The song starts simply enough: the drums simply beat out dum-dum-dum-thrash, dum-dum-dum-thrash, drenched in an echo chamber like the third reincarnation of Be My Baby. Indeed, the lyrics, intoned by a dark, drawling voice, are almost comfortingly like a Spector-Greenwich-Barry hit of old, with motorcycles, sunshine, and girls called Cindy and Candy.
Then, with a piercing whistle and a slashing guitar recorded into the red, it hits you so hard it hurts: that sound…the wall of feedback. Slamming down like a sheet of impenetrable metal, one could almost think that two different recordings have been superimposed on top of each other. But that is the trick, the snare: drawn in by the familiar, and then having your face shoved in the new, a dog turd on top of your Fairlight synthesiser.
Almost every song on the Jesus And Mary Chain’s first album, Psychocandy, could be described this way. However, the recordings only approximate to the brutal energy of their gigs, which frequently prompted violence in the audience. Since I have never seen them live, I quote from my friend Iain Baker, of Down With Tractors, who went to see them at the ICA in late December 1984:
Absolutely everyone in the building was there to see the Mary Chain, and the tension was palpable as they shuffled onto the stage. And then……
….And then they did nothing. For about 10 minutes. In front of a virtually psychotic crowd, waiting for them to fail, waiting for them to pass out in a drug-induced coma (the papers were full of rumours that they basically lived on Amphetamines). The atmosphere at the front of the crowd was turning ugly, so I retreated to the side of the venue. I can see myself there now, I was wearing my long black crombie coat (de riguer at the time) a dark paisley shirt, buttoned to the neck, Tight black drainpipes and Shelly’s brothel creepers. I was sandwiched between a bloke with a Leather Jacket festooned with the cover of “Punk’s Not Dead” by the Exploited and some journalists, notebooks at the ready. We watched the crowd as they began to get more and more restless, shouting for the band to do something, anything. Anything at all.
After around five minutes, where they did little more than kick things on stage, the noise began. Gently at first, a small shrill whistle singing out over our heads. It went on for a few minutes more, until it morphed into recognisable feedback. The first few thwacks on the stand up drum were greeted with sarcastic cheers. Drumming for them at that point was of course Bobby Gillespie, with Shades covering most of his face, and dressed head to toe in leather. Jim and William Reid prowled around the stage, in an advanced state of refreshment. Jim, in particular, looked like he was unsure whether he was awake or not. William sat on the floor, with a black Gretsch guitar, aimlessly turning the knobs on his amplifier. And then, they finally started playing.
Six songs. That’s all you got, and it was actually quite a long gig for the band (I remember the Electric Ballroom show coming in at a shade over 17 minutes) Starting with a piercing version of In A Hole and ending, 20 minutes later, with an inhuman shriek of noise, as Jesus Suck collapsed in on itself. In between those two points were twenty of the most exciting musical minutes I’ve ever seen. I’ve yet to see a band reach the same dizzying heights of nonchalant aggression since. I still don’t think I’ll ever see a better gig. I vividly remember every single second: Jim laughing at the stupidity of it all during Vegetable Man, William’s solo in You Trip Me Up exploding from the bowels of the song in a sudden slash of simple genius….it was just wonderful.
Even the combative audience seemed to have been forced into submission by the wall of noise: the effect of the sheer brutality of the sound was to make you clench your fists (I had marks from my fingernails on my palms for the rest of the night) but the fists never ended up lashing out. The feedback had all of us in its thrall; gritting our teeth as this screaming monster of a gig passed over our heads.
Feedback had been used as part of the song before (by the Who, for example), but here it was being used as the raison d’etre for the whole thing, not merely an embellishment. I present here today four songs which hopefully give some flavour of those heady days. Their uncontrolled first single, Upside Down (FF 1984 #37); the rich and glorious opener for the album, Just Like Honey (FF 1985 #2);
and the manic thrill of You Trip Me Up (FF 1985 #12),
and Never Understand (FF 1985 #1).