Apr 08, 2021
By Andy Von Pip
When The Jesus and Mary Chain exploded onto the scene in the mid-’80s they were initially dogged by notoriety, which saw the band led by brothers Jim and William Reid dubbed as “the new Sex Pistols.” This was an image then-manager Alan Mc Gee was keen to cultivate and he appeared to enjoy the infamy more so than the band. And the early gigs certainly did attract people who weren’t there strictly for the music, as the band’s shows became mired in riots and drunken violence. The situation wasn’t helped by the Reid brothers predilection for numbing their fear of performing live by drinking copiously before going on stage, racing through their set as fast as possible, telling the audience to fuck off, and escaping before things really kicked off. McGee’s continuing hyperbolic Malcolm McLaren impression did cause friction and indeed William Reid told The Guardian newspaper in 2014 “We had a lot of arguments with him about that. It wasn’t Alan going on stage and being a target for these lunatics. It was us.” This myth-making eventually became a distraction to the actual music, which was unrelentingly magnificent. Their debut album, 1985’s Pyschocandy, was much more than noise, distortion, and feedback, it was actually an album rammed with incredible pop songs, albeit pop songs viewed through the shattered mirror of alienation.
With Jim’s laconic vocals spitting lip curling insouciance and tenderness in equal measure, combined with the distorted, unhinged magnificence of his older brother William’s frenzied unrestrained guitar playing, these two introverted musical obsessives from East Kilbride had emerged from their bedrooms and onto the world stage armed with songs of soul shredding power and beauty. Of course asking a Mary Chain fan to pick their favourite 10 songs is akin to asking Imelda Marcos to select her favourite pair of shoes, however here are 10 reasons (in no particular order) why the JAMC remain one of the most influential bands to emerge from the UK in living memory.
“Just Like Honey” (1985)
A track that proves, despite their early reputation that there was far more to the Mary Chain than sonic annihilation and chaos. “Just Like Honey” is a beautiful evocative song with distorted shimmering guitars and of course the iconic “Be My Baby” drumbeat. The story goes that William Reid had originally planned to record the song at a much faster tempo, but Jim suggested that the song would benefit from being played at a slower pace. Thankfully this didn’t lead to fisticuffs and William admitted his younger brother was correct. Younger fans retrospectively rediscovered the Mary Chain when “Just Like Honey” was used in the poignant closing scenes of Lost In Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Later Johansson was asked to join the band on stage during their comeback gig at Coachella in 2007 to sing the backing vocal on the track. In typical Mary Chain fashion, they didn’t bother introducing her when she arrived on stage.
No feedback but Darklands was an album rammed with beautifully dark tunes, the title track being one of the many highlights. William Reid takes over vocals on this track and with lines such as “Take me to the dark/I gotta get down on my knees/And I feel like I could die/By the river of disease” it manages to be moody, romantic, and weirdly uplifting. As an opening statement for album two, it provided the break from the acclaimed noise on their Pyschocandy debut and the entire album is a master-class in dark knowing pop-noir.
“Blues From a Gun” (1989)
From the band’s third album, Automatic, “Blues From a Gun” is a relentless explosion of sound, a cacophonous riff allied to a warped stream of consciousness pop culture lyrics. Some critics weren’t impressed with the overall vibe on Automatic, finding the drum machines and simulated bass lines rather contrived, but in retrospect, it really has stood the test of time due in no small part to the sheer quality of the songwriting.
“April Skies” (1987)
“April Skies” was the band’s biggest chart hit, giving them their first Top 10 single peaking at no. 8 in the UK charts. It threatened to turn the band into proper pop stars and also led to an appearance on Top of the Pops. Whilst much more commercial than anything on Psychocandy, it’s still a gloriously moody indie anthem. And with lyrics such as “Hand in hand in a violent life/Making love on the edge of a knife/And the world comes tumbling down” it contains the trademark undercurrent of malevolence and danger. In an alternative universe, this would have been number one far longer than Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do” and the Mary Chain would have been headlining every festival under the sun. And they probably would have hated it.
