The Sisters of Mercy
The Sisters of Mercy are an English gothic rock band, formed in 1980 in Leeds, United Kingdom (UK). After achieving early underground fame there, the band had their commercial breakthrough in mid-1980s and sustained it until the early 1990s, when they stopped releasing new recorded output in protest against their record company Time Warner. Currently, the band is a touring outfit only.
|The Sisters of Mercy|
|Origin||Leeds, West Yorkshire, England|
|Past members||See personnel section|
The group has released three original studio albums, the last of which was released in 1990. Each album was recorded by a different line-up; singer-songwriter Andrew Eldritch and the drum machine called Doktor Avalanche are the only points of continuity throughout. Eldritch and Avalanche were also involved in the Sisterhood, a side-project connected with Eldritch's dispute with former members.
The group ceased recording activity in 1993, when they went on strike against Time Warner, which they accused of incompetence and withholding royalties. Although Time Warner released them from their contract in 1997, they have not signed to another label, despite showcasing numerous new songs in their live sets.
Since 1985, and the departure of the other original members, the Sisters of Mercy has become uniquely Andrew Eldritch's artistic vehicle. Former members of the group established the bands Ghost Dance and the Mission.
Early years (1980–1983)Edit
The Sisters of Mercy were formed in Leeds, England, in 1980 by two regulars of the F-club punk night—Gary Marx and Andrew Eldritch—to satisfy their desire to hear themselves on the radio. During this time band a single, "Damage Done/Watch/Home of the Hit-men", was recorded and released. The name was influenced by Robert Altman's film McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), which featured the Leonard Cohen song "Sisters of Mercy" (from the album Songs of Leonard Cohen)—"because [calling ourselves] the Captains of Industry wouldn't have been as funny".
On the single Marx played guitar through a practice amplifier and Eldritch was on drums that he had bought from John Langford. The duo each wrote and sang on a song: Eldritch on "Damage Done", Marx on "Watch".
The band regrouped with Craig Adams on bass, while Eldritch's drumming was replaced by a drum machine, leaving him to concentrate on vocals. The drum machine was christened "Doktor Avalanche", and all of its numerous successors kept this moniker. Eldritch took over lyrics-writing, Doktor-programming, and record-producing duties, while co-writing the music with Marx and (occasionally) Adams.
This became what is generally recognised as the first real Sisters line-up. It began with the Doktor/Eldritch/Marx/Adams incarnation of the band playing a gig in the Riley Smith Hall of the Leeds University Union building in early 1980. Since nobody can remember the exact date, for historic purposes the band and fans have often celebrated the anniversary of the concert of 16 February 1981, in Alcuin College, York—the band's second ever gig in the form. Later in 1981, Ben Gunn was recruited as the Sisters' second guitarist. Eldritch's melancholic baritone, Craig Adams's pulsating bass, Doktor Avalanche's beat and Marx's flowing guitar led the band to early underground success. In 1982, the band recorded "The Body Electric" b/w "Adrenochrome" single for the CNT label.
The band's singles were regularly featured in UK independent charts; some became single of the week in various UK indie magazines. John Ashton of the Psychedelic Furs produced the early classic "Alice". The Reptile House E.P. is another example of early Sisters work and marks the maturing songwriter Eldritch (who wrote, produced and [reportedly] played all instruments on it).
Their live performances featured many cover versions: among those, a medley consisting of "Sister Ray" (by the Velvet Underground), "Ghostrider" (by Suicide) and "Louie Louie" (by Richard Berry) became a live staple. Only four of them, the Stooges' "1969", the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", Hot Chocolate's "Emma" and Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" were eventually recorded and released on Sisters records (all as B-sides).
In late 1983, following the highly successful "Temple of Love" single, the band signed a contract with major record label WEA. At the same time Gunn left in an atmosphere of unanimous bitterness. Gunn stated that he did not agree with the direction Eldritch was taking the band—which, according to Gunn, started out as a joke on serious rock 'n' roll outfits, but eventually became one. Gunn also mentioned personality conflicts with Eldritch as a reason for his departure.
