The Jesus and Mary Chain are an alternative rock band from the Scottish town of East Kilbride who’ve been in existence for 29 of the last 37 years. They are essentially the brothers Jim and William Reid singing vocals and playing guitars, with a long and ever-changing cast of drummers and bassists, including Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, filling out the rhythm section. On at least three days of the week, they’re my favourite band of all time. (I’d say on the other four days of the week, my favourite all-time band are probably the Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones.)
However, it wasn’t until four years after their formation in 1983 that I started listening to them. When they first came to prominence, the media focused not on their music but on their habit of delivering gigs just 20 minutes long, something that the Reid brothers later blamed on not having enough decent songs to play. Also, they’d perform with their backs to the audience and cloak their sound in squalls of feedback. This didn’t go down well with the punters and resulted in bottles being thrown and much general disgruntlement. Not having had a rock-and-roll bogeyman to demonise since the days of the Sex Pistols, the tabloid press happily described these gigs as ‘riots’.
A mate of mine went to see the band in Aberdeen in 1985, got the 20-minute, backs-turned, wails-of-feedback routine and then wrote a review for a student newspaper in which he called the gig ‘a load of bollocks’. And for some time afterwards, I felt reluctant to part with my money for the sake of the Jesus and Mary Chain.
It wasn’t until 1987 that I accidentally heard some of their music. My brother had recorded an album by the Pogues on a cassette tape for me and, to fill some remaining space on the tape, stuck the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Some Candy Talking EP (1986) on it too. The EP I found surprisingly tuneful, in a lugubrious sort of way. The following winter, I worked in a ski-resort hotel in Switzerland, where I procured a tape of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s second studio album Darklands (1987) from an alternative music-inclined English girl who was employed in the hotel’s bar. I liked that enough to track down, soon after, their first studio album Psychocandy (1986) and a compilation album of their B-sides and rarity tracks, the fabulously titled Barbed Wire Kisses (1988).
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Psychocandy is a combination of abrasive noise and, less expectedly, some wistful, haunted melodising that makes you imagine you’re hearing the ghosts of the Shangri-Las singing through a spirit medium. Among the songs in the noise category are The Living End, In a Hole, Inside Me and It’s So Hard, while the melodic ones include the opener Just Like Honey, The Hardest Walk, Cut Dead, Sowing Seeds and the aforementioned Some Candy Talking. Other songs are hybrids that somehow manage to fall into both camps, like Taste the Floor, Never Understand and My Little Underground.
Darklands, meanwhile, largely eschews the noise and embraces the melodic but melancholic. Most of its songs fit the mood suggested by its gloomy title but, in spite of themselves, are often exhilarating too. The standouts for me include the title song and Cherry Came Too, Happy When It Rains and Nine Million Rainy Days, which contains the cheery lines, “As far as I can tell / I’m being dragged from here to hell / All my time in hell was spent with you…” Nine Million Rainy Days, however, veers off in an unexpected direction towards the end when it borrows the famous ‘woo-woo’ backing vocals that grace the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil (1969), though here they mutate into ‘woo-woo, woo-woo, woo!’ Evidence, if it didn’t exist already, that the Reid brothers were, for all their modish abrasiveness, happy to ransack the annals of classic rock music for ideas and inspiration.
Q magazine, I think, once likened the songs on Darklands to ‘Scottish blues’, though you could also identify the album as a prototype record for the soon-to-be-popular shoegazer movement, but with more drive and focus. You could even call it an outlier in the already popular goth-rock genre, though without goth’s self-conscious melodrama. Actually, I suspect if you told Jim and William Reid they were goths, they’d punch you in the face.
But it was Barbed Wire Kisses and especially the track Sidewalking that finally made me fall in love with the band. Sidewalking is a massive, swaggering thing that sounds like a bastard child of the Velvet Underground and T. Rex, a combination I found irresistible. Elsewhere, Kisses reaffirms the band’s love of late 1950s / early 1960s American pop and rock music by offering cover versions of the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA and, particularly good, Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love?
By the end of the 1980s, I’d started a job in northern Japan. I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s latest album, Automatic (1989), in a Tower Records store in the prefectural capital, Sapporo. Automatic is commonly regarded as the runt in the litter of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s albums – it made heavy use of a drum machine, which offended a lot of people – although I remember it being enthusiastically received at the time and getting into the ‘albums of the year’ lists of publications like the Melody Maker and New Musical Express. Personally, it’s my favourite of all the band’s records, with that crunchy Velvet Underground-meets-T. Rex swagger to the fore. Its tracks that were released as singles, Blues from a Gun and Head On, are great. Head On even had the honour of being covered by the Pixies in their 1991 album Trompe le Monde. However, for my money, the best thing on the record is the riff-tastic but overlooked song UV Ray.
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Although the Jesus and Mary Chain had a signature sound and you were never in doubt about whom you were hearing, they were surprisingly varied. Just as Psychocandy had that dichotomy of discordant noise and yearning soulfulness, so they’d moved from the exquisite cry-into-your-beer moroseness of Darklands to the strutting, sneering panache of Automatic in the space of two years.
For me at least, the Jesus and Mary Chain were on a roll and their next album, Honey’s Dead (1992), was another stormer. Especially memorable is its opening track, Reverence, whose lyrics provocatively declare, “I want to die just like Jesus Christ / I want to die on a bed of spikes… / I want to die just like JFK / I want to die on a sunny day…”. The breezy Far Out and Gone and the blistering Catchfire are splendid too.
