The Sisters of Mercy – Andrew Eldritch’s one and only proper band – have recorded for just 13 of his 60 years, intermittently releasing records between 1980 and 1993. If we ignore remixes, re-recordings and live versions, The Sisters have released fewer songs than Eldritch has years.
So many of them are great.
The very best Sisters songs – we’ve chosen 25 – occupy wildly different positions on the money-time continuum: some were made at speed on a shoestring (and on speed), some took aeons and had the full might of a powerful record company (and we hazard, more expensive drugs) behind them.
The same can be said of The Sisters’ outright duds: some were laboured over in a tony residential studio in Jutland, some were knocked together in what Eldritch has referred to as “a shed in Wortley.” They are shockingly small in number. Rest assured that Damage Done the pitiful first single is not on this list. Nor is Under The Gun, the final single and probably the most perverse record The Sisters ever put out. We happen to like it, but that is a minority opinion.
Of his 13 years as recording artist, Eldritch was at his peak for ten of them: 1982-92. It’s a plateau really. This list reflects that range.
The Sisters went through various mesmerising iterations: the Leeds local heroes who made their name with a run of independent singles and by playing some of Britain’s most fetid clubs; the utterly iconic hats-hair-smoke line-up that made “First and Last and Always”; the two-headed media juggernaut of the “Floodland” era that made a pop star of sorts out of Eldritch; and the festival-headlining and Enormodome-filling Colossus that bestrode the Atlantic that made Eldritch a complete thorn in the backside of his record company, and they in his.
And then, there were no more records.
The post-’93 Sisters have new songs of course – at least an album’s worth – which they play at concerts, but none of them are eligible for this list, even the very good ones. Still and Come Together stand out. So does Crash & Burn which contains Eldritch’s most audaciously hilarious lyric ever: 'Everybody get a wife, I got mine/ She's kneeling on the backseat, feeling fine/ She's married to a soldier in the Army of the Rhine/but he don't know so he don't mind.'
Live bootlegs are not allowed on the list. No demos either. Radio sessions are permitted.
While some would like Eldritch ensconced in a recording studio, nose to the grindstone, making that long-awaited 4th album, he’s clearly got more pleasurable options available to him: cats, computers, lemon trees; an Englishman abroad, already in semi-retirement, sallying forth for the occasional tour.
For how long might this continue? There are summer festival dates and a tour this autumn, but perhaps at this very moment Eldritch is running some Johnny Ramone-style T-shirts sold/pension algorithm that would allow him to retreat from the stage in perpetuity.
Or if Eldritch happens to have an accountant like Leonard Cohen’s, there may yet be new songs to add to this list... But we expect not.
25. More (Vision Thing, 1990)
More is by far the best of the clutch of songs on Vision Thing with capital-R-for-Rock guitars. This is because it was written by Eldritch and Jim Steinman and not Eldritch and Andreas Bruhn. Bruhn was a fantastic live guitarist in the cavernous halls and windswept open-air festivals The Sisters played 1990-93, but his co-writes Dr Jeep and When You Don’t See Me are – musically - close to The Sisters’ nadir, the latter reminiscent of an indifferent Dio track. More, on the other hand, has the great good fortune to partially resemble Bowie/Moroder’s Cat People (Putting Out Fire) and have a Steinman production to match lyrics of almost sociopathic bombast. Both are undercut by a less emphatic piano coda until Eldritch finally – and loudly and wickedly – declares that he needs “all the love that you can get” – perhaps a warning the soldier in the Army of the Rhine should have heeded. Also, the line about “counterfeit dollars and the English zloty” strikes a particular chord 29 years after it was written.
24. Never Land (full length) (Floodland, 2006 reissue)
Floodland would have been an even better album, could it have accommodated Never Land in its entirety, not just ‘a fragment’. Never Land is guitar-free, just synthesisers, drum computer and bass. It is one of the instances where The Sisters of Mercy most overlap with The Sisterhood, Eldritch’s 1986 side-project. Not for the first time in The Sisters’ catalogue (nor the last), Never Land is in essence just one riff ad infinitum. Never Land is slow - The Sisters’ longest song - sparse, with vocals so quiet and close to the mic that you wonder how many Serge Gainsbourg tunes Eldritch knows. Strong hallucinogens seem responsible for the lyrics – a rarity in the Eldritch canon. Never Land, like much of Gift, The Sisterhood album, has worn extremely well.
23. Train (B-side Body And Soul 7” single, 1984)
Before the making of their debut album, First And Last And Always, Eldritch abdicated his role as main songwriter in The Sisters, inviting more music written by the two guitarists – founder member Gary Marx and new arrival Wayne Hussey. Train is therefore one of the rare solo Eldritch compositions of the ‘84/’85 era. Whereas Body & Soul, its A-side, was anodyne, Train harked back to the primitive, pumping and very direct style of earlier Sisters songs, albeit with some production flourishes that buried the guitars in a queasy soundscape that conjured up something akin to a runaway ghost train. Blood Money (credited to Hussey and Eldritch, but actually entirely an Eldritch song) and On The Wire are also strong work that appeared on B-sides in this period.
22. Sandstorm (Dominion 12” single, 1988)
It is well established that Eldritch loves certain bands with saxophone players: The Psychedelic Furs – their first album is one of his all-time favourites; The Stooges – as augmented by Steve Mackay on Funhouse; and The Glitter Band. Sandstorm would suggest that Eldritch also digs Roxy Music and Andy Mackay. Sandstorm - the best retooling of bits of Dominion/Mother Russia that came out on B-sides in 1988 – seems drenched in Tara from Avalon. Both are played on a soprano saxophone and are utterly gorgeous. Sandstorm is easily The Sisters’ prettiest song.
