On The Reissue Of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Munki”: An Appreciation

Few bands go out on such a high as The Jesus and Mary Chain, whose final record, Munki, both followed the Vaudeville adage of “always leave ’em wanting something more,” and seemed a perfect evocation of all the chaos and glory the Reids packed into their years as a band of brothers.  That the album began with Jim Reid singing “I Love Rock’n’Roll” and ended with William Reid singing “I Hate Rock’n’Roll” was such a perfect distillation of the dichotomy at work, of course they had to leave it there.

Thirteen years later, Edsel Records is releasing (alas, for now, only on the other side of the pond) a full set of the Mary Chain’s work, replete with B-sides, live sets, and an excellent archival series of booklets commemorating this amazing band.  The liner notes for Munki have interviews with both brothers, Jim now sober, William living in LA, talking seriously about the ragged way the band went out.  But oh, what an album to have left us with.

As the interviews make clear, Munki was recorded by two bands, Jim’s and William’s.  They were rarely in the studio together by this time.  But Munki was a distillation of what made JAMC so magical — from the sweet melodies to the discordant squall of William’s guitar, the Mary Chain was always a competition of visions literally connected by the same DNA.  Throwing the Cramps, Velvet Underground, and Brian Wilson into a blender that shorted out spectacularly and noisily created a sound, not just for the ’90s, but for the ages.  We have long thought that “Virtually Unreal” was the greatest single song the Mary Chain produced, and of course it comes close to containing all of the parts that made them great: Jim’s great rock’n’roll voice, William’s great rock’n’roll guitar, a propulsive beat, the raggedy edges of a sound schizophrenics likely hear when things are going either terribly right or terribly wrong.

Several of the extras thrown in on Disc Two of the reissue were already released in the massive Power of Negative Thinking, the seemingly encyclopedic post-breakup compendium.  But some were not: incredible live takes from the band’s final, combustible tours, BBC sessions that’ll blow your mind, and the album finishes with a live version of “Virtually Unreal.”

What the extras also show is just what a death trip folks involved here were on.  We’re not referring to the Jesus and Mary Chain, but to their label, Warner Bros.  This all happened in 1998, before Napster genuinely threatened to disintermediate the labels, with the labels offering, through greed and stupidity, near justification for it.  Warner Bros.’ treatment of Munki a preview of what would happen three years hence, when what once had been the music industry’s most creative and artist-focused label revealed just how desperate they were to destroy themselves — we’re talking of their rejection of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a classic album of the age, because it wasn’t commercial enough.  Warner Bros, you see, rejected Munki.  It just didn’t have potential, they said.  They were happy to let it walk out the door and be released by Creation, as boneheaded a move as, say, the New York Jets letting Danny Woodhead go to the Patriots.  Listening now to two of the (included) highlights from The Power of Negative Thinking, “Bleed Me” and “Rocket” — recorded as part of the Munki sessions — and thinking about Munki’s greatness, you have to wonder just what the record execs of this era were smoking.  I mean, we know what William Reid was smoking, and we know how much Jim Reid was drinking and snorting.  But as evidenced by Munki, theirs was clear-eyed brilliance compared to the morons who didn’t think this was a record worth releasing.

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