Cracking Up: ‘Munki’ And The End Of The Jesus And The Mary Chain

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The Jesus and Mary Chain had never seemed like the most run-of-the-mill bunch. Brotherly misfits from East Kilbride – an industrial new town, a Glasgow overspill with blunt urban landscapes that seem to cause psychic interference – they lit up the mid 80s with feedback strewn indie pop hits. Matching bubblegum melodies to extreme noise, the band lit the fuse for shoegaze, and influenced a thousand copycat groups.

By the mid 90s, however, relations between central duo Jim and William Reid had frozen to absolute zero. Unable to stand the sight of one another, they somehow contrived – against the obstacles of substance abuse and all-out sibling violence – to make a cult record. Now re-issued on vinyl by Fuzz Club, ‘Munki’ remains an enthralling listen, containing key high points, new ideas, and a brooding sense of menace unlike anything else you’ll experience.

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Looking back with Clash, Jim Reid recalls the band feeling completely, utterly out of step with virtually the entire nation. “I mean, it was a really weird record to make because at the time the relationship between me and William was at an all-time-low,” he says. “The band seemed to be – as far of the British music press were concerned – kind of a spent force. And that seemed to us to be pretty unfair. We thought ‘Munki’ was as good as any other Mary Chain record… but it didn’t get a fair shake.” 

“We were right slap bang in the middle of that Blur vs Oasis nonsense, Britpop was the thing at the moment. We felt like we shouldn’t necessarily have been excluded from that scene. I mean, the resurrection of Blur’s career was on the Rollercoaster tour with the Mary Chain. It was a bit galling to be told that Britpop meant no Mary Chain… I mean, what the fuck?”

“Maybe we were too dark,” he muses. “Maybe we were too dour and Scottish for that scene. But it was a million years ago and frankly, I don’t really care any-more.”

To construct the album, The Jesus and Mary Chain booked time at the ominously titled London sound suite the Drugstore – in hindsight, perhaps an omen for what would follow. “The relationship between myself and William started to deteriorate at the beginning of the 90s. We bickered a lot at the beginning of the band, but it was always constructive. We’d bicker about how to make a better record. And by ’97 and ’98 we bickered about everything. Everything. And we couldn’t be in the same room together without it ending in a blazing row. I’m not sure how we got that way but it was painful. Trying to make the record like that was excruciating.” 

“The original record was to do it basically live – take the band in, and do it,” he says. “Unfortunately at the time we got into drugs. He was doing different drugs than me. We were drinking like fish. There was a pub opposite the studio where the barman used to sell cocaine… so we were in there when we should have been making the record. We spent about nine-tenths of the recording process in the pub.”

In a way, ‘Munki’ should sound like two opposing solo records shunted together. At he freely admits, communication was almost non-existent, with the pair exchanging little more than swear words, threats, and ominous glances. “By the end of the record it was William going in with the rest of the band, but without me; then I’d go in with the rest of the band, but without William. In some weird way that record ought to sound awful, and it should be painful to listen to… but it doesn’t sound awful. When I listen to it, I just remember the good bits of that time. There weren’t that many, but there were some.”

“It’s cohesive,” he adds. “Although we didn’t get along very well, we still – it didn’t seem like it at the time – shared the same vision for what the Mary Chain was. At the start of the band we’d sit down and talk for hours about music. By the end of the band, we didn’t talk at all. We were into the same things, though, which is why the record sounds like people pulling in the same direction… even though we weren’t. I mean, we were musically, it just that we weren’t in every other aspect of our lives.”

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In a neat way, the awful symmetry of the Reid brothers on ‘Munki’ is brought to the fore by two songs: William Reid’s opus of spite ‘I Hate Rock ‘N’ Roll’ and Jim Reid’s joyous yet subversive ‘I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll’. Jim laughs at the memory: “I thought, he told half the story, I’ll tell the other stuff. And even now, he thinks I wrote it to annoy him! But I didn’t. He told one half, I told the other. They’re both valid statements, I think.”

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Pushed for some precise details, the Scottish musician wavers. “Look, we were totally out of it a lot of the time,” he murmurs. “For instance, I remember we had to record a B-Side, and we recorded ‘Alphabet Street’ by Prince. I have no memory of recording it. But I woke up in the morning on the kitchen floor with a cassette stuck on my face. I took it off my face, put it on the stereo, and I heard me singing ‘Alphabet Street’ by Prince… and I thought, fuck – how did that get done?!”

