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The Sisters Of Mercy Are Ripe For Reappraisal, Says Julian Marszalek
Julian Marszalek , May 13th, 2009 09:59

Julian Marszalek looks at the Sisters Of Mercy's magnificent early releases and explains why they were one of the era's most cruelly misunderstood bands

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The recent Sisters of Mercy tour provoked two very opposite reactions within the pixelated pages of The Quietus. In the black corner, supporters of Andrew Eldritch’s ongoing industrial-sized groove machine were moved to speculate that, with the equally doom-laden I Like Trains in tow, this could be the greatest tour ever known to mankind while in the other corner, Mr Agreeable – The Quietus’ very own voice of reason – likened the need for a Sisters of Mercy outing as being as welcome as an outbreak of polio.

Almost 30 years since their first release, The Sisters of Mercy continue to polarize opinion like few other bands. Though the b(r)and has long since crossed over from characters to caricatures in the eyes of the wider listening public, time has served to obscure just how contrary, single-minded and needed they once really were.

With the exception of The Smiths, no one band came to dominate the independent charts of the early to mid 1980s in the way The Sisters did. Back then, of course, independent meant exactly that – a mindset that saw bands eschewing the major label route in favour of a DIY ethic that owed as much to the spirit of punk as it did Margaret Thatcher’s burgeoning enterprise culture. Like Crass before them, The Sisters Of Mercy launched their own label – the estimable Merciful Release – and a brand design so distinct that it came to dominate the backs of leather jackets like no other.

To fully appreciate The Sisters of Mercy’s impact, it’s important to consider the worth of the single release. In terms of pop culture and in an age of downloads and a la carte music consumption, the worth of the single has plummeted in much the same way the value of sterling has fallen against the dollar. Back in 1982, when 'Body Electric' crawled fully formed from the darkest recesses of Yorkshire, the independent single was as much a communiqué and statement of intent as it was a little object of desire that involuntarily caused your feet and hips – and especially in the case of The Sisters, the elbows - to move. Held within the grooves and the three-to-five minute running time, independent singles were arguably a more self-contained universe that reflected the times, sartorial mores, politics and culture of the time than their major label peers ever could. But The Sisters of Mercy did more than that. In the space of their six independent releases, the band shaped fashion, sound and language in an image entirely of their own making with scant regard for approval from the wider world.

Marching to the beat of their own drum (machine), The Sisters Of Mercy were a gloriously contrary proposition. The prevailing mood of the time was stacked against rock 'n' roll. Unlike now, heavy metal was treated with the kind of disdain reserved for the shit on your shoe (though, in fairness, a fair bit of 1982's metal probably did deserve it) while any band that held its guitars below their nipples was immediately decried and denounced as “rockist” by the sad fools too afraid of the ‘gain’ setting on their amps. The Sisters Of Mercy, on the other hand, were only too happy to rock. Speaking in 1983, Andrew Eldritch said, “There’s an awful lot of dreadful bands coming out of England, especially London. A lot of them come on stage with this ‘We are not a rock band’ rubbish. So we go the other way – one step forward. We say, ‘We are a rock band.’ Very loudly.”

Along with The Birthday Party. The Sisters Of Mercy shared a deep and abiding love of The Stooges but where Nick Cave’s mob pursued the chaos of Funhouse, Eldritch and co adhered to the strict metronomic and sub-moronic riffing of the eponymous 1969 debut. Early tracks ‘Adrenachrome’ and ‘Floorshow’ owe much to the original noises that first emanated from Ann Arbour. And yet there was more to the Sisters’ sound. In addition to the Gary Marx’s spidery guitar lines, Ben Gunn’s intertwining six-string interaction and the strict mechanoid precision of drum machine Doktor Avalanche, much praise needs to be heaped on the booming bass lines of Craig Adams. While Marx would frequently be found utilising every inch of the stage as he threw the kind of shapes that marked him out a nascent guitar hero, Adams remained rooted to the spot, simply rocking backwards and forwards as his deeply unfashionable long hair covered his face as he belted out monolithic bass lines that transformed the sound of the band.

Indeed, it’s with their third single, 'Alice', where The Sisters of Mercy finally hit their stride. 'The Damage Done' had been a curio and 'Body Electric'/'Adrenachrome' found the band making significant strides to their signature sound but it all coalesced with 'Alice'. Opening with Doktor Avalanche’s idiosyncratic beats – beats that were to become as instantly recognisable as John Bonham’s intro to Led Zeppelin’s 'Rock ’n’ Roll' – the track gives way to beautifully twisting guitars and Adams’ driving, droning and single-minded bass playing. The flipside, 'Floorshow', was every bit the equal of the parent track. Powerful in its simplicity, Eldritch’s attack on the pop values of the day was as damning as it was compelling on the dance floor. In retrospect, their reading of The Stooges’ '1969' is a little to obvious but for a generation still to discover the delights of Iggy Pop, the track served as a gateway to world that was seriously at odds with the prevailing view of the 1960s as being little more than a hotchpotch of paisley, pot and patchouli.

