Marx in Ghost Dance, 1986, “recreating the magic of the inner sleeve of First and Last and Always, while fixing the plumbing.” (Photo credit: Jane Simon)
Mark Andrews has just written the definitive and acclaimed account of The Sisters Of Mercy Paint My Name In Black and Gold which is out now. The hardback is available from booksellers, including Amazon. The eBook can be bought from Unbound
In this interview, he uncovers one of the most fascinating stories from the band and one of its founding members, Gary Marx
Gary Marx co-founded The Sisters of Mercy with Andrew Eldritch in 1980 and spent five years in that band before starting Ghost Dance in 1985. His performances on record and on stage made him a leading figure in the “West Yorkshire underground”. Even after three decades of gradual withdrawal from the music business – “a long diminuendo,” as he puts it – he remains a cult figure. In this in-depth interview, he discusses his time in The Sisters, the Leeds punk scene around the F Club that birthed them and his various projects – some released, most not – since Ghost Dance ended in 1989.
Interview by Mark Andrews, author of Paint My Name In Black and Gold, the new book on the rise of the Sisters of Mercy.
Mark Andrews: You haven’t released a record in over a decade and you haven’t played live since December 1989, yet you remain a revered – adored by some – cult figure. How does that feel at the age of 62?
Gary Marx: Faintly ludicrous, is how the smash-it-up punk in me wants to respond, but I know I did stuff that had worth. A good many of those I did it alongside haven’t always been able to recreate that intensity, but I don’t claim to be the all-important catalyst but if people want to blow a fanfare for me that’s up to them.
MA: Do you think your rock ’n’ roll years were good to you? By many accounts, you’ve done all right for yourself in life.
GM: I’m definitely not about to complain. I have what must seem like an enviable life to some people: the life of a rock star – the lesser-spotted, clean-living variety – without actually having to pick up a plectrum. It hardly matters that you can’t join the dots from 1981 to 2021 and create the expected picture, yet rock ’n’ roll did indirectly put me here.
MA. So writing songs and playing guitar have been a significant part of your life?
GM. Writing words has always been important to me and predates me ever playing guitar or thinking I could create melodies. Since first scribbling down random ideas as a teenager, there hasn’t been a period when I haven’t written regularly. Some of that suited being lyrics, lots didn’t. I’m told by family and friends that I write the longest text messages and emails of anyone they know, by some distance.
I’ve twice started and abandoned writing a novel, although the second attempt was in part a stream of consciousness denouncement of the first – not sure there’s a specific section for that kind of work in your local bookshop.
I continue to make music, and in common with Andrew (Eldritch), I don’t necessarily need the rest of the world to hear it for that process to feel worthwhile.
MA: All tolled, you’ve been in ‘the chapeau shop’ – Spinal Tap shorthand for real work – for as long as you’ve played music for a living. Has any job been more depressing than being at the fag end of a rock band you had invested yourself in, far worse, for example, than that carpet shop you worked in on the Harehills Road in Leeds when The Sisters started?
GM: I stepped into a carpet shop in Hull three or four years ago when I was helping my mother sort her house out and I still love that smell – carpets, not Hull. I used to catch up on my sleep after a late night at the F Club tucked up between the rolls of carpet in the shop I ran in Leeds. The boredom of that job fuelled my early songwriting, and in that sense it was preferable to being in a disintegrating band, which mostly just fuelled pettiness and resentment as I recall.
MA: What would it take to get you back on stage playing guitar. I would pay good money to hear ‘Phantom’, ‘Heartland’, ‘Nine While Nine’, ‘River of No Return’ or ‘Where Spirits Fly’ – and others – live?
GM: Good money.
There might be a very small group of people scattered across the world who would do literally that – pay to see just me on a stage playing the guitar parts to those songs. That is almost so ridiculous that it takes on some kind of appeal for me. Alas, unless I was willing to underwrite the whole thing, what would actually be required is that I’d be asked to participate along with an assortment of other individuals. In the case of The Sisters – which is the only real money-spinner from my back catalogue – I would not hold the higher/hired hand and so it would very quickly become less tempting.
MA: Speaking of which … many folks consider the Gary Marx / Andrew Eldritch / Craig Adams / Wayne Hussey version of The Sisters of Mercy (which only lasted about 18 months) to be the ‘classic’ line-up. The four of you have surely been offered serious money to tour. Eldritch would never do it, but why not you, Craig and Wayne with a different singer?
GM: I am almost completely removed from the music business, so I am hardly likely to run into the people who are floating these ideas and waving the money around. Perhaps if I was, I’d be more likely to get swept along and start believing it was a good plan. I hear about things from time to time and have been contacted by various ex-members and intermediaries, but never by Andrew. The three of us without him!? Apologies if the following reference is parochial and incredibly dated, but for me that would feel a bit like the “…here’s what you would’ve won” moment at the end of the gameshow Bullseye.
MA: There’s a version of Ghost Dance (with singer Anne Marie Hurst as the only original member) playing gigs. You didn’t fancy it?
GM: Not surprisingly they seem to have had to align themselves closely to the cartoon Goth scene to make any kind of comeback viable. I wish her well but that’s really not for me. What was that line from Lemmy in ‘Back at the Funny Farm’: “I really like this jacket but the sleeves are much too long …”?
MA: As well as being a book about music and an era, I think Paint My Name can be read as a tale about young men existing together in one confined space after another: bedsits, cellars, murky sitting rooms, pubs, vans, studios, stages and back-stages in small clubs. Is that how you remember The Sisters? Or for a sense of freedom?
GM: I’d never been on a plane before being in the band so it opened up my horizons considerably if you want to judge it purely in terms of geography.
