For me, it was always about the Sisters. In the mid-eighties when on any given night you could catch a three band bill of black-clad patchouli pushers for less than a fiver, it was the Sisters of Mercy that had my undivided attention. Even though they’d split in 1985 their influence was wide-spread – even the Hertfordshire suburb I hailed from had its own version in the Fields of the Nephilim. I would wonder, as I stood in venues now long gone, if the rest of the audience were only there because of the association to the Sisters. It seemed the closer the band had been to the source, the bigger their draw. The Mission contained two ex-members, Ghost Dance had one, whereas Salvation had released records on the Sisters’ Merciful Release label. One of the Batfish Boys had also released singles on Merciful Release. But no one ever went to see the Batfish Boys.
I was too young for the Sisters first incarnation. They slithered out of Leeds at the start of the decade formed around the nucleus of vocalist Andrew Eldritch and guitarist Gary Marx. This line up released one single, The Damage Done, before being augmented by bassist Craig Adams and guitarist Ben Gunn. Their early records were scratchy, spindly things, their gonzo riffing and overdriven bass being undermined by the tinny sound of drum machine Doktor Avalanche. But slowly and surely they found an audience and became a fearsome live proposition.
A departing Gunn was replaced by former Dead or Alive guitarist Wayne Hussey which kick-started the Sisters imperial period. With Warner Brothers cash in their pockets they recorded ‘First and Last and Always’, a monumental tribute to obsession, revenge and being strung out. They toured to promote the album, mostly as a three piece after Marx left, including a ”Ëfarewell’ show at the Royal Albert Hall. And then they were gone, seemingly never to return.
The big, black hole left by their passing was filled by a parade of pretenders, all using the Sisters’ template but none with the intelligence, wit and sheer spite of Eldritch. While his erstwhile band mates enjoyed their moment in the sun, he was plotting and scheming, picking his moment to return. He’d already thwarted Hussey and Adams’ intention to use the name The Sisterhood by putting out an album, ‘Gift’, under that moniker himself and when he did reactivate the Sisters with 1987’s ‘Floodland’ he had a tailor-made audience ready and waiting for him. For those who’d been there since the beginning the sturm und drang of the Jim Steinman produced single ‘This Corrosion’ was a step too far and they tied their flag to The Mission’s mast. But for the many, better these Sisters than no Sisters at all.
Eldritch refused to tour ‘Floodland’ but was coerced to again tread the boards in support of 1990’s ‘Vision Thing’, rumour has it to recoup monstrous recording costs. The band, now including Tony James, had evolved yet again, revealing a hitherto unseen stadium rock edge that sold out arenas across Europe, including a two night stint at Wembley and a Reading Festival headline slot. It appeared that, as always, Eldritch was ahead of the curve and, with inroads made in America after touring with Public Enemy, it wasn’t fanciful to think his next move could bring global domination.
But there was no next move and as I stand waiting for the Roundhouse to fill with the obligatory dry ice, much has changed. A quick glance at the bands unofficial forum Heartland will show that following the Sisters over the past two decades has at times be a thankless task. Despite having not released any new material for 20 years they have toured almost constantly with a variety of line ups. The quality of the shows can be erratic ” 2006 being a nadir for many ” and much of their best loved material is either ignored or played grudgingly, preferring to pepper their sets with obscure covers and unrecorded new numbers. But again as any devotee will tell you, it’s not necessarily who’s playing the songs or even what those songs are that makes for a great Sisters show. It’s the space just in front of the stage where the music is loudest, the lights are brightest and the smoke thickest. It’s here where you lose yourself and where the Sisters make most sense. This is where their rock’n’roll lives.
At The Roundhouse the Sisters are many things: a six-stringed Suicide, an electronic Stooges, a literate Motorhead. What they’re not though is the band some people have come to see: yes, they play the old songs but not in the old way. Early classics are reworked, rewired and in some cases just plain mangled. But to these ears the Sisters sound revitalised. Guitarists Ben Christo and Chris Catalyst perfectly embody the extremes of the band’s sound today: one a poodle haired rock poser, the other a pogoing, sneering, post-punk. Eldritch is now shaven of head and thicker set than the long-haired stick of yore. His voice ” like that of his hero Leonard Cohen ” is now a low rumble punctuated by idiosyncratic yelps and growls. Appearing sporadically through the dry ice and as inscrutable as ever, he actually appears to be enjoying himself. The modern day Sisters of Mercy are a slippery, mutable thing, their back catalogue ever evolving, band never static. “We are the Sisters of Mercy,” says Eldritch at one point. “We come from Leeds and we live in space.” There’s more to that statement than it just being a brilliant thing to say. For half their three decades the Sisters have been label-less, untethered from the music industry, their new music existing only in the space between them and the listener. And if tonight only tells us one thing it’s that there are still a lot of people who want to hear it.