The Jesus and Mary Chain – 10 of the best

With a new album due in March, we look back over the career of East Kilbride’s favourite feuding brothers

1. Upside Down

It’s difficult now to imagine just how outré the Jesus and Mary Chain would have sounded in 1984, and how incongruous they would have been among the Thompson Twins and Nik Kershaws of this world. It was a desire to hear the Shangri-Las and Einstürzende Neubauten on the same record that drove them to form in the first place, and they were quickly fulfilling that ambition with Upside Down, their debut single. Indeed, the screeching, uncompromising feedback juxtaposed against Jim Reid’s placid murmur still grabs you by the throat, even 33 years on.

“Britain in 1984 was fucking boring,” said Creation boss Alan McGee. “I like ABC, but that was as exciting as it got: Martin Fry and his gold lamé suit. Then we found the Mary Chain.” The Reid brothers from East Kilbride had been recommended by his pal Bobby Gillespie – who would soon step into the breach as the band’s drummer – and while McGee was lukewarm about them at first, he became convinced of their genius when they pitched up in London to perform live, though their avalanche of feedback at that gig turned out to be a mistake rather than a calculation. While the Mary Chain’s importance in the evolution of alternative rock is sometimes downplayed these days, Upside Down was a landmark single, the cacophonous first appearance of one of the 1980s’ most important and influential acts. “Everything hasn’t been done,” Jim Reid told the Face. “No one has ever made a record remotely like Upside Down.”

2. Just Like Honey

The band’s debut album Psychocandy (1985) was a surprise to many, not just because of its influences but because of the depth and maturity of the songwriting. It may not be unusual these days to hear bands borrow from the Ronettes at the same time as from the Velvet Underground and Hank Williams, but in 1985 it was as radical as it was unprecedented. On Just Like Honey, the Mary Chain managed to combine these influences, as well as a splash of psychedelic sunshine pop, on a song written under overcast Glaswegian skies that are also somehow reflected in the music. If that sounds complicated, it actually isn’t: they took all those musical forces and united them with consummate ease. The simplicity of the sound was also reflected in the aesthetic – with their fuzzy hair and black threads, they gave off an air of cultured menace, like characters in a Jean-Luc Godard film. William Reid had intended to make Just Like Honey much faster, but his brother talked him into slowing it down. “Jim’s like, ‘No, bring that down a bit,’ and I was like, ‘No, Jim. No, Jim. You don’t know,’” he told Goldmine magazine. “He was like, ‘Please, please, please, just bring it down a bit.’ He was right. He was totally right.” Whether they agreed on anything again is a moot point.

3. Some Candy Talking

Anyone still expecting the wheels to fall off – even after the excellent reception Psychocandy received – was confounded when the Jesus and Mary Chain released the Some Candy Talking EP in 1986. The lead track, which was even more dreamily narcotic than previous releases, suggested there was no shortage of great tunes. Radio 1 DJ Mike Smith apparently blacklisted the song because of the drug reference in the title (which Jim Reid has always denied), but the record was never outright banned, because the BBC had cottoned on that such bans usually sent a record racing up the charts (a la Relax or Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus)). Even with only minimal airplay, it reached No 13 in the UK singles chart.

Some Candy Talking was Bobby Gillespie’s swansong. The Reids used a drum machine for recording purposes on future projects, drafting in sporadic replacements for live shows. First up was John Moore. “Bobby was very nice,’ he told Zoe Howe in the biography Barbed Wire Kisses. “He said, ‘It’s not really that difficult, the main thing you’ve got to do is duck when the bottles start flying.’ He was so right.”

4. April Skies

In the Britpop era it was expected that “indie” bands would appear on Top of the Pops, but in the mid 1980s such outings still seemed strange and anomalous. The Jesus and Mary Chain signed to Blanco y Negro – a subsidiary of Warners – but it was still a jolt to the system when they landed in the Top 10 and were invited on the flagship BBC music show. For a period in 1987, the Mary Chain were bona fide pop stars, appearing on the cover of Smash Hits, and as recognisable to striplings taping the Top 40 off the radio as to the more earnest, NME-reading demographic that made up their fanbase. April Skies is a staggeringly confident slab of dark pop, which, while denuded of earsplitting feedback and thus more commercial, still exhibits a whiff of danger and the promise of “making love on the edge of a knife”. The consensus says Psychocandy is the masterpiece, but the Darklands LP, with April Skies and the tenebrous and gorgeous title track, has the better songs.

