Thursday, 4 January 2018

First, we take Manhattan - Bradford, January 1983

Thirty-five years ago today, The Sisters of Mercy played their first gig of the crucial year (for them) of 1983 at The Manhattan Club in Bradford. Or perhaps thirty-five years ago yesterday. I don't know for sure, to misquote Albert Camus, but we will return to the issue of the exact date later in the post. 

Although only a week after the 26th December 1982 "Christmas on Earth" gig in front of a large and appreciative audience at the London Lyceum at the end of their run of shows in the capital to round off their breakthrough year on a high, it seems to have been a much more focused and slick Sisters who took to the stage of the more modest Manhattan Club in Bradford just a few days into the New Year in 1983. With the students of Bradford and Leeds yet to return to their garrets, and with local punters watching their pennies with the long and impecunious month of January stretching ahead, there must have been a relatively small crowd in the Manhattan that evening early in the first week of the year, judging by the size of the audience response between tracks on the audio recording of the gig, both on the "Rough Diamonds" bootleg LP and on the various cassette recordings which have emerged.

The Manhattan gig opens with a confident "Kiss The Carpet", the instrumental opening lasting a full two and a half minutes of intertwining bass and guitars, unlike the more chaotic versions of the previous fortnight in London. Unfortunately, as the main guitar riff kicks in just before Eldritch joins the fray, the lead guitar sound is lost for a few seconds, either because Gary selected the wrong pedal or because of an error on the mixing desk. "We're lost in the room ... (Inaudible)" states Eldritch at the end of the song in his only onstage comment of note during the entire set, another indication that the band are taking the gig seriously as a statement of intent for the year ahead. After a short Doktor misfire (with a random extra bar of "Kiss The Carpet"), the band tear into "Floorshow", which like several later tracks (e.g. an equally excellent "Adrenochrome" which follows) features Ben's guitar prominently in the mix, with a reverb-heavy Eldritch somewhat less dominant than usual. Keeping the singles flowing, the band then go (after the briefest of guitar tune-ups) into a near-perfect version of "Alice", with Marx again showing total mastery of the repeated main riff which had caused such problems on the Autumn 1982 tour with the Furs. Whereas later in 1983 the band would introduce a cover at this point ("Jolene" or "Emma"), in this transitional phase between the punkier 1982 set and the smoother Spring/Summer 1983 selection of songs, the Sisters continue with an up-tempo version of "Watch", one of the last half-dozen outings for the debut single which would soon be disowned in interviews, but it gets one of the best audience reactions here. It was of course much different from the original vinyl version, with none of the features of the lengthy "live" ending, i.e. Craig Adams' buzzing bass, Eldritch's histrionic vocal, and Doktor Avalanche's clinical backbeat havig featured on the "Damage Done" double A side. The pace slows further with the northern debut of "Valentine", which still features the "hollow faces"/"empty smiles" lyrical transposition in the final verse at this stage, before quickening again with the soon-to-be-released "Anaconda", with Eldritch opting to sing the middle verse an octave higher than usual and missing out many of the "she will"s, possibly indicating that his voice was not at its best that evening. Most recordings of the gig omit the next track, "Body Electric", which is a shame as it is a particularly intense version, quickly followed by the usual set-closer "Sister Ray", which after a very haphazard low-key start is soon running at full octane. A relatively brief set all in all, three songs shorter than the Leeds Warehouse show a fortnight later (another indication that someone in the band was not feeling 100% ?), but certainly one of the most technically competent of that era.

The Manhattan Club was a most unlikely looking venue on a suburban street in the Manningham district of Bradford called Cornwall Terrace. As can be seen in the Google photo here, the street is currently very much in the overhanging shadow of the main stand of Valley Parade Stadium, home of Bradford City FC, although back in 1983 the stand was a significantly smaller wooden framed structure dating back to the turn of the century. That stand would be tragically engulfed in flames in May 1985 during a match between Bradford City and Lincoln City in a catastrophe that cost the lives of fifty-six supporters, in the very same month as the Heysel disaster. The Manhattan Club was housed in the run of two-storey buildings on the immediate left hand side of the street, currently trading as a sort of community learning centre. 

Back in early 1983, the Manhattan hosted a series of indie gigs of which the Sisters was the first, and I remember having a flyer for the gigs posted on the pinboard of the kitchen of my student flat in Leeds at the time. If memory serves (and it will have to, as I haven't seen the flyer since those days) it made mention of the forthcoming "Anaconda" single and was one of those information-packed hand-written flyers which makes me think that Nick Toczek was probably the promoter. Internet searches reveal photos of The Cocteau Twins and The Fall from subsequent gigs in the series at the Manhattan (check out the purple curtain to the side of the stage to prove that these are from the same venue, as the Fall ones are erroneously listed as being taken at the 1 in 12 Club, a venue that didn't start promoting gigs until later that year) on Monday 10th January and Monday 17th January 1983 respectively. Given that Sex Gang Children also played the Manhattan on a Monday the following month, it seems reasonable to assume that the date of the Sisters gig was also a Monday, as promoters usually block-booked a venue for the same night every week with a club owner, which also had the advantage of building customer loyalty, which would make it the 3rd of January rather than Tuesday 4th January which is usually the date given for this concert (on the band's and on the Sisters wiki's gigographies, for example).  I discussed this possibility with well-known TSOM live audio cassette expert Phil Verne, and he revealed that he has seen both dates listed on inserts of cassette recordings of the show, but that the earliest generation tape in his possession lists the date as the 3rd of January.

