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35 Years On: The Sisters Of Mercy's First And Last And Always Revisited
Julian Marszalek , March 16th, 2015 12:01

Julian Marszalek looks back 35 years to the hit album that shouldn't have been and nearly wasn't

The clues to The Sisters of Mercy's imminent implosion were already in place: Ben Gunn's departure in 1983 after the band's first US tour, with the guitarist claiming that the band had become the very thing that they'd set out to parody; news of singer Andrew Eldritch's hospitalisation after one too many nights on the mirror and rumours of the band barely talking to each other during the recording of their debut album. And then of course there was the title - First And Last And Always - compounded by the fact that the vinyl album's two sides were more or less divided into Eldritch/Hussey and Eldritch/Marx compositions.

In some respects, it's a wonder that The Sisters Of Mercy had made it to this point. Fiercely independent, their Merciful Release label had been set up in order to release their own records and those of a likeminded disposition (fellow Leeds bands The March Violets and Salvation benefited from the label's patronage) and to exercise strict creative control over not only the music but also the image of the six singles released between 1980 and 1983, characterised as they were by the band's head and star logo and single colour artwork that sat in the centre of a black sleeve. As anyone who has ever attempted to run a label and perform in a band at the same will attest, this is no easy task and, factoring in cash flow and a near constant touring schedule coupled with a prodigious intake of chemicals, the wheels would've come off the wagon sooner or later but two events would throw The Sisters Of Mercy a lifeline.

The arrival of Wayne Hussey, late of Dead Or Alive, in place of the departed Gunn raised more than a few eyebrows. Hussey's part in the story of The Sisters Of Mercy prompts a number of reactions depending on which part of the band's narrative fans entered. There are those who throw their arms up in horror given his pedigree while others, who went on to follow The Mission have no such qualms. Yet to listen back to some of Dead Or Alive's earlier and pre-Stock, Aitken & Waterman recordings – check 'Whirlpool' or the original version of 'Misty Circles' – is to hear Hussey's trademark 12-string guitar and harmonics almost in search of a home. This is material that's far removed from the pumping disco that eventually made the band's name and so the invitation extended to Hussey makes perfect sense.

Hussey joined the band pretty much at the point where The Sisters Of Mercy, having been courted by a number of major labels, signed on the dotted line for a distribution deal with WEA. Andrew Eldritch had already voiced his dissatisfaction with the distribution muscle of The Cartel in the wake of 'Temple Of Love' but he was careful and canny enough not to sacrifice The Sisters Of Mercy's well established image and modus opernadi for the sake of a deal. So it was that the 'Body And Soul' single was released in June 1984 via WEA, just a few months after Hussey's live debut with the band yet sadly, it failed to impress long-term fans who felt, after the seismic blast of 'Temple Of Love', distinctly underwhelmed and also the record buying public which ensured its failure to crack the Top 40. Of its b-sides, 'Train' harked back to the driving dynamics of 'Alice' while the brooding and droning 'Afterhours', a superb meditation on speed psychosis that rather ironically proved the perfect accompaniment to a well-rolled bifter, doffed its cap in the direction of The Reptile House EP. Somewhat worrying was the re-recorded version of second single, 'Body Electric', which suggested that the band was either running out of ideas, the hand of the record company or a hitherto unrevealed munificence on the part of the band to prevent fans paying ludicrous sums for the long deleted original.

When the album finally appeared in March 1985 – preceded by further single releases 'Walk Away' and 'No Time To Cry' and the legendary Black October tour at the tail end of 1984 – it felt as if The Sisters Of Mercy had entered a new era. After years of impressive independent single releases, here was an artifact that contained a sustained body of work that was, in terms of quantity, in stark contrast to what had gone before. And the quality? With First And Last And Always, The Sisters Of Mercy delivered a document that fulfilled the promise of those earlier releases, ten tracks marked by Armageddon, women, drugs, cowboy hats and Marlboro Reds. You can almost see Ben Gunn's point of view but what elevates The Sisters Of Mercy's debut from hokey rock cliché is a sincere and genuine attempt to fuck around with the form to create a new vernacular. The Sisters Of Mercy had always revelled and acknowledged the stupidity inherent in rock music but theirs was a knowing take, a sophisticated joke that cherry picked the obvious marker points – the aviator shades, the plumes of dry ice that engulfed the stage, the chiselled cheek bones that were a result of suppressing the appetite through dubious means – while blending them with the form's more extreme proponents such as The Stooges and Suicide. That they insisted on eschewing real drums in favour of the mechanized beats of drum machine Doktor Avalanche displayed a perversity and refusal to completely surrender to the rock & roll myth. A drummer would've altered their sound far too radically but with their rhythm strictly rooted by Doktor Avalanche, their music became something akin to mutant disco music. The fact that they elected to confer equal member status on a drum machine by naming and crediting it was more than enough to raise a wry chuckle.

