Music: Gift (The Sisterhood)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2002-06-06 17:50:59-04:00 No comments

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There is, as we all know, a secret history of popular music. There are records that manage never to remain completely discovered by the mass market, but which exert an influence far beyond their original reach, even up to the present day. The Sisters of Mercy figure in very solidly as one of the best and most influential bands in that history—everyone from Guns ‘n Roses on down has paid tribute in some form to the Sisters—but what’s peculiar is how an album that wasn’t even recorded under their real name in a little over a week has had as much influence as anything else they’ve ever done.

This isn’t the place to go into a full history of the Sisters, but the short version would run something like this: A former student of Mandarin from Leeds, Andrew William Harvey Taylor, changed his name to Andrew Eldritch, donned shades, and founded a rock band called the Sisters of Mercy. At first derided, they went on to become wildly successful just outside the mainstream (they’re enormously popular in Europe), while garnering a solid cult following in the USA and influencing a whole generation of dark-rockers. Despite being lumped in with the goth-rock likes of Bauhaus, Eldritch insisted on simply calling the Sisters a rock and roll band, and the steely, fiery sound of the latter albums bear this out. What sets them apart from the rest of the pack is their acerbic and biting sense of humor and irony, and some of the best, most memorable songwriting this side of the Pleiades.

Gift falls roughly under the category of a side project. It bears some resemblance to the main Sisters sound, with its drum-machine and synth-driven tunes (the drum machine, nicknamed “Doktor Avalanche,” has almost always been a centerpiece of the band). One of the tunes, “Colours,” turns up again in a revamped version on the second Sisters album, Floodland, but it’s nothing like that record; this is at the same time more morose and fiery. Fiery on tracks like “Jihad,” with its wild swirl of percussion and vaguely Arabic melody; morose on the closing “Rain From Heaven,” as bitter and lovely a song as Edlritch ever wrote. And sometimes it’s right in the middle, as with “Finland Red, Egypt White”—a truly oddball track, my favorite, that consists of the entire specs of the AK-47 assault rifle being read in a growling voice over a killer drum track. The flatness of the lyrics contrast nicely with the alternately somber and searching music; we don’t need to be told that “destroying personnel” is an euphemism for cold-blooded murder, as the simple repetition of the phrase tells us everything we need to know.

No one had any idea what to do with the record, but it was a Sisters-related disc, and for that reason alone it sold well. The basic sound was also important: the same brutal drum-machine programming would go on to haunt dozens of other bands that tried to make a career out of something Eldritch tossed off more or less as an upraised middle finger to former bandmates.

Gift has a weird political history. Up until 1985, the original lineup of the Sisters of Mercy included Andrew Eldritch (of course) and Wayne Hussey. By the end of the year, the relationship between Eldritch and Hussey had deteriorated. Hussey left and took bandmember Craig Adams with him, and since they were legally prevented from using the name Sisters of Mercy, they used the moniker The Sisterhood. Eldritch was furious, since the Sisterhood was another name for the Sisters. Their fan-base had appropriated the label to describe themselves, and the band sometimes played under that name when they wanted to perform in secret.

While Hussey & Co. were getting set to tour under the Sisterhood label, Eldritch cut that plan short by releasing both a single and this full 12” using that very name, all of which was recorded and sent to press in a mere 11 days. Apparently, Hussey and Eldritch were also both signed to RCA at the time (and not very happy with their contracts, either), and it was made clear that the first band to come up with publishable material under the name Sisterhood would get a fat advance. The “two five zero zero zero” in “Jihad” was the amount of the advance—or, depending on who you talk to, the amount Eldritch successfully sued Hussey for. Gift so perplexed RCA that they dumped him from their contract, but it’s still in print (from Rough Trade Germany) and remains a steady seller.

More of the cryptic history of the record can be found by inspecting the vinyl edition. Scratched into the run-out groove: A GIFT FROM THE RASPBERRY REICH. “Gift” in German means “poison;” Eldritch knew German, so there was probably more than coincidence at work. Also in the run-out groove: Verteidigungskrieg (“Defensive warfare”), obviously a reference to the album’s “first strike” nature (and a nice tie-in with Eldritch’s lyrical obsessions with war and instruments of war). The message on the B side was even more pointed: ...und jetzt koenen wir vielleicht schlafen, oder? (“And now maybe we can sleep, yeah?”)

History repeats itself, naturally. In recent years, Eldritch was charged by his label (EastWest) that the two compilation/remix records he delivered for them didn’t count towards the album still owed them. He went out and recorded something—or more correctly, had his voice sampled on something he didn’t even record—called SSV (“Screw Shareholder Value”?), or, alternatively, Go Figure. Said album had the same basic idea as Gift: electronic/dance stuff tossed off in a weekend. No decent copy of the album has ever surfaced: the one bootleg in existence has no drum track, which makes it impossible to judge what’s going on. Eldritch had the last laugh, as always: he erased the drum track before submitting the master to EastWest, effectively destroying what little interest it held. Allegedly, a version with drums may surface someday. One wonders when they begin giving out Nobel prizes for revenge.

Tags: Sisters of Mercy