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The 16th February 2001 sees the 20th anniversary of The Sisters' live debut. We asked the GPS regulars to contribute some thoughts on the semiotics of rock band longevity, gigs past and tactics for avoiding hypothermia in German winters...
Sarah Froggatt | George Carless | Chris Sampson
With the 20th anniversary upon us, it seems a good time to look at the evolution of The Sisters live experience over the last 10 years since I first saw them at Wembley Arena in 1990. I'd been aware of the band since 1985 but hadn't done anything about it 'til early 87 when the aftermath of the Sisterhood fiasco was still lashing spasmodically though the music press. So it was only with Vision Thing that I had my chance to see them live.
I was, to put it mildly, excited at the prospect of seeing my heroes in the flesh. So I had a beer to celebrate on the way down to London. And another. And so on. By the time we reached Wembley I was unfortunately not sufficiently clear-headed to appreciate much more than a storming rendition of Jolene at the end of the gig. It's not a mistake I've made twice.
The 10th anniversary gig at Leeds University Refectory was a different proposition altogether. Snow on the ground, tiny venue, no bar and no support band. By the time the guitarists came on stage the crowd was ready to explode and we all surged forward in the manner of moshpits. Ditto when the intro to Alice started and again when Eldritch came on. I looked behind us: the previously overflowing Refec was now apparently less than half full. Overall people density necessarily constant, but now all at one end. The physicist in me sees an interesting exercise in thermodynamics there, but I digress. A wonderful gig, with Von quite impressed by the occasion to the extent of taking his shades off briefly to have a good look at us all. Enjoying himself too. My favourite quote of the night has to be: "I can remember when this stage was big." Charming chap.
Move onto June 92 at the NEC. A much nicer venue than Wembley, although not being in London gives it a head start anyway. Despite its size, it manages to create quite an intense atmosphere and with The Sisters kicking off with Comfortably Numb the gig got off to an incredible start and just got better. A blinder. The gig was one of a strung out series of summer shows in Europe, so the band were both on top form and relaxed - the best combination. December 1993 at the NEC was very different - part of a tour and the band were arguably simply going through the motions. Certainly I don't have any amazing memories of the evening.
The next few years saw the band take time off and the next historic occasion was of course Near Meth Experience at the Fenton in June 96. A bit of an adrenaline rush, this, with it really only being an internet rumour it was happening at all. I drove 200 miles and arrived at the pub at 9 PM, and it turned out to be an occasion when it was best to arrive late, because it meant I was right at the bottom of the stairs when they opened upstairs and let us in. So I got in fine while all those who'd been there all afternoon didn't get a look in. Still, controlling numbers so totally arbitrarily is perhaps fairer than most other methods. The gig itself was like no other, with something like 80 people in the audience, two very business-like guitarists concentrating very hard, some pretty basic lighting, no smoke machine and Von beaming from ear-to-ear, sporting his brand new blonde hair and a wonderful pink and orange shirt and bouncing like, well, Tigger. Or Zebedee. Or possibly both. Wonderful to watch. I always marvel that someone as, um, petit as Von nevertheless has a personality that genuinely fills the stage, room, venue, whatever. Definitely an experience. The songs were rather good, too - this was the first time the reworked versions of First and Last and Always, etc. were aired. I can't say I paid much attention to the mechanics of them (you're fired - Ed), to be honest - I was too busy soaking up the atmosphere of the place. A good description of the crowd that night would be "overawed" at the thought we were actually there. Witness the following: Von and Pete Turner were out on the fire escape cooling off after the gig. I went to say thanks before driving home. Or rather I attempted to. I was completely disarmed by Von's smile and got rather tongue tied!
My next trip to Leeds was to see NME again, this time at Joseph's Well. This time I got there well early and this time I nearly didn't get in. At one point I noticed the soundcheck was particularly loud in the Ladies and had visions of listening to the gig from there... but I did get in, albeit by the skin of my teeth. This one was definitely a rehearsal - the density of humans and June temperature combined to give a humidity level with which the electronics were never intended to cope. All the lights shorted except orange, the smoke machine fixed itself permanently on, the monitors weren't working, Von stormed off about half way through and came back to finish a much truncated set and Mike (his first gig) couldn't see the set list through the fog and was playing the wrong song at one point! The audience didn't notice, didn't care and had a great time. The band cared passionately and went over the performance in minute detail so as to be ready for that year's onslaught on Europe's festivals, starting in three days' time. By all accounts the rehearsal paid off, although my impression of the gig in Manchester was of a very polished performance but a very cold, almost clinical one, with not a single quip from the stage. I suspect this was due largely to a very cold audience who were hostile to the presence of any unfamiliar material in the set. They had failed signally to keep up with the band's evolution and simply stood there wondering just who they were watching, because it was hardly the Sisters of the Wake video of 12 years earlier. I felt angry with them and sorry for them at the same time. Gary Glitter never did manage to scramble out of the nostalgia-show rut. The Sisters patently have. Why is it so difficult for the audience to keep up with that?
