WHEN I was 17, in 1988, and studying A Levels at a state high school in the new town of Telford, Shropshire, I bought a copy of The Jesus And Mary Chain’s debut album. , Psychocandy, Used to a Girl of the Year Above Me. Freed from an uninteresting childhood in Cumbernauld’s failed utopian experiment, I was the only Scottish boy in college.
I wore my hair long and cultivated an âindie-rockâ image in which open-necked shirts and turned-down vests were a staple. I was hanging out in the halls of the college in a woolen coat that had, I imagined, been dropped off at the charity shop where I had bought it from the grieving parents of the recently deceased octogenarian man who had been the previous owner.
My main requirement for the coat was that it had pockets large enough to hold my beloved Walkman, on which I constantly played music from independent bands like The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Cure. So when Jovanka, an effortlessly cool Slavic-born Englishwoman, had to get rid of her copy of Mary Chain’s debut LP in 1985, I was the obvious candidate.
Jovanka loved the Mary Chain, she explained, but the album was a gift from a boyfriend she had recently and painfully parted with. Keeping the record bordered on masochism and, suddenly, it was offered to me at a very reasonable price.
I still have the LP to this day, with the boyfriend’s dedication written on the inside of the cover, then, for discretion, carefully crossed out by Jovanka (you can still read the original post: “To Jov . Merry Christmas. Love Gerry XXX “).
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Listening to Psychocandy was my first really serious engagement with the Mary Chain, the band that was founded by working-class Scottish brothers Jim and William Reid in the early 1980s. Although I was not yet an aficionado, I I already had an affinity with the group.
They were from East Kilbride, a new town that was in many ways a Scottish equivalent of Telford, a post-industrial overflowing Birmingham town that lies incongruously in the leafy and pleasant county of Shropshire, made famous by Victorian poet AE Housman. They were dressed in black, wore sunglasses indoors, and took themselves too seriously. I loved them.
An avid reader of Melody Maker, Sounds and, the independent children’s bible, the NME (which was just too cool for its full title, The New Musical Express), I had seen the Reid Brothers photographed dozens of times. Hard-line, self-conscious Scots were often featured on the covers of music journals, peeping indifferently behind their deliberately disheveled bangs.
They had been propelled from the obscurity of demo recording to an album deal with the Blanco y Negro label (a subsidiary of media giant Warner) in just two years. Psychocandy – which featured a drummer by the name of Bobby Gillespie (below), whom Mary Chain had borrowed from an emerging rock band called Primal Scream – marked a notable highlight in âalternativeâ, âindieâ guitar. Â»Post-punk. âMusic that emerged from the early to mid-1980s.
If this music was âalternativeâ, it was above all an alternative to the computerized synthesized pop of artists such as Gary Numan and The Pet Shop Boys. Their “independent” credentials stemmed not only from their independence from commercial popular music, but also from their expression of nascent discontent among working-class and lower-middle class youth with right-wing fanaticism. and Thatcher’s British moral conformism.
When Psychocandy came out in November 1985, the Great Minors Strike of 1984-85 had ended in excruciating defeat. The Thatcher government’s relentless assault on unions and hence British heavy industry had already hit the Reid household – Jim and William recorded their first demos in 1983 using material bought with their father’s money. gave when he was fired from his factory job. . THE Mary Chain – whose early gigs were known for inconsolable violence that the band was keen to shake off – were by no means overtly political, but they provided a contribution of dismal humor and rebellious poetry to one. growing counterculture. They may have been happy to admit that they had ‘no solutions’ and ‘nothing to believe in’ (as they did later in song 331/3), but they were still more likely. to spit on a preservative than to imitate. Numan by voting for one.
Psychocandy – on which the Reids offered the darkest and most hilarious double meaning in rock history: “God spits / On my soul / There’s Something dead inside my hole” – was unlike anything that came out of rock. mid-1980s indie scene. The band might have been from a new town in South Lanarkshire, but it looked like they got there through New York’s Velvet Underground, Beach Boys’ California and Johnny Cash’s Tennessee.
The album combined, in songs like Never Understanding and Something’s Wrong, electric feedback, jagged guitars and the breakthrough 1968 American of the Velvets album, White Light / White Heat, with the perverse optimism of the Coast. west and surfer beach. Boys. However, on a more melodic and contemplative track, like Some Candy Talking, you could swear the band had stopped in Nashville to jam with The Man in Black himself.
As the first LP he was close to flawless. Or rather, its flaws (like John Cale’s sonic experiments with the Velvets) were deliberate and inspiring.
