This double CD set is a real trip.
Few bands have ever managed to sound this dangerous, few bands have been this capable of moments of great beauty but at the same time sounded like they were going to combust at any second, few could be this blissful and yet also capable of flaring up with a dark danger.
It was that barely concealed violence and darkness that made the Mary Chain so damn attractive and also the fact that they could effortlessly take the classic three chord trick of great rock n roll and create so many great songs out of it like a rain sodden Glaswegian version of their heroes the Ramones that was so thrilling.
In the mid eighties there was a brief moment where all this noise made sense. Here was a band that somehow straddled the noisenik UK underground, the primetime sex glam of Trex, the soon to arrive American post hardcore scene of Sonic Youth etc and the classic garage pop of the sixties. All served up with great rock n roll poetry in their underrated lyrics.
A band that could somehow meld the crystal pop beauty of the Shangri Las with the beautiful noise of Big Black, this was a band that was dealing in opposites. They could mesh the ugly skree of feedback with lush melodies and also get in the charts. Total genius.
They were somehow both surly and romantic.
They were the Jesus And Mary Chain and this 2CD compilation captures their long and winding career over several albums perfectly.
The band formed in the early eighties in East Kilbride- an unforgiving suburb of Glasgow.
By 1983 they were sending out homemade demos to bemused labels and promoters. They were out of time, a band in love with punk rock, classic girl pop, noise and attitude in the middle of the hideous Spandau Ballet dominated eighties pop hell.
In 1984 they added the very young Douglas Hart on bass and the equally youthful Murray Dalglish on drums and by that spring they were playing live with their scratch equipment that saw Douglas debut his two string bass.
Somehow their demo found its way into the hands of the Glasgow underground music scene and I still clearly remember the excitement of Alan McGee when he told me about this new band that he was going to sign called Jesus And Mary Chain.
Great name I thought, wonder what they sound like. I soon This was the now famous cassette knocking about in the very small Creation camp- on one side there was Vegetable Man- the classic Syd Barrett track and also some Generation X- Billy Idol’s great underrated punk rock band. It had somehow found its way to Bobby Gillespie who was running his Splash One club in Glasgow at the time who flipped it over and found this great racket on the other side.
The Mary Chain being too skint had used one of their own cassettes to copy their rough as fuck demo onto.
Bobby gave the tape to his best mate McGee and within seconds that enthusiasm inferno that was Alan was determined to sign the band up.
Whilst this was going on the band continued to blag support slots in Glasgow playing a short surly set to confused crowds.
The demo tape now in safe hands the band were dragged down to London by McGee to play at his Living Room night in London in June 1984. After watching their soundcheck he asked them to sign to his label and became their manager.
Now lets have a look at just what Creation was at this time. There had been a bunch of singles that hadn’t really sold despite some real gems in there like the Pastels, I Wonder Why, and the Revolving Paint Dream. The singles all came in these funny little sleeves- sort of pop art pieces that were folded up into plastic bags wrapping up the seven inch.
It was a very small operation but Mcgee talked great label.
We had been talking about it for along time. I used to hang around with the firebrand, ex pat Scot in London hopping from one bed-sit to another in the freezing autumn nights powered by idealism, shit milky tea and thrill for the electric new.
We shared a punk rock vision. I wanted to make a racket with the Membranes and Mcgee wanted to create a record label. Creation was initially a slow burner. The singles were smart and hip but no-one was getting it initially. He was going to release the Membranes single- Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder but there was no money in the kitty to go to the studio. In the end McGee came up to Manchester the night we recorded it and stayed over with us, a willing ally even though he could not afford to release the single.
The Mary Chain was something different. I listened to the tape and felt that euphoric rush. And when Upside Down was eventually recorded in October with that thrilling wall of sound it changed everything. Produced by Mcgee cohort Joe Foster but remixed by McGee himself, the single was swiftly picked up the music press with the NME describing them as ‘the best band in the world’.
It was one of those perfect pop moments. A record that sounded like it could change the world. It was sullen, dark, lustfull, melancholic, sexy, dangerous and astonishingly powerful. It was a punk rock moment right in the middle of the barren mid eighties and somehow managed to make the feedback driven noise that the likes of us were fucking about with into something that could escape the ghetto.