Whatever the date, anyone who has heard the Manhattan show can be in no doubt that the band were now a live force to be reckoned with, thanks to an increasingly tight and well-paced set with fewer technical difficulties and limitations. The band was clearly now ready to move on to the next phase of development, from one-hit indie chart wonders to a potential stadium band.

If anyone can shed any further light on this gig, whether personal reminiscences, a flyer/poster/ticket, photos etc, then we would love to hear from you over on The Sisters of Mercy unofficial Fan Club Facebook page for the 1980-1985 era.

My grateful thanks for their help with this post are due to Phil V, LG, "Circle", archivists of The Fall and Cocteau Twins and others.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Christmas on Earth - London Lyceum 26th December 1982

December 1982 was one of the most crucial months in the rapid development of The Sisters of Mercy after the release of the breakthrough of the Alice/Floorshow double A side single the previous month. The band not only secured their first cover appearance on one of the very influential music weeklies with Paul Slattery's photo of the band accompanying their first major interview (in 'Sounds' on 18th December 1982), but the band played a series of gigs in the capital around Christmas as they sought to capitalise on the increased interest in their music as their third single rose steadily up the "Alternative" chart. Eldritch always refuted the idea that the band needed to move to London in order to succeed, but even he seemed to accept that they needed to give the industry movers and shakers an easy opportunity to see the band 'live', and so the band played three gigs in three different London venues over five nights straddling Christmas at the end of the month.

Having supported the newly renamed Spear of Destiny (formerly Theatre of Hate) and the Cocteau Twins at the Kilburn National Ballroom on Wednesday 22nd at a gig promoted (as were the other two) by Head Music, the Sisters moved on the Ballroom of the Clarendon Hotel in Hammersmith the following evening to support UK Decay, before ending the series of gigs with their final show of 1982 as part of a six band spectacular at the Lyceum Ballroom just off The Strand on Sunday 26th December, their biggest show in the capital to date.

(Ultra-rare poster of the December 26th 1982 show from the amazing collection of Bruno Bossier)

This rapid return to the scene of their triumphant support slot to Aswad the previous month (which had garnered a rave review from Mick Sinclair in Sounds) came as something as a surprise, and was the result of a late but significant change of heart from promoters of the Lyceum show, Head Music, who had emerged from the shadow of Straight Music (note that the backstage pass from the Christmas on Earth reproduced here - from the collection of Robin C - still bears the name "Straight Music").

Regular readers may recall that in September 1981 John Curd's organisation Straight Music had promoted the successful Daze of Future Past show at Leeds' Queen's Hall (causing John Keenan's Futurama 3, at which The Sisters had featured for their first big break, to relocate to Bingley Hall near Stafford), and later that year Straight Music put on an even more successful punk revival festival at Queen's Hall, entitled "Christmas on Earth". This brought together fans of the second wave of punk bands such as Vice Squad, G.B.H. and The Exploited alongside original punks Chelsea, The UK Subs and The Damned on 20th December 1981. This contemporary review claims that as many as 7000 fans gathered on a snowy winter's day for the indoor festival, so it would have come as no surprise that Straight Music's successors, Head Music, should retain the name "Christmas on Earth" for another punk extravaganza to be held on 26th December at the Lyceum in London three days after another Christmas punk show at the same venue headlined by The Anti-Nowhere League.

Whether it was poor ticket sales as "Punk's Not Dead" defiance finally gave way to the reality that the revolutionary movement had not petered out but merely evolved, or confusion caused by the fact that the original adverts claimed that the gig was on a Thursday, Head Music made the dramatic late decision to dump old school punks Discharge, Vice Squad and G.B.H from the bill, and replace them with post-punks Sex Gang Children, Alien Sex Fiend in a move which marked a symbolic and definitive moment in the rise of what would become goth. Curiously, 1977 punks The Vibrators remained on the bill, meaning that those who attended the show on the day after Christmas (but before the Monday Boxing Day bank holiday) was a curious mix of the two audiences. 

This is reflected in the contemporary review by Paul Roland (from the archive of Malcolm Argyle), who clearly felt that The Vibrators were the best received band on the day, with the "audience singing along" to several of their songs, something which fans of the newer scene would have been unable to do. Roland (a musician himself) is very complimentary about the Sisters though, stating that "the Ballroom filled up nicely" as they took the stage, and that not only was Eldritch's yelping "quite effective", but that the band's music was "a welcome change from the one look/one sound hardcore groups".

