Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Some Kind of Stranger (Early)

(This is the second in a series of posts on rare studio tracks by TSOM from the 1980-1985 period, following on from an earlier post on Driver)

In the twenty years that followed the release of First and Last and Always and the accompanying No Time To Cry single in March 1985, only the efforts of a series of intrepid bootleggers and tenacious collectors enabled any alternative or previously unreleased studio recordings from that era to surface, and by the turn of the millennium it was widely assumed that the vaults were empty and that there was nothing left to emerge. Whilst the original FALAA album had been repackaged and re-released on several occasions since its original launch, there was consternation amongst Sisters aficionados when it was announced in 2006 that Rhino (a division of WEA) was to re-release the three studio albums … with additional tracks. Not only did this mean that some songs were to be available digitally for the first time, but incredibly two previously unavailable tracks were to be included, an eleven minute version of “Neverland” on “Floodland” (unlike the brief “fragment” available on the original LP) and an “Early” version of “Some Kind of Stranger” on FALAA (click the link to hear it on YouTube). It was hoped that this might perhaps include an extra opening verse, as the released version started with the word “And (yes I believe in what we had)”, implying a continuation of a previous train of thought. Nothing, however, could have prepared said fans for the reality of what they were about to hear for the first time.

“Some Kind of Stranger” had by this stage become recognised as a key song of the Eldritch/ Marx/ Hussey/ Adams era, the centre-piece and dramatic climax of the venerated FALAA album. Every classic LP seemed to end with an epic song which elevated what was already an incredible album to legendary status – “The End”, “I Am The Resurrection” and “Champagne Supernova” being but three examples – and in the Eldritch/Marx composition “Some Kind of Stranger”, the Sisters showed that they could marry their new found pop sensibility (as on “Walk Away” or “Black Planet”) with the ability to construct a slow-burning symphony of a song, following in the tradition of “The Reptile House” EP. Save for SKOS and “(Amphetamine) Logic” which preceded it on the album running list, far more original fans of the band from the Gunn era would have deserted the band than had already done so. Disappointinglyhowever, the song was only played “live” on a handful of occasions (initially on the “Black October” UK jaunt which had been planned with the album release in mind, with the first playing at Birmingham's Powerhouse having been kindly uploaded to YouTube by Phil Verne, head honcho of the wondrous unofficial The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook group) , reflecting the physical and emotional demands of the song on the band and particularly singer as well as the difficulty in reproducing the multi-layered build-up with just (a maximum of) four men and an Oberheim drum machine. (Part of SKOS would return to the live set in the 1990s as a medley with the band’s cover version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.)

The original album version of SKOS could hardly be more bombastic, starting with a somewhat pretentious and vaguely ominous crescendo of echoing sound unlike anything else the band have recorded, ambient and harmonic. After a couple of seconds of dramatic silence, Marx’s complex riff kicks in, playing solo for a couple of bars before the other band members join the fray. Barely twenty seconds into the de facto start of the song, and a couple of bars earlier than might have been expected, Eldritch’s booming baritone intones the opening line, "And yes I believe in what we had". Marx’s riff is certainly a step beyond those produced in the early days, and he alluded to this in comments to Robert Cowlin for his excellent blog article on FALAA : “Any fans from the pre-Warner’s era would doubtless say that, for all its strengths, there isn’t a guitar line to match Alice anywhere on those finished tunes.” The guitarist had certainly moved away from the one-dimensional single string riffing which had become famous for and which he himself mocked with typical self-deprecation on the Ghost Dance website: “’All on one string and job’s a good ‘un’ as Choque from Salvation was keen to point out….the riff steps up half-way through the verse on the early Sisters stuff…Alice, Floorshow, Good Things…kind of a nod to bands like The Cramps who we all loved.” Indeed, on the studio reels from the Strawberry Studios session, the then untitled Some Kind of Stranger is referred to as “Little Wing”, presumably because of its fleeting similarity in terms of rhythm and melody to the legendary Jimi Hendrix’s riff on the song of the same name, a comparison Marx could not have dreamt of a couple of years earlier.

