Dreams Of Rain: The Sisters Of Mercy's Floodland 25 Years On
, November 19th, 2012 07:17
Twenty five years on Julian Marszalek revisits Andrew Eldritch's all out bid for chart success and asks, was it worth it
The tall and lofty figure of Gary Marx is staring long and hard at the face of Andrew Eldritch. The awkward moment feels like an eternity and given the history of the two men, there remains a sense that it might kick off at any moment. Though quite how things would kick off is anybody’s guess considering that the former Sisters of Mercy guitarist is examining a poster of his erstwhile singer on this writer’s wall. Marx emits a gentle sigh, surveys the Body & Soul and First and Last and Always posters that hang among the others that include The Jesus & Mary Chain’s Darklands and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s Walking On Your Hands and says with a smirk, “So you’re definitely a fan then!”
1987 proved to be a bumper year for long-term observers of The Sisters of Mercy and their attendant offshoots. Ghost Dance, formed by Gary Marx and ex-Skeletal Family vocalist Anne-Marie Hurst, had released the A Word To This Wise EP and its four tracks proved to be a quantum leap from its three predecessors. Over on the other side of the divide, The Mission had released The First Chapter, a compilation of EPs released on the Chapter 22 label that originally saw the light of day in the wake of the departure of guitarist Wayne Hussey and bassist Craig Adams from under the aegis of The Sisters of Mercy.
So here we had thirds of The Sisters revealing what might have happened if the band hadn’t have split up in 1985. While Ghost Dance were rooted to the spidery, almost Celtic licks that were Marx’s trademark sound and The Mission revelled in Wayne Hussey’s 12-string licks and appalling lyrics, Eldtrich had hinted what might be coming in the shape of the tactically released Gift album under The Sisterhood banner in 1986. An almost industrial album, it confirmed Eldritch’s growing interest in keyboards and synths, a move that prompted Marx’s departure the year before.
While Marx was always your correspondent’s favourite Sister – indeed, the reason he was in a flat in Bournemouth checking out posters of his former alma mater was that this scribe was promoting a Ghost Dance gig at Bournemouth University – the news of Eldritch’s return under The Sisters of Mercy banner in the autumn of 1987 was enough to send thrills up many a black clad spine regardless of your allegiance.
Eldritch’s return to the fray was revealed via a tantalising marketing campaign that spread across the weekly music press like black mould. Here was a full-page ad containing the lyrics to ‘This Corrosion’, the white words emerging from the black background with the familiar head and star logo making its presence known. Quartet-page strips would also appear, each bearing teasing snippets from the song.
But what of the song? Titters and guffaws – and more than a creeping feeling of dread - had been raised when it had been announced that Eldritch had produced a colossal epic with the aid of producer Jim Steinman, the man responsible for the bloated slab of pomposity that was Meat Loaf’s planet-shagging Bat Out Of Hell album. Released in September 1987, the gloriously daft ‘This Corrosion’ – released on 7”, 12” and cassette formats in a variety of lengths and mixes - was a widescreen calling card that found Eldritch expanding upon on the sound he created with The Sisterhood. Eschewing the intertwining guitars that had crystalised The Sisters of Mercy in their first two incarnations, here the keyboards, samples and sequencers were brought to the fore, all ushered in by the epic vocal contribution by 40 member of the New York Choral Society. It’s amusing to listen to bootleg demos of the track, recorded on Casio keyboards, and then comparing them to the finished product. Pumped up on steroids, ‘This Corrosion’ crash landed in the UK Top 10 and achieved the smash hit that predecessors ‘Walk Away’ and “Body and Soul” had conclusively failed to do.
In an age of where music-on-demand and any number of specialist radio stations was just the dream of the most wild-eyed fantasist, the impact of ‘This Corrosion’ gatecrashing daytime playlists and Top of the Pops felt like an air-punching victory. Bolstered by a gloriously overblown and apocalyptic video that tipped its black cowboy hat to Ridley Scott’s dark sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, the single gave many a hungover fan a reason to get out of bed on a Saturday morning as it appeared on ITV’s Chart Show with an almost alarming regularity. The arrival of Floodland couldn’t come quick enough…
With the benefit of 25 years hindsight, listening to Floodland now is to confirm the feelings that it elicited upon its release in November 1987 – this is an album of mass contradictions. The Sisters of Mercy were always a live band – albeit one with mechanised beats courtesy of drum machine Doktor Avalanche – and a damn fine one at that. Swathed in dry ice, this was a band that dug deep into a vast catalogue whilst gleefully playing obscure or wildly surprising cover versions. Abba’s ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ and Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ were all given the Sisters’ gloomy yet thrilling overhauls and garnished with a Martini-dry sense of humour. Set lists would be poured over and analysed by their obsessive fan base and so, much like The Cramps, became one of the most bootlegged bands of the 80s.
Towards the end of his tenure, Gary Marx’s performance become increasingly more animated as he’d tear from one end of the stage to the other, coaxing wilder and more passionate playing as he’d tear through extended reading’s of Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’ and upstaging the usually static Andrew Eldritch in the process. This was a band that fought back against the rockism orthodoxy with low-slung, distorted guitars. Not to mention that the fact that they sported long hair without looking like fey hippies or hair metallers. Crucially, in the tradition of all the great rock and roll bands, they looked like a gang. And one that you wanted to be a part of at that. Yet here now was Eldritch surrounded by session musicians in tow and former Gun Club bassist Patricia Morrison added almost as a visual garnish to his comeback.