The band were also changing, Dalglish left in November 1984 and was replaced by Bobby Gillespie on drums and the classic line up was complete. Upside Down topped the UK Indie Chart in February 1985 and then again in March and stayed on the chart for 76 weeks, selling around 35,000 copies in total, making it one of the biggest-selling indie singles of the 1980s
The Mary Chain were thrust into the gig circuit. They played short sets- partly due to their lack of songs and partly due to a punk rock love of the brief. This was short, sharp stripped down rock n roll and the band managed to cram more into their twenty minutes than some groups did into a whole guitar solo. Unfortunately the audiences didn’t get this aesthetic and there was trouble- trouble that was whipped up a touch by the press and people around the band who were looking for their own orgasmic Sex Pistols moment.
All the band had to do was to play their set with their backs to the crowd, look surly and the crowd threw bottles- it was headlines writing themselves like at their December 1984, ICA Rock Week show where bottles were thrown. Somehow this was reported as a riot by the time it got to the Sun. The mid eighties were so dull that for a generation that had just missed punk an excuse to riot was a real thrill and it was gladly taken.
It was all very exciting and the single was now flying out.
I recall being in Rough Trade distribution with Alan a couple of weeks after the single release and buzzing with him as the record was shipping thousands.
The Mary Chain had arrived complete with loads of press, sultry leather and riots. The perfect band. For a brief moment indie music wasn’t earnest or safe. It was out of control and dangerous. Perfect.
There is a bit more to the Mary Chain story as well, the Membranes had played this gig at Reading University in September 1984 and there was a bit of a kick off with the promoters, we kicked over all the gear and attempted to demolish the PA. It got us banned from loads of gigs and to number one on the PA blacklist! McGee was, unknown to us, at the gig and after the show he was buzzing, ‘that was total sex’ he kept saying and gave our mate and Membranes fan Fat Mark a lift back to London. Fat Mark was a wild drunk loon and a Doors obsessive. He kept telling McGee to put the Membranes in leathers. The next day McGee phoned up and told us to get leather trousers. We were far too skint to do that though. Weeks later the Mary Chain riot happened in London and the band were dressed in leather. We had missed our chance to be hip for ten minutes!
The Mary Chain gig on march 15th 1985 at the North London Polytechnic was their breakthrough moment. A busy venue and people locked outside was creating a tense atmosphere which was stirred by the Mary Chain arriving on stage an hour late. Cans were thrown and there was some jostling and a sullen attempt at a riot. It’s on youtube. And whilst it’s not Armageddon it felt sexy and dangerous. Still that didn’t stop the press and the band was now the public enemy number one.
McGee, now fully on the case, issued a statement saying that “the audience were not smashing up the hall, they were smashing up pop music”, going on to say “This is truly art as terrorism”
The Mary Chain had also already been to Manchester to stay round my house in late 1984 for their first ever national press interview which I did for the now sadly defunct Zig Zag. The Reid brothers, Douglas and McGee turned up on the train because Alan could blag these free train fares because he worked at British Rail.
The interview was mainly the band being fantastically surly in the freezing cold front room of my house and Alan plying them with a plastic bag of beer from the off licence to try and get the Reids tanked up. McGee was ranting away about how the band were going to change the world and Creation were going to be massive- oddly it all came true. That night I blagged everyone into the Hacienda to go and see Lee Scratch Perry and Alan got to know the Factory people- an oddly crucial night in the musical scheme of things.
The Mary Chain swiftly moved out of the indie orbit and became press darlings and were signed to Blanc Y Negro, a major, and had proper hits with great songs. Never Understand was an Upside Down part two but that didn’t stop its power. It had one of those perfect rock n roll titles, the surly shrug of the shoulders that’s at the heart of all great rock n roll. By now the Mary Chain were proper stars and the indie scene was full of slouching kids with those curly bouffant hair do’s that flopped over one eye.
This two disc box set is a stark reminder of the possibilities that the band threw up. One part classicist- with a love of the girl groups and the sixties garage classics they were also right there on the noise frontline with Sonic Youth. They had the nihilistic space of Suicide and the sense of danger of Einsterzende Neubaten. There was also the love of feedback drenched garage rock n roll of the genius Cramps. There was enough dark in there for the Goths to dig them and enough melody for the indie kids. They were the perfect band of their moment and defined that mid eighties period of confusion with a sultry sexy sound.
