From Westwood To Hollywood: A Review Of Zoe Howe’s Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus And Mary Chain
Updated: Apr 19, 2022
I was going up-escalator, and travelling in the opposite direction, in every sense, was William Reid of The Jesus And Mary Chain (although I didn’t know that at the time), all hair and leather, like a child’s drawing of a punk. Watching Scarlett Johansson as a visiting alien in the recent movie Under The Skin (and more of her later) reminded me of this non-meeting, as she observes we humans while she walks through a Glasgow mall. I imagine this is how Reid was viewing those around him in EK in ’83; with a mixture of bemusement and pity.
Whatever the case, I knew from that brief encounter that if this guy had a gang, I wanted to be in it. Of course, he would have taken one look at my wedge haircut, baggy trews and Rising Sun t-shirt and laughed in my face, and rightly so, but seeing him was the first hint for me that something was stirring in East Kilbride, and when it exploded into pop culture, life, and music, for many of us would never be the same again.
Barbed Wire Kisses, Zoe Howe’s excellent biography of The Jesus and Mary Chain, charts the spectacular rise of the band who people either loved or hated, and they didn’t really seem to care which it was. In the book she manages to get quotes from all the major players in this drama, (and boy, was it dramatic at times), and many of the lesser lights as well. As well as William and Jim Reid (and ‘Sister Vanilla’, Linda Reid) there are contributions from Douglas Hart, Alan McGee, Bobby Gillespie, Murray Dalglish, John Moore, Laurence Verfaillie, Stephen Pastel, John Robb, Geoff Travis, Mark Crozer, as well as a Spinal Tap-esque coterie of drummers.
Every now and again a band seems to appear in isolation to everything else which is going on, or even in direct opposition. From the beginning The Jesus and Mary Chain, and particularly the brothers Reid, (whose story this is, in the main), stated that it was them against the world. Luckily, they had the songs and sound to pull it off. Their attitude to other bands can be summed up by quoting Marlon Brando’s ‘Johnny Strabler’ in The Wild One. When he’s asked ‘What are you rebelling against?’ he answers,’What have you got?’.
Of course, they didn’t quite exist in a vacuum; influences such as The Stooges and MC5 were obvious, and Howe also makes clear that there were bands in Scotland at the time with which The Mary Chain could identify, such as The Pastels, Bobby Gillespie’s nascent Primal Scream and The Fire Engines, even if they were often at pains to hide this admiration from the world. Everyone involved in and around The Mary Chain were massive music fans, and they continued to let worthy souls into their gang over the years.
The fedback scuzzy noise of their debut Psychocandy was the perfect sound to match their state of mind, but it became a millstone around their neck with fans and critics expecting more of the same on the follow up Darklands, even though, according to Barbed Wire Kisses, that seems to be the favourite album of almost everyone involved, and for once that isn’t pure pig-headedness on their part. The reason for this desire to be heard will be obvious to those who have ever read or listened closely to the lyrics to Jesus and Mary Chain songs; they are just too good to be buried beneath feedback forever.
Howe’s book suffers a little as the band did themselves in that the really arresting story is in their early days, and the move from an East Kilbride bedroom to playing Santa Monica and being on TOTP, (which, for any one who remembers that fateful performance, was as radical as seeing a Reid brother on the escalator in a Scottish New Town). This was when they still seemed shocking, and threatening, and was years before they would be sharing a stage with Scarlett Johansson. Although they continued to make great albums, the desire to gig grew less as substance abuse, alcohol, and ‘wibbling rivalry’ took its toll, which is hardly surprising when you consider how often their gigs were defined by drink and violence. As Howe sets out in often gory detail, you can’t keep that up for too long and expect to come out the other side intact.
However, after that first flush of notoriety, they remained a band who you couldn’t ignore, and the book beautifully weaves first person interviews with quotes from other sources to tell the story from the very beginning to what we now know is not quite the end. Howe manages to keep the story interesting even as the band were falling out of favour critically, and apart internally, and an advantage for their story is that they continued to influence new generations of bands who were only too happy to talk about them, tour with them, and often join them. Few bands have the sort of goodwill The Mary Chain carry with them. As they grew older it seemed to increasingly be a case of “everyone likes us, we don’t care”. At least that pose endured.
Barbed Wire Kisses is a timely reminder that The Jesus and Mary Chain are perhaps the most influential band ever to leave these shores, and if you are a fan then you’ll love this book as it gives you more detail than you would ever except about that notoriously publicity shy band of brothers. If you haven’t yet embraced The Mary Chain, then I suggest you get copies of Psychocandy, Darklands, the collection Barbed Wire Kisses (b-sides & more) and Stoned & Dethroned as a starting point, and Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain Story is there to make sense of what unfolds.
p.s. Barbed Wire Kisses is out now from the fine people at Birlinn and Polygon Books, and is the latest of their musical biographies that seem to be published solely to fulfil my wishes. Previously they have included Allan Jones excellent biography of The Blue Nile, Nileism, Allan Glen’s insightful and moving book on Stuart Adamson, In A Big Country, and Tom Doyle’s The Glamour Chase, which examines the thrills, spills and chocolate guitars which were all part of the life of Billy Mackenzie. Now, if I click my heels three times, I wonder if a Cocteau Twins’ biography is next?