I remember watching TV pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989. The wall divided Germany into east and west for nearly 30 years. Further posts on the blog delve deeper into East Germany (GDR) and the Stasi secret police – why they spied on their citizens and the methods they used. Today, social media would have been their ultimate weapon of surveillance, their crowning glory. First, back to the story of the Berlin wall…..
Looking for a better life in the west, up to 3 million people escaped from the east. As a result the East Germans built a 28 mile long wall that went up overnight on Saturday August 12th 1961. By Sunday morning people woke up to find themselves cut off from friends, relatives, work and school. Soldiers with binoculars and dogs, barbed wire, guard towers and light pylons, with an area known as the ‘death strip’ attempted to keep people in.
Bus routes were altered, train stations cleared and road blocks set up along the border. The GDR leader, Honecker, believed ‘the wall will last for 100 years’. Eastern Communism pushed back hard against Western Capitalism.
In 1985 the leadership of the Soviet Union changed – Chernenko was out and Gorbachev was in, bringing in perestroika and glasnost – his policy of restructuring and openness. East German government was normally in step with Soviet Union policies but believed glasnost was wrong and put a newspaper ban on any Gorbachev speeches. The people disagreed, although many of them wanted to stay in the East they just wanted change. On the streets they publicly criticized Honecker and praised Gorbachev.
On 7 October 1989 parades in Berlin celebrated forty years of the GDR. Gorbachev stood next to the much older German leaders including Honecker and Mielke who was head of the East German Ministry of Security (Stasi) and oversaw the building of the wall. Gorbachev was there to try and convince the leadership to adopt his reformist policies. Honecker and Mielke ignored him. A decision that changed the world.
On 9 October 70,000 people went out onto the dark streets of Berlin carrying candles. Protesters were coming together around the country, momentum was growing. Outside Stasi offices they demanded ‘Reveal the Stasi informers. We are the People. Free elections’. Peaceful protests increased real pressure on the government.
On 9 November the Politburo policy making committee arranged an urgent meeting. They knew freedom of movement was a big problem to the people so to help squash the protests they decided to relax travel restrictions. A press conference was called and Politburo member Schabowski was given instructions to read a note on live TV – ‘a phased relaxation of travel restrictions’ was the plan. But it didn’t play out that way.
A journalist asked ‘When will this come into force?’ Schabowski was embarrassed as he looked at the note then turned it over. It was blank. ‘It will come into force….to my knowledge…. immediately’. Within hours of his blunder 10,000 people on foot and in their Trabant cars were at Berlins Bornholmer Bridge checkpoint. The border guards were swamped and the Stasi held their fire.
People streamed into West Berlin, crying, singing and dancing on the wall. It was all over. On 10 November as fireworks exploded in the night sky, people used hammers and pick axes to attack the wall, it wasn’t taken brick by brick – it was smashed wide open. Demolition trucks rolled in on 11th. Finally, after nearly 30 years the Wall came crashing down.
In the reformed Germany free elections were held on March 18th 1990.
Parts of the Wall are in 50 countries around the world where it is seen as a symbol of freedom.
Sources: Stasi: The Untold Story of the Secret Policeby John O. Koehler
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder.
Fall of the Berlin Wall with John Simpson (BBC documentary).
Behind the Wall (2011) a film by Michael Patrick Kelly.
If you have any stories related to the Berlin Wall or the Stasi don’t hesitate to get in touch.
musician Barry Lamb talks about his latest project, Miniatures 2020.
Barry has lived in Woodford Green, Essex for 25 years but originally lived in South Shields….My grandparents lived their entire lives on Quarry Lane. I have often thought about writing a song called Quarry Lane but have shied away from it due to the similarity with Penny Lane. I have so many memories of long walks with my grandfather along the cliff tops from Souter lighthouse to Shields pier and walking across Cleadon Hills. My album Dusk features a picture of Cleadon mill.
Barry left the town in 1966…It is an area I have a strong affinity with. I would have loved to have been part of the punk/New Wave scene as Shields is very much my spiritual home, but I was in Essex at that time.
Along with experimental progressive rock band Two Headed Emperor, Barry is presently involved with Miniatures 2020…. It’s a tribute project to former Mott the Hoople keyboardist, Morgan Fisher’s original Miniatures album from 1980. It was such an inspiration to me personally and was very much connected to the post punk DIY ethic of the period. I also discovered as I made contact with other musicians about the project that there is a tremendous amount of goodwill, affection and respect for the original album.
On the original record Fisher invited 50 musicians to send in tracks of up to one minute long. They included an eclectic mix of Robert Wyatt singing a Frank Sinatra song, Robert Fripp playing keyboard,Andy Partridge (XTC) offering the history of rock’n’roll in 20 seconds and Pete Seeger playing Beethoven on the banjo plus many others contributing to the album which is regarded as a cult classic.