My own introduction to festivals on the European mainland came a year later, at Neerpelt in 98. The food was appallingly badly organised, the beer and wasps barely better, but in terms of mud, cow pats, sunshine, Portaloos, happy campers, noises to wake the dead at 4AM and some extremely dodgy bands, it was much the same as any festival I've been to in the UK. The Sisters blew everyone away - definitely my other favourite Sisters gig so far. The lightshow was superb and the stage looked decidedly bare the next day when the Sisters crew had taken their rig down. The Stranglers were superb as well. Funny how two bands the press have written off can and do run rings round all the "up & coming" media darlings.
It was clear that by now, 8 years after I started, what I had dimly perceived in 93 was a fact: the band, and Von especially, enormously enjoy shows when there's time in between, e.g. the Saturday job festival schedule in the Summer. Tours with a gig every night do not make them such happy chaps: that first one I saw, at Wembley and the December 93 NEC one were part of such intensive tours and it showed. A less hectic schedule reaps dividends in terms of gig quality and interaction with the crowd. Hardly a surprising conclusion, but one the screaming punters would do well to bear in mind.
However, this theory doesn't seem to apply so much to the smaller venue tours we've been getting recently, as I found out in September last year, when I had my first chance to "do" all 5 gigs on the UK leg, all within 6 days. The major thing that struck me was how the crowd varies in different parts of the country; I had previously only gone to gigs of that size in Manchester and Liverpool where the audience is rather exacting in its expectations of a performance's standard. Glasgow was something else - a much more determined-to-party attitude. And obviously the band feeds off these differences and every night is then different, so the grinding tedium (from their point of view) doesn't set in so. In larger venues, regional variations are diluted so the effect isn't present.
It wouldn't be fair to draw any conclusions from Nottingham, other than that the venue seemed quite prepared to run for the world record for the number of bodies in a given volume (no I don't mean floor space, I mean volume!). We weren't bopping/dancing/moshing simply because we couldn't move at all. Unless we'd gone for the completely synchronised approach, but I doubt the foundations would've coped.
The first of the London dates was the best of these 5, no doubt because there was no pressure to strike the rig and hit the road. Excellent performances all round, and Von his usual mischievous self. At the end one of the other girls, as we raved about Flood II, said that she "really needed a cigarette after that you know?" and we all agreed with her totally. How does he do it? He even has that effect in a place the size of the NEC! One of life's unanswerable questions.
The aftermath of a gig is quite sad really. Ears buzzing, eyes stinging, throat parched, brain reeling, trying to meet up with the people you came with and/or the people offering you crash space, trying to decide whether you want to meet up with or avoid random people you spoke to during the gig and trying not to get swept up with the plastic cups, squashed cans, soggy fag ends and assorted other debris by short-tempered staff who want their beds. The hours before a gig are more fun, catching up with people and gossip, putting the world to rights over fried breakfasts, service station food or copious quantities of beer. Sisters gigs are a wonderful way of getting a whole load of like-minded but very different people together. A worthwhile side-effect and long may it continue.
So, where does the 20th Anniversary see the band? An undeniably lean, fit, mean groove-machine, which can be mobilised at 24 hours' notice when necessary (Roskilde 1999). A band which, the music press now realise, can sidestep their medium and not bat an eyelid. The press are, slightly late in the day, starting to catch on that this is a band that can act independently because they're really rather good. I would say the performances themselves are now more confident and self-assured; they have far more cheeky swagger about them than 10 years ago. Von seems to relish his role more: witness the outrageous comments directed at the audience. One of the best has to be "we are the light at the end of your sorry little tunnel", from London 98 and the audience loved it. The recent fluidity in the second guitarist post works really well and allows the band an informality that gives them much-needed freedom. And all of them write the tunes, so there's diversity in the new songs too.
The Sisters have come a long way since February 1981. They are still evolving and a fair few people out there are evolving with them. The 10th anniversary met with incredulity in some circles; the 20th is something to be very proud of. Congratulations, boys! I've got my tickets, now where's the number to book those trains?
