"I've been pissed on, now I'm confused/I've been beaten, truly abused/I gave my soul away and had it refused/Well, that's the only part that you haven't used."
Jim Reid is singing about a soured romance in "Dream Lover," a bittersweet track from the Jesus & Mary Chain's new album Munki, but he could be addressing the record industry just as easily. Arguably the group's most personal disc ever, Munki is full of such autobiographical nods, recalling the explosive highs and lows of the band's wildly controversial career.
The Jesus & Mary Chain have always been the sullen curmudgeons of the British pop scene, pursuing (or avoiding) stardom at their own mysterious pace. Bursting out of Glasgow in 1984, Jim and William Reid were an instant UK sensation, alternately thrilling and infuriating bewildered listeners with their nostalgic girl-group melodies hidden beneath monolithic howls of feedback. Cultural scholars quickly pegged them as the iconoclastic descendants of Elvis Presley, the Velvet Underground and the Sex Pistols, while moralists lashed out against the band's blasphemous lyrics and drugged-out image. Critics wondered whether the group would outlive their initial hype, and even the most devout fans were puzzled by the band's notoriously chaotic concerts, which often lasted a mere 20 minutes.
The group released their first single on the fledgling Creation label, but graduated to WEA-affiliated Blanco Y Negro to record their evocative debut album, Psychocandy. Of course, that disc became a major milestone of the '80s, influencing countless British bands of the next generation, but none of the subsequent records -- even gems like Darklands, Honey's Dead and Barbed Wire Kisses -- had the same monumental impact. By the turn of the decade, younger groups like Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star, Ultra Vivid Scene, Swervedriver and Ride had stolen the band's momentum, and when Oasis conquered the world a few years later, this was the most crushing blow of all. The JAMC's concurrent Stoned & Dethroned sold poorly (not surprising, given its subdued acoustic textures), and a subsequent B-side compilation merely marked time. No wonder the latter was titled The Jesus & Mary Chain Hate Rock 'n' Roll.
The final indignity came when WEA rejected the JAMC's proposed new album, and asked the Reids to re-record the songs. They refused, predictably. Unwilling to bend, the label bid the group a brusque farewell, leaving them without a record contract. Ironically, American Recordings -- the home of the band's last three domestic albums -- collapsed soon after the decision. The Reids were left in awkward limbo, condemned to watch the incendiary Britpop scene take off without them.
Looking back, Jim Reid admits that this was one of their darkest periods.
"It's certainly up there," he says, in a call from London. "There have been times in the past where it's probably been as bad, but maybe for not such a long period. It was a time of turmoil. There were many changes. We were kicked off our record label, we fired our management and we basically stumbled around for about a year, looking for a record deal and not really knowing how to do it. It was a weird time."
The outlook was bleak. But then, in a move of exquisite symmetry, Creation signed the Jesus & Mary Chain a second time, a dozen years after the legendary single which launched both the band and label. Of course, Creation's fortunes have soared in the interim, thanks to popular acts like Ride, Teenage Fanclub, St. Étienne, Primal Scream and, yes, those battling Gallaghers.
"There was no Creation in 1984, when we were on it before," Reid points out. "It was a couple of guys with loads of enthusiasm, and not really much money. Enthusiasm is great, but you have to get realistic if you want to make an album -- even if it's going to cost as little as the 17 grand that we spent on Psychocandy. Nobody there had that kind of money, then. It's entirely different now, but I'd like to think they've still got that same enthusiastic thing they had back then."
Once the JAMC hooked up with Creation again, the task of choosing a US label remained. If the Creation arrangement had been a worldwide deal, Epic would've distributed the group in the States, alongside Oasis and Super Furry Animals. However, Creation suggested a separate contract for America. Having heard complaints about Epic before, the Reids took the advice and made a surprise decision to sign with an indie: Sub Pop. Yes, Sub Pop, the label known for metallic Northwest punk, whose existing roster of UK-based acts can be counted on a single hand.
"Sub Pop is a similar type of sound to Creation -- it's just kids who like music, who want to work with bands that they respect," reasons Reid. "Also, we had just gotten out of that Warners deal, and we were looking for a different type of feel. We wanted to be able to speak to people that worked in record companies, to speak about music and feel relaxed. The Warners thing, I guess it was just a mismatch of peoples and ideas."
Judging from the power of Munki, the decision to go independent may have been overdue. Clocking in at a mighty 69 minutes, this generous disc proves that the Reids' creative juices were far from dry during the four-year gap between albums. The opening and closing tracks establish the framework: Jim's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" launches the disc triumphantly, as he sings "I love rock 'n' roll/I love what I'm doing/I need rock 'n' roll/Gets me where I'm going" while horns and buzzing guitars float cheerfully around him. Later, William's "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll" provides the climactic rebuttal, with its sarcastic jabs at MTV, the BBC and "all these people with nowhere to go." Between these anthemic bookends, the songs interweave typical motifs of alienation, drugs, pop culture, God and self-destruction, but this time with an added maturity. The wryly titled "Supertramp" muses, "We know that we've blown the past/Maybe we could change the future." "I Can't Find the Time for Times" wearily observes, "And all those crazy people need crazy times/I can't find the time/I can't find the time for times." And "Never Understood" (not related to Psychocandy's "Never Understand," Jim insists) offers the most candid analysis of all: "I think I'm going out of style/I think I've known it for awhile/I think I've known it with a smile."
"There's a theme of 'taking stock,'" Reid says. "We're guys in our thirties now -- you know, I'm 36, William's 39 -- and we're basically looking back on what we've done, where we're at and where we're going. There's a thread that runs through the album of a bunch of guys just trying to make sense of it all. I mean, 'I Love Rock 'N' Roll,' 'I Hate Rock 'N' Roll,' 'Stardust Remedy'...we're talking about what we do, what we are. It's a more straightforward way than we might've done in the past."
The album's sound is unusually varied for the JAMC, stretching from the usual distorted-soaked rock to the dreamy "Man on the Moon," the airtight pop of "Black," the woozy shuffle of "Commercial," two tracks with guest female vocals and the mostly acoustic "Never Understood." Four songs ("Perfume," "Birthday," "Virtually Unreal" and "Cracking Up") also have a strikingly high-tech feel, with pre-programmed drum loops and nagging repetitive grooves. "We've always dabbled in that kind of stuff," Reid says of the latter. "You've got to remember that Honey's Dead was pretty much an album made with samples and loops as well, and Automatic was just me and William in a studio with the drums and bass on computer. You can't be too precious or snobbish about what makes a good record. Basically, whatever it takes, you know?"
Of course, the diversity was almost unavoidable, given the album's prolonged delay. "We'd start the record and do maybe five or six tracks," he explains, "and then have to go away and do some gigs and festivals. There was a lot of stopping and starting going on. You can hear that on the record. There's loads of different types of sounds on there, and I think that's part of its strength. There's something for everybody on this record."
But really now, can he still sing "I love rock 'n' roll" with a straight face, after all that has transpired?
"We stand by that statement," Reid says firmly. "I'm here for the same reasons that I was doing this stuff in 1984. I do love rock 'n' roll. There's no irony there -- it's a heartfelt statement. It's just that sometimes you take a lot for granted, and you have to remind yourself that nobody owes you anything and that you just do what you do. The very fact that people still care about what we're doing, 14 years after we first put out a record, is fantastic."
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