One of the more enduring unanswered questions about the early days of TSOM revolves around the first single, Damage Done/Watch/Home of the Hitmen, released in the Autumn of 1980. Did legendary influential BBC DJ John Peel ever play the lead track or not? No evidence has ever surfaced either way…until now, that is.
Those growing up in this multi-media instant access age must find it hard to comprehend the control which the state broadcaster the BBC used to have on the nation’s musical taste, but for any aspiring new band, having the ear of veteran Radio One DJ John Peel was an essential pre-requisite of success.
In their official biography, Andrew Eldritch claimed that the fledgling band’s main raison-d’être for making the debut single was to hear themselves on the radio, something which they allegedly achieved according to the band’s own website: “Gary Marx and Andrew Eldritch made some t-shirts in anticipation, and huddled by the radio until…John Peel played the record. They swear he played it twice.”
This has led to the (perfectly reasonable) assumption that Peel played Damage Done, the Elditch vocal-based track which is regarded as the least offensive of the early efforts, but my research shows that Peel actually played Watch, the Gary Marx vocal track on the other side of the Damage Done single. Thanks to Peel fans who are gradually populating their wonderful wikia with soundfile recordings of vintage Peel shows, we can now enjoy again hearing him playing his wrongly-labelled copy (many of the original edition of Damage Done had the labels on the wrong side – “news had not yet reached Leeds that printers have to be reminded to put the labels on the correct side of vinyl” according to the TSOM webpage) for presumably the second time, given his comments afterwards. On the evening of 4th November 1980, sandwiched in between The Damned and a track from the (released the day before) Adam and The Ants Kings of the Wild Frontier LP, Peel told the listening millions: “These are The Sisters of Mercy on Merciful Release records, the labelling on this is immensely complex, but I think that this is Watch, it’d better be!” Fortunately for Peel, this was not one of the many endearing occasions on which he played the wrong side of a single (or at the wrong speed), but the angst-ridden nature of Marx’s vocal clearly has an impact on the DJ, who says at the end “The nation seems to be packed to bursting point with tormented young men who want us to stare deeply into their souls. There go a bunch called The Sisters of Mercy on Merciful Release records, that’s called Watch…the record does return briefly as it did last time I played it.. ….hardly noticeable though,” he adds as the opening chords of Home of the Hitmen strike up behind him. Thanks to the original uploader on the Peel wikia, and to Phil Verne’s YT prowess, we can now all enjoy hearing this momentous secondever playing of TSOM on national radio.
The Body Electric/Adrenochrome single having received very positive reviews on the whole in the music press (as well as repeat plays on the Peel show), it came as little surprise that TSOM were eventually invited to record a session for the programme. Before such an invitation was issued, Peel’s trusty produce John Walters would usually go to see the band “live” to ensure that they had the musicianship to complete the recording within the day’s studio time allowed for the recorded sessions, which would usually air about three weeks later. One can imagine that Walters may have seen the band supporting either Richard Hell or The Birthday Party in the early summer of 1982 at their first London gigs, with the result that they arrived at the BBC studios on 25th August 1982 to record Alice, Floorshow, 1969 and Good Things with BBC in-house producer Roger Pusey.
The session was duly aired in September, and by 12th October, an enthusiastic Peel was playing Floorshow from the new double A sided single, announcing it as by “The Sisters of Mercy, an element of which appeared at the BBC earlier in the evening.” (link) This was two days before the very poorly attended Klub Foot showcase with the Violets, and one can imagine that in the time-honoured indie fashion, Eldritch had waited outside Broadcasting House to hand the precious new release to the venerable DJ in person.
He was still playing the track in early 1983, featuring Floorshow on 30th January in between two tracks of roots reggae (which had become his latest big love) Black Roots and Misty in Roots on his British Forces’ Broadcasting (BFBS) show. At the end of the Sisters track, Peel comments “You may have got a bit of me humming as well, as a bonus”, showing that the band were still very much favourites of his at the time.
