The Jesus & Mary Chain Are Forever Kings of Cool
Nineteen years after their last record, the shoegaze progenitors return with 'Damage and Control.' We lift the lid on their strange origins, their slyly sexed up early songs, and the ongoing clout of their legacy.
Hot take: Living at home with your parents isn't all that cool when you're an adult. Even less cool: Doing so while sharing a bedroom with your fellow adult sibling. And yet, it was from a small, working class home in East Kilbride, Scotland, that Jim and William Reid formed the coolest band that ever lived™. Unlike most adults living with their folks, the Reids used the family residence as a rent-free headquarters to help launch their band. When they weren't literally writing down how they would achieve their dream of pop stardom, they were working some of the oddest jobs imaginable. Jim used to cut sheet metal for Boeing airplane engines at the Rolls-Royce Aerospace building. William, on the other hand, picked cockroaches out of Parmesan cheese in a factory. It wasn't long before they realized that signing on for unemployment would offer them all the time they needed to get their band off the ground.
The Reids were known in their small town as a couple of misanthropic outsiders who kept to themselves and rarely made eye contact with anyone. But on the rare occasion that they did make friends, they made it count. Their first friend was a younger kid named Douglas Hart, who co-founded the band and played bass. The next was Bobby Gillespie, the JAMC's first official fan and second drummer. (Gillespie, of course, would leave the band in 1985 to achieve his own success fronting Primal Scream.) And finally there was Alan McGee, the band's first manager, who released their debut single on his label, the soon-to-be legendary Creation Records.
When they released that single, "Upside Down," it was unlike anything ever released before. The band barely knew how to play their instruments, yet they had inspiration. They were punk rock kids who followed the DIY methods of the Sex Pistols, the aesthetic of The Velvet Underground, the brooding lyricism of Joy Division, the blatant disregard for eardrums demonstrated by The Stooges, and the throbbing, hypnotic use of rhythm (and chaos) by Suicide. Their initial goal was to create something that somehow contained the heartbreaking pop harmonies of the Shangri-Las and the remorseless noise of industrial boffins Einstürzende Neubauten. But "Upside Down" was so much more than that—a three-minute cyclone of whirring feedback, a crashing rhythm and a dreamy melody that had no business coalescing. It's one of the most perfect songs ever recorded.
"Upside Down" established the Mary Chain as music's new archetype of cool. Their debut album, Psychocandy, followed the next year and three decades later there still is nothing quite like it. The music was self-produced and alien, their marriage of melody and noise was as original as pop music could get in 1985. The lyrics, on the other hand, were dripping with sexual allegories even the best erotica novelists couldn't put to paper. The best and only real way to interpret "Just Like Honey" is as a celebration of cunnilingus, as Jim sings, "Moving up and so alive / In her honey dripping beehive… / I'll be your plastic toy." This was coming from the mouth of a shy Scottish boy newly relocated out of his familial home. Despite this diffidence, the Reids wrote about sex like they were poets with degrees in human sexuality: "Cherry Came Too" asks to return the favor ("Come on and kiss my head"), as does "Suck," meanwhile "Penetration" wants it till it "breaks my spine;" and "Teenage Lust" is so hot and sweaty, it deserves to appear on the future episode of Riverdale where the inevitable Betty-Archie-Veronica three-way occurs. Oh and although it was originally a line from "Cherry Came Too," Barbed Wire Kisses is a pretty fucking sexy album title.
As much as albums like Psychocandy and Honey's Dead were most likely the sex album of choice for many Mary Chain fans, their music also inspired feelings of antagonism. Early shows were hotbeds for violence and mayhem. The most notorious incident was their 1985 performance at the North London Polytechnic, which is best known as "The Jesus & Mary Chain Riot." The band performed their usual 15 minutes before the crowd—full of miscreants looking to start something—turned on the band. Jim Reid told Q magazine, "After we came off, we were in our dressing room, and we heard all this pounding on a door down the corridor. It was an angry mob banging on a cupboard door, thinking it was our dressing room! I remember peeking out of the door, watching these people shouting, 'Get the bastards! Get the bastards!' I don't know what their problem was: maybe we played too short, maybe we went on late... maybe people had been listening to all this crap music for too long."
Their reputation as rock 'n' roll bad boys would follow them like a bad smell for years, and truth be told, they looked the part too. It wasn't just the music with the Mary Chain. Early on they dressed like a throwback to the hip, disaffected leather-boy, echoing the likes of Lou Reed, Gene Vincent, and all the dudes in Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising. These pasty Scotsman wore mostly black, unless one of them felt like offending prudes with a custom-made, white button-up that bore "Fuck Cunt Candy Cunt" in stencilled letters. (Japanese designer Jun Takahashi was so inspired he dedicated his Spring/Summer 2014 collection to the JAMC.) They also wore sunglasses like they were prescription specs, no matter the weather—though the irony of Glaswegians ever wearing shades is not lost. And that hair of theirs, it was a perfectly chaotic nest of curls that gracefully flopped around. (Fun fact: I have a friend who a few years back permed his hair in order to look like the Reid brothers. I bet there were hundreds of others before him trying the same thing.)
