Sweet Jesus
SWEET JESUS, the brittle beauties with battling melodies, are miles away from most of the indie snoopers we call bands. They want to be miles away from them too, lost in an intangible world of impossibilities.
Sex Psychologist: Robin Gibson
Rude Photographs: David Travis
Many years ago in Ripped & Torn fanzine a fragile but fascinating argument was advanced to champion the novel ethos of 'Superficial Glamour and Pub Credibility'. These seemingly uncomfortable bedmates were the ammunition for a style war that lasted for all of 300 words at least. The campaign was forgotten soon afterwards.
Sweet Jesus, who, to use their own words, have festered out from the satellites of Birmingham, have both. Both, this is, if scarily wailing guitars coupled with a thinly veiled inability to stand a round constitutes pub credibility, and a desire - temporarily stilled by a budget which permits only shopping at Miss Selfridge - to invoke the fires once fanned by Marc Bolan and T Rex will pass for superficial glamour. (See page 4 for further proof.)
The man untangling the feather boa from his guitar strings is Ben Bentley. Singer and centre point of Sweet Jesus, Bentley has an unnervingly high singing voice and a much lower speaking one. And he's got a thing about girls.
"What I like about women," says Bentley, hunched over a warm can of pre-gig Stella Artois, "is, like, they buy each other pants for Christmas. Underwear and stuff like that. You don't get blokes doing that. Girls do each others' hair and that - blokes don't, why not? Women make each other feel like they look great. They go to the toilet together. It's f***ing brilliant. I mean, they probably don't think so, but...."
To paraphrase the self-taught Polaroid intellectual from John Forsyth's Gregory's Girl, are we heading not for a world full of wankers but simply a world full of women?
"Um, no, 'cos I'm still a man, you know. I'm not trying to be like, a eunuch or something. It's not like that at all."
Far from it. While the indie scene ponders the merits of shoe-gazing - a dull habit which, one imagines, Bo Diddley, Keith Richards or Marc Bolan would never have entertained even in their dullest moments, Sweet Jesus are blowing a hot breath of teen sex, raw energy and camp pop attack into the dull dives that these days pass for rock venues. The editor of this fine organ confided in me recently that there were "at least 1000" brilliant new bands stalking the land. I'd narrow it down to half a baker's dozen. Sweet Jesus are in there.
Mutating out of a lesser light named The Mossbacks (a band apparently so awful, or at least different, that neither Bentley, who was then the drummer, nor lead guitarist Roy Priest will even utter the name), Sweet Jesus, who also feature Priest's brother Dave on bass and drummer Paul Collins, were being hailed as saviours as early as last summer by the nation's alternative radio shows.
The song which ushered in their present unmistakable style, 'Albino Ballerina', was not submitted to Gary Crowley's influential Demo Crash Contest on London's GLR - but somehow he got wind of it. It won the competition three times in a row.
By November of last year they'd stamped out enough of a mark to be invited into vinyl territory by the newly launched Rough Trade Singles Club mail order thing, which foisted the double A-side, 'Honey Loving Honey / Sisterfy', on to an unsuspecting Post Office.
The chaps have recently signed to the rejuvenated Rough Trade label for future releases, and this month the Gale's obsession continues with the release of a new single, 'Phone Freak Honey' on Chapter 22. All of this without a single month-long trawl round the toilets of the Isle. Makes you think there might be something there.
Sweet Jesus are that rare commodity, a band not only exciting but unique. Falling into none of the handy indie bags (you name it - post-Moose, post-Jesus Jones, post-Dinosaur Jr, post-My Bloody Valentine), the Jesus sound is based on fast, itchy and insistent rhythms stocked up by Priest's squalling lead lines. The more visceral moments of the Pixies' axe attack, circa 'Surfer Rosa', might have something to do with these. Amidships rolls Bentley's startling voice, mouthing sweet free-associative nothings strung together under provocative titles such as 'Cat Thing', 'Peach', 'Baby Blues' and all of the above.
The Sweet Jesus sound may come down to anything. It could be Bentley's "mental breakdown" in the middle of an architecture course at college some years ago. It may be their first glimpse of Marc Bolan brandishing glitter from both cheeks on Top Of The Pops and pouting 'Hot Love' (Bentley sings the song accapella at the soundcheck). It's unlikely that it's down to the fact that they listened to Joy Division and the Bunnymen in more sombre days. It's more likely partly attributable to the sudden empathy they felt on hearing 'Cactus' by the Pixies and realising that here was a chance to let go, wildly.
Bentley has been likened wildly to all and sundry - one desperado went as far out of touch as Diana Ross - but Bolan is the closest touchstone, both in terms of the rippling soprano tone and the gloriously lush lyrical play. And the bloody feather boa.
"I realise what the songs are about after they're written," he says. "Or after we've played them about ten times. 'Honey Loving Honey', I realised at a later date, was probably about this film with Britt Ekland in (Get Carter, starring Michael Caine) and there's this guy, talking over the phone, who couldn't quite be with her, telling her what to do to make love to him. Or at least, something like that. Honey's just a cool sounding word to use, y'know, instead of using baby or something.
"Without getting technical, if you're writing a verse, something happens..... everything makes sense in that verse. It's like reinterpreting a dream, but the music isn't dreamy at all. I think it's quite hard."