It is truer to think of those confined spaces when living in each other’s pockets being the norm. There was a honeymoon period when we could have almost been a post-punk Waltons: “Goodnight Andrew … sorry, I forgot you’re just getting up.” Before long it was the claustrophobia that the constant proximity generated that came to dominate – one of Polanski’s early studies in dislocation and neurosis. A bit fanciful but the scene with Catherine Deneuve where the hands are coming through the walls as she walks down the corridor (in Repulsion) or that idea in Cul-de-sac of being cut off by the tide in a crumbling castle with the worst possible house guests offer a heightened view of what it could feel like at its worst.
MA: When you started The Sisters, would it be fair to say that you had no talent and no clue what on earth you were doing? And that – as a starting point –was absolutely vital to what made early Sisters special?
GM: I have always maintained that position because, in all honesty, to move away from it seriously limits what can be seen as my contribution and importance to the band. It is 100% accurate to say that I could not be relied upon to play the guitar with anything approaching technical proficiency.
MA: Therefore The Sisters could be a case study of someone finding some talent from somewhere. How do you go from a song like ‘Watch’ to ‘Heartland’ and ‘Some Kind of Stranger’?
GM: You play the guitar for a couple of years is the short answer, I suppose. I had picked up a guitar and made ‘Watch’ and those initial recordings without even being able to tune the thing properly – it was of so little interest to me back then. I happily marched under a flag of amateurism. So many punk-era musicians would trot out the line about not being able to play, but usually, they meant that they couldn’t play as well as Pete Townshend, Mick Ronson or whoever. They knew that because they had tried learning their licks while getting started on the instrument. I had bypassed that part of the process entirely out of expedience and blind belief. I created my own parts and still struggled to play a lot of those accurately. Even now I can’t play the verse pattern to ‘Some Kind Of Stranger’ well. Every intermediate level guitarist in the world could play that opening progression with ease. That’s as meaningless to me as how many people in the world can sing in tune. How many of them have got anything worth singing?
MA: What do you think were the key components of Andrew Eldritch’s talent? He also seems to have started from ground zero.
GM: I think you could describe it as ground zero in terms of embarking on a career in music, but otherwise he was already holding a seriously strong hand when I met him, as far as I was concerned. He was about as sharp as they come, and once he’d cut himself free from the shackles of academic rigour and that world he’d seemingly been prepared for, he just applied that brilliant focus to whatever he settled on. The most obvious results of that would initially be his lyrics, but that then fed into his ideas for production, artwork and presentation – including how he’d present himself. In short, his intelligence, that intellectual auto-pilot as I came to think of it, gave him the confidence to be as dumb as he liked in adopting that rock persona and having some fun with it. In that period around 1980 when we first got together, artists seemed to be either all gloss and superficial or overly earnest. His talent was in having a vision that allowed us to navigate a far more interesting path in between those poles.
MA: You always stood stage right when the Sisters played. In your mind’s eye, look left: what do you see on the stage?
GM: Short men smoking cigarettes.
MA: The book refers to you – good-naturedly – as “high energy proletarian beefcake.” Your stagecraft and stage-wear were really something to behold.
GM: These things need to be viewed in context. I was muscular and athletic in comparison to the others, which I think you’ll grant me is not saying that much.
A lot of the shirts/blouses I wore on stage were gifts from people I was close to, and as soon as I’d been seen in one it often prompted someone to offer another. Once it seemed we were in danger of being permanently lumped in with the ‘black-is-black’ brigade, I opted for ever more garish items. Friends were only too happy to bring me stuff to see how far I’d push it. Wayne and Craig were joining in as well but because of their slighter physiques and longer hair – their more general rock outlaw vibe – it didn’t seem as arresting or incongruous on them.
The running around – I don’t think I’d ever call it stagecraft – could have been due to my Springsteenesque work ethic that felt you should work up a sweat and put a shift in while on stage, or simply because I’d grown up liking bands who didn’t stand rooted to the spot. Whatever, it was a further way in which I often tended to look different from the others. That wasn’t so much the case by the time Wayne had bedded in because he would move around a bit as well. I used to like watching him out of the corner of my eye – he’d do this thing where his guitar was tilted down, and he’d stagger like a drunk confronted by their front door after dropping the key on the floor in the dark. It seemed to come naturally; I don’t think he’d needed to go to stage school to master that.
2. “Springsteenesque”: Marx on stage with The Sisters of Mercy, Leeds Warehhouse, early 1983. (Photo credit: Steve Beaumont)
MA: You made one album in The Sisters, First and Last and Always. For some folks it’s one of the greatest records ever made. You are significantly less fond of it than that. Are you able to separate the nightmare of making it from the end product?
GM: Although I may have been badly bruised by the whole episode, I believe I was able to make that distinction from reasonably early on. It wasn’t that I thought it was a bad record, just nowhere near as good as it should have been, and definitely not worth the enormous financial and emotional over-spend. When we first discussed a recording budget for the album with WEA I don’t remember anyone mentioning physical collapse and irreparable damage to the band’s inter-personal relationships being an expected or acceptable part of the costs. It wasn’t a good enough album to justify it being responsible in no small part for us never making another.
MA: Your final performance in the Sisters was on live TV. Your guitar broke just before the broadcast began.
GM: I was to all intents and purposes done with the band long before ever entering the Whistle Test studio – an amp works, an amp doesn’t work; nothing to see here, move on. Whistle Test was one of those experiences when you’re almost floating through for large parts of it – like going to the funeral of someone you weren’t especially close to in an attempt to offer support to someone else who was.
MA: Post-1985: what did you like about Eldritch’s Sisters and The Mission? Was their success hard to swallow?
GM: The Mission was a tougher one to swallow – aside from anything to do with our personal relationships during and after the split. It was because I liked their output a whole lot less. It’s also true that because they got up and running well ahead of The Sisters Mark II, I was measuring Ghost Dance against their progress for a while.
