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Not Goth? Genre Labels and The Sisters of Mercy

Of all genres of rock music, goth is the most difficult to define. Now fully cemented in popular culture with acolytes sporting black clothes, blacker nail polish, and the blackest of lipstick, the movement was not so well defined in the late seventies and early eighties when the term began to be applied (by critics mostly) in the wake of punk. Coined by rock critic Critic John Stickney long ago in 1967 when describing a Doors show, goth was seemingly first applied to bands most associated with an atmospheric, gloomy, even angular sound late in the nineteen seventies; see, for example, Nick Kent’s “Banshees make the Breakthrough” in his 1978 review of Siouxsie and The Banshees in NME. Indeed, it is Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Bauhaus — and some say even Joy Division (labeled by their producer, Martin Hannet as such in 1979) — that are thought of as the pillars of early goth music. And then there is The Sisters of Mercy. More specifically, its frontman (and only constant member), Andrew Eldritch, who has famously resisted the label — even outright rejected it.

THE BAND
The Sisters of Mercy logo
The Sisters of Mercy logo (from Wikimedia Commons)

Formed in Leeds in 1980, The Sisters of Mercy are known for Eldritch’s melancholic baritone, driving bass lines, sharp guitar riffs, and beats supplied by Doktor Avalanche — a drum machine that has been, for the most part, the only constant member of the band other than Eldritch. At first, only singles and EPs were released from the band. Notable among them is the 12″ single for “Alice,” a lament for a girl addicted to pills. It is on this release that a cover of The Stooges’ “1969” — a staple of the band’s set from the very beginning — appears.

In “1969” is found not only one of the band’s key strengths, but also a possible clue as to the motivations of its members to consciously NOT be goth: that is, a desire to honor a wide range of musical styles with their own distinct sound. Eldritch’s deep, reverb-heavy vocals. The synthetic beats of Docktor Avalanche. Guitars that are mesmerizingly fuzzy. The Sisters of Mercy’s cover of The Stooges’ anthem of dillusion and disaffected youth sounds more like a garage band on amphetamines than it does a gothic rock dirge.

Curiously, The Sisters of Mercy turned out many a colorful cover: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” among them. That these songs are all dark in tone contribute to an understandable goth label, but they are each faithful insofar as Eldrith’s voice allows — and are possibly even  a bit tongue-in-cheek, with the band realizing the unique juxtaposition of music like theirs covering such a wide-range of genres (proto-punk, country, classic rock, even soul).

REJECTING THE LABEL

In an interview in a magazine called Under the Rock — dedicated to all things Sisters of Mercy” — Andrew Eldritch once famously said “I’m not interested in what goths think,” adding that it was journalist David Dorrel from NME was “a prime originator of the “‘Sisters are goth and therefore crap’ smear.” Eldritch goes to humourously say “I’m constantly confronted by representatives of popular culture who are far more goth than we, yet I have only to wear black socks to be stigmatised as the demon overlord.”

Still, it’s hard to deny that by the time of their first official album, “First and Last and Always” (1985), songs like “No Time to Cry,” and “Nine While Nine” are hard to describe in any other way than atmospheric and gloomy. “Marian (Version)” alone finds the singer driven along by a quasi-siren song to a watery grave. Yet the apocalyptic “Black Planet” was accompanied by a video that showed the band crusing California on a sunny day in, of all things, the Mokeemobile! If this was goth, its video, at least, eschewed the darker aspects of the band’s image.

Floodland (1987) would find Eldritch developing a more epic sound, full of booming eighties production (e.g., “Dominion / Mother Russia”) and a semblance of pop sensibiltiy on tracks like “This Corrosion” and “Lucretia, My Reflection.”

By the time of the band’s  third album, “Vision Thing” (1990), an all-out hard rock assault is apparent in songs like the titular track, “Detonation Boulevard,” and “More.”

Andrew Eldritch performing with the Sisters of Mercy at Wacken Open Air, 2019 (photo by Sven Mandel [taken from Wikimedia Commons])
Still together (insofar as Eldritch assembles musicians to go out on tour every few years), the Sisters of Mercy have never released a fourth album. Problems with their record company famously turned Eldritch against the industry. Instead, he has focused over the years since on performing live.

After all is said and done with Sisters of Mercy, it is curious to note that practically no early influential post-punks bands particularly like the goth label (see this great reddit post). But why? The simplest answer is that it is reductive, lumping bands with a wide-range of styles into one camp (that is, appropriately enough, often campy). Goth carries a stigma of being a one-trick-pony of sorts: with tired themes and funereal beats. The wide berth given to most other genres is just not open to bands labeled goth.

THE INHERITORS

As for modern goth, the music has splintered further with its labels of death rock, cold wave, dark wave, even ethereal wave.

Bands like Cold Cave, Drab Majesty, and Dark seem to embrace the association of their music with all things sad and scary, morbid and taboo.

In that regard, artists like Andrew Eldritch and his Sisters of Mercy need not even be concerned with labels. The world has moved on. Other artists have picked up the all-black flag (not to be confused with the eighties American Hardcore band) and run with it into the cemetery as the sun sets and the leaves fall.