First and Last and Always era (1984–1985)Edit
Gunn was replaced by Wayne Hussey, who concentrated on 12-string electric and acoustic guitars while also contributing as a songwriter. His studio experience with Dead or Alive also proved to be invaluable as the Sisters set out to record their first full-length album. The Black October UK tour (October–November 1984) confirmed the underground cult status of the band. However, the growing alienation between Eldritch and the rest of the group was getting out of hand during the recording of the debut First and Last and Always album. Eldritch's deteriorating health and psychological problems worsened the situation. The causes of these issues were frequently written about in the gossip columns of the music press, NME, Melody Maker and Sounds.
Most songs on the album were written and rehearsed by Marx, Hussey, and Adams, with Eldritch stepping in at the last stage to write lyrics and add vocals.
Following the release of First and Last and Always, produced by David M. Allen (producer of albums such as the Cure's Disintegration), Marx split from the band in the middle of a supporting tour, citing inability to continue working with Eldritch. The Sisters of Mercy completed the tour as a three-piece act, and said farewell to the fans with the final gig in London's Royal Albert Hall on 18 June 1985. Video recordings of this show were later released as "Wake". A music video of the song "Black Planet" was also released in which the Monkeemobile was featured. Promotional videos were also made for the singles "Body and Soul", "Walk Away", and "No Time to Cry", but none of these videos, including "Black Planet", have been officially released yet by the band.
The Split: The Sisterhood and The Mission (1985–1986)Edit
Shortly after the last gig Eldritch relocated to Hamburg, where he was soon joined by Hussey and Adams. Their intention was to begin working on a follow-up album, tentatively titled Left on a Mission and Revenge. Hussey had several written songs for the album, including "Dance on Glass" and "Garden of Delight". Demo versions of both songs featuring Eldritch on vocals have since surfaced, suggesting the band did work on the material in unison.
Eldritch has said to have pitched "Torch" as a potential song for the album, which culminated the long-standing tension between himself and Adams. After Eldritch's criticising the bass lines of the song, Adams unceremoniously left Germany for Britain, soon to be followed by Hussey. It's said that Eldritch hired the American singer and bass guitarist Patricia Morrison of the Gun Club fame on the day Adams left.
Hussey and Adams went on to form a new group called the Sisterhood. Their setlists featured songs Hussey had intended for the Sisters of Mercy; he would later record and release many of them with his new group. Meanwhile, Eldritch protested against their usage of the Sisterhood name as too similar to the Sisters of Mercy and the name of his band's fan community. In an attempt to stop Hussey's band Eldritch released the single "Giving Ground" by his own band, the Sisterhood. The single was later followed by the album Gift. Hussey's band eventually christened themselves the Mission. Hussey has since expressed regret about the entire incident.
We never recorded as The Sisterhood, we just went out and played some gigs. ... Andrew recorded as The Sisterhood, and since he released something prior to us he got to claim the name. ... To be terribly honest now, I think Andrew was right. I mean, two members of the band going off and trading on their old band? It's like two ex-members of The Mission going off and naming themselves as The Missionaries. It's a bit cheap.
According to some sources, with these releases Eldritch allegedly won, over Hussey and Adams, a race for a £25,000 advance (a sum opening the song "Jihad" on the Gift album) offered by the publishers to the first member of The Sisters of Mercy to release any output. This would tie Eldritch to WEA, and release Hussey and Adams from their contract with the same record company. According to the Mission's manager Tony Perrin, the case never went to court and Hussey's new band was able to release their material through an independent outlet. However, Eldritch stated elsewhere that the "2-5-0-0-0" which opens "Jihad" on the Sisterhood LP represents the sum of money he won from the Mission in the civil courts. He states in an interview, recorded in Boston, that the English courts did not recognise either his or the other members' of the band's legal right to the name "The Sisterhood". He said the courts required a release for anybody to claim ownership of the band name, which was the motivation for the initial Sisterhood single. After that single had been released, Eldritch officially owned the name, and could sue, which he did, winning £25,000 in the lawsuit.
Floodland era (1987–1989)Edit
Left to his own devices, Eldritch recorded Floodland, marking a shift away from guitar-based rock towards an atmospheric, Wagnerian rock and keyboard-oriented explorations pioneered on Gift. The album was produced by Eldritch and Larry Alexander, with contributions from Jim Steinman on two songs, one of them being "This Corrosion".
