Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain Story by Zoë Howe
I am sucker for musical biographies and all the better when they are about an artist I used to listen to a lot but maybe haven’t in a while - thus requiring a good trawl through the back catalogue to accompany your reading.
Such is the case with the recently published biography of the Jesus and Mary Chain by Zoë Howe. Although I am a little too young to recall their Psychocandy / Darklands heyday first hand those two albums were a staple of my musical diet once I came of age. If you have never heard either of them you are truly missing out. Their 1985 debut ‘Pyschocandy’ is near perfect, effortlessly melding squalling feedback with classic pop melodies. All fourteen songs on it are worth your attention so if I were to single out ‘Just Like Honey’ or ‘My Little Underground’ I feel like I would be doing the other twelve a disservice.
'Darklands' followed in 1987 and is a different beast. The fuzzboxes & feedback are turned down or off, and the melodies and songwriting is pushed to the fore. Nowhere is this better illustrated than on the opening title track which counterpoints beautiful guitar lines and melodies against some rather bleak lyrics. Elsewhere singles 'April Skies' and 'Happy When In Rains' where genuine pop hits, with 'April Skies' going top 10 and the band ending up on the front of pop magazines like Smah Hits.
And therein lies one of the problems with the JAMC story: they peaked artistically and commercially in 1987 but kept at it for a further 10 years before the fraternal relationship between Jim & William Reid disintegrated beyond repair fueled by the usual rock’n’roll catalysts of drink and drugs. That is not to say the rest of their output is without merit. For instance 1989’s ‘Automatic' has lots of great songs ('Coast to Coas't, 'Blues from a Gun', 'Head On' etc.) but the production, and particularly the use of a very 80s sounding drum machine, make the whole sound a lot more dated than its predecessors. There is also a good bit of filler and it really drags toward the end on 'Drop' & 'Sunray'.
A lot of the same things can be said about 1992’s ‘Honey’s Dead' which from the off, on 'Reverence', features particularly dated sounding percussion; whether through the use of loops, drum machines or just de jour drumming styles. I remember even thinking when I bought the album at the time so. ‘Reverence’ also highlights another problem with the later JAMC output: the lyrics had started to become almost of parody of themselves. “I wanna die just like Jesus Christ / I wanna die on a bed of spikes.. I wanna die just like JFK / I wanna die on a sunny day." You could nearly come up with a dozen key words / themes and make your own JAMC song out of them: Jesus, Cherry, Candy, Die, Kill, Honey, Rain, Hit, Knife, Gun, Sky etc. Again there are lots of great songs on it with soaring catchy melodies. Look no further than ‘Rollercoaster’ or ‘Far Gone And Out.’
By the time the brothers made their aptly titled fifth LP 1994’s ‘Stoned and Dethroned' they were borderline alcoholics / druggies and were certainly not in tune with the post-grunge / pre-britpop zeitgeist. That being said the change to an acoustic driven Americana type sound really suited their songs. This is particularly apparent on the Lee Hazlewood aping 'Sometimes Always' which features William's paramour at the type, Hope Sandoval, dueting with Jim. However at seventeen tracks the album does overstay its welcome.
If only they had stopped there. But there was one more album to come in 1998 ‘Munki.’ Dropped by their label and barely communicating, the brother went to the noise and lyrical-cliche well one more time. It really wasn’t worth the effort and their are some real howlers on there like ‘Moe Tucker’ sung by their sister Linda and ‘Commercial’ which features the unforgivable lyrics “Burger King is hip / McDonald’s is shit / Please don’t spit / Please don’t tip." It was probably fitting that the band finally fell apart on the promotional tour, with William walking out in LA and the band having to finish the final dates without him to avoid being sued.
Of course there is a happy ending with them getting back together in 2007 for a wad of money and plenty of plaudits that they felt they never got at the time. Although there has been no new music since the reunion they are still continuing to play live between their new lives in LA & Devon.
All the main players in the story, apart from William, were interviewed for the book but other debunking a few of the myths around the band I didn’t feel like the book had a lot new to tell. Indeed the impression that was left for me was that the Reid brothers were (are?) insular, socially awkward and truculent, and couldn’t function at any level without a liquid or chemical crutch. We don’t really learn anything about their creative process or what was at the core of the brotherly bickering that ultimately tore them apart.