Return to Barbarism: The Jesus and Mary Chain's Unforgettable Fury
There are stories -- half-lies, probably -- that seem to stir each time the Jesus and Mary Chain pack the van up for another tour. (The band plays the Fillmore tomorrow, June 14.) They tell of the violence that used to stalk the Glasgow band back in the early days. You won't find these details in press releases. Yet the stories persist, and we journalists are compelled to bring them up again and again, such as in 2008, when The Quietus' Julian Marszalek asked frontman Jim Reid about the band's early gigs and the, shall we say, lack of hugs and baked-goods they inspired from those who attended them.
The Jesus and Mary Chain
"The idea with the Mary Chain at the time was that we didn't wanna be just another band," Reid said. "If you found yourself by accident standing in front of the Mary Chain one night we wanted to make sure that you were never gonna forget that."
Even before Psychocandy, the band's debut album, was issued in late 1985, the Jesus and Mary Chain had assured their distinction as a Droog-ish gang within the paisley pop landscape of the times. Earlier in the year, a riot interrupted their show at the North London Polytechnic and crystallized this image. The band became notorious for short sets that didn't seem to climax as much as combust.
Yet, that was a very, very long time ago. The band have since shed members, broken up, and reformed countless times it seems, picking up second and third winds of influence and prestige along the way. The bad old days couldn't have lasted more than two, three years, tops, for a band whose history is creeping upon the 30-year mark. But these ghosts -- no, "ghosts" is a word that serves the legend too well -- these indefinite houseguests remain with Reid and crew. Why?
For the answer, you have to look no further than the first couple bars from the first track off that artillery shell of a debut LP and the band's most famous song. "Just Like Honey" takes its cue from the Ronettes' 1963 hit "Be My Baby," of course. But if we listen closely to the original, what do we hear? A beat, that's obvious enough. But also a strange and repressed barbarism that was stamped into a lot of rock 'n' roll before it grew up, put on some bell bottoms, learned to slouch straight, and lost its "roll." While the Ramones eventually brought the blistering beat back to rock, it was left up to the Jesus and Mary Chain to return the violence to rock history.
There's something seductive about the pain Psychocandy inflicts on its listeners. It pleases as it torments, confusing the Marquis de Sade's famous maxim about pain being the path to pleasure. With the Jesus and Mary Chain, there is no before and after. They mix it all up in one searing now: pleasure and pain, harmony and discord, virtue and vice, roll and rock.
In the same Quietus interview, Reid talked about the band's musical aims around Psychocandy. "At that time we were really into stuff like the Shangri-Las, but we were also really into stuff like (German industrial noise artists) Einsturzende Neubauten and we thought just wouldn't it be amazing if we had a band that had the melodies of the Shangri-Las but the production values of Einsturzende Neubauten and we thought we'll become that band, we'll do that! We wanted a record that attacked people, we didn't want it to come out of the speakers or the radio and go unnoticed."
It's through the Jesus and Mary Chain that I learned how to listen to such '60s pop as the Ronettes, the Shangri-La's, and the Cookies. It took a Scottish band to make me hear rock 'n' roll with fresh ears. With Reid's compass, I could locate the ache behind the oldies radio staple and the deprivation behind the fast food jingle. I suspect this is true for a lot of listeners from my generation -- we, the record-devourers and unrepentant file-sharers who brought you Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls.
This is why the Jesus and Mary Chain's mythology survives. Because the records do. If your ears have ever been molested by Psychocandy's unquiet fury, the marks it leaves are so revelatory, so laden with implications for all of pop history, your mind assumes there's more blood from where it came. So on we go, searching back issues of Melody Maker for the last drop.
The Jesus and Mary Chain perform Thursday, June 14, at the Fillmore. 9 p.m., $42.50; tickets available here.