And yet, as demonstrated at any number of gigs or BBC sessions for John Peel, Kid Jensen and Richard Skinner, The Sisters of Mercy were far from averse to tackling the most unlikely of cover versions. Dolly Parton’s 'Jolene' was given a homoerotic makeover while Hot Chocolate’s 'Emma' became a melodrama so dense and emotionally overwrought that it threatened to overwhelm the listener. Crucially, these covers were never created to mock the originals; instead, they highlighted the lyrical drama contained within and a painted from a sonic palette to match. But they also knew how to play it straight. Their blending of The Velvet Underground’s 'Sister Ray' and Suicide’s 'Ghost Rider' not only highlighted where they were coming from but it offered pure play rock ’n’ roll when such a thing was in perilously short supply.

If The Sisters Of Mercy had found their sound with 'Alice', it was with 1983’s The Reptile House EP that their gothic credentials were indelibly confirmed. Spread over five tracks (six if you count the supposed reprise of ‘Kiss The Carpet’), the doomy and portentous dirge created by The Sisters of Mercy - Doktor Avalanche reduced to a barbiturate crawl, Craig Adams ushering in a feeling of unavoidable dread as a counterpoint to Marx and Gunn’s spindly guitars while Eldritch’s vocals are smothered under an avalanche of heavy reverb – came to define what was to become known as goth. Could it have been any other way when Eldritch crooned out couplets such as “The razor bites and the shriek subsides” (‘Valentine’) or “The night draws near and the daylight fades” (‘Lights’) and with what appeared to be straight face? Yet there remains the suspicion that Eldritch wasn’t being entirely serious for here surely was a band creating its own myth, its own agenda and its own dogma beyond what was deemed acceptable.

‘Fix’ betrays The Sisters’ influences and ultimate objective once again. With a central riff heavily indebted to the MC5’s ‘I Want You Right Now’, The Sisters of Mercy’s desire to unashamedly rock ultimately fails to make a convincing transition from the stage to the studio and in that respect, The Reptile House EP stands as a glorious failure, a folly that’s as idiosyncratic and beautiful as say, Port Merion.

That’s not to dismiss it outright but compared to the blistering twin guitar attack and monstrous beats they were achieving in a live setting, the political bile at the core of ‘Valentine’ loses its impact as it crosses the line to enter the realm of unintentional comedy. They never did capture their live sound with any conviction and that remains a crying shame to this day. Shrouded in dry ice, Adams rocking from one foot to another and trapped in some lysergic, metronomic trance and flanked by a stationary Ben Gunn, the stage would be colonised by Gary Marx’s manic executions. As Eldritch remained chain-smoking behind his stand, his fellow founder member utilized every inch of space as his axe sliced up riff after riff, lead break after lead break. Like Eldritch’s flowing locks and thick facial hair, this was about as unfashionable as music got in 1983 but compared to the faux jazz, zoot suits and Gitanes that came to dominate Soho’s clubs and far too many pages in the music press, it was manna to a generation that refused to behave like old men.

'Temple Of Love' was second only to New Order’s 'Blue Monday' when it came to dominating the Independent Charts in 1983 and in many ways, this was the fulfilment of The Sisters of Mercy’s early promise. Gary Marx’s instantly recognisable arpeggiated riff was a call to arms, a signal for your arse to leave its seat and get ready to shake some action; the incessant bass drum building up a sense of anticipation that was finally set free with the roll of the programmed snare and an explosion sound and colour. 'Temple Of Love' rocked in a way that few other records did and its refusal to bow down to the fashionable constraints of the day was as joyous as it was fabulous. Eldritch’s lyrical concerns once again betrayed his cynicism as he growled, “Life is short/And love is always over in the morning” as gangs of teenage lads bemoaned the fact that they couldn’t even get that far.