"This Corrosion" was a composition Eldritch had already once recorded (if not released) with his Sisterhood collaborators. Also, the B-side featured "Torch", the last song from the previous line-up. Then-manager Boyd Steemson maintains the chart success was no surprise for the band.
We knew we had something with This Corrosion. Max [Hole, Warners A&R exec] went into a meeting with a budget of £50,000. The label was unsure that they kept the right person: they thought maybe they should have gone with Wayne, since The Mission were out touring and making records. The record company said: "Well, £50,000, that's not bad for an album." And Max said, "No, that's for one song."
Eldritch has later considered producer Steinman to have been more pivotal in securing funding for additional production than the songs themselves.
[Steinman] was very good at getting the budget from [record label] Warners," Eldritch remembers. "We spent money on that record that otherwise we wouldn't have been able to. But most of it I made in a suburb of Manchester, and there weren't that many sessions where we went to New York and put extra flimflam on the songs. Unfortunately if you ask middle-of-the-road type rock listeners what the Sisters sound like, they'll always think of the Steinman singles.
Although Morrison played a significant part in Sisters of Mercy promotional duties (appearing alongside Eldritch on music videos, interviews and photo shoots) her musical contributions have been a matter of debate. In 1992, Eldritch had the following comments to make regarding their collaboration:
If I'd publicly pointed out at the time that I was effectively carrying Patricia as a passenger (not what I'd had in mind, I might add), then I might not be faced with a stupid court case. ... I thought it would be ungracious and not very supportive of me to point out at the time that she never wrote anything or played on the records, that while she was in the band she never picked up her guitar unless it was time to make a video. No wonder she was unable to play it properly when called upon.
The case has since been settled in court, which has led to a non-disclosure agreement between Morrison and Eldritch. Boyd Steemson later agreed that Morrison was not involved much musically, adding that
Patricia's contribution [to Floodland] wasn't directly musical. Which is not to say it wasn't important, because the look, the feel, the image, if you're in a pop group, is very important. It was an intriguing relationship that had a lot of value – probably more value than Andrew realized at first. And when he did realize it, I think that's when he became very uneasy with Patricia. But her musical contributions were very minimal.
The band did not play live during this period, but did mime Top of the Pops, among others.
Vision Thing era (1989–1993)Edit
The next incarnation of the Sisters of Mercy featured an unknown German guitarist, Andreas Bruhn, whom Eldritch apparently discovered playing in a Hamburg pub and brought into the band in April 1989; bassist Tony James (ex-Sigue Sigue Sputnik guitarist and Generation X bassist/songwriter); and last-minute recruit Tim Bricheno, formerly of All About Eve, on guitars. The new line-up kicked off with the Vision Thing album, released in October 1990, produced by Eldritch (one song, the single "More", was a co-production and co-written with Steinman). The album also featured guitarist John Perry with backing vocals by Maggie Reilly. The title is from a quotation by then-Vice President George Bush in 1987 and it marked another change of direction, this time towards guitar-oriented rock.
The band launched a 1990–91 world tour to promote the album. In 1991 they organised a controversial North American tour in double-act with Public Enemy. Fearing a clash between white fans of the Sisters with the black following of Public Enemy, several cities banned the performances, and the tour was cancelled halfway through. Late in 1991, bassist James left the group for his solo career; the band continued by using a pre-recorded backing track. The US tour fiasco did not help the already strained relationship between Eldritch and the Sisters' new record company EastWest, a WEA subsidiary (the band was assigned to it 1989 following an internal shuffle in WEA). Conflicts with WEA led to the termination of the band's US record distribution deal circa 1991–92, meaning later recordings are only available in the US as imports.
Under the insistence of the record company the band re-recorded their early single "Temple of Love" (with Ofra Haza on additional vocals, and Tony James on bass) to promote the collection of their early independently released singles, entitled Some Girls Wander By Mistake (1992). Early into the year, the band performed the track in Top of the Pops with Haza and Tony James, marking the final time the recording line-up for Vision Thing shared the stage.
In June 1992, Eldritch dismissed Boyd Steemson, the band's manager of ten years.
The band's broke. I haven't worked out yet how a band can tour for a year at The Sisters' level and be broke at the end of it [...], but I have parted company with the people managing the band in London. If I have to pay them off it will make us more broke for a while.
