The Jesus and Chain, Mary
The Jesus and Mary Chain
“We’re not idiots. We’re not insane. We’re not psychotic. We’re not nutcakes. And we’re not stupid,” Jesus and Mary Chain vocalist Jim Reid informed Craig Lee of the Los Angeles Times. “We know what we’re doing.” Indeed, with buoyant pop melodies seared by ruthlessly distorted guitars, a blending of such antithetical 1960s rock influences as the usually sunny Beach Boys and often murky Velvet Underground, Reid and his guitarist brother William Reid, creators of the Chain, introduced a rock sound so different and revolutionary that it may yet prove evolutionary. In the staid British musical climate of the mid-1980s, the Jesus and Mary Chain appeared such an aberration—loud, exciting, and controversial—that Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times deemed their 1985 debut album “quite possibly the most ambitious and accomplished rock litmus test” since the Sex Pistols.
And like the Sex Pistols, when the Reid brothers started out, they were singularly unaccomplished musicians. Citing the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and the
Members include Jim Reid (born in 1961 in East Kilbride, Scotland), vocals; and William Reid (born in 1958 in East Kilbride), guitar. Backup musicians have included Bobby Gillespie (drums; left group c. 1989); Douglas Hart (bass; left group c. 1991); and Richard Thomas (drums; left group c. 1991).
Group formed in East Kilbride, Scotland, 1984; released first single, “Upside Down,” 1984; released first album, Psychocandy, Blanco Y Negro Records (England)/Reprise (U.S.), 1985; signed with Def American, and released Honey’s Dead, 1992.
Addresses: Record company —Def American Recordings, Inc., 3500 West Olive Ave., Ste. 1550, Burbank, CA 91505.
entire punk movement as inspiration, William Reid explained to Guitar Player’s James Rotondi, “You didn’t need to be a great technician to make a record or play guitar. You didn’t need to be Eric Clapton to play. You can just pick it up, and . . . you can do okay.” After performing with separate bands in their hometown of East Kilbride, Scotland, William and Jim Reid joined forces to form the Jesus and Mary Chain—the name, they have insisted, has no religious significance—and moved to London in 1984.
“[The] Jesus and Mary Chain are everything punk rock was supposed to be and never was,” Jim Reid proclaimed to L.A. Times contributor Lee early in the Chain’s career. “We’re spontaneous. It doesn’t matter if William knows two chords or 50 chords—we just go in and use our imagination.” Their creative approach was two-fold: The band first begat a furor with its sound, a barrage of blistering feedback that encircled and eroded pop melodies while transmitting “bleak and dank, despairing and slightly threatening” lyrics, in the words of New York Times contributor Jon Pareles; then the Reid brothers delivered their coup de grace of outrageous stage antics. Many of the ensemble’s early appearances were “rolling-on-the-floor-drunk type of shows,” Jim Reid told Lee. “We drink a lot; we play a lot drunk, but so what?” After a 15- or 20-minute display, the band would walk off stage. Crowds at a few shows erupted into what the British press labeled “minor riots.”
In spite of such dynamics—or, more likely, because of them—numerous critics hailed the Chain’s debut album, Psychocandy, as one of the most spirited and inventive works of the 1980s. Steve Simels of Stereo Review labeled the effort a “synthesis of the fuzz guitars and pop tunefulness of the middle-period Ramones, an approach to rhythm and lyrics that recalls the early Velvet Underground at its most abrasive, and a Wagnerian wall of sound out of Phil Spector.” Initial press interviews did little to lighten the band’s reputation. Silent and sullen, Jim and William would stare dejectedly into space before deigning to answer questions; with one reporter, they devoted most of their energy to cutting rubber bands into tiny bits.
So the backlash began: Many fans and some critics viewed the feedback and stage shenanigans as mere contrivances. The Reids thus softened their approach. “It was never a strategy to get people angry or draw attention to ourselves,” Jim told Hilburn. “We just stay on stage until we feel the boredom set in ... until it becomes dull for us.” And of the screeching din that pervaded their songs, William revealed to Hilburn that it was employed for artistic, not shock, purposes, admitting, “The truth is we couldn’t play our instruments and we wanted to find a way to make the songs more exciting. It was like, ‘How are we going to make these pieces of pop sound like a piece of art?’ The white noise and feedback just sort of evolved.”
