Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Everything’s alright when you’re down

“Where I go I don't look back
Head to toe I'm dressed in black”



It was by complete coincidence that while I was trawling through Amazon recently I came across Zoë Howe’s new book about the Jesus and Mary Chain. I was actually looking for John Robertson’s old picture biography from 1988, a kind of teen-orientated tome from memory with more pictures than text, but nonetheless a compulsory trophy for any Mary Chain fan and collector. Maybe I am confusing Robertson’s book with something else as the last time I saw one was the early 90s in the dorm room of a young red head who I had met at Fruition Club and she seemed more interesting than the book. In any case, it is about time to revise the Mary Chain myth as a long time has passed since 1988 and 2014 and the arrival of Howe’s book, already out in the UK, but with a US launch ready for November this year. The timing is perfect too, in the wake of the Scottish referendum and as the Mary Chain have been active again and are performing Psychocandy live in full at several shows in November and they have already been playing on the festival circuit as well. According to several reports there is new material on the way, but we will wait and see.

The Mary Chain formed in East Kilbride in 1983 and wreaked havoc across the music industry until their breakdown and breakup in 1999 on tour in the USA. Howe’s book covers the whole of this story while adding a few closing chapters about their solo work and then a promising chapter about the present, about their reformation and the hope that they may yet release more material. That Howe’s book is entitled “Barbed Wire Kisses: the Jesus and Mary Chain Story” gives the game away a little, however. This is essentially a book that tells the story, but does not always dive into analysis or criticism where it might be necessary. For instance, she goes light on Munki, the bands much maligned 1998 album, refusing to criticise it and let us know what was really wrong with it, while letting us have a few hopeful quotes of self-defence from the band to get us by. Some of the bigger themes to the story are raised, but don’t perhaps get the attention they deserve, like the groups iconoclastic and stylistic fascination with classic US rock and pop, how they used Jesus imagery, the influence of their legacy and above all, what made them so important in the first place as the Mary Chain were in many ways oddly out of their time.

Howe’s book is nonetheless a more than satisfying read for any fan who ever wanted to have the
whole story neatly packaged into one volume. Its chapters are short and direct, much like the groups songs, and there is plenty of excess and excitement to keep the pages turning. Those who remember reading the NME and Melody Maker back in the day will have seen or heard, or think they’ve heard, the whole story by now, but of course there are behind the scenes stories and intimate details as well as plenty of myth busting and the wisdom endowed by time to look back on events from afar that would never have been published there and which need a book. It is frustrating that William Reid did not want to contribute to the book, which is no fault of Howe’s, and it is tempting to draw comparisons to Erik Morse’s “Spacemen 3 And The Birth Of Spiritualized” which is equally frustrating for its detailed narrative, but lack of analysis and above all the absence of Jason Pierce, despite what the title may have you believe (in this case one sniff’s a publishing stink where the more bankable name of Spiritualized was necessary to sell a few more copies. Incidentally, a minor editorial oversight see’s Howe refer to the group by the UK spelling of Spiritualised. It was clearly well thought out by Jason from the beginning that his new group was going to have to crack the US market to have any success and therefore he branded them appropriately from the beginning).
William Reid, apparently living in LA now, also did not appear in the documentary “Upside Down: The Creation Records Story”




and probably also does not appear in the shoegaze documentary “Beautiful Noise” by the look of things either, by the way.