If I concentrate on what I liked about them first, I’d say their music was often impressive, Wayne’s playing in particular. I felt that in some ways he’d been dumbing down what he naturally wanted to write in The Sisters to try and fit in with what we’d done prior to his arrival. Most obviously that would be in the way songs were structured with things like specific intros that were separate from what followed, middle eights and pre-choruses not really being part of our vocabulary. I think ‘A Rock And A Hard Place’ is the first Sisters song with a middle eight. With The Mission, Wayne would often have all these sections, in one sense they were better written, more complete songs but the lyrics and vocals were where it most obviously fell short for me. That’s where they suffered so badly if you compared them to The Sisters’ back catalogue or the Eldritch relaunch. It’s probably unfair to expect them to stand up to that comparison any more than you’d expect Gene Loves Jezebel or The Cult, but because they were happy to trade on their connection with the brand it set them up for it in my eyes.
‘This Corrosion’ and the best bits of Floodland were only hard to swallow in the sense that they were brilliant and further proof that Andrew was the major talent among us.
MA: Who should play The Sisters in the film version of Paint My Name And Black and Gold? You can pick from the whole history of film and television.
GM: Jack Nicholson always leaps out whenever I think of Craig. There was a kind of mania that would surface whenever the adrenaline was peaking. In his quieter moments it’s the stoner humour of the ‘Have I got a helmet!?’ character in Easy Rider, but it could almost scale the frenzied heights of The Shining at times.
Andrew is such a strange creation. He could be played by Robert Helpmann or Bette Davis; a whole host of actors could get involved in a bizarre job-share. We could bring the whole thing full circle and have him portrayed by Bowie and Jagger with Nicolas Roeg directing.
Donald Pleasence for Wayne – that’s not just because he fucks up The Great Escape.
I have to include Ben (Gunn, whom Hussey replaced) of course. He’s somewhere near Tom Hanks in Big or Hank Marvin in Summer Holiday.
As for me, the Hull accent is notoriously tricky so I might have a limited pool of people to draw upon if I wanted authenticity: Tom Courtenay, Reece Shearsmith, Maureen Lipman, Brian Rix – there was certainly no shortage of farce in The Sisters’ story. Not sure where he’s from, but David Thewlis just before he made Naked would get my vote. I gather he did play guitar in a punk band as well: perfect.
MA: If could be a film about male emotional dysfunction – Raging Bull in Leeds 6 – but also one about the great capacity for loyalty and ‘family’? And betrayal? Eldritch seems to have undergone some Michael Corleone-like transformation. If so, that means he probably thought of you as Fredo by the end?
GM: I know the view from the bridge can sometimes get a little bit skewed, but I’d hate for any of my actions to be construed as some form of cowardice. Sickly and weak on a physical or emotional level is understandably not how I’d cast myself. I can only imagine what Andrew saw when he looked at me by the end of our time together; neither of us saw what we’d grown used to seeing in ’82-’83, that’s for sure. The Godfather!? We didn’t share those big, wide screen, stroke of midnight moments. He may have believed that I let him or the Sisters ‘family’ down – hurt certainly, but he’d hardly claim I broke his heart.
MA: What evidence of creativity or an artistic disposition would we see if we looked at your childhood in the East Riding of Yorkshire?
GM: I’m not sure you’d see much, certainly not in my ‘wilderness years’ which account for most of my teens. A book full of Mark Contra Mundum lyrics from 17-18 is about all it amounted to.
MA: Music was obviously important to you when you were young. Like many of your age – you were born in 1959 – glam rock looms very large.
GM: Glam was an influence, but I was a bit too young to claim it as my own. It was the kids two or three years older who already knew about Bolan and Bowie before they dominated the charts who were fully swept away by it. I think that’s true of a lot of people like me who surfaced when, or soon after, punk exploded. We’d know and love a lot of that glam stuff but wanted to be able to discover something for ourselves. Having done that you can then go back and happily admit that Cockney Rebel and Sparks could write better songs in their sleep than Eater or The Lurkers were ever going to be capable of.
MA: You’re a big fan of Roxy Music and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band especially.
GM: It’s funny seeing the two bands side by side. While there are things that connect them, the enjoyment of Alex Harvey for me now is almost entirely through the prism of nostalgia. The magic of Roxy Music is that you don’t have to suspend disbelief at all to still be astounded by their music, especially those first three albums which manage to sound fresh for large chunks of them nearly fifty years on.
MA: As a teenager, where did you see bands? Which gigs stand out?
GM: There was a venue in my hometown (Withernsea) called the Grand Pavilion. Being at the seaside meant it mainly booked the lesser chart acts that were considered family friendly and verged on cabaret. We had things like The Rubettes and Showaddywaddy; you went regardless of who was on. I saw Bolan play there although it was in a period when he was past his best. I remember getting ejected for ‘punk-style dancing’ to The Searchers.
1. Mark Pearman (the soon-to-be Gary Marx) back in Withernsea, 1979. Combat pants by X Clothes, jumble sale sweater and second hand tails “purchased from a man who rented a room above the carpet shop.”
In tandem with these gigs on the doorstep I had also started venturing further afield to see things that I actually wanted to see. I went to the Reading Festival for the first time in 1975 when I was sixteen. I was there for the duration but didn’t see much beyond the first day when Hawkwind headlined, and Dr Feelgood stole the show. It was early ’76 when I saw The Sensational Alex Harvey Band at the ABC Cinema in Hull. I count that as the first proper gig I went to and it is still one of the best.
By the age of 18 I had left home and was living in Hull – while not exactly central to the UK touring circuit, a lot of people passed through. I went to see Johnny Thunders at the Tech College there – my first taste of punk in the flesh and another landmark gig. After that I saw Wire, The Damned, Jonathan Richman, Steel Pulse and others at Hull University. A mate from school had started at Leeds University by then and so I would travel over for gigs there as well. I was also going on the train to see things at Sheffield Top Rank like The Buzzcocks and The Jam. By the tail end of my teens I was living in Leeds and I’d discovered the F Club – that was the real open sesame for me.
MA: The F Club, Leeds’ itinerant punk dive, hosted a fantastic array of bands. Who do you most remember seeing in the F Club? Describe the experience of being down the F Club on a peak night.