The fact that they were part of the Creation Glasgow mafia just made it even cooler. It always seemed that when Mcgee needed inspiration his old Glasgow stomping ground provided it. Could it be any coincidence that ten years later the same city would be the host to the legendary gig by Oasis that saw Alan sign his final version of the two brothers squabbling rock n roll band template and this time go mega with them?
Upside Down had been too big for Creation and McGee got the band hooked up with Blanc Y Negro- the new subsidiary of Warmers that was one of those stepping stone labels that pretended to be indie. Never Understand, released February 1986 charted at 47
The follow-up, You Trip Me Up was released in June 1985 and was another key single, an avalanche of sound and an anthem. The third single for Blanco y Negro, Just Like Honey” released in October, gave them their biggest hit to date, reaching number 45.
The Mary Chain’s Pyschocandy debut album came out to a media orgasm. It is now acknowledged as rock n roll classic- all huge soundscapes and surly melodies. It sounds even better now than it did then.
Psychocandy was a huge sprawling monster of a record that dealt beauty and ugliness in equal measure. Released that November Psychocandy fused together the band’s Stooges noisenik approach with their love of Shangri La Girl pop. It was daring and thrilling and a landmark album- sullen and switchblade dangerous rock n roll was the order of the day and there was a whole slew of copycat bands.
Just Like Hone,- the opening track of the album wears these influences on its sleeve borrowing Hal Blaine‘s famous drum intro from The Ronettes 1963 classic, Be My Baby before coaxing in that wall of Mary Chain sound. The album was acknowledged as being the best of the year and one of those iconic releases that signpost pop culture.
After the album was released Bobby left to concentrate on Primal Scream and then in September 1986, the band parted ways with manager Alan McGee perhaps seeking a more conventional and less confrontational status.
Instead of crashing and burning after making their feedback drenched statement the Mary Chain were in for the long haul and in the Spring of 1987 they released April Skies- their first top ten hit and the first track from their upcoming new album. Riots, freezing cold bedsits and cheap amphetamine already seemed a long way away by the time they released their second album- the late 1987 Darklands- that saw a tempering of their initial noisier approach and a more melodic sound with the problematic ever revolving drummers being replaced by a drum machine.
Two years later the band’s third studio album Automatic was released in October 1989, with further electronics being utlilised for the bass and drums. The band were slightly out of step, E had kicked in and they were no longer centre of the agenda.
They had no interest in making the switch to the new dance culture like former cohort Bobby Gillespie so successfully did with Primal Scream and the classic Screamadelica. Ironically, though, the flavour of the month band the Stone Roses had been big Mary Chain fans and their so called goth phase in 1985 of leather trousers was more the result of their interest in the Reid brothers rock n roll aesthetic.
Automatic contained the singles Head On and the fantastic Blues From A Gun which I made into single of the week at Sounds with the song still being one of my favourite Mary Chain tunes.
The early nineties saw the Honeys Dead album released in 1992 which had been preceded by Reverence which was their biggest hit to date and a return to the punk rock fire that had imbued them at the beginning of their sojourn. It even managed to get them banned form the radio one- always the highest accolade.
There was a long gap as they worked on America where they were getting pretty big, they parted ways with Blanc Y Negro records and were spurned by the music business returning to Creation, their original home, for 1998’s Munki, which only hit 47 in the charts and was semi ignored but was a great album- a lost classic washed up by the whims of fashion.
Now with the Creation film named after Upside Down and those opening bars of that classic song crashing in over the film’s intro we get the chance to reassess the band and fall in love with them all over again.
Their songwriting at was exemplary. April Skies, Sidewalking, I Love Rock Roll, Head On, Some Candy Talking- classic Americana via Glasgow council estates. They were dripping malevolence, violence, sex and beauty in equal measure.
Those moments are captured here on the compilation that skips the chronological and the chance to tell the story. A chance to watch the band unfold from their introverted early days when their songs were born from the tight knit crew with Bobby Gillespie bashing away on the drums to their later period when they paired down the feedback and wrote great three chord rock n roll songs with a drum machine.
When the brilliant Creation film comes out next year maybe it will be their time again. You only have to hear those opening bars of Upside Down to feel that rush from all those years ago.
This 2CD comp is a brilliant reminder to one of our most treasured bands, and a thrilling ride through the possibilities of great rock n roll.