Charlie was our darling

 

From beatsperminute.com

 

The death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts on August 24th came as a blow.  Ask me to identify my favourite all-time band and four days of the week I’d say the Stones, at least during the years from 1969 to 1974 when they had Mick Taylor playing guitar with them.  (Ask me the other three days of the week and I’d probably say the Jesus and Mary Chain.)

 

A drummer who’d schooled himself in jazz music but paradoxically found himself thumping the tubs for the self-styled ‘biggest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’, Watts performed with none of the bombast of your archetypal rock drummer like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham – of whom Keith Richards once inquired perplexedly, “Did he have to hit those drums so hard?” But his immaculate backbeat imposed discipline on the Stones’ blues-rock sound, reining it in and holding it together when it could so easily have degenerated into sloppy, all-over-the-place chaos.

 

Meanwhile, Watts was endearing as a figure of modesty, decorum and decency amid the maelstrom of outrage, hysteria, decadence, heroin, cocaine, Jack Daniels, swimming-pool drownings, Hells Angels slayings, groupies, wild partying, alleged Mars Bar abuse, alleged whole-body blood transfusions, dabbling in black magic and shenanigans with Justin Trudeau’s mum that swirled around the band for the first two decades of its existence.  Among the many, many tributes to Watts this week, one that sticks in my mind is a below-the-line comment in the Guardian.  It was from a guy who’d once worked in a quarantine centre for animals arriving in Britain.  He’d made Watts’s acquaintance when the drummer’s cats and dogs ended up there after he and his wife returned to the UK from tax exile in France.  Apparently, while many owners never looked in on their poor pets for the whole duration of their quarantine, the animal-loving Stone made a point of coming to visit his every day.

 

As tales about Watts’s mild manners and niceness were legion, when he did lose the rag, it became the stuff of legend.  After he passed away on Monday, I noticed Mick Jagger’s name trending on twitter and discovered this was because people were tweeting and retweeting the tale of what happened in an Amsterdam hotel in 1984 when Jagger referred to Charlie Watts as ‘my drummer’.  Watts responded by yelling, “Never call me your drummer again!” and landing a right hook on him.  Such was the force in the punch, probably the only time that Watts exerted as much unsubtle power as John Bonham did, that the lippy one was knocked back onto a silver platter of salmon.  He then tilted towards an open window that overlooked a canal.  Supposedly, Keith Richards grabbed hold of Jagger before he disappeared out of the window, though only because at the time he was wearing one of Richards’ jackets, which the owner didn’t want to see dunked in a canal.  This is recounted in glorious detail in Richards’ autobiography Life (2010).  Therefore, it’s got to be true.

 

For me, the height of my Rolling Stones infatuation came during the 1990s, while I was living in Sapporo, capital city of Hokkaido, the northernmost island and prefecture of Japan.  For the first time in my life, I was earning a decent wage and didn’t feel guilty about splurging some of it on music.  By good luck, there was an excellent wee music shop dealing in specialty, bootleg and second-hand records on Hiragishi-dori, the avenue where I lived.  The shop’s lugubrious owner did very well out of me during the five years I was there.  It was at his establishment that I bought remastered versions of classic Stones albums that I’d only owned previously as crackly, crap-sounding cassette tapes: Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) Exile on Main Street (1972) and so on.  I also bought albums that people had told me were a bit duff, like Goat’s Head Soup (1973) and Black and Blue (1974), though I ended up thinking they were quite good.

 

One spooky Stones-related thing that happened during this period was when I held a Christmas party at my Sapporo apartment on December 18th, 1993, and then discovered that the party-date coincided with Keith Richards’ 50th birthday.  As a result, the evening was more Stones-themed than I’d planned.  I spent an early half-hour of it at my record player, playing and replaying a section of Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, the 1970 live album of the Stones performing in New York and Baltimore.  This was at the insistence of my Japanese colleague Tokunaga Sensei, also a Stones buff, who was convinced that there was a bit of it where you could hear members of the audience shouting in Japanese.  (The cover of Get Yer Ya-Yas Out features the shocking sight of the usually dapper Charlie Watts prancing around in white pants and T-shirt and an Uncle Sam hat.  The album also contains Jagger’s affectionate but accurate onstage remark: “Charlie’s good tonight.”)

 

© Decca 

 

The party got truly Stones-ian later on.  A lady I’d invited from the local hairdressing salon flipped her lid after a few drinks and started assaulting the other guests, while Sympathy for the Devil played in the background.  As Jagger remarked at the ill-fated Altamont concert in 1969, after someone had been stabbed to death in the crowd, “Something always happens when we play that number.”