Whilst this may be true, the Sisters' performance that early evening was not a huge improvement on those on the Psychedelic Furs support slots two months earlier (including the gig which I uncharitably dubbed their worst ever in a previous post on this blog), and was again beset with technical difficulties, many of the band's own causing, as can be witnessed in an audio recording of the show kindly lent to me by Phil Verne of the 1980 - 1985 The Sisters of Mercy unofficial Fan page on Facebook. Gary Marx has stated that the band liked to start the "live" set with Kiss The Carpet as it enabled them to iron out any technical difficulties, but here the opening section is both chaotic and discordant, the guitars clashing on several occasions where they appear to be playing in different keys, before Gary's key riff disappears in the mix just after the Doktor ushers in the change of tempo to kick-start the set. Apart from some feedback and sound level issues, the rest of the opener passes without incident as Eldritch's reverberating vocal takes over. "Floorshow", already becoming a favourite on the indie club dancefloor, increases the pace of the set, with the singer's bloodcurdling screams again the dominant feature. The third track, "Adrenochrome" gets off to a terrible start, Adams seemingly playing the wrong notes whilst the guitar is lost in a sea of feedback, but again the singer impressively keeps going by staying in tune against the odds for the opening stanza, after which the song gets rapidly back on track. Before moving on to the next track, Eldritch announces "We are the Sisters of Mercy. This is a new one. What's it about? It's about sex...and violence...and television...and (inaudible)" as the band launch into "Valentine", given its second ever playing and now uploaded to Soundcloud by Phil Verne. Although musically identical to the Reptile House version, lyrically the final verse is different, with Eldritch singing "I see no need for this, I see no reason, reason" before returning to the more familiar "For a million empty faces" line and the song's impressive climax. He had sung the same unusual couplet but at the start of the second verse for the song’s live début three days earlier at the Klub Foot (as can be heard in this version kindly uploaded to YouTube by Ade M), but by the time of the Portastudio demo, the final lyrics are in place, apart from a transposition of adjectives towards the end (“hollow faces”…”empty smiles”). Less than a month after the Lyceum show, though, at Leeds Warehouse on 20th January 1983, Eldritch sings the full Reptile House lyric of the song, just a month before it was recorded for the EP. The pace of the Lyceum show increases again with "Alice" over a more metronomic than usual Doktor Avalanche introduction, before early single "Watch" is given another airing. Now shorn of the "dark room" section, this had become one the longest-standing songs on the set and one of the most potent, with the bass and drum machine "Watch us fall, falling down" (better suited Eldritch's than Marx's vocals) section forming an extended, guitar-free ending.
Unfortunately it was at this point that the traditional 1982/1983 Doktor Avalanche technical gremlins returned, with the "Body Electric" drum pattern only kicking in successfully at the fourth attempt, and then Ben's guitar seeming slightly out of tune on the first section, and again in the instrumental section in the middle of the song, as can be heard here on YouTube, again thanks to Phil Verne. Once more it's Eldritch's vocal that sees the band through, with Marx's final soloing even more off-the-wall than usual towards the end.
Eldritch has a brief altercation with a member of the audience ("That's right in my face") before the band launch into a primitive, staccato version of next single "Anaconda", another song which betrays the fact that as the third band of six on a busy bill, they would have had little time to soundcheck. Again, Eldritch rises above the feedback with another tour-de-force vocal performance, and the band save the day with a typically unbridled "Sister Ray" finale, the only cover version in the set with "1969" having been recently dropped.
The Sisters would return to the Lyceum for what Eldritch would late describe as their best ever gig, supporting the Gun Club some four months later, and it remained a favourite venue for the band on subsequent tours. Having started life as a theatre, the Lyceum had had its stalls removed and become a ballroom after the Second World War, and prior to hosting gigs had been the home of the televised "Miss World" competition. The lack of seats made it an ideal venue for gigs in the punk and post-punk eras, but it closed in 1986, eventually reopening as a theatre a decade later after a lavish refurbishment. Anyone who has visited London since 1999 will know it as the the home of the hit Disney musical The Lion King, appropriately for a venue which has completed its own, erm, circle of life.

Curiously for a show which was put together at the last minute, the show is well-documented, including this ticket belonging to well-known post-punk archivist David M who attended the show, with more evidence available than for any other show of that era.

My thanks for this post are due to Phil, Malcolm, Bruno, Robin, David, Ade and all those who have shared memories of this final gig of the breakthrough year of 1982.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

On The Wire - Hyde Park Circus Tent, Osnabruck, 15th November 1984

Of all the weird and wonderful venues visited by The Sisters of Mercy during their 1981-1985 ‘live’ heyday, the sight that awaited the tour-bus as it arrived in Osnabruck on 15th November 1984 on their West German tour that followed the Black October UK jaunt was probably the most bizarre.

As can be seen on the ticket reproduced above, the gig really was held in a circus big top (formerly belonging to the Althoff travelling circus), the temporary home of Osnabruck’s “Hyde Park” club. The Hyde Park had originally been set up in 1976 in an old riverside restaurant, the picturesque “Schweizerhaus”, but as the years passed the venue gained a reputation for alleged drug dealing, and by July 1983 the exasperated authorities had decided to close it down. Local punks had other ideas, leading to a riot where a thousand protestors took on the police. An uneasy stand-off followed, with further sporadic outbreaks of violence, and a temporary solution was found in the shape of the circus tent which was pitched on an industrial estate near a sprawling cement works and therefore much further from prying eyes.

However, the owners continued to have problems with local inhabitants, as the sound from discos and concerts easily traversed the canvas walls of the big top leading to complaints. Heating the tent in the winter months and surviving storms were also problems for the owners, and the tent closed for the final time on 30th November 1984, just two weeks after the Sisters visited. A new, more permanent structure based on a tent shape finally opened in 1985, and the current Hyde Park is the fourth incarnation of the venue, opened at the turn of the millennium.

