As discussed on previous posts on this blog (for example here and here), The City of York has long since had an association with The Sisters of Mercy. Although none of the band was from the ancient county town, or studied there, the city’s alternative scene was just as important to Andrew Taylor’s musical development as the Leeds F-Club scene was, with the young Bowie fan southerner finding a second home in Priestley’s, the t-shirt shop, as mentioned by contributors to Phil Verne’s TSOM 1980-1985 FB group who knew him back in the late 1970’s and as discussed in a previous piece on this blog.
As many bands were to discover at the other end of the
1980’s (Inspiral Carpets, Carter USM etc), there was more money to be made for
bands in selling t-shirts than in selling records, where the cost of hiring a
studio, paying a producer/engineer, and covering the costs of test pressings, and
of manufacture and distribution and promotion of vinyl records was often
significantly greater than the band’s cut of the revenue. With his sharp
intellect and head for business, Taylor (for as Mark Andrews’ excellent
biography of the band’s early days, Paint My Name In Black and Gold
asserts, the name Eldritch was not used until much later in 1982) was quick to
spot this opportunity, and before the band was fully established, their distinctive head-and-star logo t-shirts were featuring in Priestley’s
catalogue. Hanging out on the York alternative scene, Taylor established a
loose network of contacts within the town, which would prove vital to the early
stages of his masterplan for the group, including of course, getting early gigs
for the band at the local university.
The competitive nature of the Junior Common Rooms of the different colleges of the University of York meant that there was a vibrant gig scene on the campus, with the colleges vying with each to attract the biggest and best up-and-coming names on the alternative scene, with the young student promoters another opportunity for Taylor to exploit, and apart from those put on in Leeds by the legendary F-Club promoter John F Keenan, the university gigs (supporting Thompson Twins and Reluctant Stereotypes) at York were the band’s only other creative outlet at that time, given Taylor's reluctance to demean his project by accepting small-time gigs in local pubs. With their local reputation growing, and having proven their ability to bring a small and enthusiastic entourage through from Leeds to boost a gig’s attendance, in February 1982 The Sisters of Mercy were again booked to appear on a four-band bill at Vanbrugh College (named after famous dramatist and former Bastille prisoner Sir John Vanbrugh) on the University of York’s main campus at Heslington just outside the city. Gigs were held in the college’s Dining Hall, a glass-fronted building with distinctive “Toblerone” pyramid features on the flat roof) facing onto the campus’ main feature, the lake (the campus was formerly marshland and the excess water was drained to form the lake feature), near to the space age Central Hall.
Not only was this the only gig in the 1981-1985 period where Craig Adams did not perform with the band (he was away in the Canaries helping with a photoshoot), substituted by Jon Langford of The Mekons (and soon to be The Three Johns), a long-time friend of Taylor’s who contributed significantly to the band’s early development, but the gig also marked the live debut of Ben Gunn as the latest “fourth member” (rhythm guitarist). The latter was still at school at the time, completing his A Levels, leading to New Musical Express gig reviewer X Moore having a little fun at his expense by claiming that he was in detention, hence his late arrival at the gig (probably chauffeured there in his Mum’s Volvo, as the band would later be for the gig supporting The Clash at Newcastle City Hall some five months later, according to Gary Marx’s account in one of Mark Andrews’ pieces on the band’s early days for The Quietus).
Although The Sisters’ reputation had begun to grow after the incendiary live shows of spring/early summer 1981 in Leeds and York, and the band’s energy and unique look had made them stand out amongst the early performers at the Futurama the previous September, Taylor would have been right to be nervous before the gig, with 50% of the band making their live debut with The Sisters, especially since the gig was reviewed in not one but two of the national music papers, the first time that a live review of the band had appeared in one of the London weeklies, save for brief mentions of the band’s appearance at the 1981 Futurama 3 event at Stafford's Bingley Hall (see blog post here).
