Bad Vibrations: The Sisters of Mercy, Psychic TV, and the Complicated Legacy of the 1960s Counterculture
“We were all wired into a survival trip now… This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously… All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours, too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create…a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody – or at least some force – is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.”
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The Sisters of Mercy and Psychic TV are both bands defined less by their intentions and more by their reception. The Sisters are synonymous, perhaps more so than any other group, with the protean subcultural and aesthetic label “goth.” Many different types of bands had been unwillingly tagged “gothic” throughout the early ‘80s, but by the time “goth” became codified as a self-identifying subculture at the end of the decade, it was the Sisters’ approach that was agreed upon as the paragon of the style. Their moody bass-driven sound, featuring gloomy baritone vocals and pulsing drum machine beats, provided the sonic blueprint for the countless gothic rock bands that abounded in the early 1990s, while goth fashions, previously more punk-derived, shifted to mimic their look: long black coats, long black hair, sunglasses, leather pants, paisley, broad-brimmed “preacher” hats. Every aspect of the Sisters – from their icy, scything guitar leads, to Andrew Eldritch’s delivery, to the staid Caslon Antique fonts used on their record covers, to their songs titled after women’s names – was imitated to the point that these became not just conventions of the band, but conventions of the goth genre.
Psychic TV, a loose collective revolving around Genesis P-Orridge, can never quite crawl out from under the reputations of its members’ previous and subsequent industrial projects. Psychic TV is the band Gen formed after Throbbing Gristle broke up, or the band Peter Christopherson and John Balance were in before Coil. These are dark, grim, and scary projects, and consequently, Psychic TV is often contextualized as one more player in the dark, grim, and scary industrial milieu, their principal distinguishing characteristic being that they were also leaders of a genuine cult, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, that didn’t shy away from scary Manson/Jim Jones overtones. The industrial aesthetic that Gen and Peter had created in Throbbing Gristle was impersonal, colder than cold, a kind of futurism anxiously preoccupied with issues of mechanization, regimentation, totalitarianism, power, and control. Its music is a bleak, fractured, challenging soundscape fashioned out of what were then unprecedented experiments with electronics, overlaid with often improvised rants on often shocking topics.
Both the Sisters and Psychic TV are understood as dark and cold. Both are seen as major players in subcultures of the ‘80s and ‘90s, identified with what they spawned. But what spawned them?
Punk raged into existence in 1976 denouncing everything hippy and everything ‘60s. It claimed it was Year Zero of a pop-cultural revolution, with all the old dross tossed out. Some punks viewed the 1960s counterculture with contempt as a co-opted and failed revolution. Others were too young to experience it, and simply found the detritus of its popularized and recuperated music and fashion boring and outmoded. Aside from a hardening and sharpening of the fluffy, flared aesthetics, punk sought to wipe out at least two major aspects of the 1960s counterculture. The first was the notion of “rock stars” as geniuses, high on a stage, their legends sacred, their guitar-wizardry to be adored and their profound poetry to be pondered. Johnny Rotten spat, “I don’t have any heroes – they’re all useless.” The Dylans, the Morrisons, the Joplins, the Hendrixes, the Jaggers, the Lennons – they were poncy, self-important divas. Punk, at least rhetorically, if not always in practice, sought to destroy the divide between performer and audience, to demythologize the rock star, or perhaps to offer the opportunity to be mythologized to any kid in the street with the gall to learn three chords, dress up, and form a band. The second reviled notion was that of some transcendent solution, sought through consciousness-expanding drugs, communal living, far-out theories, mystics, gurus, free love, frolicking together nude in the fields. Punk was cynically secular, harshly realist, and very much in the world. It spat about hate, war, frustration, boredom, alienation, unemployment, riots, fights – what was going on under the Westway, in Brixton, in the suburbs, in Belfast, in the Falklands. At most it might have pretensions to political radicalism, as least it wanted to get pissed and destroy. But it agreed things were shite and laughed at anything that wanted you to have faith and lift off into the clouds of peace, love, psychedelia, self-realization, and enlightenment.
