Back in the mid-80s I crept into an AKC lecture in King’s College where a professor of music was discussing the contemporary forms of pop and indie. He cued up a track by the Jesus and Mary Chain – the fuzz of feedback distortion screaming round the lecture theatre. Then he played the same song in a stripped back (Peel Sessions?) version. His comment was that if you took out all the noise these cheeky Scots lads actually made some dem fine songs.
But it was the feedback that made the Mary Chain such an energising and exciting force. Of course, noise annoys, and they weren’t really doing anything that hadn’t been tried before, yet there was something about the frenetic pace and the tangled, lovely, sometimes pained, druggy, occasionally erotic lyrics sweeping through the sound, coupled with the don’t care attitude of the Reid brothers that created a fresh form of indie with real bite. A few years later Neil Young, at the prompting of Sonic Youth, would release a whole album of feedback, and SY themselves would use bent and distorted noise in artful and innovative ways along with complicated tunings and a whole barrel load of effects straight out of the contemporary classical larder. The Mary Chain were more basic, their noise was more elemental, more tenement concrete than art school pasteboard.
Some twenty-seven years ago I forewent a Mary Chain gig in Brum – can’t remember why – and since then have been miffed that I had missed out on one of their legendary twenty minute sets. Since then Psychocandy, has consistently been in my list of top debut albums – I love it to bits, know the lyrics inside out and, along with Darklands, Automatic, Honey’s Dead and the great B sides album Barbed Wire Kisses, it has been a perennial source of endless enjoyment. The Mary Chain make music that gives me energy, lifts my heart and gets me moving. For all the darkness of their lyrics, their onstage persona and their album sleeves, they always came across as a band imbued with an impish playfulness, which came to the fore in their gloriously arch covers of Can’s ‘Mushroom’ and Bo Diddley’s snake-eyed ‘Who do you love?’.
The Mary Chain have invaded my sleep – dreaming that I stumbled out onto the stage of a Sex Pistols gig and start singing Mary Chain songs (or was it the other way round?). Maybe my subconscious links those two bands through the transgressive aspects of their names, or their strutting anti-establishment arrogance. Yes, at times, as a Christian, I’ve found the name annoying, a touch embarrassing. Still, many of their lyrics have slipped into my writing, sermons, poems. Yes, lines like ‘I want to die like Jesus Christ’ are uncomfortable – but so is John Lydon screeching ‘I am an anarchist, I am an anti-Christ’. They are words which provide a challenge, need to be heard in context of the whole song and deconstructed as part of a wider exploration of the big life questions. Sometimes it might be pugnacious but there is a dialogue with the divine streaming along underneath the surface of pop. One of the many bands that the Mary Chain inspired was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who have played the Christian festival Greenbelt. The lines from ‘White Palms’, a song on their debut album, that run ‘Jesus I dare you to come back/Jesus when you go will you come back home?’ are directly addressing Christ – there is a personal conversation going on between the band and Jesus and they are asking an important question. Seeing the state of the world since he left it, why would Jesus come back? If he does then, implicit in the song, it shows an incredible sense of strength and purpose, beyond that of most of us, particularly the singer. Of course, you can put up a traditional theological rebuttal of these verses, but the point is that when it comes to contemporary music God is still in the house.
That’s a digression, a snapshot of how and why the Mary Chain and their ilk matter to me. Music is more than a wig out, a feel-good frenzy, a sing-a-long. It is the passion of life flowing in myriad directions unearthing new streams of thought, possibly, even, (but here’s the part I’m wary of) emotion, fresh ways of seeing, of coming to terms with the unreality of reality and the reality of that which is beyond reality. As such it needs to be opened out, analysed, unpicked as well as felt, immersed in, floated through.
And so, at last, I get to a Mary Chain gig. Occasionally I notice that a band from my ‘youth’ (was I ever young, have I ever grown up?) is playing locally and I wonder whether seeing them will be simply a nostalgia fest. More than that, will it be a let-down – as waist bands have expanded will the energy, the faith, the passion have dissipated? With Swans, Michael Gira continues to push the boundaries of music, creating sounds that have huge potency and resonance. A Swans gig is always going to be more like liturgy than entertainment – a liminal moment. Primal Scream – the Mary Chain’s direct contemporaries (wasn’t Bobby Gillespie their drummer for a while?) – are creating new music that moves their sound a step further forward, and they are great showmen, orchestrating their sets with a DJ’s precision. The Jesus and Mary Chain have a new album out. It sounds like a Jesus and Mary Chain album heard through a bath of warm, soapy water. Quite pleasing but not memorable, there are no prickly, ‘wow’ moments. Was the gig going to be like that?
Well, no, it was better although, at times, when the new songs were aired, the Bristol O2 was bathed in that warm soapy fuzz. Like me the Reids are older, less angular, possibly more at home in the world. Most of the gig, when the early back catalogue came up to air, was electric, the feedback was screaming and great lines cut through the dry ice. The second song in, ‘April Skies’, gave the first goosebump moment – ‘hand in hand in violent life/making love on the edge of a knife’ is still a powerful description of the precariousness and fierceness of living. There were plenty more as songs from Darklands, Automatic and Honey’s Dead licked and flicked around the stage, lines dripping out with languor and snaky lushness. Then came the Psychocandy tracks – ‘The Hardest Walk’, ‘Just Like Honey’, ‘You Trip Me Up’, ‘It’s So Hard’, ‘Some Candy Talking’, etc. This was music on a different level. Even though they didn’t seem as fast as I remembered, there was an electricity to their delivery that sparked around the room. The mosh pit was busy with those young enough to still be able to shake a leg. No, this wasn’t 1985, and yes, there was a sing-along element, but those early songs were well worth the lonely bus trip into the city. Nostalgia won out – the new material, only released days before, hasn’t the fire, or the subtle dark romanticism of the early songs – and there wasn’t the political acuity of Lydon or the sheer damn genius of Gira, but it was a good night with some high moments and I’m glad that, at last I’ve made the trip from A to B to C.