Waiting For Another War: A History of The Sisters Of Mercy – book review & interview
Waiting For Another War: A History of The Sisters Of Mercy by Trevor Ristow GKW Inc. Press Out now – order here Waiting For Another War covers the history of The Sisters of Mercy from their inception in 1980 through to their first major breakup in 1985. The author, Trevor Ristow, wrote the book over […]
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Waiting For Another War: A History of The Sisters Of Mercy by Trevor Ristow
GKW Inc. Press
Out now – order here
Waiting For Another War covers the history of The Sisters of Mercy from their inception in 1980 through to their first major breakup in 1985. The author, Trevor Ristow, wrote the book over a decade and sourced all material from thousands of articles, interviews, and reviews. A book that’s crammed with so much detail, in fact, that Trevor Ristow has, quite possibly, created the ultimate compendium of all-things-Sisters.
Trevor Ristow’s insightful chronicle is set against an apocalyptic backdrop of amphetamines, creative genius, arrogance, and, of course, huge amounts of dry ice. A ticking-time-bomb roller-coaster ride with more highs and lows than a month-long speed binge, we see The Sisters Of Mercy grow from struggling-to-be-taken-seriously student union band to Royal Albert Hall rock gods at their final show. Wistow’s book is filled with so many fascinating facts that even the most hardcore of fans will learn something new. I mean…did you know that in their iconic Royal Albert Hall performance (which had a major video release), Andrew Eldritch was far more static than usual because he was nursing a couple of broken ribs after getting beaten up by the boyfriend of a fan he’d slept with the week before? *mind blown*
Much of The Sisters story is set in ’80s Leeds where the author takes us on a nostalgic trip around the city’s back-to-back terraces where the band lived and various student hangouts, including the famous Faversham Pub (which became the epicenter of the Northern British goth scene in the ’80s). Ristow’s writing is engaging throughout and anecdotes so riveting that, at times, I found the book very hard to put down.
Albeit dark, there is also plenty of humour over the 270 pages; in the early years, we learn that Eldritch loathed the “goth” moniker that his band was becoming increasingly labelled with and felt the group’s sound/aesthetic had more in common with the likes of Motörhead than, say, Bauhaus. Quite ironic when you consider they’re now regarded as one of the most significant goth bands of the ’80s. The Sisters’ rise to fame in America also forms a significant part of the story, and we’re offered firsthand accounts of the band’s trans-Atlantic exploits from Stateside promoters, journalists, and lovers.
To help visualise these early years, the book contains some rare and stunning photographs from across the period, many of which have never been published before.
To many (myself included) the first incarnation was The Sisters Of Mercy at their electrifying best, but it comes as no great surprise that The Sisters’ early years were full of friction – most of which seemed to stem from Eldritch’s obsessive need to control all creative aspects of the band. Indeed, it’s this trait that ultimately led to the band’s demise. The recording of The Sisters’ magnum opus, First And Last And Always, sounded a particularly laborious task, with the guitarists laying down the instrument parts during the day and Eldritch writing/recording vocals by night due to creative differences and the band struggling to work with one another. Dogged by delays and tantrums, it’s surprising the record label WEA let them get away with as much as they did. Despite the obsessiveness of Eldritch’s character, Ristow depicts the singer as a very clever man, which of course he is; he created The Sisters Of Mercy record label (Merciful Release), he negotiated a unique recording contract with WEA in which he retained full creative control over the band’s output, and as a vocalist his lyrics were multi-layered, poignant and political (and often, we learn, contained subtle digs at his fellow band members). Let’s not forget Eldritch the visual artist – he also designed all the covers for The Sisters Of Mercy releases.
My biggest takeaway from the book? The fact that some of the tracks on the Japanese release of First And Last And Always feature different mixes, instrument arrangements, and durations to the versions released in the rest of the world.
I recently caught up with Trevor Wistow for a chat about his book.
Why did you decide to write Waiting For Another War?
The simplest answer is that The Sisters inspire an unusual level of dedication in their fans, and I am one of them. I wanted to write something that tied together in a single document all the various small bits of information that were out there, so that someone hoping to understand the band and its history wouldn’t have to spend a lifetime building a collection of cuttings. I studied history in college, and I spent a lot of time as a student synthesising facts and quotations from different texts to create a coherent narrative about a specific subject for my papers. For example, I’m really interested in 19th century warfare. There are a lot of books on the subject, and a handful of great ones, but if you want to write a paper about Moltke’s novel use of artillery in the Franco-Prussian War, you have to borrow from 25 disparate sources to piece together that particular story, and then tell it well. Studying history is really about learning to tell nonfiction stories. I decided to put that experience in the service of The Sisters because no one would read my paper on Moltke.
