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Dreams Of Rain: The Sisters Of Mercy's Floodland 25 Years On
Julian Marszalek , 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

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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.

Spriggy
Nov 19, 2012 2:48pm

jesus christ.... what a long-winded way of saying the Sisters were shit after Gary Marx left... and hardly any of their original fans liked Floodland ( we weren't jettisoned we left of on own accord 30 seconds into This Corrosion...

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Grimm
Nov 19, 2012 4:35pm

what a fantastic record. as a whole i think it's more consistent than first and last... suits the weather, too.

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Apop
Nov 19, 2012 8:21pm

I was admittedly late to the Sisters party with this album being my introduction. I had friends who raved about this band and upon hearing Floodland I, for the life of me, couldn't understand why. It wasn't until I dug back into their earlier albums that I finally got it.

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Robin
Nov 20, 2012 7:31am

I absolutely adore this album and think that it blows their other material out of the water.

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Stagger Lee
Nov 20, 2012 11:45am

Heh - i was at that Ghost Dance gig!
And Floodland is ace. Totally bombastic wonderfulness. Spriggy, you've got no sense of fun

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Spiggy Topes
Nov 20, 2012 11:57am

Please... mother... stop this rot.

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BloodRumba
Nov 20, 2012 2:04pm

Overblown? Yes. Pompous? Yes. Terrific to dance to? Yes!

Jesus, I loved this album when I was 15, and having listened to it again fairly recently I have to say I do still love it.

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Junkie
Dec 4, 2012 10:59pm

In reply to BloodRumba:

Listening to Floodland now, it's hard to get past the overcompressed drums and generally tacky 80s production. But if you can look past that, the record holds up better than any of their others. Lyrically and thematically it's a bit of a masterpiece. If only Andrew had held it together long enough to release anything else worthy of mention.

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Grimm
Dec 6, 2012 2:24pm

a 30+ minutes mix of This Corrosion, that would be something. wouldn't mind at all

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Scott Briggs
May 2, 2014 11:41pm

Just caught up with this article today 5-2-14, and glad
I did, it's a great read and most welcome! Spot-on as
far as I'm concerned, but I'm indeed a massive Sisters fan,
although I didn't really get roped in until someone handed
me a promo copy of Floodland as I was walking at my stupid
record store job in 1987 in LI NY: the irony is that upon
first listen at home, I HATED this album!! I couldn't
figure out why they had gone all glitzy and bombastic or
even (gasp) sell-out (same week the dreadful Balaam and
the Angel LP came in!), if it was cod-metal or worse, or what...I couldn't get a handle on it and recall turning it off after two songs and probably went right back to the R.E.M.
albums that were my main obsession at that time. At least
until GREEN came out and I just about gave up on them.
Then later, I gave it a few more shots and heard more
of the songs at a few dance clubs and I GOT IT. Plus
kept running into other fans and goths and got sucked in
even more over the course of 1987-88 and beyond. I still
find Floodland totally enthralling, own all the remasters
reissues, and listen to the album constantly to this day.
I like the early Sisters and First and Last but I NEVER
considered that material "superior" to Floodland, never.
Just, earlier and different and nowadays with hindsight,
of course, it's a whole different band and thing from
Floodland. I also dug Vision Thing, but recognized then
as now that it wasn't quite as enthralling or satisfying
as Floodland, but it was still a good album, I think.
Some Girls Wander By Mistake is well worth owning to
have a superior-sounding collection of those crucial
early singles and b-sides, even though it has perhaps,
very little to do with the Floodland and beyond era
Sisters (by definition).
After that, I do wish things hadn't taken the lamentable
direction they took with the band and their battles with
record companies, going on strike, and all that. I saw
them live in Philly at Electric Factory in 1997 or so,
and it was NOT very good: the massive venue and crowd of
goths and punks thousands-strong, was more entertaining and fascinating, very sadly, than the show, which was a major problem for me and others as well that I spoke to afterwards. I haven't seen The Sisters live since, though I just read today that they are doing yet another Spring/Summer tour of
Europe starting in a week's time, so there's life
in this band yet, I guess. I still enjoy the bombastic
videos from Floodland as well, and I can't quite communicate
the original thrill of "getting" this album finally, (and the we'll turn round) on the dance floor at some stupid club
or other on LI or NYC at that time, and just bouncing
off the walls to these singles/12" mixes and being just
transported by the music and feeling one's pulse raised to
such a degree by the sheer bombastic "f. off ness of it all"
and who needed drugs or alcohol to get a total high off that!?? Not I.
Lastly: I still cringingly recall Andy's comments that "we're
probably in for a nuclear war in our lifetimes," for Melody
Maker in 1990 or so, and praying that he was very far wrong,
and given current news headlines, I still pray for that!
"Gimme the Ring/Kissed and Toll'd/On the lone and on the level/Still on the floor" I still often sport a Floodland shirt
and I notice most passersby have seemingly zero idea what
it is! As for the Mission UK: I never compared them to
the Sisters and think it is.was unfair to do so! A good
band, I never got as enthused though about them as I had
about Floodland and the Sisters' oeuvre in total. Anyway,
just my ruminations and memories of a happier (gloomier?)
and "gloriously stupid" time.

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B. Lodermeier
Sep 14, 2014 3:28am

While I love old Sisters albums (have 'em all)but I agree with Elspeth, Eldritch really is a knob. Tool bag. I think his business dealings with people leave are something. James Ray later said that Eldritch was a cheat and a liar. Eldritch also got The New Creatures and Sunshine Blind scotched from The Dancing Ferret Dark Harvest Festival, because they looked "too goth". And I just finished reading an interview with Patricia Morrison. She was asked by the interviewer what the lowest point in her life was and she replied that it was when she lost her apartment after being ousted from the Sisters, and sleeping on a park bench, whilst the Sisters were about to play Wembley. I just downloaded Pretty Black Dots, and 1995 And Nowhere. Excellent. I have one Ghost Dance cd. I just saw the Mission U K almost 2 years ago on their first tour in almost 20 years in the states. Oddly my friend and I went to see them @ Lee's Palace, Toronto, Canada. They are still putting out fine material. Eldritch hasn't put out anything in years, and seems to only go on tour when he needs money. Sad old goth. Gary Marx leaving the Sisters was a real blow. And I think Wayne and Craig stuck it out for as long as they could. I thought Vision Thing was the worst thing he has ever put out. I still love the First, Last and Always.

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