In from the cold
It took the London Olympicsto bring Blur back together andIan Brown's allegedly costly divorce to galvanise the Stone Roses into reforming. But for The Jesus and Mary Chain, it was an offer to play a little-known festival in China that prompted the influential 1980s noiseniks to pick up their guitars anew.
'The offer came in and none of us had been to China before and it sounded interesting; we thought let's just do it,' says Jim Reid, who with brother William makes up the heart of one of alternative rock's most notorious and important bands.
In Jim Reid's own words, the China Valley Music Festival was the 'ignition to get the band going again' after more than five years on hold, waiting for a reason to get off their collective backside. It is also instrumental in bringing the band to Hong Kong for the first time this week.
'We were just drifting a bit,' he admits of the band's career since beginning a hiatus in 1997 amid long-running and bitter in-band feuds. 'The band was still on hold - we knew we were going to do something again but there was no spark that made us want to get back up there,' Reid explains, his Scottish brogue undiluted by years of living in London, and now, the sleepy English seaside town of Sidmouth.
Considering the immense influence the Scottish rockers had on Blur and the Roses, the Beijing festival that lured the Mary Chain from their torpor pales beside the glittering Olympic closing event and worldwide festivals that the Britpoppers and Madchester heroes have been booked into.
But the circumstances of the booking, which saw the Reids incongruously share a bill with soul-pop lightweights Joss Stone and Pixie Lott yesterday, is very much in keeping with the almosts, nearlys and could-have-beens that have punctuated a three-decade career so shambolic even Reid professes amazement it got going at all.
The siblings formed the Mary Chain in 1983 in East Kilbride, a satellite town of Glasgow, Scotland's rock city. Boredom and a love of punk music was the key behind the Mary Chain's creation, only weeks after the Reids had begun learning to play guitar. When they first plugged in for Creation record boss Alan McGee, the screeching noise that resulted - by most accounts, accidentally - was enough for the maverick impresario to sign the band on the spot.
Black-clad in leather and shades, topped with cascading rat's nest hair, they sounded and looked like the perfect antidote to the Day-Glo perma-grin pop of the big acts of the early 1980s, stars such as Wham! and Paul Young. The Scottish rockers became an instant cult hit as their debut single Upside Down, a feedback-scuzzed surfer-pop drone classic, marked a milestone in indie rock's history; they were hurriedly signed to a major label.
Debut album Psychocandy remains one of the indie genre's top-five albums but it was the band's snotty live reputation that garnered the headlines. Jim would often sing with his back to the audience and, if the band bothered playing at all, their gigs tended to last no more than 20 minutes. Usually they consisted almost entirely of blasts of feedback, one song indistinguishable from the next, and ended with the band smashing their equipment.
Unsurprisingly, the gigs sparked riots, spurred by an infamously bloody and destructive show at the North London Polytechnic in 1985 that prompted McGee, assuming Malcolm McLaren's old mantle of punk Svengali, to comment: 'This is truly art as terrorism.'
'The first time it happened I thought, 'well not many bands can say they get that kind of reaction',' Reid says over the phone from his home in rural Devon, culturally and aesthetically a far different world than the new town of his youth.
'I was kind of amused by it. But then people started to get hurt and we all decided we had to nip this in the bud because if anybody got seriously hurt or killed at a Mary Chain gig that would be on my conscience. And so we went away for a while and around 1986 we dropped off the live scene for about six months and just hoped that people would forget that that was what you were supposed to do at one of our gigs,' he says.
The singer concedes his on-stage behaviour was not exemplary - often refusing to sing, sometimes sitting out a show mumbling from the drum riser and, on occasion, fighting with bandmates. But he bristles at the reminder that the popular press of the time accused him of deliberately provoking audience violence with his arrogant and dismissive stage persona.
'I'm a very private and shy person - I found it difficult to be a singer in a rock'n'roll band,' he says. 'It wasn't that I didn't like the attention, it was just that I didn't know how to deal with it. The only way I could get through it all was to drink a lot. And I'd sit there just feeling, 'my God someone is going to find out any minute that I'm no good at this'.'
A decade after the Sex Pistols turned Britain's establishment beetroot red with anger with their foul-mouthed, snotty and rebellious antics, the nation was going through it again: the Mary Chain were accused of everything from debasing public morals to stealing their record producer's money. And like Johnny Rotten 10 years earlier, it was Reid who took the brunt of the outrage.
'I would hide behind this arrogant persona,' he says. 'That character that I invented to be a member of the Mary Chain is not me at all, really. I mean I drink a lot and I still do but I'm not a hellraising drinker.'
The usual combination of poor management, internecine rivalry and on-tour band blow-ups eventually began to take their toll. By the mid-1990s the Mary Chain had become all but irrelevant as the comparatively strait-laced Britpop juggernaut swept aside the pioneering indie bands of the previous decade.
'In 1997 it felt like the gig was up, especially in Britain. It wasn't so bad in America and Europe, but in Britain we couldn't get arrested.'
Looking back now, Reid feels the split was brought upon the band rather than created by it.
'Me and William were certainly not getting on at that time and I guess it was our manager who should have realised that the best thing for us to do would be to take a year off and not see each other for six months or a year.
'Instead of doing that we got booked into doing this f****** world tour; we cannot stand the sight of each other and we find ourselves on a f****** tour bus. It was madness.'
At that time, Reid says he couldn't have dreamed he'd get back with his brother again. But, of course, he did, 10 years later. After much coaxing by the organisers of the Coachella festival, the notorious Reid siblings took to the stage again at the sun-drenched California event in 2007. Typically, the Mary Chain went on hiatus again immediately after.
Before the China Valley Music Festival gig was finalised, there had been rumours aplenty of the Reids dusting off the band again. In particular, Primal Scream head honcho Bobby Gillespie - the Mary Chain's first drummer - said the brothers were going to reform to support the Roses.
'I got text messages from Mani [Roses' bassist Gary Mounfield] saying that he would really love us to play with the Stone Roses - all these sort of clandestine text messages. But nobody ever seemed to make a formal offer.'
Other rumours centred on a new album in the pipeline, even though the band haven't had a record contract for years. 'There was an album being talked about, and it will eventually be made but it's dragging on a bit. We've got all the songs,' Reid explains, with a suggestion that all is still not entirely rosy in the Mary Chain garden.
'It's difficult to hold the band together at the moment with William in Los Angeles and me in the UK. William wanted to go to a Hollywood studio to record the album. I just wanted to do it in a garage somewhere with a computer.
'We argued about that for a couple of years but he has come round to my way of thinking and now we are talking about recording it soon.'
Another rumour was of the band taking to the road to perform Psychocandy in its entirety. Reid is surprisingly keen on the idea. 'I don't care if it comes across like a nostalgia trip,' he says.
'I went to see the Stooges do Raw Power and I thought it was brilliant - and it sounded great. There're people who are going to think you are in it for the money or it's a nostalgia thing, but frankly I don't care, as long as people enjoy it.'
The Jesus and Mary Chain, Wed, 8pm, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$580 (advance), HK$640 (door). Inquiries 2111 5333