Friday, 16 June 2017

Who put the Goth in Gothenburg – May 15th 1985

Like many second cities, Sweden’s Göteborg works hard to keep up with its more illustrious rival Stockholm, and in particular revels in a musical past that has produced the likes of Ace of Bass and current melodic death metal darlings At The Gates, In Flames and Dark Tranquility. A visitor to the city’s premier museum anytime between November 2015 and January 2018 will have had the chance to see the major exhibition on the city’s music scene between 1955 and 2018, emphasising both the past and the present of this vibrant port which works hard to dispel the “safe but boring” tag associated with the city’s major employer, the Volvo corporation. Although featuring the city’s punk scene, the exhibition is disappointingly light on the Sisters’ main contemporaries from the area, Leather Nun, whose knowing guitar-and-iconic vocalist swagger, history and attitude made them worthy rivals of Leeds’ finest.

Gothenburg has become a semi-regular stopping point for the current incarnation of The Sisters of Mercy in their gigging-only mindset, possibly as a result of their first visit there back in 1985, towards the end of the Armageddon European tour following Gary Marx’s departure from the band. The Gothenburg gig took place in the Mudd Club on Kungstorget, which in an earlier life had been The Cue Club, an organisation which was based in a series of venues over the years and hosted gigs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple and Yes.

The Mudd Club was the brainchild of the late John Lindholm, who brought Johnny Thunders, Nick Cave and a host of metal bands to the venue in the mid-1980s. On the occasion of his untimely death at the age of 56 in 2010 (in a bizarre accident in which he was hit by a tram trying to save the life of his dog which had strayed into the vehicle's path), local paper GT included a tribute which contained a section about the Mudd Club, stating that he painted the whole club black (a feature which means that there are some excellent photos of many of the bands who played there) and put on mud wrestling events (giving the club its unusual name) in the venerable building, which is now home to the Tranquilo restaurant and the (Some Kind of?) Stranger Bar.

The Sisters' gig at the Mudd Club, which took place on Wednesday 15thMay was memorable for several reasons. Of course it was Eldritch’s birthday, which meant that the FALAA reference to “twenty-five years of ever after, ever more, more more” needed to be updated by one for the first time, a lyrical change which was repeated in some of the US dates and at the Royal Albert Hall. Phil Verne of the ever fascinating TSOM 1980 1985 unofficial FB fan page has kindly uploaded this first "twenty-six years" FALAA to YouTube for us all to enjoy. As Eldritch explained at the Stockholm Press Conference later that week, “We had a lot of problems in the afternoon [in Gothenburg]….all the barriers collapsed.” However, a lively and supportive crowd resulted in a memorable show “Gothenburg was ok, a good audience…It was still a good show because the audience were good in the end….The Swedish audience is fine”, was the singer’s considered (if slightly repetitive)  opinion. Encores Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and Train from this gig later surfaced on the well-known Opus Dei bootleg double vinyl live collection, and a high-quality cassette of the full gig is in circulation amongst the usual collectors. It reveals an enthusiastic audience who not only clap along to the Doktor’s opening drumbeats for the set-opener FALAA, but cheer when Hussey begins the “Scottish” riff, like Sinatra fans applauding their approval after the opening line of a song. Their enthusiasm is maintained to the end, continuing to attempt to sing the “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” chorus after the singer has left the stage at the end of the first encore, making tapes of this show easy to identify. Eldritch is in fantastic voice throughout but is uncharacteristically quiet between the songs for the first 45 minutes, but before the encore (KOHD and Train) he does address the crowd with the legendary “Hey, Eengleesh, why you no play Temple of Love?” before answering in his own sotto voce "Because we played it last time", referring to the Stockholm 1983 gig. Craig’s bass is particularly prominent on some tracks, particularly towards the end of the main set with a rapid-fire punky Floorshow/Alice and an arguably never-bettered Gimme Shelter (bizarrely introduced by a possibly not-all-there Von as Body Electric), where it buzzes towards the end in a style rarely heard since 1983. Hussey responds as he did throughout the European tour with some virtuoso psychedelic rock soloing of his own, wigging out big time in a mesmeric version of the song. With Wayne also rocking out on the next song, KOHD, the amused (annoyed?) singer drily comments “Sorry, this one doesn’t have a guitar solo…much” before the “Train” finale. There has been no mass copying of a video of the show which is said to exist, as the alleged owner of the master has apparently kept it in his private collection, although this could be an apocryphal tale.

Most photos of TSOM shows of that era are grainy shots taken by an eager fan from the moshpit with a basic instamatic, yet from the Gothenburg gig not one but two sets of excellent black and white prints have emerged. The first collection, taken by Per-Ake Wôrn is well-known as it contains some of the best in circulation of the band at their best, and feature the author’s copyright watermark in the bottom corner. Arguably even better is a set of photos taken by Henrik Rylander (later of the band Union Carbide Productions and still a major figure on the Gothenburg arts scene) and feature on his excellent tumblr archive “Welcome to Gothenburg 80s 90s”. Posted on the internet five years ago, the silhouetted shots of Eldritch against the dry ice, dramatic stage lighting and the club’s monochromatic décor make for a memorable and powerful reminder of the importance of the singer’s iconic appearance at this stage of the band’s career, such as the example reproduced below.

The Sisters of Mercy have become semi-regular visitors to Gothenburg since this initial visit in 1985, and later this year they are returning once more, for a show which is already sold-out. If it’s anything like the 1985 gig, the fans are in for a real treat. My thanks for this and others in this Scandinavian Armageddon mini-series of blog posts are due to the usual triumvirate of Phil Verne, Bruno Bossier and LG, and especially to Anders and other Scandinavian Sisters fans who have provided fascinating info. Rise and reverberate! 