Great photo of the tent in the snow, from the Hyde Park memories FB page

The Sisters’ own concert at the tent was very successful, despite there being no wall or ceiling sound insulation to help create the necessary reverberation, and the dry ice rising unfettered to the top of the big top. Legendary collector Phil Verne has never heard a top quality sound recording of the gig, as all suffer from the relatively poor acoustics, but the best available shows the band in typically slick form at this stage, having played almost exactly the same set for the past two months. Like all 1984 gigs, the show opens with the mid-paced pair of “Burn” and “Heartland”, the sound crew working wonders to provide decent balance from the start, and Eldritch coping admirably with his vocal digressions towards the end of the opener. The only spanner in the works is some antagonism between Eldritch and a member of the audience, who is told to “F--- off” in the pause between the opening two tracks. Eldritch says little between tracks, with the exception of the occasional “Danke schön”, and a fine concert, clearly well appreciated by a large audience who “hoi-hoi-hoi” along with the opening of their favourite tracks (such as “Alice”) in true European style and are treated (as are we, thanks to Phil having uploaded this to Soundcloud) to a truly magnificent ten minute medley of “Ghost Rider” and “Sister Ray”, with the former possibly the best version that I have heard. This takes the overall gig past the eighty minute mark, one of the longer shows of that era, an impressive fact towards the end of a gruelling tour that would bring the singer to physical and mental exhaustion.

After the gig’s conclusion, a female announcer tries to placate the enthusiastic crowd, although it would have been plain to anyone following the tour that TSOM had no more songs left to play anyway! Neverthess, she apologises to the crowd, stating that the police have been called by neighbours and that there will be no further encores.

However, the only contemporary review of the gig which I have found (from a German fanzine) is withering in its criticism of the band, rueing the changes which had taken place over the past twelve months, the writer presumably having seen the band in nearby Munster in autumn 1983 or early 1984. (Like Munster, and Bielefeld, Osnabruck was home to a very large British military base in the 1980’s, and it is highly likely that there was a strong “squaddie” presence at the gig, as British bands gigs were always well attended in this region – Detmold was also in this compact geographical area).

Starting “Let’s get to the worst concert of Autumn”, the author soon vents his spleen on the “embarrassing” spectacle which followed, as the Sisters “must have spent their entire WEA advance on military-grade fog grenades”, complaining that “dry ice fog was stupidly blown into the circus dome throughout the band’s set.” The reviewer also turns his vitriol on the music, stating that it was “muffled, boring and droning…everything sounded the same, the Sisters parodying the Sisters,” with accusations of “stealing riffs from early Banshees and Cure”, with even Gimme Shelter and an “over-cooked” Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door failing to rise above the mire. In a final put-down, the writer concludes “Grobschnitt fans, watch out. This band is for you from now on.”

Unlike his contemporary readers, I had never heard of symphonic comedy psychedelic pop band Grobschnitt, but a mere glance at this photo of the ensemble in their, erm, heyday, should suffice to indicate that the comparison was not intended as a compliment. According to Wikipedia, the band were famous “for live performances which included pyrotechnics and German comedic sketches” (the mind boggles), with performances “frequently exceeding three hours” and “utilising humour in the form of unexpected noises and silly lyrics” (in addition, presumably to the costumes). So perhaps not so far-fetched a comparison after all.

The Sisters have successfully played in marquees on many further occasions, usually on the Festival circuit (at Sonisphere for example), but this initial attempt was probably the least successful gig of that time since the September outdoor festival appearances.

My thanks for this post are due to the wonderful German punk archive site Tape Attack for the fanzine review, to Phil Verne of the 1980-85 The Sisters of Mercy Facebook Fan Page for the audio clip posted on Soundcloud, Ollie Cornaculix for the translation of the German and all others who have contributed, willingly or unwittingly.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Femmes fatales - Caesar's Bradford, Sunday 21st November 1982

The first revelation about the Sisters’ support slot to the legendary Nico at Caesar’s club in Bradford is that it took place in November 1982 and not the previous year as many have assumed. Although not listed on the band’s official website, the wiki gigography featured the gig for the past decade as having taken place in 1981, based on information supplied by well-known collector Robin C, who unearthed this magnificent ticket from the gig. As is often the case, the mistake was repeated on other websites, and before long Saturday 21st November became the established date for the concert. However, the ticket clearly gives the date as Sunday 21st November which would place it in 1982, and further investigations of the headliner, Nico, would tend to confirm this.

pic courtesy of Robin C
Nico (real name Christa Päggen) was a German chanteuse who rose to fame as guest vocalist (on three tracks) on the seminal debut album by The Velvet Underground (entitles The Velvet Underground and Nico), widely hailed as the first “alternative” album as rock music became an art form in its own right. Brian Eno, speaking about the album in the year of the Caesar’s gig, famously said that although it only sold thirty thousand copies in its first five years, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Her solo career was an itinerant affair, starting in the US under the influence of friends like Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop, moving to France (scene of the infamous concert in Reims Cathedral where fans allegedly urinated on the pillars) for most of the 1970s and settling in Manchester in the early 1980s, where she worked with a variety of backing bands (“Nico and friends”, “Nico and The Blue Orchids”, “Nico and the Invisible Girls” and “Nico and The Faction” was the rough order). 

