Losing Ground

The Sisters of Mercy, Manchester Apollo, 11th June 1997

When I heard that an unfeasibly talented, awesomely individual, platinum blond mega-star was in Manchester, I was keen to witness this eagerly anticipated performance. Unfortunately, tickets for Lily Savage in "Prisoner Cell Block H - The Musical" were sold out, so I had to settle for Andrew Eldritch as he dragged his unmerry band of cohorts round the festivals and medium size venues of Europe once more for another Sisters of Mercy summer holiday. Vacations are all the Sisters take nowadays, it being four years since their last release and a Dire Straits-beating seven years since their last album proper. Eldritch continues to bitch savagely about his record company, East West, and their utter uselessness in promoting his records compared to say, Simply Red's. If there were any justice in the world, Mick Hucknall would be busking on the streets to feed a starving group of former EW executives back at the dosshouse (and if Mick were busking, they'd starve pretty quickly), but people still think "Stars" is a first-rate accompaniment to a slow shag so obviously there isn't.

"What you have lost can never be found..."

Meanwhile, it became apparent on Wednesday night that, rather like an expensive orchid, the Sisters will wither and die without exposure to sunlight and a healthy dose of fresh air. To be blunt, all is not well on Eldritch Boulevard; the speculators are moving in, some of the foundations have been declared structurally unsafe and unlikely to last another ten years without replacement, and there's a rusting white Merc on the sidewalk that hasn't had its tank filled for several months. Before taking a swipe with the wrecking ball myself, I'd better assure onlookers that I know how to handle this job.

I have been accused by more than one ex-girlfriend of being a cold, unresponsive bastard who rarely displays great passion for anything. Mostly, they meant great passion for themselves which was, sadly, true enough, but deep down I suspected they could have a point. It's not so much whether the glass is half-full or half-empty; as far as I'm concerned it's just a bloody glass and I've tasted better anyway. But I reassured myself that if there was one thing in life I was passionate about, it was the Sisters of Mercy. I could discuss the metaphor of "Ribbons" with you all evening and use that as a springboard to a cogent argument for the Sisters being the only bastion of intelligent, articulate, aware songwriting and performance in the entire music industry, which was more than any of my ex's could manage. I like a lot of bands, but the Sisters were the only ones who gave you something to ponder after you'd stopped pogo-ing. Put simply, I got something out of their music that I couldn't find in anyone else's. Besides, no one else made "Temple of Love 1992" with Ofra Haza.

One of the few central cores of my existence therefore rocked uneasily at the Apollo last week. As I stood surrounded by the decidedly gothic hoardes inevitably in attendance, coolly observing the siege-like mayhem onstage, a small voice in my head whispered forlornly, "Is that it?" The weekend previous to this, I had (gulp) enjoyed watching the Spice Girls video. It was rather like discovering that, not only do you no longer find your girlfriend attractive, but you also quite fancy your own best mate.

"Words are just dust in deserts of sound..."

Glancing around, I was not the only one being not very impressed. Large sections of the audience stood similarly motionless, showing no outward sign of any involvement whatsoever. A hardcore mob in the middle of the auditorium, stretching perhaps twenty feet back from the stage but notable by their concentration, was leaping up and down enthusiastically, but for the most part the audience appeared unengaged. This must have been apparent to Eldritch too, whose enthusiasm seemed badly affected early on, causing him to rush perfunctorily through "Come Together" amidst a breaking wave of apathy. Indeed, it wasn't until two thirds into the gig that there was any discernible contact with the instincts of the fans.

From there on, concert favourites like "First and Last and Always", "Temple of Love" and "This Corrosion" went down, if not like a storm, then at least a mildly unseasonable downpour. Shame he had to ruin it with a ponderous reading of "Jolene" for the encore; the disco posturing of his original attempt would have gone down much better.

Support was provided by Cubanate, about whom I make no comment as I stayed firmly in the pub along with just about anyone else who had previous experience of Sisters support acts, most of which appear chosen specifically to throw the Sisters brilliance into sharp relief. (In retrospect then, missing Cubanate may have been a tactical error.) By the time Eldritch took to the stage along with his anonymous hired help, it was hidden, as is traditional, by rolling clouds of smoke. (Do you know how they manufacture this smoke, incidentally? Long factory lines of children in Far Eastern tiger economies are forced to drag on handfuls of cheap cigarettes for sixteen hours at a time, breathing out into long tubes which fill the canisters. The factory owners patrol the lines, administering beatings and locally-made whiskey to any who falter and collapse in fits of coughing. Most of these children have emphysema by the age of 15 and die of asphyxiation shortly afterwards. But do you care, you heartless bastards? No, you just think it "looks cool". Why do you think Eldritch always has a lit fag in his hand when surrounded by this stuff? He's making a Point, you morons.)

The gig was, by most accounts, a blinder. I would certainly be loathe to fault the playing, the performance or the sound, all of which blended well with the comparative intimacy of the Apollo. Once events picked up speed, Eldritch threw himself into it with the lively abandon that has been a consistent delight to anyone who was ever bored stiff by the "Wake" video. It was notable that the more recent numbers were better received than pre-'87 material, suggesting that the lingering "Sisters haven't made anything good since Alice" snobs mentality may finally be about to lie down and die. Three new songs were performed, one of which was actually premiered on the night. Of the trio, "Come Together" is a fun little boogie (even if, as noted above, this wasn't the defining performance), "War on Drugs" is too unfamiliar to make much sense of, and "Summer" is vintage Sisters. And despite my reservations about originality, this struck me as easily the pick of the bunch. Possibly the highlight of the gig, in fact, given that it was fresh, quirkily tuneful and lyrically intriguing, not least of all perhaps to Eldritch who only wrote the verse minutes before going on stage.