Not for the last time, dissent was brewing in the ranks. Ben Gunn felt that ‘Temple Of Love’’s overt rock posturing simply confirmed what he has suspected for some time. Rather than subverting the form, The Sisters were embracing it too closely and, in the process, had become a parody of what they had set out to parody in the first place. Gunn may well have had a point. The introduction of his replacement - future goth overlord and the pretender to Eldritch’s crown, Wayne Hussey – found the band welcoming elements of rock’s past that had became too unpalatable for some. By 1984, Led Zeppelin had been banished to the dustbin of history, their albums either sold to second hand stores by those who couldn’t face the embarrassment of being caught with them or discreetly tucked away behind sofas lest they became fashionable again, yet here were The Sisters of Mercy taking the stage to the strains of ‘Kashmir’. ‘Temple Of Love’’s b-side included a cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ yet at that point the Stones had become a reviled irrelevance. To compound The Sisters’ dalliances with a verboten past, their disappointing 1985 swansong with a truncated line-up at the Royal Albert Hall was called Altamont: A Festival Of Remembrance while some nifty fingered wag played out Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Freebird’ on the venue’s grand organ in lieu of a support band.

Five years later and Eldricth returned to the live stage with a new line-up (and former Generation X bassist and Sigue Sigue Sputnik Mr Big Tony James) and a full metal racket in tow but for a brief two-year period, The Sisters of Mercy’s first incarnation not only revived rock music but also altered its parameters. Infusing their oeuvre with a rare wit and intelligence, The Sisters of Mercy simultaneously poked fun at yet revelled in rock’s inherent stupidity. A celebration of sorts, they allowed rock to rise and reverberate with their tongues firmly in their cheeks while the pale imitators that had been spawned in their wake fucked the corpses of rock’s worst crimes with all the glee of necrophiliacs at a Hallowe’en party at the local morgue. For a short time, The Stooges, Suicide and the spectral figure of Leonard Cohen came together to offer an alternative to the banality of cock rock and the piss-weak cocktail jazz that the style mags had to offer. It couldn’t last and it didn’t but no one tuned in, turned on and burned out quite like that first – and greatest - line-up of The Sisters of Mercy did.

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Young Gunner
May 13, 2009 2:54pm

So where does 'First, Last & Always' fit into this reappraisal? Or rather, why doesn't it?

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Brother Grimm
May 13, 2009 4:05pm

floodland is a great great stupid record, too

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Johnny Nothing
May 13, 2009 9:06pm

Floodland is so dull. The Sisterhood stop-gap was better. But oh those early basslines. I suspect that Lurch nicked them from the Psychedelic Furs (along with the Paisley) but whatever. Great band.

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andy cooke
May 15, 2009 2:38am

I agree wholeheartedly with Julian Marszalek's thesis.

Although there are some half decent tracks on both First Last and Always and Floodland (e.g Lucretia my Reflection), they just are not really of the same quality as the early releases, in my opinion.

First Last and Always involves Wayne Hussey, and so is definitively Sisters Mark 2. Wayne Hussey seem to come with more standard (12 string?) chorus effect elven guitar motifs. You can see what he was trying to do if you listen to The Mission. I find it tempting to single out Hussey as the vector for what i see as the Sisters' decline - however i don't think that is totally fair. I mean they certainly gained more commercial success with him in the band. I will never ever ever ever ever like The Mission, though.

Floodland could be an arch parody - ref. sleeve design and This Corrosion video in rainfall swinging on chains... It's all gone a bit Kate Beckinsale. I do like this record - as Brother Grimm puts it, it is a "great great stupid record".

I don't have an opinion of Vision Thing.

Anyway - thanks for the article. I, for one, would be most happy to see the early releases given the respect they are most certainly due.

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Brother Grimm
May 15, 2009 7:27pm

nine while nine is my favourite, and the three hours of this corrosion. the second verse of walk away. and the old logo. and sunglasses

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Simon Everett
May 16, 2009 12:20pm

Eldritch's sleevenotes on the CD compilation of the early stuff show that he admits that it was the image as much as the music that gained them such a devoted following. Personally I still rate Floodland as a superb album that doesn't sound too 'Goth'; the white suit in whichever vid it was shows what Eldritch thought of Goth at that stage. Surely the thing that set the Sisters apart was Eldritch's intelligence and cosmopolitanism, when so many bands were/are dim and parochial. That said, I think it's a shame that he's still trailing this stuff around the world - given his intelligence, it's a pity his music stalled 20 years ago.

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Young Gunner
May 18, 2009 9:51am

Er, Julian, I'm not exactly sure why we are supposed to be reappraising the S.O.M. here - it's unlikely that any new converts are likely to be found these days. And even less like likely 'old' converts. And if you didn't like them back in the day then there's no chance. Or are you just trying to convince us to dig out our old vinyl and dust off that old leather with the iconic stencil on the back?

