30 Years Ago: The Jesus and Mary Chain Dish Out ‘Psychocandy’
Where punk rock and rockabilly cranked up the '50s, music during the mid-'80s recast the '60s. A wealth of "girl group" covers were released during the decade – some good (Soft Cell's "Tainted Love") and some not so good (Phil Collins' "You Can't Hurry Love").
So dropping the needle on what looked like a really cool new wave album from some unknown band out of Scotland named the Jesus and the Mary Chain and hearing the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" wasn't a surprise, but hearing the song morph into the lush "Just Like Honey" was.
The look of the Mary Chain made them seem like they were just another Cure knockoff, but looks can be deceiving. The only thing the band had in common with Robert Smith's band was their haircuts. Brothers Jim and William Reid brought a diverse assortment of influences to post-punk, from the noise of the Velvet Underground to Phil Spector's famous "Wall of Sound." Soaked in reverb, Jim Reid's vocals sounded like Modern English channeled through Love and Rockets singer Daniel Ash. The brothers' guitar work evoked Ash, too – it's fuzzy, simple and droning.
That's no knock on their musicianship. The Reids were part of that first generation to come out of punk rock, full of Sex Pistols enthusiasm and DIY spirit. One didn't really need to know how to play an instrument; in fact, not knowing how to play was a badge of honor. Murray Dalglish's two-piece drum kit and Douglas Hart's three string bass perfectly complemented the two brothers' sound.
Although the band had existed in a rudimentary form since 1977, the Jesus and Mary Chain didn't play their first public gig until June 8, 1984 at a London club named the Living Room. Five months later, their first single "Upside Down" was released. It's a noisy beast, juxtaposing Reid's calm vocals with washes of screeching feedback, but it hit a nerve. By early '85, the track was atop the U.K. indie charts and attracting interest from major labels.
They quickly recorded and released a follow up single, "Never Understand." The track is akin to Phil Spector on speed, which is a fairly apt comparison given the Mary Chain's fondness for amphetamines at the time.
But the brothers weren't satisfied with just indie success. Back in 2002, Jim Reid told an interviewer:
My heroes then were Matt Bolan [sic] and Mick Jagger... I wasn't interested in bands like the Wedding Present and stuff like that. I just wanted to get to this other level where my heroes had been and people didn't understand that. At that time, there was such a snobbish attitude in the indie scene that when we started talking about doing 'Top of The Pops' and big stadiums, people would turn around and say, 'Hmmm?! That's not cool at the moment. You know?'
They signed with Blanco y Negro, a U.K. subsidiary of Warner Bros. that counted the similarly atmospheric Dream Academy among their numbers, and the Mary Chain got to work on their debut album. "Upside Down" didn't make the cut, nor did drummer Dalglish, who left in late '84 and was replaced by Psychocandy-era drummer Bobby Gillespie. "Never Understand," however, found its way onto the album.
So did "You Trip Me Up," a solid contender for the shoegaze national anthem. Built on a simple I-IV-V chord progression (A-D-E), the track is like a drugged up version of Mickey and Sylvia's "Love Is Strange." Where the latter features Sylvia telling Mickey that "you're the one," the "Mickey" in the Mary Chain's version tells the "Sylvia" that "you break me in two / and you throw me away / and you spit on my head." These were not your parents' love songs.
All in, Psychocandy contains 14 tracks of post-punk psychedelic Ronettes goodness. It's a retro album that sounded modern at the time and it still holds up three decades later. It's an "explosive anomaly" as The Guardian calls it. "(It's) beautifully wasted pop, like Lou Reed working in the Brill Building; some sounds like being trapped in a wind tunnel full of broken glass and bees; the rest sounds like both happening at once. The Jesus and Mary Chain were a band without a middle. There was only melody and noise, beauty and violence, love and hate."