21. Kiss The Carpet (The Reptile House, 1983)
This was the first sign that Eldritch was going to do things the hard way. Kiss The Carpet was first up on an EP with no singles, with tracks so slow you couldn’t dance to them (unless you were totally fucked up) and that were radio poison. The Reptile House was the last of The Sisters’ fully Yorkshire records: demoed on a Portastudio in the cellar of a house in the Burley area of Leeds, its artwork designed and its lyric sheet hand-made with Letraset in the sitting room above; recorded at Kenny Giles Music, an 8-track studio one block from the seafront in Bridlington; and distributed by Red Rhino in York. Kiss The Carpet mixed the slow-burn and build of something like Dirt by The Stooges and the twitchy, synthetic menace of Suicide. It offers master-classes in drum programming and production by Eldritch and in minimalist super-heavy bass playing by Craig Adams. Kiss The Carpet is brilliant and it’s not even the best track on The Reptile House.
20. Valentine (The Reptile House EP, 1983)
Valentine starts up like We Will Rock You on Quaaludes, has a nod and wink at Venus In Furs and offers up a snippet of T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Erect before Eldritch delivers one of his very best verses, one that flays a certain kind of recurring English national sickness: “A people come to this/ Beyond the age of reason/ A people fed on famine/A people on their knees/ A people eat each other/A people stand in line/Waiting for another war and/ Waiting for my Valentine.”
19. Marian (Version) (First And Last And Always, 1985)
Marian is the best song Wayne Hussey wrote in his two years in The Sisters. Eldritch sounds utterly exhausted, singing right at the bottom of his range, sonorous and sepulchral, fixating on the titular woman, a drowning man crying out for rescue. Marian therefore absolutely functions as the acme of a kind of lugubrious death-rock. It’s also not to be taken entirely seriously; Eldritch even asks to be saved “from the grave”. The (crossword puzzle) clue is in the title – ‘(Version)’ – indicating that Marian is an anagram, in this case of Marina, a short Eliot poem laden with waterborne imagery. A “Stingray” fan like Eldritch may even have had another Marina in mind. Marian could therefore function as an elaborate joke, one sodden with its own watery images and puns, and not simply as a cry of desolation. Indeed, subsequently, Eldritch has described it – acidly - as one of his songs “with a sense of victim” that have been misinterpreted by sad losers with no grasp of irony.
18. Amphetamine Logic (First And Last And Always, 1985)
Logic contains the most powerful use of electric guitar on First And Last And Always – once The Sisters’ stock in trade – and is therefore much beloved by Sisters fans pining for the tougher sound of the band’s indie years. Logic has two great Gary Marx riffs but its high-points are the slashed and strangulated chords played by Wayne Hussey that punctuate the verse, and Eldritch’s vocals that close out the song: defiant, audibly breathless, at the very limits of his upper range, repeating “Nothing but the knife to live for/One life all I need”, the very logic that put Eldritch in the hospital during the tortuous making of the album.
17. Fix (The Reptile House EP, 1983)
The two stars of Fix are bass (seemingly I Want You Right Now by the MC5 made grindingly slow and fuzzy), and lead vocals - Eldritch relishing each bone-dry and nasty pun and juxtaposition: take your pick between “corpse and corporation” and “death and defecation.” Indeed, Eldritch and Adams delivered it as a duo when they finally played it live during 1985. Originally called Body Politic, Fix is the centrepiece of the second side of The Reptile House, which is a mini-suite of oblique political songs.
16. Nine While Nine (First And Last And Always, 1985)
The Sisters song that is the least arch, the least masked in irony, the least requiring of footnotes or a gloss to grasp. This and its cousin Driven Like The Snow on Floodland are therefore outliers in the Eldritch catalogue. Huge credit goes to Gary Marx who wrote the music for Nine While Nine and plays the central guitar lines. Desolate, brittle and beautiful, Nine While Nine is one of the great break-up songs. The blood here is on the driven snow, the tracks are provided by a train. It is a train in vain, of course, since Nine While Nine is hard, hard blues.
15. Adrenochrome (Double A-side 7” single, 1982)
Adrenochrome is one of The Sisters’ very oldest songs, so old it was made as a trio: Eldritch, Marx and Adams. Adrenochrome is an abrasive, high-energy slash and burn; it sounds like a bunch of Pere Ubu, Suicide and Ramones fans trying to play a cheap version of Search And Destroy. It’s a young man’s song: straight-up Hunter S Thompson drug reference in the title and lyrics alluding to university, which by rights Eldritch should have graduated from in Oxford, thereby avoiding Leeds, being in a band and writing Adrenochrome entirely.
14. Vision Thing (Vision Thing, 1990)
Vision Thing starts with a sniff and rides hard on a riff that sounds like Cradle To The Grave by Motorhead, its coked-to-the gills revelation that the USA was just as much a narcocracy as Panama or Colombia in the Reagan-Bush era; the cumulative effect of all those sniffs: “another motherfucker in a motorcade.”
13. First And Last And Always (First And Last And Always, 1985)
This began life as The Scottish One (because of Gary Marx’s vaguely Celtic lead riff) in1983 and was crying out to be a single. Initially, it was side-lined because Eldritch wanted something at breakneck speed, hence Temple Of Love; in 1984 because it was lyrically unfinished and got bumped for Body And Soul; and in 1985 because someone had the stupid idea that No Time To Cry was a better bet as a hit. Even with its muted production, First And Last And Always is still a storming anthem, Eldritch’s My Way.