Who is on the album this time around ? We have over 100 artists contributing a track of a minute or less. Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers, Billy Bragg, Terry Riley, Tim Jones is on – he was in North East bands Neon and had a spell with Punishment Of Luxury. Wavis O’Shave has contributed a track. It also features Toyah, Tom Robinson, David Cross (King Crimson), Ric Sanders (Soft Machine, Fairport Convention), and a handful of old prog rockers, also celebrated experimental music pioneers, new wave and post punk legends – there are plenty of surprises.
Did the musicians involved in the project jump on board easily ? It was really easy to persuade people to get on board. Very few people said no and nobody that I approached was negative about it at all. Even those that said no were intrigued and curious about it.
When did you first come across the Miniatures? It was1980, one of the staff in Parrot Record shop in Colchester recommended it to me knowing my taste for the unusual and more adventurous end of the musical spectrum. Parrot Records was a treasure trove of discovery and especially good for those obscure New wave singles released on independent and home-made labels. I bought it on the strength of the sleeve notes and a number of the artists involved.
What got you interested in music and are you from a musical family? My family are not especially musical but my dad played trombone in a jazz orchestra. His love of jazz and the more adventurous end of rock music stirred my own interest in music. My grandfather was from New York and he got me interested in protest folk and the blues. But most of my musical influence came about in secondary school on the Essex coast.
Can you remember your first gigs ?My first gig was at the Golf Green Hall in Jaywick, Essex, I didn’t really enjoy it. I wasn’t that confident, we were under rehearsed and the audience were not that interested.
Then we played mostly small venues in and around Essex, later played in Reading, Oxford and London. The usual stuff of people setting off fire extinguishers, a couple of fights and hecklers would go on. I am sad to say that I was so drunk on one occasion I could barely function. I ended up falling off stage and being pushed back up by my brother. The sound engineer walked out and the support band asked “what is your singer taking …I want some”.
Did you record any of your musicthen? In the ‘80s the Insane Picnic recorded at Sea Level studio which was a small studio in Jaywick, Essex. Prior to that we just recorded on tape recorders at home and released stuff as part of the DIY cassette scene. After the Insane Picnic we built our own rudimentary studios and now have a studio in my loft.
I have recorded with a lot of different people over the years including fellow ‘Shieldsian’ Wavis O’Shave, also Keith Levene (PIL), Jasun Martz (Frank Zappa), Isatta Sheriff (Mongrel). I am still making music with Two Headed Emperor along with my own experimental sound dabblings.
What are your hopes for the Miniatures project and will it be available to buy ? My main hope with Miniatures is that it will be a fitting, honouring of Morgan Fisher that it will introduce Miniatures to another generation and will stand up as a great legacy project. I am proud of how it is shaping up. It should be available late December early January on CD and will be available in the usual digital formats.
I first came across the work of Trevor Wood around 2002 when I watched ‘Dirty Dusting’, which became a very successful play he wrote with Ed Waugh. The show performed in front of packed houses at The Customs House, South Shields before going to play to audiences in Ireland and Australia, as well as a UK tour.
The North East based writing duo went on to write several more hit plays, including ‘Waiting For Gateaux’ which toured New Zealand as well as the UK. ‘Maggie’s End’ commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Miners strike and ‘Alf Ramsey Knew My Grandfather’ which told the true story of the West Auckland Football Team who won the first World Cup.
After leaving school, Trevor joined the Royal Navy where he stayed for 16 years before retraining as a journalist. He worked on various newspapers in the North East including the Evening Chronicle….. ‘Then after a brief spell at Newcastle City Council as press officer, then Head of Communications, I teamed up with Ed Waugh, who I’d met on my journalism course, and we wrote a very successful series of comedy plays’.
What inspired you to write? Originally the comedy plays came about because Ed and I didn’t think there was anything out there that we wanted to see so decided to try and write something ourselves. Our first play was an immediate success so we just kept going!
The crime writing was a much longer process – I’ve always been a huge reader and it’s the genre that I nearly always turn to so five years ago I decided to give it a go.
I enrolled on the inaugural MA in Crime Writing at the University of East Anglia and The Man on the Street was developed on that course. It took quite a while to find the right publisher but it was worth the wait as my publishers, Quercus, which is part of the huge Hachette publishing group, have been incredibly supportive.
How was your debut received ? The Man on the Street was published in March 2020, just before they closed all the bookshops. Despite this it has done very well, winning the Crime Writer’s Association’s New Blood Dagger for the best debut crime novel of the year and being chosen by Val McDermid for the prestigious New Blood panel at the Harrogate Crime Festival.
It’s also received praise from leading crime writers like Lee Child, Mari Hannah and Elly Griffiths as well as great reviews in the Guardian and Sunday Times. It’s also been optioned for TV by World Productions, who made Line of Duty and Bodyguard.