GM: Seeing The Cramps down there is usually insisting itself upon my memory and demanding I say it’s the best gig I’ve ever seen in my life. Other bands must have made their way through the crowd to the stage because there was no other route, but I only ever remember The Cramps brushing past me; everyone else would barely register after that.
There were lots of other gigs, but the appeal of the place went way beyond the best of the bands I saw there. I can remember the gigs I hated equally well and how important they seemed at the time to the ongoing discourse, bands like Crass or Throbbing Gristle.
Any night there also involved what records Claire (Shearsby, the F Club’s DJ) was spinning. She’d have her staples that she knew the regulars were waiting for before getting on the dancefloor – things that seemed to have a pre-agreed dance step to accompany them, like ‘Soldier Soldier’ by Spizzenergi. People seemed happy to get up on the floor when there was safety in numbers but Claire would love to throw in an old glam number to shake it up. One of my favourite memories from down there wasn’t watching a band at all, it was Claire putting ‘Judy Teen’ on and only me and Stuart Green dancing to it. He was one of the first people I got to know down there and in a roundabout way he was responsible for me hooking up with Andrew – Stuart had been the guitar player in the fledgling band Andrew was working on before I replaced him. It seems appropriate that we were tied in this unself-conscious glam/punk tango.
MA: What was it like to play a gig at Brannigans, the F Club’s longest lasting location. You did so with Naked Voices (your pre-Sisters band) and with The Sisters.
GM: It meant a lot more with Naked Voices, despite the fact we were terrible, because apart from getting up to guest on a couple of numbers with a mate’s band in Hull it was the first gig I’d ever played. It was the F Club Christmas party with a bill entirely made up of local bands; I think we were on first.
It was coincidently the day of my best mate (and Naked Voices’ band-mate) Graeme’s staff party at lunchtime – he came back from work shit-faced and fell full-length down the stairs at home. He was probably concussed and hungover by the time we played. Even without this severe handicap to our guitarist we’d have been poor, before you start imagining this was some huge Sliding Doors moment in rock’s history.
MA: John Keenan, the founder of the F Club, also put on the extraordinary Futurama festivals. What are your memories of the ones in Leeds (1979 and 1980)?
GM: The two festivals in some way encapsulate my changing fortunes before and after meeting Andrew. For the first festival I went with my old schoolmate Tim who lived in Meanwood and studied at the University. We pretty much followed the model we’d established at the Reading festival in ’77, which was to get pissed and miss most of the music. I remember I’d dyed my hair black the night before and I got so drunk on the opening day I collapsed in the Queens Hall. They had two stages and I woke up freezing during Joy Division’s set when everyone had cleared away from where I was sprawled out. I tried to watch for a couple of songs but felt so rough I just wandered out and went for my bus home without watching PiL – the main band I wanted to see.
It was probably only about 9.30 in the evening as I stood in the bus queue outside M&S in the middle of Leeds. I noticed people were keeping their distance and eyeing me with suspicion. I then happened to turn towards the large shop windows and caught sight of my reflection. There was vomit over my shirt and in my hair and the black dye had run all down my face and created these patterns where it had dodged the tracks of sick – I looked part zombie, part Maori.
By 1980 it was a very different story. Because of Claire’s connection with John Keenan – and by proxy Andrew’s (because he was her boyfriend) we all had passes and could get backstage. I wandered round trying to get our head and star t-shirts to certain key people who were there in the hope they’d endorse us in some small way. Although we didn’t make any particular inroads, the very idea of being in a position where it became possible signalled a significant shift for me – from squirming around in my own vomit to standing next to the Banshees seemed like progress.
3. The Sisters of Mercy with Gary Marx (far left) during the ‘Body and Soul’ video shoot, April 1984. (Photo credit: Steve Rapport)
MA: It all got very Hammer of the Gods with three of The Sisters – which you did not like much at all. Were Ghost Dance a much more clean-living band?
GM: Because of the greater similarities in our backgrounds – especially after (drummer) John Grant’s arrival – it seemed like reverting to my teenage years in a lot of ways. We drank a lot, we got into fights, we stole things – not just the usual pilfering from the service stations, we would turn up at parties thrown after the gig by the promoters and steal their furniture. It was mischief more than anything – I mean what were we going to do with someone’s household goods when we were driving through rural Holland!?
MA: The sweet spot for Ghost Dance seemed to be the time of the ‘Grip of Love’ single? After then things become more complicated and pressured. Richard Mazda also produced the Fleshtones and the Scientists – he seemed a good fit for Ghost Dance.
GM: You really do kick yourself sometimes when you look back on decisions you made. Richard was great to work with and Nick Jones (who ran KARBON, Ghost Dance’s record label) pulled a few favours to get him on board. Stupidly there was always that sense of stepping stones – trying to get a better studio next time, a bigger budget, bigger name producer rather than actually building on the relationships you’d established.
We did the same again after working with David Batchelor on ‘When I Call’.
I thought he was fantastic, and we all loved his connection with SAHB – he got more out of Anne Marie than Mark Dodson, (who produced the first Chrysalis single) was ever going to do. It was craziness not to consider him for doing the stuff after we signed and finally had the budget and major label backing.
4. Ghost Dance with Marx (second from right), early 1986. “Steve Smith (left) can’t decide on an outright winner for the Zal Cleminson lookalike contest.” (Photo credit: Jane Simon)
MA: I think Ghost Dance put out a great run of independent singles and EPs, but do you still rate the KARBON years?
GM: I like the fact I wasn’t overly precious about things – only in part a reaction to working with Eldritch. Of course it swings too far sometimes, so in my desire not to slave over tracks, either in the writing or in the recording process, there are things that slip through that don’t sound great listening back now.
I loved working with Nick Jones but once we’d been banging at the door for a few years and were seeing half the bands who had played under us on the bill getting signed by bigger labels something had to give.