1982 was one her more active years, touring the UK and Europe early in the year, with an appearance at Futurama 4 (infamously held in the ice rink at Deeside Leisure Centre with no West Yorkshire venue available) followed by a Scandinavian tour in the autumn, but it also saw the only studio release of her solo career under the name “Nico and The Invisible Girls”, the single “Procession”, which again helps to confirm 1982 as the actual date. Incidentally, Wayne Hussey was no longer part of (Joy Division producer Martin Hannett's house band) The Invisible Girls at this stage, after his stint on tour and in the studio with band and Pauline Murray the previous year. The Futurama gig (alongside Southern Death Cult et al) was not Nico’s only encounter with the increasingly pre-eminent post-punk movement, as she joined Bauhaus on-stage for an encore in October 1981, and promoters would often book a proto-goth support act to try to flesh out the crowd for what could be unpredictable and chaotic as well as mesmerising gigs, given the singer’s well-documented heroin addiction at this time. Cherry Red Records have kindly uploaded to YouTube excerpts from Nico’s 1982 show at the Preston Warehouse, which will give a fair indication of what awaited TSOM fans who attended their own gigs supporting her in London in June 1982 and here in Bradford five months later.
The venue for the November 1982 show was also unusual, as Caesar’s had started life in 1960 as the Bradford branch of the Mecca organisation’s new Locarno brand of nightclubs. Quite why the corporation had selected an out of town centre site for its two thousand capacity superclub is unclear, but out on the Manningham Lane close to Bradford City FC, the club proved instantly popular, drawing punters from far and wide to marvel at its famously opulent toilets! The glamorous location became a regular stop-off for the BBC’s Come Dancing ballroom show, under the thirsty-five thousand twinkling light bulbs imitating the night sky.

(photo credit : Bradford timeline)

(photo credit : Hayes People's History)
Controversy was not far away, however, when it became clear that the club was operating a “colour bar”, only admitting non-white male patrons if they were accompanied by a female. Trade unionists and students (from Leeds University, I'm proud to say) joined the local protests (lead by councillors and clergy), and arranged a march in November 1961 to protest at the blatant racial discrimination. The police would only allow twenty protestors to congregate, but over 150 turned up, and with the pressure increasing the ban was lifted in January 1962. After many years as the Mecca (an unfortunate choice of name in an increasingly Muslim district), and then Tiffany’s, the club was trading under the name Caesar’s when this gig took place, but by 1984 it was under the ownership of larger-than-life Yorkshire businessman Chris Edwards (best known these days as the founder of bargain shop chain Poundworld) as Dollars and Dimes (like many “superclubs”, the venue had a smaller venue which could be used for more specialist events). Also trading as “Marquees” and “Pennington’s” in subsequent years, it had an ill-fated year as a northern outpost of “The Town and Country Club” before shutting its doors a decade ago. After years of dereliction and occasional visits from Urban Explorers, it still stands empty to this day.

Nico sadly passed away in July 1988 whilst on holiday in Ibiza, having banged her head when falling from her bike having suffered a heart attack. She was 49 years old, and was buried in Berlin. A memorial service for her was held in the unlikely venue of St John’s Church, Upperthong, as Nico apparently loved walking in the hills around Holmfirth. It is alleged that actor Bill Owen, who played “Compo” in the long-running BBC comedy series The Last Of The Summer Wine filmed in the region, attended the service (and is himself buried in the churchyard there).

Of The Sisters of Mercy's gig at Caesar's in November 1982 no further evidence has sadly emerged, with no live audio, photo or review yet having surfaced. In order to gain further confirmation, I tried to track down the second support band, "Discobolisk", who were a jazz influenced band who had a track on a Rough Trade compilation which proved popular in Japan, but left little trace on the internet. However, the band was mentioned in the career summary of a noted saxophonist in an online encyclopedia of Belgian jazz music, and after some further research I was soon exchaging e-mails with Joe Higham, who told me that sadly he didn't feature in any of the band's gigs, only in the studio recording. 

Any further information about this unique gig, the band's last in West Yorkshire in 1982 prior to the Christmas gigs in London, would be very gratefully received!

My thanks for this post are extended to Robin C, to Joe H and to Phil Verne of the 1980-1985 TSOM unofficial fan page on Facebook where discussion of this gig will no doubt continue!

Monday, 30 October 2017

Will I-Beam ? - October 31st 1983

The Sisters of Mercy played their first Halloween gig on 31st October 1983, and it proved to be a memorable occasion for many different reasons. The gig was one of a pair of West Coast USA dates (the other gig which was down in LA will be covered in another post on this blog in the near future) which the band fulfilled as a three-piece, following the sudden departure of rhythm guitarist Ben Gunn at the end of the East Coast tour the previous month. Prior to flying out to California, Eldritch, Marx and Adams had played together for a one-off gig at Stockholm’s Electric Garden, a concert covered in an earlier post on this blog, as the band reverted to its core (early 1981) original live line-up.

British indie and goth bands were (and remain) incredibly popular in the Golden State (for example Depeche Mode’s “101” live album of 1988 was recorded at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl in front of an audience of 66,000 fans!), and cosmopolitan San Francisco’s I-Beam venue played host to most of the alternative bands of the era, from Siouxsie to Killing Joke , Motorhead to Big Black. Originally opening in 1977 as a gay club at 1748 Haight Street, the I-Beam had branched into live music with bands playing most Monday and Tuesday nights, and thus TSOM were booked to play at their Halloween show on Monday 31st October 1983, as part of the "Monday Night Live" series.

(the sign which hung over the doorway of the club)

The Sisters’ show at the I-Beam was fortunately recorded by an audience member and released as the bootleg LP "Tender Mercies" (with the usual missing definite article, poor artwork, mis-spellings, incorrect date etc) and ultimately circulated around the fan base, again allowing us to appreciate the starker sound of the band as a three-piece. 