What is your latest project? One Way Street is set in and amongst the North East’s homeless community. A series of bizarre drug-related deaths among runaway teenagers has set the community on edge.
The word on the street is that a rogue batch of Spice – the zombie drug sweeping the inner cities – is to blame, but when one of Jimmy’s few close friends is caught up in the carnage, loyalty compels him to find out what’s really going on.
One Way Street sees the welcome return of Jimmy Mullen, the homeless, PTSD-suffering, veteran as he attempts to rebuild his life following the events in The Man on the Street.
As well as writing I volunteer one afternoon at the People’s Kitchen in Newcastle, where I help cook meals for the city’s homeless population.
Have you got a file full of ideas for new projects ? I wish! I’m currently writing the third in the Jimmy Mullen series which is provisionally called Dead End Street and have a publishing deal for a fourth book which will be a standalone novel. As yet, I have no idea whatsoever what that will be so if anyone has any great ideas!
My wife has come up with a brilliant idea for a Christmas rom-com but I’m not sure my publishers will be happy with a sudden switch from gritty crime thriller to that.
Where are your books available to buy? It’s available from all the usual outlets but I’ve had great support from all the local bookshops so would always say Forum Books in Corbridge or Waterstones in either Newcastle or Durham for The Man on the Street. Although the shops are closed again now – temporarily I hope – you can order online from any of them.
One Way Street is only out in ebook and audio at the moment – the hardback isn’t published until March 2021 – so you may have to go to Amazon for that.
For more info and up to date news check out the official website:
Historian Dave Harker talks about his new book which tracks the history of North East popular music and song.
“The Northern Minstrels draws on a wealth of research to tell the story of North East pipers, minstrels, choristers, street singers and dancing masters, covering the duels, disputes and riots”.
Newcastle based Dave, who turned 74 on November 5, has previously published 16 books, eight of which cover the history of North East music, including biographies of Geordie Ridley and Blind Willie Purvis.
Also Joe Wilson and Ned Corvan, both were used as a basis for successful plays Mr Corvan’s Music Hall and The Great Joe Wilson by playwright Ed Waugh.
What inspired you to write the book ? This is the richest region in England in terms of singers and songwriters whose audiences were predominantly working-class.
Terms like ‘North-Eastern’ ‘English’, ‘Scottish’ and so on to describe songs ignore the fact that while what survive today may have been sung in a given region or country, that does not mean that they originated there.
I had to put the musicians in a social context to show the ways in which music making and printed balladry helped shape the politics of their day.
This included general literacy, printing presses, religious upheavals, employment of official minstrels, as well as laws relating to vagrancy.
Did you have any challenges when writing the book ? The book is by far the most challenging I have ever written because there are so few sources and I had to research what was happening all over England and southern Scotland. I felt it was important to collate the information that survives so others can expand on my work in the future.
What is your background Dave ? I was born in Guisborough in what was then the North Riding of Yorkshire on 5 November 1946. I won a scholarship to Guisborough Grammar School in 1958.
In 1966 I went to Jesus College, Cambridge, which seemed like a good idea at the time. I was awarded a BA in 1969, and in 1970 became a senior scholar at University College.
I later declined the offer of a fellowship at a Cambridge college and accepted a temporary lectureship at Manchester Polytechnic, since I wanted to give something back to students less privileged than myself.
I joined the Labour Party in 1975 but left in disgust and joined the International Socialists. In 1976, to my surprise, Cambridge University accepted my PhD thesis, ‘Popular Song and Working-Class Consciousness in North East England’.
In 1977 as a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party I organised buses to both Anti-Nazi League carnivals in London.
The ‘80s saw more academic work for Dave including the Trades Union Council, Senior Lecturer in Trade Union Studies and building miners’ support groups in 1984-85….But by then I was thoroughly disgusted with my colleagues’ careerism. By the early ‘90s I built the largest travelling stall of second-hand socialist books in Britain, and probably in Europe, for Manchester district Socialist Workers Party, and supplied Bookmarks bookshop in London.
I drifted away from the SWP, though I became the founding secretary of the North West Retired Members’ Branch and an officer of Manchester Trades Union Council. In 2015 I moved back to Newcastle, and in 2017 I received the Robert Tressell Award ‘For Services to Working People’.
What does the North East mean to you ? A few years ago I researched the history of the word ‘Geordie’ and discovered that it had been used to patronise working people on Tyneside for over 200 years.
Virtually all ‘definitions’ had no historical accuracy or conceptual content, and the best one I know was that ‘Geordie’ was the name by which Tynesiders are known outside the district, either geographically, or culturally, even if they live there.