The album spawned a legion of creative imitators and emulators. Perhaps the most impressive record in this vein was Loveless, My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 album, which sounded like a poetic love letter to Cale and the Reids delivered in luxurious commentary.
As I drank the music and consciously bittersweet lyrics of Psychocandy, the connection to The Velvet Underground became more and more evident. What I didn’t realize then, in my teenage white ignorance of black music, was the debt it also owed Motown and its very special rendition of Phil Spector’s famous âWall of Soundâ.
There was a lot going on in this album, created by a working-class boy couple from a new town built to house the former inhabitants of Glasgow’s slums. Quite impressed with Psychocandy, I quickly moved on to Mary Chain’s second album Darklands from 1987.
Forget the platitudes about bands that are successful in their early days and find themselves mired in the “difficult second album” syndrome. Darklands was a brilliant and very successful follow-up album.
Incredibly, for the music of an alternative band, the LP peaked at No. 5 on the UK charts (Psychocandy had not passed No. 31). It would be Mary Chain’s most successful album by far.
The first thing you noticed about the record was how different it was from its predecessor. Of course, the cover art – a blurry image of (presumably) the Reids on stage, on a black background, with the band name and album title in bold red letters – had reassuring similarities to Psychocandy, but the sound was remarkably divergent.
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Gone is the feedback that characterized Psychocandy. This record was cleaner, produced, it seemed, to breathe the ’50s rock’ n ‘roll that had been so deliberately obscured by the white noise of the first album.
Gone too Gillespie, who was a bit busy with Primal Scream’s debut album, Sonic Flower Groove (which came out a little over a month after Darklands). It was replaced – like Echo and the Bunnymen – not by another musician, but by a drum machine.
This musical turning point may have resulted in considerably higher record sales, but there was no evidence at Darklands that the band was engaged in any sort of populist compromise. There was always a side to the music, as if Chuck Berry had played not with his famous tortoiseshell plectrum, but with a razor.
The lyrics also kept Mary Chain’s established line in dark, comedic desolation. A lot of poets would mortgage their souls to be able to write such a clever, multi-layered metaphor like the song Fall (from the B-side of Darklands): Christmas Tree. ”
A track like Cherry Came Too, with its “barbed wire kisses” and barely concealed sexual double meanings, seemed like the result of a collaboration between the Reid brothers and Johnny Cash on the Cathkin Braes on a particularly windy Tuesday afternoon. . The Beach Boys-style chorus glowed in a sweet, whitened orange light on a love song that compared the object of desire to “the itch of the trigger in the killer’s hand.”
FAR from selling to sell (although Mary Chain never hid their desire to reach large audiences or, for that matter, their wish to appear on Top of the Pops), the band’s shifting musical style was , above all, to keep things interesting to themselves. In an interview in 2011, Jim Reid explained: âWe tried to reinvent ourselves with each album. ”
âI think it’s fair to say thatâ¦ Stoned & Dethroned and Psychocandy are on opposite ends of the spectrum. But it would have been too boring to record Psychocandy two, three and four, etc.
What followed Darklands was a series of largely successful reinventions, with studio albums: Automatic (1989), Honey’s Dead (1992), Stoned & Dethroned (1994) and Munki (1998). None of these records achieved Darklands commercial success, but they won the band’s admirers.
Tennis champion Steffi Graf was spotted leaving one of their concerts in Germany. She confided to a questioning journalist, quite simply: “I love their dark music”.
Meanwhile, in the United States, indie rock aristocracy The Pixies recorded a scorching cover of Head On from the album Automatic (“And the world might die in pain / And I wouldn’t feel any shame / And it there is nothing to blame me â). Then, in 1998 and 1999, the group suffered a long and acrimonious collapse, sealed by the end of a tour of the United States and Japan without William, who left the stage 15 minutes after a concert in Los Angeles after her brother tried to perform. while being visibly intoxicated and barely able to stand.
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It took eight years for bridges to be built to the point where the Mary Chain could reform, and another 10 before the 2017 studio album Damage and Joy could be released.
Now, as the band embark on an international tour celebrating Darklands, it’s a great time to reflect on how amazingly good the Mary Channel was when it made its way into public consciousness in the 1980s. Like William (Wordsworth, not Reid) said it: “Was happiness at the dawn of being alive / But being young really was Heaven!”
Jesus And Mary Chain’s Darklands Tour begins at Stereo in Glasgow on November 13th. For more details, visit thearychain.com