A sad day for the Sisters

 

© Merciful Release

 

When American music composer and producer Jim Steinman died last week, the tributes paid to him made heavy mention of two titles: 1977’s Bat Out of Hell, the album by Meat Loaf, and 1983’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, the ballad by Bonnie Tyler.  Steinman wrote the songs, played keyboards and percussion and provided ‘lascivious effects’ on the former and wrote and produced the latter.  He was not a man who did things by halves in his orchestrations, in his lyrics or in the performances he encouraged from his singers.  Thus, both Bat and Eclipse are synonymous with bombast, histrionics, chest beating, garment rending, howling at the moon and general wildly over-the-top melodrama.

 

Which makes my experiences with Steinman’s two most famous pieces of work strange.  Because when I hear Bat Out of Hell nowadays, the images that it conjures up in my head are of the summer landscapes of bucolic Country Tyrone in Northern Ireland: of hayfields, barley-fields and pastureland populated by herds of cattle and flocks of sheep.  Whereas if I hear a burst of Total Eclipse of the Heart, I’m immediately transported to the wolds of equally bucolic County Lincolnshire in England, during the early springtime, with freshly ploughed fields undulating off into the soft morning mist.

 

To elaborate. In the summer of 1982 I worked on the farm of my Uncle Annett, in the Clogher Valley in County Tyrone. My cousin there was a big Meat Loaf fan and when we weren’t toiling in the fields and were back in the farmhouse, Bat Out of Hell never seemed to be off the stereo. The farmhouse reverberated with the vrooming of motorcycles and Meat Loaf hollering about screaming sirens, howling fires, evil in the air, thunder in the sky, being all revved up with nowhere to go, praying for the end of time, glowing like metal on the edge of a knife, etc.  Stirring stuff, but it was incongruous background music for my life at the time, which consisted of lugging around bales of hay, mucking out cowsheds, feeding pigs, thinning turnips and holding down sheep while they had their fleeces sheared.

 

Admittedly, I did ride a motorbike that summer.  My cousin had recently graduated from riding a motorbike to driving a car and his old motorcycle was stashed in an outhouse on the farm. My uncle took it out and taught me how to ride it.  I didn’t venture out onto the roads, though.  Instead, I’d ride it up the surrounding slopes and across the surrounding fields when I had to check on my uncle’s sheep.  So no doubt while I cruised past those woolly flocks, Meat Loaf was roaring in my brain about hitting the highway like a battering ram on a silver-black phantom bike and so on.

 

© Sony / Epic / Cleveland International Records

 

Fast-forward eight months from then to March 1983 and I was employed in a different job in a different part of the world. I was working as a volunteer houseparent and classroom-assistant at a residential school for ‘maladjusted boys’, which was the un-politically correct 1980s parlance for what today would be termed ‘boys with behavioural issues’.  The school was on the outskirts of the town of Louth in Lincolnshire, in the English Midlands. Walk one way from the school and you’d end up in the town, walk the other way and you’d soon be among the gently curving Lincolnshire wolds.  The school’s older boys stayed in their own residence, with its own kitchen and living room, and I was doing an evening shift there one Thursday when Top of the Pops started on the living-room TV. The show aired a newly released song and video by Bonnie Tyler, Total Eclipse of the Heart.

 

The Lincolnshire lads in the residence were either sharp-footed Michael Jackson wannabes or bequiffed rockabilly types who’d been influenced by the Elvis albums in their dads’ record collections. Their immediate reaction, and my immediate reaction, was: “What the f**k are we listening to?”  For Ms Tyler’s tonsil-rattling performance, caterwauling about falling in love, falling apart, living in a powder keg, giving off sparks, forever going to start tonight, etc., was unlike anything we’d heard before.

 

It was also unlike anything we’d seen before.  The video, directed by Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy, and full of fluttering candles, billowing lace curtains, slow-motion flapping doves, dancing ninjas, nocturnal fencers, indoor American football players, acrobats in bondage gear and glowing-eyed demonically possessed choirboys, was pretty far-out too.

