Wednesday, December 17, 2014
The Jesus And Mary Chain
The Observer, 1988
by Simon Reynolds
In their promo videos the Jesus and Mary Chain aim to be as disorientating to the eye as they are to the ear. Look again at their videos (now available on a WEA compilation, The Jesus and Mary Chain), and you can follow their attempts to find a visual equivalent to the feedback in their music. Their favourite effects are out-of-focus or an aberrant sense of colour. 'Just Like Honey' has the band in the distance with a flower in the foreground, so close to the lens it's a dazzling dyslexic blur. 'Kill Surf City' is like watching a severely distressed colour TV.
More interesting than these sometimes hackneyed attempts at psychedelia is the way The Jesus and Mary Chain carry themselves in front of the camera: they come over as listless and neurasthenic. Dressed head to foot in black, with complexions as bloodless as veal, the only vivid thing about them is their spots. Their eyes refuse to meet the camera. The Jesus and Mary Chain's passivity and introversion are in stark contrast to the pop video norm of vivacity and vigour.
It's totally appropriate for their songs, which more often than not are about being immobilised by rapture or melancholy. That said, their enervated demeanour probably has a more prosaic cause: Jim and William Reid (the creative core of the Mary Chain) find making videos tedious and aggravating. "Making a video is a disgustin' thing to have to do," says Jim. "You stand there in front of a team of strangers and move your mouth to a tape of your record, and you think, ‘This isn't what we started making music for’. The only way for us to deal with video with any dignity is to refuse to make any effort."
It has been said that The Jesus and Mary Chain are remarkable for making unhealthiness sexy and glamorous in a decade in which sex-in-pop has become an aerobic and therapeutic business. "The TV version of sex repulses me," says Jim. "It's nothing to do with what I find sexy. I think the idea of people with perfect complexions and perfect bodies and perfect clothes is disgusting."
Perfection may not be what they look for, or expect, in real life, but The Jesus and Mary Chain's music does seem to be the result of a quest for 'perfect pop'. Like Morrissey of The Smiths, they spent their adolescence immersed in music, developing fierce convictions and fantasising about making a kind of ultimate pop that drew on everything they liked. The Jesus and Mary Chain's sound isn't revivalist so much as a 'never-never pop' where the Velvet Underground meets The Stooges meets Spector meets the Stones meets Brian Wilson. Their songs trigger your acquired reflexes by dint of the resonance of their time-honoured chord changes. The Jesus and Mary Chain are a post-modern group: everything is in quotation marks. They are hooked on the epic form of classic rock; not the emotional content so much as the way that content is structured and aggrandised. This is pop about pop, as opposed to an urgent communication delivered straight from the heart.
"The songs aren't stories, they're not like a diary. I don't really have a clue what our songs are about," says William. "They're usually words thrown together to fit a line or a tune. But that doesn't mean the end result is meaningless. Sometimes the way your mind works is too complex to follow. Like with ‘Some Candy Talking’, it's obvious to us now that it was a drug song and all the people who criticised us at the time were right. But at the time we were adamant that it wasn't about that at all."
The Reid brothers formed The Jesus and Mary Chain after spending five years on the dole in their home town of East Kilbride. "I tried the alternative, which was working in a factory," says Jim. "It was the worst year of my life. I spent a whole year doing nothing, but I had to look as though I was doing something. So after a year I went back on the dole. I enjoyed the idea of not taking part in the whole factory thing. I was getting a half a bag of peanuts for doing nothing, my friends were getting a whole bag of peanuts for working. I thought I had the better deal. I got more dental work done in that period than I've had since, 'cos it was for nothing."
During the five fallow years on the dole, they dreamed their dreams of perfect pop and "talked about forming a group for years". When they finally did in 1984, it was because their father had been made redundant and three males hanging around the house led to a strained atmosphere. Are they dramatically happier now their dreams have come true? "Not at all, that's the weird thing," says Jim. "What we're doing now was our fantasy when we lived in East Kilbride. But that was because then I didn't realise that what I had then was as good as what I have now. Although I had less materially, at least then there were real dreams, something to look forward to. Now I don't have any dreams: we've achieved what we're going to and, if we're lucky, we'll maintain it at the same level. There isn't a dream anymore. Or rather, the dream is less realistic now: to take what we do to millions and millions of people, to U2 scale. Now we're in the business, we can see how unrealistic the dream is...
"The whole happiness thing doesn't last. It's like a drug. You're in new circumstances and you're ecstatically happy, but then that becomes normality. What I think is that happy people are happy, whatever situation they're in. And if you're not like that, anything else is just short-term, you get used to it, you return to your normal level of despondency."
"When we started this business, we were chasing some sort of myth — the T Rex, Rolling Stones star trip," says William. "When you get behind the door, it kinda numbs you towards it." Jim adds: "I don't like meeting people whose records I've always liked... it can ruin the record for me if they turn out to be a hateful person. That has happened a couple of times — I won't name names. But when it does, you just don't play the records any more."
