2. This Corrosion – Sisters of Mercy When: 1987
If there’s ever a competition to find the worst goth in the history of the UK then I will put my name forwards. I guess this could form the basis of my application.
My first forays into building my own record collection began, in earnest, from the age of around 15. I had a few bits of vinyl from late primary school – notably Abba’s “Super Trouper” LP – and had once traded a T-Rex 7” that had belonged to my dad with my Uncle Steve for… wait for it… Joe Dolce’s “Shaddap You Face”. In my defence I was 9. It’s still not a great defence. However, the arrival of adolescence signaled a renewed interest in music.
Initially it’s fair to say that much of my taste was borrowed, mostly from my parents. Quite a bit of this has stayed with me – Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Queen, Neil Diamond, Cat Stevens, Meatloaf, Motown, early Rod Stewart – but it’s fair to say that none of it felt like it was really mine. In most cases it literally wasn’t mine – held on a set of old C60 cassettes that my dad insisted on using despite the fact that you couldn’t fit an album on one side. For a very, very long time I didn’t realise that Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” was a double album; the only up side of this was it made my first listen of “Comfortably Numb” even more jaw dropping. It’s also fair to say that, in the mid to late 80s, this was a collection of artists that was nobody’s idea of “cool”. Such vagaries aside, of course, I can now confidently state the case for any of them – although Meatloaf is a stretch (but a pertinent one given the song at hand, more of which later).
Ah, “cool”. A concept long past my understanding but one that would have greatly preoccupied my teenage self. At that time it probably would have meant owning a Lacoste cardigan, in some suitably pastel shade, and persuading Caroline from the Number 20 bus to see Top Gun with me. Cool, and Caroline, proved elusive. However, irrespective of what this slippery concept fully entailed, the notion that music, or specifically bands, could be a marker for how you presented yourself to the world seemed to be part of it. If adolescence is the time when you begin to build your own identity, and particularly the way in which that identity is shown to the world, then music was very definitely a set of bricks I wanted to use.
So if you’re thinking that we’re headed, inexorably, towards a declaration that my first, independent view of what was cool happened to be goth then you’d be right.
“This Corrosion” was the first single released by the second (arguably third) version of The Sisters Of Mercy. Rising to prominence – or more appropriately emerging from a heavy fug of dry ice – in Leeds during the early 80s the Sisters had basically imploded come 1985. Singer Andrew Eldritch, beginning a pattern that was to repeat through the band’s life, fell out with then guitarist Wayne Hussey and bassist Craig Adams. The latter two formed a new band called The Sisterhood but were thwarted in establishing their new outfit by Eldritch; concerned that the name was too similar to The Sisters Of Mercy he quickly put out a single under The Sisterhood name in order to legally claim it. Allegedly, though never substantiated, it ended in the civil courts with Eldritch suing his former brothers-in-black for £25,000, and winning. When he then put out the album Gift under The Sisterhood name the opening track, “Jihad“, begins with a female voice intoning two, five, zero, zero, zero. History may judge all of this petty but, regardless, one consequence of the ignominy and acrimony surrounding the split and resulting spat over band names was “This Corrosion”.
Hussey and Adams formed The Mission whilst Eldritch, having seen off the perceived threat to the Sisters’ name, picked up his old band moniker and pressed ahead, taking his music away from the guitar orientation of debut album “First And Last And Always”. The first fruit of the new direction was “This Corrosion”, an eleven minute electro-rock track, featuring a 40 piece choir, produced by Jim Steinman (of “Bat Out Of Hell” fame, hence the earlier Meatloaf reference). You don’t really hear a guitar until a solo break, almost four minutes in.
The song directly relates to the break up of Sisters mark 1. According to Eldritch the lyrics are largely a parody – aimed squarely at Hussey – and are deliberately not intended to mean anything; just to sound “cool”. In that, and to my 15 year old self, he very much succeeded. I had no idea what “kill the king when love is the law” or “give me siren, child, and do you hear me call” meant but they sounded amazing. Particularly in the context of a song that, musically, absolutely pummels the senses.
I’m not totally convinced that all of the lyrics are as much a pastiche as Eldritch claims. There are some fairly direct nods to his former band mates: “selling the don’t belong”, “do you have a word for giving away, got a song for me?”, and the final section could be read as Eldritch’s farewell address to them:
I got nothing to say I ain’t said before
I bled all I can, I won’t bleed no more
I don’t need no one to understand
Why the blood run hold
The hired hand
Hand of God
Floodland and driven apart
Like a healing hand
Even if, to keep Eldritch at his word, that section is pure mockery, only intended to call Hussey on the (as perceived by Eldritch) meaningless nature of his lyrics, it’s still one of my favourite 30 seconds of recorded music ever. And it’s definitively the coolest.
What’s interesting, in retrospect, about my love of this song is how it bridged what I’d inherited musically and what I went on to seek out. As alluded earlier one of the records my dad passed on to me was Meatloaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell”; an utterly ridiculous, overblown pastiche of 50s American rock and roll. I think it’s fantastic. Bat is as much Jim Steinman’s record as ‘Loaf’s and his production job on “This Corrosion” – New York Choral Society, Wagner, £50,000 budget – followed the basic template he made plain in the title of a song on “Bat Out Of Hell 2”: “Everything Louder Than Everything Else”. Steinman’s orchestration and bombast made it easy to like the Sisters. At the very least you listen to the choir open the track and think: what the hell is that ? Well, you certainly did in a year that boasted Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” as its biggest record.
The song opened up “alternative” music for me, via Bauhaus and Siouxsie – goth opening up indie. It also, strangely, opened up folk music for me, via All About Eve who became associated with the late 80s goth scene (somewhat erroneously but that’s a story for another time). Unknowingly at the time it also primed me for Berlin era Bowie, undoubtedly an influence (musically and stylistically) on Eldritch.
Most importantly it was perhaps the first time I marked out some musical territory that didn’t belong to my parents, wasn’t inherited: was a free choice about my own tastes and how I saw myself. The fact that I was choosing to see myself as a very pale, very thin man, dressed all in black leather, picking his way through a post apocalyptic wasteland, with only a similarly clad female dominatrix for company perhaps says much about the plight of an average 15 year old boy growing up in Plymouth in the late 1980s.
And so here’s why I lay claim to being the UK’s worst goth. Whilst, in my head I stalked the West Country in a long dark trench coat, quoting Poe and Coleridge, my jet black hair lustrous beneath the full moon, in reality my only concession to being an actual goth was to buy a black shirt. A shirt which survived precisely one of my mother’s boiling washes before being forever rendered a washed out grey.
In my heart though I’d changed.