And if perversity was the name of their game, it's almost fitting that First And Last And Always opens with the album's weakest track. 'Black Planet' is pretty much a showcase for the 12-string talents of Wayne Hussey, a line in the sand that draws a clear demarcation point between the original line-up and the new-look band. Lyrically, the track finds Eldtrich in a post-apocalyptic world polluted by radiation and acid rain. With the Cold War at its height and the arrival of American Cruise missiles British soil a few years earlier – coupled with increasing social unrest, the daily violence of the miners' strike broadcast on TV with a depressing regularity and a sociopathic administration residing at Number 10 – the mood of the mid-80s was one of paranoia, fear and uncertainty, as if the world was ready to end thanks to an atomic war or the very real possibility that the country was ready to tear itself apart. But while Eldritch is bang on the money capturing the zeitgeist, the music was something of a damp squib focusing as it does on Hussey's sound while paying scant regard to concepts such as memorable and powerful riffs.

The song is barely over before Doktor Avalanche's drum roll ushers in the apreggiated ascending chords and sustained notes of 'Walk Away' and it's at this moment that First And Last And Always hits the nitrous oxide and shoots forward. Placed within the context of the album, 'Walk Away' packs a lot more wallop than it did as a single. Was it aimed as a sideswipe to the soon-to-be-departed Gary Marx or another of the kind of love song wherein Eldrtich finds himself spurned and alone? It's tempting to go for the former if only because it buys into the particular kind of myth that rock fans love – the hidden meaning. Of course, the problem with the hidden meaning is that it's open to so many interpretations as to render the original message irrelevant. Given Eldritch's love of rock & roll lore, it's not difficult to imagine him laughing dryly as his lyrics are picked over with fine precision but it's safe to say that he wasn't calling for an impending race war to kick start the apocalypse.

But if it's love songs that you're after then look no further than 'Marian' and 'Some Kind Of Stranger', the two tracks that bring their respective sides to a close. Both songs are the flipside to the same coin. Over Hussey's chimed guitar work, Marx's elongated e-bow drone and Craig Adams' throbbing bass guitar, Eldrtich lays himself bare as he pines for sanctuary and stability and these are sentiments that are repeated on 'Nine While Nine', albeit after the fact. While the former finds Eldritch away from his lover, the latter finds the singer mourning the death of the relationship and it's a glimpse into a world that's removed from the “life is short and love is always over in the morning” philosophy of 'Temple Of Love'. Yet that philosophy finds its way into the rock piggery of 'Some Kind Of Stranger'. One of Gary Marx's finest riffs, this album closer is an epic musical and lyrical journey that's monolithic in its approach. The feeling that Eldritch is wallowing in groupie action is evident throughout, a broken man seeking solace where and when he can find it with the minimum of emotional attachment.

For sheer decadence then it's pretty hard to beat 'Amphetamine Logic'. This is the track that harks back to the band's earlier sound with Marx's spidery guitar lines weaving an intricate web around Craig Adam's bottom end as Hussey punctuates the music with rhythmic stabs. A near relative of 'Alice' in terms of musical dynamics, the song showcases Eldritch's desert dry wit as he intones, “Watch them do the falling down/Watch them do the standing still” before finally giving way to the primal howl of a man caught on an endless and sleepless carousel signposted by chopping and snorting.

Though Eldritch was dismissive of David Allen's production of the album, the producer's touch gives the record a panoramic quality that had missing from their earlier releases. The sound is richer and fuller and the interaction between the guitars is fully in evidence. Witness the title track, a song that would go on to open their live shows. Marx reigns supreme here with a Celtic influenced riff that's utterly seductive and Doktor Avalanche being given special attention. Elsewhere, 'A Rock And A Hard Place' benefits from Allen's skills as Adams' treated bass coalesces with the good Doktor and guitars whirl and dance around the song.

First And Last And Always cracked the UK album charts and peaked at number 13, a remarkable achievement given that daytime airplay for the band was an impossibility. By the time the 80s came to a close, The Sisters Of Mercy's debut album had been certified gold. Sadly, the band didn't hang around too long to savour their success. Within a month of the album's release, Gary Marx left the band after the finishing the tour on April 1 and making an appearance on BBC2's The Whistle Test the following night, his relationship with Eldritch apparently at an end. What followed was a slow grinding down as the remaining members carried on without their original guitarist. Though Marx was slated to return for one final gig on his birthday on June 18 at the Royal Albert Hall, his absence ensured a thin sound and, coupled with an undersold venue and a set that started and finished at a ridiculously early hour, The Sisters Of Mercy came to ignominious end. An attempt to start work on a follow-up album, provisionally entitled Left On Mission And Revenge, came to an abrupt halt when Craig Adams left the band, soon to be followed by Wayne Hussey.

In a way, it's a shame that the band's story didn't come to an end there. Following the “corporate war” between Eldritch and what would become The Mission, The Sisters Of Mercy became more brand than band with the singer assuming full control of the name. This incarnation, though fragmenting at an accelerated pace, managed to pull in the same direction long enough to create an album that crowned the Herculean efforts they'd made before. Their humour was so dry as to be parched. Only The Sisters Of Mercy could've dreamt up a tour strap line of “Armageddon will be held indoors this year: tune in, turn on, burn out” or called their Royal Albert Hall gig, “Altamont: A Festival Of Remembrance”. Only The Sisters Of Mercy could've thought up the idea of rock music as an ironic vehicle for their bile. And only The Sisters Of Mercy could've been consumed by the very thing they were mocking. But regardless of what came next – and certainly the whip smart music that preceded it – The Sisters Of Mercy's debut album is a mighty full stop and crowning statement that's weathered the years well since its release. For some of us, at least, this really is first and last and always.