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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 Joy Division (though the latter never went in for the trappings of goth,  but were labeled as such by their producer, Martin Hannet as 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, Andrew Eldritch, who has famously resisted the goth 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 who was “a prime originator of the ”Sisters are goth and therefore crap’ smear.” Eldritch went 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 (that is 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.

Bad Things Come in Threes: The Weird Sisters of Dracula

Greg Hildebrandt's The Harem
Greg Hildebrandt’s gorgeous illustrations for DRACULA include this one entitled “Johathan (sic) dreams of the vampiresses” (Unicorn Publishing, 1985)

That Bram Stoker deliberately chose to put three vampiresses in his 1897 novel DRACULA has been written about many times before. Some scholars point to the power of three, finding ancient symbolism in the number, or a mirroring of Lucy Westenra’s three suitors — Holmwood, Morris, and Seward — in the attraction Jonathan Harker feels toward them.  Some even argue that the vampires that tempt Harker represent an inversion of the Holy Trinity. But the reason Stoker chose to have not one, or two, but three female vampires tempt Jonathan Harker may be as simple as this: he worked in the theater. And from theater he took his inspiration.

First things first: what to call these three.

SISTERS, DAUGHTERS OR BRIDES?

Introduced in the third chapter of DRACULA, the vampire brides, as they have come to be known (but are never mentioned in the novel as such) are referred to in the fourth chapter as “those weird sisters” (from Jonathan Harker’s Journal, June 29). Two are dark (hair presumably?), with “aquiline noses, like the Count.” The other was “fair as fair can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.”

As Leonard Wolf questions in his annotated edition of DRACULA, one wonders if the resemblance to Dracula of the first two suggest they may be related to him (sisters? daughters?). Of the three, the blonde, his apparent favorite, may be his wife. After all, the other two defer to her for right of first bite: “Go on! You are the first,” says one of the dark-haired sisters, “and we shall follow; yours is the right to begin.” Is she Dracula’s wife? Are the others his children? Is the Count a polygamist!

That they are called sisters by Harker (and later in the novel by Van Helsing) is telling. Nowhere in the book are they referred to as brides, though in popular culture, they have become to be known as such. In the taking of blood (or exchange, as when a transfusion of Holmwood’s blood temporarily aids Lucy), perhaps Stoker was suggesting a type of husband / wife relationship. Or a perversion of traditional marriage.

This much is certain: the sexually suggestive aspect of the vampire that may well be born of the repressed fantasies and insecurities of an Irishman writing in the late nineteenth century certainly finds its most open expression of sexuality in the films of the twentieth.

AT THE MOVIES
Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

Filmic versions of the novel definitely suggest Dracula having a sexual relationship with the vampire women. Perhaps it is from the movies that the term “brides” comes. But the vampire women of Todd Browning’s 1931 production aren’t the source. These vampires are entirely uncredited (so I will give them credit here: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw). They are more ghostly than provocative. Ethereal. Creepy. Sexual in suggestion. But not in action.

In both DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA (1953) and Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), the sexuality is there, but there are not three vampire women. Only one in each of these adaptations. And neither is called a bride.

Valerie Gaunt, in the latter, is credited only as “Vampire Woman.” And though Hammer would go on to make a sequel entitled BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) — originally scripted under the more appropriate title “Disciple of Dracula” — there are only two, not three, vampire women: Greta and Gina. Over a decade later, Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) — though bearing the title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE upon its release in America in 1979 — credits not three but four “vampire girls” (arguably, Joanna Lumley‘s Jessica Van Helsing is meant to be the titular bride).

Vampire Brides of COUNT DRACULA (1977)
The Brides — credited as such — of BBC television’s COUNT DRACULA (1977). Susie Hickford, Sue Vanner, and Belinda Meuldijk

Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame, would reinstate the three brides in his made-for-television adaptation of the novel in 1974, with the three vampire women referred to as “vampire wives.” Close, but not exactly brides. Of course, none of them are referred to as “sisters” either. It is not until 1977’s production COUNT DRACULA starring Louis Jordan that we may have the first instance in film or on television where the vampire women are actually credited as “Brides of Dracula.”

The Three Sisters
The Brides of Dracula are referred to as such in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). From left to right are actresses Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu

Perhaps more famously, Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) also refers to the vampire women as brides as the end credits roll. It is in Coppola’s film that the brides are very definitely highly sexualized, and made to appear like women in a harem more than the ghostly figures of earlier productions. Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu are exotic, alluring, and layered deep with eastern-European garb and language.

