The following is slightly adapted from the article “Shine Like Thunder: The First Golden Age of The Sisters of Mercy” that appeared in The Quietus in August 2017
On April 23, 1983 - The Sisters of Mercy played a gig in in the sports hall of the Technical College in Peterborough, a town, then as now, rarely visited by travelling rock bands. These unlikely environs witnessed the band at their live peak, an encapsulation of what was special, even odd, about them.
Firstly, there was the austerity of the visual presentation: no smoke, minimal light show, no drummer, not much backline, just four men virtually in a row. Left to right: Gary Marx, the lead guitar player; Andrew Eldritch the singer; Craig Adams the bass player; Ben Gunn, the second guitarist.
The key dialectic was stage right: Marx, tall and broad-shouldered, winkle-picker held together by gaffer tape charging around slashing at his guitar and Eldritch in shades, a riot of black leather, svelte and sinuous, wafting his cigarette around, manipulating his mic stand and twitching his crotch.
“In terms of what I brought to the party,” Marx recalls. “Most obviously I wasn’t Andrew.”
Adams and Gunn and a Roland TR-606 drum machine, christened like all its predecessors Doktor Avalanche, held things down while the Marx/Eldritch dichotomy ran rampant.
Marx refers to it as him playing “Dave Hill to his Alvin Stardust in some weird Glam era mash-up. Or Rob Davis to his Les Gray gives some idea of the incongruity of us as a pairing.”
Marx’s analogies give a sense of how far Eldritch was prepared to push his stage act into the ridiculous, but not how sexy it was. Eldritch was both Billy Fury and his own Larry Parnes. He had gone deep into the homoerotic, past the Ramones street hustler look all the way into Warholian fetish and Scorpio Rising. This failed to make Eldritch a gay icon, but it was industrial grade catnip for some straight women.
Adams, still only 20, was the most accomplished – in fact the only – musician in the band, but chose to play his bass in the most brutal way possible, aping Michael Davis and Lemmy. Adams was key to The Sisters’ sound. Eldritch was impressed by how “Adams just naturally took to fuzz bass, which is an instrument and attitude all of its own. And he was bloody good at it.”
As later line-ups would prove, Sisters’ songs could easily be played by one guitarist. That The Sisters used two meant that their sound could either feel deconstructed or be in lock step, a wall of distorted sound. The second guitarist, Ben Gunn – the band’s virtually motionless Hank Marvin - although “living on crumbs”, as Marx puts it, was vital. “History will show,” says Marx, “that he’s there on the best records and all those fantastic gigs. While not exactly being central he was certainly crucial. In much the same way that my chief contribution was not being Andrew, Ben was not any of us.”
Also, as Marx admits, “of course, we were five in total. As dumb as it sounds, the drum machine was a massive part of the band’s personality.” The Doktor in his 606 incarnation was both cutting edge and primitive. It took a lot of effort, Eldritch remembers for him “to sound other than pip pip pop ... like anything other than Soft Cell. It’s great for them but we didn’t want that type of landscape.” To make the Doktor “solid and smacky” live and “to get some wallop in”, he was DI’ed (direct injected) into the PA, not via one of The Sisters' crummy amps.
The Doktor could not play anything complicated, even if his programmer wanted him to. And the programmer did not. As much as Eldritch loved bands that obviously had brilliant drummers – Ian Paice, Simon King, Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor, John Bonham – it was Mike Leander’s Glitterbeat to which Eldritch was most in thrall. Thus, The Doktor (was) operated in the realm of the genius dum-dum boy and girl drummers like Nick Knox, Tommy Ramone, Moe Tucker, Phil Rudd, Scott Asheton and whatever Martin Rev had rigged up to make drum noises in Suicide.
The overall effect was unrelenting. The band played each song with the same guitars, through the same couple of pedals; The Doktor couldn’t change tempo mid-song, sometimes just playing the same pattern ad infinitum; Eldritch sang in a less-than-two octave range and Adams kept as close to the root notes of chords as possible.
The cumulative effect could be extraordinary.
The four men on stage were the central but not the only component of The Sisters set-up in 1983. Also part of what Marx calls “the inner circle” were the roadies Daniel Mass and Jez Webb, the driver Steve Watson, the über-fans Dave Beer and Ali Cooke, and Claire Shearsby, who as well as being Eldritch’s girlfriend of long-standing, had “assumed the role of engineer.” Marx recalls that “at first she would mostly concentrate on dealing with Andrew’s voice and timing delays for the space-echo on different numbers. She then grew in confidence and muscled in on the desk because more often than not the in-house engineer would be killing us.”