The album version of SKOS had boasted a lengthy introductory section in which a self-justifying Eldritch seems to be explaining why a long-term relationship has come to an end despite all of his own best efforts, and how a communication breakdown had been a key factor (“words got in the way”, “Lord knows I tried to say”, “heard a million conversations going where they’ve been before”,  “all of my words are second hand and useless” etc), suggesting the narrator’s belief that language is an ultimately unsatisfactory medium for communicating deep human emotions. He then goes on to excuse presumed infidelities (“the world is cruel, and promises are broken”) by expressing the view that wordless (“don’t give me whys and wherefores” “I don’t care for words that don’t belong”) passion with a stranger is somehow more intense, true and important than working through the ups and downs of a long-term relationship. Whilst his view “And I don’t care what you’re called, tell me later if at all” may seem callous, it is clearly an honestly held view, as he implores the “beautiful” “angel” with the “unknown footsteps in the hall outside” to “come inside” through his “door open wide”. Hardly a novel approach for a rock lyricist (everything from Extreme’s “More Than Words” to, erm, Right Said Fred’s “Don’t Talk, Just Kiss” express the same sentiments albeit in less poetic form), and the theme of a rock star seeking satisfaction in meaningless sex with nameless groupies is as much a rock’n’roll cliché as shades and dry ice.

However, the lyric had added personal poignancy for Eldritch who (according to Gary Marx interviewed in 2003 by “Quiffboy” for Heartland Forum) at that time “was effectively splitting with his long-term girlfriend and I was leaving the band. The two things led to a number of references in the lyrics which seemed to cover his farewells to us both. ‘Walk Away’ may or may not be about me, I don’t care because I don’t particularly like the song.” Unlike SKOS, Marx was of course not responsible for the melody and therefore felt no sense of betrayal for ‘Walk Away’. The same could not be said for SKOS: “The one lyric which always bugs me is the line from SKOS which says, ‘Careful lingers undecided at the door’, which I definitely took as a shot at me.”

Marx had already light-heartedly complained about Eldritch’s lyrical take on SKOS in a March 1985 interview for Artificial Life fanzine. “I would think that SKOS is the best attempt to sort of come out totally the opposite of what it was when I started it. It’s Andy’s big ‘woman song’…it’s his ‘I want every woman in the world’ song and I wrote it [the melody] totally from the opposite standpoint. When I wrote the music it was my version of the ‘Wedding March’. It was like a real, lasting relationship song…very strong, too! It works well because it’s quite emotional and to me it’s sort of tucked between the two because it’s like one person saying ‘I want every woman in the world’ and the other saying ‘Ah but when it all boils down to it, when you’re on your death bed, there’s only one that you’ll want to see’…and that makes it really emotional. It might not to other people because they might think, ‘I want every woman in the world as well!’”

In another interview from that month published in Sounds, Eldritch explains his own vision of the song. “The thing is, with a band like us, people figure that they know us inside out already. All the basic emotions and stuff are very public. And so casual sex isn’t really that casual. It just bypasses all that ‘Shall-I-take-you-to-the-pictures-for-five-weeks-before-we-start-feeling-up-each-other’s-jumpers.’ With SKOS, the visual picture was very hot and humid, sort of one door closes, another door opens. But the way it turned out – unfortunately, I’ve got the sort of voice that sounds desperate, and the higher it gets, the more desperate it sounds. It just sounds like a dirge to me.” The tales of an exhausted Eldritch having to be forced up to the studio microphone to provide a distressed vocal for a long-finalised backing track ring true no more so than on the album version of SKOS, but all of what has been discussed so far pales in significance when compared to the Early version that was finally released on the 2006 Rhino CD edition…

The Early version is still recognisably the same song both sonically and lyrically, but with enough significant changes to make it a very different experience for the listener. The Early version, listed as “Andy’s Little Wing” on the studio reels, dispenses with the ambient soundscape before the song begins, beginning instead with a particularly echoing drum beat. The second surprise is that that the vocals miss their usual cue…by several minutes. Instead the listener is able to focus on the subtleties of Marx’s composition, with Adams’ bass to the fore, and keyboard adornments prevalent from relatively early on. At 1:41, the first keyboard flourish is heard as the song builds in complexity in the style of Kiss The Carpet, making one wonder whether this song was considered as a potential set opener for the FALAA era. The main keyboard riff that features towards the end of the album version makes it first appearance in the intro here, around 2.15, over some rather rough-around–the-edges guitar chords that would probably have been rounded off in any final version for contemporary release.