Following their initial experiences with Alan McGee and Creation Records, The Jesus and Mary Chain were drawn into an uneasy major label alliance. Releasing seminal work on Blanco y Negro, the redoubtable Geoff EllisRough Trade founder, and A&R wizard – acted as a bulwark against the pressures of Warner. On hearing ‘Munki’ however, even their closest confidante buckled.

Looking back still pains Jim. “Geoff had been a real champion of the band all throughout our career, so it was a total kick in the teeth, a real shock. Geoff called me up one day and – I can’t remember how he worded it – but it amounted to, this is a piece of shit and I don’t want to release it. And I absolutely stunned. It wasn’t like, it needs to be tweaked. It was like… this is shite.”

At the urging of Rob Dickins they recorded more songs, including ‘Cracking Up’ which would go on to become a firm fan favourite. Having been drawn back into Alan McGee’s circle – the two would attend Chelsea home games in the Creation box – ‘Munki’ would end up fulfilling a full circle moment. Signed once more to Creation, they found a different label – post-Sony buyout, the staff and ethos were different. “No one had a clue who the Mary Chain were. They just wondered who these fucking snot-nosed punks were, coming into the office and stealing records out of the cupboards.”

There are some wonderful moments on ‘Munki’. Take ‘Moe Tucker’, a rare moment of peace with a vocal from the Reids sister, Linda – curiously, it was originally called ‘Suck My Coke’. “For some reason it felt like a good idea to get Linda to sing it, and I didn’t feel it was appropriate. I asked my sister, what should we call it? And she said, well I sound a bit like Moe Tucker, so call it that.”

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The return of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval – who previously performed on fan favourite single ‘Sometimes Always’ – is another moment of pure beauty amid the sonic fracas. “We were still sitting around, despising each other from different corners of the room… but you don’t shout at each other when someone else is around,” he notes. “She’s got a melancholy darkness about her voice that I think slots right in to the Mary Chain.”

Released to a muted reception, The Jesus and Mary Chain were then tasked with taking the record out on the road – with explosive results. A show at LA’s House of the Blues turned into a full-blown fight between the brothers, and both the tour – and the band as a whole – were over. “Well, that was it. That was the end,” he says. “The problem was that we needed to get away from each other, but for some reason rather than take a break what the people around us did was book us into a two-month American tour.”

“Well it was meant to be a two-month tour. It lasted three days, the shit hit the fan, and the 90s part of the band ended.”

“At that time, I couldn’t have imagined ever doing the Mary Chain again. It was like: only when hell freezes over. I could never have imagined standing onstage, singing those songs, with my brother ever again. But the cliché is true, time heals all.”

In the intervening years, the band’s catalogue gained a second life. Informing generations of noise pop, indie, and shoegaze outfits – not least the roster of Fuzz Club, tasked with re-issuing ‘Munki’. “We always felt we were making music that wasn’t necessarily for our time period. That was always the intention, that some kid in Texas in 20 or 30 years time might pick up ‘Psychocandy’ and think, I’m going to do something like that. We always felt that the records were more than just fashion accessories for the decade they were made in.”

In the fullness of time, ‘Munki’ has come into its own. Even within the band’s own catalogue, it feels unique, working completely against the grain. “We’ve always felt that the record held its own,” Jim says. “It’s not like you listen to it and think, fuck what they were thinking? I always thought it was great, and that one day people would get it. When we go on tour, you meet people after the tour, and loads of die-hard fans have asked us to do a ‘Munki’ tour.”

Would that ever come to fruition? “I mean, don’t rule anything out!”

Wounds heal, bruises fade and the Mary Chain continue to move on. Having reformed, they released their album ‘Damage and Joy’ to huge acclaim, and another record is slated to emerge in 2024. ‘Munki’ is something they’re both proud of, even if they do wince at some of the memories.

“It’s a bit uncomfortable,” says Jim with a nervous laugh. “There were a lot of arguments, and a lot of things said that shouldn’t have been said. We don’t dwell on it. Shit happens, y’know?”

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‘Munki’ is out now, order a vinyl copy via Fuzz Club.

Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Steve Gullick