For a band that works within rock romanticism and its language of obsession and impulse, The Jesus and Mary Chain are curiously detached. They don't like a record's perfection to be contaminated by the fallibility of the person who made it, or by the vagaries of live performance. Rock's fantasy adolescence stood in for any real adolescence they might have had and they don't want to be disabused of the dreams acquired then. Their music is a kind of distillation of dreams, a 'perfect pop' woven from strands from all those past moments of perfection the Reid brothers like to keep pristine.
by Simon Reynolds
For a while it looked like The Jesus and Mary Chain had slipped into the ‘where are they now? file. "We’re lazy bastards," says William Reid, explaining the two-and-a-half-year gap between their new album, Honey’s Dead, and its predecessor, Automatic. "But in a way , it’s lazier to knock an LP out every year like some bands do," adds his brother Jim. "We take our time because we want every track on our albums to be a single."
Besides, staying out of the public eye was probably a shrewd move. From late 1989 to early 1991, The Mary Chain and their noise-pop ilk were eclipsed by the Manchester indie-dance crossover bands like Stone Roses. Jim Reid agrees: "I think that if we’d brought out this record a year ago there wouldn’t have been as much interest as there is now."
While many of their erstwhile kindred spirits were converted to rave culture (most notably Primal Scream, whose frontman Bobby Gillespie once drummed for The Mary Chain), the Reid brothers kept their distance from house music’s matey euphoria. "We’re too sure of what we’re about to be affected by fashion," says Jim. "And there’s a lot about the rave scene I don’t like – the return of hippie ideas, the phoney positivity. Humans aren’t going to evolve into a higher life form in three years, just because everyone’s swallowed a ton of Ecstasy."
Nonetheless, rap and house have had a subliminal influence on The Mary Chain. Their new material is still thick with their trade mark, heavily-distorted guitar, but it is more groove-orientated. The recent Top Ten single, ‘Reverence’, doused a churning hip-hop beat with caustic Stooges fuzz guitar.
"You can’t ignore what’s happened in the last few years," explains Jim. "We realise that we’ve always lacked a decent rhythm section." But then, part of the stylised charm of The Mary Chain’s classic 1985 debut ‘Psychocandy’ was the rudimentary nature of its backbeat. "Rhythm never mattered to us before. Now we want our records to sound stronger."
Since ‘Madchester’ blew over, the British rock climate has changed in the Reid Bros’ favour. Last year was dominated by an upsurge of noisepop bands influenced by The Mary Chain, whether directly or indirectly (via the brilliantly innovative My Bloody Valentine, who began as J&MC copyists).
The Mary Chain’s current ‘Rollercoaster’ tour (whose bill includes My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr and Blur), highlights their elder statesman role. "The idea of our band was always meant to alert people to the fact that you didn’t need to be a guitar virtuoso to make great music. Imagination is more important than expertise. The fact that when we made ‘Psychocandy’ we’d barely been playing guitar for weeks, inspired a lot of people to form their own bands."
‘Rollercoaster’ has been widely compared to 1991’s Lollapalooza tour; where seven top alternative groups crisscrossed the US to reach an audience of half a million. But while Lollapalooza had vague counter-cultural pretensions, the Reid Bros see ‘Rollercoaster’ as return to "the package tour of the punk era, when The Clash, Buzzcocks and Slits would play on the same bill."
Coincidentally, The Mary Chain look set to play on this summer’s Lollapalooza sequel, as a first step in a long overdue bid to conquer the US. The J&MC have signed to Def America, the label founded by Rick Rubin, whose previous successes include The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, and the Black Crowes.
The Jesus and Mary Chain helped invent the aesthetic that now dominates alternative music: ‘record collection rock’. Drawing on their enormous and eclectic musical knowledge, groups such as Primal Scream and Teenage Fanclub weave a sonic quilt of reworked elements from rock history. Jim Reid reckons rock has always worked like that: "I don’t think I’ve ever heard a record that I haven’t understood in terms of its reference points and influences." But while The Rolling Stones, say, started as obsessive collectors of ancient blues records, they also, intentionally or not, provided a soundtrack for their times. Rock bands today tend to reflect only their love of rock history.
Another problem with The Mary Chain’s rock-for—rock’s sake aesthetic is that their lyrics often appear to be a mosaic of phrases chosen because they sound cool or are vaguely sensational (as in "I wanna die like Jesus Christ" on ‘Reverence’), rather than to communicate anything. The result is music that is spectacular rather than involving.
"The lyrics are probably too close to us to explain," says Jim. "And I don’t think that because you’ve written a song, that gives you the right to tell somebody what it means. Our songs are pretty abstract and people probably get a loads of different ideas of what they’re about. And that’s fine by us."