In the end, it’s all rock and roll, and that’s the landscape where The Sisters of Mercy should ideally find their place. The Cure’s relatively recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has legitimized music (fairly or not) labeled goth, and The Sisters of Mercy may one day be judged not by the doom and gloom of their music, but the unique sound that made them stand out from the crowd.

Unyielding in Their Mystery: Cats in Horror Films

Cats as mysterious creatures is more widely accepted among cultures worldwide than is certitude that the earth is round. You  will never find anyone arguing the former. Ubiquitous are tales of cats as otherworldy animals — from ancient Egypt to the modern day. It’s only natural, then, that the mythology and folklore of cats would find its way to film. And no films are better suited to tales of cats than those of the horror genre.

An 1894 short called “Falling Cat” by French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey is believed to be the first film in history to show a live feline; it consists solely of a cat falling down and landing on its feet. Why do we say a cat has “nine lives”? Its righting reflex, apparently. Mystery solved. But not really. Throw all the science you want at it; the fact remains that cats are mysterious creatures. The supernatural in our homes.

That writers of the nineteenth century inspired filmmakers of the twentieth is not surprising. And that Edgar Allan Poe is first and foremost among them is no surprise either.

Poe’s titular black cat alone has been the subject — even title — of several films. Boris Karloff totes one around in the 1934 film bearing the name (with little other resemblance to Poe’s classic). Similarly separate from anything resembling Poe is 1941’s THE BLACK CAT — a semi-comedic film in the “old dark house” style with the now common trope of a crazy cat lady.

Closer to Poe is 1966’s THE BLACK CAT where a mentally disturbed man is convinced his black cat is possessed. Closer still is Roger Corman’s wildly entertaining TALES OF TERROR (1962) that finds Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in a mash-up of Poe’s story with another of the author’s works: “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Vincent Price as Verden Fell in Tomb of Ligeia
Vincent Price as Verden Fell in Tomb of Ligeia

But tales of a cat as a truly supernatural being get no better than Corman’s atmospheric Poe adaptation TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). There, Vincent Price as the mournful eccentric Verden Fell (one of the best named characters in all of horror films… with the coolest sunglasses) has the spectre of his wife’s death hanging over him.  Her spirit seemingly inhabits a black cat that torments his new wife, Rowena.

“The eyes, they confound me,” says Fell of cats. “There’s a blankness, a mindless sort of malice in some Egyptian. They do not readily yield up the mystery.” By film’s climax, the cat attacks Fell as Ligeia’s tomb burns down around him.

Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Written by Robert Towne — best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for CHINATOWN (1974) — TOMB OF LIGEIA takes Poe’s theme of the dead having influence over the living and adds possession to the mix. Is it metempsychosis? Or is it paranoia? That the cat could be a symbol of Fell’s unnatural love for Ligeia, or her undying influence (and possible revenge?), is left to the audience to decide.

Shadow of the Cat (1961)
Shadow of the Cat (1961)

Revenge, however, is definitely at the heart of Hammer’s 1961 SHADOW OF THE CAT, starring studio regulars André Morell and Barbara Shelley. There, a cat named Tabitha who witnesses the murder of her owner, exacts revenge on her killers just as they try, and continually fail, to kill her.

Cats exacting revenge runs throughout Rank Organization’s THE UNCANNY (1977). Although it performed poorly at the box office, and is pretty much universally panned, it is notable for star Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Wilbur, whose book about cats — as supernatural creatures and the devil in disguise — frames not one but three tales of feline revenge.

The theme of a cat as avenging devil may be at its most gory and over-the-top entertaining in an adaptation of a 1977 Stephen King short story entitled “The Cat from Hell.” Directed by George Romero as the second of three stories in 1990’s TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, “Cat from Hell” finds a wheelchair bound old man named Drogan hiring a hitman to kill a black cat (whose visage graces the header of this blog post). Drogan believes the cat is murderous. Downright evil. When it is revealed that the man’s pharmaceutical company killed thousands of cats while testing a new drug, it becomes clear that the cat is not evil as much as it is vengeful: exacting its revenge as it kills Drogan’s sister, friend, butler, and hitman, before ultimately dispatching Drogan himself.

A young Drew Barrymore holds General, her savior, in Cat's Eye (1985)
A young Drew Barrymore holds General, her savior, in Cat’s Eye (1985)

But cats are not always killers. Sometimes, they are our saviors. 1985’s CAT’S EYE, written by Stephen King, finds a cat named General figuring into three separate stories. The last — and most effective — is the one named for the cat, which finds General at the home of a little girl whose mother dislikes the animal — going so far as to have it euthanized. But General knows that a malevolent troll has moved into the little girl’s home. And it’s up to the cat to fight the troll and protect the child.

Then there’s the unassuming white kitty in 1999’s remake of THE MUMMY. By merely walking across piano keys, it scares Imhotep, the titular character, and the monster runs away.

Avengers. Saviors. Emissaries of the dead, or the dead themselves transmogrified, cats will undoubtedly continue to capture the imagination of audiences eager to delve into their many mysteries for years to come.

Insofar as to how they have been used in horror films, this post has only scratched the surface.