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The Sisters of Mercy - A brief(ish) history

April 1999

Andrew William Harvey Taylor was born on the 15th of May, 1959 on the Isle of Ely ("I was born on an island within..."), England ("...an island"). His father worked for the Royal Air Force, and consequently the early years of his life were nomadic. His family life seems to have been unsettled: he lived in Singapore when very young and appears to have spent some time with his grandparents in the archetypal English town of Great Malvern. Having learnt to read early and thence to read deeply, Taylor's academic career was initially successful. Inspired by the techniques of German post-war theatre that were later to animate Sisters live shows, he went up to Oxford University in 1977 to read French and German. There was little sign at this stage that Taylor would become a musician, despite being inspired by Bowie's legendary performance of Starman on Top of the Pops; he had allegedly been banned from school music classes for having no talent, and within the confines of the 14th Century Oxford quadrangles he would have been isolated from the ravages that punk was wreaking across Britain. A career in the Foreign Office appealed. Pictures of Taylor dating from this period show the man having already dyed his naturally blonde hair black, but sporting a respectable pin-stripe jacket. The trademark aviator shades were already in place.

Taylor left Oxford before completing his degree; having tired of French and German he wanted to switch courses to Chinese, but was told he was unable to do this at Oxford. There are rumours that Taylor was sent down after the college authorities translated the Chinese graffiti that had appeared on the college walls, but as with most rumours connected with the Sisters, it is difficult to determine whether this is true. Intent on learning Chinese, sometime around 1978 he moved north to Leeds University to continue his studies. As music began to be more important in Taylor's life, academia was gradually left behind, although the bizarre combination of Chinese Studies and Punk Music contributed to Eldritch's later "Zen penchant for nihilism". The Chinese course at Leeds requires students to spend a year in Beijing. This didn't appeal to Taylor, and again without completing his degree, he left the University.

Leeds was, and is, very different to Oxford. In the late seventies the city was badly hit by the economic downturn in Britain's heavy industry, unemployment was rife and, particularly for young people, future prospects were bleak. Two vastly different possibilities seemed to offer a way out and Taylor's reaction to each proved to be pivotal formative experiences. The economic problems had prompted a worrying rise in right-wing extremism (helped by guardedly racist statements by Margaret Thatcher, then opposition leader) with groups like the National Front particularly active in Leeds. This provoked a fierce response from the Leeds student community - as Andy Gill, guitarist with Leeds based Gang of Four, commented: "There was terrible violence, pitched battles between students and British Movement members on the University campus". Taylor could hardly help but become politically active, and became active in the Rock Against Racism organisation. Punk had taken a firm grip in the major Northern cities, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, and each formed its own scene with its own characteristics. One common factor, however, was a determined application of the principle that anyone could form a band and make a record, the only requirements were a bare minimum of musical talent, and attitude to the max.

A few weeks after moving to Leeds, Taylor saw New York proto-punk outfit the Ramones at the University ("It was snowing and I had a hole in my shoe. On the walk back home I thought, 'If this is the worst that Leeds can throw at me, then yeah, I can handle it.'") and began to drift into the Leeds punk scene, which was centred on the F-Club located at the Warehouse - a sleazy dump in the centre of Leeds where the inhabitants were permanently blitzed on amphetamines. Here he became friends with native Yorkshireman Mark Pairman. A friend had stored a drum kit in Taylor's basement; rudimentary experiments ("I was just trying to sound like the Glitter Band") confirmed Taylor as the worst drummer in town. Pairman owned a guitar. Forming a band was a natural move. Exactly when and in what shape, the Sisters of Mercy coalesced is unclear. The idea of forming the band, and certainly the name, originally came from Pairman. It seems that the pre-history of the band may have included a few gigs solely consisting of 'Silver Machine' with an expanded line-up including a keyboard player. Equally confusing is a 7" single, "Train, Train, Train" by Leeds punk band the Impossibles released on Merciful Release records as MR 1 in early 1980 - what connection this has, if any, with the Sisters is unknown. What is clear is that by the end of 1980, the Sisters of Mercy comprised two members, and a single - Damage Done - was out on the band's own label Merciful Release. In common with standard practice for punk bands (allegedly to confuse DHSS officials and enable working bands to continue to claim welfare support), both members of the Sisters adopted pseudonyms: Pairman became Gary Marx, Taylor became Andrew Eldritch.