On Darklands, the Jesus and Mary Chain’s 1987 release, the band’s characteristically brash and dominant feedback metamorphosed into a somewhat clearer, though perhaps moodier, expression. Although the lyrics remained bleak and foreboding, the Reid brothers were compelled to refine their style—not as a result of public sentiment but because of their own change and growth. “To me, Psychocandy is the best record that has ever been made, but there is no point in trying to make it again,” Jim stated to Hilburn. “If we went on like that forever, it would be pathetic.” Critics who had praised the Chain’s original sound were equally effusive about the band’s new direction: “It’s the inevitability of these changes and toneshifts, the way they coerce by dint of their sheer immersion in history, that leaves me vanquished,” Simon Reynolds gushed in the New Statesman. “Darklands is a static, monochrome masterpiece.”
After releasing a compilation of B-sides and outtakes, Barbed Wire Kisses, in 1988, the Jesus and Mary Chain continued to hone its technique, harnessing the cacophony of distortion to color, shape, and balance what many critics believed was the band’s best effort up to that point, 1989’s Automatic. “Huge, unforgettable choruses are built from the sparest, meanest guitar riff,” Greg Xot wrote of the album in the Chicago Tribune. “Soft melodic passages give way to harsh dissonance. Automatic is pop music from purgatory, the sound of heaven turning into hell and back again.” But Tribune contributor Chris Heim, while acknowledging the band’s superior compositions, found the lyrical content vacuous, opining, “The vague allusions to death, drugs, suicide, religion, and sex never seem to amount to much more than a fashionable nihilism, the sort of thing that looks good with black jeans.”
Three years later, the Jesus and Mary Chain released Honey’s Dead and reignited a level of controversy not seem since their debut; this time, however, it wasn’t the racket that raised eyebrows. While the noise quotient of this album did rival that of Psychocandy, it was rendered “with greater precision and control,” according to Mark Jenkins in the Washington Post. “This isn’t the band’s strongest set of songs,” he concluded, “but it offers some of its best arrangements, alternately sweet and snarling, open and tangled.” Arrangements notwithstanding, what captured attention instead were the lyrics. “Reverence,” the first single from the album, was banned by the BBC, which deemed it unsuitable for the popular television program “Top of the Pops.” The song’s opening lines, “I wanna die just like Jesus Christ. ... I wanna die just like JFK,” were considered inappropriate for young viewers of the program.
“Reverence” was nonetheless heard by many in 1992 when the Jesus and Mary Chain participated in the summer extravaganza Lollapalooza ’92, in the U.S., and the Rollercoaster tour, in England. And while the band remained clamorous, exhilarating, and worthy of dispute, it was quickly becoming less aberrant, having, in the words of Detroit Free Press critic Gary Graff, “offered an ethereal but aggressive blueprint that has been the foundation for scores of subsequent bands.”
Psychocandy, Reprise, 1985.
Darklands, Warner Bros., 1987.
Barbed Wire Kisses, Warner Bros., 1988.
Automatic, Warner Bros., 1989.
Honey’s Dead, Def American, 1992.
(Contributors) Alternative Energy Hollywood/Greenpeace, 1993.
Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1987; December 7, 1989; March 16, 1990; April 16, 1992.
Details, July 1992.
Detroit Free Press, October 29, 1992.
Guitar Player, July 1992.
Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1985; January 26, 1986; March 29, 1987; November 12, 1989; April 26, 1992.
New Statesman, September 18, 1987.
New York Times, April 4, 1990.
Rolling Stone, March 13, 1986; March 27, 1986; December 3, 1987; May 14, 1992.
Stereo Review, July 1986; November 1992.
Washington Post, April 22, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Def American Recordings, Inc., 1992.
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