Howe’s telling of the Reid brother’s fractious relationship certainly makes them seem worlds apart in terms of personality, but that they are two sides of the same undividable talent. Jim was apparently more into booze and class A drugs, whereas William seemed more content with smoking weed towards the end, neither of which helped the paranoia and their ability to hold it together. It is tragic and funny to hear them compare themselves to their Lolapalooza colleagues who all had personal trainers and special healthy diets, whereas our glum heroes from Scotland came only armed with drugs, booze and attitude. William also plays the shadowy figure to the story, absent physically, but providing the song writing genius; a casual look at the 21 Singles compilation will show you he is the accredited song writer on 17 of them, Jim three and they share the credits on “Upside Down”. But Jim Reid is the necessary front man and voice of the book, a buffer that lets William play away in the background. His golden voice and brooding figure is as essential to the Mary Chain sound as feedback and William’s solos, giving emotion, venom and dirt to the lyrics. This is not as easy as it seems as, like all good rock n roll, there is not always a lot of meaning or sense in the words, but a proper singer can add meaning where none exists or who can commit to the song and therefore convey its obscure message with total clarity. It’s like actors in science fiction films who manage to convince you their world is real when they talk about things as ludicrous as stun lasers, light speed travel, alien species and other pseudo-scientific gibberish. It’s not easy to do it with a straight face or to mean it.

“I'm taking my thoughts to the railway station
Put 'em on a train just to see what's coming back
What's coming back, it's coming like a heart attack”





But there are many critical questions left unanswered by the story. Firstly, the release of “Upside Down” in October 1984 at the same time as the bands notorious early shows begs the question: why was their punk attitude so important in the early 1980s so many years after punk had been and failed? A look at the commercial charts from 1983, the year the Mary Chain formed, reveals a lot of breezy synth pop from Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and the like. The next year would be more of the same. On a commercial level then, there was an utter lack of sincerity or social comment and a near total absence of guitars as synthesisers and studio trickery began to replace talent, practice and cohesion as a band. This was music that needed to be taken down, again, and there was only one way to do it and that was from the inside out.

The Sex Pistols trajectory in relation to pop bears many similarities to the Mary Chain, but with several important differences, most significantly that the Pistols’ attack was from the outside in, despite the privileged position in the music business. The Sex Pistols ushered in an era of social rock, where the mindlessness of pop’s lyrics where replaced by a mandatory social comment and a visceral attempt to capture what was real in your life and not what was desired in the idyll life proposed on advertising hoardings and in government slogans and the corrupt dreams of corporations. But the grim reality of the streets, despite the fact that Malcom McClaren and company also had boutique art world connections, required a lot of anger which was self-limiting in terms of the emotional range possible even if it fueled the constant attacks that brought the first breaches in the wall. Punk was the sound of music and society turning against itself. But for all of its social comment, rage against the machine and political antagonism, punk was an infertile and loveless torpor. Post punk added creative possibilities with new electronic instruments, textures and funk and thus revealed a way out of punk’s cul-de-sac, but in terms of context, the aim was still largely social, although the growing lure of the dance floor did not escape the eyes of all its participants. When the Mary Chain entered the scene they essentially looped out the intervening years, between The Sex Pistols’ impact and their arrival, restoring commercial pop’s forever broken-hearted sentimentality and romance to where it had been ripped from the heart in the throes of aggression and anger that was punk’s nihilism. At the heart of the Mary Chain was anger and boredom, but also sadness, melancholy and longing, emotions whose path lead back to punk by groups like The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but which also originated beyond them all in the 50s and 60s. Whereas punk had drawn from the “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968” compilation for inspiration, the Mary Chain had also turned to old classic pop and R&B for inspiration, re-appropriating Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, Syd Barrett and more into their arsenal. Many of their most renowned tracks are classic break-up songs like “April Skies” and “Happy when it rains” which are Motown with feedback and almost anti-punk in their positioning. The fact that Jim Reid sang with an almost American accent is also revealing about their alliance to the roots of rock and roll and their goal of doing an inside job on the business and the dominant culture of the times.

The young Mary Chain had also witnessed the punk bands start hard and fast and then burn out over one or two albums, a fade out perhaps fuelled in part by the short half-life of the rage of youth, but also helped by the major label deals of those who signed up and thus those who were bought out by the system they had gathered to rally against. The Mary Chain’s trajectory depended a lot on this. Dropping the psychedelic feedback squall of Psychocandy for the melancholy drum machine ballads of Darklands was highly considered way of avoiding repetition, but of also easing the inevitable transition towards maturity, older age and commercial expectation. Even more so, was when they cast in their lot well and truly with pop by going country on Stoned and Dethroned. The Reid’s knew early that continuing the band and being successful meant joining the industry, there was no avoiding it, and there was certainly no way they would go back to factory jobs in Glasgow. The Mary Chain were to join the industry reluctantly, but would instead attack them from the inside, something evident from the very beginning, from the prophetic “Upside Down” (turning the world around), to “In a hole” which was a manifesto of sorts, of how music had to be.