The origin of Floodland can probably be traced back to the departure of guitarist Ben Gunn. Convinced that The Sisters of Mercy were rapidly becoming the kind of band they’d set out to parody, he quit the band in disgust. Gary Marx’s subsequent exit was prompted by both personal and musical differences and in the case of the latter it was down to Eldritch’s desire to include more keyboards and synths in the band’s evolving sound. If reports from the time are to be believed, the plan was to move Wayne Hussey onto greater keyboard duties while keeping Marx – or a replacement - in place but whatever the plans, this was not to be. Though work had started in Hamburg on a proposed follow up to First and Last and Always – provisionally entitled Left on Mission and Revenge – the sessions soon fell apart due to increasing tensions between Eldritch and Hussey over the future direction of the band. Listening to bootleg recordings of Eldritch singing what would become The Mission’s second single, ‘Garden of Delight’, it becomes apparent that Eldritch is uncomfortable with Hussey’s lyrics.
In many respects, The Sisterhood’s Gift album – released in 1986 supposedly to prevent Hussey and Adams using the same band – is a dry run for Floodland. Heavily reliant on keyboards and processed beats, it found Eldritch pouring scorn on the former bandmates who’d attempted to cash in on The Sisters of Mercy’s name via singer James Ray when he croons, “What you have lost can never be found/ Words are just dust in deserts of sound/ Everything is lost and your trust lies broken/ And the truth is found.” Elsewhere, opener ‘Jihad’ finds Patricia Morrison intoning the introduction, “Two, five, zero, zero, zero”, supposedly the amount of money The Mission paid in legal fees over the struggle for The Sisterhood name.
Again, this is where the contradictions appear. If the early versions of ‘This Corrosion’ were an extension of Gift, Eldritch’s employment of Jim Steinman with no apparent irony found him embracing the very thing he’d supposedly been taking the piss out of all these years. The uber-producer makes his presence felt on Floodland’s opener, ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’ wherein the masses voices of the New York Choral Society are used to grand effect once more.
What’s also glaringly obvious is that Floodland is a solo album in all but name. By all accounts, Patricia Morrison’s contributions to the album were minimal while guitar parts were supplied by numerous players including Eddie Martinez, the guitarist for Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’ and Eldritch himself. With the singer also working with a variety of keyboards and synths, Eldritch finally assumed the total control he’d been after for some time.
Lyrically, Floodland finds him tackling the subjects of geopolitics (‘Dominion/Mother Russia’), love and sex (‘Flood I’, ‘Flood II’), and revenge (‘Lucretia My Reflection’) to grand effect. This is Eldritch let loose, unencumbered by band mates refusing to share his vision.
The album also contains probably the most idiosyncratic song in The Sisters of Mercy cannon in the form of ‘1959’. Stark and almost painfully naked, Eldritch’s lone voice is set in bleak contrast against a melancholy piano. Devoid of irony or point scoring, it’s also Floodland’s most honest moment.
With the exception of ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’ and ‘Lucretia My Reflection’, Floodland jettisons The Sisters of Mercy’s guitar sound for a no less panaromic sound but their absence is keenly felt. While Eldritch may have viewed ‘This Corrosion’ as an extension of 1983’s classic ‘Temple of Love’, his modus operandi had made a seismic shift. The high production values and gloss that buffed Floodland to an almost blinding sheen made it obvious that The Sisters of Mercy, or at least Eldritch, would’t be going on the road anytime soon, save the occasional mimed TV appearance to promote the three singles dispatched from the album. Again, another contradiction given The Sisters of Mercy’s well-earned reputation as an incredible live band.
Yet despite Eldritch’s new direction, he found himself looking back to his past. Somewhat ironically, the ‘This Corrosion’, ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’ and ‘Lucretia My Reflection’ singles all used cannibalised material as back up. The flip side of ‘This Corrosion’ found a re-recorded version of ‘Colours’ which has originally appeared on The Sisterhood’s Gift while ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’ contained ‘Sandstorm’, little more than a fragmented remix of the A-side. Tellingly, the single also carried a much demanded reading of Hot Chocolate’s 'Emma’. A long-time live favourite among the faithful, the track looked back to the sound that had made The Sisters of Mercy’s name. More worryingly, ‘Lucretia My Reflection’ was supplemented by ‘Long Train’, a track that had originally appeared as a limited edition flexi-disc with initial copies of the ‘Walk Away’ 12” which itself was an extended version of ‘Train’ which had formed one quarter of the Body and Soul EP. For a band that had prided itself on offering fans new and quality material on its b-sides and 12” singles, this was something of a worrying development.
Whatever reservations the band’s older fans may have had about The Sisters of Mercy’s new direction, Eldritch was vindicated by Floodland’s gold status in the UK when album sales broke the 100,000 mark just five months after its release. In the process The Sisters of Mercy gained a whole new audience while managing to jettison some of the old ones. Of the three albums that bear The Sisters of Mercy’s name, Floodland is an anomaly; one man and his keyboards, Eldritch would return to the gang & guitars format three years later. But while Vision Thing’s bombast felt glaringly hollow, it was difficult to shake the feeling that even among Floodland’s widescreen panorama, something of the old magic had been lost.