The crisp recording starts with someone (the local compere judging from his accent) speaking numbers apparently randomly ("one""….”six”…”one”…"three"....."ten".....eight") into a microphone, like a manic bingo caller rather than the usual UK roadie mantra “one, two…one, t-t-t-t-two,” and the band instantly burst into set-opener “Burn”. It’s immediately clear that both Eldritch’s vocal and Adams' bass are much higher in the mix than in earlier 1983 gigs, and the subsequent “Valentine” and “Anaconda”, though a little thinner in sound than usual, retain their original power as a result. The version of the new single - announced as “This is a new song called Temple of Love” – is arguably the best of the live versions of the latter part of 1983, and is followed by a dynamic "Heartlandwith Craig’s buzzing bass to the fore over a more-intricate-than-usual backbeat, and in general the sound has more of the rougher edges which characterise most 1982 recordings. A somewhat fitful "Emma" comes next, with the Doktor misfiring slightly in the introduction and Marx getting a little carried away towards the end at the expense of the original melody, and "Adrenochrome"'s usually wonderful instrumental sections are truncated somewhat to disguise the lack of the second part, a sonic space amply filled by Adams on his trademark "Floorshow" riff which follows. After a storming “Body Electric” is played, Eldritch dedicates the next song, the set-closing ("This is the last one..") "Gimme Shelter" to American contemporaries, True West, one of the many American bands (Green On Red, Long Ryders, R.E.M etc) who were championed in the UK music press in the mid 1980's and whose praises Eldritch had sung in one of the radio interviews on the East Coast tour, and here he seems to suggest that the band had also been on the bill at one of the Sisters’ two shows at the Danceteria and that they had borrowed their equipment, although no other evidence of this has emerged. In order to find out more information, I contacted Russ Tolman, guitarist, songwriter and founder member of True West, who is still very much involved in the music business, and he was only too happy to answer my queries. "I'm delighted to hear that Andrew had nice things to say about True West," he told me. "I remember meeting him at KQAK radio in San Francisco where we were both being interviewed around the time of our show together at the I-Beam in Fall 1983. We played two shows with the Sisters: the I-Beam in San Francisco where we opened for the Sisters, and Danceteria in NYC where the Sisters opened for us. I don't recall much about the Danceteria show but I do remember the I-Beam show and vaguely remember the Gimme Shelter dedication."

As had been the case in Stockholm, the band return to play “Kiss The Carpet” as an unlikely first encore, with Eldritch prefacing the song (in response to the incessant audience member shout of "Turn it up!") with the comment “In that case we're now going to play something that you really won’t like…it could be anything, couldn’t it?!”, but the Reptile House opener gets the same rapturous reactions as previous songs before the final encore of “Alice”. Most recordings end there, but one version continues with what appears to be a bizarre fancy dress competition, with an announcer describing some of the competitors, as can be heard in this extract kindly uploaded to Soundcloud by Phil Verne all of which remained something of a mystery until a very recent interview.  

Gary Marx commented on this mini-tour in the excellent summary of 1983 published by The Quietus at the end of August 2017. “The shows were actually great with the three of us,” Marx told Mark Andrews, a fact which you can confirm for yourself by clicking on the track names above to hear the songs kindly uploaded to YouTube by Ade M for us all to enjoy. The guitarist clearly enjoyed the buzz of being solely responsible for the guitar parts, as in the earliest days, but now possessing the requisite degree of professional competence, and for me these October 1983 shows are easily a match for the much-vaunted Hussey-only gigs of late Spring 1985. “We didn’t even have guitar cases, you had a guitar in a plastic bag with your cable, fuzz box and your other cable. That’s how we landed in Los Angeles!” he recalled. Of the I-Beam show, Marx also had very clear memories of the bizarre event which can be heard going on after the show:  “We had to judge a fancy dress competition after we finished the set. There was a woman naked apart from three very small pieces of sticky tape and a great 'Jackie O' complete with butcher’s shop brains all over her jacket. Andrew had to do his game-show host bit…” Not your typical night down at the Warehouse, then, but this does explain Eldritch's clearly audible withering put-down to an audience member at the end of "Gimme Shelter" - "You look like my mother- you should get the prize" (presumably for the most ghoulish Halloween fancy dress outfit)!

One of the anglophile musicians in the Sisters’ US fan base at the time (along with Alan Vega) was Angel Corpus Christi, who last year shared this photo of herself (not sure from her outfit if she was entering the competition or not!) and Craig Adams at the venue on her Instagram account, describing it as “the nite I partied with The Sisters of Mercy at the I-Beam in San Francisco. This is bass player Craig Adams. I loved his playing, he was so in sync with Doktor Avalanche”.

The publication of the Adams photo allowed the sharp-eyed curator of The Sisters of Mercy 19801985 unofficial FB Fan Page to date precisely the picture above, another informal shot of Eldritch without shades, which had been the rounds for a number of years. ACC is clearly wearing the same outfit, with Eldritch wearing a t-shirt often seen on the autumn 1983 dates, so this was definitely also taken on the evening of the I-Beam gig.

By the time TSOM returned to California some nineteen months later, including a gig at the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco on 1st June 1985, Wayne Hussey had joined but Marx had left the band, who once again appeared as a three-piece. The Halloween 1983 San Francisco show therefore marked the end of a major chapter in the band’s life, their last gig pre-Hussey and pre-WEA, the final gig of the “golden year” that began with the release of “Alice” as the breakthrough single, and ended with perfect symmetry with the same song as the final encore. It's also interesting to note that Eldritch chose to end the gig after the final encore with the same words which end the "Wake" Royal Albert Hall video of the subsequent line-up, "Thanks...(dramatic pause)...and goodbye!".