After such a lengthy instrumental introduction, it comes as almost a surprise when Eldritch eventually starts singing at 3.40. Even more surprising are the opening lyrics themselves, which give a completely different slant to the song. Whereas the album version can be read either as a farewell to Marx and an appeal to a glamorous (LA based?) “angel” to join Eldritch’s next project, or as a farewell to his long-time love and as an explanation for his on-tour dalliances, the Early version paints a different lyrical picture.

“From England in the morning
I haven’t slept for days
I haven’t kept the promise made”

The opening line (“From England in the morning”) suggests that the narrator has just arrived in a foreign country after an overnight flight or ferry, and is addressing a female acquaintance in the overseas territory, whilst the following line (“I haven’t slept for days”) seeks to either impress or elicit pity. Whether the insomnia is caused by travel, amphetamines, studio recording sessions or romantic shenanigans is not elucidated. The third line to not make the final cut of the song, “I haven’t kept the promise made” seems the most portentous, the vocal line descending over a minor cadence in the style of an ominous line in a stage musical, or the final line of the slow section in Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (better known to Marc Almond fans as “If You Go Away”). As with most Eldritch lyrics, again this line is open to various interpretations. To whom had a promise been made? Himself? His former partner in England? The overseas friend? And what was the promise? To dump his former love definitively? To remain faithful? To keep off the drugs and take better care of himself? Whatever the explanation, there is a clear admission of guilt in this phrase, a stark contrast to the self-justification evident in the final album version lyric. The song then goes straight into the middle section of lyrics from the album version, “And I know the world is cold but if you hold on tight to what you find etc”, addressed to the “stranger”, meaning that there is none of the “And yes I believe in what we had, but words got in the way etc” addressed to the former friend. The Early version is therefore entirely aimed at “some kind of stranger”, and is lyrically less dense as a result.

If Eldritch was worried about how desperate his upper range sounded on the finished album version of the song, one can understand why the Early version was kept well-hidden for twenty years, as the “And I don’t care what you’re called” section which heralds the jump in octave reveals a wild, raw and emotionally bare tone previously unheard from the singer. Robert Cowlin’s definitive guide to the FALAA recording sessions points out the vocal take is very much in the style of the guide vocals provided on other demo versions from the sessions, and certainly Eldritch’s vocal here is well below the polished, professional standard of the final FALAA mixes, but all the more emotive for that.
Equally disconcerting for the listener is a bizarre guitar solo which commences at around 4:35. A muffled jazz-blues solo totally unrelated to anything else heard on a TSOM record, the early comments in 2006 by the denizens of Heartland Forum were not kind, likening the somewhat intrusive (particularly when heard through headphones) sound to “someone sitting on a puppy”, and the solo wails along faintly in the background for the remainder of the song in free-form style. This four-minute climax is entirely filled with Eldritch seemingly extemporising on the “I think you’re beautiful, angel/some kind of stranger come inside” theme, like he did with the early live versions of “Walk Away” or on the “No Time To Cry” Peel session before the lyrics for those songs were finalised. Sounding ever more impassioned, Eldritch’s grip on the melody, which might be charitably described as “pitchy” throughout, becomes almost painfully out of tune just before the seven and then eight minute marks, and then once more in the final phrase at 8:30. The song then fades rapidly over a guitar outro, meaning that a full version would have weighed in at over the nine minutes mark, two and a half minutes longer than the final album version (not including the soundscape intro).

As well as giving another insight into the TSOM songwriting process, Some Kind of Stranger (Early) is a stunning song in its own right which is some way best reflects the on-edge atmosphere within the band during the second half of 1984.