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Scared to Dance – The Skids and the Scottish Punk Revolution, 1977

[Apologies to those whose only interest is in The Sisters of Mercy – normal service will be resumed later this week ;-)]

Anyone spending a few days in Edinburgh over the next month could do worse than hop on a train over the iconic Forth Bridge to visit the Scottish nation’s ancient capital, Dunfermline, burial place of Robert the Bruce and birthplace of arch capitalist turned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The “Auld Grey Toon”’s modern claim to fame was as the home of punk legends The Skids, and this week saw the opening of a new exhibition (which continues until July 2nd) to mark the fortieth anniversary of the arrival of punk in Eastern Scotland as it broke free of its London roots. There are some who feel that for the movement to celebrate an anniversary goes against its founding principles, but for those of us with an interest in musical history and ensuring that it is fully and properly archived, this small exhibition is totally welcome.

The location of the exhibition could hardly be more appropriate, in Dunfermline’s Fire Station Creative, a recently opened arts co-operative housed as its name suggests in the town’s city centre art deco former fire brigade headquarters. Not only has Skids frontman Richard Jobson been one of the Creative’s most prominent supporters, but the gallery (the white building on the right of this photograph) is almost directly opposite the old Kinema Ballroom, home of the earliest punk gigs in the town in 1977, which can be seen the left of the photo sporting the name of its most recent incarnation, Velocity, although it has been closed for a number of years.

The Fire Station Creative hosts a number of resident artists in the upper floors, with the ground floor given over to a combined café and gallery space. On my visit to the exhibition, it seemed slightly incongruous to be looking at photos of wide-eyed young revolutionary idealists whilst almost trampling over the predominantly middle class clientele who had just popped in for a skinny latte, but the venue does a slightly bohemian alternative buzz not found in your average Costa, in keeping with punk’s art school roots.

“Scared to Dance – The Skids and the Scottish Punk Revolution 1977” has been co-curated by Jobson and fellow Scot Ronnie Gurr, a name I remember from his journalistic strapline in the Record Mirror in the late 1970’s. Gurr went on to manage Simple Minds before moving on to manage Culture Club at the height of their fame, but in 1977 he was a fanzine editor who documented the East of Scotland punk scene with his pen and his camera, and about one third of the exhibition features his small monochrome prints of the great and good of the London punk scene – Pistols, Clash, Stranglers etc – on their first visits to Scotland’s capital, as well as more local acts such as Johnny and the Self Absusers (who would famously resurface as Simple Minds). These crowded images successfully capture punk's whiff of excitement and revolution in an increasingly regressive 70’s society, and are more in tune with the punk ideal than the professional and impressive portraits of punk icons from Lou Reed to Jean-Jacques Burnel, large prints of whom ornament the gallery/café’s entrance area and make up a further third of the exhibition. These large and frequently inconic prints (Sid and Nancy, anyone?) are primarily the work of Steve Emberton, a snapper for the London music weeklies, and they are embellished here by comments from Jobson on their influence on him and their dealings with him. Appropriately, Jobson’s commentary is presented as stark back typeface on white paper blue tac’ed under the prints, rather than the more fancy Perspex adornments preferred by modern galleries. Jobson speaks of the long-lasting friendship The Skids have enjoyed with the Stranglers, and reminisces fondly about filling in briefly for Hugh Cornwell when the latter was infamously jailed, but also speaks about the power of Iggy Pop and Patti Smith and their influence on his own performances. There are also some Paul Slattery pictures from an early Skids photoshoot which capture their looks of youthful incredulity of four young lads from Fife getting the superstar treatment as they pose in front of the afore-mentioned rail bridge.

For me, the highlight of the exhibition is a new piece of work by Jobson and Gurr themselves, a wall-to ceiling collage spelling “1977” in a punk fanzinesque stencil font. Each of the figures is richly decorated with fascinating artefacts from the era – press reviews, tickets, hand-written Skids lyrics, even a page from a personal address book listing Captain Sensible’s then phone number – over a backdrop of reproduced button badges of bands from that era (on the "9"), and is a powerful reminder of the do-it-yourself cut-and-paste aesthetic that punk brought to the fore, and which was concretised as the same generation brought about the realisation of the ultimate democratic tool, the internet.

The re-formed Skids are celebrating their own fortieth anniversary with their first new album for thirty-five years and a lengthy tour, and this exhibition highlights their importance in the Scottish scene. Those wishing to explore the late 70's Scottish punk scene further will find plenty to satisfy their curiosity at this wonderful website which includes scans of the late Johnny Waller’s Dunfermline-based punk fanzine, Kingdom Come.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The first encore, Leeds October 1982

More information has emerged about the very early days of TSOM (i.e. pre “Alice”) in the last couple of years than in the previous thirty-five, allowing researchers such as Mark Andrews (author of this legendary Quietus piece last year) and others to piece together not only a chronology of events, but an insight into the lifestyle of the band and its entourage in those fledgling years.

Even Eldritch himself, well-known for his dislike of any discussion about his past (either in the band or his life before that) seems to have mellowed, allowing himself to reflect on his career with a little more pride and humility. In a 2015 Greek interview, the singer was asked about his best and worst touring experiences. “I’ve been in hospital quite a lot, that’s the bad experiences. About the best…..I think was the first time we did an encore, you see when you’re a junior band, you don’t expect to be asked for more. That was a good one.”

