From Rude to Subdued
When the Reid bros., William and Jim, started the Jesus and Mary Chain back in 1984, they had a modest little goal in mindnamely to piss off more people than other any band in rock 'n' roll history. Within a year they'd gone a long way toward achieving that aim, grating on the nerves of rock journalists, U.K. radio stations and even some fans. All of this led to the band being slapped with a bad-boy label, which William says was completely justified.
"I think the bad-boy image was pretty true," reflects Reid unapologetically in a telephone interview from the band's home base in London. "Because back then we were pretty aggressive toward people we met in the businessto journalists, to deejays and to record company people."
The singer claims this rude-boy act was just his way of coping with the phoniness and game playing he encountered in the music biz. "We had just come from East Kilbride, which is a small place near Glasgow," explains Reid. "We had been on the dole for five years, and then all of a sudden we were thrown into the music business, which is a pretty bullshit world. And rather than go along with the bullshit, we were . . . I don't suppose we were aggressive, but we were very frank. So it gave us a bad image, an image that we're still trying to play down."
The misadventures of the bratty Reid brothers were covered in great detail in the U.K. rock sheets, which at least served to win the fledgling band some free publicity. In fact, the Chain learned early on how to manipulate the scandal-happy London music papers to their own advantage. The boys would prod their manager to leak bizarreand often concoctedstories of sex-and-drug exploits to the British tabloids just to get their name in print. "There were some wild stories," smirks Reid. "Some of them we made up, but some of them were quite true."
After inciting the print media, the Chain gang went to work on riling U.K. radio. Reid claims that he's always had it in for British program directors, who he says ignore alternative bands even when they're chart-toppers. When the Chain began doing radio interviews early in its career, the group didn't miss the chance to spout criticism of the commercial-minded London pop stations. But these radio tirades only made it harder for the band's records to score any airplay. "We made a lot of enemies," admits Reid. "But I don't care. The enemies we made I'm glad we made."
The band even managed to alienate some listeners, largely because of its notoriously short gigs. Fifteen-minute shows were the rule, but one concert actually clocked in at just under ten minuteshardly time enough to get a couple of stage dives in. To make things worse, the pair snottily refused to play encores.
"There were a few ideas behind [the fifteen-minute gigs]," explains the singer. "One was that we only had about five songs in those days. Also, the sound we had then was so intense, so explosive, that we couldn't have sustained it for over an hour. It would have been too exhausting, and maybe it would have been boring, as well. But over fifteen or twenty minutes it sounded absolutely fantastic."
The band's mini-shows routinely inspired demands for refunds and even a riot or two. Before long, however, the Chain's repertoire expanded, and the group became more interested in performing than provoking. But by that time, the crowds had actually come to look forward to the abbreviated shows.
"After about a year, people would complain if we didn't do a fifteen- minute gig," recalls the singer. "If we went out and played for an hour, people would say that we sold out. We did a tour of Scandinavia, and the promoter advertised us as `Jesus and Mary Chain: The Twenty-Minute Gig Group.' We went, and every gig we did we played for an hour. I think people were disappointed."
Considering that many of the group's early shows consisted of little more than an endless assault of squealing feedback, it's no wonder some listeners were grateful that the shows didn't last long. The ear-splitting guitar noise at the band's last Valley gig a few years back (at the now-defunct teen disco Prisms) had even seasoned amp-sitters racing for the exits.
Of course, all that feedback and fuzz was crucial to the Chain's early sound. The band's debut LP, Psychocandy, combined classic pop songs and screeching distortion, which obscured, but never eclipsed, the irresistible melodies. The album wasn't unlike the work of feedback-meisters Sonic Youth, only with less self-conscious artiness and twice as much guitar noise.
As acclaimed as its wall-of-white-noise aesthetic was, the Chain came to see it as a gimmick that overshadowed the group's deft pop songwriting. "On the first LP, I think there are great songs there," asserts Reid. "I mean, feedback is easy to make. Feedback and noise are some of the easiest things to create. Writing a song is what's incredibly difficult. And yet we were getting noticed for the feedback!"
The Chain's two subsequent LPs, 1987's Darklands and last year's Automatic, have been conspicuously free of screaming feedback. "When we did Darklands, we decided to make an LP without feedback just to see if we could do it," notes the singer. Instead of highlighting fuzz, Darklands emphasized gloomy lyrics, which made the disc a must-have among mopesters. Reid calls it the band's best record. "I love the dark atmosphere," he enthuses.
Automatic doesn't have much in common with the rainy-day melancholy of Darklands. The panting lyrics and undulating rhythms on songs like "Take It" make it clear that the Reid brothers are more interested in sex than suicide this time out. What hasn't changed is the band's hard-edged pop approach, which sounds catchier than ever on the LP's first single, "Blues From a Gun."
Automatic's accessible, fairly straight-ahead Brit-pop sound might indicate that maturity's finally caught up with young William and Jim. The band's current shows, which are relatively civilized and unchaotic affairs, seem to support that theory. (Not that the Reids have gone completely soft. In a recent Spin interview, brother Jim slagged off several venerable rockers, calling Iggy Pop "a sad, old, pathetic shit" and Johnny Lydon "a completely pathetic zero.")
But William doesn't mind admitting that the band has become less belligerent in its old age. "I think we're just different people now," muses Reid. "It's been almost six years since our first gig. You can't always do the same thing. I mean, if we hadn't changed a bit in these six years, we'd either be dead or very, very bored."
The Jesus and Mary Chain will perform at Celebrity Theatre on Saturday, February 3. Show time is 8 p.m.
The boys would prod their manager to leak bizarreand often concocted-stories of sex-and-drug exploits to the British tabloids.
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