DiS Primers #7: The Sisters Of Mercy

The Sisters Of Mercy slunk out of Leeds sometime in the early 80s. You’ll all know that this was an incredibly fertile time for music, as the ripples of punk spread and spread into new bands, new sounds, new scenes. Ever contrarian, however the Sisters would have none of this, and cited the likes of Suicide, The Stooges, and Motörhead as influences. Bar a shoddy and best forgotten debut single, they have never had a drummer, instead preferring the drum machines which became an integral part of their distinctive sound.

The earliest stable lineup was Doktor Avalanche (the aforementioned drum machine), Craig Adams on bass, Ben Gunn and Gary Marx on guitars and Andrew Eldritch as singer, lyricist, and programmer. Eldritch’s melancholic baritone and clever lyrics allied with the flowing guitars of Marx and Gunn saw them become increasingly popular in the underground scene, as between 1982 and 1984 they released a series of singles and EPs on their own Merciful Release label. Temple Of Love and Alice are pumping four to the floor rockers, Floorshow and Phantom are based around intriguing drum patterns, while the Reptile House EP is a sustained stare into interior darkness. There was a totality of package to the Sisters - these records have a common design template which means they stand together, but not with anything else. It’s part of their appeal, the gang mentality that had served the likes of The Clash so well. You either get it or you don’t, and if you get it, you really get it.

They toured relentlessly through this period, fuelled by a massive amphetamine consumption that led to Eldritch being less stable than perhaps he might have been otherwise. By legend, these gigs were intense affairs, driven by volume, speed, and strobe lights, often ending with epic versions of Sister Ray or Suicide’s Ghostrider, the band hammering away at the same chords for ten or twenty minutes.

After the release of the Temple Of Love EP in late 1983, the band signed to Warners. At the same time, Ben Gunn left, thanks to displeasure with the direction of the band’s music, and a breakdown in his relationship with Eldritch. This will become a theme. Those early independent EPs brilliantly evoke a frenzied, mechanised, claustrophobia, and they are some of the best work the band produced, a dynamic yet gloomy psychedelia set to a driving machine beat. You can find them collected on the Some Girls Wander By Mistake compilation (another nod to Leonard Cohen).

The murk was partially lifted by the arrival of new guitarist Wayne Hussey who added a twelve string jangle to the palette. This line up recorded the debut album, First And Last And Always. It’s a fine record, perhaps not quite as wonderful as the early singles, but any record that contains the scorching catherine wheel guitars of Amphetamine Logic, the driving riff of the title track or the drowning claustrophobia of Marian isn’t one to sniff at. On the tour to promote the album, Gary Marx walked out halfway, refusing to work with Eldritch anymore. They played a final gig at the Royal Albert Hall as a three piece, and shortly afterwards relocated to Hamburg to start work on a follow up album. It didn’t go swimmingly, and they broke up in a storm of arguments (again). Adams and Hussey formed a new band and played some gigs under the name The Sisterhood. Eldritch took umbrage at this and rush released an album as The Sisterhood to stymie any chance the other two had of using the name. The multilingual singer no doubt enjoyed the double meaning of the title - Gift means ‘poison’ in German. It’s a great record with a parade of guest vocalists, including Suicide’s Alan Vega and Lucas Fox out of Motörhead, and one that was way ahead of its time. The guitars were entirely gone, and it was drums and synths all the way, prefiguring the late 80s industrial sounds of Wax Trax et al. With The Sisterhood name closed to them, the other two went off to form The Mission, at which point they wander out of this story.

Eldritch retreated into the studio, and retired the Sisters as a touring outfit for the rest of the decade. The next album, 1987’s Floodland, was entirely a studio effort and largely dropped the electric guitars in favour of more synths. It’s an epic record, a huge sounding affair that was my introduction to the band. Jim Steinman was involved on the big singles, of which This Corrosion is maybe the one they are still best known for. Eldritch’s lyrics come to the fore here, an intoxicating mix of pun and allusion, stealing from TS Eliot and riffing off Dylan and Shelley. Throughout the record, the words are dense and multi-layered, rewarding careful consideration (the website 1959 And All That does a fine job of this - 1959.tsom.org). Musically it’s none too shabby, either. Amidst the bombast of This Corrosion or Dominion there are quieter moments, like the entirely piano driven 1959 or the ghostly bass pulse of Driven Like The Snow. It was a commercial hit for the band, and spawned a number of top 20 singles. The only other member of the band through this period was Patricia Morrison on bass, but her exact contribution has always been shrouded in mystery. It’s rumoured she doesn’t play on the album, and was there more for press photos and to serve as a sounding board for Eldritch’s ideas. When she left the band (guess why?) she had to sign an NDA, so we may never really know.