I assumed that this first encore was the famous double playing of “1969” at Leeds University in October 1982,  my first ever Sisters gig (and the subject of the first post on this blog some six years ago), presumably because the band had already played the entireity of their “live” repertoire and had nothing else left to play! Then late last year, on the TSOM page on a ticket website, another Leeds alumnus confirmed this theory. “Jeremy” added a comment to the effect that, as Stage Manager at the Riley Smith Hall, he fondly recalled giving the band an encore, “much to the consternation of the headliner”.

I contacted Jeremy for more details, and he was only too happy to share his memories of Leeds in the early 80s. “What a vibrant time that was, I was so pleased to be part of it… Most of The Sisters lived in a typical Woodhouse Terrace [studentsville Victorian terraced house] dump with the windows covered up….I was good friends with Craig so I went by frequently. They just listened to The Stooges and The Birthday Party all night, smoking copious amounts. Even in the dark room Andrew never took off his leather jacket or his dark glasses, and never said a word. He was like a god to the collected masses! Someone would say, “I think Andrew wants to hear ‘Junkyard,’ and someone would dutifully put it on! Later, someone would say, “Andrew wants everyone to go away.” So everyone did! It was hysterically funny, the disciples really followed the piper...The brilliance of TSOM in 80-82 was that the band built up a culture with a few EPs and press, and there you all were smoking in a crappy house in Leeds. Genius, seriously.”

Fast forward to October 1982, and the night of the first encore which Eldritch recalls even today with a sense of achievement. “This was the Sisters’ first real tour,” Jeremy told me, “as support act to the Furs. They played the set and left the stage as normal. As stage manager I was in charge of the gig and told Craig, ‘Get back on and play an encore.’ He had to talk to Andrew, of course! There was some delay – I nearly had to push them on stage. They went back on stage and couldn’t find the drum machine track! I got into trouble with the Furs’ management, though – you don’t do that for a support band, haha!” A drum track was eventually selected, and the band duly played "1969" for the second time that evening, albeit with a somewhat different introduction.

Jeremy eventually got thanked by Eldritch for the compliment. “I was also recording the gig – I knew the sound guy on the desk, when you do hundreds of gigs it becomes a small world. After the gig one of Andrew’s cronies came up to me and told me that he wanted the tape.” Jeremy passed on a copy via Craig and thought nothing of it until The Sisters’ gig at the warehouse in January 1983. Still sweating from a lively moshpit after the gig, Jeremy was surprised to be approached by Eldritch, who spoke to him directly for the first time in their years of acquaintance. “You’re Jeremy, aren’t you? I hear that you put on the encore and got the tape. Thank you.” Sadly, like many fans of the early era, Jeremy lost his copy of the master tape in a subsequent house move.

However, as we discussed the early TSOM shows which we had both witnessed, Jeremy also told me about a gig which isn’t listed on any TSOM gigography. “We did a one-off gig at one of the halls of residence [at Leeds University].” Amazed, I suggested the names of a few of the main halls back in the early 80’s. “Yes, it was Bodington. We definitely did Bodington. I remember it well as a ‘surprise gig’.” Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that Bodington Hall has been bulldozed (some five years ago) and replaced with a housing development, but for some fifty years (from its 1960s inception) Bodington was the largest of the university’s halls, a sprawling mass of low-rise concrete clocks with over 600 study bedrooms and associated facilities including a large refectory. The complex had been built on green-belt land adjacent to the city’s then new northern relief road, some four miles north of the city centre, effectively condemning its residents to a daily commute into the university, where they were then “stranded” for the day, unlike students of campus residences who could return home in the many “free” slots on their timetable. “Bod” residents then had to return to the halls for their evening meal, before deciding whether to trek back to campus or town for a night out. Unsurprisingly therefore, Bodington developed a social scene of its own, so a ‘surprise gig’ by a local up-and-coming band would not have been a particularly unusual event. Sadly (if understandably), Jeremy cannot recall any further details of the gig, such as a likely date, but if anyone else has further information I would be delighted to hear from them! He did however confirm that it took place in the Refectory at Bodington, shown below in a photo taken shortly before its demolition at the start of this decade.

I am very grateful to Jeremy for taking the time and trouble to share his reminiscences with us, to Phil Verne of the unofficial TSOM 1980-1985 FB fan page, and (once again) to the venerable Ade M for creating the YouTube video which means that we can all experience again the “rite of passage” that was the band’s first ever encore.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Review of first ever TSOM gig found ! - York, 16th Feb 1981

That the Sisters of Mercy played their first gig at Alcuin College at The University of York on 16th February 1981 has long been an accepted fact, and indeed an event celebrated by the band themselves every decade with a pair of anniversary shows. Eldritch himself referred to the first-ever show when on stage at the York Rock Festival some three and a half years later, informing the audience that they had played their first gig in the city supporting The Thompson Twins, back when the latter were “groovy”, adding (Michael Caine style) “Not a lot of people know that.”

That the Thompson Twins played the gig has never been in question, with music press adverts having surfaced (like the one featured below, from the collection of Phil Verne) which feature the York date amongst others on their Feb 1981 UK tour which was both promoting their “Perfect Game” single (on their own “T Records” label) and also in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s “No Nukes” policy, a campaign aimed squarely at the younger politically-aware citizens of the UK. But the only evidence that TSOM played at this gig so far has come from Eldritch himself, primarily in the form of a brief description in the Biography section of the band’s official website. “The band makes its live debut on February 16th, somewhere between The Stooges and Suicide, or Motorhead and Chrome. Marx has connected his guitar to a record-player pre-amp which feeds back uncontrollably and Eldritch has shifted the vocal echo into overdrive. It’s metal dub without any spaces, on a shuddering mechanoid backdrop. The first-ever set kicks off with a twisted version of Cohen’s “Teachers”, and ends with a juggernaut howl which might have been “Silver Machine” but was in fact “Sister Ray”. The audience gets the point.”