The first generation of punk, for all its apocalyptic proclamations, produced little more than sped-up Chuck Berry riffage. But its rhetorical pose opened up the doors for all types of unconventional music, convinced all sorts of people that they could do things for themselves, and built up an underground audience that could be led off in any number of directions. In that sense, practically, the Sisters of Mercy and Psychic TV could never have gotten very far were it not for the punk precedent and the way it informed the musical culture of the 1980s. That said, neither band could be said to have been born out of punk, or ultimately to have very much in common with it aesthetically or ideologically. In fact, both bands, in drastically different ways, looked back to, and continually meditated on, relived, and reinterpreted the legacy of that very period that punk had worked so hard to stamp out: the 1960s counterculture.
Sisters vocalist Andrew Eldritch is well-known as a vain, arrogant, self-aggrandizing diva. But this should come as no surprise, despite the fact that he’s nominally a product of the post-punk era: look at his Lou Reed sunglasses and his Jim Morrison leather pants and his Mick Jagger sneer. His lyrical opacity recalls Leonard Cohen, and his amphetamine-tense delusions of grandeur recall Bob Dylan. He makes no secret of these influences – the Sisters’ battery of covers is drawn from the canon of late-‘60s/early-‘70s rock, from Dylan to Cohen to the Velvets to Hendrix to Hawkwind. The Sisters of Mercy shunned punk’s egalitarianism and DIY ethics to strive for the cult of personality that surrounded the “geniuses” of the ‘60s. They wanted to be BIG – as Lennon put it, bigger than Jesus. When formerly-punk bands like the Clash got big, cries of “sellout” abounded, and icons like Joe Strummer had to nervously balance their status as “voices of a generation” with some sort of feigned humility and professed populism. On the other hand, Eldritch was unabashedly aloof and condescending and freely oozed this artistic megalomania that flourished in the ‘60s when major label stars could still be countercultural heroes, but was scarcely tolerated in the wake of punk.
^ A young Genesis
Genesis P-Orridge was a devotee of psychedelia and all its most extreme performance-art-bent permutations long before punk, and indeed long before Throbbing Gristle. If psychedelics push your consciousness to the limit, strip your ego bare, often nightmarishly confront and crumble your preconceptions, Throbbing Gristle could certainly be said to be truly psychedelic music. Psychic TV was just Genesis returning more explicitly to the actual origins of what lurked in the theoretical background of Throbbing Gristle’s distracting ominousness: the 1960s counterculture. When Gen started Psychic TV, s/he also started a magical order, thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. This functioned largely as a “cult” – individualistic in its rhetoric and fairly accessible to potential members, but inescapably recalling the profusion of “cults” that flourished as a result of the counterculture.
Unlike punk, which revolted against its deceptively permissive era by saying “no” to as many things as possible, the ‘60s counterculture revolted against an explicitly repressive era by saying “yes” to all kinds of weird and freaky things. “Mind-expanding” psychedelic consciousness left a generation seeking something to fill the void left by having all the traditional, materialistic illusions of square society shattered. They sought answers left and right, something to give a new transcendent meaning to the naked existential panic produced by the drugs. Even Christianity experienced a loved-out, longhaired resurgence (dig “Godspell”), but mostly hippies looked to mystic systems that seemed unfamiliar and exotic, thus more exciting and potentially possessing insights into the real shit that the sleepwalkers of straight society couldn’t grasp. Many seekers followed Timothy Leary in placing faith in the psychologically revelatory potential of the trip itself. Many turned to some permutation of Buddhist practice or followed Hindu gurus, their imaginations piqued by the wisdom of what they assumed to be the sage and more spiritually pure East. Others got into more home-grown alternative religions, becoming druids and flocking to Stonehenge, reconstructing witchcraft as a nature-based pagan cult, or pursuing the great work of ceremonial magic, making Aleister Crowley a posthumous superstar. Many simply became susceptible to any kind of superstition, grabbing into the mixed bag of divination, astrology, ESP, conspiracy theories, Atlantis, crystals, and UFOs. Some, in their suggestible, drug-addled openness, became enraptured with the idiosyncratic doctrines of charismatic demagogues, the most famous of which being that man whose excesses supposedly killed the idealism of the ‘60s, Charles Manson.
Genesis was neither unaware nor in denial of this dark undercurrent of psychedelic consciousness, nor of its potential for psychological manipulation. In fact, early Psychic TV reveals a fascination with the Process Church, Charles Manson, and Jim Jones, sampling their speeches in “Neurology” and on the Themes records, and playing up the creepy cultish aspect of the TOPY, shaving their heads with the severity of monks and wielding their “psychick cross” like a parody of a processional crucifix – a fairly clear continuation of the ambiguous taboo-teasing of Throbbing Gristle.
