Thirty-six years ago tonight, I was one of several hundred expectant fans queuing in the narrow entrance corridor to the Riley Smith Hall, just through the main doors of Leeds University Union building on the left hand side, waiting to see the Furs for a free Fresher’s gig, the first time that I would see The Sisters of Mercy who were the support act that night. I’ve previously already covered this life-changing (for me!) event twice on this blog, in the very first post back in 2011 when my aim was just to record a few personal reminiscences about life in Leeds in the early 1980’s, in case anyone might be interested, and again more recently in a post about the fact that the gig featured the band’s first-ever encore, with the blog now focusing on third-party eye-witness accounts of the band’s halcyon days.
Whilst researching another gig recently, I stumbled across a digital archive of the Leeds Student newspaper, which as its name suggests was a publication written for and by students at the city’s Higher Education institutions, primarily the University and the Poly, and to my delight discovered that the archive contained an edition from mid-October 1982 containing a review of the show, which mentions the Sisters at some length, on their return to the Leeds stage after a summer which had seen them raise their profile by recording their first session for John Peel on BBC Radio One.
Although back in 1982 I had soon acquired a recording of the gig which got very heavy rotation on the Lagartija music centre over the next few months, it wasn’t until more recently that I realised that the gig started with the first (recorded) rendition of Kiss The Carpet, which was to become such a successful set opener over the next few months. Not only did it allow Eldritch the self-indulgent rock’n’roll cliché of a solo entrance after the band have established a hypnotic almost krautrock backbeat, but as Gary Marx told Mark Andrews for The Quietus, “it certainly made good sense to introduce elements one by one to leave plenty of time and space to sort out technical problems. It gave me a little time to feel my way in. I can hardly overstate the fact I was often playing stuff that was tricky for me to do sitting down and concentrating, never mind when I was revved up and trying to throw a shape or two.”
On this occasion, KTC does indeed (as The Leeds Student review states) begin with some squalling feedback and a very muffled Doktor. There are also slightly discordant guitar parts, and around 2 minutes ten seconds into the version Ade M has kindly uploaded to YouTube (click on the song title links to access these), there is a very un-TSOM style bit of guitar riffing that sounds not unlike U2’s The Edge’s signature style. However, within seconds the drum machine backbeat moves up a gear, and a small cheer and an “‘Ello” signifies the arrival of a black-clad Eldritch on stage, every inch the Joey Ramone clone many others commented upon. The unison riff kicks in, and although Eldritch misses his first cue, the song soon picks up pace. In this early version of the song, the singer omits the words “the carpet” in the “Next time I’ll look” section, allowing him to linger on the sibilance of “kiss”.
Pete Turner on the sound desk has rectified any lingering sound issues by the end of the song, and the Leeds Student reviewer ("Hugh Elitist") was right to be impressed by the storming, almost note-perfect version of Floorshow which follows. Another future single, an early version of Anaconda is next, with the Doktor in full effect for the intro, and a scuzzy bass sound underpinning Von’s impassioned shout of “We will, we will walk away” in the early version of the lyrics. There is further vocal riffing as Von either can’t remember or hasn’t yet come up with a full lyric, including the Joy Divisionesque “We will walk in silence” at one point. With the song almost reduced to an instrumental, it’s another chance to hear how tight the three instrumentalists and drum machine are becoming as a unit, particularly as this, too, is the earliest known recording of the song.
The recently recorded Alice came next ("We are The Sisters of Mercy and this is called Alice", the singer intones for the benefit of us freshers over the intro), the relentless drum machine assault reaching its zenith, as the contemporary reviewer noted. Eldritch is on fine vocal form, covering up further guitar errors and feedback. Even Craig Adams seems to get lost towards the end, forcing Eldritch and then Marx to temporarily lose their place, although they just about back on track for the end of the song.
A muscular Watch follows, arguably the track which has the most in common with the Furs’ debut album which had a such an influence on Eldritch and Marx. As probably the most played song in the band’s repertoire at the time, it is understandably the “tightest” song of the night, the different elements combining in a way that has so much more impact and power than the debut single version, particularly in the final “Watch us fall” section with only Adams and the Doktor providing a backing to Eldritch.
The gig ended with a trio of cover versions, two of which, famously, were 1969, the second being the band’s first ever encore. Eldritch says “Last one” to the crowd as the now familiar backbeat to Sister Ray begins. I don’t recall this being a particular highlight on the night – the improvised wall of noise was probably a bit much for a tender fresher, but listening back to it now, it sounds truly magnificent. Even Eldritch can’t help carrying on for a while having said “Goodnight!” whilst the Doktor himself has a little extra rattle over the applause at the end, almost drowning an amusing conversational snippet between the taper and a friend. “Sister Ray!” "Aye, it wasn’t easy to tell though, was it?” The encore reprise of 1969 (prefaced with “This is the last time you’ll hear us play this one” was indeed well-deserved (thanks Jeremy!), and is a unique version with an extended introduction.
A memorable gig for all of us who were there, particularly with a slightly under par (and under power, in comparison) but incredibly it would be a further eighteen months before they would play at the university once again, once again at the Riley Smith Hall on their first tour with Wayne Hussey. They were very much a different band by then, but the opening line of the excellent Leeds Student review perfectly sums up the band’s appeal to me at the time – “Fuzz and Feedback with The Sisters of Mercy”.
My grateful thanks for this post to the Leeds digital archive, to Ade M, and (for thirty six years of pleasure) to the band themselves. For fans of the band, I can strongly recommend Heartland Forum and the wonderful TSOM 1980-1985 Facebook fan page.