Impressive stuff, but still clearly just Eldritch’s own recollections (albeit in the third person), written some years after the event, and yet the one online eye-witness account of the gig, by “Carl1960” on states, “Can’t remember anything about The Sisters of Mercy.” Finding some kind of bona fide evidence from the show – a poster, genuine live recording (there are several which claim to be from this show), ticket or review – became the holy grail for a generation of Sisters’ collectors, as I became aware when legendary aficianados Phil Verne, LG and Bruno Bossier started helping me with this blog a few years ago.
Phil in particular has made this a personal quest over the past thirty years. The closest he had come was finding online a scanned issue of well-known contemporary Yorkshire fanzine “Wool City Rocker”, but in the relevant edition the promised “Yorkshire gig guide” (which may have listed TSOM as support) apparently came as a separate fold-out poster, which was not scanned. After many years, LG finally tracked down a copy of the poster that came with WCR but sadly only the Thompson Twins were listed.

Having belatedly joined the hunt, I too found that the trail was cold, despite mentions of the gig on various York websites (which had seemingly taken their info directly from the TSOM official site). I was therefore delighted earlier this year to find on Ebay a copy of a very professional York fanzine from the early 80s, “Beaten to the Punch”, which contained “live” reviews from the latter part of 1981, and had clearly been in existence at the time of the 16th February gig, raising hopes that there might be a definitive mention of the gig in a previous edition.
Searching online, I was astonished to find that sections of a copy of the relevant issue of “Beaten to the Punch” (dated May 1981) had been scanned and featured on a superb fanzine archive blog by a user called “still unusual”, hosted by Tumblr (a recommended site for a lazy afternoon’s nostalgic browse). The author of the blog had chosen this issue to feature from his vast collection as it contained an interview with much-missed Leeds new-wave indie pop ensemble Girls at Our Best, which was reproduced in full on the blog. I could hardly believe my eyes when I read the next sentence of the blogger’s summary of the fanzine’s contents : “Apart from that … there’s reviews of recent gigs by the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Misty in Roots, Aswad and The Thompson Twins.” Sadly, however these sections had not been scanned into the blog post.

I quickly signed up for a Tumblr account and messaged the anonymous blogger, asking if he/she could possibly scan in the live review sections as I would be very interested in seeing them. I got an almost instant reply, “Don’t have much time for fanzines at the moment, but I’ll take a look over the Easter weekend.” I checked back on the Tumblr site regularly within the last month to read “still unusual”’s latest posts (incidentally a lot of cool but non-TSOM-related stuff), but nothing relevant appeared to have been posted, until earlier this week when I checked back on the “Beaten to the Punch” post, to find that it had been updated with the requested reviews, and incredibly TSOM are not only mentioned by the fanzine’s reviewer of the Thompson Twins gig, John MacLaverty, but reviewed in a brief section about the two support bands.
Whilst Eldritch feels that “the audience got the point”, MacLaverty takes a different view (see cutting at top of article). “As the assembling audience got tanked up in the bar, the two support bands failed to grab the attention of the few in the hall.” Fortunately, the fanzine journalist remained alert however, and was able to add a further sentence “Maybe Sisters of Mercy opened up a bit gloomily, all suitably bleak and industrial featuring the mandatory drum machine.” Harsh but probably fair, indeed not too dissimilar to Eldritch’s own appraisal of events on stage, but including a few epithets that hint towards the “goth” label which would soon be attached to the group and plagues them to this day. The reviewer clearly preferred the (sunk without trace) other support band Able Kars (which sounds like a taxi firm), before drily noting “lift-off failed and the bar did good business”.
The rest of the review rails at the audience for showing no interest in the political cause which the event was purporting to publicise, but includes a decent review of the (indeed then “groovy”) Thompson Twins. The latter were at that stage a seven-piece, and purveyors of a tribal funk-pop (influenced by Adam and the Ants, who had undergone a punk rebel to pop star route that both The Thompson Twins and The Sisters of Mercy were to follow) and creating an upbeat, almost party atmosphere amongst usually po-faced indie gig-goers. I once saw The Thompson Twins live myself (between this gig and the April 1982 split which would leave the chart-bound nucleus of three people), and vividly recall the band handing out drums/percussion items and encouraging the audience to join them onstage for the finale, as happened at the York gig described here, one of very few bands to risk such an audacious move in the post-punk days.

The discovery of this wonderful artefact proves that TSOM did indeed play at the Feb 16th gig, their first ever.  Why a Leeds band’s live debut took place on the University of York's campus, situated in the village of Heslington, a few miles to the south of the flood-prone historic city is still not entirely clear, but TSOM became very popular with the Ents Committees responsible for putting on gigs in the JCR of their college (rather grandly, York uni modelled itself on Oxford and Cambridge in having a collegiate structure, a bit like the Houses at Hogwarts) as they would feature there several more times in 1981 and 1982. The fact that Eldritch was well-known for hanging around (and possibly even employed at) city punk t-shirt emporium Priestley’s, would certainly help to explain his connections with the movers and shakers of the York gig scene, however. This pic of a very young Eldritch in Priestley’s was posted on FB by Russ C who said, “It was taken by friend of mine, around the time the Sisters were conceived. As the taker of it rightly states (or words to that effect), “he was always, and even then, way head of the rest of ‘em.””