MA: I had tickets to see Ghost Dance in Birmingham in, I think, 1988. I turned up on the wrong day. What did I miss, if the band were in full flow?
GM: By ’88 I think we were flying – the fast songs were often very fast, the action onstage and in the crowd could get silly at times. You sometimes had everyone apart from the drummer trying to throw themselves around and grab your attention. It sounds trite to say it was fun, but it was meant to be a good night out. It had moved away from anything you’d sensibly lump in with All About Eve; to me it had much more in common with Suzi Quatro.
6. Marx with a Lust for Life, 1987 (Photo credit: Tony Hordern)
MA: The Sisters were great but often wildly unpredictable as a live act, were Ghost Dance more ‘pro’?
GM: We tended to be working on a shoestring half the time, so I don’t think we could be described as especially ‘pro’. I remember, as soon as we had a drummer I was keen to disguise the kit’s presence dominating a large part of the stage. I created this pair of wings and snakes out of hardboard to stand either side of the kick drum in an attempt to replicate the band’s logo. They were forever falling or getting kicked over during a gig and dragging mics off the drum kit or tripping one of us up. There was an element of vaudeville – the roadies would run on and start performing using “the worms”, as they called them, as props. Like the early Sisters, we had gear that didn’t work; Etch (Paul Etchells, Ghost Dance’s bass player) spent as much time with his soldering iron out as he did playing his bass before we signed to Chrysalis.
MA: Ghost Dance played the Reading Festival in 1988, the Year of the Piss Bottles. Bonnie Tyler and Meat Loaf suffered. Did you have to be on your toes too?
GM: I think I actually went right out onto the parapet and invited the bottle throwing; it wasn’t anything I was remotely bothered by.
MA: How did Ghost Dance adjust to being in luxurious and expensive studios, such as Martin Rushent’s Genetic Studios in Berkshire? The Sisters had a nightmare there.
GM: The results were disappointing at Genetic in both cases but my experiences were vastly different. Ghost Dance also had a great time at The Manor, another residential studio – almost too good. That fed into the belief that we’d already arrived. It seemed inevitable that we’d chart and move up into the higher league, because that was the obvious progression, everything pointed to it. We had a chef to cook us meals, swimming pools, we played croquet, had someone other than Etch wielding a soldering iron, John got new drum skins delivered on an almost daily basis to change before he recorded each song. All of this was a world away from any of the KARBON-era recording sessions.
MA: Your own decision-making seems to have gone awry at the end of Ghost Dance? And you can’t blame cocaine and booze.
GM: It was a messy end and I rightly shoulder a fair amount of the blame. I think what had worked for us live didn’t quite gel in the studio and each of us disliked the results for different reasons, but none of us disliked them enough to dig our heels in until it was too late. There was inexperience in the key business positions – management, A&R – which all contributed to our demise, and there was still probably this mistaken belief in the band right up to mixing the album that it would be good enough to break us and buy us time to figure out what to do next. We got that badly wrong.
MA: Ghost Dance toured with The Ramones; The Sisters with The Gun Club: were these cases of ‘never meet your heroes’? Now there was a pair of dysfunctional bands!
GM: The Ramones, oh dear. As soon as we got out to start the tour supporting them I had a call from Chrysalis to say they were dropping Ghost Dance. I think by that stage we’d sacked our manager and I was the label’s main point of contact. I chose to keep the news to myself because we’d all been so up for the gigs and I didn’t want anything to spoil that for the others. It made it difficult and coloured my own enjoyment of the dates. Nevertheless, I loved hearing the classic songs every night, I loved being stood in the wings watching Joey locked in that stance, but offstage they weren’t interested. I think they were sick of it by then. Joey was very ill – it wouldn’t have surprised us if he’d keeled over at any point. Johnny was an arse; I think it’s widely reported that he was not a likeable individual and I saw nothing to counter that. They had a great young guy on bass called CJ who they’d drafted in and he was the only bright spot. He couldn’t believe his luck to be playing with The Ramones. In my separate way neither could I.
The Gun Club were cool, although Jeffrey Lee (Pierce) was usually cool in both senses.
In terms of meeting heroes, Steve Harley is hard to beat. I’ve been fortunate to spend time with him more than once. His real surname is Nice – his middle names should be Very Very.
MA: At the other end of the spectrum?
GM: Ian Astbury’s middle names I’ll leave for you to select – in fairness he was probably just trying on his newly acquired rock-god mantle when our paths crossed and it was pinching a bit at the waist.
Hey, forget everything I’ve said previously: Wayne, Craig and I are getting back together to tour First and Last and Always in its entirety and we‘re drafting Ian in on vocals. We’ll go out under the name ‘The Kalt’. I’m sure there’s a Gift-type joke in there for German-speaking, crossword enthusiasts; revenge, like bratwurst, is a dish best served …
MA: After Ghost Dance, you had a project/band called Bloodshot and Jungle Red. Nothing seems to have come of that. Is this the one with another Andy Taylor – Andrew Eldritch’s real name is Andrew Taylor – that sounded like Lenny Kravitz?
GM: You are spot on. It started with a singer called Andy in Oxford and did indeed involve another singer called Andy Taylor. I think the project would have seen the light of day if very real death threats hadn’t been made that forced the first Andy into doing a vanishing act – his in-laws took infidelity very seriously. Note to self: do not work with singers who were christened Andrew.
MA: During the 1990s, you seem to have had various projects that did not come to fruition. One of them seems to have been with Craig Adams in Brighton. I believe The Cult and a ‘fishing club’ put paid to that. Later there was some recording with Patricia Morrison.
GM: Never mind making a film version of Paint My Name, this is staring to feel like the screenplay for Carry On Rocking. The comedic episodes seemed to continue to play out right through the 90’s and I’m starting to forget the exact order they arrived in. The work, firstly with Craig and then with Patricia, was interspersed by bizarre co-writing sessions as I tried to carve a niche purely as a songwriter. It involved, among many others, the son of comedian Bobby Ball – Rock On – and working in the freezing cold with some hapless jazz funk dude in his home studio on the January morning the first Gulf War kicked off: explosions on the TV in the background as we focused on finding the killer hook – Fuck Off.
