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Music

Watch The Jesus and Mary Chain’s infamous 1985 Camden gig turn into a riot

@SamWKemp

It seems strange to us now, but to many at the time, the first half of the 1980s seemed the lowest point in musical history. Take 1985 for example. The best selling singles of that year included ‘Dancing In The Street’ by rock has-beens David Bowie and Mick Jagger, Elaine Page and Barbara Dickson doing ‘I Know Him So Well’, ‘Take On Me’ by A-ha, and ‘The Power Of Love’ by Jennifer Rush. As you can imagine, there was a sense that music was heading towards the end times. Apart from a few isolated gems, the UK music scene was positively groaning with manufactured pop drivel. The Jesus and Mary Chain offered an antidote to all that.

Their gothic brand of post-punk saw them adopt the nihilistic wall-of-feedback aesthetic of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975) to marvellous effect, leading to the formation of a sound that was both grounded in pop songwriting and undeniably avant-garde. Unlike most of the bands on the UK indie scene, the members of JAMC looked like they liked a scrap, and could actually win one if required. It is perhaps this last factor that saw them develop a reputation as one of the most raucous live acts on the circuit, with their early shows frequently ending in outbreaks of violence.

Take their infamous concert at Camden’s Electric Ballroom in the Autumn of 1985, where the band played a six-song set that lasted only about 20 minutes, exiting the stage in a swirl of feedback and leaving the crowd to pull the lighting rig apart. It wasn’t the first of their concerts that had ended in a riot. The previous spring, something similar had happened at JAMC’s show at North London Polytechnic. Frontman Jim Read recalled how: “It was obvious that a bunch of people had come to cause trouble. There were a gang of people who were up for a ruck: probably people who’d read about the gig at the Three Johns. We’d heard there were people in the crowd with baseball bats. And there wasn’t any security! People could get on the stage if they wanted – and there were people out there with weapons! They could just get up and pound your head in. Everyone was very uptight.”

The press the violence generated quickly made The Jesus And Mary Chain one of the most talked-about bands on the scene. But, by the time the group got to their concert at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, it had all gone a step too far. As Reid later recalled, it started to feel as though people were only coming to JAMC gigs to start a fight: “We played the Electric Ballroom in Camden a few weeks later, and that’s when it all got to be a bad joke. I think at the beginning it happened for the right reasons. It was sort of spontaneous, even though trouble was expected. By the time we played there, people were coming with copies of the NME under their arm, looking at the photos of North London Poly, like, ‘This is how you do it…’ It took a while to get away from it. We’d keep walking on stage and being met with a shower of bottles.”

It would be wrong to see the violence at JAMC’s concerts as the result of fans enjoying the music a little too much. Punk’s year zero was still in recent memory, so deeming a group ‘the best band for even years’ was bound to divide opinion. As Creation Records founder Alan McGee noted: “You’ve got to see it in context. Gigs now are not a threatening experience, but gigs in the mid-80s – because it was just after punk – had this kind of football element. Once you crossed the boundaries of good taste, it just seemed to appear.”

That violence even spilt over into The Jesus And Mary Chain members’ everyday lives. Recalling the Camden concert – a video of which you can watch below – Reid said: “Funnily enough, I got beaten up about three weeks after it, by people who said they’d been there. Four or five guys beat the shit out of me at a Nick Cave gig, saying, ‘and if we ever see your drummer again.'” Make sure you check out the moment The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Camden concert descended into a riot.