“The Hardest Walk” (1985)
Behind the swagger and the notoriety, there was vulnerability at the heart of many of the Reid brothers’ songs. This shows perfectly what a fine ear for melody they had. Ex-member John Moore told me on a special Mary Chain podcast this was his favourite Mary Chain track. “It has something extra for me,” he explained. “I love all the Jesus and Mary Chain’s songs but because I know Jim and the way he speaks there’s something in the lyric that was so beautiful and honest. And William’s guitar, it’s just layer upon layer of the sweetest noise, there’s a lot of feedback on it but there was something incredibly real and I loved playing it live. Also, it was fairly close to the end of the set so I knew we’d be escaping quite quickly after playing! There was no question of an encore in those days.”
“Sometimes Always” (1994)
“Sometimes Always” is a duet with Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval ,who was William’s partner at the time, but confusingly Jim takes the male protagonist vocals in the song and video. The track is from the band’s Stoned and Dethroned album that was mooted to be their long talked about acoustic album. Except it wasn’t actually acoustic.
It’s something of an urban myth that The Jesus and Mary Chain’s early hit “Some Candy Talking” was banned outright by the BBC in the UK. Squeaky clean DJ and God’s own puritan Mike Smith however did express performative rage at the lyrics, which he deemed to be promoting the use of drugs (gasp!) and refused to play it. “Reverence,” on the other hand, was banned by the BBC and Top of the Pops, primarily for the song’s lyrics which open with “I wanna die just like Jesus Christ/I wanna die on a bed of spikes.” Which I’m sure you’ll agree is quite an opening statement and it’s a song that has become a centerpiece of the band’s recent live shows, with William’s towering guitar work even more monumental and innovative than the original. Hearing the live version of “Reverence” is akin to being in the eye of a hurricane, whilst the world crashes and burns, and even makes the original recording now sound a little tame.
“Sidewalking” is a classic single and live favorite back in the day, mixing surf and reverb with trash can Americana and hip-hop beats. The Reid’s sampled and looped a drumbeat from Roxanne Shante’s 1984 single “Roxanne’s Revenge” and “Sidewalking” hit the Top 30 in the UK. It was a non-album single and would later appear on their superb Barbed Wire Kisses compilation of B-sides, rarities, and more. When played live it was impossible to keep your feet on the ground due to the fact that the audience seemed to interpret Jim singing “sidewalking, sidewalking” as an instruction which led to the crowd en masse quite literally lurching sideways.
“Fizzy” is another album track sung by William, from the band’s sixth studio album, 1998’s Munki. It was an album that was vastly underappreciated at the time, and perhaps it is slightly overlong. The Reids had reached a point in their relationship that made The Gallagher brothers (Oasis) seem like The Waltons. At the time they appeared to hate each other, the music industry, and pretty much most modern music. The brothers had been sidelined by the rise of Britpop, which saw every half baked chancer with a cockney accent, ill-advised trousers, and a union jack sticker on their guitar being given a record deal. As ever the Reids followed their instincts and produced an album full of snarling visceral dark pop, with “Fizzy” being a prime example.
“Upside Down” (1985)
“Upside Down” is the song that kicked it all off for the Mary Chain and led to their brief tenure at Creation Records after Bobby Gillespie passed a cassette on to Alan McGee. Commercially as a single, “Upside Down” is bonkers and made no sense—an unhinged wall of psychotic claustrophobic white noise, narcotic vocals, and a relentless drumbeat. But given the musical landscape at the time meant even comedian Russ Abbot could manage a UK Top 10 hit and the depressingly ubiquitous Phil Collins only had to blow his nose to chart, hearing something like “Upside Down” felt seismic and revelatory. It was a game changer, okay so it wasn’t quite the realization of Jim Reid’s vision of “Einsturzende Neubaten with Shangri-Las songs” but it certainly laid down the template for Psychocandy of using feedback as an instrument allied to moody frenetic pop songs and paved the way for one of the most important and influential bands in living memory to emerge from Scotland (and the UK.)