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NO SLEEP 'TIL GATWICK

Philadelphia, June 1997


"He had live through an age where men and women with energy and ruthlessness but without much ability or persistence excelled. And even though most of them had gone under, their ignorance had confused him, making him wonder whether the things he had striven to learn, and thought of as culture were irrelevant. Everything was supposed to be the same: commercials, Beethoven's late quartets, pop records, shopfronts, Freud, multi-coloured hair. Greatness, comparison, value, depth: gone, gone, gone. Anything could give some pleasure; he saw that. But not everything provided the sustenance of a deeper understanding" - from 'Love in a Blue Time', Hanif Kureshi


1.30 AM, Monday morning. The phone rings. Now, normally my policy with middle-of-the-night phone calls is to bury my head under a pillow and ignore the damn thing, but something makes me answer this one. "'Allo, it's Von" Urrrgghh? "Wotcha doing next weekend?" Errr, nothing much, why? "D'you wanna go to Philadelphia?" Now I'm awake...

Friday 27th July. Gatwick Airport. After further phone conversations with Tour Manager Robbo (back with the good guys after a spell slumming it with Manchester no-hopers Oasis) and swagman Kenny Garden, I've been assigned a small but no doubt crucial job on the Swag Team, i.e. supervising T-Shirt sales. The Sisters and crew are flying out in two groups, we're in the advance party with strict instructions to establish base camp at the hotel bar prior to the arrival of the guitarists. Eldritch is not with us: the man's nicotine habit means that he'll be flying on some smoke-filled Hades out of Copenhagen.

At Newark we connect with Eldritch, who's in a good mood after reading a biography of the Kray Twins on the flight over. After the drive from hell by a Spanish taxi driver (mobile phone in one hand, other hand causing the taxi to weave erratically and worryingly across the freeway, crazy Latin muzak on the radio) we hit the Philadelphia Ritz and discover the bar serves Tadcaster's finest, Sam Smiths. Things are looking good. We tell the barman that we are the band, but I think the only effect of this is that he expects a bigger tip, so instead I take it upon myself to explain to the manager if Metropolis records, who are joint-promoters of the gig, why the G-word is verboten. I think it's just about sunk in when he asks "whether the band are using a drummer these days"...

Eldritch joins us with worrying reports about Dr Avalanche feeling rather queasy after the journey. He thinks that a working beast can be cobbled together from the backup version, and as a last resort there's a DAT tape of the drum and bass parts, but it's a sharp reminder that there is a job to do, and there's a lot more to putting a show on than turning up on the night of the gig and thrusting your groin at the girlies on the front row. Sisters' lighting man, Nigel Holborough, is already at the Electric Factory building the stage and lighting rig, starting what turned out to be a 30 hour shift with only a two hours sleep break on a sofa in the dressing room.
Meanwhile, guitarists Adam (Pearson) and Mike (Varjak) have arrived and Eldritch is ruining his reputation as a uncommunicative bastard by buying everyone drinks and entertaining us with stories about Dr Who, Jim Steinman, and strategies for screwing East West. Gradually the evening turns into night turns into morning and at 3 AM as jet-lag and alcohol kick in, I catch myself asking Von stupid questions about his lyrics. Definitely time for some sleep.

After a morning spent sightseeing, we collect "the transport", which turns out to be a long, black stretch limo, and head for the Electric Factory. Not for the first time, I'm struck by the difference between touring with the band and travelling as a fan, and my mind wanders back to one hypothermia inducing night on the streets of Losheim; boy, we could have used a stretch limo that night! I wonder which best captures the Sisters ethos: being driven from the Ritz to the gig in a stretch limo, or sleeping rough, whether one's integrity is being compromised. Certainly, it's easy to be seduced by the trappings of the lifestyle, and as we're signalled through the downtown traffic by white-gloved policemen and Mike reminds us of that scene in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, it becomes impossibly difficult to maintain an ironic distance from it all. I am living Vision Thing.

The Electric Factory turns out to be a converted warehouse in a dubious area, and as we arrive and collect the 'Access All Areas' passes (wonderful, magical things) the sound crew, despite the chaos and lack of organisation, have got things to the stage where the band are ready to soundcheck. Eldritch has been working on the Doktor all morning and there is a big sigh of relief as the guitars crackle into life and the opening beats of Flood II thump out into the sparsely populated warehouse. Nigel has worked wonders to get the lighting set into some sort of shape and there is a burst of smoke. Game On! Suddenly there is a blur from stage left and Eldritch strides onto the stage, picks up the mike and times the whole thing perfectly to sing the "And her hallway moves..." line. How cool is that! It sounds pretty damn good to me, and as ever with the Sisters the adrenalin starts to flow and it takes all my self-control to retain some dignity and stay leaning against a pillar rather than breaking into my usual elaborate and completely naff arm-waving movements. Run throughs of Alice and the excellent new song Summer, music written by Adam, follow before the band look satisfied and move backstage to get some food.