As for First, Last & Always, I think it easily matches the EP's that preceded it. Yes, Hussey does play an electric 12 string and he did introduce a more melodic element - but not at the price of a drop in quality or a compromise in overall vision. It's clear that they the major label budget was higher on F,L & A, but the sound is pristine from top to bottom. And "Marian (Version)" simply has to be classed as one of their best ever tracks. It even has a couple of verses sung in German - how much more Eldritch can a song get? [however, it was ripped off by Hussey when he recycled the track, note-for-note, for the Missions's Wasteland, but nevermind.]

Don't get me started on Floodland tho. Eldritch's best days are clearly behind him at this point -- call me a Luddite, but I'd rather hear Hussey's electric 12-string over Steinmann's over-produced synthy strings and choirs any day. Who exactly was in the 'band' at this point and what did Eldritch contribute musically? Even Doktor Avalanche sounds like he's been upgraded to an 808. AND, what's the point of being ironic if no one notices?

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andy cooke
May 19, 2009 10:57pm

You are quite right, First Last and Always is much better than Floodland, and everyone took Floodland far too seriously. Not least Eldritch perhaps.

Marian is a great track.

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Brother Grimm
May 21, 2009 7:50pm

funny how marian appeals to those who dislike this corrosion

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Ian Learmonth
May 22, 2009 8:59am

From Church Street in Walthamstow to mid 2009 and still in love with The Sisters.
May the landlord of The Faversham Arms in Leeds bless you.
I'll never forget the Leeds Uni gigs from 84 to 85 - sonic sledgehammering at it's best.
How about a re-appraisal of The Cult?

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Young Gunner
May 22, 2009 10:27am

In reply to Ian Learmonth:

some of us are still in Walthamstow...

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Brother Grimm
May 28, 2009 4:10pm

In reply to Ian Learmonth:

re: the cult... lyrics a bit crap, but the man's got the voice. only 21, like 99 sometimes

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Kid Spoons
May 28, 2009 10:59pm

i investigated, having never been a fan of theirs (in fact, more familiar with The March Violets...'Steam' in particular) and to be honest, apart from 'Alice' they didn't make my sugar lumps rotate in the slightest...i tried...

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May 11, 2011 8:23pm

In reply to Kid Spoons:

Just read this - many thanks for sending me straight to the CD racks to dig out Some Girls Wander By Mistake, the old Merciful Release vinyl long having gone. What a band they were.

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Jeffrey Prior
Oct 11, 2011 3:07pm

Body and Soul,BW Poison Door was possibly the greatest sinle of the Eighties. Possibly.

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Oct 13, 2011 9:55am

In reply to Jeffrey Prior:

body & soul is quite perfect

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Oct 15, 2011 5:44am

Great jog down memory lane. Well written and insightful, but then you just drop us at the end. Personally, I'd like to see you continue with Body & Soul and FaLaA, followed by a 3rd article on the Floodland years (yeah, you can skip the Sisterhood). I have no desire to hear about the bombastic Vision Thing years, but certainly a final article on the current Sisters incarnation would be welcomed.

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Nov 10, 2011 11:15pm

thanks julian for a well written article.
for me the sisters were the goth band, i was possibly obsessed by them. i bought f&l&a (which i heard eldritch describe as "how to get through life through the medium of women,drugs and roads")before i heard/bought the earlier singles. i bought 'floodland' because it was the sisters, kind of, & i bought 'vision thing' because i'd missed them.
now...i think the pre f&l&a singles, and radio 1 sessions, are superior to 'first'...'floodland' was bombastic,over produced and seriously tongue in cheek albeit with some really good tracks on it...'vision thing'had it's moments,maybe 3 or 4 tracks from the 8, but in my opinion,for whatever reasons,and for what it's worth,things had been going downhill since 'first...'
'the gift' is not without interest, i loved the fact that being 'electronic' it was different to the sisters but was still a logical progression to their sound.
i used to love reading interviews with eldritch, i found him intelligent & funny but he did, over time, seem to fall into self parody, much as did hunter s.thompson. a shame really.

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Mar 17, 2014 6:18pm

Apart from "Dominion" which was fantastic, i've never really liked the Sisters Of Mercy, as a matter of fact i think the whole gothic rock genre was incredibly limited, which is why bands like the Cure & the Banshees deserve some credit for leaving all that gloomy nonsense behind and going in a more pop orientated direction. I'm not sure if the Sisters were unable to change their style or were simply reluctant to do so, if its the latter then kudos to them for sticking to their guns, it just wasn't for me. I find it quite interesting that they opened for Depeche Mode in a massive venue in London in the early 90s and singer Andrew Elderich proceded to mock the headliner as he left the stage. Depeche Mode were one of the biggest selling bands in the world at that time, sour grapes perhaps?

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