Parents of the world, this is the cautionary tale what happens if you don’t force pale bookish kids to go out and do something healthy once in a while. If you’re not careful they end up being rail-thin amphetamine jerking black-clad baritone shag monsters, who will spend their time swathed in dry ice and looking elegantly wasted. Welcome to the haunted halls of the Sisters of Mercy First And Last And Always, the only LP that I own that made me briefly want to be a late-stage consumptive aesthete.
I find it shocking that I have owned First And Last And Always for 31 years now, where are the snows of yesteryear? it shocks me even more that I probably hadn’t listened to this LP yet this century. It was never really a favourite of mine, I always went more for the Floodland and later eras, rather than back when the Sisters were actually a band. I think I preferred the tidy certainties and chiselled soundscapes, over the more democratic, messier sounds here.
Listening today I find First And Last And Always a lot more thrilling precisely because it is a bit messy and compromised. Wayne Hussey, Craig Adams and Gary Marx working in tandem and against the tyranny of timekeeper supreme, Doktor Avalanche made for a great rollicking noise. As always I find myself utterly drawn to Craig Adams’ bass playing no matter what else is going on in a tune.
Only two tracks made it to my iPod from First And Last And Always, the opener* and title track and ‘Nine While Nine’, which are (narrowly) the best two tracks here. The first a roiling bass-driven vaguely Scottish sounding number about, oh I don’t know, the usual … doomed love, darkness, water, metaphors – that type of thing. The latter is a just brilliant, a clenched tale of waiting and romantic abandonment**; with cold war undertones and railways – think John Le Carré in leather trousers.
Frost upon these cigarettes
Lipstick on the window pane
And I've lost all sense of the world outside
But I can't forget so I call your name
We also get gloomy treats like the miserably chiming guitar rocker ‘Possession’, think the Cure on Mogadons^^ and the lurching lets-write-about-what-we-know-a-lot-about ‘Amphetamine Logic’. The real winner for me though is the epic gloomerana of ‘Some Kind of Stranger’ which is full of all the doomy good stuff. God, how I wanted a girlfriend when I first heard this track! Solely so I could break up with her and feel bitter but justified walking around in the rain to this song. True story.
My main gripe with First And Last And Always way back when was that the second side (to me) was a bit of a mish-mash. Playing it now I hear and appreciate the pop soaking through the black grooves of ‘Black Planet’, ‘Walk Away’ and ‘A Rock And A Hard Place’. Okay so 1985 is a foreign country, they do EQ-ing differently there; turn that treble down 80’s lads!
The real litmus test of whether you were a proper goth, or just an arriviste dilettante who’d bought some black jeans and winklepickers, like me, was how much you liked ‘Marian (Version)’. I found it a bit dirge-y and funereal, Eldritch’s baritone sinking forever beneath the waves of his own ennui and the verses in German were just too much. The real Sisters ultras loved it of course, particularly the verses in German. Listening in 2019 I am surprised by the pace of the track and how you get whipped along by the good Doktor’s beats, it is a lot more tuneful than I remembered it being too.
The Sisters of Mercy were always an unstable brew, given Eldritch’s aversion to democracy, his pharmacisstic tendencies and just the sheer amount of dry ice swirling around, touring and associated bad habits made the man decidedly ill, a bid of ill-judged firing did the rest. Adams and Hussey rocked off to form the Mission and Marx started Ghost Dance.; ’twas all ineffably inevitable, I suppose.
So then First And Last And Always becomes something to spin, savour and enjoy even more, knowing it is, rather appropriately, a headstone for this version of the band. Terminally adolescent as always, I like the way the band peddles all those gothic certainties so well, doomed, gloomed romance and all that good stuff.
Now go outside and play in the sunshine.
*due to a taping accident I mixed up the sides of First And Last And Always and just like Shake Your Money Maker I simply can’t listen to it the ‘right’ way around now.
**the ‘while’ in the title is Leeds slang for ‘until’, this used to cause me much confusion when I worked there for a couple of years. Still Dolly Parton^ summed it up best in her song ‘9 while 5’.
^The Sisters used to do a quite brilliant cover of ‘Jolene’.
^^fitting as producer David Allen worked on a whole host of Cure treasures.