Feature ·

A primer on the seminal Glaswegian noise/pop group


Rhino

July 11, 2006

 

Psychocandy: 5.0

Darklands: 4.5

Automatic: 4.0

Honey's Dead: 3.0

Stoned and Dethroned: 4.5

 

[more:]

 

Any discussion about The Jesus and Mary Chain should begin and end with image and style -- the dark seed from which grew their sound and speed.

 

This obviously starts with the band name. You'd better have clarion vision if you'll be name-dropping the central human figure in Western religion and his holy mother. Other aspects of the band's image were a product of the random nature of the universe: growing up in the U.K. begets a rock & roll attitude (Jim and William Reid are from Glasgow, Scotland) and, born into the same family, they perfected the live-wire brotherly infighting act a full decade before the Gallagher supernova. Mix in black-clad attitude, sunglasses, hair, drugs and sugar, a death obsession, legendary riot-inducing live shows, star-crossed, burnt-out, unfulfilled commercial potential and an over-analyzed, genre-blasting, universally acclaimed debut and you have the structure for the clear gas of cool the band members created to envelope their output, most of which was reissued by Rhino in dual-disc format in early July.

 

This is to set the stage for -- not make light of -- the substance. Psychocandy is aptly titled for the well-publicized dichotomies present on the Chain's 1985 debut, as is the members' destruction of the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA" from the similarly titled B-sides comp Barbed Wire Kisses. It's mad but familiar, pleasure and pain, a nipple tweak, black licorice or the razor-blade at the center of your Tootsie-pop. "Making love on the edge of a knife" (from Darklands' "April Skies") is one of the countless ways the Reid brothers would drop self-aware insights into their own legacy.

 

However, listening to Psychocandy twenty years after the initial release, it's not the distortion-fuzz-punk that is jarring or enduring, although even by today's standards the noise is ice cold. Psychocandy is loud dream-pop with serious masochistic undercurrents, threads of which dig in with serious teeth and nails, but it's the pop melodies buried beneath that really stick on you. What's interesting is that the Chain would never spend another full album revisiting or even attempting to build on this formula. Psychocandy was a perfect, velvety storm for a band to take off on the strength of one really good idea. That it shot the album to cult status was perhaps due to over-baked inspection and underground buzz. It's ultimately the tight songwriting and turbo-cool delivery that make it time-resistant and impossible to copy (thanks though, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club).

 

Psychocandy was an attention-grabbing announcement to secure an artistically free career, a statement backed by the fact that each subsequent release can be summed up with a different one- or two-word rock description: dream-pop (1987's Darklands), straight-up rock (1989's Automatic), techno-electro-pop (1992's Honey's Dead), acoustic (1994's Stoned and Dethroned) and alt-rock (Munki; it was 1998).

 

This is to clarify, not detract from, the album's importance. While the Smiths and Joy Division had an emotional grip on the indie music scene of the day, Psychocandy dropped as a furious extension of what those bands were doing and served as the eventual platform for such mega-acts as the Smashing Pumpkins. Album opener "Just Like Honey" sounds as if it were recorded in an empty warehouse in one of the Reid brothers' minds; it's a foggy, altered-mind speed roller that remains one of the Chain's most memorable melodies. The follow-up is a squealing bullet train called "Living End." Psychocandy finds an impossible groove in alternating between these mellow echoes ("Cut Dead," "Taste of Cindy") and white-noise melodies ("Never Understand," "Taste the Floor"). It rocks with fuzz and rolls with hooks -- a complex, wicked whipsaw that challenges the listener to sift through the twisted remains and pool all this data into some kind of categorical or emotional sense.

 

Disappointingly omitted from this reissue is one of the Chain's best singles, "Some Candy Talking." The track can be found on the band's best-of comp, 21 Singles, but it's not included here because Rhino is only reissuing the original pressings. This is apparently the only album or song affected by that rule; "Some Candy Talking" showed up on the second pressing of Psychocandy in 1986.

 

The Chain shunned expectations and embraced a different set of polarities on 1987's Darklands, a nearly flawless, miserable half-hour of beautifully depressed cosmic pathos and warm, electric strumming. Pulling only the bliss from Psychocandy's blissful chaos, these ten tracks unfold gently but with a subtle, stunning and scary depth. Drummer Bobby Gillespie had departed to front Primal Scream, leaving the Reid brothers to go it alone. They settled on a drum machine that runs through the album like a heartbeat, stripped away any hint of feedback or distortion and split the guitar and vocal pieces evenly (you can't tell the difference between their vocals).

 

The contrast here lies in the violent, nightmarish lyrics; a dark psychosis that chafes against the soft, gentle guitar. Lyrically the members perfected their extreme mental states with a moving, poetic intensity: "Cherry scratching like a grain of sand/ The trigger itch in the killer's hand/ Me and Cherry are so extreme/ Making love to the sound of a scream" from "Cherry Came Too" is doled out over minor-chord guitar work. And therein lies the essence of the Chain's dark shades of pop.

 

Of course, the album is catchy as hell. "Happy When it Rains" and "April Skies" are among the band's best. Blink 182 would lift the guitar riff from the former for their radio hit "Rock Show," and Garbage would spin the lyrics from the same into a similarly titled mega-hit ("Only Happy When it Rains"). Musically, the Reid brothers resisted any urge to prick the album with Psychocandy needles; they keep it straight even when the tempo and guitar runs move a little quicker ("Down on Me"). Darklands spins on a whole other axis from Psychocandy. It was evidence that the Chain had a depth and talent to separate them from any kind of perceived novelty act.

 

Automatic, released in 1989, finds a solid middle ground between the band's first two releases. Written, performed and produced entirely by the Reid brothers, Automatic roped in the hyper-feedback of Psychocandy while speeding up the mellowed fever of Darklands. The result is a fairly straight-forward rock record packed with enough guitar solos to satiate J. Mascis and loaded with strange, acid-soaked imagery.