What bothered me was the tribalism in the region – Mackems (from Sunderland), Smoggies (from Teeside) and so on – not least because it did not serve the interests of working people, but on the contrary helped to divide them.
Only 100 copies of The Northern Minstrels have been printed.
Part of the renovation of the North Marine Park in South Shields is a new sculpture placed on the Lawe Top. The artist, Andrew McKeown, specialises in Public Sculpture and has completed many large scale commissions throughout the UK and Internationally. In an earlier interview on the blog in June, Andrew talked about his work…..I am working on designs for a large contemporary steel Beacon in the North Marine Park. The Beacon takes it’s inspiration from the Lawe Top Beacons built in 1832.
The installation of his new work was on the morning of 31st October 2020, and I managed to grab a few words with Andrew….Today I’m supervising the installation of the new Beacon sculpture. The blacksmiths are just fixing the bolts down now, it’s pretty much all installed.
Has it been a hectic day ? Yeah just a bit (laughs). We started at 9am, the blacksmith got loaded up earlier than expected but we got up here and got on with it.
What does it feel like seeing your work finally put in place ? Fantastic. I’ve been working on this project since January after getting the commission. It was applying first, then getting selected then there was all the planning to do with the designs. The brief asked for it to be between 4-6 metres high. I went for 6 metres and that feels about right. The original Victorian Beacons were a lot taller than that so I know it’s not meant to be a navigational aid as such, it’s a decorative piece with a nod and a wink towards the Victorian Beacons.
I think when the block paving is around, the lighting added and when it’s rusted after about 3-4 weeks it’ll develop a stronger rusty colour. It’s core ten steel and rusts so much it’s almost like a protective layer. It’s the same steel as the Angel of the North (sculpture in Gateshead by Antony Gormley). It’s just nice to finally be the day when it all comes together and it looks like what I wanted it to look like.
What is the idea behind the words that are on the sculpture ? Yeah well it’s already happened hasn’t it. This morning within half an hour of it going up a Grandad and his Grandson walked past and the Grandson asked what is a Foyboatman? The Grandad explained and then added that his Dad was a riveter. That’s what type of conversations I really intended from the piece to happen. It keeps the sculpture alive and all those historical trades and occupations alive.
It refers to the community of South Shields and the words at the top refer to the character of the area, the history and the aspirations. Words like exploration, wisdom, work, toil and adventure, words that make people think that yeah we have got this background as well as the shipping industry that pioneered the way for a lot of things
Can you see it being here for a long time ? The way it has been made and the materials it has been made with, it can be there for years until someone wants to move it. Maybe in a renovation of North Marine Park in another 100 years, but I’ll be long gone by then.
On the same dial as Killing Joke/Nine Inch Nails/Faith No More, London based electro goths Calling All Astronauts release their fifth single during the Covid 19 pandemic on November 6th. CAA first featured on the blog in ‘Space Cadets’ 19th March 2018.
I asked David B (Vox/Keys/Production)what inspired him to write the song ? I’m an avid social media watcher, and some of the most vile people I come across claim to be Trump supporters and Christians. They seem to worship money more than they do the teachings of their God. The Holy Trinity is a full on volley aimed straight at the Evangelicals who appear to use the Bible to push their far right agenda.
This is our first single that doesn’t feature J on guitar. Half way through writing our third album #Resist, J had a family crisis and bravely had to take a temporary step back from the band to look after his family. So me and Paul forged on writing and recording as a duo. The single was mixed by double Grammy winner Alan Branch.
What are the plans now with shows being cancelled by Covid ? Every six weeks we’ll just keep releasing a new mix of a track from our latest album #Resist and hope we don’t have to sell our musical equipment to pay the bills!
with American Jazz Guitarist & Composer, Jon Dalton.
Sometimes a piece of music drops and fits neatly onto your latest playlist.
In the past week I’ve been listening to Jackson Browne and Buffalo Springfield after watching a documentary about the musicians who lived in Laurel Canyon on the American west coast during ‘60s/’70s. Recently, Los Angeles based musician Jon Dalton sent a link to his latest track ‘Out of the River’ featuring vocals by Sheila Ellis.
Dalton first appeared on the blog in October 2017 talking about his journey from Bristol playing in rock band Gold, then moving to California as a professional musician signing to Innervision Records. I got in touch with Jon and asked him how did the song come about ?
I was sitting around late one night doodling on my guitar – something I do a lot – and it occurred to me, with all that’s been going on this year, now might be a good time to write about how that’s affected my view of the world.
What were you looking to say in the lyrics? I hadn’t written a song with lyrics for decades – I mostly write jazz instrumentals – but this one seemed almost to write itself. Some might see that as the land speaking through them or perhaps it’s a collection of memories and experiences that one day well up and form a cogent whole.
