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 last.fm 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.