The Damage Done 7" is these days a highly sought-after record, with a commercial value far exceeding its musical worth. The three tracks are poorly recorded, the songs and lyrics are moderate at best, the musicianship appalling. Eldritch played drums and sang on Damage Done itself. Marx played guitar (the bass part was played on the six string) and sang on Watch and Home of the Hitmen. Marx's tracks are influenced by the Fall, Damage is a grim bastardisation of Glitter band drumming and a vocal styling perhaps inspired by Suicide's Alan Vega. The single was played on the John Peel show, thus fulfilling the band's ambition to hear themselves on the radio. The Merciful Release label instantly found a corporate identity with the iconic Head and Star logo, and familiar design layout present on the Damage Done cover.

The Sisters were a sporadic, part-time affair in 1980. It would have been easy for the band to disintegrate at this stage, but they persisted, reinforced by the recruitment of fellow F-Club regular Craig Adams on bass. A reassessment of the band's talent resulted in the individual member's roles becoming more defined. Marx was to concentrate on guitar, Eldritch became vocalist. A drum machine was bought and christened Doktor Avalanche. Adams's bass and Avalanche's drums combined well and gave the Sisters a tight rhythm section and a characteristic sound that were both missing from Damage Done. The Sisters now had a line-up capable of performing live, and made their official live debut at Alcuin College, University of York on the 16th of February 1981, supporting the Thompson Twins. As well as the Damage Done material and several new songs, the Sisters displayed their influences by covering the Velvet Underground's Sister Ray and Leonard Cohen's Teachers. The former was often covered by bands at the time, the latter was an unusual choice. Cohen is widely respected as a lyricist and this choice of cover set the standard by which Eldritch was to be judged.

The Sisters performed a haphazard series of shows in 1981 and early 82. A four track demo was recorded at this time to tempt promoters. Featuring Floorshow, Lights, Adrenochrome and Teachers, this gave the first indication that the Sisters were developing into an above average band. The recordings were still roughly recorded, but the new songs were highly promising and showed that Adams and Avalanche could harness the band's energy. Floorshow in particular showcased blistering Avalanche drumming and stunning Eldritch vocals. Eldritch's adolescent reading was put to use, as the lyrics contained references to T S Eliot's The Wasteland.

Ben Gunn (né Matthews - Ben Gunn is a character is Stevenson's Treasure Island) joined as a second guitarist in early 1982. The Sisters' second single, Body Electric/Adrenochrome followed shortly after, again as a 7". The single was released on CNT records, rather than independently on Merciful Release, due to cashflow problems within the band. The record made Single of the Week in the Melody Maker. This was indicative of a theme that was to persist: either people loved the Sisters, for instance Melody Maker journalist Adam Sweeting who consistently gave the band good press in their early years, or they were loathed - Leeds University Entertainments Secretary Andy Kershaw (later to become a Radio 1 DJ) hated the band and refused to book them for Leeds Uni gigs. Eldritch's manner, which at times could be abrasive and sarcastic, was perhaps as responsible for this reaction as the band's music. For fans, the sight of a hapless journalist getting the full treatment from Eldritch is one of the pleasures of being a Sisters fan.

The Sisters began to make a name for themselves in Leeds and Merciful Release branched out, releasing records by other Leeds bands, namely the March Violets, and later Salvation. There was a "scene" (horrible word, but I can't think of a better one) building up in Leeds: utterly disillusioned by the mainstream cultural themes of the 80s and Thatcherite politics, it featured an independence of thought and spirit, had its own drug (speed), and clothes - predominantly black with hideous paisley/seventies shirts. As it's main theme it utilised a complex theory that the horrors of 20th century (World War I, concentration camps, the atomic age, the Cold War and the potential to destroy the world in four minutes flat) made it impossible to get along with the world on an ethical level, to the extent that it was futile to try to do so. Instead it was possible to garner some aesthetic kicks from the world, especially if this idea was coupled with irony. So, Eldritch started talking about the beauty of the mushroom cloud, and how he was looking forward to being killed in a nuclear war ("It's gonna look great!"). The idea was a sane reaction to the times. Unfortunately, it was too complex for the music press to grasp. A loose coalition of bands in Leeds, with the Sisters having the highest profile, were lumped in with the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, the Birthday Party, with whom the Sisters had little in common, and retrospectively named Gothic. Later in the Eighties the term took off as new bands modelled themselves around the music press misinterpretation, and cited the Sisters, amongst other, as influences. Eldritch was at pains to correct the misinterpretation, at first patiently, later impatiently, but the over-simplification that the Sisters are a Goth band persists to this day.

