Jesus & Mary Chain – more feedback please!

In 1985 the UK was ready for another sound, Simple Minds & U2 had turned New Wave into ‘Stadium Rock’ and Echo & the Bunnymen & the Smiths refreshing sound was on the turn.

Alan McGee’s Creation Records appeared to be the last resort for a noise pop sound clash, after demos had apparently been rejected by everyone else.

The Jesus & Mary Chain heralded from East Kilbride, Scotland. Two brothers William (guitar) and Jim Reid (vocals), Douglas Hart (bass) with Murray Dalglish (drums), the Jesus & Mary Chain were refreshing. The music was different, exciting, edgy and dark. The Beach Boys met the Velvet Underground on a motorbike without a silencer – I think that describes it fairly well.

I first heard their debut single, Upside Down, on Radio 1’s John Peel Show; and even though FM radio doesn’t do justice for the awesome power of channel upon channel of front row feedback, it was enough to make me go buy the single and give it the justice it deserved. This is one of those songs that needs to be played at full volume, preferably with the windows open; alternatively, wear headphones. But not ‘in-ear’ walkman type – they let too much sound escape. You want a great big pair of fuck off cyber men ‘cans’ that force every drop of sound to penetrate your eardrums.

Upside Down intros with the overtly echoing skipping beat played out to a drum machine rhythm with a two-drum kit – floor tom and snare. There’s no room for drum rolls or crashing cymbals. The feedback forces itself to leak into every space as if pushing the studio door open before the guitars thump in. Layer upon layer of feedback screams into the song, high pitched squeals make eyes squint and ears wax, as the feedback bleeds over everything else – coming and going with no regularity, an uncontrollable onslaught of incomparable noise.

Like many of my friends and contemporaries I had retrospectively fallen in love with the first two Velvet Underground albums where I had been introduced to the power of feed backing guitars. But I wasn’t one of those critics who dismissed Mary Chain’s debut as nothing new or original. For what Upside Down achieves is to take noise from the Velvets, rhythms of surfin’ Beach Boys and the abruptness and shock horror of punk to make a two minute 7” single that was original for its timing, ingredients and power more so than any other song I can recall.

At the time of its release all music had erred once again to being over produced, to the point where backing singers and string quartets were being used to enhance the studio sound of live performances. Upside Down heralded a return to a dirty, grungy smoked-filled basement gig that had a wall of sound production, a song with no lead guitar or catchy chorus. It wasn’t something my older brothers and sisters were going to appreciate, let alone my parents; and yes, that is a part of it. Like rock ‘n’ roll before it, punk music was nothing if it wasn’t a rebellion against the status quo, conservative culture, and that which had gone before it.

Upside Down has no verse chorus, verse chorus structure, and certainly doesn’t refrain from assault with a melodic middle eight. This is a painful coarse measure of frustrated youth surging forth with the added component of struggling musicianship that leaves nothing polished but everything turned up & full of power. On hearing this loud for the first time I stopped, listened to the silence through the ringing in my ears and, once normality had settled, switched the turntable from off to on and dropped the stylus back down on the edge of the 7” plastic. It was that good.

Once I had listened through again it was time to see how they could prolong this one pronged attack by flipping over to the b-side. It was a similar encounter of feedback forcing the issue, though the structure of the song was more formulised. Vegetable Man is a rare Syd Barrett song that leant itself very well to a sparse stop / start version of four young men from Scotland sticking their fingers up to the establishment nine safe years after The Sex Pistols had first rocked the boat.

Listening to this song again today, 22 years on, I am still left with the thought that this hasn’t been equalled; and yes it still sounds perfect, to me.

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