But for all this self-conscious engagement with the grim death toll of ‘60s idealism, Gen was not a cynic. S/he remained a seeker. The TOPY was not a simple social-experiment trick pulled on the gullible – they were serious about developing and promoting a new way to live, a new path by which to liberate one’s consciousness from the dull routines of mediated modern life, perhaps not as miscellaneously mystical as many of the ‘60s cults, but certainly in the same vein. Gen’s Temple had a basis in the western occult tradition, with Burroughs/Gysin bits thrown in about applying the cut-up technique to life in order to disrupt systems of control, married to Austin Osman Spare-derived chaos magic, including sigils and sex magic, all with a lot of fun, participatory trappings like wearing symbols and getting tattoos, wanking on the 23rd, staring at TVs to trip out, and, of course, the musical soundtrack of gigs meant to be shamanistic rites. They pushed a professedly positive message, laying out theories and practices for participants, and as time went on, their aesthetic and approach became increasingly explicitly hippy and trippy.
The Sisters of Mercy, on the other hand, were openly contemptuous of any of the “mystic fallacies” of the ‘60s counterculture, and balked at any notion of a transcendent path. Their “Alice” – perhaps a burnt-out version of the Alice from “White Rabbit” – portrays a failed seeker, reliant on drugs to tell her that the world’s okay, seeking illusory self-definition in crystals and tarot cards. The Sisters do engage with psychedelic states, but for them, it’s a raw-nerve psychological nightmare. Consciousness stripped bare, the quotidian world made alien, they harbor no illusions about new ways forward, new meanings to fill the void. No one is tending the light at the end of their terrifying tunnel. “The Body Electric” recounts a fear trip reminiscent of Dr. Gonzo’s bestial acid-fuelled suicidal freakout in the bathroom of Fear and Loathing. We see this drug casualty flailing in death with walls, the psychedelic state not some cut-up method to liberate life, but a weirdly self-imposed trauma which one has to survive. The Sisters dwell in the grim meat-hook realities awaiting failed seekers: on their black planet, when you tune in and turn on, you burn out in acid rain.
For all their preoccupation with the scary Mansonite potential of the counterculture itself, PTV or the TOPY never really accepted the world’s realities as grim – they maintained some faith in a heightened state, a method by which to escape the world. Charles Manson spoke of “getting the fear” – pushing yourself into paranoid states of extreme tension and terror in order to reach a new kind of liberatory high, one of his methods being breaking into houses to surreptitiously move furniture around without waking the residents. Perhaps the ultimate heightened state, by this line of thinking, is murder. This kind of darkness piqued PTV’s interest, but it was all still a species of seeking, of following an esoteric theory out of the mundane and into some maniacal nirvana.
The grim dead-end of the ‘60s that piqued Andrew Eldritch’s interest was not the convoluted guru gibberings of Manson – it was the eruption of latent yet very real violence at the Altamont Speedway concert. “If there’s a part of history where rock music stopped for a second and we began,” says Andrew, “if there’s a point where the seeds of what we do were sown, it’s probably Altamont, ‘cause it encapsulated everything wonderful at the time…it’s when the trip turned sour.” The Sisters reveled in the real danger of Altamont, when the Hells Angels “security,” who the hippies had naïvely thought to be countercultural brethren, exacerbated with their brutal thuggery the drug-fuelled mania that was already starting to drive the audience to violence from the inside. Altamont wasn’t about working to transcend the ego, it was about baring the id. As the Sisters riffed in their calculatedly dark version of “Gimmie Shelter,” “rape, murder, is just a kiss away” – under the desperately clung-to veneer of free love and peace and consciousness-expansion for two bucks a hit, there was not just creepy cult potential, but an impending spontaneous, violent freakout, drug-crazed whackos wandered too far out on the precipice, slathering, brawling, degenerated to the level of dumb beasts. That was exactly what delighted Andrew’s perverse sensibility.