I will leave for others to discuss the long-running issues of whether the gig took place in Alcuin (as most now agree) or Vanburgh College, or whether the alleged live recordings are actually from this gig – and I imagine that the debate will rage on over on the unofficial The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 FB page. But for now, I would like to thank the blogger “stillunusual” for their key role in providing indisputable evidence that TSOM did indeed support The Thompson Twins in York on that February 1981 evening, and to Russ C, Phil and LG once again for sharing items from their vast collections with us.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Imperial Leather Jacket - London, 29th October 1982

As we have seen before, researching old TSOM gigs at a distance of thirty odd years can be a frustrating and often trying experience, but gradually information emerges that enables the obsessive fan to assemble the key details about a particular show and its idiosyncrasies in comparison to other gigs of that era.

One curious anomaly of the half a dozen or so London gigs the band played as they increasingly tried to impress the self-appointed metropolitan musical elite (crucial backers if the band were to break out of their northern stronghold) was the gig at Imperial College in the capital on Friday 29th October 1982. This gig is listed in all the usual gigographies usually accompanied by the phrase “nothing is known about this gig.”

This is not strictly true in this case, as the gig was reviewed towards the end of the band’s short breakthrough interview piece in the NME entitled “Do The Apocalypso”, eventually published in the first week of December. The paper’s editors had clearly sat on the piece for a wee while, given that the show had taken place five weeks earlier, but had clearly been hastily resurrected when rival paper Sounds stole a march on them by having TSOM as cover stars.

In the very positive “Do The Apoclaypso” piece, journalist Don Watson curiously refers to the audience as “unsuspecting students”, a phrase which had intrigued me since first reading it when it was first published, but which I now hope to be able to fully explain.

What had always been surprising about the Imperial College gig was the fact that there appeared to be none of the usual flyers and adverts, and that no photos, tickets or audio had emerged either, a situation totally different to the TSOM London gigs either side of it in those final months of 1982 as the word of mouth about the band began to really spread with the release of the ground-breaking “Alice/Floorshow” double A sided single. Indeed, all of the other gigs in London around this time seemed to feature two or more other bands, but on this occasion curiously no other band seemed to have been mentioned.

Like other colleges of the University of London, Imperial was a fiercely independent branch of the major institution, and like the other colleges had its own Students’ Union building (in this case housed in the magnificent red-brick building below) as well as having centralised services in the larger University of London Union (ULU), where TSOM were to play supported by the Smiths in June 1983.

On this occasion at the end of October 1982, however, I can now reveal that the band were booked at short notice to play at the Halloween Party of the Imperial College Students’ Union taking place that Friday evening. The attached advert, from the Imperial College student newspaper Felix, back issues of which are now digitised online, states that for the princely sum of £1 students would have access to the Halloween Party which would now feature a performance of TSOM (contrary to what had been previously advertised). One shudders to think at what an already “anti-goth” Eldritch would have said had he seen the amateurish witch with black cat illustration which accompanied the ad in Felix, surely the worst promo for the band since the classic “waving nun” on a John F Keenan poster some eighteen months earlier.

One can therefore imagine that many of the students attending would have been oblivious to the fact that there would be a band performing at all, let alone Leeds’ finest, and so the three-way split the journalist describes in the crowd is all the more understandable. “The audience becomes a mix of bouncing psychobillies, restrained consideration and open antagonism.” Eldritch later tells Watson “We always do that to an audience, there’s always the three distinct groups. We always get cut and dried reactions.”

Watson agrees with Eldritch’s assertion that the band are a different prospect “live” than in the studio, stating “Where the records restrain the power, the live sound takes it to almost ridiculous levels, as the band teeters on the edge of parody.” Little did he know that this was only the end of the beginning …

By the time the piece was published, the Sisters were a bona fide cause celebre in the musical world, being added to bills left, right and centre in the hectic pre- and post-Christmas gig rush in the capital, and no more would they need to effectively gate-crash student parties just to provide an opportunity for journalists and others to see them. If anyone was at the gig, or has any ephemera from it, the six thousand diehard fans over at the unofficial 1980-1985 The Sisters of Mercy Facebook group would love to hear from you!

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Iggy and Spiggy - Leeds, 2nd July 1981

If time travel is invented during my lifetime, I know exactly when and where I will set the dial for : the evening of Thursday 2nd July 1981 at the Warehouse club, Leeds. As I would discover a few years later, early July was a joyous time in Leeds when the tens of thousands of students would leave the city for the summer at the end of the academic year, leaving the locals back in charge of the cultural scene.

Thursday 2nd July was the night of a gig by one of Eldritch’s chief inspirations, Iggy Pop, at the local university. Pop was promoting his Party album with lenedary platinum-selling French band Téléphone in support, and their gig in Leeds came in the same week as I saw the tour myself in Nottingham at the Rock City venue. It was the strangest gig I have ever been to: Téléphone, accustomed to selling over half a million albums per release and playing stadia in France, being almost totally ignored apart from one would-be comedian shouting out the only French phrase he knew ""Machine à laver" between each song, and Iggy for me being a huge letdown, flouncing around in a bad mood, fleeing the stage when someone threw a plastic glass vaguely in his direction, baiting the audience in a half-hearted manner and (choosing my words carefully here) clearly not on great form (unlike the gigs later in the 80s when he had re-become the ultimate showman). 