Why did you write it now? Was it to coincide with their 40th anniversary?
In fact I wrote it years ago and the timing of its release near the band’s anniversary was a happy coincidence.
How long did it take to write?
I wrote it over a decade, here and there.
The initial print run sold out very quickly – how has the feedback been?
The feedback has been very positive. By far my favourites are messages or posts I get from fans from the early ’80s who enjoyed the book and told me they learned something new. Naturally, I think Sisters fans have great taste. And if you’ve been a fan since the early ’80s, I respect that, it confers status in my mind. So I enjoy hearing that there was something new or previously unknown in the book for a lifelong fan. And there is a lot of new information in there – about the American tours in particular. I was well-placed to surface that information, and get those interviews, because I lived in New York when I wrote the book and I suppose I was the only guy wandering around asking everyone I knew if they had any great Sisters Of Mercy stories, or knew anyone who did.
What did you find particularly challenging about writing the book?
The most challenging part was tracking down photos. The easy thing would have been to reproduce all the WEA promo photos that everyone has seen a thousand times, all of which are royalty-free. But I really wanted some new photos. Not just unpublished, but totally unseen. For these photos I often had to pester people who were otherwise very busy. In one case I traipsed out to a studio in Brooklyn to sift through negatives until I could find the ones I was looking for, which had been buried in an archive for over 35 years. It was a real boots-on-the-ground operation. In another case, a childhood friend from San Francisco swore she had some photos, somewhere. So it was me on the phone with her every weekend trying to convince her to dig through her closet and find her negatives. I even enlisted the help of another friend to go over and knock on her door and offer to help. This went on for over six months till she found the time. But they all came through in the end. I also had invaluable help from Phil Verne, who runs The Sisters Of Mercy 1980-1985 Group on Facebook. Phil is a tireless networker and archivist of Sisters ephemera and trivia, and he connected me to some great photographers. Then licensing the photos can be difficult, and the fees add up. These are things no first-time author thinks about when they start writing. It requires an enormous amount of work and money, especially when you’re doing it all without a publisher.
What were the highlights?
The highlights of writing the book were those rare moments of fluidity when the words and ideas were just coming out. Same with every writer, I imagine.
Apart from your book and Wayne Hussey’s Salad Daze there seems to be very little that chronicles the early years of The Sisters Of Mercy. Why do you think this is so?
I have no idea because they are the greatest band of their generation.
Is there anything that really shocked you about The Sisters Of Mercy story?
Not really. Well, maybe this. To me, as a New Yorker, the craziest story, which was actually in Salad Daze, was about Wayne Hussey and Bryan Christian speeding down the entire length of one of New York’s big avenues, running red lights for fun. That stunt was shockingly irresponsible. OK, they didn’t kill anyone. But they very well might have. I think it was supposed to read like one of those wacky rock and roll capers in Hammer Of The Gods, but that anecdote definitely spun my head around and I still think about it.
Which is your favourite Sisters period/album?
My favourite is the period covered in the book, which is really two periods. Let’s call them the independent period, which goes ’till Temple Of Love, and then the early WEA period, which ends with First And Last And Always. First And Last And Always, to me, is the finest album of the ’80s, and my all-time favourite album ever, by any band. But I love every period of The Sisters, and I don’t really like to rank them. Floodland is a masterful piece of work, and the live band in the ’90s was great. I’ve seen The Sisters many times over more than 30 years and they never disappoint me. I love (almost) all the unreleased songs and whenever news of another song leaks on Facebook or Youtube, I find myself sitting there listening to it nonstop.
The song First And Last And Always had the working title of “Scottish one” which I imagine references the guitar riff melody. Do you know what influenced Gary Marx to write it like this? Was there a Scottish influence?
All I know is that the riff was endlessly referred to as “Celtic” by the press, and that Gary Marx was listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen at the time. I’m not sure how you reconcile those two facts, but that’s part of the magic of Gary Marx’s writing. His riffs are so great, so unforgettably great, that I find myself asking – as you just did – where the hell did he get that? I suppose it’s just a case of a wide variety of influences and input that allowed him to create some terrific material. The riff to that song might be my favourite one in The Sisters’ entire discography.