Around this time, Bricheno had begun focusing on his other band, XC-NN (originally, CNN). Meanwhile, Bruhn released his debut solo album, Broon. Bruhn claimed the songs on the album were offered for the next Sisters release, only to be rejected by Eldritch. Eldritch denied these allegations, saying he was never offered the songs.
Bricheno left by the end of the year and was replaced in 1993 by Adam Pearson. Pearson was the only guitarist on the single "Under the Gun", which also featured former Berlin lead vocalist Terri Nunn on backing vocals. The single was recorded to promote the "greatest hits" compilation, A Slight Case of Overbombing (1993). These releases turned out to be the last commercial recordings from the band to date. Bruhn left the band in 1993.
Following the last concerts in December 1993, The Sisters of Mercy went into what Eldritch called a "strike against EastWest".
Feud with EastWest Records (1994–1997)Edit
In or around 1994, Eldritch was alluded to have been preoccupied with legal matters surrounding the band, although he has never provided any details. It has been suggested by various parties that the issues stemmed from either the short-lived tour with Public Enemy in 1991, or, alternatively, Eldritch's ongoing issues with EastWest Records, as the band still owed them two original studio albums.
Eldritch's associates approached Gary Marx, the co-founding member, to write tracks for a new studio album. Marx then met with Eldritch, with the two agreeing upon the terms under which the backing tracks would be produced. After Marx delivered a total of eleven tracks, Eldritch backed out of the project 'without uttering a single word'.
In 1996, the band was revived for several gigs supporting the Sex Pistols, with Bruhn's place initially taken by Chris Sheehan. During subsequent tours, the guitarist spot would rotate between Sheehan and Mike Varjak.
In late 1997, the contract with EastWest was terminated, after the company agreed to accept material recorded under the SSV name instead of two albums for which the Sisters of Mercy had contractual obligations. The company agreed to accept the material (techno-like droning featuring mumbling vocals by Andrew Eldritch, without drums) without listening to it first. The recordings were never officially released and circulated only through pirate MP3s.
Following the release, the official Sisters of Mercy website contained the same "update" for several years;
Now that the moribund relationship with East West Records is officially over, it seemed reasonable to bang out a few singles, independently, while we're putting an album together (which usually takes a long time) and getting somebody to put it out with a bit of muscle (which usually takes even longer). This series of independent singles was due to start with a stonking (of course) version of 'SUMMER'. The music to 'SUMMER' was written by Adam Pearson. The words were written by Andrew Eldritch. It's very pretty, and probably very cruel. It goes like a freight train painted in the shiniest yellows and blues.
We planned to add another version of it (Adam supplying remix and Kleenex), and a third track which should have been one of the other new songs; we didn't decide which one. It might have been something you've heard us play live; it might not. What with one thing and another, this was not to be. Sorry. We are working on an album, inter alia, but the matter of single releases is currently on hold.
Later years (1998–present)Edit
While the band failed to release new recorded material, independently or otherwise, Eldritch has revived the band for short tours every year since 1996, except 2004. The band plays unreleased songs, obscure B-sides, and reworkings of old songs. In 2005, Pearson played his last of concerts with the Sisters, now paired with a new member, Chris Catalyst. Pearson has since moved on to play for the MC5.
In 2006, the band toured extensively in Europe and North America with their new guitarist, Ben Christo, formerly of UK punk/metal band AKO. With over 70 shows, the tour was the longest the band had undertaken in fifteen years. In Autumn 2008, the North American leg of a subsequent tour was conducted, followed by a string of shows in Europe, Lebanon, Israel and South America.
In 2011, the band celebrated their 30th anniversary by playing across Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
On Saturday 21 July 2012, the band made their first appearance at the Amphi Festival in Cologne, Germany, where they headlined day one of the two-day event. The Irish singer and pianist Lisa Cuthbert joined them on stage on backing vocals for "Dominion", "Arms" and "Temple of Love", and also performed her solo version of "This Corrosion" on an electric piano.
Possible fourth studio albumEdit
In 2002, Eldritch reminisced on some recent meetings he'd had with various record companies.
I was in the office at Virgin and they were telling me how independent they were of [parent company] EMI. But on the bookshelf behind the guy who was talking they had these boxfiles labelled 'Company Procedures' with the EMI logo on them. I just got the impression that they weren't serious about signing us and I couldn't wait to get the plane home.