There was no denying the upward rise of the Sisters in 1982 and 83. High profile support slots on tours with the Clash (what a line-up!), the Psychedelic Furs and the Birthday Party brought the Sisters an ever increasing audience. The original Marx/Eldritch partnership was beginning to split along the individual's own likes: Marx enjoyed touring and pushed the band's developing live sound. Eldritch was happier in the studio and dictated the band's recording schedule. The partnership worked well. The records were simply magnificent: Alice/Floorshow remains a classic double A single by any standards, the Reptile House EP heralded Eldritch's maturing as a lyricist and expanded the Sisters repertoire to include slower paced songs without losing any of the threat of the earlier singles (in contrast to most bands, whom at this stage switch to soft focus ballads). But it was Temple of Love that saw the Sisters making a quantum leap forward. It remains the definitive example of the early Sisters sound: intense, astonishingly fast drumming and arpeggio guitar riffs, finished off with an intense, literate vocal from Eldritch. It also signalled the end of the Sisters' independent years. The band had grown-up, were beginning to acquire fan bases in mainland Europe and the States, and needed to move on. All the band's independent releases are collected together on Some Girls Wander By Mistake which is an essential purchase for any Sisters fan.

Changes occurred in 1984 with the Sisters signing a record deal with WEA records, and Ben Gunn leaving to be replaced by Wayne Hussey, formerly of Liverpool band Dead or Alive, who had seen some chart action with their dubious cover of That's The Way I Like It. Hussey and Eldritch co-wrote the band's first three singles on WEA (note the marginalisation of Marx): Body and Soul, Walk Away and No Time to Cry. All three narrowly missed the top 40 in the UK. These singles tend to divide Sisters fans: Walk Away is cited by some fans as one of the Sisters' finest, others are less keen. Hussey's introduction introduced a change in musical style; the intensity of the early singles was missing, and Eldritch's lyrics had lost their edge. There were mitigating circumstances for this: the sessions for the band's debut album were laborious and exhausting and in Summer 1984 Eldritch collapsed in the studio. Exhaustion was the official excuse, but it was no secret that his amphetamine and alcohol consumption was vast and contributed to the problem. Although the band continued with a punishing touring schedule in late 84 (the marvellous Black October tour) and in support of the album in March/April 1985, the limits had been reached; the rock'n'roll lifestyle was catching up with Eldritch, and an appreciation of this can help in coming to terms with why the Sisters touring and recording schedule was toned down in later years.

Fears that the Sisters had lost it were firmly set aside by the debut album, First and Last and Always (and alert listeners would have already have been reassured by the excellent B sides on the No Time To Cry 12"). The singles were amongst the album's least interesting tracks, and the likes of the title track and Amphetamine Logic were hard-charging instant classics (and are still live favourites to this day), whilst Marian, Some Kind of Stranger and, especially, Nine While Nine showed a new depth to Eldritch lyrics and opened up a new theme, a distrust of love and relationships, that was to prove a continuing source of inspiration in later years.
The album was an international success, but masked increasing tensions within the band. During the "Tune In, Turn On, Burn Out" tour in March 1985, Marx announced that he would be leaving the band. This was a huge blow. As well as being a founder member, Marx was a highly principled person and a key member of the Sisters. However, his friendship with Eldritch was beginning to wane, and the tensions were increased by the Sisters' heavy touring schedule. The significance of the loss was perhaps under-estimated by newer fans, who had warmed to Hussey's guitar playing and contribution to the singles. As with many of the fundamental changes in the Sisters over the years, a key event happened just as the Sisters appeared to be at their peak and the importance of the event went unnoticed at the time. The loss of Marx presaged the eventual split of the band in the Summer of 1985. (Marx went on to have minor success with Ghost Dance).

However, with First and Last and Always high in the charts, the Sisters, without Marx, toured Europe and America, before returning to England for a setpiece gig at the Royal Albert Hall. Rumours were rife that the band was on the verge of splitting before the gig; this was partially true - following a note perfect 'Knockin on Heaven's Door' Eldritch's parting words were "Thank You ... and Goodbye", heralding Eldritch's retirement from live performance. The "retirement" lasted about 10 minutes: Motorhead's Lemmy was backstage and persuaded the band to make a final, final encore. Following this, it was to be five years before the Sisters would perform again.

