A B-sides collection after a mere two albums is a bit of a puzzler, especially for a band as commercially unsuccessful as The Jesus and Mary Chain. Yet, there they were back in 1988, putting out Barbed Wire Kisses at a time when the 7” single was very much a commercially viable way of promoting albums. It did make sense on a certain level though, considering the change in sound between the searing, relentlessly noisy debut record Psychocandy (1985) and 1987’s exceedingly gentle follow-up, Darklands. The release of BWK is ostensibly supposed to revive the group’s drugged-out, feedback-fueled leather-clad cool that regularly got them into trouble on tour.
Somewhat predictably then, it bursts out of the gates with a blast of sludgy feedback courtesy of ‘Kill Surf City’, a tongue-in-cheek take on their biggest influences, the Beach Boys. True to form, it sticks with a simple, vintage surf riff and piles bone-crunching layers of guitar noise on top, but as a lead-off track, it’s a bit average. The same could be said of ‘Who do you love’ and later on, the disappointing early B-side, ‘Just out of Reach’. The latter is a weak rewrite of Psychocandy's ode to American biker films, ‘The Living End’. ‘Swing’ is indicative of the difficulties the group had while making the transition to straightforward rock on 1989’s Automatic while continuing to indulge in their more adventurous early instincts. As such, It ends up not working on either level, with the attempt at a solo mid-song breaking down into a bridge.
When they can pull it off, though, the results are marvelous. ‘Sidewalking’ is the epitome of the B-side that deserved better, bristling with the glam attitude of a T-Rex track and the slow, noisy groove of New York no-wave post-punks Swans. An echo-filled acoustic take on the Psychocandy classic ‘Taste of Cindy’ comes off brilliantly, and is just as essential as the original version. Harmonies borrowed from The Everly Brothers make ‘Happy Place’ one of the first tracks that really feel like an outtake from 1985, rather than a hastily overdubbed demo. ‘Psycho Candy’, another catchy, reverb-drenched acoustic cut is reminiscent of that period as well, rather than portentous of the folk-rock sound they would eventually incorporate into 1994’s Stoned and Dethroned.
As with most records of this sort, there’s a fair amount of filler; the record itself holds no less than 20 tracks. But with a band as murky as the JAMC, you’d expect the throwaways to be at least mildly interesting. An expected, but still highly entertaining cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘Surfin’ USA’ would seem to support that argument, as would a lively demo take on Darklands’ ‘On the Wall’.
Unfortunately, it’s counterbalanced by tracks like ‘Rider’, ‘Here it Comes Again’ and ‘Hit’, which at best prove that the group had average days just like everyone else, and at worst, show them trying a bit too hard at an embarrassing ‘dangerous’ sound culled from Suicide and The Swans, which in and of itself reveal the group’s dependence on pop hooks and rockabilly licks to stay relevant, if not original.
It would be unfair to give it a poor rating overall however, as winners like the impossibly out-of-print single ‘Upside Down’ and the B-side ‘Everything’s alright when you’re down’ restore the wiry riffs and noisy effervescence of the glory days of Psychocandy. The inclusion of a random live cut is also a pleasant surprise; the fun is doubled upon discovering that it’s a moody cover of Can’s ‘Mushroom’. Barbed Wire Kisses is the closest the group came to recreating the inventiveness, black humor and sheer fun of Psychocandy. If the campy lyrics and banshee feedback of ‘Cracked’ don’t convince you of this, well, you could always skip to the innocuously titled closing track, ‘Bo Diddley is Jesus’.