As for Frank Langella’s turn at the titular Count in Universal’s 1979 “remake,” the vampire women aren’t even there (as it is based upon the Balderston / Deane stageplay).

Dracula with Brides in VAN HELSING (2004)
Dracula with Brides in VAN HELSING (2004)

Fast forward to 2004 and Universal’s attempt at resurrecting its classic monsters in VAN HELSING, and there we find the return of a trio of brides. Taking flight in the form of harpies, they consist of Marishka (Josie Maran), Verona (Silvia Colloca), and Aleera (Elena Anaya), playing much more than mere temptresses. A scene where Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) and Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) do battle with them in a town square is the highlight of the movie.

STOKER AND THE STAGE

Regardless of how the label “brides” came to be, there’s still the issue of why Stoker chose to call the vampire women “sisters,” or, specifically (for Harker) “weird sisters” in the first place.

Working for the famous actor Henry Irving since 1878, Stoker would have been familiar with his employer’s repertoire ten years on. That year, 1888, saw Irving (who many suggest inspired certain aspects of the character of Dracula) purchase the Lyceum Theater. Among the first of performances was a revival of his Macbeth.

The Weird Sisters of Macbeth
G.J. Bennett, Drinkwater Meadows, W.H. Payne as the witches (1838) from the Folger Shakespeare Library

In Act I, Scene 3, the first of the witches that go one to prophesize Macbeth’s rise and fall, asks of the seocond: “Where hast thou been, sister?”

It may be as simple as that.

[note: the following amazing (to me at least!) revelation has been added in November, 2022, after reading Dacre Stoker’s and Robert Eighteen-Bisang’s edited and annotated version of the novel, released upon its 125th anniversary]

The proof was waiting there all along for Dracula scholars, hiding in a typescript lost for almost a century.

A TYPESCRIPT IS FOUND

As noted by Stoker and Bisang in the 125th Anniversary edition of DRACULA, no copy of the manuscript for the novel was ever found among Bram Stoker’s personal possessions (and notes [100 pages!], now kept by The Rosenbach Museum and Library). It was assumed any complete version of an early draft was lost to time. Until 1997, that is, when a printer’s copy was found on a farm in Pennsylvania.

Titled “The Un-Dead,” the typesecript went to auction at Christie’s. Microsoft’s Paul Allen came to possess it. Scholars were allowed to study it — including Robert Eighteen-Bissang. And in it? The following excised lines from the novel (underlined as in the 125th Anniversary edition), from Harker’s diary, June 29; on the date of his last letter, Harker hopes to never see the Count again:

“I dared not wait to see him return, for I feared to see those weird sisters. How right was Shakespeare, no one would believe that after three hundred years one should see in this fastness of Europe the counterpart of the witches of Macbeth.”

Turns out Bram had originally intended to make it quite clear: his vampire sisters were counterparts of the witches of Macbeth.**

THE POWER OF THREE

As for Shakespeare, he most likely drew his inspiration from  Greek mythology: the Moirae — Lahkesis, Atropos, and Clotho — who dictate the destinies of humankind by spinning, drawing out, and cutting the threads of each life.

None of this is to say that the Greeks, the Bard (inspired by classical literature), or Stoker (inspired by Shakespeare) didn’t on some level make the choice of three women because the number itself holds some sacred or semiotic significance.

Omne trium perfectum. Everything in threes is perfect or whole.

The primary colors.

Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

Father, son, and Holy Ghost.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Veni, vidi, vici.  Stop, drop, and roll.

Sets of three just seem to make sense to us. We’re hard-wired to respond to threes — be they witches of Macbeth, or Stoker’s weird vampire women.

* Update: want to watch a modern re-interpretation of the weird sisters of Dracula? Neil LaBute’s HOUSE OF DARKNESS (2022) is a misogynist’s nightmare with all the trapping of classic gothic horror. It’s a slow-burn, to be sure, that feels more like a stage-play than a movie. And it requires patience, but the dialogue is delicious and the performances are strong with Justin Long as a hapless man named Hapgood who happens upon a woman named Mina (Kate Bosworth) who he sees as a “sure thing” because of her often bold behavior and frank language. But as the tension between them builds, Mina’s sisters show up (Gia Crovatin and Lucy Walters) and Hap gets more than he bargained for.

** Manuscript aside, the argument that Stoker based his vampire women on the witches of MacBeth had long been out there, argued by critics and film historians. But to have it have been in the manuscript all along was a confirmation of what many had only posited as a theory for years.