Half a lifetime ago I saw the Sisters of Mercy at the NEC in Birmingham. It was the biggest and loudest gig I’ve ever been to, a spectacle that left me unable to hear properly until I got back off the coach on the return journey. Every time the Sisters headed offshore after that I promised myself I’d go to see them again.
Last Thursday (9th April 2009) I finally caught up with them at the Forum in Kentish Town. I wasn’t expecting too much. London audiences have a bad reputation, the band had cancelled some gigs the week before due to illness, and reviews of the tour although very positive had complained about how quiet the mix was. But the pubs on the way to the venue from the tube were packed with fans (some wearing The Mission t-shirts, presumably to troll 😉 ) and there was a carnival atmosphere that carried over into the actual venue.
I positioned myself next to the amp stack, evaluated the moshpit and the bright young things who were waiting to push to the front, and waited for the smoke machines to start. Which they did, just for a test, before starting up again as Nurse fired up the Doktor (trans: the sound man turned the drum machine on) and the packed out crowd enthusiastically welcomed the band on stage. From the sweating half-naked moshers and shoulder surfers at the front to the loligoths at the back and the fans in tour t-shirts old & new acting as a buffer zone inbetween, everyone sang along with the old songs and applauded the new.
The Sisters are a tight, capable live act. The new songs are the equal of the old, and in some cases better. The new arrangements of old songs (post-industrial rather than post-punk) work well and have been polished over the course of two extensive recent tours. This was great live music. It feels strange calling a drum-machine based band “live”, but that has always been part of the point.
A singer, two guitarists and a drum machine all hidden in dry ice and silhouetted by a lightshow is a simple recipe but it works well. To complain that the band cannot be seen or that they aren’t chatting with the crowd or that they are relying on technology too much is to miss the psychodynamics of the event for the trees. The Sisters are at core an ironization of popular music. They started by combining disco drums with indie guitars at a time when to do so would have been like mixing oil and water then stuck lyrics that aren’t just boy-meets-girl over the top of them. Over the last three decades the culture industry has adopted the Sisters’ technological dialectic of musical forms as its own, but entirely without the irony or lyrical ambition. The Sisters still sound good though. The book hasn’t been destroyed by the cartoon version.
A disagreement with their old record label means the Sisters haven’t released a new album in almost twenty years, but new songs still turn up in the live shows and although those songs represent a very different musical and geopolitical world to the old ones they still have a rare power and depth. And they are good to bounce up and down to, wave your arms at, and sing along with. Which I am not going to leave as long next time until I do so again next time.