My thanks for this post are due to Robert Cowlin, Phil Verne, and others who have contributed either knowingly or unwittingly.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

...then we take Berlin - August 1983

(This post is the final one of four covering the West German tour of late summer 1983: the other three gigs being in Aratta, Munster and Hamburg)

West Berlin in the late 1970’s/early 80’s. Bowie. Decadence. Iggy. Drugs. Squats. Christiane F. Heroin. Nick Cave. Nightclubbing. This was the received wisdom, the slideshow playing in the mind of any British alternative band as they made their way to the unique Western enclave on the “wrong” side of the main sweep of the seemingly impenetrable Iron Curtain, trapped in a timewarp, and one can imagine that it would have been just the same for Eldritch, Marx , Adams and Gunn as they made their way to the divided city from Amsterdam to start the West German leg of their first continental jaunt, the Trans Europe Excess tour at the end of August 1983.

Arriving at the venue, the famous Loft Club would have done nothing to shake their prejudices, as the club was basically the upper floor of a venerable old Berlin landmark, the Neues Schauspielhaus. This noted example of Art Nouveau architecture had been completed in 1905 as a theatre with a concert hall (the “Mozartsaal”) above, although the latter had served as a cinema until it was heavily damaged by allied bombing in the Second World War. Incidentally, before being closed by the Nazis in the early 30’s, the main (ground floor) theatre auditorium had been adorned with stage sets by John Heartfield, the anti-Nazi artist and credited inspiration of Siouxsie and The Banshees’ song Metal Postcard/Mittageisen.

The wonderful façade and the cinema largely survived the bombing raids unscathed, and the latter was renamed the Metropol in 1951, becoming a club in 1977 as the silver screen began to decline with the advent of the VCR and the growth of colour TV, with the upstairs “Loft (im Metropol)” staging up and coming US and UK acts primarily from March 1983 onwards. However, the clientele was not simply junkies and punks, as one might have suspected, but like the other German gigs on the tour, the audience was partly composed of serving UK soldiers, as canny local promoters sought to exploit the “khaki deutschmark” burning a hole in the pockets of bored young British servicemen. I recently “overheard” a FB conversation between members of two of the leading post-punk groups at that time, reminiscing about their similar experiences at this venue: “British squaddies came to visit and decided we were great…the only thing was avoiding anything that would send them into fight mode,” commented one, who played the Loft very shortly after TSOM, conjuring up images of the lively scenes at the Sisters’ Munster gig (described in an earlier post). The other old post-punk replied, “We had a wee riot when we played there, as the local fascists and anarcho-punks decided to sort it out on the last number. It looked quite surreal under the strobes.”

The Sisters’ own gig seems to have passed off more peacefully, as can be witnessed in a fantastic thirteen minute video featuring highlights from the set. This is taken from a compilation tape of bands performing at the LOft that year (the Killing Joke footage from the same year is from the same video cassette), so presumably the whole show was filmed (although no tape has yet surfaced). Of the three songs featured, the first is the penultimate song of the set, Kiss The Carpet, with white-shirted Eldritch posing somewhat awkwardly when the lengthy introduction begins, (rather than dramatically appearing when the main riff kicked in, as was his wont in UK gigs when the song had been the traditional set-opener). The singer appears glued to his mic stand, hunched over the shaft as he surveys the audience which is clearly several hundred strong. With Marx (and sometimes Adams) on the dark side of the stage, and Eldritch unemployed for the first couple of minutes the camera focuses largely on Ben Gunn, and the discomfort referred to by Gary Marx in the recent Quietus interview (“I often looked across at Ben who seemed a bit unsure how to behave when he was doing so little”) is plain for all to see, as the unresponsive crowd also fail to appreciate the song’s slow-burning qualities. This is of the course the last footage of Gunn on stage with the Sisters, as he was to leave the band the following month on returning from the East Coast US tour. Here, he looks closest to the style that the band would adopt in its next incarnation, with his indie haircut and black shirt, whilst Marx has again gone for the open gilet look, Adams in a t-shirt and Eldritch in a hippy-ish white shirt which he also worn at the Paradiso, and which clearly sports a substantial rip on the left sleeve. Things improve dramatically with final encore “Body Electric”, a subdued Marx staying to his corner of the stage during his solos on the relatively small stage, and by the time the song ends, the band leave the stage to a rapturous reception, the singer saying “Goodnight and thank you” then waving to the audience as they exit stage right.

