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The Jesus and Mary Chain on the 30th Anniversary of “Psychocandy”

Jim Reid And Alan Mcgee On Psychocandy

Sep 10, 2015 Issue #53 - April/May 2015 - Tame Impala Bookmark and Share

“Music, at that time, if it could be condensed into one image, would be a smiley face. And that appalled us. We wanted to shake things up. We wanted to do something different, bring a bit of edge or danger back to rock and roll,” says Jim Reid, lead vocalist of The Jesus and Mary Chain.

Though generally dry-witted while talking about his music’s legacy, Reid is noticeably more intense discussing the state of popular music in 1985, when The Jesus and Mary Chain released their hallowed debut album, Psychocandy. Like The Velvet Underground before them, the Scottish band managed to divine the secret relationship between the angelically opiate and the utterly savage. The record’s signature aesthetic, which subjects the naiveté of pre-British Invasion pop to a Jackson Pollock-like sonic splattering, has become ingrained in the foundations of indie rock. But as Reid explains it, the notion of the album itself was initially sparked not just by the music he and his brother William (the band’s guitarist and other core member) loved, but also by what they loathed.

“I remember we were obsessed with the combination of noise and pop,” Reid says. “People had, in the past, made noisy pop records, but we didn’t know why nobody did anymore. The Velvets were obviously a massive influence at that time. We were just blown away by how a band could put songs like ‘Heroin’ and ‘Femme Fatale’ on the same album. We thought, ‘Wow, why don’t bands take chances anymore? Why is everything so radio-fucking-friendly?’”

Psychocandy‘s influence was immense and immediate, and can be traced directly to shoegaze, buzzy lo-fi of the ‘90s, and just about every contemporary band that spikes melodic sweetness with acrid bursts of feedback and distortion. While The Jesus and Mary Chain may have seemed to arrive overnight with fully formed proto-slacker personas and revolutionarily simple music, Psychocandy was actually the result of an uncommonly lengthy gestation period.

“We talked about doing a band, ever since punk happened1977,” contends Reid. “William had bought a bass guitar, and that thing was in the corner, getting dusty, and really not being used. We used to sit up all night, discussing everything as ‘Why don’t people make movies like...’ And then we would sit there and describe the perfect movie. Or ‘Why don’t people write books like...’ And we’d describe the perfect book. We would do that with music, too, say, ‘Why isn’t there a band like this...’”

Holed up in their suburban hometown of East Kilbride, the Reid brothers, who would always remain The Jesus and Mary Chain’s primary creative force, managed to subsist on their daydreams for years. However, they eventually managed to shake themselves out of this shared reverie. “There was a moment of panic when we thought the window of opportunity was closing and we really needed to get our shit together. And uncharacteristically, we did. We were lazy fuckers, but I remember suddenly having all this energy to really get the band off the ground,” recollects Reid. “We weren’t exactly old, but we weren’t getting any younger. There was no thing that made us get started; it was just between the two of us, saying, ‘We’ve talked about this long enough. If we don’t do it now, it’s never going to get done.’”

After finally taking the initiative to move The Jesus and Mary Chain out of the bedroom and into the world, the Reids enlisted drummer Marty Dalglish and bassist Douglas Hart in 1984. Initially, finding an audience, or even a stage on which to perform, proved nearly impossible. Then, through what Reid calls “a series of bizarre accidents,” the band’s demo made it into the hands of Primal Scream guru (and fellow Scot) Bobby Gillespie.

“We just couldn’t play anywhere,” remembers Reid. “We’d put our demos on one side of a tape, but there was a Syd Barrett compilation on the other side. We’d given the tape to some guy that ran a club, and he didn’t like our music. He was a friend of Bobby’s, and said to him, ‘You like Syd Barrett, here’s a Syd Barrett tape.’ So Bobby took the tape and played it, and heard the demo. Bobby thought it was great, so he called us upour phone number was right on the tapeand we’d never even met the guy.”

While Gillespie would later join The Jesus and Mary Chain for a brief tenure, replacing Dalglish and playing the notoriously primitive drums heard on Psychocandy, he was also an important early proponent of the Reids. Gillespie handed their demo to Alan McGee, the mastermind of Creation Records and a ubiquitous presence in the U.K.‘s underground rock scene. Reid feels that “Alan was not blown away by the demo,” which didn’t feature the feedback that would help define Psychocandy, though McGee saw enough potential to bring the band down to London for a live date in June of 1984. As McGee himself remembers, “It all became much more real played live.”

The general chaos of prepping for an unexpected show erupted into a fraternal row between the Reids, with oddly serendipitous consequences. “We were having one of our famous arguments, which almost came to blows. We’d only just met Alan, and me and William were sort of lunging at each other,” Reid recalls. “This sound check was so utterly filled with anger, there was an atmosphere of potential violence. Alan thought we were fucking mad, but exciting, so he decided he wanted to do records with us on the spot.” After witnessing a set of manic covers, McGee recalls being drawn to the band’s very unpredictability: “It was kind of dangerous. There was the question of, ‘Can they even write songs?’”