Inevitably, the original I-Beam was bulldozed and replaced by some upmarket condos with trendy shops below (as shown above), but it is still fondly remembered and there are many websites devoted to its seminal place in the SF disco scene.

My thanks as ever to all those who have helped with this post, particularly Russ Tolman for for his detailed reponse, Ade M who uploaded the entire gig a few years ago, Mark Andrews, Victoria, and of course Phil Verne of the 19801985 The Sisters Of Mercy Unofficial FB Fan Page

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Rock'n'roll Suicide - Eldritch and Vega

Of all of his heroes to pass away over the past few years (we covered the untimely deaths of Lemmy and Bowie in a recent post), the departure which will have affected Andrew Eldritch the most will be that of his former collaborator and long-time friend, Alan Vega.

(Eldritch, A&R man Howard Thompson, Vega) - photo by Kevin Patrick, Room 825, Gramercy Park Hotel, June 1985

Vega was of course one half of the innovative New York synth-punk band Suicide, whose eponymous debut LP had been a huge influence in the late 1970s. Melding cutting edge electronica with rockabilly cool, Suicide’s sound was intriguingly different to anything else around at the time, and their arty avant-garde noodlings made them the natural successors of the Velvet Underground’s crown as New York’s coolest alternative band.

Whilst Suicide were an influence on many post-punk bands, the Sisters probably owe more than most to Vega and Martin Rev, and the drastic change in the Sisters’ sound between the first two singles is testament to this. Whereas the jagged low-fi punk of Damage Done is pure Gang of Four mixed with Pere Ubu, Adrenochrome is the bastard son of Suicide, with the drum machine adding a novel mechanisation to the punk aesthetic and Eldritch’s now heavily reverb-ed vocals a breathy staccato replica of Vega’s 50’s rock’n’roll pastiche, down to the last yelp and scream. Eldritch readily confesses to Vega and Rev’s influence on this change in the band’s sound, saying on the band’s official website “We bought [a drum machine] because we all loved Suicide. Everybody loved Suicide.”

Having already foisted demo tapes on other heroes such as The Psychedelic Furs and Iggy Pop, Eldritch also worked his charm on Alan Vega who in 1983 was in Europe promoting his comeback album Saturn Strip, his first for Elektra Records, which featured a young Al Jourgensen and was enjoying some success both in the UK and in particular on the Continent, where the song Wipeout Beat was an unlikely minor hit. By now, The Sisters had of course added Suicide’s Ghost Rider to their live set, usually in a medley with Louie Louie (although in this superlative version here with Sister Ray) and played as a free-form encore.

Vega’s tour brought him to London for a date at the Venue on October 20th 1983, just when Temple of Love was out in the UK and before The Sisters' final trio of gigs that year (Stockholm, L.A. and San Francisco) played as a three piece after Ben Gunn’s departure. Surprisingly, Vega appeared on stage at the London Venue that night wearing a TSOM head and star t-shirt, and legend has it that during the gig the singer briefly gave the mic to Eldritch, who was on the front row of the crowd, and who continued the song note-perfect in Vega’s much imitated style.

Photos of Vega wearing the shirt were taken during the gig by gothic music journalist Mick Mercer, editor of ZigZag magazine, and his publication in its December issue (recently shared by Tony J Pooley on the ZigZag Magazine Appreciation Facebook Group) featured an interview with Vega by journalist Paul O’Reilly which was recorded just after the Venue show.

Responding to O’Reilly (who would nominate Vega’s show at the Venue and TSOM’s gig at the same club some six months earlier as his highlights of the year)’s question about the t-shirt, Vega told him : “Well the guys from the Sisters came to see me with a tape they’d got of the Stooges at the Whiskey in LA in 73. I would have killed to get that tape but all I had to do was wear their t-shirt onstage that night, which was no problem at all. The Sisters really excite me as a band as well, more than any band since The Stooges or The Dolls and wearing their t-shirt was no hardship. I like the guys a lot and I know Iggy does as well.”

The exact timing of the band’s first meeting with Vega remains a bit of a mystery, bit it could possibly have been on the occasion of the band’s (Eldritch’s?) brief promo visit to America in the Spring of 1983. This was mentioned on the press release for the Brain Eater Records US release of the Alice 12” EP (originally apparently planned as a US only release), which states that the promo visit is to take place in the near future, and there is a further clue in one of the radio interviews Eldritch did during the September 1983 East Coast tour, where he mentions a “record that I brought back from America last time I went home,” implying that he was spending an increasing amount of time in the States.

Vega had certainly visited The Sisters in their dressing room at one of the Danceteria shows in New York on that inaugural East Coast US tour, as Gary Marx recalled in an interview with Mark Andrews for his incredible article on TSOM’s “golden year” of 1983 for The Quietus earlier thisyear. “[Vega] was wildly funny and could quickly take over a room,” the guitarist recalled.

Seeking more information about the promo trip and Eldritch's first meeting with Vega, and having drawn a blank amongst fellow Sisters archivists and collectors, I decided to ask for the help of the man who was the catalyst for most of Eldritch’s high-profile contemporary musical friendships, Howard Thompson of Columbia Records, a high-flying Englishman in New York at that time, and the man responsible for the photos of Eldritch and Vega which have done the rounds of the internet in recent years (and which are reproduced here). Thompson was understandably vague about the details of events some thirty-five years ago, but told me “I wish I could be more helpful, but it’s all a massive blur, these days. I was originally turned on to The Sisters by Duncan Kilburn and John Ashton [of The Psychedelic Furs] who told me about the band when I was at CBS Records in Soho Square. I was an A&R man there and had brought The Furs to the label. I must have gone to see The Sisters shortly afterwards [a check of his diaries later confirmed that this was probably at Leeds University on 13th June 1981] but I didn’t pursue anything with them because it looked like I was going to be moving to the USA. I ended up at Columbia Records in Feb 1982 and caught The Sisters whenever they came to New York. Their promoter, [the late] Ruth Polsky was a close, dear friend and she took the pic of me and Eldritch backstage at the Music Machine [Camden Place] with me wearing his shades."