The video tape resumes with what had been the mid-set “Floorshow”, which is preceded by a bizarre incident in which a tiny punk with a most impressive mohican, who looks no more than ten years old, enters the stage to place something (a drink?) down for Eldritch, who responds by quipping into the mic, “This is my manager.” No-one bats an eyelid. Only in Berlin.As was often the case, the backbeat to the song starts a little slowly, and Eldritch appears to tell Gunn to speed the Doktor up (which duly happens) before Adams begins the familiar scuzzy main riff. The singer, cigarette in hand and black gloves clinging to the microphone stand, is in great form as he sings and yelps his way through what was becoming the band’s signature song. The footage ends suddenly with Gunn and Adams deep in discussion over by the Doktor before what would have been “Adrenochrome”, and no further video footage of the gig has been discovered despite extensive searches, although a full audio recording is in existence and features on a bootleg LP entitled Echoes Vol 1. The set list of the gig is unusual, with apparently no “Sister Ray” final encore and the order of the songs is somewhat different to other gigs on the band’s first European tour. The show did begin though with the usual set opener “Burn”, preceded by a confident “’Ello” from the singer. The mix is unusually clear, as if none of the usual effects were being employed, and at the end of the song Eldritch tells the sound crew “The sound’s very dry up here, Martin.” “Valentine” which follows, sounds barely different, with Eldritch clearly straining for the top notes, and it is no surprise to hear him request “more effect return up here please, Martin.” However, “Anaconda” is similarly anaemic, which does at least allow us to hear how the guitar riff on the “rush hour traffic” middle verse had modified during the year, but a clearly happier Eldritch just says “Danke” to the audience.

(generic TSOM West German tour poster - minus the definite article - from the collection of LG)

The sound gradually improves as the band move on to “Heartland”, quickly followed by “Alice” with Craig’s bass sounding suitably scuzzy and Eldritch’s vocal featuring more reverb. The central point of the set is reached with the epic “Emma”, the vocal bleeding slightly in the mix when Eldritch’s vocals begin some two minutes into the song, and on this tour Gunn delays the louder rhythm guitar chords that habitually started with the “Darling, I love you” section (in the Hussey era) until the next chorus. The pace of the set picks up with “Temple of Love”, with Eldritch introducing the song (and the band) in German, telling them “We’re called the Sisters of Mercy”. After “Floorshow” (which made it onto the video highlights), the set ends with a slower version of “Adrenochrome” and a dramatic “Gimme Shelter”, where Eldritch has some pitch problems in the “storm is spreading” section, but recovers to end the set alone on the stage for the then-traditional a capella ending, followed by a casual “Bye bye”. These covers went down particularly well with the crowd, with fanzine journalist Umberto Savignano recalling the gig wistfully when reviewing the Munich gig in November 1984 for “59 to 1” fanzine (on page 9): “A year and a half ago, when I saw TSOM for the first time in Berlin, hardly anyone knew that this band made music that was so melodic, melancholic and yet at the same time with such heavy guitars (more so than today).”

The Sisters returned to the Metropol (the main hall downstairs, that is) in 1985 on their final tour of the 1980’s, and then played at the Berlin Eissporthalle in November, one month after the official Reunification of Germany. But they had also originally been booked to play in the Loft on the November 1984 West German tour, as this advert will testify, although on that date the Sisters ultimately played the Hyde Park circus tent in Osnabruck instead.

(My thanks to the generosity of LG, Ollie C, "Travis B" and others who have contributed to this post. Phil Verne will be revealing more about this show over on the unofficial TSOM 1980-1985 Facebook page.)

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!