Though the introductory drumbeat of “Just Like Honey” was certainly familiar, no one had heard it nestled in such cacophony until two moody youths from Scotland married their devout love of pop music to their staunch irreverence for nearly everything else. It was 1985, and the brothers behind this unholy mishmash, Jim and William Reid, even called themselves the Jesus and Mary Chain — a nonsensical, deeply out-of-context phrase, perhaps meant to raise the hackles of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative regime. But that first track on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s landmark debut, Psychocandy, turned out to be a perfect entrée into everything that followed. Burying Hal Blaine’s iconic percussive phrase from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” in a haze of guitar fuzz made the band’s influences and aims instantly clear, right from the beginning.
The album’s opener is hardly the most abrasive of its fourteen tracks. Squalling feedback perverts Phil Spector–indebted melodies at nearly every turn. Thirty years after the band first incited riots at shows in the United Kingdom by playing amphetamine-addled sets, Psychocandy is not only considered the Mary Chain’s seminal release, but also a wildly influential one for rock music at large, particularly shoegaze and postpunk. As is the current trend, the band have capitalized on their three-decade legacy by booking an anniversary tour in which they play their most beloved release start to finish, night after night. They’ve been at it now for the better part of a year, and 30 Years of Psychocandy finally hits New York City with two shows at Terminal 5, September 24 and 25.
“For a few years now, people had been trying to get us to do Psychocandy shows, and there didn’t really seem much point to us [until] someone brought up the idea of a 30th-anniversary tour,” says Jim Reid, now 53, in a soft-spoken Scottish burr. “So we took it a bit more seriously, [thinking that] if we wait any later it’s going to be basically too late. William and myself had a good think and started to weigh out the pros and cons, and it seemed there were more reasons for doing it than not. We’d never performed a lot of the songs on the album live. It seemed like a good idea to go out and do those tunes.”
Reid still remembers the band’s first trip to New York City in the spring of 1985. Prescient booker and show promoter Ruth Polsky was largely responsible for introducing the Mary Chain to American audiences, doing so with back-to-back shows at famed four-floor nightclub Danceteria. “She was a great lady,” Reid says fondly. “[She] used to take chances in bringing bands that not many people had heard over to New York, and we were one of those bands. We had the time of our lives playing those two shows.” The brothers had been drawing the dole (welfare benefits for the U.K.’s unemployed) just four months prior to finding themselves in the birthplace of their heroes, the Velvet Underground.
The gigs were actually well attended, but not for the reasons the band had initially assumed. “We played the first night and there were loads of people that looked a bit like us — sloppy hairdos and similar kind of clothes. They were really into the music and we were wondering how these people had heard of [us],” Reid remembers. “We hadn’t realized it was an indie club night, and probably most of them hadn’t heard of the band but quite enjoyed it. But the second night was hip-hop [night]. We got onstage and there were all these people breakdancing and we were like, ‘What the fuck?!’ It was slightly surreal. Then we kind of figured it out and thought, ‘OK, these people have no clue as to what this band’s about,’ but we had a great time.”
Because numbers like “Some Candy Talking” and “Taste of Cindy” have long populated Mary Chain sets, tracks that the band hadn’t performed at all since the album’s release ignite Reid’s nostalgia the most. “For some reason those songs seem to bring back memories, but the ones we played a lot at the time, strangely enough, don’t,” he says. “If I’m singing ‘Something’s Wrong’ or something like that, sometimes I think of sitting in our living room, me and William, trying to write those songs.” Reid says that the goal while on tour is to replicate the Psychocandy material as faithfully as possible. “I personally can’t stand it when you go and see bands and they’ve got a three-minute pop song that came out of the record and they want to do a 50-minute experimental version of it. When we play those songs we try to get it as close to the record as we can,” he says. “It was just a question of figuring out whether [William] could still make those noises, still make that godawful din. And thankfully after a few rehearsals we found that it was just like riding a bike, so we felt a lot more confident about it and decided to go ahead with it.”
Reid remains humble when asked to quantify Psychocandy’s importance within the landscape of pop music, though he recognizes the resonance the album has had with fans. “We weren’t really paying attention to what was fashionable at that time. We just made what we considered to be a great pop-rock record in the same style as bands that we had loved,” he explains. But after hours spent interviewing the band (as well as those close to them) and combing through the archives of the British Library, music journalist Paula Mejia is a bit of an expert on what’s made the record such a groundbreaking phenomenon. She’s written a 33 1/3 volume on Psychocandy slated for release in 2016.
“I’ve talked to so many people who say, ‘I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard that album, I remember exactly who showed it to me,’ and have these very specific memories about it,” Mejia says. “I think the thing that was so immediately captivating about Psychocandy was that they took these seemingly disparate elements — the sweetness [of] those nice drum breaks and the honeyed vocals [alongside] these pummeling swaths of noise. Merging those things together was unprecedented.” She adds, “They never bemoaned pop music. You talk to Jim and he can rave about Nancy Sinatra like no one I’ve ever talked to. I think that they were really struck by how pop music in the Sixties had all these very sweet melodies and ornate orchestral elements but the lyrics were super dark; they were really drawing from those sensibilities and really forging something different.”
The title itself is the first giveaway: One part connotes something sugary and wholesome; the other implies derangement. These dichotomous elements appeared throughout the rest of the band’s catalog, but none of the later LPs had such sublime tension or immediacy as their first. “People keep going back to Psychocandy because it had that larger-than-life impact,” Mejia says. “I always think of Psychocandy as a sort of concept record, too, and their later records don’t sound as cohesive conceptually.”
In their early twenties, at home with the Portastudio they’d purchased with their father’s severance pay when he lost his factory job, the Reids had no idea their record would have such lasting and substantial influence. “At that time we were listening to a lot of American garage music from the Sixties. We used to think, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be great if people were starting bands in the distant future because of stuff that we’re doing now?’ ” Jim Reid admits. “We had kind of hoped that it would [be] a blueprint as to how to make music without guitar lessons, but it is kind of surreal that it’s actually happened.”
“The way that it’s influenced contemporary culture is almost immeasurable,” asserts Mejia. “I listen to so many bands today that are so indebted to the Jesus and Mary Chain for that crashing of elements, having this wailing feedback within these pop songs. They were looking for something that would really move people.” Mejia caught the current Psychocandy tour early on at the band’s homecoming date in Glasgow. “People were going bananas at this show from the moment they stepped onstage,” she remembers. “There were teens there, people in their fifties and sixties, middle-aged couples — everyone just seemed hyped to be there. And the songs sounded incredible. Hearing those really noisy ones like ‘The Living End’ and ‘In a Hole’ and ‘My Little Underground’ was unbelievable. They sounded terrific, and it was loud as hell.”
“As much as I’m happy that there’s a whole load of people out there that might have remembered it as it happened at the time, there’s also a bunch of young kids out there that probably weren’t born when we made that record. That’s fantastic,” Reid muses. “If someone would have said 30 years ago, ‘You’re going to be doing a tour with this album in 2015,’ I’d have thought they were nuts. And here we are doing it.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 21, 2015