Later that Spring, on 17th April, Peel gives a spin on his BFBS show to the latest single Anaconda, damning it with faint praise . “Not one of their very best, but worth playing once or twice.” However, any doubts which he was beginning to have about the band dissipated with the next release, The Reptile House. Peel was taken as much by a frank note he received from Eldritch as by the tracks on the EP itself. On 14th June 1983 (link), he announces Kiss The Carpet by reading out in full the message from Eldritch, commenting on the very neat handwriting (which autograph hunters will also have noted): “Dear John, Here’s The Reptile House EP, our exorcism of the slow and serious, although it’s working title was “Slither, you ..” and here follows a rude word, so I can’t say that on the radio so I’ll say “Kenny Everett” instead. We’ve since taken to calling it The Commercial Suicide EP and we’ll understand perfectly if you feel it’s too dirge-ridden to play on the radio. It seems to take most people about six plays to understand how and why it works, another six or so to like it, it’s available as of now with a retail price of £2.99. Don’t let it grind you down. Love from Leeds’ Finest.” Five days later, on his BFBS show, Peel admits that he is feeling a little down, before going on to talk about The Sisters’ new release. “This is a record which is really appropriate to the mood of the hour, it’s from a new 12” by The Sisters of Mercy. As I say, they admit themselves that it is profoundly depressing and rather boring, it’s called The Reptile House. They sent me quite an amusing letter, I like a band who can admit to being boring. This they see is being like the central track on this EP, it’s called Kiss The Carpet.”
The EP became a fixture on both his Radio One and Forces’ Service shows, usually with reference to the self-deprecating letter which had accompanied it. For example, on 6th July 1983 after Death Cult’s Horse Nation, he announced: “Another one from The Sisters Of Mercy from their, by their own admission, extremely gloomy EP The Reptile House, this one according to the reviewers anyway is the finest track on there, I’m not convinced, but it’s alright, it’s called Valentine. After the track has aired, Peel again emphasis its dark atmosphere : “I’m sure that they’re a real bunch of fun if you ever get to know them, but on the evidence of this record they’re very depressing indeed.”
Later in the summer, on August 30th, Kiss The Carpet, clearly his favourite track gets another playing : “This is TSOM this is one of the five tracks on their doom-laden 12”EP, The Reptile House, which even by their own admission is profoundly distressing, this is Kiss The Carpet,” with another tongue-in-cheek back-announcement. “The Sisters of Mercy in carnival mood(!), I think we need something to lighten the mood after that.”
Although both Alice and Temple of Love made the annual listeners’ poll The Festive 50 in 1983, as Walk Away and (the session version of) Emma did in 1984 and the FALAA side-closing stand-out pair of Marian and Some Kind of Stranger in 1985, Peel’s love affair with the band was soon on the wane.
He complained on air that Body and Soul “rather lacks the vitality of their previous work”, and he seemed less than impressed by the “work in progress” tracks of the second session the band recorded for him on 19th June at Maida Vale studios with Mark Radcliffe (a future DJ in his own right) at the controls. The band had been hard at work writing new material whilst on tour for the debut LP and although Walk Away is virtually complete by this time, it is very much a beta version of No Time To Cry that also made it onto the nation’s airwaves. A first studio version of Emma (Peel would describe this as having “possibly the longest fade in the history of recorded music” when playing it on the Festive 50, where it reached the highest ever position for an unreleased session track) and another future B side Poison Door completed the set.
What was mere disappointment with TSOM’s musical direction was to turn into contempt, as he revealed in 1987 in conversation with John Walters. “Every time I do one of my terrible gigs…people come up and say to me, “Can you play something by The Sisters of Mercy?” I just say, “Under no circumstances whatsoever am I going to play anything by The Sisters of Mercy.” With the band by now seeking commercial success with This Corrosion, Peel’s approval was no longer needed, however, and daytime radio helped it to make the UK Top 10.
One final curious note on the Peel show, some of the versions of the songs seem slightly different to the ones on the commercial releases. Hopefully someone with more encyclopaedic knowledge than me will be able to reveal how these came about, and whether these versions are still in existence.
My thanks for this post are due to Phil Verne, Heartland Forum member Mothra, to all the Peel fans who have done such a wonderful job on the Peel Wikia, and of course...to the late, great John Peel.