❉ Less a gig, more an elating sonic attack.
In Norwich on a Tuesday evening, the rock and roll golden period for gig goers of a certain age continues. What is it about artists like Lene Lovich, the Psychedelic Furs, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Brix Smith that that they can still command a packed audience of paying punters, years after their commercial stars rose and fell? Maybe it’s because the musicians in this league – some chart success, but mainly popular because of their albums and tours – are survivors. Brix is now known as Brix Smith Start, which fittingly sounds more like a command than a name. And rightly so.
Brix & The Extricated have an unusual genesis. As her excellent rock and roll memoir The Rise, The Fall and The Rise will tell you, Los Angeles born Brix (in her formative years Laura Elisse Salenger), met The Fall’s mercurial front man Mark E. Smith in 1983. By July of that year she was married to him and living in England. Over the next eight years, Brix contributed to the albums Perverted by Language (1983), The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (1984), This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985), Bend Sinister and The Frenz Experiment (both 1986), as well as the underrated masterpiece I Am Kurious Oranj (1987). By this time, the marriage was in trouble and Brix was excluded from the publishing and song writing credits; in 1989, she divorced Smith.
Although she was no longer in the band for the 1990 LP Extricate, the title has ironically lent itself rather well to Brix’s latest musical venture. She reasoned, perhaps with her tongue only slightly in her cheek, that herself and three of the four other members of her band – drummer Paul Hanley, his bassist brother Steve and guitarist Steve Trafford – had been “extricated from The Fall.” Brix’s new combo first played together in 2014 after the launch of Steve Hanley’s book The Big Midweek, an eye-opening account of his time as one of Mark E.’s musical henchmen. (In case you missed it, check out our review of The Big Midweek here. – Ed.)
The band’s set list originally consisted mainly of Fall songs they’d been involved in writing, but by September ’17 their repertoire is more or less half Fall covers (are they really ‘covers’ if two thirds of the band originally played on them?) and new material. You can always spot a Fall song: a monotone bass line riffing repeatedly on a couple of notes, the bedrock of a hypnotic wall of sound that builds and builds. The Extricated, featuring The Fall’s most influential bassist – according to Mark E., Steve “[was] The Fall sound” – serve up versions of Totally Wired, Dead Beat Descendant, U.S. 80s-90s and Feeling Numb, which have an attack and focus the more erratic live proposition of the parent (?) band might find hard to beat.
The band’s own songs – Something to Lose, Valentino, Damned for Eternity and Pneumatic Violet – are very much in The Fall vein but bounce with a more confessional and accessible quality, a characteristic that Brix also used to open up the indie introspection of the Fallen. With glitter dusted around her eyes and dressed all in black, she’s a confident singer, bringing the stage alive with kicks and punches, tossing her blonde locks and slashing at her guitar, the consummate post-punk princess. She puts you in mind of Debbie Harry’s shorter and younger sister, which is about as flattering a comparison as I can make. Brix exits the stage before the end of the closing number L.A., leaving the spotlight on The Extricated, but, as the cheers and applause confirm, her job is done.
When The Jesus and Mary Chain (possibly named after a religious necklace. Yes, really) take the stage, they aren’t as initially prepossessing. When their slender singer Jim Reid stood at the microphone, now short haired and dressed anonymously in jeans and T-Shirt, I thought he was a polite Scottish roadie testing the equipment before the main man’s arrival. When the five-piece band crashed into the opening power chords of Amputation, that impression changed completely.
What do you remember about The Mary Chain? The early controversy, with the band playing with their backs turned to the audience, the violence at gigs? The Pixies’ wonderful cover of Head On? The banning of Reverence by the BBC because of its allegedly distasteful lyrics? The beguiling duet between Jim and Hope Sandoval on Sometimes Always? Either live or on record, The JAMC have always swung between aggression and sweetness.
That’s because of their constituent parts: if you put The Velvet Underground, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector’s fabled wall of sound in a musical blender, the end result would be the Jesus and Mary Chain (case in point: their cover of Surfin’ USA). Both musically and in their lyrics, this unlikely combination has produced an appealing romantic nihilism. Over a fuzzy electric backing, with Beach Boy harmonies of ‘Oo-oo and ‘Hey, hey’ sung in a dreamy monotone, they’ve given us songs that reference drugs, Jesus, girls and self-destruction. Jim and his co-songwriter, his guitarist brother William, can swing from the ugliness of Reverence –
“I wanna die like Jesus Christ/I wanna die on a bed of spikes”
– to the wistful tenderness of Some Candy Talking –
“Should all the stars shine in the sky/They couldn’t outshine your sparkling eyes”
– an aural recipe that shouldn’t work but is as fresh today – perhaps fresher – than when I first saw them about fifty million years ago on the Rollercoaster tour.
Jim’s stage act hasn’t changed in the intervening years, if you can call gradually gathering up his microphone lead over the course of a song, periodically stooping and awkwardly facing away from the audience (yes, that’s just about still there) a stage act. As they did in the past, his minimalist movements throw the focus onto the music and, a few early problems with the microphones aside, The JAMC were on ferocious form, helped immeasurably by a stunning light show, and there was a variation in proceedings when guest vocalist Bernadette Denning came on to duet on Always Sad and the encore of Just Like Honey.
The Reids’ cheery pessimism had the audience moshing, shouting and punching the air from the first feedback-tinged guitar chords, through such highlights as Happy When It Rains, All Things Must Pass, Halfway to Crazy, I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, Sidewalking and In a Hole. For the latter, I was joined in my Dad dancing down the front by a guy I bumped into at the Psychedelic Furs last week. At that point, I hadn’t seen him since I was at school, over thirty years ago; he’d last seen The JAMC in 1986.
My, how time really does fly. For Brix Smith Start, The Extricated and The Jesus and Mary Chain, though, the passing years have only improved their distinctive sonic assaults.
❉ The Jesus and Mary Chain will be playing some European shows in October. Tickets available now at: http://thejesusandmarychain.uk.com/live