Charting the history of the Sisters of Mercy

Mark Andrews is recalling his introduction to the music of the Sisters of Mercy in the autumn of 1984. As he recollects, it was the song Floorshow, which a fellow sixth former was playing in their school common room.

Andrew Eldritch of The Sisters of Mercy performing on The Roxy TV show in 1987. Picture: ITV/Shutterstock

“It was exactly what I was looking for at the time,” he says. “I was just coming out of a heavy metal phase and I still wanted something that was reliant on drums and heavy bass and guitar, and that was right up my street.”

From there he became a long-time fan and, try as he might, he “never managed to shake them off”. Thirty-seven years on, Andrews has penned Paint My Name in Black and Gold, a biography charting in detail the band’s early years in Leeds from their formation in 1980 by Andrew Taylor, Mark Pearman and Craig Adams and a drum machine dubbed ‘Doktor Avalanche’ through to the dissolution of the band’s classic line-up – featuring Wayne Hussey – after the release of the album First And Last And Always in 1985.

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Along the way singer Taylor, an Oxford dropout who had come to Leeds University to study Mandarin Chinese, would rename himself Eldritch, while guitarist Pearman, from Withernsea, became Gary Marx.

During his research, Andrews managed to track down almost everyone involved in the band in the first five years – including all of the band members except for Eldritch and early guitarist Ben Gunn, as well as such pivotal figures as John Keenan, the Leeds promoter who staged the Sisters’ first shows at The F Club, Claire Shearsby, the club’s resident DJ who for a time became Eldritch’s partner, and Dave Beer, one of the band’s ‘God Squad’ of original followers who later went on to run the Back To Basics club nights.

The book developed from articles Andrews wrote for music website The Quietus. The process took three years, with trips to see such Leeds landmarks as The Faversham, and Eldritch’s former homes in St John’s Terrace and Village Place. “I was still interviewing people when the book was in the editing stage,” he says. “Some of my favourite bits were actually from earlier this year, months after I’d submitted the manuscript.” From his one conversation with Eldritch after the book was “locked”, he says the singer’s attitude was “benign indifference”, adding: “I get the impression if he doesn’t have to talk about the past, it’s not the most relevant thing to him any more.”

Andrews found it took Taylor “about two years” before he fully adopted the enigmatic Eldritch “persona”, with the change happening around the time of the release of the single Alice. “As people commented at the time, his change in approach to life corresponded with what the name change,” the author says. “There was definitely something going on in 1982 when he does reinvent himself.”

Andrews wonders how much of the persona stemmed from Eldritch’s fascination with David Bowie. “He’s pulling in information and examples from lots of different places and assembling them together. In lots of ways Bowie has got to be an influence,” he says.

The singer appeared to have eyes on a bigger prize from a fairly early stage. In his first major interview with the music press, Eldritch told Adam Sweeting of Melody Maker that the Sisters were “not a provincial band, we’re a major entity”. Andrews suggests that “disproves Eldritch’s more recent stated view that he wasn’t operating some masterplan”, but adds: “I think what he might mean was that he hadn’t fully worked out what he was doing. When the Sisters started he had no knowledge whatsoever of being in a band. There might be this general shape of an idea and he’s filling in pieces as he’s going along, and the more pieces that get filled in the speed of the rise of the Sisters increases.

“I think above all Eldritch is looking not to have to do a regular job – that’s been a huge motivation for him still now. But the possibility that could happen I don’t think happens until he makes in his view a good record, which was Alice.”

The band’s “big shift” occurred with the recruitment of former Dead Or Alive guitarist Wayne Hussey, who quickly forged a close bond with Craig Adams. From then on Marx’s role diminished and Eldritch became increasingly remote during the troubled making of First And Last And Always for major label Warners.

“Wayne had got his own ambitions and he’s also trying to work out ‘what is my role in this band?’” Andrews says. “Gary is clearly not the lead guitar player any more. Wayne is way too good a guitar player to play these songs in some ways, even the stuff he’s writing himself (for the Sisters) is way simplified compared to what he would later do in The Mission, so he’s finding a way to musically fit into this band because the songs are simple.

“Many people would testify that the version of the band with Wayne was one of the greatest live bands they’ve ever seen (however) some fans would feel that Wayne had diluted the band because of that album. Yes, the sound had changed live, it was less reliant on fuzz and bludgeoning simple guitar lines, it does become a little more complex, but it’s also very heavy as well.

“Wayne Hussey is an excellent rock guitar player. Whatever reservations people have about his lyrics or whatever, he’s a fantastic guitar player.”

Marx departed the band after a UK tour in 1985; Hussey and Adams quit six months later. Eldritch would go on to make his most commercially successful records, Floodland and Vision Thing, with new line-ups of the band before falling out with Warners. Although the Sisters of Mercy continue to tour, no new music has been released since 1993.

“It’s hard to say what destroyed the band,” Andrews considers. “The reason Gary was effectively sacked was different to the reason why Wayne and Craig left. Gary left because he just couldn’t take it any more, he just didn’t like being in the band and trying to make that album in this nightmare scenario, having to deal with lyrics not being written, songs not being recorded, quarrels with Eldritch over stuff that normally would not have cropped up.

“Gary leaves because of Eldritch and Wayne and Craig leave because of Eldritch. Eldritch says ‘I’ve only fired one person in the Sisters of Mercy, other people just leave’. I’m sure he’s considered that an occupational hazard.”

Paint My Name in Black and Gold: The Rise of the Sisters of Mercy by Mark Andrews is published by Unbound, priced £25.