Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain

The Jesus and Mary Chain are a band that defies every label that you can throw at them. They have built a career out of being difficult on purpose, no matter what the cost. 

If they became disciples of feedback in the eyes of the media, they would abandon feedback and hire a drum machine. If they became a little too dance oriented, then they'd swallow their pride and hire a real drummer. If the songs became too poppy, they'd throw violent imagery into the lyrics and abandon all pretense of being commercial. And just when their music label would reject an album, they would sign with the original label that discovered them and forge ahead.

No one ever did more to sabotage their career than the Jesus and Mary Chain. They would turn up drunk, alienate the promotional apparatus of the entire British music industry, and play 15 minutes before walking off of the stage. Whenever they needed to speak to someone influential or important, they would take the piss and say the wrong things. They soared high with Creation's Alan McGee and dumped him as soon as they saw the bags of cash that a major label were willing to throw at them. When years of debauchery and infighting left them "stoned and dethroned," no one wanted to put out their album Munki. But it was McGee who welcomed them back into the fold and saved them from embarrassment. Loyalty is hardly the watchword for a band that dispensed with members as often as the Mary Chain. It has always been a William and Jim Reid situation; they even sacked their faithful drum machine. The book should have spelled out what happened to the device that featured so prominently in their early years. Were it not for the fickle, drum machine-averse American audiences, that thing would probably still be on tour with the bad this very summer.

Reading this book made me angry that I can't go see them. All they had to do was find a way to make it to Texas, and I would be there. Hey, maybe next time.

Everything is chronological, and that makes sense in that the story of the Mary Chain is one of rolling through the thick fog of pop music history. This is primarily how the book flows. The band would do something massive, and then fuck it all up. They would write a beautiful song and mangle how it would be presented to the public. At exactly the point where appearing on Top of the Pops or the BBC would have thrown them into the realm of superstar acts, they got themselves banned. When they needed to play a great show in front of a large crowd, they would walk off after abusing them with curses and feedback. It is exhausting to read, but essential for understanding how they created artistic success without ever selling out. That's the explosive, vital lesson of the Mary Chain--you can make it in spite of yourself, and you can do great things without having to compromise your integrity. Rock and Roll is not about playing a perfect set for 90 minutes to an adoring crowd that gets every hit they want to hear. It's about danger, mistakes, and passionately fucking everything up in front of people who get everything they weren't expecting.

Several celebrities have cameos in the book, but none more hilarious than a hapless Paul Weller, who crossed paths with the band and gave them passive aggressive advice and things to laugh at. None of this degrades the legend of the Modfather in any way, shape or form.

I have a very personal connection to how they subverted everything in the 1980s, but I would not consider myself an obsession fan. I discovered them on MTV like everyone else because the American Midwest was never friendly for Indie bands from England.

The very first thing I ever read about them was a baffled album review in People Magazine from 1985. What the hell was Psychocandy? Who the hell were these guys? Good God, no one knew, but they were slightly blasphemous and they had the right hair so they had to be good, right? It was the innovation, dummy. They were influencers without figuring anything out. They were shy but abusive, reclusive but on tour constantly.

Nobody ever took a bigger right turn from a debut album to a second album than the Mary Chain. Go back and listen to "April Skies" and then listen to anything from Psychocandy. Who reinvents themselves like that? Who says, "Alright, that's enough of what just made us huge. Here's something completely different." No two albums sound alike and nothing could illustrate their artistic merit better than the diversity of their sound and the reach of their efforts to eliminate everything boring from music.

Where do you slot them? Which genre describes them? Who gets to claim them--noise merchants, shoegazers, 90s alt-legends, or aging hipsters? They have credibility everywhere and belong to no one. They are the closest thing there is to a slightly different, but wholly separate version of Echo & the Bunnymen; when all other comparisons fail, just put them in the bucket with "English and accomplished" and leave it at that. The parallels are stark, but the Mary Chain never made an Electrafixion record and they never made a sleepy stinker like What Are You Going to Do With Your Life. They have their clunkers, but don't we all? Show me a great, interesting band and there will be at least one or two things that make you look away out of embarrassment.

The reason why this book works as a career narrative is because it doesn't shy away from explaining just exactly what they did right and wrong in equal measures. It focuses on the songs, the albums, and the tours and it breaks down the way they dissolved into dysfunction and thrown punches. It takes you through the embarrassing, cliched use of alcohol and drugs without looking for pathos.

There's even a disastrous detour through the Far East, replete with cancelled gigs and confused fans. The band went from broke to rich to broke to whatever they are now without abandoning whatever it is that passes for artistic credibility. There isn't even a butter ad in their immediate past, but how could you sell butter with one of their songs? You might be able to sell your soul to the devil for an album like Automatic, but why would you want to? The Reid brothers were there first, and they suffered on the cross for everything they did. They have lived and died for your rock and roll sins.

Isn't that enough?