 

Early in 1995, I heard exciting news.  The Rolling Stones were playing seven concerts at Tokyo Dome in early March as part of their Voodoo Lounge tour.  I hadn’t seen the band live before, so this seemed a golden opportunity to do so.  Unfortunately, I had other commitments at that time.  I’d arranged to do some freelance work with the Fodor’s Travel company, who planned to bring out a new edition of their Japan guidebook and wanted someone to update its chapters on Hokkaido and Tohoku, the northernmost part of the main Japanese island of Honshu.  As I had a break from my regular job during February and March, I’d intended to wander around Hokkaido and Tohoku, doing the guidebook research.  Determined to have my cake and eat it, I bought a ticket for the Stones and planned to spend late February and the first half of March in Tohoku, doing research, but taking a break for a few days in the middle to pop down to Tokyo.

 

That research trip in Tohoku proved to be one of the most physically punishing things I’ve done in my life.  Hokkaido was cold at that time of year, but I hadn’t expected Tohoku to be so bloody cold too.  Also, in my haste to clinch the Fodor’s job – wow, I thought, here’s my big chance to be a travel writer! – I stupidly agreed to accept a lump-sum payment at the end of it, which meant I got nothing to pay for my expenses while I actually did the work.  Therefore, to minimize costs, I decided to stay in youth hostels and hitchhike around rather than travel by bus or train.  Sleeping in Tohoku’s drafty wooden hostels and thumbing my way along its highways during wintertime proved not to be a good idea.

 

To make things worse, my itinerary depended on what was written in the previous edition of the Fodor’s Japan Guidebook.  Trying to find many of the tourist sites, whose prices, opening times, attractions, etc., I was supposed to be checking and updating, proved a nightmare because whoever had written the previous edition seemed to have been drunk at the time.  Or more likely, hadn’t actually been to many of those places and had just made it up instead.  Getting hopelessly lost became a daily occurrence.

 

Looking back on it now, I can laugh, but there were times when I thought I was going to die or go insane.  Trudging in ever-maddening circles around the castle town of Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture, trying to find a tourist attraction, until a local explained to me that the streets’ layout was deliberately confusing, designed in medieval times to confuse any attackers who entered the town intending to locate and assault the castle.  Getting a lift in a pick-up truck with an old geezer who’d never spoken to a foreigner before and was so excited by my presence that he might have been tripping on LSD while we whizzed at top speed along the highway.  Venturing up to Lake Tazawa in the mountains above Akita City, arriving at night, wandering into a snowbound youth hostel and finding it inexplicably deserted, and wondering if I’d just strayed into an uncanny tale of the supernatural by Lafcadio Hearn.  Coming into a freezing Fukushima City after dark, discovering that a big conference was taking place there and all the hotels were fully booked, and having to spend the night sleeping among the local homeless community in an underpass next to an open sewer.

 

© Universal Music LLC / From discogs.com

 

It was after the Fukushima episode that – thank God – the time came for me to jump on a bullet train and head down to Tokyo, where I holed up in a hotel and spent the next couple of days in a bathtub with an unlimited supply of beer. Then, scrubbed up and feeling human again, I went to Tokyo Dome to see the Stones.

 

No doubt it wasn’t the greatest Stones concert ever.  The set leaned towards the overly familiar – Satisfaction, Start Me Up, Angie, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll – although I was delighted that they played Tumbling Dice off Exile on Main Street.  But as a communal experience where you switched your brain off for a couple of hours and just got into the groove, and especially after the wretched, wintry experiences I’d been through up north, it was rather wonderful.  Jagger tried to show off his mastery of the Japanese language, which was funny.  Keith Richards shambled to the front of the stage to sing a song at one point and, looking at the Tokyo masses, croaked, “I don’t see you very often, but when I do, I certainly see a lot of you.”  At his drumkit, Charlie Watts sported his usual expression, half-bemused, half like that of a man nervously eyeing the misfits around him and thinking, “If I just keep on playing, maybe these nutters won’t notice I’m here…”

 

Tellingly, when Jagger introduced all the musicians to the crowd near the end of the set, starting with backing vocalists Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler, working his way up to Darryl Jones (who’d replaced Bill Wyman on bass) and then onto the Stones themselves, it was Charlie Watts who got by far the biggest and longest cheer of the night.  In fact, for so long did the Japanese crowd show their adulation that the poor guy looked a bit embarrassed by it.

 

Then again, with his modesty, humility and politeness, with that hardy gaman shimsasho-type attitude he displayed whilst playing with the Stones for 58 years and, simultaneously, the sense of wa that he had with his bandmates, with his love of a sharp suit and his occasional flashes of samurai spirit – which Jagger experienced to his cost when he got lamped in Amsterdam – Charlie Watts exhibited many of the finest Japanese virtues.  No wonder the crowd that night loved him.

 

From twitter.com/officialKeef

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