7. The future “Head of Creation” at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts: “perversely in the 1990s I grew my hair; recording artist wasn’t my job anymore.”
Linking back up with Craig was fantastic. He was always great company and always able to make me laugh – you could quickly put the past to one side. For all the time elapsed since we’d last worked together, he was quite similar in his attitude – an early pioneer of addressing the work/life balance. He’d invited me to collaborate with him because he knew by then I could knock out material pretty readily.
We’d play around and as soon as we got a riff going and had a basic recording of it, he was ready to down tools. I’d be humming a vocal idea and suggesting where it would go next, and he’d have his dancing pants on and be setting his VHS to record Morse before heading out the door. Most often we’d go to the pub two doors down and play pinball and drink beer – like being back in The Guilford in Leeds circa ‘79. If he fancied more of a session we’d go and meet his friends who belonged to a ‘deep sea fishing club’. The umbrella organisation had originally been dreamed up by one of the gang as a semi-plausible cover story for disappearing for hours on end. The drink and conversation flowed but I don’t remember ever hearing beach-casting techniques or the merits of multiplier reels cropping up.
Craig and I had a good time, started four or five songs which I took home and fleshed out, wrote lyrics for and finished with my old mate (ex-Red Lorry Yellow Lorry bassist) Steve Smith providing the vocals. Meanwhile back in Brighton, unbeknown to me, Craig had asked Julianne Regan to write lyrics and sing on one of the tracks in the much earlier thumbnail state it was in before I’d left. It sounded like the palest imitation of ‘Dear Prudence’ to me, which may have been exactly what Craig imagined was required. Then, Billy (Duffy) and Ian (Astbury) contacted him, waving a heavy metal fistful of dollars for him to go on a lengthy and lucrative tour with them.
MA: And Patricia Morrison?
GM: Hell yes, enter Fenella Fielding stage right, Sisters’ bass player take two.
It all started well. I knew and liked her. She charmed me over the phone, told me how much she loved my playing. She had the momentum to get a solo career going if she could move swiftly; she was marketable in her own right.
This could have gone so well but the hangover from working with Andrew had made her incredibly secretive and paranoid when it came to the actual material she was going to be doing. She didn’t need me to write songs, because she was taking care of that; I was only needed to provide some trademark flourishes and weave my magic in the studio.
I asked for any demos of the tunes but none were forthcoming: “I’d prefer you just came to it fresh in the studio.” No problem. I roped in Steve Smith again because I no longer had much of a set-up for playing live or recording guitar by that point. I borrowed his kit and he drove me down – it coincided with a Lorries gig in London, so we both were able to go and see some old friends and see the show as well.
When we arrived at the studio the producer was in the live room cracking a long leather whip and shouting instructions back to the control room – he was recording it as a sound effect. We wrongly took this to mean the songs must be in an advanced state and these were finishing touches.
We went into the control room to see Patricia and meet the team – we expected to be blown away by the playback of whatever they were working on. Instead I was ushered out by Patricia who told Steve where he could set up – seemingly believing he was my full-time personal roadie – before she slipped the headphones of her portable cassette player on my head. She kept hold of the headphones and they were hardly close enough to my ears to pick out anything. After about fifty seconds she snatched them back and pointed towards the live room.
She might have told me it was mostly B minor or whatever but there was no specific melodic idea, vocal of any kind or song structure detectable from what I’d heard. “Just play…we’re going straight to DAT and I can cut and paste everything I need, so don’t worry.” I looked at Steve, we both grinned, and I went to work. I did one take and they roared approval over the talkback; “Go again, that’s great.” I did two or three takes getting progressively more random each time, pretty much just bashing the instrument with no specific pitch information by the end. The same ridiculous scenario was repeated with three songs I think – Steve was pissing himself.
At no point were either of us invited back to listen to anything and after the last song we packed the gear and split. I have never heard a note of what was recorded.
MA: In 1995, you demoed tracks for Andrew Eldritch for a potential fourth Sisters album. Were old wounds opened?
GM: I ended up out in Leeds one night and got talking to someone who worked with Andrew. I didn’t know this person well but he was a good mate of (long-serving Sisters roadie and ‘family’ member) Jez Webb’s, which struck me as recommendation enough. I let my guard down and got talking to him about Andrew’s lack of activity and recorded output. I probably said something like, “If he’s short of songs I can give him some tomorrow.”
Quite possibly as soon as the next day Andrew rang me – not sure how long it had been prior to that since we’d spoken, but years rather than months, quite possibly nine or ten. We arranged to meet at The Faversham (pub) in Leeds. On the surface everything was fine between us. We seemed to agree that the timing was right and that it would mean a lot to people who loved the band to see a new Eldritch/Marx credit on a record sleeve. It was my idea rather than his and I was the one initially laying out the parameters, choosing the safe word: ‘songwriting.’ I had no interest in recording or playing live with him whatsoever and purely wanted to focus on writing an album’s worth of songs for whatever edition of The Sisters he was up to by then. I’d made that clear from the first minute of our phone conversation – ideally I wanted this process to be speedy (not in his more commonly understood interpretation of the word.) Yes, we were back laughing at the bar in The Faversham, but I had no desire to spend a massive amount of time in his company. He was living in Hamburg and I said I was prepared to go out there to write with him, but that’s where he imposed his one condition: no face-to-face collaborations; send me complete backing tracks.
We never ever got to comparing scar tissue – I sent him the tracks, the line went dead. I wasn’t in the mood for games so that’s where we left it.
MA: A line from the Peter O’Toole film My Favourite Year that features in Paint My Name In Black and Gold was provided by you: ‘With Swann, you forgive a lot, you know.’ You have even stated that you have a lot to be grateful to Andrew Eldritch for.