The Reids would be the first to admit that without the influence of The Beach Boys, Bo Diddley, The Stooges, Phil Spector and The Velvets, to name a few, the Jesus & Mary Chain would never have existed. But on the flipside, they have given the same inspiration to countless artists that followed in their footsteps. As discussed in the documentary Beautiful Noise, the Mary Chain also laid the groundwork for shoegaze. Bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, Swervedriver, and Lush each developed in their own unique sound, but purely from the one the JAMC built first. And of course, without the chart success "Upside Down" brought the then struggling Creation Records, the label could very well have failed before ever giving us albums like Oasis' Definitely Maybe, Primal Scream's Screamadelica, Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque, and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless.
But just as JAMC pillaged the past to create their own music, so too have generations of subsequent acts taken just about every possible trait from group save the band name itself. Excuse me if I forget anyone, but here goes: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Raveonettes, Skywave, A Place To Bury Strangers, Ceremony, Crocodiles, Deerhunter, The Horrors, The Soft Moon, Autolux, the Dum Dum Girls, Merchandise, Nothing, Odonis Odonis, The Manhattan Love Suicides, Tamaryn, Glasvegas, and The Vaccines. Just listen to any of those bands and you'll hear it immediately.
Lastly, there's that name of theirs. What does it mean? Even the men who came up with it don't really know. But as someone who spent his youth fearing the wrath of God, it was a name that was impossible to ignore. For me, listening to music when I was a kid was a dangerous game of discovery where temptation often got the best of me. The anxiety that came from liking a band named the Jesus & Mary Chain was on par with secretly trying to listen to "Stairway to Heaven" backwards or dreaming of mail-ordering Danzig's "Not of This World" tee with the upside down cross on it from a Sessions catalog. It felt dangerous and thrilling to dabble with something so heretical. That a band would purposely scorn Jesus and his mother seemed as treacherous and offensive as anything I could imagine as a 13-year-old. Little did I know that it wasn't intentionally profane or with any real meaning at all. William told Interview, "If you want to use the word Jesus and upset people, you'd call the band Jesus Erected or Jesus On A Stake. I'm always shocked when people say it's blasphemous simply to use the words Jesus and Mary." This was a good year or two before I learned about the likes of Eyehategod, Anal Cunt, Crucifucks or the origin story behind Joy Division.
Bands like the Jesus & Mary Chain just don't exist anymore. Part of that has to do with being in the right place at the right time. When they emerged, the UK music scene was in a state of flux. Acts like The Smiths, Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode, New Order, and Pet Shop Boys were all flourishing, but there wasn't anything dangerous toying with the mainstream. Punk was long dead—the Clash were making Cut the Crap, for Chrissakes; all of the great post-punk bands had lost their edge; Nick Cave was transforming his Bad Seeds from a Birthday Party hangover into a haunting, poetic blues band. The Mary Chain appeared when they were needed most.
Today, we're exposed to a thousand new bands a day, with each one claiming to have that something we're looking for. No matter how hard a band tries or how good their songs are, it just seems impossible for a band as perfect as the Mary Chain to exist in this day and age. As music devourers we're far too stimulated, too exhausted, and too aware to elevate a band to that level. The Strokes were the probably the closest thing we've had since, but even then they were anointed the leaders of the "new rock revolution" (by NME), rather than being considered innovators of any kind. Plus, five NYC kids from wealthy backgrounds milking rock music's best bits doesn't have quite the same grit and weird cache as a couple of weirdo brothers cooking up something fresh and precarious in their bedroom.
It should be pointed out that The Jesus & Mary Chain also imploded in a spectacular way. Around the mid-90s the Reid brothers were barely speaking. They passionately hated each other, and recorded what was thought to be their last album, 1998's Munki, separately. You can hear the divide across the album; it's messy and disjointed, but in a stunningly fucked up way. In truth it was the tours that killed the band. Amidst the arrests, a near-fatal tour van fisticuffs and constant inebriation during their final US tour, it was one moment on stage that ended it all. The final nail in the coffin was hammered in front of fans on stage: Jim, who was so drunk he was barely able to stand or sing, muttered one too many abuses to William, who quit there on the spot, just three songs in. A version of the Mary Chain sans William limped a few more dates before finally realizing it was over. That they were able to patch things up nine years later and reunite for Coachella in 2007 is a miracle. Only a Smiths reunion seemed like a bigger long shot.
This week The Jesus & Mary Chain return with Damage and Joy, their first new album in 19 years, and remarkably, they've managed to preserve a lot of what made them cool in the first place. Yes, they're now a lot older—pushing 60, in fact—and they no longer generate the ear-bleeding feedback of the Psychocandy days, incite riots at their gigs, stir up controversy (there is a lyric about killing Kurt Cobain, but even Courtney Love will likely keep her response to an eye-roll emoji), but Jim and William Reid still sound, look, and write songs better than most of your favorite old indie bands that have reunited after 20 years. Fuck, they're better than most of your new favorite indie bands. All hail The Jesus & Mary Chain, forever kings of cool.
The Jesus and Mary Chain Tour Dates:
5/9 - St. Paul, MN @ The Palace
5/10 - Chicago, IL @ Riviera
5/12 - Toronto, ON @ Massey Hall
5/14 - Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
5/19 - Los Angeles, CA @ The Wiltern
5/20 - Oakland, CA @ The Fox Theater
5/22 - Portland, OR @ Crystal Ballroom
5/23 - Seattle, WA @ Showbox SoDo
5/24 - Vancouver, BC @ Vogue Theatre