America has certainly seen its share of turmoil recently coupled with much division and fear but that isn’t my America. I have roots in this country going back a long way. Long before the US was even a country the land was here. Even though I grew up in the UK and didn’t set foot in America until I was in my mid 30’s, I felt a connection to the land the instant I arrived and that’s never gone away.
For me, it was always a foregone conclusion that I would eventually ‘return’. I sense that connection everywhere I go from oceans to deserts to the mountains and rivers, it’s always there and I’m always home. I’m sure others have similar feelings about their countries of origin. This is a song that tries to explore and explain that connection.
How did you end up working with Sheila ? I met Sheila Ellis several years back while we were both working in a volunteer jazz band playing for seniors in L.A. County. We hit it off instantly. Sheila seems to just get what I’m trying to say musically which is a tall order since I often don’t get it myself.
Sheila is a brilliant vocalist, she has a deep knowledge of jazz and other genres. Originally from L.A. she also lived and worked in Paris plus New York and London – her husband and our shared producer Richard E is originally from the UK. She’s also an actress and performance artist who has appeared in places like the prestigious Getty Centre here in Los Angeles.
Richard and Sheila are the core group members of Annabel (lee) who have recorded albums on the UK Ninja Tune label – which won the 2015 Dead Albatross Music Prize – and more recently here in the US on the Youngbloods label.
Who else worked on the song ? The final piece of the puzzle was my friend UK organist John-Paul Gard. I knew with his extensive knowledge of the instrument, he’d be able to convey the exact sentiment I was trying to express and he nailed it from 5000 miles away.
With the USA Presidential election only hours away what are your feelings about the future? Whatever is happening right now and whatever is around the corner, in this song I wanted to express the sense of strength and permanence I get from being surrounded by nature, though we could arguably take better care of it. We may create what seem like big problems for ourselves but, for the land, it just sits and watches and waits.
Mysteries of the world are fascinating subjects and we rely on scientists, archaeologists, researchers and storytellers to bring them out of the dark.
The blog in October 2019 featured a couple of stories by author and broadcaster Dan Green. He recently got in touch and wanted to share another story. Dan was a resident of South Shields for 40 years and at the time of this event he was living in the town.
‘During many years of research, I have heard dozens of amazing anecdotal stories concerning ghosts and whatever they might be or represent. It has left me having little doubt whatsoever that there is a phenomena behind it all, generally unknown and let alone accepted. However, as good and convincing as other people’s stories may be it is far more rewarding if you can call on evidence from your own personal experience’.
You can’t usually force a ghost to appear or meet with one, but this seems to have happened to me during the late 1990’s when my wife and I travelled down from the North East having resigned ourselves to looking after grandchildren, thus allowing their mum to go out at the time of the Christmas festivities.
Little did we know that this innocent occupation would be taking place in a most ridiculous location – a haunted derelict asylum on a Christmas Eve. Something you could only expect – for those of you old enough to remember their movies – from Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
The derelict St John’s asylum in Lincoln was built in 1852. Originally built to house 250 patients it went on to accommodate thousands from all over Lincolnshire, finally closing its doors in December 1989. At the time of our visit its caretakers were my wife’s daughter and her boyfriend. The property was Grade II listed meaning it couldn’t be demolished and had just been bought by ‘Bungalow’ Bill Wiggins then the boyfriend of glamourous Hollywood starlet Joan Collins, who was to convert the main building into flats.
At the time, building had only just started and so we were offered a luxurious penthouse room for our stay, in the midst of all the empty, decaying, wall peeling eerie corridors. It was quite simply surreal having to leave the warmth and safety of the suite to have to go along dimly lit dank and neglected corridors to the nearest toilet situated in the old asylum quarters. You swore you could hear whispering voices at the dead of night.
On our first night, two days before Christmas Eve, Lincoln was snowed in. My wife and I retired around 11am after a hectic day’s babysit and nestled down into the extra comfy bed, switching the light off and expecting a quick descent into slumber. After maybe no more than ten minutes and whilst still fully awake we nearly jumped out of our skins when the silence in the dark room was broken by an enormous crash at the foot of the bed. It sounded as if something very large had fallen. After our initial shock we put on the light to see what it could be, already knowing that it couldn’t have been anything as there was nothing there and not even anything else in the room that could have provided such an alarming crash.
My wife was insistent for an explanation and I gave then what was perhaps the most lame and most unbelievable excuse ever – it was the flag on the balcony outside blowing in the wind. It was all I could think of. Both of us knew it wasn’t or anything remotely like it.
The following incident happened about 7pm on Christmas Eve. The snow was all around, like a white blanket. I stood outside marvelling at the sound of silence. The thousands of falling flakes amidst darkness all around in the vastness of the grounds. It was then that I heard the lone sound of a bugle being sounded. ‘It must be an early reveller’ I thought, although a bugle wasn’t the sort of instrument I would associate with an early Christmas celebration.