5. Sidewalking

In 1988, the Reids exhibited an unforeseen influence – hip-hop – on Sidewalking. The standalone single, which reached No 30, sampled the drumbeat from Roxanne Shanté’s Roxanne’s Revenge (part of the infamous Roxanne Wars with the Real Roxanne). At first, the band were unsure whether to put it out under a pseudonym, or even release it at all, given the break from their customary sound, but on the advice of Geoff Travis, they eventually released Sidewalking under their own name. It was the right call, because while the rhythm track was out of left field, it is every inch a Mary Chain classic. In fact the song heralded a more US-friendly sound, which they’d explore further on the album Automatic.

6. Head On

It’s fair to say Automatic, with its calculated appeal to audiences stateside, was not to the liking of all of the band’s original fanbase. But the driving and pulsating Head On, with its rockabilly guitars and chorus reminiscent of Springsteen’s Born to Run, was the standout track for most. Musically, it’s pulverising, and lyrically it’s emphatic too: “Makes you want to feel / Makes you want to try / Makes you want to blow the stars from the sky.” The Pixies certainly thought so – their cover on Trompe le Monde is arguably more famous.

7. Almost Gold

If, on Automatic, the Mary Chain had attempted to ingratiate themselves in the US, tracks such as Reverence on Honey’s Dead (“I wanna die just like Jesus Christ / I wanna die just like JFK”) were surely intended to antagonise. Thankfully, not everything on Honey’s Dead is designed to cause offence, with Almost Gold proving the baggy-tinged jewel in the crown. “Almost Gold is nearly an Aztec Camera title,” wrote Stuart Maconie in the NME at the time, “and it’s not far from an Aztec Camera song, with its glowing Caledonian country feel.” It was certainly a far cry from the band who played 15-minute sets, caused riots in polytechnics up and down the country, and were banned from several British TV shows. Nevertheless, the reflective, mature sound suited them.

8. Snakedriver

In 1994, Brandon Lee’s last movie, The Crow, hit cinemas. Lee had been killed eight days before the end of filming, shot by a defective blank. While there was plenty of hype surrounding the movie, undoubtedly the best thing about it turned out to be the soundtrack, which had a heavyweight Cure contribution (Born), a Joy Division cover that didn’t suck (Nine Inch Nails’ take on Dead Souls), and a searing, swaggering, vintage Jesus and Mary Chain.

Snakedriver is as recalcitrant but effortlessly cool as anything they’ve produced, while William Reid’s gift for manipulating feedback was never better exemplified. “I’ve got syphilitic hetero friends in every part of town,” snarls Jim Reid. “I don’t hate them but I know them / I don’t want them hanging around.” The song had been released the previous year on the Sound of Speed EP, the last classic EP from the band.

9. Sometimes Always

In 1994, the Jesus and Mary Chain got a second wind with Stoned & Dethroned. Unbeknown to many, the band had hitherto maintained a “professional attitude” in the studio by keeping their noses clean, but during the Stoned & Dethroned sessions they began checking out the local pub opposite their Drugstore recording studio in London’s Elephant and Castle. “There was a guy who dealt drugs behind the bar,” Jim Reid told me in a 2011 interview, “so it was all fucked up after that.”

Professional or not, the album was not only a return to their finest form, but something of a change in direction. The country tinge that had always been there came to the fore, while the sumptuous Hope Sandoval duet Sometimes Always sounds like long-lost treasure from the canon of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. At the time, William Reid had started an affair with Sandoval that would eventually end his marriage. “I was in love with Hope, but it was the unhappiest time in my life,” he would say later. “It was like horrible, horrible, horrible.” Ironically, through his most difficult period, he would write with the utmost clarity.

10. Cracking Up

For their sixth album in 1998, the Mary Chain were dropped by their label and ended up returning to Creation. Munki is often unfairly overlooked and the band were terminally unfashionable by this point. “The fact we made that record and it still sounds good today is quite an amazing thing,” said Jim Reid in 2011. “I couldn’t stand the sight of my brother, and he couldn’t stand the sight of me. We made that record under incredibly stressful conditions, but it sort of ended up being a great record.”

Blanco y Negro decided there were no hit singles and passed, but Cracking Up, from its opening Duane Eddy-style riff, through the frantic tambourine, to the doomy piano notes at the conclusion, would deserve to land higher than No 35 in any chart in a more just universe. It was a titular cry for help, documenting the disintegration of the siblings’ relationship and William Reid’s mental state. It would have been a fitting finale, but 2017 promises a new album. Perhaps there might be a happy ending after all.


Jeremy Allen

The GuardianTramp

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