The Unlikely Pairing of Sisters of Mercy and Public Enemy

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“When’s the last time you went to a concert and were shocked?” says Chuck D of Public Enemy. “Rarely does the crowd get fuckin’ taken aback by a combination.” So get set for the cultural shock of the summer. Sisters of Mercy frontman Andrew Eldritch envisioned a Sisters-P.E. tour and, with reality upon him, insists it’s a harmonious coup: “Any kids that can put up with a snotty english band that plays rock with a drum machine is bound to give Public Enemy a good ear.” Rolling Stone, 1991.

Remember that one time the seminal band “I’m not goth therefore I am the gothiest” Sisters of Mercy did a US tour with NYC’s reigning rap group Public Enemy in 1991? If so, you probably don’t remember this tour as one to unite the world’s view of subcultures and genres, but instead as one that pointed out the blatant and ugly separation of opposing music (life)styles. “The Tune In, Turn On, Burn Out” tour also included UK post-punkers Gang of Four, hard rock band Warrior Soul and newbie rap group Young Black Teenagers on the roster, adding even more confusion to the projected goal of the lineup.

The sentiments of Chuck D and Mr. Eldritch prior to the tour (see above) seemed to be positive, a naive estimation of their fans’ devout devotion towards one genre of music or another. Eldritch is right: in terms of music, both bands relied on the beat of a drum machine and both genres of music had dabbled in mainstream music. But he was so, so wrong in thinking that this tour would be a success. However, it must be said that 1991 was the same year Lollapalooza began, the touring festival in the US that provided a stage for diverse genres, with headliners such as Janes Addiction, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Ice-T’s Body Count and Nine Inch Nails. This intersection of music styles in an open festival format worked for the US audience, rather than the isolated environment of an intimate venue, which comprised the Sisters/P.E. tour.

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Tour flyer for the cancelled gig at Red Rocks in Denver, Colorado on August 8, 1991 – from sisterswiki.org

It seems that despite the Sisters’ label, Elektra, had grievances towards the denotative lineup, Eldritch still went along with the tour – perhaps for spite. Obviously this hard-headedness did not benefit anyone, causing embarrassment to the bands, promoters and labels involved. Ticket sales were so dire that the west coast leg of the tour was cancelled partially through with six remaining dates in Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Denver and Berkeley. Needless to say, the media did not hesitate to spotlight this tour as an outright failure with their harsh criticisms.

Chicago Tribune on July 14, 1991:

The Sisters of Mercy wallows in the horror and illogic of the world while Public Enemy tries to make sense of it and shake things up. Gang of Four is alienated by society, while Warrior Soul wants to dismiss it with contempt. The result was a fascinating cultural event and a frustrating concert in which the groups’ disparities became more apparent than any shared bond.

New York Times on July 26, 1991:

Although Sisters of Mercy topped the bill, part of the audience left after Public Enemy finished. “We should be supporting Public Enemy,” Andrew Eldritch, the Sisters’ leader, said from the stage; in England, “supporting” means “opening for.” But it was only lip service. Otherwise, the Sisters of Mercy might have shortened their overlong set and given Public Enemy more time… Each band was blunt and focused, but disappeared after its set. If the musicians really want to suggest a new community, they might consider playing a finale together.

It didn’t take long for Eldritch to retaliate with his comment in a 1992 MTV interview in which he says: “I thought [the tour] might be interesting… unfortunately, it was too interesting for America. America’s got a big problem with anything that’s too interesting, particularly when it’s black and white… So, it didn’t go as well as it might have done.”