I can't imagine that the Leeds show was much different, and most of the audience from the Leeds University show were enticed to the Warehouse after the gig, a venue where Claire Shearsby DJ’d, and TSOM were billed to play a late night set to capitalise on the large number of punks in town. Simon McKay of Newcastle fanzine Eccentric Sleeve Notes was one of many (“Not a night to forget” as he reminded me earlier this year) who made the short trek from the university after the Iggy gig past the Fav(ersham pub) and the hospital, through the city centre and down to Somers Street for the Sisters show at the Warehouse, a venue which was allegedly the inspiration for the song “Floorshow”. Also down at the Warehouse that legendary night was Paul “Grape” Gregory of the Expelaires, who remembers Iggy himself putting in an appearance at the gig. “The Warehouse gig was an amazing night,” he told Sisters fans on Facebook earlier this year. “The Sisters on stage, Iggy dancing all around the upstairs bar and all the best of LS6 [Headingley’s post code] in the house. Music For Pleasure had played Amnesia that night too so the place was jammed with everyone from these gigs….the beer, the gear, and everyone dancing like loons, an epic night followed by epic hangovers.”

(Contemporary advert for the Iggy gig at the university from the York fanzine, Beaten to the Punch. Note the self-publicity by Union Ents secretary and future radio DJ Andy Kershaw on the right)

According to an interview with promoter John Keenan on the now defunct "North Nights" website, Keenan himself was largely responsible for what happened that night. "Iggy was playing at the university on the same night [as the Sisters gig at the Warehouse which I was promoting] so I went up to the gig to hand out some flyers. The Sisters used to do a version of the Stooges' 1969 so I invited Iggy and the crew down. After the gig we were all having a few drinks together in the bar when Iggy got up and walked over to a poster on the wall advertising a New Romantic night. He went up to it and went "New Ro-f**king-Mantic" and ripped it off the wall. At that time, the Warehouse had a big gay barman called Chris who was about 6'4" but as camp as ever. He went over, picked Iggy right up off the floor, held him against the wall and in a really unexpected camp voice shouted, "That's my boyfriend's night!" Of course, Iggy was really shocked, but they're the kind of rock and roll stories you don't always hear."

The above press advert, which featured in the anthology of Heartland fanzine (and thanks to Phil Verne of the essential TSOM 1980-1985 unofficial Facebook group for this pic) shows just how far the band had come, less than six months from their live debut, with respected promoter Keenan sufficiently impressed to put them on at the Warehouse as headliners under the Fan Club banner after the band had played only half a dozen or so gigs. This July night is therefore a significant staging post in the band's history, the night they began to stand out from a very talented crop of local bands as the one with the potential to make it big. With the success of this gig and the buzz now beginning to build around the band, their relatively late addition to the line-up for Futurama 3 is all the more understandable.

When TSOM became more famous, stories circulated that the band had given Iggy a copy of a demo cassette which included 1969, but that the great man had been unimpressed. Presumably this incident also took place that night, as Eldritch had form for this sort of thing. Just six weeks earlier, the singer had pressed a copy of the tape into the hands of Psychedelic Furs’ saxophonist Duncan Kilburn who handed it on to guitarist and subsequent "Alice" producer John Ashton, an event recounted in some detail by the genial guitarist in a video interview last yearHowever, according Mark Andrews' definitive account of the early life of TSOM published last year, Iggy and Spiggy did not meet. 

The Warehouse remained a second home for some of The Sisters for a number of years, with the band playing their three times in the first four months of 1983. Later that year, Wayne Hussey was astonished to be treated like “a mini celebrity” on visits to the club just by virtue of having joined the band, as he recounted to contemporary DJ Mark Musolf in a video interview last year (twelve minutes in).

If time travel were invented, I would certainly take a Sony Walkman with me to record the gig on 2nd July 1981, as everyone was having such a good time (as Grape recounts) that as far as we know no-one thought of recording the Sisters’ appearance for posterity, either in audio or pictorial form (not even the John Keenan flyer mentioned above), a point on which (as ever) I would be only too happy to be proved wrong!

My thanks are again due to all the many people involved in the lives of TSOM in the early 1980s for their willingness to share their recollections of those special days.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Sisters for 50p! - Leeds Uni 13th June 1981

For the next couple of posts, we’re going to go back to a crucial stage in TSOM’s development, when they were establishing themselves as a live entity during the six months after their debut as support to the Thompson Twins in York on Feb 16th 1981, an era when they quickly built up a reputation and a fanatical local following despite not yet having a fully settled line-up.

The gig on 13th June 1981 at Leeds University’s Riley Smith Hall was organised by Si Denbigh’s Music For The Masses society, a part of the Students’ Union (as discussed in a previous post on this blog) entirely separate from the official Ents department ruled by Andy Kershaw. When a copy of the poster surfaced on the net a couple of years ago, I asked Si on FB what he could remember of the gig. “Not much, it was over 30 years ago” was his instant and honest (if disappointingly brief) reply.

Fortunately, there were others present whose memories of this particular gig were much starker, when the gig was discussed on Heartland Forum shortly after I joined it in 2011. “The Blogging Goth” (and former frontman of TSOM tribute band The Marching Men) “Tim Synyster” had found a reference to a Leeds band called Pink Peg Slax who were “original members of The Sisters of Mercy and The Mekons”. I was able to say that this in fact referred to the legendary Jon Langford, who had helped out both bands when needed, and that the Slax, although claiming to be “borne out of punk”, were in fact a neo-rockabilly outfit more like The Polecats than The Meteors (a comment which I did not intend to be a compliment). Fortunately, I did however confess that I “admired them for doing their own thing”...