I was keen to locate exactly where the sound was coming from, expecting that to be easy amidst the otherwise total silence, absence of any other person or activity, and the totality of the space around me. But I could not place it. I moved myself around some distance but still could not pin-point the sounding bugle. I listened until I could hear it no more. It was very clear and distinct but not a musical masterpiece. Strange!
On Christmas day my stepson came to join us and we offered him another swish suite not far from our own. We decided best not to tell him about the bedroom crash or highlight anything else about the building that might possibly spook his nervy temperament. It wouldn’t have mattered. In the morning he told us how no sooner trying to sleep he saw what he described as a ’floating black bin bag’ in the room!
I was glad when we could all leave the premises before anything else might present itself. A week or two later I was recounting my incident with the phantom bugle player to my mother-in-law. It was then she informed me that long ago one of the asylum inmates had escaped on Christmas Eve, a fellow who was renowned for wandering the grounds playing a bugle. However, his escape was a tragedy – he had no sooner sneaked out of the premises playing his instrument when he was hit by a bus and killed outright. I hadn’t known anything about this.
Had I encountered his ghost on the calendar night he had lost his life? If so, then this must rate as a first class ghostly encounter. I’ve since spoken to others about our nights at the old asylum and wasn’t surprised the things I learnt from them. My stepdaughter confirmed that both she and her boyfriend had seen things – ‘a human sized figure made up out of speckles, like what you get when a faulty TV aerial disrupts the screen’.
She had decided not to tell us anything about her experiences in case it put us off coming to stay. The asylum certainly had a ghostly reputation. A care worker I met years later who had worked at St John’s confirmed how staff had to contend with lights suddenly switching themselves on and off and the sound of footsteps being heard above them in empty rooms.
The grisliest tale he told me was when a room had been found after a wall had been broken into, and there around a table sat upright skeletons, the table having rotted food as if a feast had once been prepared. With no windows or doors in the room they had all been entombed in there.
We were also told by my stepdaughter that the previous caretakers, a husband and wife, had left the building at the dead of night – in their pyjamas! They never returned, leaving costly personal belongings.
So, the old asylum at St John’s – haunted? Hard to think otherwise, although I’m sure psychologists would offer a bland explanation for it all, rather like my flag blowing in the wind.
author Trevor Ristow talks about his new book on The Sisters of Mercy.
Watching live music in the early ‘80s was a heavy mix of rock bands delivering the goods – Sabbath, Priest, AC/DC and Motorhead. Then with a little swagger came Hanoi Rocks, The Cult and Psychedelic Furs. Regular venues were in Sunderland and Newcastle – the Mecca, City Hall and Mayfair, then Tiffanys for darker nights that served up a poisoned brew from cult bands The March Violets and The Sisters of Mercy. A side note is their gig at the Newcastle venue on 13th March 1985 was bootlegged (Disguised in Black) and regarded highly among Sisters fans for it’s quality.
Recently some Sisters tracks have been synced on TV shows Game of Thrones and American Horror Story but I first came across the band around ’84 on the John Peel show when they played a session in the BBC studios. Hearing a baritone voice and drum machine was unusual for a rock band, and they did have an extra edge of driving bass carrying the sound onwards and upwards. Check out ‘Floorshow’, ‘Body Electric’ or the spellbinding ‘Marian’.
The Sisters mk 1 peaked with an appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in March 1985 and then in June a final burn out at The Royal Albert Hall, London. Reports coming out of fan websites mention that at the end of the set, backstage Lemmy offered ‘assistance’ to frontman Andrew Eldritch and a refreshed Sisters played a blistering final encore of ‘Ghostrider’ and ‘Louie, Louie’. The gig was a triumph and God-like status was assured for Eldritch.
If ever there was a book needing to be written about a band it is this one. In a new interview, American author Trevor Ristow reveals how long the book was in the works and how ‘Waiting for Another War’- a line taken from the track ‘Valentine’ which featured on The Reptile House EP – was not the first title….. This book has had three titles. The working title for over a decade was ‘Mission and Revenge.’ Obviously that’s borrowed from the unreleased second Sisters album, but I also thought it nicely expressed something about the band, specifically about Eldritch’s stewardship of it over 30 plus years.
But originally the book was going to have a longer sweep: 1980 to the present. When I cut it down to 1980-1985 I didn’t think ‘Mission And Revenge’ was appropriate, so I renamed it ‘Heaven And A Hope Eternal.’ I even went so far as to design the cover with this title, but I changed it at the last minute.
The main problem was that I found the title a bit soft for a book about a band that articulated an unapologetically masculine aesthetic during the period in question. Also, the implications of the title were a little obvious: an old fan savouring the golden years and hoping for a new album.