Like many of the 1983 shows, the one in Peterborough began in extremely bold fashion with ‘Kiss The Carpet’, one of their very slowest and sparsest songs. Pushing the already austere aesthetic even further tested the nerve of the band.
“It was an edgy way to start,” recalls Marx. “I often looked across at Ben who seemed a bit unsure how to behave when he was doing so little.”
There were also practical reasons.
“It certainly made good sense to introduce elements one by one,” Marx continues, “to leave plenty of time and space to sort out technical problems. It gave me a little time to feel my way in. I can hardly overstate the fact I was often playing stuff that was tricky for me to do sitting down and concentrating, never mind when I was revved up and trying to throw a shape or two.”
Nor did The Sisters shy away from other slower, then unreleased, songs in their repertoire like ‘Valentine’, ‘Heartland’ and ‘Burn’, but the bulk of the set in Peterborough was full throttle, riff-heavy and more familiar: ‘Alice’, ‘Anaconda’, ‘Body Electric’, ‘Adrenochrome’, ‘Floorshow’.
As well as closing with ‘Sister Ray’, there were other excellent cover versions: ‘Jolene’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’.
In Peterborough, The Sisters skipped their version of Hot Chocolate’s ‘Emma’ – the usual centrepiece of their show - and ‘Lights’, another slow-burner. ‘Damage Done’ and ‘Watch’, from their very first - and very bad - first single, and The Stooges’ ‘1969’ had already been dropped from their set by this point.
Later in the year they would add ‘Temple Of Love’ and work ‘Louie Louie’ and Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’ into a final encore medley with ‘Sister Ray’.
And that was everything they had in their live arsenal during their first golden year: the twelve months between the releases of “Alice” and “Temple of Love”.
20 songs only.
They played 12 of them in Peterborough.
The “inner circle” was a full of fun but, like a street-gang, it also carried with it more than a whiff of aggression. Marx explains: “Some of it was territorial, as the Yorkshire-based following took over a venue. Equally, there were aspects of the band’s personalities that could be the trigger for it. Craig in particular had a very short fuse.”
Hi-jinks and violence were in evidence in rapid succession during ‘Floorshow’ in Peterborough.
“There was a throwback punk kid stood in the front of Andrew,” recalls Marx, “who had some connection with a local band on the bill and had the big spiked hair and The Exploited or some such stencilled on his leather jacket.”
The punk was staring too intently or mouthed something or spat – the exact infraction had been forgotten - but as Adams began the opening heavy Motörhead-like chords of ‘Floorshow’ the punk attempted to climb up on to the stage.
Adams let go of his instrument, rushed forward and kicked him in the face. As the punk scurried off the stage, Adams carried on with ‘Floorshow’. Justice had been swift: Adams had only missed out one bar.
While Adams was still guarding the front of the stage and eyeballing the locals, Beer and Cooke ran on stage and shoved custard pies – paper plates full of shaving foam – onto the heads of Marx and Gunn. “I think they were going to do Craig and Andrew as well,” recalls Marx, “but sensed they weren’t exactly in the mood.”
“The gig had a definite mood shift,” Marx recalls. “Craig played out of his skin for the rest of the show. Something clicked for Andrew as well.”
For Marx too. Always the boisterous performer, he ended the show sprawled on his back having slipped over in the remnants of the shaving foam.
The show was recorded on VHS video from a balcony at the rear of the sports hall. So too was its aftermath. The camera kept running as the DJ played a King Sunny Adé track.
“The punk throwback returned with his nose splattered,” remembers Marx. “He had obviously rallied all these mates of his from the area.”
After initially loitering back stage The Sisters and their inner circle soon had enough and decided to bring things to a head. “The camera recorded us all coming out for the showdown,” says Marx.
This included Shearsby, instantly recognisable by her peroxide blonde hair. “Physically she could handle herself; she’d been a PE teacher,” states Adams. “She could have smacked any of us out easily.”
The Peterborough punks huffed and puffed a bit but ultimately turned and ran,” remembers Marx.
“We did look kind of magnificent. I use the word advisedly because it was more like those Samurai or Western films. Shot from above with all of us walking through the frame at some point: Steve, Claire, Danny, Andrew, Dave and Ali, and Craig of course - all these special people.”