Much to my surprise, Pink Peg Slax front man Vince joined in the debate, saying, “We weren't Neo Rockabilly, we were cajun-tinged jiveabilly. [!] The Sisters supported us in the Riley Smith Hall at Leeds University in July [?]1981. I couldn't take the Goth stuff seriously. It was just as pompous as Rush but with a rather unattractive vampire imagery. To me, punk was about pissing the hippies off. Doing jolly rockabilly songs amidst a sea of Goths was consciously subversive. I knew Andy via Clare and Tim Taylor (our bass player), and had known Craig and Grape via the Expelaires. I was in the Mekons in 1980 and did a Peel session and a couple of album tracks; forgot the track.” Interesting that the bands appear to have performed in the order on the poster, with TSOM on first, followed by the Expelaires, whom Craig Adams had played keyboards with for the past two years (featuring on their two singles of 1979 and 1980), and still featured (I believe for the last time together) both Paul Gregory (later of Leeds band 3000 Revs featuring future Sister Adam Pearson on guitar) and Dave Wolfenden (who went on to form Red Lorry Yellow Lorry). 

"Wolfie" reflected on his time in the Expelaires at length in a recent podcast interview, saying "We drank too much. We never took it seriously. We were far too young and too immature to realise what a good opportunity it was." (The Expelaires were one of only three bands signed to the Zoo label - Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes were the other two). The band only played about thirty gigs during nearly three years together (the reformed band have now played more and are well worth catching), as they were  more like "an organised drinking club with the possibility of some music at the end," as Wolfenden memorably puts it. Anyone wanting to understand the psyche of a Fan Club regular in Leeds at the end of the 70s could do worse than spend a couple of hours listening to the full podcast, with the witty and laconic guitarist skilfully interviewed by Martin Canning.

Later that same September 2011 night, another surprise debutant poster joined the Heartland Forum debate in the form of media mogul James Brown, godfather of the much-criticised Lads movement of the 1990s and founding editor of Loaded magazine. Editor of the local fanzine Attack on Bzag at the time, it turned out that he had also been to that Music for the Masses gig back in June 1981. “I went to the gig at the Riley Smith Hall. I was still at school but had been told about the Sisters by the afore-mentioned Jon Langford of the Mekons and The Three Johns, who had just released their [TSOM’s] single on his CNT label. He gave me a copy for my fanzine…There was a small poster for the gig in the old Jumbo shop. with the logo. As we arrived at the Riley Smith Hall someone was loading t-shirts with the [Merciful Release] logo on out of a car. The gig line-up was very strange. Expelaires, with Craig later of the Mission in a beret. Pink Peg Slax singing Rocking Robin as Rotting Robin I think. And the Sisters. Andy had big hair and big black sunglasses. There were certainly no goths there. They hadn't been invented as such. People like Claire just looked punk still or very New York, all black clothes and bleached hair. There were just the same clutch of people you'd see at gigs of unusual bands around Leeds. I remember going to school next day and writing [The] Sisters of Mercy next to Monochrome Set on my canvas RAF bag. They were different to the other local bands.” 

JB might have mis-remembered the exact order of events (the CNT Body Electric single didn't come out until the following spring), but the detail of the other bands on the bill mean that it is certain that he was talking about the same gig, and t-shirt sales had become vital to the band even at this early stage. The catalogue photo above (courtesy of Phil Verne of The Sisters of Mercy 1980 - 1985 Facebook fan page) which features the earliest "head and star" t-shirt is from early 1981 and was for mail order from Priestley's in York, one of Eldritch's weekend hang-outs in the early days. On the official TSOM website, Eldritch states that he had spent a couple of months "working part-time for a t-shirt printer in York. This job involved selling t-shirts on Undertones tours." (Incidentally, one of Hussey's early bands, Walkie Talkies, list The Undertones amongst the bands whom they supported, so Hussey and Eldritch may have first met years earlier than is commonly believed!).

                                                       (from the Sisters wiki)

As recently as last year more was revealed about this gig with the surprise addition of a photograph on the gigs page on the excellent Sisters wiki. The picture, taken by Claire (Shearsby), shows Craig nearest the camera, along with Eldritch, Marx (albeit hidden in the shot) and a very rare sighting of the early guitarist Dave Humphreys, who was still in the band when they played at Futurama three months later.

No audio recording has yet emerged of this gig, which appears to have been the first the band played at the university, in the very hall where they would support The Psychedelic Furs on the eve of the release of Alice some sixteen months later. As ever, more information on this show would be very welcome.

As usual, my grateful thanks are due to all those who have contributed (either willingly or unwittingly!) to this blog post. All assistance gratefully received!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The 1985 split, part IV - Victims of Circumstance

One of the major perceived factors in the band’s major split of 1985 was the future musical direction of the band, and in this post I will examine the complex and multifarious strands of what can, on the surface, seem to be a simple case of musical differences between the three parties concerned, Eldritch, Marx and the Hussey-Adams pairing.

The extent to which they wished to pursue a “commercial” path, the influence (real or perceived) of the major record company, Eldritch’s natural inclination to control every aspect of the band’s affairs, whether to focus on playing live or recording, health matters, outside relationships, all of these and more were factors in opening up the rift between the different factions which had already developed by the album’s release, as we have seen in earlier posts on the 1985 split here, here and here.

In this post I intend to look at further evidence on these key issues as provided by the band’s responses in various interviews during the Spring 1985 tours in the UK, Europe and America. Although the album First and Last and Always had already sold 50,000 copies in the UK by the time the band completed the Armageddon tour, just two months after its release (according to Wayne Hussey at the Stockholm press conference in May 1985), having reached the UK Official Top Twenty album chart, the lack of a breakthrough single (Body and Soul and Walk Away having reached the 40s but No Time To Cry only reaching no. 63 despite the new b-sides) was beginning to weigh more heavily on the band than one might initially imagine.