|Poster for the gig, courtesy of collector Ian P
Although the gig was one of the earliest, and hardly any artefacts survive from many of the other shows of that era, the Feb 1982 gig is a particularly well-chronicled event, as not only have a ticket, a flyer (with the plea “please support us, we are doing our best to give you good entertainment at the lowest possible price") and a rather impressive poster survived, in addition to the review penned by X Moore (Chris Dean, of former York band No Swastikas and then new act The Redskins, hence the cryptic comment in the opening line of his review – “This is York. City of red skins and blue collar rockers”) for the NME and the Sisters feature written by Adam Sweeting for the Melody Maker, there is a lengthier account of the show as part of a longer feature on the York music scene which Adam Sweeting had been dispatched to write, as the Melody Maker attempted its own “levelling up” agenda some forty years before it became politically popular, which was eventually printed nearly two months later in the 20th March edition. Eager to show that they understood that musical scenes were developing some way north of Watford, Melody Maker sent ambitious staffers to try to discover the next Liverpool (Echo and The Bunnymen/Teardrop Explodes/Wah Heat/Dead or Alive), Sheffield (Human League/Cabaret Voltaire/Artery) or Manchester (Joy Division/Magazine/Durutti Column), to try to counter accusations of metropolitan bias as they lazily bigged up unimpressive parochial London scenes (the “Oi” punk phenomenon for example) as if they were major new national trends, whilst whole new scenes went unreported because of their exclusively provincial base. As the centre piece the Awaydaze feature, in addition to lengthy comments on the local scene by guitarist Mike Gibson, then of York scene band Our 15 Minutes but who would go on to star in phenomenal punk’n’roll London band the Godfathers’ finest hours later in the decade, Sweeting had gone along to the four-band show on 5th February at Vanbrugh College, a gig which has assumed legendary status amongst Sisters fans. His article reveals that the promoter of the gig was Elissa van Poznac, “a former NME freelancer and currently in her final year at York,” who would go on to give a glowing review to one of The Sisters’ 1983 London shows for the NME, presumably another Taylor acquaintance of that era. Sweeting interviewed another JCR promoter for his Awaydaze piece, which gives an insight into how important it was for bands to cultivate contacts with these young enthusiasts who were often in post for just one year and were able to use their Ents budget to attract bands whom they personally admired. The journalist also reviews the other bands on the bill as part of his York piece, although clearly none made the same impression upon him as TSOM did. The Plainsmen, the “campus reggae band”, “droop through a soggy set” which nevertheless earns them an encore, whilst “lacklustre” local act Trains To Europe leave the stage to “dead silence” after “their final song sort of fizzles out.” Sweeting missed London act The Lost Boys, the headliners, as he had rushed off to interview The Sisters, anxious to catch the band – “definitely the event of the night” - before they caught the last train back to Leeds with their limited equipment. X Moore also seems to have beat a hasty retreat after three acts, delivering the rather unsubtle if accurate summary “The Sisters of Mercy are f*ckin’ great”.
Sadly no live recording of this gig has yet surfaced, so it
is difficult to assess exactly how well Gunn and Langford gelled with the band's original two members and Doktor Avalanche, but the enthusiastic praise heaped on the
band by both reviewers clearly indicates that the show was a success. The band
would return to York for a gig with The Psychedelic Furs during Freshers’ Week
that October at Derwent College, the third of the York colleges to host The
Sisters, and again a couple of weeks later back at Vanbrugh for a Merciful
Release double-header with the then more-successful-than-the-Sisters March Violets.
Adam Sweeting's original piece about TSOM published in Melody Maker shortly after the gig
By the time Wayne Hussey joined the band and touring resumed in the Spring of 1984, The Sisters of Mercy had graduated to the “main hall” university circuit, and their three major UK treks over the following eighteen months would consist of a combination of Victorian/Edwardian civic halls, mainstream clubs and functional 1960’s/student union halls, with notable exceptions such as the new generation of alternative superclubs like Nottingham’s Rock City. The Sisters would return to the city of York just one more time during the Hussey era, for the infamous York Rock Festival in September 1984....
My thanks for their help with this blog post are due to
collectors Dav E C, Robin C, Ian P, Garry H and to Phil Verne of the unofficial
TSOM 1980-1985 FB fan group, which all fans of this era of the band are invited
to join. If anyone has any further memories or artefacts of this or other gigs
of the 1981-1985 era, please get in touch!