The band spent a lot of time in New York and it sounded like a far seedier city than today. Do you think the landscape of crime, sleaze, and drugs were influencing factors for Eldritch’s songwriting?
Actually, I suspect that, rather than being influenced by it after visiting, Eldritch was attracted to the city in part because of its seediness. The Sisters always described themselves as a product of their environment. Eldritch conceived of the band, his lyrics, to some extent as a reflection of a hard world, a mirror held up to a society in decline. They posed in front of derelict adult cinemas, they played in strip clubs and transient hotels. Eldritch looks so cool in the Jill Furmanovsky photo from the inner sleeve of First And Last And Always, but he also looks like he might turn out your daughter on the Sunset Strip. They fully embraced the zeitgeist of the 1970s, which you can conceptualize as the morning after the party of the 1960s: liquor bottles littering the floor of the house, flower children passed out half-naked on the sofa from a toxic cocktail of drugs administered by some malevolent Hell’s Angel, a hippie-turned-addict reading the tarot while distractedly picking the scabs off his face, Altamont, Manson. The empty factories and burned-out cars of economic decline. It’s not that they relished people’s pain – on the contrary, The Sisters were always very lefty, even socialist. But I think they considered the sordid detritus left in the wake of ’60s idealism instinctively fascinating. New York in the early 1980s was very much still living in that hangover period. Indeed, books and movies about the New York East Village art scene in the 1980s continue to be very popular for the same reasons that the city, at that time, must’ve appealed to Eldritch: It was dirty, dangerous, the infrastructure was decaying, but it was still edgy, arty, alive, with a racing creative pulse. It had a unique, incomparable vibe to it. And in the end, I do think his experiences in America informed some of his writing around the time of the debut album. Afterhours in particular seethes with a particularly American seediness. But by Floodland he was mostly back to Europe, thematically. And the America that emerged on Vision Thing was a very different place.
Despite Eldritch’s aloofness towards his fans The Sisters still managed to gain a group of loyal followers who followed them around the country to every show – initially the God Squad and then also The Sisterhood. What do you think the attraction was?
The God Squad was a group of very early friends and fans that coalesced before Andy Taylor transformed himself into Andrew Eldritch, so they wouldn’t have been kept outside the gate. I’m sure Eldritch’s aloofness increased rather than diminished the dedication of later fans. And I’d wager he knew it.
When Eldritch reappeared in 1987 with Patrica Morrison on bass for This Corrosion/Floodland it almost felt like he had created a pantomime goth band (certainly aesthetically). This seemed completely at odds with his earlier attitude towards the goth genre/scene which he said he loathed. What do you think happened? Was this Edldrich simply cashing in on the exploding goth scene?
My guess about that period is that The Sisters’ aesthetic had nothing consciously to do with “goth”. Eldritch had emerged from his hibernation with a slightly different, less hirsute, less Spaghetti Western look, but it was still instantly recognisable as his own. Patricia Morrison was first and foremost a good friend of his, and her style was her style. I doubt he lifted a finger to get her to change anything about it. The whole presentation said: this is the same band, but also different.
Were/are you a fan of The Mission?
I definitely respect the hell out of Wayne Hussey’s guitar playing. He has a wonderful, instantly recognisable style that defined my favourite period of The Sisters. The early Sisters songs, like Alice or Floorshow or Burn, were hugely improved when played live by Wayne Hussey. I think it’s hard to overstate his talent as a guitarist. Even though (as far I can tell) he’s an excellent technical player, he’s not showy. He has great feeling in his playing, he creates an atmosphere. So in 1986 and 1987 I bought the first three Mission singles and the first album, like every other Sisters fan. I certainly liked those singles when they were released. Listening to them now evokes a kind of nostalgia in me, and I still rate a couple of songs on that early string of records, but I haven’t kept up with the more recent stuff as much as I should have.
Do you think there’ll ever be an Eldritch/Hussey/Adams reunion?
Will there be a Waiting For Another War Part 2?
Yes, there will be a Part 2, although the title will be different.
Order Waiting For Another War here
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All words by Paul Grace. For more of Paul’s writing and photos go to his archive. Paul is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and his websites are www.paulgracemusic.co.uk & www.pgrace.co.uk