‘Waiting For Another War’ recommended itself to me because it implies a more subtle version of the same sentiment: we all want another album, and wars are one of the few things that seem to motivate Eldritch to write new material. So here we are, waiting for another war.
‘Valentine’ was definitely one of my first favourite Sisters tracks, and it is still one of my favourites, so that helped.
In these difficult times how did the book come together ?I am originally from San Francisco and have lived in New York since 1989. I wrote the book in two separate apartments in New York. The first one was in Tribeca, a tiny little studio on the 49th floor overlooking the World Trade Center. Then, years later, I finished the book from a different home on East 7th Street in the East Village. At the very end of 2019, with the book finished but not printed, I moved with my family to a new apartment because we were expecting our second son in April.
Three months later the pandemic struck New York City like a tornado. Unrefrigerated dead bodies were piling up outside NYC hospitals, including the one where we were scheduled to give birth. Husbands were not allowed into delivery rooms. There was a PPE shortage and everyone was panicking. Crime was spiking and summer was around the corner.
I packed up my very pregnant wife and two year old son and we left our home to stay outside the city. Although I sent the final files to the printer from New York City in February, I ended up receiving the shipment of books, signing them, and sending them from a family home in the countryside.
What inspired you to write the book ? I was inspired to write the book because I love the band. Of course, an interest like this waxes and wanes. I loved the 1991 US gigs but for some reason I didn’t really care enough to go to Philadelphia in 1997, a one-hour train ride from New York City. I was in graduate school and I guess I had other things going on. The next year I saw them at The Ritz again in New York City and the fever returned. Since then I’ve flown overseas for gigs, like many other fans. Sisters music has been a constant companion of mine since I was very young and the book is an expression of my passion for the music.
Do any stories stand out – what is your favourite ? I guess my favourite story that I unearthed myself is the story about the band going to a party for Joe Jackson in San Francisco. I know the guy who took them, the club they came from, I know the corner the party was on very well, I know the street, the neighbourhood. I can picture the van ride there, the people, everything, because San Francisco is my hometown. So, apart from the fact that the story is funny, it’s very vivid to me.
Are you planning another book and where is ‘Waiting for Another War’ available ? Yes, I will do at least one more. For the moment, just here (https://www.gkwfilmworks.com/sisters) and eBay. I’m working on Amazon. I may reach out to some record stores in the UK and see if they would like to stock it, because the shipping charges from the USA are prohibitive for some people who might otherwise be interested. But that’s just an idea at this point.
To get an insight into The Sisters of Mercy and the Leeds music scene of the ‘80s go to the excellent blog ‘I Was a Teenage Sisters of Mercy Fan’.
On the same dial as Roxy Music and Prefab Sprout, are Sunderland bands The Futureheads and Field Music who formed during the noughties…The music community at that time was pretty tight. I’m sure there was rivalry but it was also really supportive. We probably shuddered at the idea of it being a “scene” – but that’s what it was.
The spine of Field Music are brothers Peter and David Brewis….We’d been teaching at a youth music project in Sunderland where we met Barry Hyde who later joined The Futureheads, and a bunch of other young musicians including Ian Black, who’d later join Field Music and release some records as Slug.
We asked Barry to join our band, which was just what we needed really. We could share our experience with regard to getting out there and playing and arranging for a band and he opened our eyes to a lot of music we didn’t know about – Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground and the free-er style of jagged edge in jazz.
That was an inspiring time, we had a lot of ideas and started a lot of bands which never played a gig. It took us a while to stop flailing around and make sense of what we wanted to do. For Barry that was The Futureheads, and for us that eventually became the first Field Music album.
What was your first experience of a recording studio ? We recorded with Frankie Stubbs at the Bunker in Sunderland a couple of times when we were first starting out – in ‘94 and ‘95 I think. And then we did a gig at South Hylton Working Mens Club to pay for a couple of days in Frankie Gibbon’s studio in Lambton Lion Park. But really, we felt best recording ourselves. We had a cassette four-track at home and were always working on songs and we fancied ourselves as producers as well as players.
In 1997 we applied for the first round of Lottery Arts funding and they gave us £4000 to set up and run a community studio for 6 months. We couldn’t afford the rent after that so we moved it back to our parent’s spare room. Our first proper release was an EP under the name The New Tellers, was recorded there, along with the first Futureheads demos.
In 2001 we clubbed together with The Futureheads and a couple of friends to have our own studio and practice room in a community centre and since then, we’ve always had our own studio space. We stayed in that first space for over ten years and recorded three Field Music albums, my first solo album as School of Language, Peter’s album under the name The Week That Was, most of the first Cornshed Sisters album, one of the early Maximo Park EPs, a chunk of The Futureheads’ fourth album and their first EP.
How did you get interested in music, are you from a musical family ? We, that’s me and my older brother Peter, don’t come from a particularly musical background but our parents were of that generation who grew up in perfect alignment with British rock music.
