Never mind the naysayers, we are in a terrific time for literature. The “we” here is music lovers of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, who’ve sat on the sidelines waiting for the thousands of books on The Beatles to run their course (can there be any gold left in them hills?) At last we turn our attention to OUR time, our bands, our music, and we do it with the guidance of the steady hand of the music journos who were right there, side of stage, and importantly, are not only capable and spirited documentarians, but fans too. One the one year anniversary of this must-read book, and the 30th anniversary of Psycho Candy, let’s dig in.
Zoë Howe has made a name though her 9 insightful music biographies, most recently Lee Brilleaux: Rock n’ Roll Gentleman (Polygon), about the late Dr. Feelgood frontman. Howe’s writing is solidly and deftly built on the essential foundations of music journalism via print and radio (NME, BBC Music, Company, The Quietus, Resonance FM, Absolute Radio, BBC 5 & 6). For those of us that grew up holding and cherishing vinyl, Howe’s bona fides include something even closer to our hearts: a writer entrusted with band bios and liner notes.
Barbed Wire Kisses (St. Martin’s Press) has been roundly praised by music fans and those who were right in the thick of it (and blurbed by no less than Creation records co-founder, original Mary Chain manager and music man Alan McGee.) Those who’ve provided new and rich interviews include McGee, Creation Records Co-Founder Joe Foster, and current and former band members including the always entertaining original Jesus and Mary Chain drummer Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream) who seems to have a part in most of the entertaining and musical stories of the era.
This book is complete with meaty fireside tales from almost everyone involved in an unusually fascinating origin story (and full history, concerned with much more than the rock and roll excesses or dramas). It documents with Howe’s trademark candour and wit, the bands’ (and the brothers’) trials, scrutinizes their inscrutable fortresses and unpacks what made The Mary Chain once in a lifetime dark magic. Here is a cracking researcher and proper journalist with an unusual (and important) knack for rescuing woefully buried treasures from our late great magazines to supply essential background. This book becomes the new official record, rightsizing what’s been lost or allowed to disappear into some old print media’s undigitized hoard, mags we thought’d be preserved as the important histories they are that we faithfully bought as weekly treats at the newsstands and record shops our lives once orbited around.
For those of you who’ve not yet read it, here are some excepts, tidbits and otherwise compelling reasons to pick it up (or download it) and take a great trip on this 30th Anniversary of the singular Psycho Candy that, anniversaries aside, never gets old, rather, is permanently etched in a list of our most essential listening. Rare books like this have music ringing out of their pages, in this case reverb for days.
For The Jesus and Mary Chain created their own genre, born of a cocktail of psychotic noise, Spector rhythm and dark lyrics, delivered via a visual explosion of smoke, leather, big hair, Ray-bans, silhouettes and searchlights. They tool the glittering jewel of pop and casually lifted it up, revealing the darkness underneath.” and yet, like so many worthy bands, the histories omit them, even though “we were the fucking 1980’s” (- Jim Reid.)
- Growing up the Reid brothers parents “would buy a single once every five years and then play it over and over again”
- The Reids were “outsiders from an outsider town”. “East Kilbride, as much as it marred us, it made us.”
- Through their stoic cool, The Jesus and Mary Chain brought forth the necessary confidence to make it in a tough climate. “Everything hasn’t been done. No one has ever made a record remotely like Upside Down.”
- A proper DIY, no budget punk approach infused the entire look and image of this band that later generations have strained to copy on big budgets. An early photo shoot involved a plastic sheet hung above a bed in their childhood twin bedroom, and aided by a spotlight, the band mimed playing live. “And bloody hell, it worked!” Innovations and innate creativity of the kind that only blossoms from isolationists led to the band’s image that was executed flawlessly through photography, collage, and customized clothes. “All of our early artwork was done with great joy.”
- In the early gigging days, the band would crash in Alan McGee’s flat. This was a practical solution to lack of funds, “and besides, Alan could also take the opportunity to put the boys to work for the common cause of Creation. Many an evening would be spent folding record sleeves and putting them in plastic bags.”
From a shared bedroom, to cracking the music industry and innovating it along the way, to the eventual rifts and even “divorce” that, quite understandably, come to pass between brothers in bands, The Jesus and Mary Chain story is one to fuel your want-to-start-a-band-dreams or your want-to-write-liner-notes ones alike. In 2015, The Mary Chain came back out on the road to the instant delight and the clamour of all their fans of the last three decades. As as much as we’d love to teleport back to say we were there at The Living Room gigs, those of us still with the sense and opportunity to see The Jesus and Mary Chain live on this round do get a lot more than 20 minutes. And it’s all still there. These new fan experiences are enriched by gem of a book that lets us eavesdrop on all the best stories.
Final hit: should you ever be so lucky as to be interviewed by a mass audience, here is the bar to which the art form was once raised
“My three wishes? That little alien blokes would come and govern the planet and make everybody be nice to each other. And that they would bring many drugs with no ill effects. And that I would be given a licence to kill.” (Jim Reid in NME)
All text quoted above are copyright the author, Zoë Howe and the publisher, St. Martin’s Press.
The Jesus and Mary Chain Barbed Wire Kisses by Zoë Howe. St. Martin’s Press. November 2014.
Zoë Howe is a music author whose other books include the acclaimed Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits; ‘How’s Your Dad?’ Living in the Shadow of a Rock Star Parent, British Beat Explosion – Rock n’ Roll Island and Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson’s memoir Looking Back At Me, published by Cadiz Music in 2012 and the new release Lee Brilleux: Rock n’ Roll Gentleman published by Polygon. Her writing has also appeared in The Quietus, Company, Notion, BBC Music, Holy Moly, Classic Rock and NME. Zoe has also made music radio series for stations including the award-winning Resonance FM, and she can be heard talking about rock n’ roll from time to time on BBC 6 Music, Absolute Radio, Planet Rock, BBC London and elsewhere. We are big, unabashed, fans of her work!
By Jacqueline Howell