Like I said, the audience remained unmoved for the most part. In front of me, an athletic couple who probably thought they were Goths' gift to erotic fantasy waved their arms around in odd shapes and made like a statue of Shiva. At one point, he attempted to lift her up over his head, Torvill and Dean style, but his knees buckled as she was barely a foot off the ground. In the left hand corner nearest the stage, it was gratifying to see that some local residents were still practising the Madchester stomp of Roses days, a novel sight at these type of gigs; indeed, Eldritch was doing it himself by the end of the show.

And yet, and yet... Eldritch's paranoid posturing and frantic ducking and weaving came more and more to seem like the sad parody I, in company with others, attempt in our bedrooms while dancing to the records but are too cool to ever admit to.

"Everything is lost and your trust lies broken..."

Last year, Eldritch dyed his hair blond, yet he retains the omnipresent shades, long dark coats, tasteful oriental shirts and Motorhead t-shirts of before. And the man wonders why all the goths long to be close to him. Few can figure out his attitude to the audience, least of all he himself in all likelihood. A few years ago, when the music papers still wanted interviews, he was proud to boast that Sisters audiences were somehow different to others, moved more intelligently and gave the impression of a deeper awareness. Now he mostly complains that this black-clad army, for such they have always been, have saddled him with the hated Goth tag and would not recognise irony if you left the dictionary open at the right page. At one point, he encouraged a heckler to "shut the fuck up" and everyone else to "stop bickering".

It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that he could lose every last one of the "doom crows" by simply adapting his style and letting some of the promised "techno with tunes" creep in. Disturbingly, it doesn't seem to have occurred to Eldritch to adapt his style at all. It's 1997, everything is rosy in our Blair New World, even our sports teams are winning for once, and yet the band continue to play a five year old set list containing songs that are ten years old in a fashion first conceived fifteen years ago. If Eldritch has picked up on any trends in the current music scene, it has sadly been towards homogeneity, for every single song sounded the same. A curious feat when you've released three markedly different albums, but evidently achievable when you restrict yourself to two guitars, one drum sound, a synthesised bassline and half an effects box. Either the money is running out or someone we thought knew better doesn't care enough.

"And the truth is drowned..."

And at the closing of the day, this represents the cause of the current rot within the Sisters of Mercy - just where, oh where is the relevance? It has largely gone unnoticed that in the course of the Britpop boom, we have thankfully heaved out every last one of the crashingly dull Eighties behemoths who thought it was their god-given right to shift truckloads of slickly produced candyfloss. From stadium-sized tossers like Dire Straits, Phil Collins and Elton John to upcoming pretenders such as Tears for Fears and T'Pau and even the earnest, unlistenable Indie "antidote" represented by the Jesus and Mary Chain, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Cure; this country has made it clear that they're quite welcome to tout their sordid wares around less discerning, and probably more lucrative markets such as South America, but they needn't bother releasing their "long-awaited new albums" here because, quite frankly, no one cares anymore. OK, so we replaced them with a bunch of roughly hewn, retro-fixated scallies hell-bent on reacquainting us with the Sixties or even, in the case of Mansun, the Eighties again, but at least the results have benefitted from filtering through youthful exhuberance. We even managed to pull something fresh and original out of the self-perpetuating nihilism of dance.

I don't count the Sisters in amongst those Eighties reptiles, destined for a swift and apocalyptic meteor impact, but one apprehensively wonders how long they can continue to drag their sorry assets around Europe without a fresh injection of new material and enthusiastic exclamations from fans discovering their unique qualities for the first time. At the present rate, the band will be touring Butlins as a nostalgia cabaret act by 1999. Heck, even the Monkees had the decency to release a new album before embarking on their last comeback tour.

Eldritch bleats that his current contract makes any new Sisters albums an impossibility (while underlining how "necessary" the band is). Either he can't afford a good enough lawyer or he goofed and signed a dud deal, in which case the only honourable course is to clear his remaining obligations (a live album?) with all due haste and bail out.

I really wanted to like this gig although, truth be told, I was probably looking forward more to meeting various Dominion mailing list people for the first time than the concert itself. I can't help the fact that it left me not merely underwhelmed but entirely unengaged. Being a typical Gemini, I get bored easily (as my ex-girlfriends quickly discovered) and right now the Sisters of Mercy are real fucking dull. I'd hate to be so...undemanding but I don't want to pay fifteen quid to hear a concert I first heard five years ago; that's why I bought the bootlegs. Without ongoing output, no band can claim to remain relevant; in fact, I'd say no band can claim any right to a continued existence. It's time for the Sisters to put up or shut up; there will be no benefit of the doubt left this time next year.

Ade Rixon

Followup, 29th June 1997:

Since posting this review on Dominion, others have come forward independently to share similar thoughts. Indeed, reviewers in the NME and Independent took almost exactly the same stance. I'd be wary of using any opinion in the NME to vindicate my own, but the overall reaction suggests that it isn't just me (thank ghod, I'm saved!). Unfortunately, the downside of being a Sisters fan is that Andrew Eldritch doesn't give a flying fuck what you or anyone else thinks. We may yet have to endure this charade again next year. Except I won't be there.

Thanks to Marla Linder, Alex Ord and Ian Palmer (as always) for sharing their thoughts on the above.

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