In McGee, The Jesus and Mary Chain found something like a manager-cum-carnival barker who immediately recognized the appeal of the reckless cool the Reids were capable of conveying. Absurdly brief sets, anti-social stage presences, volatile crowds, and McGee’s knack for propagandizing all helped construct a ready-made mythology around The Jesus and Mary Chain by the time they released their first single, “Upside Down,” in early 1985.

Reid himself is quick to refute the more romanticized accounts of the band’s early shows, which were characterized by the press as decadent and riotous. “I think a lot of the live shows at the time probably contributed toward the perception of the people in the band in general,” he explains. “I’m quite shy, and it doesn’t come easy to me to go on a stage. At that time, the only way I could really think to do it was to get totally fucking wasted and go out there. So there was kind of a feeling of ‘anything could happen.’ And sometimes the things that did happen where kind of violent, or very non-musical, and certainly not very ‘show business.’”

Though the rock star aura surrounding these performances most likely played no small role in Warner Music’s decision to sign The Jesus and Mary Chain to subsidiary Blanco y Negro, the band and label would ultimately enter into countless disputes over the creative control of later records. But perhaps because the world of Psychocandy existed so clearly in the minds of the Jim and William Reid long before the music was ever committed to tape, they were able to bring their ideas to fruition without succumbing to the wills of anyone outside of the band’s immediate circle.

“I still remember what we were thinking at that time when we made the album,” Reid says, referring to recording sessions that took place in spring of ‘85. “It’s very pure to me because we’d come up with the album, and the concept of the album, before we had a record deal, really. There was nobody in the way at that time, and it’s great for that reason.”

There’s a hint of tenderness in Reid’s tone as he briefly reminisces over hearing his brother play an embryonic version of what would eventually become Psychocandy‘s majestic opening number, “Just Like Honey.” Yet it’s clear he believes it’s best to embrace the album as a whole rather than ruminate on specifics. When pressed for details about writing assaultive bubblegum classic “Never Understand,” the album’s lead single, Reid is hesitant, almost as if the peculiar spell cast by Psychocandy might dissipate if listeners spent too much time intellectualizing each track rather than feeling their way through the album. “I hate when people analyze songs too much,” he finally explains. “You can listen to it and take from it what you want, but it’s something that destroys a song, to pick it to pieces.”

This perspective is entirely in line with the music of Psychocandy itself, which exudes a sustained effortlessness throughout the album’s runtime. The record is style as substance, as much of an act of faultless curating as it is a triumph of pop craftsmanship meeting white noise. Though the succeeding generation of indie rockers would cite Psychocandy as a key influence, Reid continues to stress his reverence of the band’s early inspirations, and maintains that the album “didn’t invent anything.”

“As far as bands picking up Psychocandy, there’s lessons to be learned on the record, so that’s great,” he says. “But what’s on that record, I learned from The Ramones or The Velvet Underground. It’s all just passing on a message to whoever’s out there that might want to listen. And the message is pretty simple. It depresses me when you get bands that think they need to go for guitar lessons, or learn how to play an instrument. You can make music with anything after 10 minutes, really. Sometimes you make better music because you can’t play than if you spent five years learning an instrument. That’s kind of what we wanted to bring to people. Writing songs is the hardest trick to pull off, but just making interesting-sounding music is actually quite easy.”

McGee feels this process served Psychocandy well, calling it “a genuinely amazing record.” Yet he also believes time hasn’t dulled the Reids’ shared ability to write offhandedly perfect pop. “William’s got some great new songs, Jim’s got some great new songs,” he explains. “They haven’t made an album together in 17, 18 years. So they’ve got 17, 18 years worth of songs kicking about.” McGee is even confident that The Jesus and Mary Chain may soon record a follow-up to 1998’s Munki, their last studio full-length, stating, “There’s a very, very good chance they’ll make an album some time next year.”

For his part, Reid claims to be “pretty out of touch” with modern music, but sounds genuinely pleased when considering Psychocandy‘s ever-expanding significance. In fact, the idea of creating an album that would eventually become a subversive touchstone for future musicians was seemingly part of the record’s blueprint.

Says Reid, “To us, it would have been an utter failure if people weren’t listening to it 10, 20 years later. We’d imagine that maybe there’d be people on the other side of the world digging it out of dusty record shops in 20 years time, and they’d start their own band because they’d have Psychocandy, the same way we did because we had old garage music from America from the mid-‘60s.”

However, he laughingly concedes that this stance now seems “terribly bigheaded.” Taking a moment to reflect on an string of 2015 tour dates that will see the band’s current incarnation resurrecting Psychocandy in its entirety, Reid muses, “I could never have imagined that we would be playing the album together 30 years after its release. Unthinkable.”

“To me, it’s just amazing that we’re having this conversation about a record made in 1985,” he admits. “It’s good to be talking about it. It’s good that it still seems to be relevant to some people. That just makes me feel immensely proud, that the record has meant something to people, and still does after all these years.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s April/May/June 2015 print issue. This is its debut online.]


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