Some years after Floodland, Eldritch assembled another band, and began work on another album. Vision Thing had a long and painful gestation, with the singer reportedly losing it in the studio and rerecording, remixing, and overdubbing until Warners finally took the money away and forced a release in autumn 1990. It marked another change in direction, towards a glossier hard rock sound. The guitars were back, but much heavier and more direct than they were previously, with none of the gossamer subtlety of the pre-85 work. There are good songs here, the tortured Ribbons is one of the finest things they ever did and the title track is a cynical sneer at American politics set to a dazzling barrage of guitars, but there are a few duff ones as well, the first Sisters record you can say that about. The best thing about it was it reactivated the Sisters as a touring band, leading to the first time I saw them, headlining Reading in 1991. Reader, my mind was blown.

VT was the first Sisters record that is less than essential, and it is also the last to date. There were a few singles here and there, including a rerecording of Temple Of Love featuring new vocals from Ofra Haza, but the last of these was in 1993, and there hasn’t been a Sisters release since. Eldritch strikes me as a man who could start an argument alone in an empty room, so it’ll be no great shock to hear that he fell out with his record company and went on strike in the early 90s. The band has continued to tour (with several different guitarists over the years, surprise surprise), and they have avoided becoming a nostalgia act by continuing to write and perform new songs. They just don’t release them.

What have they left us? A legacy of speed and smoke, chrome and mirrors. An iconography, with the star and head logo (from an old anatomy textbook) being as recognisable as the Ramones seal or the snarling Motörhead beast. A discography that verges on the superhuman. For all the wildly different sounds of each album, there are common elements throughout their career. There’s a constant tension between simplicity and complexity in their music, monotonous and relentless beats paired with clever lyrics and complex instrumentation. They can construct epic melancholic grandeur and at the same time revel in big stupid rock music. They’re intellectual and also gloriously dumb, and quite possibly the finest British band of my lifetime.

And look! I didn’t mention the g-word once!

Here’s a playlist. No Spotify, I’m afraid, only Apple Music here.

and a YouTube version

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(I should say that Shrewbie has given me his blessing to continuing the primers. I think there’s enough ongoing series on the music board that we don’t need to make it a regular thing, but if anyone is ever inspired to create one based on the guidelines in this post, then DM me and we’ll work something out)

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not sure why that playlist is showing only seven songs. The ten I picked were First And Last And Always / Heartland / Floorshow / Amphetamine Logic / Marian (Version) / Rain From Heaven / Dominon (Mother Russia) / Flood II / Driven Like The Snow / Ribbons. They’re all on the YT link. It’s insane to me that Alice, Burn, Temple Of Love, Vision Thing and half a dozen others aren’t there, but them’s the rules)

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Great write up.

I’ve got a proper soft spot for Sisters of Mercy. This has probably only heightened during the course of the last few months - given that they were the last live band that I saw before the covid shaped shit hit the fan. Still great live. I miss gigs.

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I love the Sisters so much, this has been a great write up. It’s love a hgatr but I think It’d make me cry.

There are few bands out there that I love but can’t defend other than to say I really like them.

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The BBC sessions that have come out this year have been great, much better production on the earlier material. It just makes me sad how so many bands will always be ignored because of the Goth tag.

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That Jolene cover is really dodgy though :smiley:

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Amazing write up. The knowledge and passion on these boards is fantastic.

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Thanks!

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Agree, it’s fantastically well written.

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i’m from a place of total ignorance with sisters of mercy, but really enjoyed your write up. cheers!

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could have saved a lot of bother and just put up this picture

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