“How can something crawl within
My rubber holy baked bean tin?
It's god to me, it's god to me
This is heart and soul”

Of course, there is also the more blatant “I hate rock n roll” and “Write record release blues”. There were also plenty more jibes and digs, from naming the better, longer version of their top ten hit “Reverence” as the “radio edit” to perhaps confuse stupid radio DJs, to their sabotage of almost any TV appearance they ever made, usually from drink and hangovers to tetchiness and paranoia at the industry.





But it wasn’t just the music industry that Mary Chain moved against. Their social comment was also to reflect and undermine the increasingly gaudy commercial world of the 1980s: Madonna, Michael Jackson and pre-packaged pop that came emblazoned with logos and tied in to products and advertising like McDonalds and Coca Cola that were everywhere suddenly. The Reid’s would pour the poison back into the music industry and the products from which it came. Famously, the group also stole the Pepsi logo for a line of merchandising featuring the slogan “Jesus” (written big in the Pepsi font, with “and Mary Chain” underneath) and underneath “choice of the lost generation”.





“I´ve been good and I’ve been mean
I’ve been looking for the coke machine”

Here, one should also necessarily read "cocaine" for coke

This might seem obvious now, but one has to go back to the early 80s to remember how commercialism in this pre-internet time seemed a saviour from the economic turmoil of the late 70s and early 80s and how it made products seem accessible and fascinatingly modern, as if for the first time. This was a time of brand expansion and opening channels of communication and advertising (literally and subtly). American culture, TV and products were branching across the world like a cancer and their model of imperialism and economic bullying seemed the way forward for hesitant nations and indeed it was ultimately the strategy adopted by most countries as Globalisation came into play. But in the early 80s the enemy was still the East and Cold War fears of nuclear Armageddon were still high and products were an immediate way of satisfying one’s self and fighting the enemy, who we were told back then didn’t have such things (“I’m gonna fuck Surf City with a neutron bomb”). Except for Sting, popular music didn’t reflect this and in the end commercial pop had its roots in the same seedy world of endless money, just ask Stock, Aitken and Watterman if they should be so lucky. Punk as well for all its social criticism was commercial music, a sub-culture bought and sold with frighteningly rapid ease. It wasn’t David Bowie who was the Man Who Sold the World, but McClaren with his Great Rock n Roll Swindle.

When the Mary Chain and their peers began to become successful it was the time of (another) truly underground and alternative music culture that was counter cultural and essentially ran hidden from view. Indeed, it was the loss of this underground current in music that had been spearheaded by the Mary Chain and other peers like the Pixies and Sonic Youth that lead to their downfall. The Grunge bands had owed a lot to the pioneering work of US hardcore groups and the commercial path of the Mary Chain and others, but the industry, who had been apathetic throughout the late 80s, moved quickly to scoop up grunge and the burgeoning festival circuit and commercialise it as “alternative music” and essentially creating a socially acceptable, parallel world alongside mainstream music. In the early 80s, and even up until the early 90s, the genre of music to which the Mary Chain and other’s belonged didn’t really have a name or a special place in the record stores. It was unique and dangerous and would often lead its listeners and fans to be ostracised and ridiculed as freaks. Even as late as 1990 I remember being laughed at for liking a weird band like REM. If only they’d known what else was out there and they’d foreseen the Out of Time album that was yet to come! Additionally, 80s and early 90s indie music was a less fractious world, where it wasn’t impossible to find fans of The Smiths and REM still listening to Industrial music or EBM bands from Belgium. By the time the majors got in on grunge, they made sure they had restored the hegemony of rock and essentially thrown out the fringe elements leading up to present times where indie bands rarely stray from a non-confrontational template or overblown fuzzy guitars in the same style as the original punk rockers, but without the anger or any meaningful social comment.







