As The Jesus and Mary Chain release new album Damage and Joy, Getinothis’ Banjo looks back at a musical life less ordinary.
In a way, The Jesus and Mary Chain seem to have spent almost their entire career running away from their first records and gigs. After a bright but brief period where they were seen as ‘the next Sex Pistols’, releasing noisy slabs of vinyl, they soon wanted their songs to be judged their own and not solely on their reputation for feedback and violence.
Their new album Damage and Joy, their first for 19 years, sees that process continue as they do the unthinkable and turn middle aged.
The Jesus and Mary Chain erupted into the early 80s scene just as Indie had turned safe, with bands like The Wedding Present, The June Brides and Shop Assistants in the ascendant.
They were initially known for feedback drenched songs in thrall to 60s girl groups, a disdain for their audience that led to verbal & physical attacks and for playing short, violent gigs. Their first single, Upside down, seemed to be either the work of youngsters with too much bratty bravado and no idea how guitar amps/recording studios should be used or a work of genius that wore its contempt for the rules very proudly on its sleeve and embraced chaos and discord as much as it covertly embraced melody or songwriting.
The two brothers, singer Jim Reid and guitarist William, had an incredibly close relationship. They never had a separate bedroom of their own until after they signed to Creation records and moved to London to record their first album.
They had a closeness of the kind where some siblings invent their own language and exclude others from their tight knit world, and this was both their strength and their weakness. They were at once united as brothers and at an almost continual war with each other. At their very first gig, the Reids had a fight on stage. The fight actually occurred during the sound check, meaning that they never even made it to gig one without coming to blows.
Jim Reid later said of the band’s early days “People were waiting for something to react to. There was nothing around at the time: the early ’80s was probably the lowest point in musical history. People wanted a bit of nastiness, trashiness. We kind of knew what we were up to. Some people were going to see what we were doing as genius, and some people were going to see it as an insult”
Debut album Psychocandy was hailed as an instant classic, toning down the feedback on some songs, but leaving enough to cause some more casual listeners to wonder if the band didn’t realise they were doing it wrong, mistaking the brothers unconventional approach for perhaps a lack of awareness or care. Underneath the effects and the ennui were songs of Spector-esque beauty, but that is not what was focused on.
Live gigs from around this time also generated plenty of press coverage. To help deal with a crippling shyness and stage fright, the band would get wasted on alcohol and speed before performances, which would then turn into chaotic, confrontational affairs lasting around 20 minutes.
Things came to a head at an ICA Rock Week show, which saw things turn ugly. Jim Reid berated the audience and bottles were thrown at the stage. After 20 minutes of abuse and noise, the band retreated to their dressing room as all hell broke lose.
Manager and label head Alan McGee said that support band The Jasmine Minks “went on carrying claw hammers. They wanted people to see they were tooled up. I said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ and they said, ‘If it goes off, it goes off.’ Once it went off, it was out of control.” The Sun, always on the look out for something to be enraged about, ran a story on the band, focusing on drugs and violence, as one would expect.
Something had to give, and when the time came to record second album Darklands, the brothers had had enough of their songs being overshadowed by their reputation. In a way, a retreat was started with Darklands that was to continue through the Mary Chain’s career. Gone was the multi tracked feedback and in its place a stripped back sound that let the songs shine through. Drummer Bobby Gillespie had left to focus on Primal Scream and rather than bring another person into the fold, the shy Reid brothers opted to use drum machines. Instead of noise, a new dark pop sound emerged.
It is this Jesus and Mary Chain that became the dominant strain, evolving further over subsequent albums 1989’s Automatic, 92’s Honey’s Dead, 94’s Stoned and Dethroned and 98’s Munki. And new album Damage and Joy is part of that progression.
The brother’s fractious relationship proved too much and they split in 1998 after an argument on their tour bus. After the row, Jim Reid took to the stage in an advanced state of drunkenness, unable to sing and barely able to stand. After fifteen minutes, William had had enough and left both the stage and the band. It took nine years for the brothers to be able to work together again.
The grown up Mary Chain have proved that they still have an eye for a good tune, an affinity with dark pop and are still in love with rock n roll scuzz.
The youthful fire has gone, and that is probably how they have managed to survive as long as they have, but it is replaced with a stately, scuffed charm that makes them still as worth listening to as they ever have been. Which is little short of miraculous given all that has happened in their time together.
The Jesus and Mary Chain as elder statesmen must be something that even they never saw coming.