Zoë Howe’s The Jesus and Mary Chain: Barbed Wire Kisses is the latest book in Howe’s journey of music journalism. A writer for NME, BBC Music, and many more, Howe is also a musician in her own right and seems to have no problem getting her sources to open up. She’s written books about somewhat obscure acts like The Slits as well as pop culture icons like Stevie Nicks (due out in early 2015). Finally, the goth rock chronologist Mick Mercer has some competition when it comes to covering the dark, alternative, shoegaze bands of the 1980s.
The Jesus and Mary Chain, fronted by brothers Jim and William Reid, were the standard-bearers for shoegazer music throughout the second half of the 1980s, taking the baton from the more mainstream but declining Echo and the Bunnymen. Though The Jesus and Mary Chain have endured through the last 30 years, it’s really their first two albums Psychocandy and Darklands that established their place in the canon of alternative music. The band has been referenced in a Jack Black movie, a Simpsons episode, and a song by Death Cab for Cutie, and its songs have been heard in movies like Adventureland, Pet Semetary II and Sofia Coppola’s Academy Award-winning Lost in Translation.
By the time the 1990s came around, it was tough for alternative bands to break through the grunge movement spearheaded by Nirvana’s Nevermind album and industrial music’s coming of age. Both of those formerly alternative genres were stacking the top 40, making it difficult for anyone else to gain traction. Though The Jesus and Mary Chain’s music did evolve through the years, Jim and William weren’t the type to try to hitch themselves to a bandwagon. Between their volatility and the changing pop music landscape, The Jesus and Mary Chain needed a break and took one in 1998.
Zoë Howe’s Barbed Wire Kisses begins in the bleak town of East Kilbride, near Glasgow, at the dawn of the 1980s with James and William Reid listening to music in their shared bedroom in their parents’ home. Inarguably a couple of slackers, the siblings are finally able to put aside their rivalry for their shared love of music. What follows is like the result of shock therapy, driving the two of them to force their way into the music industry. Even the casual alternative music press reader knows of the tensions between the Reid brothers, and Barbed Wire Kisses documents nearly all of them.
The story is told by the brothers themselves, other band members, and their associates, giving the reader a nearly blow-by-blow account of their story. The hardback book weighs in at just over 300 pages, though the story ends around 2008 and the last 70-some pages are a timeline, discography, index, and credits. While there isn’t a more comprehensive accounting of the Reid brothers’ story, Barbed Wire Kisses never manages to put the reader in the moment, and does read more like a long article than a novel.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1250030242]