GM: Let’s be very clear here, I know what my strengths are: I have a decent ear for a tune, I can navigate my way round a rhyming couplet, I am willing to take large leaps of faith, I come at everything I do with an awful lot of energy and heart, but I know what I am not. I was a kid in a dead-end job whose musical pedigree prior to meeting him was to have bombed as the opening act on a bill of mostly no-hope local bands at a Christmas party. Before Andrew, I would go to see The Mekons and The Gang Of Four as a rabid fan, shortly after meeting him, I’d be playing alongside them. I will never forget sitting with him and Andy Gill on a journey back from London discussing whether I wanted to buy his white Stratocaster, because he’d just upgraded his guitar. It might as well have been Hendrix sat on the National Express asking me the same question.
Before Andrew I had what countless other music fans have: some kind of half-arsed dream; no plan, no access, no contacts, no way forward, not even an acceptance that ‘making it’ involved being a businessman in any way. Andrew fully made up for the things I was lacking and I am understandably grateful to him for that. If I didn’t have a single positive memory on a personal level from our time together it would be enough. The fact that we shared such incredible highs in that initial period makes it impossible for me to slate him. He may not remember the specifics – because there’d be way too many – but he knows better than I do that he was not a good man to be around by 1984-85.
With Von you forgive a lot, I know.
MA: When was the last time you met anyone you were in the Sisters with?
You have remained good friends with some of that wider ‘family’ of crew.
GM: I’m not certain, it’s probably Andrew about fifteen years ago – we spent half a day together, with (Leeds musician and businessman) Choque Hosein on hand with the healing balm – well, he bought the beer. I think increasingly Andrew’s the only one who spends much time coming back to Leeds.
I was expecting to see at least one of them at Steve Watson’s funeral in 2019. He was part of that ‘family’ – he used to drive for the band and went on to work with The Mission. Lots of the gang were there but none of the band in person – there were floral tributes. I saw Claire and held her more closely than was strictly speaking appropriate at a post-funeral buffet.
Wayne rang me out of the blue just ahead of his book coming out (in 2019) – he was on good form and had decided he quite liked me after trawling back through his memories in writing the autobiography.
MA: You started working at LIPA (the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) in 1997.
GM: I fell into it after firstly getting involved with a creative writing group in Yorkshire. That led me to look again at my attitude towards further and higher education with something closer to an open mind. I was taken on by the college after they’d been running a couple of years which meant their first intake of students on the degree course were in their final year. They hadn’t quite figured out how to approach the more creative areas, like songwriting and so that was my specific area of operation, although I did all sorts, including lots outside of music. Songwriting was a tiny part of the music curriculum on my arrival but they expanded it and I was asked to oversee the whole thing. I was ‘Head Of Creation’. Now that’s a job title to have on your CV!
MA: In your 40s, you made your first solo record, Pretty Black Dots. Those songs are completely unlike anything that you recorded before.
GM: They are unlike anything I’d released before but just like my first home recordings with Graeme as teenagers back in Hull. I experienced a period of intense creativity by virtue of trying to unpick and detail the creative process for my students as part of my job. In the early days I was given more or less a free reign and it could all get a bit Dead Poets meets School Of Rock at times. I wrote songs in front of people almost like a party trick – groups of fifty students shouting out letters of the alphabet for me to respond to rapid-fire with a line of lyric or a melody line.
I did lots and lots of these song sketches on the spot in classrooms and lecture halls. I started to view them as a purer and more complete expression of what I did than the recordings I’d released and was known for. This was especially true of my opinion of Ghost Dance’s Chrysalis-era recordings. By then, they embarrassed me. As things stood they were my parting shots to the world. I wanted to reconnect with that kid who made music before ever thinking of it as his career, the 18-year-old version of me who sat, boozed up, in a bedsit near the football ground in Hull, trying to make my best friend smile or laugh out loud, making up songs on the spot. It is perhaps no coincidence that he had died shortly before I first decided to make the album.
MA: You revived and released the 1995 demos made for Eldritch between 2004 and 2007 as Nineteen Ninety Five and Nowhere.
GM: Once Andrew fell silent the tracks were shelved, I had no intention of doing anything with them – this wasn’t because I thought the music wasn’t up to the mark, it just wasn’t the music I was interested in making for myself at that time.
On revisiting the tracks knowing that I was going to tackle the jobs originally earmarked for Andrew – lyrics and vocals – I had to make some changes. I stripped the songs down and went back through the programming of drums, bass and keyboards with Choque and made necessary adjustments for my limited vocal abilities. Within that process I ended up re-recording lots of the guitars – the bulk of parts were the same, although the key had often been transposed down. In some cases songs worked better without whole sections or bits of guitar I’d had in when they were just instrumental backing tracks. They were left off to make way for the vocals or another guitar part was found which better supported the new melodic ideas.
I had a blast with Choque, as I always did. He was a perfect partner in crime. We put out a DIY disc of the first batch of them and you could only get it via mail order – it was no big thing. Once it went public the reaction was a bit depressing for me – and in the internet age I was instantly aware of that reaction. It wasn’t because people didn’t like it – hardcore fans often loved it, once they’d worked round a way of listening to my singing. Most much preferred it to Pretty Black Dots, which was understandably a drag for me.
More of a downer was that there was this feeling among certain people that I was ripping them off in some way, putting out home-burned CDRs of demoes. The suggestion that I was making vast fortunes – get real. That led me to call a halt to finishing off the last three or four tunes as planned: fuck ‘em.
Some time later, I was contacted by a French guy with an extensive knowledge of English football and an easy charm, who asked me about repackaging the songs and releasing them on his label. At that point I went back again and finished the collection. It was something I was relaxed about doing, because by then I’d adjusted to the reality of worldwide connectivity, social media and the rest.
MA: What has been added to the Marx’s archives – songs written, recordings – that you haven’t put out since then?
