Review: Waiting for Another War – The Sisters of Mercy 1980 to 1985 by Trevor Ristow

So I read Waiting for Another War the history of the Sisters of Mercy (till 1985) by Trevor Ristow. It is a really good readable book with a limited market (probably people who bought The Reptile House ep) and charts the various incarnations of the Sisters of Mercy to ’85; three main line ups and styles, with only the auteur Andrew Eldritch making it all the way through: though Gary Marx had every opportunity to…

Eldritch is as you imagine: aloof, intellectual, amphetamine driven and a huge fan of late 60s rock. He despises The Cult, which surprised me given they were doing much the same thing — trying to be Led Zeppelin. Except Eldritch was trying to be Lemmy. Still Eldritch is a sympathetic character to my mind in comparison with Wayne Hussey — who is depicted as immature, fawning and dangerously our of control at times, such as when he drove a car through red lights all the way down 5th Ave. just for fun. (One of the bands biggest US promoters was killed a couple of years later crushed by a car when someone did the same). Of course this is a massively pro Eldritch book – he comes over as a dick only twice really – so I shall read Salad Daze by Wayne Hussey when time allows.

Goth culture seems to have come together despite the intentions of the bands associated with it and was a post punk thing with distinct British and US trends, but Eldritch hated goths with a passion. Hussey saw them as a fantastic market, and liked them – his own sensibilities were pure Led Zeppelin, exactly as with The Cult, but Eldritch was desperate to reject the goth label to stop the band being sidelined and forced from the mainstream. (He utterly failed and bitterly resented it).

There are less rock n Roll excess stories than you would expect, and a lot more of Eldritch getting his label WEA to give him total artistic control, and then experimenting with other band members having some input before deciding to do everything his way. Marx did not want to be a rockstar and wanted to be at home with the missus, and Ben Gunn found taking the Sisters seriously as a deal breaker and walked first. Craig Adams and Hussey loved excess and partying and wound up good mates: Eldritch seems to have pitied them rather, and held out a hand but the end was inevitable.

Where the book is weaker is in the lyrical analysis: some good stuff but I am pretty certain that there are far more dense layers of literary allusion. Marian reminds me of Marianne by Percy Bysshe Shelley

“And hark! a rush as if the deep
Had burst its bonds; she looked behind
And saw over the western steep
A raging flood descend, and wind
Through that wide vale; she felt no fear,
But said within herself, ‘Tis clear
These towers are Nature’s own, and she
To save them has sent forth the sea”

and his subsequent death b drowning see: https://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2014/07/08/full-fathom-five-the-poet-lies-the-death-of-percy-bysshe-shelley/

More than the Romantics though the spectre of T. S. Elliot appears again and again, and many lyrics are taken from there in much the way Jefferson Airplane plundered A.A.Milne and Dadaist poetry. The author acknowledges this, citing Elliot’s “White bodies naked on the low damp ground” which obviously is mirrored in The Floorshow lyric. I would have enjoyed more of this kind of teasing out the multiple layers of allusion.

Now let us be clear: Eldritch is avowed anti-Fascist, but one of the most interesting way to read his lyrics is through Klaus Theweleit’s classic study of Freikorp art and literature: Male Fantasies: women, flood, bodies, history which is replete with symbolism of pure snow, trains and red terror. As a cultural analysis of certain expressions of dangerous masculinity it is unexpected- and while the English translation was 1987 it was originally published as Männerphantasien, 2 Vols., Verlag Roter Stern/Stroemfeld, Frankfurt am Main/Basel 1977–1978. This is Eldritch – I am sure he appreciates German literature and film too, and read the important intellectuals from a Leftist position?

This is the most intellectual type of dumb rock and roll ever concieved: and Eldritch is unlikely to explain himself. The Sisters at their best represent a tearing conflict between the Appolonian and the Dionysian, and I really loved them though I never got them. There may be a reason for that.

Eldritch’s biography in the book is scant: RAF child Ely – Singapore – Great Malvern – London. I am astonished there are no West German bases there. Ely however really explains some of the lyrics and my affection for them. There is something of the more melancholy baroque about the music, and Ely cathedral might loom over it. Mostly though it reminds me of the Fens, and the Breck, driving through the landscapes of my youth – 1984, Weston at the wheel, the landscape pure floodland, a mirror of snow under the blackest of skies, a train rumbling to Cambridge, and the roar of US jets across the sky.

I guess we all find our own meanings in every song we love, and Eldritch is more willing than most to step back and let us. Shame, he seems like someone I could talk to. Still, while we have no autobiography Ristow’s book is a great place to start. Highly recommended.

About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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