The Sisters of Mercy are an English rock band that formed in 1980. After achieving early underground fame in UK, the band had their commercial breakthrough in mid-1980s and sustained it until the early 1990s, when they stopped releasing new recorded output as a strike against their record company. Currently, the band is a touring outfit only.
The group has released three original studio albums, of which the last was released in 1990. Each album was recorded by a different line-up; singer and songwriter Andrew Eldritch and the drum machines called Doktor Avalanche are the only points of continuity among the line-ups. Eldritch and Avalanche were also involved in The Sisterhood, a side-project connected with Eldritch's dispute with former members.
The group ceased recording activity in 1994, when they went on strike against their record company Time Warner, which they accused of withholding royalties and being incompetent. Although Time Warner eventually let the band go in 1997, they have not signed to another label, and have chosen not to go the independent label route, despite showcasing numerous new songs in their live sets.
Since 1985, when the other original members left, The Sisters of Mercy has become the artistic vehicle of Andrew Eldritch. Ex-members of the group established the bands Ghost Dance and The Mission.
The band was formed in Leeds, England in 1980 by F-club regulars Gary Marx and Andrew Eldritch to satisfy their desire to hear themselves on the radio; during that time band t-shirts were made and a single, "Damage Done/Watch/Home of the Hit-men", was recorded and released. The name was influenced by Robert Altman's film McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), which featured the Leonard Cohen song of the same name ("because The Captains of Industry wouldn't have been as funny").
On the single (claimed by the band to have been played twice by John Peel) Gary Marx played guitar through a practice amplifier and Andrew Eldritch was on drums. The partners each wrote and sang on a song.
Early years (1981-1983)
The band regrouped with Craig Adams on bass, while Eldritch's drumming was replaced by a drum machine, leaving him to concentrate on vocals. The drum machine was christened Doktor Avalanche, and all of its numerous successors kept this name. Andrew Eldritch took over lyrics-writing, Doktor-programming, and record-producing duties, while sharing the music-writing with Marx and (occasionally) Adams.
This became what is generally recognised as the first real Sisters line-up. It began with the Doktor/Eldritch/Marx/Adams incarnation of the band playing a gig in the Riley Smith Hall of the University of Leeds 's Union building in early 1981. Unsurprisingly, nobody can remember the exact date so, for historic purposes, the band and fans have often celebrated the anniversary of the February 16, 1981 concert, in Vanbrugh College, York, England - the band's second ever gig in the form. In 2001, it was the scene of the band's 20th anniversary concert, complete with iced cupcakes for the audience. Later in 1981, Ben Gunn established himself as the second guitarist after several others came and went. Eldritch's melancholic baritone, Craig Adams's pulsating bass, Doktor Avalanche's beat and Gary Marx's flowing guitar led the band to early underground success.
The band's singles were regularly featured in UK independent charts; some became single of the week in various UK indie magazines. John Ashton of The Psychedelic Furs produced the early classic "Alice". The Reptile House EP is another example of early Sisters work and marks the maturing songwriter Eldritch (who wrote, produced and played all instruments on it).
Their live performances featured many cover versions: among those, a medley consisting of "Sister Ray" (by Velvet Underground), "Ghostrider" (by Suicide) and "Louie Louie" (by Richard Berry) became a live staple. Only three of them, The Stooges' "1969", The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and Hot Chocolate's "Emma" were eventually recorded and released on Sisters records (all as b-sides).
In late 1983, following the highly successful "Temple of Love" single, the band signed a contract with major record label WEA.
At the same time Ben Gunn left in an atmosphere of unanimous bitterness. Gunn stated that he did not agree with the direction Andrew Eldritch was taking the band - which, according to Gunn, started out as a joke on serious rock'n'roll outfits, but eventually became one. Gunn also mentioned personality conflicts with Andrew Eldritch as a reason for his departure.
First and Last and Always era (1984-1985)
Ben Gunn was replaced by Wayne Hussey, who concentrated on 12 string electric and acoustic guitars while also contributing as a songwriter. His studio-experience with Dead or Alive also proved to be invaluable as the band set out to record their first full-length album. The Black October UK tour (October-November 1984) confirmed the underground cult status of the band. However, the growing alienation between Eldritch and the rest of the group was getting out of hand during the recording of the debut First and Last and Always album. Eldritch's deteriorating health and psychological problems worsened the situation. The causes of these issues were frequently written about in the gossip columns of the music press of the time, NME, Melody Maker and Sounds.
Most songs on the album were written and rehearsed by Marx, Hussey, and Adams, with Eldritch stepping in at the latest stage to write lyrics and add vocals.
Following the release of First and Last and Always, produced by David M. Allen (producer of albums such as The Cure's Disintegration, but not to be confused with the bass player of Gang Of Four--also a record producer) (March 11, 1985), Gary Marx split from the band in the middle of a supporting tour, citing inability to continue working with Andrew Eldritch. The group completed the tour as a three-piece act, and said farewell to the fans with the final gig in London's Royal Albert Hall on June 18, 1985. Video recordings of this show were later released as "Wake". A music video of the song Black Planet was also released in which the Monkeemobile was featured. Promotional videos were also made for the singles Body And Soul, Walk Away, and No Time To Cry, but as of yet none of these videos, including Black Planet, have been officially released by the band.
The split (1985-1986)
Shortly after the last gig Eldritch relocated to Hamburg, while Hussey and Adams announced their decision to split off to form their own group, citing artistic and personal differences with Eldritch. During the highly publicised soap opera dubbed the Corporate Wars that followed, the new band started playing concerts under name of The Sisterhood, playing Hussey's songs originally written for the Sisters but vetoed by Eldritch. These include the songs "Dance on Glass" and "Garden of Delight", which had originally been recorded (but not released) by the Sisters with Eldritch on vocals, but which Hussey went on to record with his band.