 

Automatic creates a landscape of hip-shake gunning, junk-town running, stone-dead tripping under cracked skies and soaring, foggy minds. It's burnt-out rock with a Southwest feel, a look the band members would parlay into their Stoned and Dethroned cover art and videos. The core of the rock pieces flow fast and early, the lack of a drummer actually working to the band's benefit. The drum machine lays a line for the Reids to showcase their riffs, runs, mild distortion and general strung-out nature on "Coast to Coast." Follow-up "Blues from a Gun" dares you to trust these smarmy bastards -- pointless lies such as "I don't care about the state of my hair" drop hollow and cool against sincere insights about "Facing up to living out the way that you feel."

 

Playing like the recently published archives of Hunter S. Thompson letters, the Chain would make a career out of mixing this kind of straight-faced, weird fiction with genuine soul-baring. The band's final studio album, Munki, is actually bookended by the tracks "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll." "They somehow manage to convince you they're lying in both songs," Rolling Stone said in its review of the album.

 

The core of the tracks on Automatic feature standard rock riffs but, as on "Between Planets," extended runs are either sent soaring with feedback or grounded and weaved. The Reids, at this point, are masters of guitar interplay and lyrical cool. Some of the album's best moments are the understated pop songs -- the Pixies punked out a cover of "Head On" for Trompe le Monde, and "Halfway to Crazy" is the gentlest tune and, therefore, thematically centered around suicide.

 

For any deserving band that fails to reach a perceived commercial peak there is a defining moment -- usually self-inflicted but not necessarily -- that can be pointed to as the reason for the underachievement. For The Jesus and Mary Chain it came in 1992 with the release of Honey's Dead. Coinciding with the album release was the Lollapalooza tour, where the Chain admittedly did not belong. It was 1992 and Nirvana was exploding, the Stone Roses had had their day, there was already a Jesus in the lineup (the Jesus Lizard) and the Reid brothers couldn't handle the sunlight and heat.

 

It also didn't help that the accompanying album started off running the rails with shock-value material that didn't work. There are some spectacular moments of pop gold on Honey's Dead, but ultimately the album never recovers from a strange beginning -- even when the Reids backtrack to close it out. "Reverence" opens the album with the dance-y, electronic feel that would penetrate the entire album. The term Honey's Dead is a reference to "Just Like Honey" from Psychocandy, a statement that the Reid brothers were moving in a different direction entirely: The Stone Roses had since blown up and this album has a definite techno-rock groove. Lyrically "Reverence" opens to "I wanna die just like Jesus Christ I wanna die just like JFK/ I wanna die in the USA." It's a reference to a glorious, flame-out death but obviously initiated some reactionary responses. It doesn't approach the offensiveness of follow-up "Teenage Lust," however: "Little skinny girl doing it for the first time," et cetera.

 

The real problem here is that neither of these tracks hold up in song craft or melody to the rest of the Chain's catalog, so it didn't force anyone to confront the offending material. Much worse than bad press is outright dismissal. Also, the Reid brothers copped out by closing the album with "Frequency," a tribute to Jonathan Richman's "Road Runner" over a reprise of "Reverence" presumably meant to dull the impact of the opening track. But by then nobody is in on the joke, or cares about the joke, or is cool enough to get the joke if there was ever a joke in the first place. Honey's Dead was too cool for its own good, an untimely and costly misstep that overshadows the otherwise serious pop moments that measure up in quality to the rest of the band's material. Check out 21 Singles for the best of Honey's Dead: "Far Gone and Out," "Almost Gold," and "Rollercoaster."

 

The Chain would strike back in 1994 with Stoned and Dethroned, the band's most understated and well-written release. The album is acoustic-guitar-based and naked in honesty, bringing the simple pop structures and lyrics about drugs, death and redemption into the daylight. This is also the first album where the Reid brothers occasionally relinquish lead vocals, and this makes for some of the album's best moments. Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval goes toe to toe with Jim Reid on "Sometimes Always," and the words on "God Help Me" take on a much more personal nature as sung by the perennially unhealthy Shane MacGowan (of the Pogues).

 

Mixed in with the general shadiness (from "Girlfriend": "Don't wannna hear about your sins/ Dirty little stories about needles and skin") are some genuine cries for redemption that will resonate with the insecure and behaviorally dubious. On "Between Us," Jim Reid wonders: "Have we done something wrong? I've been strange, I've been too strange." "Save Me" expresses a tired frustration with the burn-out lifestyle, and on "You've Been a Friend" and "These Days" the Reid brothers find themselves trying to get "onto the right side of grace." Stoned and Dethroned has some of the Chain's strongest songwriting and catchiest melodies, and this is one of the band's best albums -- a powerful comeback and a strong close to the reissue set.

 

All the drugs and lies are fit to print, and all The Jesus and Mary Chain could do was construct a legacy to fit their style. The band dissolved after an onstage fight during a tour to promote 1998's scattershot Munki, that final studio album from Sub Pop is not included in this set (Rhino has only re-released all five of the band's Blanco y Negro releases). These reissues will work to bring the Chain's catalog back to record store shelves, but there is very little here in the line of extras. Each dual-disc has the original album on one side and three videos apiece on the DVD side. The videos are all the same and not too necessary for those who already know what the Reid brothers look like the videos are choppy-edited images of the band playing instruments and mouthing the words to the songs. The two exceptions can be found on Stoned and Dethroned: Hope Sandoval looks right at home in a desert bar for the "Sometimes Always" shoot, and children of the '90s will remember "Snakedriver" from The Crow soundtrack, one of the Chain's best non-album releases.

 

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