The intention was that the remaining Sisters: Eldritch, Hussey and Adams would continue to make records. Eldritch's lifestyle had got out of hand: the rigours of touring, and the Sisters typically robust approach to the medium ("If it's got a pulse, fuck it. No pulse: score drugs off it."), had been dealt with by the intention to withdraw from live shows. The pressures of becoming a Leeds face were becoming too much for Eldritch: he was getting hassled in clubs (on the final tour he was performing with broken ribs), and felt the need to walk around Leeds with an iron bar concealed up his sleeve. It was time to leave: Eldritch moved to Hamburg, renting a flat on the Reeperbahn. The Reeperbahn is a sordid Red Light district; with a distinctly unnerving edge. Interesting move, Von.

In the Summer of 85 the Sisters were still a functioning band, albeit a fragmented one. The band regrouped in Hamburg in late Summer, with the intention of demoing tracks for their second album, given the working title of 'Left on a Mission and Revenge'. However, the tensions accumulated in the first half of the year had not been given time to work themselves out. Hussey had written a number of songs for the new album, including lyrics. Eldritch claimed that, in principle, he had no objection to Hussey's writing of lyrics, provided they were meaningful. This principle was left untested: Hussey's lyrics were, without doubt, appalling. It would have been a major disappointment for Sisters' fans to see the band reappearing with, say, Garden of Delight, as the lead single. The situation was unresolvable, and, perhaps surprisingly, Adams was the first to crack. Eldritch presented 'Torch' as a new song, to which Adams objected to the bass line and walked out. The following day Hussey also quit the band.

Eldritch claims that the split was at this stage "amicable", and there is some evidence to support this, as Hussey and Eldritch appeared on-stage, post-Sisters split, in Hamburg with former support band, Skeletal Family. However, the split soon turned nasty as Adams and Hussey joined forces to form a new band, which they called the Sisterhood. The obvious trading on the Sisters of Mercy's name, by two former members of the band who had left of their own volition, was not appreciated by Eldritch, particularly as Eldritch was by this time the only person carrying the Sisters' debt to WEA. Worse, the Hussey Sisterhood was soon performing live and took the opportunity of a London gig in early '86 to indulge in some immature criticism of Eldritch from the stage. This did not endear Hussey to those Sisters fans present in the audience. Eldritch resolved his problems by showing a wider appreciation of the issues. A second version of the Sisterhood was swiftly formed, comprising James Ray, former Motorhead drummer Lucas Fox, Suicide's Alan Vega and Patricia Morrison (allegedly recruited on the day Adams quit), with Eldritch overseeing the project as producer, but critically, not as a performing artist. This allowed the Eldritch Sisterhood to release records via Merciful Release (Eldritch as a performing artist was constrained by the WEA contract). The Giving Ground single was quickly released; as the first version of the Sisterhood to release a record, this gave Eldritch the rights to the name. The Hussey Sisterhood were forced to rename as the Mission. This was not the only loose string to be tied up. Prior to their split, the Sisters had signed a publishing deal with RCA. The advance on this deal would go to the first of the Sisters splinter groups to make an album. 'Gift' was swiftly released by Eldritch's Sisterhood, thus recouping the £25,000 advance on the contract. By no coincidence whatsoever, the first words on the Gift album were a chant "Two...Five...Zero...Zero...Zero". It's easy to dismiss Gift as a spoiler album, but this would ignore the musical innovation present on the album. Keyboards and industrial/dance rhythms were used to considerable effect, particularly on the opening Jihad. Hussey reviewed the album for Sounds, and predictably gave it a good slagging. The divisions seemed to have the effect of dividing the former Sisters' fanbase, and increasing music press sales.

Following Gift, Eldritch seems to have been unsure of where to take his career. The Sisters had apparently disappeared forever, but were hugely popular, with more and more people in the UK discovering the band's brilliance. Eldritch remained in Hamburg, but was considering further Sisterhood projects; a demo of This Corrosion featuring Alan Vega on vocals was made. Quite what occurred to make him change his mind is unclear, but in Autumn 1987 Eldritch re-emerged leading a re-activated Sisters of Mercy, now stripped down to Eldritch and Patricia Morrison. This was bliss for Sisters fans. We thought they'd gone forever.
The success of the Floodland era is widely known, and needs little elaboration here. This Corrosion was a huge hit, and the album was an undisputed success. On Floodland Eldritch fused the apocalyptic theme of his earlier songs with the relationship problems initially explored on First and Last and Always. Floodland is a classic album, the album of the Eighties, a critical success in every respect. Every track is a killer, be it the Steinman-produced anthems such as This Corrosion or Dominion/Mother Russia, or the introspective thoughtscapes of the Flood twins, or the stunned and stunning Sister-song to Nine While Nine, Driven Like the Snow. Along with Some Girls Wander Like Mistake, no Sisters fan should be without this album.