But as the Sisters started wearing motorcycle jackets and claiming to use bikers as security (Lemmy’s entourage?), as their amphetamine logic was telling them there was nothing but the knife to live for, Psychic TV, now sans Pete Christopherson’s atonal influence and with a real rock drummer, Matt Best, adding structure to Paula’s tribal poundings, were covering “Good Vibrations” in a burst of deliberate sunniness. The video showed them in beads and bright colors, playing with a fish, dancing in a convertible, and frolicking on the beach.
It wasn’t a mocking piss-take either: they’d dedicated themselves to damn-catchy, harmony-laden “hyperdelic” pop music (often covering ‘60s icons like Dylan, the Floyd, Marianne Faithfull, the Velvets), hoping to use it to create the soundtrack for a film about Rolling Stone Brian Jones. This incarnation ditched the glowering, disciplined monk look and went full-on hedonistic Merry Prankster, painting their bus on their US tour with “Even Further.” For a TV appearance supporting their Brian Jones-worshipping pop song “Godstar,” they’re decked out in multicolored peacockery, and Gen makes explicit reference to the cultural sea-change taking place in the post-post-punk mid-‘80s, noting happily that it’s acceptable to talk about the ‘60s and psychedelia again.
Of course, there has always been something creepy – creepier than all the Sisters’ dry ice – about that unflappably cheeky, cheery psychedelia. PTV’s Magickal Mystery D Tour era approached the skin-crawling smiliness of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” or the early Pink Floyd. Gen even recorded a version of “Are You Experienced?” sung by he/r young daughter, Caresse. This sing-song psychedelia is perhaps so unsettling because it reminds you just how much the psychedelic state is like childhood – everything is bright and weird and wonderful to the imagination, but meaning is uncertain and fragile, and almost anything is as liable to terrify as it is to delight. It’s somewhat shocking to hear grown adults reduced to this vulnerable state.
But while PTV was trawling through ‘60s pop’s back pages, a new drug – ecstasy – dropped like a godsend into late ‘80s Britain along with a form of hypnotic dance music imported from Detroit called acid house. Gen had full faith in this peace-and-understanding pill, and got involved in popularizing this style and scene. Acid house-by-way-of-PTV became the true new UK counterculture, and its optimistic emphasis on DIY communal raves where people blissed-out on MDMA could get lost in thee infinite beat led to the dubbing of the summers of ’88 and ’89 “second summers of love.” In an interview from 1990, Gen admits that s/he was eager for a psychedelic dance music to modernize the spirit of the ‘60s for the high-tech age, and misinterpreted the name of the Detroit sound – the “acid” actually referring to the “acidic”-sounding frequency modulation of a Roland 303 – as referring to LSD. It’s no wonder Gen hopped on he/r misinterpretation of the acid house train. Instead of muddling around some rarified version of “ritual music” on an imaginary heathen earth populated only by the few seekers who survived the punk days in twisted, mutant form, s/he could be part of a rebirth of the original phenomenon: music that was authentically, inescapably ritualistic because it demanded the communal participation of masses of smiley-face-plastered kids orgiastically dancing in sunny fields.
If the early-‘70s Free Festival scene – a DIY safe place for the remaining freaks to turn on – was the diffused and democratized outgrowth of the ‘60s counterculture, acid house was the equivalent in relation to PTV’s hyperdelic magickal cult revival. Meanwhile, the Sisters of Mercy, however unwillingly, spawned goth rock in a way somewhat equivalent to how ‘60s psych rock spawned early-‘70s heavy metal. If the Free Festivals, and acid house, represented the communal, grassroots legacies of the ‘60s, heavy metal, and goth rock, were chart-scaling big business. By the end of the decade, the Sisters were pop successes, with a host of offshoots and imitators, most famously the Mission and Fields of the Nephilim, and hordes of devoted, black-clad, longhaired fans.
These groups were the Led Zeppelins and Black Sabbaths of their day. Fields of the Nephilim threw in Crowley references and black magic window-dressing à la heavy metal, but this was as far from the TOPY’s magic-as-rigorous-psychic-self-help-system as titling a song “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” was from being initiated into a practicing Wiccan coven in the ‘60s. The Sisters of Mercy’s ‘60s rock dalliances ended up in much same place as ‘70s rock: with major label rock stars pushing doomy vibes to an appreciative fanbase. Psychic TV’s obsession with ‘60s psychedelic seeking ended up much the same as well: a bunch of kids in fields celebrating sex, drugs, and smiles.