Managed to make one more event at this year’s excellent Aye Write festival – Vic Galloway chatting to Zoë Howe and founding member of The Jesus and Mary Chain, Douglas Hart.
“It’s a bit like being a sort of detective.”
Zoë has written a number of music biographies, so the obvious question, begins Vic, is what made her take on The Jesus and Mary Chain? “I always think there should be some reconsideration [of the band/artist],” she explains. “Here are some really creative and defiant people who brought punk into the 80s. I grew up with their music around me, and we shared many cultural reference points.”
But is she a fan? It’s a tricky question, she says, because she thinks that those who view the people they’re researching as heroes “can’t do the job to the same extent”, but in being surrounded by and enjoying their music, she can give a more objective and balanced approach. So yes, she does like them, but never viewed them as heroes.
The Reid brothers are notorious for fighting, and she had to contact a load of people for this book to build a fuller picture – how do you even begin? “Every book is difficult,” says Zoë. “You’ve got to represent as many people are you can. I love the intensity of taking years of getting into one topic. The Slits [biography] was a baptism of fire.” How does the internet fare against old fashioned research? “It’s a bit of both. I don’t like to rely on [the internet]. People are willing to talk and debunk some myths, so I go to people. It’s a bit like being a sort of detective.”
“It was amazing meeting a like-minded soul.”
William Reid said no to being a part, where Jim had vivid memories which, Vic notes, is astounding considering the band’s renowned lifestyle. “Jim can’t fucking remember anything, he just makes it up,” Douglas chimes in. On his own experience, he continues, “It’s a weird thing. At first I thought no fucking way I’m doing it. It’s very personal, but I figured it was time.”
Douglas is one of the more present voices in the book – how did he find delving into the past in such a way? “It was an amazing time, so generally quite pleasant. I was asked questions I’d never thought about in 30 years.” He turned back to meeting Jim, in ’77/’78. “A friend knew Jim at karate, saying he liked the same music, […] everyone was obsessed with Bruce Lee. It was amazing meeting a like-minded soul.” He moves forward to a brief overlap in high school: “At that time we became interested in psychedelic drugs; we bonded over music and narcotics. We were in East Kilbride and magic mushrooms grow fucking everywhere.”
Moving to the formative band years, their frontman’s shyness is well-known. “His voice was amazing and charismatic, but he had no confidence. We’d go to the Paint Factory and smash it up to fuck. It was a safehaven.” It was a precursor to Mary Chain: have the Stooges up full, take acid and smash stuff up.
Vic turns the conversation to the brotherly dynamic of Jim and William, famed for its tensions. “It’s an amazing thing,” begins Zoë. “I can’t imagine being in a band with my sibling. They shared cultural touchstones and make amazing music together.”
“I’ve got two brothers and [their relationship] felt natural to me. They’re good at slagging off each other, it made me laugh. I always liked the fights.”
“It was fucking chaos.”
Murray, their newest member at the time, the young drummer who shared no reference points, took musicianship very seriously. He’d often stand sober watching the surrounding destruction.
“It was fucking chaos,” Douglas continues. “None of us were natural performers. We had to get incredibly drunk to do it. We just couldn’t give a fuck.” Their drunkenness brought a certain element of anger, like a musical Jekyll and Hyde.
“Without the [earsplitting noise], we felt naked. It was healthy – we hated everyone and everything.” The Living Room gig is considered pivotal – “It wasn’t a rollercoaster, it was a rocket.”
The violence that came with their shows was “initially amazing,” says Douglas. “There’s an incredible creative energy in that kind of destruction. There’s something beautiful about it.” He recalls they were hired guards who had been in the SAS and they fucked off after just a few dates. Today, rock is sanitised in comparison. “There’s a lack of anger and the danger is gone. There was a dangerous edge to us.”
“I can’t wait for the new album.”
Vic says that their music was crystalline pop songs swathed in scathing noise. “It was always the way we sounded, the way we wanted to sound. There was no control on us live, so this was us getting it on record.” Fashion and style comes up, thanks to a reading from Zoë that alludes to one mother’s fixation with Douglas’ cheekbones. “Clothes come into the perfect band,” he replies.
Jumping ahead a few decades to end, the reformation and Psychocandy shows. “It was only worth doing [to me] if we all did it,” Douglas says, but, “I went to the London Psychocandy show and it was amazing.” There is talk of new music from the band, and “I can’t wait for the new album.”
Really great hour for anyone who’s a fan of The Jesus and Mary Chain, rock biographies or just the scene in general. Barely scraped the surface, but the book is definitely worth reading. Just a few chapters in and it’s extremely good.