There certainly seemed to be pressure on the band to release a cover version of Emma as a single, and the band as a three-piece did record studio versions of both the former Hot Chocolate classic and another favourite cover Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door in June 1985. As mentioned in the previous post, Eldritch had stated in the Rockpool magazine interview in June 1985 that the band were going to record a studio version of the song which had caused such a stir on the John Peel radio show when recorded as a session track :

 When and how this was going to be released however, is unclear, although a bootleg (demo?) version of that June 1985 recording of Emma did indeed surface. In interviews, the band had always stressed that they would not countenance putting a cover on the A-side of a single as a shortcut to making the breakthrough, as Bauhaus (Ziggy Stardust - which reached number 15) had done in similar circumstances (The Passion of Lovers, Spirit and Kick in the Eye - twice - had all reached the top 60 but failed the dent the all-important Official Top Forty).

This was discussed by both Hussey (who, interestingly, seems more ambivalent as his answer develops) and Eldritch (who has the terse, final word) in this extract from The Day of the Raygun Cometh fanzine :

Question : “Would you ever go for a recognisable cover to give you that extra push into the charts?”
Wayne : “We have recorded covers. We wanna be successful but if it boiled down to the situation where if we did a certain cover version we would have a hit single, then no. If it was a song that we really liked and enjoyed playing and we could make a good record out of it, then yeah. It’s like “Emma”, I’m sure if we recorded and released that, it would be quite successful. If we were gonna make records purely for the money we wouldn’t be making the records we’re making. I don’t actually think that we could make a record just for the money.

Andrew : We’ve never put a cover on the main side

Gary Marx had also referred to this issue in the Artificial Life interview (above) in March 1985, stressing that Elektra were particularly keen to see Emma released, as a way to “break” the band Stateside, clearly a key ambition of the band’s at the time, given the frequency of their visits there (October 83, April 84, August 84, May/June 85), and Eldritch’s comments to Rockpool magazine (June 1985) about the American label show that their influence was growing on the band, although the singer clearly had strong ideas about the extent to which Elektra's influence should go ("It's promotion, not guidance, we're looking for.

The end section of the above extract emphasises the point that not only had the band failed to make the expected breakthrough in terms of single sales, but the band seemed to be stalling as a live draw, with older fans deserting the band (guilty as charged, m’lud) in smaller but not totally dissimilar numbers to those of new fans attracted to the band, a point which was discussed in the Piccadilly Radio interview in Manchester in March 1985 :

WH - the venues we’re playing on this tour are very similar to the ones we did on the last tour. We’re getting a few more people in, but I don’t think we’re not ready to go onto the big, big venues just yet.
Q – A lot of the elitism has disappeared out of music over the last four to five years, musicians in the days of the Clash will never do Top of The Pops.
WH - I think the elitism has disappeared with the musicians, but I think that it’s still there a lot with t’fans
AE -  A lot of the people we play to have got a lot of prejudices about people like WEA being involved and giving us money, putting glossy covers on records and stuff like that, it sort of offends them somehow, but they don’t realise that neither the Sex Pistols nor the Clash ever put out a record on an independent label…After so many years of maybe seeming to pander to that mentality, and after so many years of not really getting anywhere by way of rewarding ourselves, we’ve stopped taking [them] into account altogether now and if they have a problem with that I’m afraid it’s their problem.
Q – At the end of the day, they don’t own The Sisters of Mercy, and they’d be the first to complain if they couldn’t buy your records, which is what happens when a band reaches a certain level
AE – Absolutely, absolutely

The band’s frustration is evident in their responses, as they audibly warm to the interviewer who can clearly empathise with their situation. The departure of Gary Marx was likely to alienate further some of the remaining hardcore faithful, with no guarantee that a more commercial sound would recruit a similarly devoted following, as other bands (The Danse Society, The March Violets and, ironically, Gary Marx’s Ghost Dance project) would discover. In one of the Stockholm interviews one month before the Wake finale, Eldritch clearly states that the band had planned to play two nights at the Royal Albert Hall, but with the first show failing to sell out, the second was never announced, symptomatic of the lack of a genuine breakthrough which both band and record company had been expecting.
That these would be the final concerts for a long time seems to have been a major influence on Eldritch’s decision making, a fact reiterated in one of the Stockholm 85 interviews. When asked what the plans were for after the American tour which was to follow the Swedish show, Hussey replied, “Have a holiday…and write some new songs.” Eldritch couldn’t help adding “And then have another holiday … and then write some more songs,” clearly not contemplating a live return at all, unlike Hussey’s comment in the Piccadilly Radio interview a month earlier that “we don’t intend to tour again in Britain until at least the autumn by which time we’ll have another single out .” Marx’s stated antipathy to lengthy studio sessions had set him on a clear collision course with Eldritch, and it is clear that Hussey also hankered for a “live” return after only a few months away from the road, another pressure driving the pair apart.
As stated in the introduction to this post, the comparative lack of progress in commercial terms in the FALAA era, with the band failing to reap the rewards which their herculean efforts deserved, was but one aspect in a “perfect storm” of factors which conspired to drive the band apart. Whilst superficial press reports at the time encouraged fans to take sides and blame one member or another for the band’s demise, having examined the vast amount of evidence available to the inveterate interview consumer, it is clear to me that Marx, Hussey, Eldritch and Adams were all simply (in the words of the bootleg compilation of their unfinished business from this era) ... Victims of Circumstance.

For this latest post, my grateful thanks are due as ever to the kind collectors who have shared items from their collections with me, particularly LG and the incomparable Phil Verne, founder and curator of the wonderful (and now six thousand members strong) unofficial Facebook group The Sisters of Mercy 1980 -1985, where many extraordinary items from that era are regularly revealed and discussed