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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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