On my holidays last week we went down a Welsh coal mine. There 300 metres below the surface our guide got us all to turn our lamps off, to experience total darkness for, he said, the only time in our lives. It was really something, but nothing new for me. After all I was a teenage goth, briefly the only one in West Wales (or so I liked to think), real darkness was not to be found at the bottom of a mine, but in the precise shade of black used in the sleeves of Sisters of Mercy records. That was a special black black, guaranteed to increase the alienation of anyone who touched it by 24.7%*.
Floodland was an important album for me in 1988, we had chrome, traces of a loved one’s scent, methadone, chemical adventures through the iron curtain, a rickety drum machine christened Doktor Avalanche and Jim Steinman all heaped up into one mean, skeletal racket replete with a we’re-all-beeped-so-let’s-beep vibe. Yummy!
Flash forward two years and quite literally the first thing I did when I got to university in Leeds was buy a copy of their new single More; October 3 1990. At some point in the two years between, Andrew Eldritch had binned off Patricia Morrison** and morphed his band into a mean, chiselled rock machine, all chrome and leather^. For an opening gambit More was a big, bold show-stopping one, resurrecting the Jim Steinman link straight off the bat. Mr Steinman bringing all his customary restraint and tact to the party, so we get 8:23 of melodramatic female vocals, sweeping synths and exhortations, but this time set against a bedrock of some bold jack-booted riffage laid down by Andreas Bruhn and Tim Bricheno. The whole thing is a hymn to excess and desire; the medium is the message.
Some people get by with a little understanding
Some people get by with a whole lot more
I don’t know why you gotta be so undemanding
Okay, so it’s not as good as Steinman’s previous collaboration with the Sisters on This Corrosion, but hey – not many songs are, but it became my little guardian song guiding me through all the positive turmoil of my life at the time. Non-LP B-side ‘You Could Be The One’ is a bit normal by comparison, although it features a proper rock guitar solo – a first for the Sisters to my knowledge, and some lines about coaxing a lady to undress, which I proceeded to memorize in case the opportunity ever arose.
The LP Vision Thing followed, with a cool vaguely Egyptian golden goth hieroglyph on the cover, which if you peer at it carefully is actually a darkened photograph of a cityscape rather than plain black – Shock! Horror! Cue end of world etc etc. Flip the mutha over and amongst the reassuringly familiar Merciful Release logo, four elegantly wasted rock gods stare at us, skinny, long-haired and be-shaded at night, to a man. Tony James, bassist for Generation X and British tabloid-baiting Sigue Sigue Sputnik was a controversial choice at the time, I don’t see why, all he did throughout his tenure was, well, play bass really. Tim Bricheno showed, after the slightly drippy All About Eve, that he was a fine expressive guitarist and Andreas Bruhn was another excellent player, as well as looking every inch the peroxide starlet.
Okay so the aesthetics were in place, but did it rock? Hell, yeah! Or, perhaps more truthfully, Hell, Yeah, mostly!
Twenty-five whores in the room next door
Twenty-five floors and I need more
I’m looking for the can in the candy store
‘Vision Thing’ is designed to grab us from the off and it does. Eldritch’s patented sort-of-singing-sort-of-doomed-growling leading us over the top. References to ‘another motherfucker in a motorcade’ and ‘slamming through’ abound. It’s all flash, anger, wordplay and propulsion, still sounds damn good to me.
Better by far though is the exquisitely anguished ‘Ribbons’, a feverish outpouring of, umm, fevered outpourings. You want existential Romantic (in the sense of Keats and Coleridge, not Sarah Records) rock? you got it good style. The protagonist lying on a bed, lacerating himself with the memories of a girl who ‘looked good in ribbons’, bemoaning that ‘love is a many-splintered thing’. Christ, you can feel the delirium here. The various vocal oddments going on in the mix add to the sense of febrile 4am panic.
Vision Thing is almost all excellent, Eldritch is at his expressive best again on ‘Detonation Boulevard’ amongst some more excellent guitars and I’m a bit of a sucker for the sorrowful sweep of ‘Something Fast’. Team that with the exquisitely bitter ‘I Was Wrong’ (I can love my fellow-man / But I’m damned if I’ll love yours) and the spasming, propulsive ‘Doctor Jeep’ (‘Businessmen from South Miami / Humming AOR’, indeed!) and you have a big 1537 hit. Where the LP lacks a bit though is that it sounds a little glazed at times, not quite raw enough (‘Ribbons’ excepted), not quite spontaneous enough to totally rock out – possibly the inevitable product of trying to make out-and-out rock music with a drum machine rather than using a real drummer? maybe.
I saw The Sisters of Mercy live in February 1991 at their secret 10th anniversary gigs in Leeds with this line-up and they were anything but safe, pressed up against the barrier front and centre (don’t ask me how long I got there before the gig to nail that spot!) I was treated, eventually, to a quite brilliant set full of arch gothic whining and blustering, swaggering rock-outs, both Bricheno and Bruhn playing out of their skins. Sadly, I can’t find the relevant Mighty Scrapbook Of Rock^^ to regale you with the minutiae, lucky you! Needless to say I dressed my (then) skinny frame all in shades of darkest midnight for the occasion.
Vision Thing didn’t end up ushering in a new era for Sisters of Mercy after all, in fact to date they have only released one other 12″ since then, seemingly victims of some savage record company politics and the intransigence of Andrew Eldritch himself. That line-up of the band drifted apart, Tim Bricheno forming X-CNN who I also thought were great and since then Eldritch has kept himself happy in Germany, putting a band together under the Sisters of Mercy moniker every so often to play live but not recording anything that I’m aware of. Ah well, let’s remember them this way, dark and shining.
In a long black car with the prettiest shit from Panama
When the sirens wail and the lights flash blue
My vision thing come slamming through
*roughly, I won’t bore you with my, utterly flawless, calculations.
**a mistake, I think – she just looks like a Sister of Mercy to me.
^sounding a bit like a high-end 1980’s sofa?
^^Scrapbooks – for any younger readers out there, think of them as an analogue blog, with a readership of one.