Around this time, not only did the band get invited to take part in the 1992 Lollapalooza Tour in the United States alongside the likes of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Ministry and Pearl Jam, but they mounted their own scaled-down version of Lollapalooza back in the UK. This was the Rollercoaster Tour, which they headlined. I was lucky enough to catch a performance of the Rollercoaster Tour at London’s Brixton Academy. It featured not only excellent support from American alternative rockers Dinosaur Jr and dreamy, swirly shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, but also a chance to sample a new, up-and-coming band called Blur. I have to say my impression when I saw the youthful Damon Albarn ambling about onstage, cheerfully gormless, wasn’t that he was destined to be an icon of the future Britpop movement but that he resembled a musical version of Norman Wisdom. Meanwhile, the headliners blew me away. Promoting Honey’s Dead, the Jesus and Mary Chain played their set as dark silhouettes against a huge blood-red backdrop and were simultaneously glorious, imperious, uncompromising… and a bit terrifying.
With hindsight, the early 1990s was when the Jesus and Mary Chain peaked for me and I didn’t enjoy the albums they produced later in the decade as much as I’d enjoyed Automatic and Honey’s Dead. 1994’s Stoned and Dethroned is a comparatively mellow affair, at times almost a Jesus and Mary Chain Unplugged, although it does feature a collaboration with Shane MacGowan, recorded a few years after he’d parted company with the Pogues. This track is called God Help Me and, given the condition MacGowan was in at the time, it was probably aptly titled.
1998’s Munki has a brilliant single, Cracking Up, which yet again shows that the band know what to do when they get their teeth into a memorable guitar riff. Elsewhere, Virtually Unreal bounces along nicely and I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll is enjoyably caustic, offering such bad-karma lines as “I love the BBC / I love it when they’re pissing on me / And I love MTV / I love it when they’re shitting on me / I hate rock ‘n’ roll / And all these people with nothing to show…’ But there are a few other tracks on the album that go on for too long.
Rather better is the band’s second compilation of B-sides and oddities, 1993’s The Sound of Speed. Among other things, this features the band having a go at such standards as Smoky Robinson’s My Girl, Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster and Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song. They also manage a gloriously rumbunctious take on Jerry Reed’s Guitar Man, which was famously covered by Elvis Presley in 1967. So much did I like the Jesus and Mary Chain’s rendering of Guitar Man, and so unfamiliar was I with Elvis’s oeuvre at the time, that when I subsequently heard the 1967 version the first thought that popped into my head was: “Wow, is that Elvis attempting a Jesus and Mary Chain song?” And yet another praiseworthy cover on The Sound of Speed is their wonderfully lithe, snaking version of the 13th Floor Elevators’ Reverberation.
By the late 1990s the vitriol expressed in the lyrics of I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll had seemingly overpowered the band. The relationship between Jim and William Reid had often not been easy, especially when they were under pressure onstage or in the studio, and they’d long been known in the British music press as ‘the Brothers Grim’. Their one-time drummer John Moore once remarked that they’d experienced ‘enough fraternal conflict to make the Gallagher brothers look like princes William and Harry’ and quoted Jim as saying: “It’s like being locked in a cupboard with somebody for 15 years. If it wasn’t your brother, you could kick him out.”
When I saw them in concert again in the summer of 1998, in Edinburgh, it was clear that things weren’t rosy in Jesus and Mary Chain World. “William, just shut up!” Jim yelled in the front of the audience when his brother started singing a song intro off-key. In September that year, a bust-up at the House of Blues venue in Los Angeles, wherein Jim was inebriated and William stormed off the stage, resulted in a gig that echoed the chaos at the start of the band’s career by lasting all of 15 minutes. It was no surprise when, the following year, it was announced that the band had split.
I missed the Jesus and Mary Chain during the noughties. Ironically, during the years when they weren’t around, it seemed you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting some new band that’d obviously been influenced by them – for example, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Raveonettes, the xx and even the Scottish indie rock band Glasvegas. Meanwhile, I felt a pang when I saw the Sofia Coppola-directed movie Lost in Translation (2003) because, unexpectedly, the song accompanying the final scene when Bill Murray bids farewell to Scarlett Johansson was none other than the first track on the first Jesus and Mary Chain album, Just Like Honey.
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Yet somehow Jim and William managed to patch things up in 2007 and they performed at that year’s Coachella festival in California (with Scarlett Johannsen showing up to provide vocals for Just Like Honey) and Meltdown festival in London. Since then, the Jesus and Mary Chain have done intermittent tours and gigs and overseen new releases of their old material. But it wasn’t until 2017 that they finally got around to putting out a new album, Damage and Joy.
Their seventh studio album starts off powerfully with a clutch of songs that, in the way the Jesus and Mary Chain of old managed so effortlessly, fuse together the sunny harmonies of late-1950s / early-1960s bubble-gum pop music with some 1980s guitar distortion and general bad attitude – the sinewy Amputation, the meditative War on Peace, the irrepressible All Things Must Past. Thereafter, among the album’s total of 14 songs, there are a few things that could have been excised to create a leaner package. But there’s still lots of good stuff.
The band remain capable of penning lyrics that are amusingly provocative, as demonstrated by the avantgarde Simian Split. The song boasts, ‘I killed Kurt Cobain / I put the shot right through his brain / And his wife gave me the job / Because I’m a big fat lying slob’. Let’s hope this song never finds its way onto Courtney Love’s iPhone, or indeed, her lawyer’s iPhone. Elsewhere I love the uplifting The Two of Us, the bouncy Presidici (Et Chapaquiditch), and Facing Up to the Facts, which channels part of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues (1959) amid its muscular guitar work.
Incidentally, Facing Up to the Facts contains the lyrics, ‘I hate my brother and he hates me / That’s the way it’s supposed to be’. Which suggests that, at long last, the Jesus and Mary Chain have achieved a dark but stable peace.