The Other Side of Me: Jonathan Smith on how the Jesus and Mary Chain changed everything

It was 1986, at a party at someone’s house, I don’t remember whose. I didn’t really want to be there, it was definitely a peer pressure thing. I’d probably ridden my tiny moped there, cloaked in the regulatory yellow plastic raincoat to keep the Cornish rain at bay, marking myself out to anyone who cared to notice as a complete dork. People were mingling about in the dark, smoking, drinking, laughing, nodding to the music that was way too loud, doing the stuff that teenagers do when they tell themselves they’re cool and having a good time; or maybe they were having a good time? It was hard for me to know, I was so far out of my comfort zone, all my senses were on hyper alert. I probably managed half an hour or so before starting to wonder how to make my excuses and go home again. 

Then, out of the darkness, I heard a huge reverby drum sound, at once familiar and different, followed by a shimmering guitar chord, like a burst of sun glare, which echoed and thrilled and faded away…and then a man’s voice, rich and warm and strong, leaning back into the melody like you would lean back into the wind… “Listen to the girl, as she takes on half the world, moving up and so alive, in her honey dripping beehive…so good…Just Like Honey”. And in those moments, my life changed.

So, a very brief précis…aged 0-13, spent most of my time getting rid of excess energy, running, riding my bike, climbing trees, playing football. Aged 13-18, discovered music, gradually teaching myself chords on a guitar – albeit a cheap and nasty one with an action so high, it seemed to have a deliberate vendetta against my fingertips, carving deep ridges into them and occasionally even managing to draw blood. 

I persisted though, because it gave me the chance to emulate my heroes, picking up songs from the dawn of the rock and roll era, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Lonnie Donegan, Elvis of course, and moving into the beat group era, getting to know and love the Beatles and the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Hollies, the Searchers and more. I submerged myself in the music of those times, seeking out all the oldies shows that the radio had to offer, filling up blank cassette tapes with my finds, and experiencing an almost visceral thrill when something special came up and was captured. 

Of course, the early 80’s were also a pretty vibrant time for music, with innovative pop acts such as Blondie, Elvis Costello and Madness churning out hits, and the 2 Tone scene vying in the charts with the New Romantics and the early electro bands, while a burgeoning ‘indie’ scene was being established with the likes of Orange Juice, Joy Division/New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen. 

By the mid 80’s though, things didn’t feel so good in the pop chart world. The Stock, Aitken and Waterman team (after initially producing some great records by Dead or Alive and Bananarama) had started to exert their control over the charts with a seemingly relentless stream of clattering nonentities (Ok, maybe Kylie and Rick Astley aside), singing cheap pop over homogenised eurobeat rhythms; while at the other end of the scale, the likes of Dire Straits and Phil Collins/Genesis provided high quality music products that didn’t really have a lot to say to me or my teenage friends. 

Personally, on my 50’s and 60’s kick, it didn’t really bother me particularly. I was constantly finding new things to engage with, albeit new things that had been around for 20 or more years. 

My friends, however, had already found the secret passageways to new pastures. Guided by the late night radio shows, especially John Peel, and the Rough Trade-inspired chain of indie record stores around Britain (which even included West Cornwall, in the shape of Sound Check in Penzance), they had discovered a genuine alternative to the music industry fodder that was being fed to the masses. 

As a result, I had already been aware of the Jesus and Mary Chain before that party, but had found their predilection for swathing their music in sheets of feedback way too overpowering for my tastes – all I could hear was noise, and compared with the jangly, chiming guitars and heavenly harmonies of the 60’s bands, it just sounded bad to me.

Within that seismic three minutes, though, ‘Just Like Honey’ tilted my musical world; as soon as humanly possible, the album ‘Psychocandy’ was purchased, and it proved to be packed with still more beautifully realised melodies set in an intoxicating landscape of rich shimmering soundscapes and feedback – and for a sensitive teenager from Cornwall, it all contained more than an edge of danger. 

Peel and Janice Long quickly became ‘not to be missed’ shows, soon joined by Andy Kershaw, who brought an introduction to americana music (not that it was called that then). I immersed myself in this new world gladly, joined my first band, and most importantly, opened myself to the possibility that there might be wonderful music still being made – I emerged from my 60’s cocoon, and from that point on, was ready for anything that caught my ear. I was suddenly hungry for the wondrous variety of music that was out there –  initially through indie music, with the Smiths bringing the poetry of Morrissey and the equally lyrical playing of Johnny Marr, the C86 scene, and the discovery of the dream pop of the Sarah Records roster; but ultimately everything from Public Enemy to Nanci Griffith. 

I only periodically revisit ‘Psychocandy’...it’s a treat that I don’t want to spoil for myself with over-exposure. But if ever I feel like I’m losing my way to the magical places music can take you, I reach for that record, with it’s rich colour scheme of red, amber and black bleeding and merging into each other, so representative of the music therein; and the opening chords of ‘Just Like Honey’ wash over me once more, as warm and inviting as they always have been.

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