The Jesus and Mary Chain play Glastonbury this weekend and frontman Jim Reid says they’ll have fun. He knows this sounds unlikely. “‘Fun’ seems like a weird word for anyone in the Mary Chain to use. But although we appear to be rather dour and miserable, we actually enjoy what we do.”
In a 1980s world dominated by cheesy pop, the band’s uncheery demeanour was part of their appeal. It turned to proper misery when the Reid brothers – William on lead guitar – reached a point of mutual loathing. They split in 1998 but reformed five years ago after the pair made up, and have been touring ever since. They’ve performed at Glastonbury only once before, in the late 1990s, a day that Reid recalled with dry amusement. “We were briefly flirting with an image change and we decided to wear suits. We got there and it was a mudbath. We were walking about in these f—ing suits and had to put plastic bags on our feet to go from the bus to the stage.”
The Jesus and Mary Chain were never about the clothes, although the backcombed, birds’ nest hair was much imitated. It was the music that made them cool, and the way they played it – a wall of scuzzy feedback layered over melodies that evoked the Beach Boys and the Shangri-Las, performed at raucous gigs which had a habit of descending into violence. They were the most thrilling thing to happen to the live music scene since the Sex Pistols.
They built up a devoted following around the world, including the US and China. Their influence can be heard in the music of bands from the Pixies to the Libertines, but it extends much further. Creation’s Alan McGee, their former manager, identified “a clear line from the Jesus and Mary Chain to Oasis. It was there in the sense of danger, the classic melodies and the f— you attitude.” (Those melodies are so robust that they have even survived being covered by David Hasselhoff, who did his own version of their song Head On).
Writing in his memoir, McGee also referred to their legendary sulkiness: “If they won the Lottery, it would put them in a bad mood.”
But these days Reid is an easy, witty interviewee who laughs often – although when I ask if he enjoys going to festivals as a punter, he replies: “I’m not one for standing about in a field for hours. Also, I get bored watching too many bands one after the other.” Now 60, he lives with his wife and teenage daughters in the distinctly un-rock’n’roll surroundings of Sidmouth, Devon. “Most people around here don’t know what I do, and that’s the way I like it. I just potter about,” he says.
Reid ended up as the band’s lead singer in 1983 after losing a coin toss with his brother. “I am terribly, terribly shy. I was not cut out to be the singer in a rock’n’roll band.” Most musicians can pinpoint a moment in their youth – a song they heard, or a performance they watched, which seemed so magical that it inspired their careers. For this band, it was the inverse. “I remember Kid Creole and the Coconuts being on the cover of the NME,” says Reid, “and me and William just looking at each other thinking, right, we’ve got to do something about this. It wasn’t that we were hearing so much of what we loved, it was that we were hearing so much of what we hated. Mainstream music was awful.”
Not that the band was snooty about pop. They even gazed out (glumly, of course) from the front cover of Smash Hits, which introduced them as: “Jesus and Mary Chain - loud, spotty and weird!”
“We took a lot of flak for doing interviews like that because bands like us weren’t supposed to be on the cover of Smash Hits. But we had no interest in being the indie kids of the time that were happy to play in front of nine of their mates with their Oxfam clothes.”
As for today’s music stars, he despairs. “It’s like the attitude has gone back to pre-rock’n’roll times - the early 1950s, when everything was saccharine and bland. Bring back puking behind the amps on stage, that’s what I say. “Everybody is too scared to upset anyone either musically or in what they say. It just seems like rock’n’roll never happened.”
The Jesus and Mary Chain signed to Creation Records in 1984, after a period on the dole. They released their brilliant debut album, Psychocandy, the following year (another classic, Darklands, was released in 1987, and Automatic in 1989). “It all happened so bloody quickly,” says Reid. “We went from playing in front of eight people to playing in front of thousands within a period of about two months.”
