Friday, March 31, 2017

The Jesus and Mary Chain's Futurist Classicism

Seeing the Jesus and Mary Chain for the first time last Saturday as they tour to promote their first album in many years, "Damage and Joy", felt both nostalgic and reaffirming; for the Mary Chain were a band that probably shouldn't have ever happened, certainly not when they did.

Jim and William Reid were the age to have been inspired by punk. But stuck out in the Glasgow suburb of East Kilbride, in dead end jobs, away from many likeminded souls, it was 1984 before they would release their first single. The post-punk promise was beginning to die out by 1984. Thatcher's England was the inspiration for a new monied music business, as new wave, new romanticism, electronic music and other forms were commercialised and mainstreamed. Alternative bands had failed to make the major commercial breakthrough that they had promised, and the scene would be set for 1985's reaffirmation of the old guard with Live Aid. As a sixth former at the time the music that was most exciting me was industrial and experimental music like Head of David, Test Department and Psychic TV; or the avant pop of the Cocteau Twins. The Smiths, and in America, R.E.M. had heralded a new willingness to look back to sixties harmonies and seventies aesthetics, but great as both of those bands were, the guitar bands who followed in their wake seemed mere nostalgics.

Into this landscape, came a 7" single on boutique label Creation, drenched with feedback, full of unexpected pop smarts, and backed with a Syd Barrett cover, "Upside Down" by the Jesus and Mary Chain was revelatory. It sounded like nothing else in 1984, and in reality, sounds like nothing else since. Only their follow up single "Never Understand" would repeat the drenched with feedback trick, but by that time they were the most notorious band in Britain. Moving from the indie ghetto into a new fake indie Blanco y Negro, and causing headlines for catastrophic/euphoric gigs which were sometimes just a ten or twenty minute blast of feedback drenched noise.

The taciturn Reid brothers weren't much ones for pronouncements - and I don't remember any great manifestos...just that glorious run of records that came out on the back of "Upside Down." Is there a better run of singles in British pop music history than from "Upside Down" to "April Skies"? I'm not sure there is - and though there might one or two less perfect sides in the years to come, their quality control on their singles would continue through half a dozen variable albums.

The Mary Chain were more overtly interested in an overlooked past than any band that had come along since punk's year zero, but as in thrall to the Shangri-las, Lee Hazelwood and other pop thrills as heavier cult acts like Iggy Pop. Like the Dream Syndicate in the U.S. they owed allegiance to the Velvet Underground - whose records were still difficult to find in the Britain of the early 1980s. (Ironically, the CD would help bring back catalogue bands like that into the public eye again - also helped by the brilliant outtakes album "V.U." which coincidentally or not, would come out just a few months after "Upside Down."

In my world, the Mary Chain were superstars, but I never got to see them for a variety of reasons. The expectations for debut album "Psychocandy" were massive and it didn't disappoint. Still their high water mark, and the best album of 1985, it carefully placed the iconic singles "Never Understand", "You Trip Me Up" and "Just Like Honey" throughout a brilliantly varied set. It still sounds exciting today - and I think there's still the same sense of wonder that it existed at all, particularly in the year of "Live Aid" and "Brothers in Arms." In many ways, the Mary Chain were closer to American bands like Husker Du, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. than their British equivalent - a powerhouse guitar act, with great tunes, and a classically cool attitude. That their drummer, Bobby Gillespie, ended up fronting the even more classicist Primal Scream, highlights the Mary Chain's role as a pure catalyst - something they would also serve to do when on their "Lollapazoola" mirroring "Rollercoaster" tour they invited along My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr, and - a surprise at the time - young pop band Blur.

By the time of their second album, the subdued "Darklands", there was a sense of exploring a band exploring a deliberately narrow template, something they would do more or less throughout their career. Thankfully their were no hip hop collaborations, house remixes or celebrity collaborations for the Mary Chain. Each album became reliable alt-rock barometer, until, with "Munki", a good record that nobody heard or bought, they fell apart. Along the way tracks like "Blues from a Gun", "Reverence" and "Sidewalking" are classics in their own right. Reforming for some gigs in 2007 the closest there was to a new Mary Chain album was when they helped with Sister Vanilla, a band fronted by their younger sister. And now in "Damage and Joy" a new Mary Chain record to continue - timelessly - where they stopped.

Seeing them live, the new and old songs pulled together well. William Reid played guitar in the shadows, whilst Jim was in fine voice throughout, looking like the at-ease older statesman of rock he now is. Yet the chemistry inherent in their songs is still there. A fan's set - containing some of the hits but also key album tracks - the timelessness of the Mary Chain sound seems as relevant as ever in these days of nostalgia, when vinyl copies of "Velvet Underground and Nico" probably sell more than at any other time. It would be easy in some ways to dismiss them as a highly oiled rock and roll jukebox, their own versions on the canon sitting comfortably alongside it, but not having particularly added anything. That is until you hear the five or so tracks they perform from "Psychocandy." In that album - which they toured recently - we hear a band grabbing at the future whilst embracing the past. If their later songs, like those of Oasis, seem to add little to rock's lexicon rather than a few nice tunes, there is a curious synthesis on "Psychocandy", where that unique blend of noise and melody is performed with so little cynicism that it genuinely affects me now as it did at the time, as something wondrous and new.


B. Hell said...

I used to play You Trip Me Up for an hour at a time at maximum volume when I bought the 7". It was also the first time I saw them play whole gig, although I did hear them play April Skies at Cosmosis where they clashed with White Hills.

Jim H. said...

I had to pass up the chance to see JAMC when they toured through Atlanta earlier this year. I wish I'd seen your piece earlier. Might've pushed some things aside.

Did see Ride here last Spring. As good a show as you'd ever care to see. Some real players really playing.