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The Jesus & Mary Chain
The Power Of Negative Thinking: B-Sides and Rarities John Doran , February 24th, 2009 10:37

The Jesus & Mary Chain The first track on this exhaustive and enjoyable rarities/B-sides package shows how it all could have been so different for East Kilbride’s The Jesus And Mary Chain. Jim Reid may regularly beat himself up in interviews about how his band failed to capitalise on early and mid career promise and never really became a premiership band, leaving pretenders like Oasis to steal the rock and roll crown. The truth of the matter though, is you only have to listen to ‘Up Too High’ – a demo from 1983 – to hear that they actually came close to being little other than an interesting footnote in the history of post-Postcard Scottish indie. Basically the song is William Reid with heavy brogue indulging in a burst of twee, post Byrdsian jangle pop that characterized bands such as Primal Scream MKI and The Pastels and many other lesser talents at the time. The WEA executive who signed them to the Blanco Y Negro imprint after one single on Creation in 1984 could hear the promise in the song and true enough there’s an obvious gift for wistful melody already on show.

But it was the second song here that propelled them into notoriety. According to legend, a drunk and belligerent William Reid insisted on turning the one track of feedback right up on the desk while their first single for Creation was being mixed until the hapless sound engineer got tired of arguing with him. It’s hard to stress just how wild this sounded at the time. Listening to ‘Upside Down’ on John Peel for the first time ever was like losing your virginity: extremely unpleasant but something that you wanted to repeat almost immediately. Very little of the Phil Spector influenced, garage rock chassis forming the basis of the song could be discerned; just the scree of tinnitus high feedback and early Cabaret Voltaire white noise, oh-so-cool transatlantic rock mumblings and a primal drum tattoo. A riotous cult was born and the brothers Reid, Douglas Hart and a young bowl cut-sporting Bobby Gillespie on floor tom were all destined for the pages of Smash Hits via the NME. Also included is the Syd Barrett song ‘Vegetable Man’. There must have been something in the water that week as it pretty much coincided with the release of that other early Pink Floyd tribute of that year, Neil’s ‘Hole In My Shoe’.

Some sense of the sonic destructiveness of early gigs, which used to be barrages of feedback and animosity, can still be heard in tracks like ‘Head’ and ‘Ambition’. Most ferocious perhaps is the juddering screech of ‘Just Out Of Reach’ which was chosen at the last minute to replace ‘Jesus Fuck’, the B-Side to ‘You Trip Me Up’ after pressing plant staff threatened to strike. But the band were pussy cats really. Strip away the noise (which handily, you can do by listening to all the acoustic demos included here) and you can hear the fine alt country/classic rock/folk band lurking underneath. ‘Just Like Honey’, ‘Taste Of Cindy’ and ‘You Trip Me Up’ are particularly lovely.

The second disc here is pretty much Barbed Wire Kisses, their early doors, cut-price compilation – one of the best of its kind. Whereas these comps are often released in a rash of barrel scraping after an act has left a label, this disc patently contains some of the Mary Chain’s best work. Their obsession with American junk culture and a kind of hyper-amphetamine take on 50s rockabilly and surf guitar had come to the fore and shines on ‘Kill Surf City’, their best single ‘Sidewalking’ and berserk cover of the Beach Boys’ ‘Surfin’ USA’. This said their version of Can’s ‘Mushroom’ seems to have disappeared.

Disc Three represents the Mary Chain’s imperial phase and the track ‘Rollercoaster’ gave its name to the package tour that they curated including themselves, My Bloody Valentine, Blur and Dinosaur Jr. If you had to point to a definably ‘Mary Chain sound’ then tracks like ‘Deviant Slice’ and ‘Silverblade’ would spring to my mind; and certainly the cover of Leonard Cohen's ‘Tower Of Song’, with its chemically altered lasciviousness. Also here is their great ‘lost’ single ‘Snakedriver’ where they finally nailed their “Beach Boys with feedback” aspirations perfectly coming on as it does like a snake hipped hybrid of ‘Do It Again’ and World Domination Enterprise’s ‘Asbestos, Lead Asbestos’. Amongst the other forgotten gems here is their take on the 13th Floor Elevators’ ‘Reverberation’. It was perhaps only right that a band as chaotic as JAMC sputtered out of existence missing the main prize. But Jim Reid should be a bit easier on himself – there was always something far too sublime, renegade and other about his old band for them really to have ever ended up playing Knebworth or Maine Road and no amount of sobriety and anger management would have seen them be John the Baptist to Oasis. And, really, thank fuck. They were far too good.