).
Indeed, the earliest known individual photo of Eldritch (or rather Andy Taylor as he was still known in those days) was taken in the late 1970’s in York, more specifically at Priestley’s t-shirt shop, and as well as being in the earlier blog post on this topic, the picture in question was more recently also shared on the 1980-1985 The Sisters of Mercy unofficial Facebook fan group by Paul I, who explained that he had worked in the shop in 1978/1979. He remembered “Spiggy coming over from Leeds and hanging out in our shop with another guy called Tom. They wore biker leathers and boots. I think he dyed his hair black soon after!”
Ireson added in the Facebook group chat that at the shop they printed t-shirts, which they sold via small ads in the Melody Maker and on tours following bands (“SLF, Undertones”) another important detail when considering the Sisters’ early development. Eldritch is on record stating that they had made t-shirts before even making a record, and 80-85 FB group admin Phil Verne shared a copy of a Priestley’s catalogue from early 1981 which features the familiar head and star logo t-shirt amongst then far more established artists.
Those who have heard the band’s debut single will readily understand that the image of The Sisters of Mercy was far stronger than their music at this stage, and the logo with its distinctive Caslon antique lettering was of course to become an iconic symbol of the gothic fraternity, much copied by other artists. With the t-shirt already spreading the band’s name and minor local fame, obtaining gigs in the York area would have become easier, especially given the local movers and shakers who would have moved through Priestley’s and its near neighbour, Red Rhino Records, which was also the local distribution base for Yorkshire independent music, such as the then-recent “The Damage Done” debut seven-inch release.
Alcuin College, the venue for the first gig, was a particularly appropriate venue, given the band’s reliance on image, as it was named after an eighth-century (!) scholar from York who had great influence with the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, and who was credited with standardising the “Carolingian Minuscule” font that was all the rage in priestly (no pun intended) circles at the time and was the precursor of the “blackletter” style which would become the dominant script of the next few centuries, often referred to informally nowadays as… “gothic script.”
Commenting about the blog piece on The Sisters of Mercy 1980 – 1985 Facebook fan group, former York resident, Chris S, explained that the original concert venue, the Alcuin College dining hall, could no longer be seen because of the rebuilding works which necessitated the 2001 20th anniversary show taking place in the venue of the band’s other early York gigs, the rival Vanbrugh College, and posted this picture of the original venue, stating “This is the only picture which I could find of the old Alcuin buildings. The dining room where the Sisters played in Feb 1981 is the first floor building on the left behind the tree with the big windows, the college bar is underneath. This [photo] is looking at Alcuin from Langwith College. I think that the bridge over the road has also gone now.”
By all accounts, that gig on the 16th Feb 1981 was nothing to write home about, and the contemporary review featured in the previous blog post about this gig certainly damns the band with faint praise, a view echoed by those who were there. John L said “We only went as Peach [Gary Marx] had told us they were playing. To be honest, I’m not sure what we made of them. They got better!” His view was backed up by well-known TSOM fan Simon C who added “I know people who were present at that first gig as I have lived in York for 24 years and have gotten to know a few alternative types who are a few years older than me. By all accounts, the band at this time were sh*t. They’ve since admitted that the band were brilliant when they played in York again a year and a half later. Apparently they’d upped their game considerably by then.”
Gary Marx himself confessed that the band were far from the finished article in an interview included in Jane Hector-Jones’ riveting piece on post-punk Leeds for Louder Than War as recently as last November: “Andy used to work over in York at a firm called Priestley’s that did T shirt printing. He would go over, go to Red Rhino records and meet some people in there. We had next to nothing in terms of gear. Craig had borrowed a bass. Most of us didn’t seem to own anything at all. Craig’s clothing was like, a donkey jacket, really ill-fitting clothes, like he had put on someone else’s school uniform. For the gig, he borrowed a leather jacket with UK Subs on the back, and Kim who went on to be in the Pink Peg Slax had done his hair into a rockabilly quiff. I was still a skinhead, and I had got a grey Trutex skirt. I wanted to be like the Fall, anti-rock. But I was a spotty kid with a Trutex shirt. Andy was in a version of what he ever was, looking like Lenny Kaye or Joey Ramone. If you’re going to be in a band you may as well make a connection between what you all look like, but we just hadn’t got there.”
One person who could have given an impartial account of the band at that first gig was the one London music journalist who happened to be present, Robbi Millar, the Sounds hack who by coincidence had been the only singles reviewer of the four main music weeklies to give some column inches to The Sisters’ debut 7” just a couple of months earlier, justifiably slating “The Damage Done”. By pure chance, Millar (presumably the only national music journalist to have heard of The Sisters of Mercy at this point) had been sent along to accompany The Thompson Twins on a few dates to gauge the success of the “No Nukes” tour, and she included a brief account of the Twins’ York set in her published piece. However, no mention was made of the support bands, so it may have been that she didn’t see The Sisters’ set, but either way she missed out on another notable scoop.