If there's any band that's always been likely to provoke mixed reactions, arguments, fist fights and holy wars, it's The Sisters. A recent discussion on everyone's favourite waste of bandwidth, Dominion, was quite a shock to me: I'd always believed that everyone loved all of the Sisters' songs, as I did - but no! Apparently, there are people to whom This Corrosion is commercial twaddle (never mind the fact that that's part of the point...), to whom Home of the Hitmen is pointless nonsense; there are even, incredibly, those who can't stand Temple of Love...
For my part, as I suggested, I'm a fan of everything the Sisters have done. Since you're probably already wondering why I gotta be so undemanding, I do think we could do with less of More, and that re-worked versions of any song are seldom a good idea -- but still, by and large, I think it's all brilliant. How, then, can people be so divided on what constitutes a good song?
It's easy to forget, if you're a big fan of any artist (as, if you're reading this, you probably are), that not everyone shares your zeal. It's like being drunk, and believing everyone else to be similarly intoxicated, and it's only a little less dangerous. There's nothing more frightening than a zealot, nor as boring as a sycophant, nor as stagnant as unquestioning devotion. The man who was suddenly given everything he ever wanted ate too many Wonkabars and died a fat, lonely bastard. Every Sisters fan needs to be thankful of the fact that Eldritch has continually moved in new directions with his band. We need to be grateful that there are sad old bastards who pine for the pre-FALAA days; that Under The Gun is so often hated and, yes, that there are people whose first Sisters song was This Corrosion. These aren't signs of failure, of losing the plot: they're signs of adventure, innovation, experimentation, vitality. It is notable, when we look back over the history of the band so far, that virtually every major important decision made by the band has been met with ridicule, disgust, or condemnation.
Whether it be Hussey, Steinman, Tony James' arrival or Patricia's departure, the Sisters have always bounced back and - more important - have always surprised or shocked us. Indeed, one might even wonder whether the personnel changes following each album might have been necessary, if not planned - a catharsis, if you will. There are those to whom Eldritch is The Sisters and, of course, they'd have a point - but we need to consider the vital role that has been played by Eldritch's partners in crime. Each has contributed, one way or another, to the distinctive sound of the given period of the Sisters' career. Nonetheless, and cynical as it may seem, Eldritch has used band members as an extension of how a solo artist might use session artists. Band members have been chosen for their particular style, their ability - but also for the aesthetics, the media exposure, the comedy value. The fact that they are as such rather ephemeral has been vital to the success of The Sisters of Mercy: while there are some bands who do manage to develop with the same group of musicians, it's difficult to see where The Sisters would have taken things had Eldritch not been forced - albeit perhaps by himself - to rethink things so often.
And so, I'm worried. By all accounts, things seem remarkably rosy in Camp Baxville. Adam and Mike have a shitload of stuff up on the web site. Chris Starling seems to flout convention by being a (currently) ex-member who still gets along well with Eldritch and, stranger still, who actually makes good music on his own. Eldritch has a girlfriend. Given appearances at most recent concerts, he even seems to be happy: altogether not good signs. I'm still not convinced by the new songs I've heard, either - not because they're particularly different, or unexpected, but rather because they're neither of those things. Of course, the Sisters live and the Sisters in the studio really are two completely different beasts, and I generally have the confidence in Eldritch's abilities (both artistic and critical) to believe that whatever's produced will be bloody good. Indeed, I'm hoping that my doubts are a good thing, given the apparent relationship between Eldritch's ability to confuse and confound before dazzling and delighting. Perhaps this is a new stage in the Sisters' development - perhaps Eldritch too feels that it's time to mature, to place more of his own trust in the abilities of others. Certainly, Adam and Mike seem more intelligent (and humorous) chaps than anyone who's been in the band before; they're also clearly rather talented.
There's one good sign, though: people are bitching and moaning.
Still, there's something the Sisters needs must do: they must remember to piss some people off. To remember to give us something to fight about, to squabble and ponder over. They should alienate the Vision Thing fans; frustrate the media; write a pop song; find God; collaborate with Boyzone. But we've had phantom, and we've had Andrew dancing; now give us the future, and make it murder...
A poet when he is growing old, will ask himself if he cannot keep his mask and his vision without new bitterness, new disappointment. Could he, if he would, copy Landor who lived loving and hating, ridiculous and unconquered, into extreme old age, all lost but the favour of his muses. Surely, he may think, now that I have found vision and mask I need not suffer any longer. Then he will remember Wordsworth, withering into eighty years, honoured and empty-witted, and climb to some waste room, and find, forgotten there by youth, some bitter crust.