Andrew comes over to talk to us. He looks a little on edge ("80% nerves, 20% anger"). This is the Sisters first US gig for 6 years, since the ill-fated tour with Public Enemy collapsed amidst much anger at the Sisters ex-US label, Electra (the Sisters are currently without a US label, but have an exclusive world-wide contract with Warners, so are not free to sign a new deal), and ill-disguised accusations of racism aimed at the American authorities and music industry. This coupled with Eldritch's well-documented contempt for American culture ("a vast, vicious corporate theme-park for junk brains") means that the gig was always going to have a charged atmosphere. The one thing it needed to turn it into a battleground was a run in with the Sisters' betes noires, the g****. This duly arrived days before the gig, when Eldritch, exercising a veto clause written into the contract, threw out the entire support line-up, allegedly because they didn't look right. Local favourites, Switchblade Symphony were eventually reinstated, but not before rumour and misinformation had fuelled the fire and made certain sections of the audience very angry.

Never one to shirk from a challenge, the set list is circulated and Vision Thing - the Sisters' most bitter, savage, attack on America to date - is for the first time promoted to opening song. Eldritch is adamant: "win the battle before they know there even is one" and with a cackle he extends a middle finger.

"One baseball bat. Country of origin: Indonesia. Value: Sentimental."
- excerpt from the Sisters' tour equipment list

In the event, things pass off peacefully enough. The support acts are a mixture of interesting: Tapping the Vein, whose singer has the best hip movements I've seen since Vanessa Paradis last graced Top of the Pops; shambolic - Heavy Water Factory, and plain boring - Switchblade Symphony. The promoter failed to ensure that ticket holders were frisked on entrance, fortunately nothing more offensive than cameras and a plethora of recording equipment were smuggled in, but given the background to the concert, this was a potentially dangerous oversight. Perhaps the promoter was spending time organising, without the band's permission, the large video screens that hung from the roof of the hall.

By 11:30 we are ready for the main event and the Sisters storm the stage to a huge roar from the crowd and tear into a savage, barely controlled Vision Thing. The sound quality isn't great, but the squeals of feedback only add to the charged atmosphere. Eldritch screams the words, feeding on that nervous energy, exorcising the pain and resentment that have built up over the last six years. It's a watershed moment for the Sisters and fitting that they deliver a performance that matches the occasion perfectly.

Next up is Ribbons, reprising the vicious opening attack from Vision Thing. The crowd, apart from hard-core fans in the front rows who are singing their hearts out, are less animated than in Europe. Perhaps unfamiliar with the Sisters live experience they seem somewhat taken aback by the ferocity of the opening, and it's not until Giving Ground that they loosen up and get into it. Even then, the band/audience synergy which characterises the best Sisters gigs is lacking: there are no pyramids, no arm movements. How can you not do the obvious move to "Raise you arms, Flood"?

This is my fifth Sisters gig in three weeks and the new line-up is becoming more familiar: centre-stage the Vonmeister is a curious, endlessly fascinating mixture of control and nervous energy: twitching shoulders, permanent fag on the go, alternating between foot on the monitor scowling at the audience and bending in two unleashing a guttural bellow. Adam, hair cropped short and as usual wearing a vest, is either petrified or totally wired, he doesn't look like the most fluent of guitar players but plays the tricky guitar riffs to perfection. Stage left, Mike is more fluid, and has a huge guitar sound. The two guitarists complement each other well; and this is best demonstrated on Anaconda which has somehow turned into a wild monster of a song; finally the horror of lyrics is replicated by the music.

"We're the Sisters of Mercy. We're a rock'n'roll band."
- Eldritch, on stage Philadelphia 28/6/97

This isn't the best Sisters gig I've seen this summer: there are continual sound problems apparently caused by a malfunctioning bass channel on Doktor Avalanche, but from out of nowhere the night is saved. Eldritch returns for the encore, bows theatrically to a huge cheer and then delivers the best Comfortably Numb I've ever heard. This song always takes on a special resonance when I hear it abroad, it has such weight and dignity - a man trapped in a monster of his own creating? It's the line "The Child is grown/The Dream is gone" that does me in. What am I doing here, thousands of miles from home? The combination of the melancholy beauty of the song and a sudden sense of solitude are hugely affecting and bring a lump to the throat. The chords turn into Some Kind of Stranger causing the usual riotous outbreak of spine-tingles, and those words come up as fresh as the first time I heard them. It's a stunning performance and, for me, the highlight of the summer.
A singalong This Corrosion brings to the show to a close and the backstage partying begins. Yes, the stories you've heard are all true. It's 4 AM by the time I collapse into bed, exhausted but very happy.

After a handful of low-key support slots in the last three and a half years, there are signs that the Sisters are emerging from their hiatus. These shows have been the best performances I've seen since 1992. The mere fact that there are some new songs is hopeful in itself, but the way that they have improved over the weeks is hugely encouraging. At the moment I don't hear a top five hit a la This Corrosion or Temple of Love, and after such a long break the band are going to need a big flagship single, but I believe there is reason to be optimistic for the future.

Arriving back at Gatwick we pass the resurgent Echo and the Bunnymen. " I want it all, I want it all, Not the promises of what tomorrow brings". Sure do.



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