Chaos and beauty, damage and joy: The Jesus and Mary Chain have been playing on these dichotomies for thirty-odd years, defiling the melody of ’60s pop groups with ragged noise and chasing the distortion with lyrics of a romantic detachment from life. Upon the release of abrasive debut album Psychocandy in 1985, the East Kilbride brothers at the helm of the operation weren’t the first to characterize their sound with feedback and insolence, but they took it to an extreme that turned the ears of disenchanted young Britons and music critics alike. Back onstage in Glasgow in support of their seventh album, and their first in twenty years, Damage and Joy, it is clear that they are quite content that their legacy completely precedes them, for better or for worse.
Their loyal hometown fanbase is still very much intact, as a sold-out show at the O2 ABC proves, and equally eager, the room being already quite full by the time opening act The Van Ts take to the stage. The four grungy Glasgow locals do a good job of firing the crowd up with their crunchy guitars and howling harmonies, earning a generous and well-deserved applause after the scuzzy noise-pop of ‘Fresh Meat’ and ‘Blood Orange’.
It is difficult to know what to expect from a band like The Jesus and Mary Chain, having earned such notoriety in their youth for their aloof and spontaneous approach to live performances, often playing for a mere 15 minutes before leaving packed-out rooms full of buzzed and dissatisfied fans to vent their fury on the equipment and each other.
It’s unrealistic to presume that the now fifty-something year olds or their fans will still be as volatile, but at the same time it’s almost impossible to dissociate them from the havoc they once wreaked on the airwaves and basement venues of Britain. So when the band finally emerges onstage to the opening squall and riff of ‘Amputation’, silhouetted against dry ice and red lights, there’s a jarring sense of absence. This eases off however, with the note-perfect “oooohs” and Jim Reid’s can’t-be-arsed drawl – after all, they still look the part in plain black t-shirts and sunglasses, and William’s still got his shock of curls.
In fact, after ‘Amputation’ the set is surprisingly low on content from Damage and Joy, the valiant comeback effort which managed to successfully capture the essential sounds of their past albums while retaining a sense of progression. There’s the nasal mooning and Phil Spector drums of ‘Always Sad’ (with Bernadette Denning on guest vocals) and the more downbeat ‘Black and Blues’, but other than that it’s a career-spanning string of crowd pleasers until the slow-burning ‘War on Peace’.
Not that the set is purely a greatest hits collection either, with the absence of early staples such as ‘Never Understand’ and ‘April Skies’. The feedback that the band is famed for is relatively toned down until the halfway point of the set with ‘Blues From a Gun’ – a distorted trucker-rock tune that injects a vital dose of energy into both performers and crowd, which continues through to the other two Automatic cuts: the rumbling ‘Gimme Hell’ and spunky indie-pop of ‘Halfway to Crazy’. It seemed rather against the Jesus and Mary Chain ethos to do one encore, let alone two, but the crowd didn’t seem too bothered as long as they were being treated to such gems as ‘Just Like Honey’ and ‘In a Hole’. The highest pitches of feedback were saved for last, on the irreverent ‘I Hate Rock ‘n Roll’, after which the Reids and co departed the stage to the sound of William’s white noise, a final reminder of the band’s original dissonance.
Clocking in at 70 minutes with two encores and many polite expressions of gratitude, this gig is a far cry from those of old, a fact that the band themselves are well aware of: as William tunes up in between songs Jim dryly notes that he never saw a need to back in the day. A band can’t be held forever to what they were 30 years ago – there is a specific brand of reactionary impulse that is confined to youth, and shouldn’t be chased too far beyond it. The Jesus and Mary Chain placed an invaluable and timeless stitch in the fabric of modern rock music, and they are paying it the respect that it is due.
IMAGE: Steve Gullick