The Jesus And Mary Chain
Brixton Academy, London
Friday September 7 2007
From scrawny urchins of chaos-punk to respected elder statesmen of alternative rock. What a long, strange trip it's been for The Jesus And Mary Chain.
From their early days of chaotic, ramshackle gigs that would barely last 20 minutes before descending into fisticuffs (both on stage and off), to their current status as acknowledged rock craftsmen with an extensive repertoire of classic anthems soaked in rock 'n' roll romanticism, it's certainly been quite a journey. Given the transformation of the band over the years, you'd be forgiven for asking how on earth the Jesus And Mary Chain got from there to here.
I suspect the two principal members of the Mary Chain gang - brothers Jim and William Reid, around whom umpteen line-ups have come and gone over the years - are asking themselves that same question tonight. This latest reformation of the band has generated a packed venue of enthusiastic fans and a flurry of interest in the media. All of a sudden The Jesus And Mary Chain are hot news, and it certainly wasn't always that way.
Last time the band were in action, back in 1998, there wasn't anything like the kind of positive reaction we've seen on this occasion. Then, the band ended up fizzling out amid recriminations and disappointment. Fast forward a decade, and all of a sudden everyone wants to know. How did that happen?
Well, that might be a bit of a tricky question, but I can at least tell you what's happening on stage right now. The Horrors are happening. This is what they're like: a barrage of freaky garage-punkisms and a tangle of spindly legs. Incomprehensible vocals and much leaping and gurning. It's lo-fi and energetic, and on that level, if on no other, it works. One thing is for sure: The Horrors are in no danger of being mistaken for classic rock craftsmen. As a matter of fact, it's only their cover of Screaming Lord Sutch's 'Jack The Ripper' that stands out from their general shriek 'n' batter noise.
I suspect their brief moment of superstardom, which they gained quite unexpectedly after the NME gave them a front cover, might be already on the wane. After all, here they are in the opening slot - a lowly position for a band that only recently headlined the Astoria. Sure, they kick up a good old punkzoid racket, but maybe The Horrors are about to discover what The Jesus And Mary Chain figured out years ago: there's a limit to how far you can get on the basis of noise 'n' chaos. It's exhilarating at first, but if it's all you do, you can expect your sell-by date to come round with alarming speed.
There's a complete change of pace now as Evan Dando - that's right, him out of the Lemonheads, indie superstar Evan Dando - takes the stage for an amiable run-through of some of his old hits. There's no band, just the man himself on a plangently-tuned guitar, flanked by a mate on another. It's a bit like a busking performance, but without the option of walking on by.
Once you've marvelled at how effortlessly Evan Dando has preserved his scruffy college boy image (even though he must be well into his middle years by now), the music, mid-tempo and middle of the road, doesn't really provide anything to grab the attention. Even 'It's A Shame About Ray', a fine indie anthem in its day, sounds tired and bland in its new MOR-troubadour incarnation. In the end, I reflect that it's a bit of a shame about Evan Dando.
It's astonishing how un-rock 'n' roll The Jesus And Mary Chain actually are. The sidemen are anonymous jeans-and-T-shirts types, while, on vocals, Jim Reid is rocking the skinny 'n' scruffy look. He stands with a certain awkward deference, like a car park attendant on karaoke night. On guitar, William Reid has clearly left his scrawny urchin years far behind him. He's portly and taciturn, big of hair and black of suit. It's amazing to think that these unthreatening gents were once regarded as fuelled-up rock 'n' roll wild men.
Fortunately, the old trademark sound of the Mary Chain - unrestrained feedback - is still present, although now in tightly controlled doses, almost as if the band have grudgingly decided to allow the occasional squeal to emerge by way of a token gesture to their past.
For anyone who remembers the Mary Chain's mad, bad and dangerous early incarnation, it's necessary to suspend disbelief pretty high in order to accept that this band - restrained, measured, and exuding a downbeat professionalism throughout - is, if not quite the same as that original combo, at least its direct descendant.
So, it's all down to the songs, then. Fortunately, here The Jesus And Mary Chain score a resounding bullseye. Their songbook is stuffed with instant anthems that effortlessly conjure up the mythical rock 'n' roll freeway, even if they do default to a 'Hey, hey, hey' chorus just a little too frequently for comfort. 'Never Understand' is a night ride in a T-bird, 'April Skies' a tour de force of four-four gloom. 'Miserable bastards, aren't we?' remarks Jim Reid self deprecatingly, as the song throbs to a close.
The drummer - whomsoever he might be this time round - does a fine job of imitating the original drum machine clatter on 'Sidewalking', and, slightly surprisingly, the band's knockabout cover of Syd Barrett's 'Vegetable Man' even makes an appearance, angular and frazzled, just as it should be. Now there's a real throwback to the old days, for the song originally appeared on the B-side of the band's first single, 'Upside Down' - which doesn't get a run-out tonight. Perhaps that one's just a bit too punk rock for the mature and restrained Mary Chain of modern times.
'Reverence' taps into that old Velvet Underground-style nihilism, Jim
Reid at last connecting with his old mojo and ripping out the splendidly
doomy lyrics - 'I wanna die just like Jesus Christ, I wanna die on a bed
of spikes' - as if, somewhere behind his eyes, the red mist is still ready
to descend. Yes, the fire still flickers, even if it's not the roaring
conflagration of former years. That's The Jesus And Mary Chain for you,
I suppose. Those pugilistic punks of yesteryear have effortlessly turned
into the classic rockers it's OK to like.