- W B Yeats, 1917
Turn to Alan Clark's diary entries for 16 February 1981 and you find Thatcher's first administration in trouble with the economy and unemployment running out of control and the 'wets' threatening cabinet rebellion; the Falklands War and Miner's strike that strengthened her pseudo-dictatorship were still some years off. In the charts, the recently deceased Lennon was at Number One with Woman, soon to be displaced by Joe Dolce's Shaddup Ya Face, and the laughable 'New Romantic' was the prevailing trend. At Alcuin College, York University, unknown Leeds band The Sisters of Mercy were making their live debut, supporting the Thompson Twins at a CND benefit and beginning their set with a screamingly intense version of Leonard Cohen's Teachers.
Lennon dates it for me - Mark Chapman shot him the day I became a teenager, and for me 1981 was a year of school uniforms, car factories being closed down and unemployed punks sniffing glue outside WH Smiths. Eldritch's quote about "a generation being brought up to have no expectations, no ambitions" really rings true. The likes of The Sisters, Cocteau Twins and New Order were something of an escape, and I suppose they nurtured a sense of cultural sustenance. For that, thanks.
For most of us, the Sisters have been a constant in our lives for the last 15 years or so, and there has been a significant two-way investment in that relationship. There have been some truly great memories in that time: the first play of Ribbons and hearing Eldritch bellow 'Incoming!' for the first time; the staggering Birmingham NEC show in 1992 (still the greatest Sisters show I've seen); This Corrosion on Top of the Pops; I still remember the first time I heard the infectious Floorshow drum patterns in a Coventry night club ... And there have been some embarrassments along the way: Pete French and me playing air guitar on a Belgian festival stage, three hours after the audience had gone home; the disastrous Robbo printer incident.
A 20th Anniversary for a rock'n'roll band! What are we to make of this paradox, easily stated, yet full of problems? Rock'n'roll bands are supposed to burn intensely but briefly, change the lives of a few fans, add something to the pool of influences later bands can draw on, make the record company some money and then fuck off . Bands which do persist seem to fall into either the Rolling Stones category - creatively spent and increasingly sad as a live act, or into the Beatles category - long since split but spawning a drip-feed of out-takes that are reverently analysed with an almost academic level of detail (which is pointless as it destroys any natural reaction to the music). No rock group that I can think of can claim the consolation of Yeats: the increasing power of their muse to compensate for the ravages of age.
Inevitably, the Sisters wreck our neat categorisations. At this point in time the band's live shows have for a number of years consistently been hitting a level of quality that was unmatched in the previous 20 years. Yeats talks about "vision" and "mask"; both are firmly established for Eldritch (and I would say the on-stage Eldritch wears at least 4 layers of mask) and these artistic successes seem to give him peace of mind. Yet the absence of new recordings means the shows are being performed in smaller and smaller halls (e.g. London: Brixton, Forum, Astoria) which is beginning to impact the grandeur of the presentation. Creatively The Sisters are far from spent - the 8 unreleased Sisters tracks and Leeds Underground material show Eldritch & co can still reach the peaks reached on Floodland and Vision Thing, yet there has been no (publicly released) album for the last half of the band's existence. "To do is to be" said Jean-Paul Sartre - in which case do the Sisters even exist anymore?
So here I am in the bizarre position of going to a gig at a place I left 10 years ago to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of a band that may no longer exist. (And what's more, wasting a Saturday night writing about such a strange event.) Is it the tease, the unfulfilled potential, the uncertainty surrounding their future that keep the Sisters such a magnetic proposition? Is it the fact that the Sisters never really celebrated the moment, that Eldritch always had a wider world-view, that keeps them fresh? The Sisters always seemed so damned important.
The political diaries for 16 February 2001 will show Blair's government heading for a second term, unemployment low, and the European project looking increasingly pointless. Christ knows who will be Number One, but the chances are it will be a manufactured pop band rather than a faux-prophet figure like Lennon. And at Alcuin College, York University, the very much alive and existing Sisters of Mercy will be celebrating their 20th anniversary. I think I'll have a few beers, try not too think too hard about the whys and wherefores and just damn well enjoy myself. 'Twas ever thus.
My Nobel prize medal shows a young man listening to a Muse, who stands young and beautiful with a great lyre in her hand, and I think as I examine it, "I was good-looking once like that young man, but my unpractised verse was full of infirmity, my Muse old as it were, and now I am old and rheumatic and nothing to look at, but my Muse is young." I am even persuaded that she is like those Angels in Swedenborg's vision, and moves perpetually "towards the dayspring of her youth."
- W B Yeats, 1923