The Sisters Of Mercy - Biography
By David Downs
Formed in 1980, highly influential English gothic rock band The Sisters of Mercy converted underground notoriety into a mid-'80s commercial breakthrough lasting into the early '90s. Later, lineup changes and legal troubles diminished their output. Formed in Leeds by the band's only constant member Andrew Eldritch, with then-guitarist Gary Marx. Their 1980 debut seven-inch single “The Damage Done” (released on their own label Merciful Release) found post-punk embracing bleak times with black clothes, amphetamines, and ironic enthusiasm for Cold War annihilation and personal betrayal. Noted for its use of drum machines, the band is considered one of the forefathers of gothic rock, though Eldritch rejects the simplification. Debut LP First And Last and Always (1985 Merciful Release/Elektra), preceded Floodland (1987 Elektra), Vision Thing (1990 Elektra) and their biggest single --1992's re-make of early their '80s' “Temple of Love.” Also of note, each Sisters record featured a new line-up because of personal complications between Eldritch and his various bandmates. Ever a prickly individual, Eldritch went on creative strike in the '90s over his record label's alleged incompetence. However, The Sisters of Mercy opened for the Sex Pistols reunion tour in 1996 and toured again in 2005. Now free of a record label contract, the possibility of future releases under The Sisters of Mercy name exists.
Andrew William Harvey Taylor (aka Andrew Eldritch) was a middle class military brat who ditched academia to chase the dark new star of punk rock. Born on May 15th, 1959, in Ely, Cambridgeshire, England, the son of a Royal Air Force serviceman, young Taylor moved from place to place including time in Singapore, before attending Oxford University in 1977 to study French and German. A fan of German Expressionism, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Motorhead, The Stooges and Suicide, Taylor lacked any formal musical training or apparent talent. He dropped out of Oxford to pursue Chinese, enrolling in Leeds University where he was exposed to the economically depressed, working class town's grubby punk rock scene. It held life-altering appeal.
Spurred into action by the Ramones, punk rock's liberal political activism, and its low barriers to entry, nineteen year-old Taylor became a full-time punk, reportedly munching amphetamines, living in squalor and taking up drums in his basement apartment. Punk friend Mark Pairman provided the inspiration to form a band as well as the name, The Sisters of Mercy. The two self-recorded/produced their first single, “The Damage Done,” as well as adopting pseudonyms Andrew Eldritch and Gary Marx, enabling the working musicians to collect welfare under their real names.
Eldritch played drums and handled vocals for “The Damage Done,” while Marx played guitar and bass. Incredibly simple yet insistent, Eldritch's morbid, monotone, crypt-keeper vocal stylings offered a literary, nihilistic take on the shrill angst of punk. The single made it onto musical tastemaker John Peel's radio show, fulfilling the two punk's primary objective: to hear themselves on the radio. Craig Adams joined the band on bass, Eldritch outsourced drumming to a machine, and the trio toured their few songs as well as covers of The Velvet Underground's “Sister Ray” and Leonard Cohen's “Teachers”. Second guitarist Ben Matthews (aka Ben Gunn) joined the band in 1980 and second single “Body Electric” came out on CNT Records because the band couldn't afford a self-release.
“Body Electric” displayed similar minimalism, with drum machines providing a spare rhythm around which the bassline coiled, providing the skeleton for a few melodic chords and Eldritch's commanding vocals. The band gained notoriety in the Leeds punk scene, noted for its disillusionment, black clothes, and amphetamine use. Later such traits would be used to lump the band in with Bauhaus and Siouxsie & the Banshees as gothic rockers.
In 1982 and 1983 the band toured and recorded “Temple of Love” amid a divergence between Eldritch and Marx. Marx liked touring, Eldritch liked the studio. In 1984, second guitarist Gunn left, replaced by Wayne Hussey. The band signed to WEA Records, then during a studio session in 1984, Eldritch collapsed from reported use of amphetamine and alcohol consumption, yet the band persisted touring hard through 1985.