They found mainstream success by 1987 with April Skies, which reached number eight in the charts and earned them a place on Top of the Pops. Reid remembers almost nothing of that day except that “I got totally off my face and put so many noses out of joint that it was our one-and-only Top of the Pops performance.”
He says the chaos of their gigs was not part of any game plan. “We used to sit backstage and there’d be a nervous promoter saying, ‘You’d better get out there.’ We’d say, ‘Oh, hold on a minute, we’re just listening to some tunes and having a drink,’ and that would go on for two hours. Eventually we’d go out on stage and the audience would be ready to tear the hall apart, which on occasions they did... The music was loud, it sounded kind of violent, so people acted that violence out, I suppose.”
And in the midst of it all were the Reid brothers – William the elder by three years – and a relationship which became truly rancorous. Their final gig ended with an on-stage scrap in Los Angeles. “When we first started the band, we completely understood each other. There were fights, but it was always about the music, always constructive. And then some time in the mid-90s it started to be very destructive. We were arguing about anything – big, screaming rows. We broke up, our relationship completely disintegrated and we didn’t talk for a few years.”
That must have been awkward at family gatherings. “Yeah. That’s how we ended up kind of getting back together. My mum would be like, ‘Are you coming back for Christmas?’ ‘I don’t know – is William going to be there?’ ‘Maybe.’ ‘Well, I’m not coming then.’ My mum would make it so that we’d turn up at the house at the same time, and we’d be glowering at each other in different corners. Bit by bit, we’d meet at my parents’ house and get along for their sake. And then it just became: this is stupid. We can talk. And it grew from that.”
William lives in the US. “That helps!” Reid laughs. “That we live so far away from each other.” How would he describe their relationship now? “It’s not bad. It’s never going to be ideal.”
Reid is one of those people who looks better in later life than they did in their youth – trim and healthy rather than pasty-faced, with a head of salt-and-pepper hair. He quit drink and drugs during the band’s decade-long hiatus. Both had been crutches to help him get over his shyness on stage “and then suddenly I realised I couldn’t stop getting out of it, and was doing it in my living room by myself.”
His rock bottom was a solo show in which he was too drunk to function. “It was just public humiliation. I couldn’t stand up. I was trying to play my guitar and it was all out of tune and I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t even have that thing where I was so drunk I couldn’t remember it; I can still remember the looks on people’s faces from that show.”
The next day he resolved to clean up, doing it his own way without rehab. “I occasionally fall off the wagon. I’m not saying I haven’t had a drink since that day. I have, but I fall off the wagon and I get back on again.”
Watch footage of the band’s comeback performance at Coachella, where Scarlett Johansson provided backing vocals (their song, Just Like Honey, had been included on the soundtrack of her film Lost In Translation, introducing them to a new audience) and Reid appears nervous. “Nervous? I was utterly terrified! You have to remember that I hadn’t played a sober gig in my life until that point. Every single show that we played in the 80s and 90s, I was completely out of it. Every single one.”
There will be nerves before Glastonbury, he says, but not to that extent. They’re on the bill next to Primal Scream and Reid is looking forward to a reunion with Bobby Gillespie, who discovered them and was briefly the Jesus and Mary Chain’s drummer. Which other acts will he be watching? “I’m giving away that I’m an old fogey here, but I’m staying to watch Paul McCartney the next night.”
The passions that drove him are still there: “I’m just a wrinkly, older version of what I always was.” But he has mellowed. “When we were in our 20s, we’d go out on stage and every audience had to be won over, but we didn’t really know how to do it. Now, generally, if they’re standing in front of you it means they’ve bought loads of your records and they’re just happy that you turned up. And it feels good. It feels comfortable.”
“All it’s really about now is just us playing those songs. It’s what it always should have been, but when you’re young you can’t see what’s right in front of you.”
But what would his 20-year-old self think of his 60-year-old self still acting the rock’n’roll star? Reid laughs. “He would probably think: sit down, you geriatric old f—er, you’re making a t— of yourself.”