GM: There’s a long list but I’m not sure how much would be of interest, beyond initial curiosity, for people who know me for those releases in the 1980’s. I have the songs for a musical based on the behind the scenes drama during the making of Gone With The Wind, a folk-style singalong ready for my own funeral, songs in broken French and Spanish, punk songs, torch songs, etc etc etc; more songs than you can shake a song-shaped stick at.
I think I recorded about eighty cover versions during the lockdowns – twenty minutes to three hours each to record straight onto my phone, anything from Arctic Monkeys, Moloko and Madness to Dusty Springfield, Dr Hook and Morecambe & Wise, some full productions, some unplugged.
MA: What happened to Powder Blue Cool?
GM: Powder Blue Cool was fifteen short songs, the same as Pretty Black Dots. Because I like patterns and numbers there was to be a third fifteen song collection provisionally called Packet Blonde Barbs (or Bards.) It had to follow that sequence and that pattern of stresses; PBD, PBC, PBB – forty-five songs to be released by the time I hit forty-five years of age. The songs exist, I even started the cover art for PBC but I chose not to release them.
It really isn’t a matter of lack of ambition, or fear of rejection that prevents from going public with more material. They provide a bespoke soundtrack for me, and for the moment that’s plenty good enough.
8. Marx in The Faversham pub, 2006, once one of the key locations of the Leeds postpunk music scene. (Photo credit: Guzelian)
MA: What other creative outlets have you found?
GM: I taught myself to play violin in the first lockdown and that instrument featured on a new set of songs. Of course I play it badly, that’s kind of the point. That bunch are probably closest in style to Sisters stuff or Nineteen Ninety Five and Nowhere, but they’re not afraid to get ugly. I think there are seven complete songs roughly recorded and five more backing tracks sketched out. They may surface.
I set up a studio in the kitchen at home for painting rather than music-making in 2020. A big space for me to throw paint around, which I merrily did. I painted on canvases, on off-cuts of timber, on guitars rescued from skips, I fell in love with Grayson and Phillipa Perry. I try to be doing something I am barely able to do – that used to extend to physical activities but a little more caution has crept in of late. A bum note is one thing, falling off a horse at high speed is a whole different level of pain
9. Marx after a shift at the coalface under the chapeau shop, Wakefield, June 2011.
MA: Is there a sense that punk rock and getting something going in the Leeds music scene were your salvation, your escape route? In another life, is Mark Pearman (your real name) stuck back in Hull or Withernsea?
GM: You come so far down the road in life that you almost meet yourself coming back. The idea of being stuck in Hull or Withernsea starts to sound very appealing. There is a parallel life I can easily imagine and it is not without its own chance of salvation.
MA: In order of preference, pick the 10 best songs you’ve been involved with, those tracks that please you the most.
GM: I’ll restrict it to my acknowledged back catalogue. Lots are going to be Sisters tracks. That’s not me being dismissive of anything I did after, it’s just fact.
- ‘Floorshow’. It represents the period with the band I’m most fond of, most accurately.
- ‘Some Kind Of Stranger’.
- ‘Nine While Nine’. Rather like the For Your Pleasure and Stranded albums by Roxy Music, numbers two and three could easily switch positions on any given day. Partly because there’s so much more of ‘SKOS’ I’ve edged it above ‘NWN’.
- ‘Heartland’. This is the first time every part of the music is played by, or played as written by me. If you ignore the first single, it’s as close as Andrew had come to including anybody else’s lyrics in one of our songs. The finished lyrics and over-arching theme are his but the second verse doesn’t stray too far from my initial draft – somehow that still adds up to it being the most of me you get on any Sisters song, (until ‘Poison Door’.) I know the finished vinyl version doesn’t match the heights it could get to live on a good night but that’s true of lots of the collection. For ones that could go off the chart emotionally, there were ‘Emma’, ‘Heartland’ and….
- ‘Gimme Shelter’. There was such a battle to get me to agree to record it, but that was a case of democracy working for the greater good if ever there was one. Ben, Craig and Andrew: the ayes have it! Unlock! Un-fucking-lock!
- ‘First And Last And Always’. For better or for worse those words have almost been added onto the end of my name in any reference to my musical career – Gary Marx FALAA, like a Fellow of some disgraced academy. There is a parallel universe where a better version of that song changes my life more fully, but I love my life just how it is and I’ve learned to love the song just how it is.
- ‘Phantom’. I find it so audacious and thrilling that a person with so little technical ability could make such a great record. I know I didn’t make it alone but it is ostensibly a guitar instrumental by a non-guitarist. Stuart Green once told us that he’d put ‘Phantom’ on as background music to have sex to. I don’t know how long he thought it lasted, but he’d forgotten it went into our version of ‘1969’, which kind of disrupted his groove.
- ‘Body Electric’ – the original version on CNT of course. I don’t know if Rob Worby (who produced the single and co-ran the CNT label) was in a rush to get out of the studio, or Andrew finally succumbed to sleep during the mix, but somehow the finished version slipped through quality control with some Ed Wood-style clangers. I stumble over the chords as I try to drive the second half of the song along and there’s even a little clunk on the vocal mic where I think Andrew accidentally kicked the stand; this was back in the days when we could all get a bit excited by the idea of making a record.
- ‘Blood Moon’. Finally something from outside of The Sisters. This is the last track I did with Choque for Nineteen Ninety Five And Nowhere and it ended up closing that album. That means if you’re not on shuffle it’s currently the last of all my recorded output and I feel no need to replace it. I am not on shuffle.
There is no.10. I told you I like numbers, and I especially like 9, so that’s where we end.
Paint My Name In Black and Gold is out now. The hardback is available from booksellers, including Amazon. The eBook can be bought
11. Gaucho Marx on his Latin American odyssey, Argentina, 2019.
12. Gary Marx’s final public performance: in Chile near the Bolivian border in 2019, playing ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ on ukulele to an audience of one. Maria from Viña Del Mar in Chile is on percussion.