The Sisters of Mercy's first LP First And Last And Always (1985-Merciful Release) debuted to international acclaim amid ongoing band tensions. Longtime founding member Gary Marx quit on tour and the band finished its 1985 European and US tour without him, attempting a final show at the Royal Albert Hall that year. Five years would pass before The Sisters of Mercy's next live show, yet Eldritch, Hussey and Adams intended to continue recording. However, Eldritch's reported drug, alcohol and women problems got in the way of work and necessitated Eldritch's move to Hamburg's red light district The Reeperbahn.
Recording was further delayed by disagreements between Hussey and Eldritch on lyrics, yet it was Adams who left a day before Hussey. The split started amicably, with Eldritch, Hussey and Adams appearing together on-stage in Hamburg afterward, yet the armistice did not last long. Hussey and Adams regrouped under the moniker of The Sisterhood, so Eldritch countered the coup by starting a different group also called The Sisterhood and released the single “The Giving Ground” on Merciful Release, thereby claiming the rights to the “Sisterhood” name. Furthermore, Eldritch used his Sisterhood band to quickly release and album, satisfying a contract obligation to WEA and recouping a 25,000-pound advance before Hussey or Adams' project could.
Eldritch stayed in Hamburg and teamed up with Patricia Morrison releasing Floodland (1987-EastWest Records) with its standout tracks “This Corrosion”, “Dominion/Mother Russia”. “This Corrision” demonstrates Eldritch's addition of Morrison on vocals, as well as heavy use of keyboards and effects to further augment the spare, punk-like simplicity in the rhythm section. “Dominion/Mother Russia” exhibits the band slowing down, and seeking a more operatic scope than the punk stylings of First And Last And Always. Seeking to avoid the temptations of the road, Eldritch did not tour to support Floodland, instead forcing out Morrison and replacing her with Tony James as well as Andreas Bruhn on guitar, later accompanied by Tim Bruchero. Meanwhile WEA Records became Warner subsidy EastWest.
When Eldritch conceived of writing his next album Vision Thing (1990-EastWest Records), he stated he wanted to create rock songs that were deceptively simple, yet complicated under close observation. Indeed, tracks “Vision Thing” and “You Don't See Me” alienated some initial listeners. A formal tour accompanied the release and the band – interestingly -- was supposed to accompany Public Enemy in 1991 on the second part of their US tour. The odd pairing prompted fears of race riots, and was ultimately canceled by label Elektra amid Eldritch's cries of label racism. The tour snafu catalyzed an extended war between Eldritch and Warner. The Some Girls Wander By Mistake (1992-EastWest) compilation helped pay off tour debts to Warner and a 1992 re-recording of “Temple of Love” gave Eldritch his biggest hit of their career. Here was the now-classic uptempo drum machine beat, welded to an insistent bass line, an archepeggio guitar riff, and Eldritch's deadpan delivery. However, Bricheno left in 1992 and Bruhn left in 1993. By then, the Merciful Release label existed only in name.
In 1996, The Sisters of Mercy re-emerged supporting the Sex Pistols with Adam Pearson and guitarist Chris Sheehan. Sheehan cycled out in 1997, replaced by Yugoslavian Mike Varjak prior to the “Distance Over Time” tour which included new songs “War On Drugs” and “Summer”. Eldritch, chafing under contract to EastWest, delivered a deliberately awful techno album featuring Eldritch mumbling over drones. Called Go Figure, it was promptly shelved by EastWest, yet distributed globally via online piracy.
The band has toured intermittently every year since 1996, and Eldritch frequently disappoints some die-hard fans interested in vintage Sisters sets. Instead Eldritch performs new music, as well as obscure B-sides and remixes of classics. Adam Pearson left the band in 2006, replaced by Chris “Robochrist” May. Eldritch is still writng and occasionally performing.
One of the first post-punk bands to successfully use drum machines, The Sisters of Mercy channeled their punk angst through a prism darkened by the specter of nuclear annihilation and the ascendancy of political conservatism as well as post-modernism. Helmed by an Oxford-educated, middle class misfit Andrew Eldritch, The Sisters helped provide the foundations of the Gothic rock genre. Even though -- or perhaps because -- Eldritch cycled through more than dozen band members over his twenty year career, the band's singles and three definitive albums assure its place in the annals of music history.