If The Sisters ultimately upped their game and went on to greater success, the same can certainly be said of The Thompson Twins, although both bands had to slim down considerably in number and move away from their more radical roots (this was a CND “No Nukes” benefit tour, after all) in order to make the Top 40 charts. Those intrigued by how The Thompson Twins sounded back in February 1981 can listen to this BBC session recorded in London just four days before the gig, with their then-new six-piece line-up. It was broadcast on the Richard Skinner Show on Radio 1, the 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. slot which was the “alternative music” bridge between the mainstream pop fluff broadcast during the day and the hardcore eclecticism of the John Peel Show (10 p.m. to midnight). Skinner succeeded Mike Read and preceded David “Kid” Jensen as the anchor for this key “homework” slot, and arguably had a more genuine ear for emerging talent than either of his fellow DJs. To get even more of an impression of The Thompson Twins' on-stage experience at that time, Phil Verne pointed me in the direction of this live performance recorded just a few days before the Alcuin gig.
Incidentally, The Thompson Twins’ drummer at this time was Chris Bell, who himself became something of a goth legend, playing on Spear of Destiny’s seminal Grapes of Wrath LP and Gene Loves Jezebel’s The House of Dolls album alongside a shift in Batcave regulars Specimen. Also in The Thompson Twins at that time was original saxophonist Jane Shorter (later replaced by Alannah Currie), who went on to work with Orchestra Jazira alongside the highly-respected Ben Mandelson, who in 1981 had had the unenviable task of replacing the legendary John McGeoch in the seminal post-punk band Magazine, featuring notably on the band’s final studio album Magic, Murder and The Weather LP.
The Thompson Twins’ tour itinerary did include a date in Leeds, which took place at the University in the Riley Smith Hall rather than (as advertised in music press tour ads) at the Poly, according to this contemporary review in Leeds Student, which notes that the Bradford band Cameras In Cars (who released one EP in 1980) were the support on that occasion. Cameras in Cars featured Martin Sadofski on vocals, who went on to be in the Passmore Sisters (some of whom in turn would join TSOM graphic artist David Ashmoore and ex-Salvation guitarist Choque Hosein in The Hollow Men), and guitarist Tim Beckham who later played in both AC Temple (on the Sourpuss album produced by none other than Mekon Jon Langford, who famously filled in for Craig Adams at another York university TSOM gig in early 1982) and the equally excellent local legends Dustdevils, showing just what an interconnected scene there was in West Yorkshire in the early 1980’s.
The Leeds Student review reckons that no more than 150 people attended the Thompson Twins show, a similar number therefore to the Monday night York gig, which was also competing forty years ago today with another interesting event flagged in this clipping from Leeds Student, a “performance” rather than a gig, put on by some of The Sisters’ then friends, the Music For The Masses society at Leeds University Union, who would promote one of the Sisters’ earliest Leeds gigs just a few months later, where they would link up with the very influential Howard Thompson (see the earlier blog post on this gig here) for the first time.
Teenage skinhead Mick Furbank’s show Lament From The Terraces was a bit of a cause celebre at the time, the two-room curated performance art combination of exhibition and one man show having courted controversy with the suggestion that (some) skinheads were closet homosexuals, repressing their true feelings and hiding behind a hard man image. In a city like Leeds, where the battles between anti-racist punks and NF-supporting skins at this time have been documented in several excellent recent articles (here and here for example), this was literally fighting talk, and this event might have been easier for some of the band’s wider entourage to attend then the trek to the far side of York to see the Sisters. February 1981 was in general a busy time on the gig circuit, and I myself saw original punks Siouxsie and the Banshees (supported by Comsat Angels), The Jam, and The Stranglers (supported by Modern Eon) that very same week, with the Some Bizzare tour also criss-crossing the country (with Monochrome Set and Fast Set playing Leeds Warehouse, also on 16th February 1981) and the 2002 revue (featuring a varied bill including Theatre of Hate, Fad Gadget and Classix Nouveaux) about to do likewise.
Forty years on, and because of the global pandemic there are no events planned to celebrate The Sisters of Mercy’s fortieth anniversary, unlike the previous three decades which saw elaborate (by the band’s plug-and-play standards) festivities. Eldritch had already indicated after 2016’s 35th anniversary tours that he had no intention of specifically acknowledging future anniversaries, a viewpoint which coronavirus has cemented into reality. Although no photo, audio (those tapes circulating claiming to be this first gig are wrongly labelled), video, poster or ticket have yet surfaced of that debut gig in February 1981 (although we live in hope…), fans around the world will today be privately celebrating the day that what was largely a grandiose project on paper took the first steps towards an all-encompassing reality.
My grateful thanks for their assistance with this post are due to Phil V, Chris S, John L, Paul I, Jane H-J, Rob C and LG. And many congratulations to Andrew Eldritch on surviving forty years in the music business.