They were nine or ten when the Beatles came along, 16 year old and trying out rebellion when Let It Bleed (Rolling Stones) came out. And then in the ‘80s, when they were dealing with us, the few records they bought were either sophisticated adult rock like Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Hall and Oates, or sophisticated adult pop like the Pet Shop Boys.
What instruments did you pick up? Peter was itching to play the drums after watching The Bangles on Top of the Pops. That was probably 1989. I wanted in on the action so I saved up for a twenty quid acoustic guitar from Argos. Actually, I’d been saving my pocket money ready for a holiday in Yugoslavia but their currency was devalued while we were there so I ended up bringing my meagre savings back and bought the guitar.
We didn’t know what we were doing but we liked the idea of playing music and then found a Led Zeppelin track on one of our parents’ compilation albums I think it was called – ‘By Invitation Only’. They also had Free Live – we became totally obsessed. Peter learned to play my guitar much more quickly than I did so I switched to bass after a couple of years.
Who were you listening to and who did you watch live ?We had a brief period of going to gigs at Newcastle City Hall while we were learning to play. The first one was probably Jethro Tull, who had Dave Mattacks playing drums with them on that tour, which is odd because we’ve gotten to know Dave a bit in recent years.
We went to a couple of technical guitar-type gigs – Joe Satriani, Steve Vai – while we were learning to play but that style of music didn’t bed in with us. We bought a Black Crowes CD in about 1993 and that did make sense to us. We travelled to Sheffield to see them play in 1995 but by then we were already gigging around the local pub circuit.
Where did you first rehearse as a band ? We rehearsed in the spare room in our parents’ house in Cleadon Village. Our neighbours were very tolerant! For a long time our bands revolved around me singing and playing bass or guitar, Peter playing guitar live but drumming on a lot of our demos and Andrew Moore, who was our friend from school and an incredible piano and organ player.
Our first drummer was called Paul Taylor. I’m not sure we ever saw eye to eye musically but he was a good drummer and amazing to watch. A young metaller called David Dorward joined on bass one time, and when we went to college the pool of musicians we knew grew a lot and we played with a couple of really good local drummers – Jaimie Curle and Garry McKenna – though I think we always had a sense that we wanted to be in charge of the drums.
What was your early experiences of playing live ?We must have played at school a couple of times but the first thing that really felt like a gig was a battle of the bands at Manor Quay called Wearstock in 1994. I think the band was called Underfoot back then.
From 1994 until 1998 we played tons of gigs on the pub circuit, doing mostly covers but gradually trying to add in our own songs. Our favourite venues were places like The Duke of Cumberland in Felling, The Turk’s Head in South Shields, Sleepers in East Boldon and The Keelboat in Fatfield. There were tons. It was a very wholesome way for a 14/15 year old to spend their free time!
Once we retired the pub-rock band, we were playing at places like The Royalty, Pure, Ashbrooke Cricket Club and Bar 36 in Sunderland and occasionally we’d venture to The Head of Steam in Newcastle.
When did you become a professional musician and how has it worked out for you, is it what you imagined as a teenager ?We signed a publishing deal a couple of months after I finished university in 2001 and since then I’ve mostly just been a musician. The period from 2001 until we released the first Field Music album was tricky. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We had very supportive manager and a very supportive publisher but we didn’t understand the extent to which being independently-minded means doing things yourself.
We probably didn’t realise that in order to get a record made our way, we would have to record it and mix it ourselves. We didn’t realise that in trying to make odd music on stage, we’d have to think very hard about how to make that work for an audience in venues which are primarily geared towards bands whose music is not odd!
Whatever dreams I had about being a musician when I was young have been stripped down to the barest elements and go along with essentially running a small business. So, yes, I get to make the music I want to make and I spend all this heady time writing songs and being creative in the studio and working out how to play these songs on stage with my friends, but I also have to book hotels and do VAT returns and do amateurish joinery in our studio. It’s harder work than I imagined but also probably better.
What does music mean to you and what has it given you ?I love writing songs and I love recording. If I ever have a period when I’m not doing those things I get gloomy and anxious. It’s not that it’s the only way I can express myself – I’m a wordy kind of person! And it’s not that it’s the only thing I’m good at – I could probably have stayed in academia in some maths-related sphere. But music is the thing which gets my synapses crackling. And in songwriting I can dive into pretty much any topic or follow any curious thought.
The last Field Music record grew out of a commission for the Imperial War Museum as part of a season about the aftermath of the First World War. We ended up researching and writing songs about planning law and sanitary towels and reparations and Tiananmen Square.
Our brains were in overdrive pulling these things together and turning it into a performance and then a record. It’s such a privilege that we get to do these things. But also I feel really proud that we can take on a challenge like that and make it work.