Unlike other peddlers of dreamy lyrics and less than straightforward pop tunes, Sweet Jesus don't ramble. Every song ends, as songs should, just as you realise you need more. There's one riff and not many words, but it's all good.
Roy: "That goes back to the Bolan thing, too. 'Metal Guru' didn't ramble, did it?"
Ben: "And like, asking what 'Metal Guru' was about!? People just didn't ask, you know. It was about a car, or something."
Roy: "It was about feeling good when you sang into the mirror."
The mirror, a twinkling memory of the early '70s and a love for the classic, anti-social, pater-baiting role of rock are three of the things that fuel Sweet Jesus.
"Oh yeah. Mirrors," says Ben. "Dimmer lit. Side lit. Our mums and dads really sort of hate it, you know, and that's a good thing. You get bands whose mums and dads come along to the gigs, you know they're on the wrong track. They should hate it, absolutely, and they should be thinking, son, why are you wearing eyeliner, or why are you wearing that feather boa round your neck and things like that....
"When most people get into music seriously, it's like at puberty or something and all the best music I can think of questions sexuality. That's what makes a lot of parents worry about it.... you know, what are they gonna grow up into?"
Sweet Jesus, in a year when the success stories will be the laced-up, lads-together expeditions of the likes of Ned's Atomic Dustbin, Carter and The Levellers, believe pretty passionately in the classic rock kaboodle: sex, rebellion and autographs. Roy's only waiting for someone to ask for his scrawl for real. The other night he had been accosted by a punter who mistook him for a Kitchen Of Distinction and departed sadly on finding out that the man to who he'd offered the pen was a currently lesser celebrity.
"Yeah," he says, "I like the total illogicality of it - like, what the f*** is that all about..... but it does mean something, an autograph. It's totally worthless and meaningless, but I understand why that is necessary. I've felt like that."
Do you want to be rock stars, whatever those might be?
Ben: "Yeah, I definitely want to be a rock star. But I think you're sort of a rock star in your own mind anyway...."
Well, those who ascend the stage with a guitar only to pretend otherwise are deluding themselves. Sweet Jesus have a healthy arrogance.
Roy: "That was what they couldn't get their heads round in Liverpool the other night."
Ben: "Yeah, they were trying to be, like, matey, and sort of, we're one of you, while I'm completely distanced sometimes. Not in a condescending way.... it's just the way it is. You are on stage, you know, and you're there to do something, and people like it. I don't think people buy Smash Hits wanting to be, like, next to a name. They want the name to be on a shelf - exist on a shelf."
Do you want to be on that shelf?
"I think we do. I think the arrogance that comes over kind of separates it, you know. I haven't got any wish to be anybody's friend at a gig. Like, when a band gets to a certain level of success and won't talk to you - that makes it even more interesting. It doesn't make me think, God, I wanna be friends with them. Well, in a way it does, but you want it even more. It's like teasing. It's the myth surrounding it that makes it."
Roy: "I don't need it. I don't need them to be human for me to like them."
The myth of rock, oft derided, is important to Sweet Jesus. Just as well - it's the reality. Hopefully one would never have found Little Richard good-naturedly taking a thrashing at pool from the lads down the pub. Little Richard sang 'Tutti Frutti' - much more important. And hopefully - although anything's possible in the self-congratulatory, post-Live Aid morays that is adult rock music - one would never discover Sonic Boom, Axl Rose or Levitation paddling off in a canoe to save the Amazonian Indians. In rock music, charity begins at home - or, at a stretch, in the bar. Rock music is Jerry Lee Lewis threatening to shoot the man from Q (honestly).
Ben: "Personally, I need things that are superficial or something - things that aren't real. The things that I need are.... hairspray. I had an argument with a girl once about whether hair was tussled or tousled. That's one of the things I need, dumb conversations about how you look.....
"It may be that, from that, people will think, oh, you're really superficial, or something, but I don't think we're superficial as a band. That's down to individual taste or something.
"To be honest, I don't know what's at the heart of Sweet Jesus. I think when you've found out, you've f***ed it, 'cos then you'll start writing about what you're about. It's like diminishing returns. I use the world primal - but primal could mean you're really into hair or something. I sing about hair. Twice in one song, actually."
But the most primal thing Ben can think of, apart from 'Ace Of Spades' by Motorhead, is sex. It's this, he says, of which there's not enough in modern music. Roy qualifies it by pointing out that the Cocteau Twins say more about sex than Salt-N-Pepa ever could. And don't worry - Sweet Jesus ooza sex, whether you see them or not. Hardly any bands send out sexy demo tapes. All they need now is a decent budget for stage clothes: one feather boa does not a glam queen make.
And with the onset of an Aids-riven society, sex becomes: "In a way, even more interesting," says Ben. "Because it's something you can't have. The things that you can't have become even more fascinating, you know. Even if it becomes a completely impractical thing, it'll still be interesting to sing about, because you can't do it.
"A good record for me has got to have some sort of sex appeal - or something saying, F*** off, or something. It's like, 'Let's Talk About Sex'? It'd be more interesting if it was still taboo, you know.... under the sheets, that's where it happens anyway. It's that attitude - let's talk about it before we shag. I mean, not talking about it doesn't make it any better - it might be crap. But at least it's exciting."
Roy: "Talking about anything just diminishes it."
Alright. Let's leave it there then.
Siren magazine, issue 7, February 1992.
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