I liked the A&R man at BMG, though. At least he was honest that they wouldn't sign us. ... Usually the one of the first things labels ask: what are the song titles and would we agree to an external producer. ... I think one of our titles, 'I've Slept With Every Girl in Berlin', might've put them off. ... We learnt the hard way in the early days how to make the Sisters sound good. We record a track, sit back for a couple of weeks, play it back and if it doesn't sound good, then we think about getting someone else in. ... I don't think BMG liked either of our answers. ... One thing [the A&R man] did say staggered me, he said the Sisters weren't a major [label] band. [The main reason not to go indie is] because he's wrong.
In October 2006, Side-Line Music Magazine announced that the band was in talks with the Universal sublabel W14 Music. Signed or not signed, three Sisters of Mercy reissues were released on 3 November 2006 in Europe (and 30 October in the USA) via Wea International: First And Last And Always (1985), Floodland (1987) and Vision Thing (1990). All 3 albums contained bonus tracks.
The official Sisters of Mercy website has remained essentially the same since it went online. The Merciful Release and Reptile House links have been shown as Site Under Construction for several years. The Sisters of Mercy have not released new recorded material since 1993. Even lead guitarist Ben Christo told Side-Line that he does not know if and when a new album would be released. In 2010 Eldritch confirmed that he currently sees no reason to release an album in an interview with Classic Rock contributor Joel McIver. In August 2010, when asked to elaborate, Eldritch pointed time constraints and lack of available material as some of the problems involved.
I honestly don't know [if there will be new albums]. The process of making them is much more pleasant than the process of releasing them. Since we don't have a record company, we'd be very happy not to have a record company [involved in the process]. We've actually made more money without a record company, and without putting out records.
Obviously, we could put them out independently, but the question is, how to make them in a way that doesn't stop everybody getting on with paying their rent. ... We have thought about [iTunes/digital releases]. A lot of the newer songs that we play at the moment were co-written with somebody [Adam Pearson] who's no longer in the band, and is not very comfortable with the idea of that. We don't yet have enough of a whole series of new songs that we three [Eldritch, Catalyst and Christo] have written together to make that a brilliant idea.
There are single tracks we could release, but I think we'd rather wait until there was a half a dozen, six here, six there. We do think about that and we do, sometimes, start recording them. But then, something comes up and somebody has to go and do something else which pays their rent or we have to do a concert tour. ... It costs not so much money these days, but time, to make a good record.
The Sisters of Mercy have cited Leonard Cohen, Hawkwind, David Bowie, Gary Glitter, the Velvet Underground, Pere Ubu, the Stooges, Motörhead, Suicide, the Birthday Party and the Fall as among their influences. They named themselves after a song on Cohen's debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. The band shares influences with other bands in the first wave of what is termed "goth music".
Whilst the band enjoys a considerable fan base with overlapping interests in so-called dark culture, the Sisters of Mercy consider themselves first and foremost a rock band. They have actively discouraged their association with "goth" via regular public statements in the press, not to mention stipulations in their standard contract riders. Nevertheless, this has not stopped them from regularly appearing at festivals where this music is featured, such as M'era Luna.
The original incarnation of Doktor Avalanche was a BOSS DR-55 ("Doctor Rhythm"); the Doktor was later replaced by a Roland TR-606, soon followed by a TR-808, and, briefly, a TR-909. On one album, First and Last and Always, an Oberheim DMX bore the Doktor name.
With increased financial resources from sale of the album, the Doktor was upgraded to a Yamaha RX5, and subsequently reinforced by Akai S900 and S1000 samplers. An Akai S3200 has been used as studio equipment. Soon after, the first digital Doktor appeared in the form of a set of Compaq portable PCs, which had to be scrapped when it became impossible to maintain them because of a lack of spare parts.
In recent years the "Digital Doktor" has been moved to a custom-built laptop designed by Eldritch and constructed by an English military software and hardware company. For a time there was some division in the band whether or not the Doktor should be moved to a Macintosh running Logic or remain as is.
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- Andrew Eldritch, press conference, ARTMania Festival, Sibiu, Romania, 13 August 2010.
- Jennifer Park, "Melancholy and the Macabre: Gothic Rock and Fashion," Gothic: Dark Glamour by Valerie Steele and Jennifer Park, p. 145.
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