Eldritch didn't tour Floodland, and following the release of Lucretia as the third single from the album, he again retreated to Hamburg. Two key events happened before the release of the next album in 1990: Morrison was forced out as bass player to be replaced by Tony James (ex-Generation X, ex-Sigue Sigue Sputnik, ongoing tosser), Hamburg guitarist Andreas Bruhn joined and was later augmented by Tim Bricheno, a highly respected guitarist who had already had success with All About Eve, and had played a few gigs with, of all people, the Mission. The second event was the re-structuring of WEA records, with the Sisters ending up on new Warners subsid, East West.

The lead single by the new line-up, More, wasn't perhaps vintage Sisters, but the album Vision Thing was. Conceived by Eldritch as a collection of superficially 2D rock songs with labyrinthine subtexts, the album was initially disappointing, but revealed hidden depths on repeated listens...and kept revealing further and further layers of meaning over the years. Tracks like Vision Thing and when You Don't See Me sounded thin on a first listen, but slowly unveiled layers of meaning, whilst Ribbons and I Was Wrong never sounded like anything but classic Sisters tracks. Dr Jeep and Detonation Boulevard perhaps came close to formulaic, but what a formula. The requirement to pay careful attention to the lyric and rationalise the superficially dumb rawk sound of the album was too demanding for many listeners, and accordingly Vision Thing perhaps remains under-rated.

The Sisters returned to live performances in 1990, and after an unsteady start, turned in some blistering performances. Europe was extensively toured in 1990/91, although the UK was slightly neglected, reflecting tensions with East West (UK). America was toured twice in 1991; firstly as a low scale event, secondly as a high profile tour with Public Enemy. The second tour was a disaster: ticket sales were poor due to limited advertising and record company indifference. Eldritch accused Elektra of racism, Elektra responded by cancelling funding for the tour, which was correspondingly curtailed before the West Coast gigs.

This was the beginning of a long, unproductive deadlock between the Sisters and their record company. Debts incurred by the US tour were recouped by the Some Girls Wander By Mistake compilation, and a re-recorded Temple of Love 92 gave the Sisters their biggest hit to date. But the momentum was lost. Tim Bricheno left in August 1992 to form CNN and then Tin Star. Bruhn had left in spirit before then, but continued to play live until December 1993. The entire Merciful Release management team were sacked. A new Sisters single, Under the Gun, was released in August 93, and underlined Eldritch's continued brilliance as a lyricist, but musically was poor fare. A Greatest Hits package, A Slight Case of Overbombing was seen as poor value for money by a fanbase that had shelled out for a compilation the previous year, and by this time were desperate for new Sisters tracks.

The years between 1994 and 1996 were depressing times for Sisters fans. The band did not exist to any meaningful extent and Eldritch had categorically stated that he would not release any further albums for East West despite there being no apparent solution to the deadlock. Although Eldritch was more communicative than previously thanks to the official Sisters magazine Underneath The Rock, the future of the Sisters was more uncertain than ever before. Eldritch was rumoured to have released two techno albums pseudonymously, but I've not heard of anyone having been able to track these down.

The Sisters returned to live performances in Summer 1996, with a free secret gig in Leeds and three support slots to the Sex Pistols in Germany. Adam Pearson, who had replaced Bricheno in 1993, remained in the band, and was joined on guitar by Chris Sheehan. Eldritch completed the new look line-up with a hair-raising peroxide blonde hair job. Sheehan's tenure proved to be short-lived, and he was replaced in 1997 by Yugoslavian guitarist Mike Varjak. Varjak was an inspired choice: a fine guitarist, he also signed-up to the Sisters legend and looked like he should have been there from the start. The 1997, Distance Over Time tour also featured a brace of fine new songs, War on Drugs and Summer, which were added to in early 1998 by three more songs. Even better Eldritch finally escaped from the East West contract by delivering a stunningly bad album of techno tracks (with the drums removed), called Go Figure by SSV. The album was never officially released, but was widely distributed via the internet.

Free of the East West contract, it was expected that the Sisters would again start to release records, but at the time of writing there are no new records scheduled, or live shows planned. After all this time, the likelihood is that The Sisters will return, but in the words of the song, "Who knows where or when?"

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