Meanwhile, Eldritch protested their usage of Sisterhood name as too similar to The Sisters of Mercy and a name that had been applied to the fan community of The Sisters of Mercy, and in an attempt to stop the practice released the single "Giving Ground" by his own band, The Sisterhood. The single was later followed by the album Gift. The other band eventually christened themselves The Mission amidst suspicions that the whole affair had been a PR stunt to jumpstart The Mission's career.
According to some sources, with these releases Andrew Eldritch allegedly won over Hussey and Adams a race for ?25,000 (a sum opening the song Jihad on the Gift album) advance offered by the publishers to the first member of The Sisters of Mercy to release any output. This would tie Eldritch to WEA and release Hussey and Adams from their contract with the same record company. According to Tony Perrin (Mission manager) the case never went to court and Hussey's new band was able to release their material through an independent outlet. However, Eldritch stated elsewhere that the "2" "5" "0" "0" "0" which opens "Jihad" on the Sisterhood LP represents the sum of money he won from the Mission in the civil courts. He states in an interview, recorded in Boston, that the English courts did not recognize either his or the other members' of the band's legal right to the name "The Sisterhood." He said the courts required a release for anybody to claim ownership of the band name, which was the motivation for the initial Sisterhood single. After that single had been released, Eldritch officially owned the name, and could sue, which he did, winning 25,000 pounds in the lawsuit.
Floodland era (1987-1989)
Left to his own devices, Eldritch recorded the Floodland album (November 13, 1987), marking a shift away from guitar-based rock towards an atmospheric, Wagnerian, keyboard-oriented explorations pioneered in Gift. The album was produced by Eldritch and Larry Alexander, with contributions from Jim Steinman on two songs.
American singer and bass guitarist Patricia Morrison was recruited from The Gun Club, a band which had toured with the Sisters during their previous incarnation. Morrison had also worked with Eldritch in The Sisterhood. The band did not play live during this period.
Vision Thing era (1990-1993)
The next incarnation of The Sisters of Mercy featured an unknown German guitarist, Andreas Bruhn, whom Eldritch apparently discovered playing in a Hamburg pub; controversial bassist Tony James (ex-Sigue Sigue Sputnik guitarist and Generation X bassist/songwriter); and last-minute recruit Tim Bricheno, formerly of All About Eve, on guitars. The new line-up kicked off with the Vision Thing album, released October 22, 1990, produced by Eldritch (one song, the single "More", was a co-production and co-written with Jim Steinman). The album also featured guitarist John Perry with backing vocals by Maggie Reilly. Designed as an assault on USA policies, the title a quotation from Vice President George Bush in 1987, it marked another change of direction, this time towards guitar-oriented rock.
The band launched a 1990-1991 world tour to promote the album. In 1991 they organized a controversial North American tour in double-act with Public Enemy. Fearing a clash between white fans of Sisters with the black following of Public Enemy, several towns banned the performances, and the tour was canceled halfway through. Late in 1991, Tony James left the group for his solo career; bass duties were transferred to Doktor Avalanche. The USA tour fiasco did not help the already strained relationship between Eldritch and the Sisters' new record company EastWest, a WEA subsidiary (the band was assigned to it 1989 following an internal shuffle in WEA).
Conflicts with WEA led to termination of band's USA record distribution deal circa 1991-1992, so the last records of the group are only available in USA as imports.
Under the insistence of the record company the band rerecorded their early single "Temple of Love" (with Ofra Haza on additional vocals) to promote the collection of their early independently released singles, entitled Some Girls Wander By Mistake (1992). At the end of the year, Tim Bricheno left the band and was replaced in 1993 by Adam Pearson. Adam Pearson was the only guitarist on the "Under the Gun" single, which also featured former Berlin lead vocalist Terri Nunn on backing vocals. The single was recorded to promote the "Greatest Hits" compilation, A Slight Case of Overbombing (1993). These releases turned out to be the last commercial recordings from the band to date. Andreas Bruhn was reportedly out of the band in spirit by this time, but continued to tour with it in 1993.
Following the last concerts in December 1993, The Sisters of Mercy went into what Andrew Eldritch called a "strike against EastWest".
Late years (1996-present)
The Sisters of Mercy performing on the main stage of Spirit of Burgas, August 2008.
The band was revived in 1996 for several gigs supporting the Sex Pistols. Andreas Bruhn's place was taken alternatively by Chris Sheehan and Mike Varjak. The contract with EastWest was terminated in 1997 after the company agreed to accept material recorded under the SSV name instead of two albums for which the Sisters of Mercy had contractual obligations. The company agreed to accept the material (techno-like droning featuring mumbling vocals by Andrew Eldritch, without drums) without listening to it first. The recordings were never officially released and circulated only through pirate MP3s.
The band do not have a record contract and have refused to release new material independently. Rumours persist that Eldritch's starting negotiating position is US$3 million for three albums although this has never been verified.
Despite having no new recorded material to promote, Eldritch has revived the band for short tours every year since 1996, except 2004. The band plays unreleased songs, obscure B-sides, and reworked old classics. In 2005 Adam Pearson played his last trek of concerts with the Sisters together with new guitarist Chris May. Pearson has since moved on to play for the MC5, replaced by Ben Christodoulou, formerly of UK punk/metal band AKO. Many fans continue to believe that a fourth studio album is being recorded, despite no recent verification that this is the case from Eldritch himself. The official Sisters of Mercy website has contained the same "update" for several years;