 

The song immediately went to number one in the British singles charts so I heard a lot of it in the ensuing weeks.  In particular, it got played a lot in Louth’s top – only? – post-pub nightspot of the time, which was the social club for the local branch of the Liberal Party.  Thus, while its dance floor quaked to the bellowing of Bonnie Tyler, I’d be sitting having a pint with some regulars who were proudly telling me for the umpteenth time how they’d ‘had David Steel in here just the other year.’

 

Today I don’t mind Bat Out of Hell too much, but I could happily live the rest of my life – and any future lives, if reincarnation is a thing – without ever hearing Total Eclipse of the Heart again.  For one thing, Eclipse’s success spawned a zillion hideous 1980s and 1990s power ballads, sung under the misapprehension that the louder and shriller you are, the greater the emotion you convey.  The biggest culprit here is Celine Dion and yes, it was Jim Steinman who penned her interminable 1996 ballad It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

 

From jimsteinman.com

 

And yet…  I can forgive Steinman for any crimes he indirectly committed against music by encouraging the growth of the power ballad.  That’s because for a couple of years at the end of the 1980s he worked with the Goth-rock band the Sisters of Mercy and made them sound like the mightiest group in the universe.  In 1990 he co-wrote and co-produced the storming tune More with the band’s frontman Andrew Eldritch, while in 1987 he produced two Sisters songs, Dominion / Mother Russia and This Corrosion.  The latter is surely one of the greatest Goth anthems ever.

 

Although This Corrosion was written by Andrew Eldritch, it has Steinman’s aural fingerprints all over it, most notably the Wagnerian squalls of guitar and the use of the 40-strong New York Choral Society to provide a celestial choir at the beginning.  Sweetly, the first comment below the song’s video on YouTube claims that “When a Goth dies, their voice gets added to the choir at the intro.”

 

Eldritch once told Sounds magazine that “It’s about the idiots, full of sound and fury, who stampede around this world signifying nothing… about people who sing about the corrosion of things while they themselves are falling apart.”  Supposedly, the sound-and-fury-filled idiots he had in mind were his former colleagues Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams, who quit the Sisters of Mercy in 1985 and formed their own band the Mission.  Elsewhere, in Q magazine, he likened the relationship between the Sisters of Mercy and the Mission to that between China and Taiwan.  It was obvious which band Eldritch considered the equivalent of the massive, nuclear-armed superpower.

 

Now I like the Mission.  However, in 1998, a 36-song compilation of 1980s and 1990s Goth, industrial, synth and dark indie music was put together under the title of Nocturnal and it had This Corrosion as its opening track and then the Mission’s song Deliverance as its second one.  And when I heard the two played together, I realised that with their Steinman-produced opus the Sisters of Mercy blasted the Mission out of the water.  Incidentally, This Corrosion is used to great effect in the finale of Edgar Wright’s underrated 2013 sci-fi / horror / comedy movie The World’s End.

 

Despite having a reputation for being a bit of a dick to work with, Eldritch spoke generously of Steinman.  For instance, he said that Steinman “really knows how to make a wonderfully stupid record.  Totally outrageous.  Every time you think to yourself, do we really want to go this far, and you say to Jim, ‘Jim, are sure about this?’ and anybody else will go, ‘Don’t do it!’, Jim goes, ‘More!  More!  More people singing!’  It works.”

 

That’s the spirit.  And here, for anyone wishing to really immerse themselves in Jim Steinman’s glorious bombast, is a link to the 11-minute remix of This Corrosion.

 

From marktracks.blogspot.com / youtube.com

Why I love the Jesus and Mary Chain

 

© Mike Laye

 

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).

 

© Blanco y Negro

 

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.

 

© Blanco y Negro

 

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.

 

© Creation

 

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.

 

© Artificial Plastic Records

 

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.

 

From nativetongue.com.au