Unsurprisingly, the Mary Chain’s confrontation with the music industry was also a form of auto-sabotage as they became self-deprecating and more and more cynical while trying to use the same machinations of the system to keep the band going. Munki in particular is self-destructive. It is also symbolic that it begins with Jim’s “I love rock n roll” a genuine allegiance and offering of thanks to the force that “made” him and gave him away from a meaningless working class existence in East Kilbride, whereas it closes with William’s “I hate rock n roll”, the least subtle of the group’s anti-industry songs. It would also have been a fine swansong, but we will have to wait more news of future releases. But there are more clues on the album as well, in “Never understood” for example, which of course puns off one of the group’s earliest singles:

“I think I'm going out of style
I think I've known it for a while
I think I've known it with a smile”




Munki’s biggest downfall is not the cynicism, but its length. Not only were many of the tracks longer than on earlier albums, but here is a lot of tracks that probably wouldn’t made the cut on earlier Mary Chain albums and it lacks the conciseness of the early albums. There is the sense about this album that the band knew it was the end and it was a chance to throw it all in together while it was still there. Much like Spacemen 3’s Recurring, there are Jim tracks and William tracks, with the two never really being around the studio at the same time to interact too much, but there are still some cracking material on there, especially “Perfume”, the singles and “Commercial”.




The band’s use of Jesus imagery is also critical and was a gamble that could have backfired, but didn’t. It doesn’t take too much to recall John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” comments to know how many problems misplaced intentions can cause you in the more conservative regions of the US. But this is exactly the same sort of messianic concept the Jesus and Mary Chain always understood: they were redeemers and saviours of their generation and when they played to a full stadium they perhaps had more followers than Jesus too. Just by incorporating melancholy and sadness into the music they were providing redemption, validation and a brotherhood for like-minded souls to share. This isn’t the redemption music of Spiritualized which aims at a more transformative effect, this was salvation by belonging. This was a brutal and realist hand on the shoulder to say “Don’t worry you’re not the only one. Everything’s alright when you’re down”. But the Reid’s also took the imagery a bit further by tapping into the corrupt American evangelist’s manipulation of TV and image to make money, a ready-made metaphor of the greed and soulessness of the 80s and 90s. A mere mention of Jesus could be twisted to make reference to the band, such that they too were conduits of the prophet’s voice like the evangelists. No god, only religion, so to speak. For example, “Lowlife” off the Rollercoaster EP features a William Burroughs sample at the start that states “I bear no sick words, junk words, love words or forgive words from Jesus” as if he was providing a direct critical appraisal of the groups message. Jesus is the Jesus and Mary Chain. “Her way of praying” from the brilliantly seedy coke-fuelled album Automatic plays the same game, as Jim moans and intones

“It's her way of saying a prayer for me
It's her way of talking to Jesus Christ
Her way of talking to Jesus”





That the context, without the video to help, implies images of a woman perhaps down on her knees “saying a prayer” to Jim “Jesus” Reid leaves nothing to the imagination. “Jesus knows Sex” as the video implies. There are plenty more examples. "God help me" from Stoned and Dethroned, with The Pogues' Shane McGowan on vocals could almost be a Spiritualized track, at least lyrically, with its direct call to the Lord for help. "Wish I could" from the same album also uses a witty and cynical lyric to suggest a messiah quality:


"Well Jesus walked
On the water, on the water
We walk on dampness too"



Its still not clear if the Jesus and Mary Chain can still save us. But for time being, the message is clear: black is back. Welcome home Jim and William. There’s still a wide world for you to tame.


1 comment:

  1. Which is better Pepsi or Coca-Cola?
    SUBMIT YOUR ANSWER and you could receive a prepaid VISA gift card!

    ReplyDelete