(Eldritch with Howard Thompson wearing the former's Aviators - pic Ruth Polsky)

Thompson continued : "I may – or The Furs may – have introduced her to Andrew. Anyway, one of the cheap, “rock & roll” hotels that UK bands used to star in – the others were the Mayflower and the Iroquois – when they came to the States was the Gramercy Park Hotel and The Sisters were duly booked there when they first came to America. Alan Vega used to live at the Gramercy too, so it might have been there that I introduced them, although I can’t honestly say. Suffice to say, Vega was another close friend of mine (I’d licensed the first Suicide album when I was at Bronze Records) and I always tried to introduce fascinating people to each other just to see what might happen. One of my best friends – Max Hole – was running A&R for WEA and I told him about the Sisters (Columbia were so old-fashioned that they would never have been interested) and Max ended up signing the band. In 1984, I joined Elektra as Head of A%R and it so happened that all WEA acts were available to the Warner, Elektra and Atlantic labels in the States for no cost, so I jumped in quickly and picked up The Sisters, which is how Elektra got ‘em.”

(Eldritch, Vega, Hussey, Adams - photo Howard Thompson)

A fascinating account, and a clear explanation for those photos of Eldritch, Hussey, Adams and Vega taken outside the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York at the start of the June 1985 US tour. By that time, Eldritch had already sounded Vega out about joining him and Patricia Morrison (another friendship which involved the singer making frequent visits Stateside) in a “supergroup” to replace the seemingly doomed Hussey-era Sisters, as mentioned in Italian fanzine interviews at the end of 1984 and covered in a previous post on this blog.

Eldritch himself returned to the subject of how Vega became involved with the Sisterhood’s Gift LP (he and Morrison allegedly contribute vocals to the Chorus of Vengeance on Rain From Heaven, and some even claim to have heard a demo of This Corrosion with Vega on vocals) in a revealing interview with The Quietus in November 2011 : “Andrew [Eldritch speaking in the third person!] went back to Vega’s apartment with a DAT recorder, played him the tracks and explained the scenario. Andrew has a permanent visa to Planet Vega, because the two of them get on very well. Nobody else talks to Vega like Eldritch talks to Vega.” This was confirmed by Marx in his more recent interview for The Quietus, saying that Vega “was drawn to Andrew rather than to the band.” Eldritch was clearly equally struck by Vega, with the run-out groove on the band's next release, 1984's Body and Soul bearing the dedication "For Spiggy and Alan Vega", and with some future Sisters/Sisterhood releases benefitting from the insistent, almost krautrock drone pulse which underpinned both Vega's solo work and Suicide's later studio albums.

Eldritch summed up their rapport in this wonderful exchange from a great interview conducted by Kiran Dass for New Zealand’s “Under The Radar” in February 2012:

Dass: Suicide, they’re the perfect group really, aren’t they?

Eldritch: Yes they are, yes they are. I have very strong feelings for Alan Vega in a man-love way [under his breath] if only he hadn’t hooked up with Ric Ocasek

Dass: What?? No way! Saturn Strip is an amazing record. I love it!

Eldritch: Do you really ? […] Well, we’re just going to have to disagree on that one, Kiran!

Whilst agreeing with Dass that Eldritch should reappraise his view of the excellent Saturn Strip (which has arguably aged better than that seminal debut Suicide album), one cannot help but agree also with Eldritch about the depth of his friendship with Vega, a man over twenty years his senior: for a man who seems to have been able to sustain very few professional relationships in his four decades in the music business, Eldritch’s admiration of Vega continued right through until the latter’s untimely death last year.

Eldritch himself summed it up when asked about Alan Vega's passing by Portuguese journalist Rui MIguel Abreu in an interview for Blitz last year (in my own approximate retranslation) : "I was very proud of Vega. I would have been surprised if he'd lived to be thirty, but he managed to live on to the age of 78, which is incredible. He always lied about his real age. I first met him many, many years ago and I thought to myself, "This fella's not destined to live a long life." But he did, and after all this time, despite the growth of industrial rock and the growth of dubstep, there's still nothing out there that sounds remotely like Suicide. Nobody has even tried to imitate them, because it would just be impossible. He really was a uniquely talented man."

Although Eldritch himself no longer seems able to mimic the full range of Vega vocal theatricals on stage, it’s pleasing to note that the new (cold)wave of proto-goth bands have rediscovered Suicide’s low-fi aggressive charm, none more so than Turkish band She Past Away, whose alternative dancefloor hit Asimilasyon will serve here as a wonderful if unwitting tribute to a man whose influence will continue to be felt for decades to come. Vega continued to make music until his last days, and his final album IT was released posthumously earlier this year.

My grateful thanks are due to all who have helped with this post, including Phil Verne of The Sisters of Mercy 19801985 Facebook fan group, Tony J Pooley, Luca, Artemis, Mark Andrews and of course the hugely influential Mr Howard Thompson.