The Jesus & Mary Chain - Biography
Depending on the listener's perception, the Jesus and Mary Chain are either underrated geniuses or overrated, needless noise-mongers. There usually isn't a middle ground. It's difficult to give the Reid brothers all of their deserved credit, since they sound like so many other bands. One forgets that their sound was actually all their own, although they were eventually copy-catted by countless other bands. This is only fair, however, as that's exactly what the Jesus and Mary Chain did, borrowing or blatantly stealing from the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground. But the sound itself, that glorious droning feedback that encased the borrowed melodies, was their contribution to rock music, and theirs alone. The fact that this once-novel style became indiscriminately aped, over and over again, by followers of the band for years to come, validates their status as one of popular music's most unique pioneers.
The Reid brothers, William and the three-years younger Jim, formed the Jesus and Mary Chain just outside of Glasgow, Scotland, in the town of East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire. It was 1984 when they put together the initial lineup of the band, which included bassist Douglas Hart and drummer Murray Dalglish. Shortly thereafter, they moved to London in the summer and were signed to Alan McGee's Creation label. Their debut single, London's first taste of the wailing distortion that would become their trademark, was called “Upside Down,” the B-side of which was a cover of Syd Barret's “Vegetable Man.” The single made the Mary Chain a sudden success in the UK. Dalglish left the band that November, and was replaced by Primal Scream founder Bobby Gillespie. Their live shows during this time, which consisted of about twenty minutes of nothing but noise and the band standing with their backs to the audience, also increased the word of mouth, since the audience became so irritated that riots often occurred. This trend eventually resulted in the band being banned from several clubs.
The group were soon signed to Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (WEA) offshoot Blanco Y Negro Records, where they released their second single, “You Trip Me Up.” The song added fuel to the fire, and the group were becoming largely associated with punk bands like the Sex Pistols. This comparison was proven to be not entirely accurate when the next single, “Just Like Honey,” was released. A perfect marriage of caterwauling distortion and 60's pop, the song set the stage for the band's debut full-length, Psychocandy (1985, Blanco Y Negro/Warner Bros).Their sound at this point was essentially centered around conventional pop music structures, but the wailing cyclones of distortion and noise that they incorporated served to obscure the melodies, if not render them inaudible. The approach struck a chord with critics, who deemed it one of rock music's more impressive debuts. Characterized by Jim Reid's disconnected delivery and Gillespie's economical drumming (he played only a tom-tom and snare and did so while standing, similar to the Velvet Underground's Maureen “Moe” Tucker), the album even became a college radio hit in America, peaking at 188 on the charts. The band released “Some Candy Talking” as their next single and it went to number 13 on the charts. However, radio play of the song was pared down considerably once word got out that the lyrics were about heroin. Indeed, drug usage was a theme for the Reid brothers, who openly endorsed amphetamines as a way of strengthening their performances.
Gillespie left the band to form Primal Scream before Psychocandy was released, and was replaced by John Moore. In the two years that followed, the Mary Chain severed ties with manager Alan McGee, and began recording their follow-up. The singles “April Skies” and “Happy When it Rains” were released prior to the new album, and reached 8 and 25 on the UK charts, respectively. The singles were noticeably less noisy, a trend that the Reid brothers more or less stuck by throughout all of their second LP, Darklands (1987 Blanco Y Negro/Warner Bros). Reverb still played an important part in the overall sound, but it was clear that the band, who opted for synthesized drum beats on most of the album, were aiming more for writing melodies than kicking up endless clouds of distortion. The choice proved successful, as the album contains many treats for the listener, including an irresistible nod to “Sympathy For the Devil” on the song “Nine Million Rainy Days.” The LP reached 165 on the US charts. During a subsequent North American tour, the group again caused a controversy when Jim Reid was arrested for attacking a male heckler. He was eventually acquitted of the charges by a Toronto court.
In 1988, the Mary Chain released a collection of their B-sides called Barbed Wire Kisses (Blanco Y Negro/Warner Bros). The next album proper was 1989's Automatic (Blanco Y Negro/Warner Bros). Their steady climb on the Billboard 200 continued, as the album peaked at 105. Also, they were getting some play on the modern rock charts, with the single “Head On” (covered by the Pixies just two years later on their Trompe Le Monde album) reaching number 2, and “Blues From a Gun” peaking at number one. The band recorded the album by themselves, opting for the use of machines for every single drumbeat, and Moore was no longer a member.
Honey's Dead (Blanco Y Negro/Def American) followed in 1992. The brothers actually hired a live drummer for this album, Monti from the Mary Chain-inspired Curve. “Reverence,” the song that opens the LP, contains the lines “I wanna die just like Jesus Christ,” and “I wanna die just like JFK.” These proclamations got the song banned from Top of the Pops, which of course, in turn, made the band more popular. Adding to their publicity was a spot on the 1992 Lollapalooza tour in the US. However, the album fell back on the US charts to 155, even though “Far Gone and Out” and “Almost Gold” were successful on the modern rock charts.
1994 showcased a balmier and more tranquil Jesus & Mary Chain when they released Stoned and Dethroned (Blanco Y Negro/American). It was largely an acoustic album, a wise maneuver for the Reid brothers, since their trick of delivering the simplest of melodies through a funnel of distortion was probably becoming increasingly difficult to keep up. The single that established the album's popularity was a duet with Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval called “Sometimes Always.” It reached number 4 on the modern rock charts and also became the first Mary Chain single to break the Billboard Hot 100, at 96. Stoned and Dethroned was also noteworthy as it marked the first time since their debut that the Reids recorded with a full band, including touring bassist Ben Lurie and drummer Monti. The group made their strongest showing in the album charts yet, finally cracking the top 100 at 98. Apparently this was not enough for WEA, who dropped the band shortly thereafter.
The next year, the Mary Chain released another collection of B-sides, The Jesus & Mary Chain Hate Rock 'N' Roll (1995, Blanco Y Negro/American), which boasted the strong single, “I Hate Rock 'n' Roll.” In 1997, they signed with Sub Pop, and put out a new single called “Cracking Up” in March of 1998. The accompanying album, Munki (1998, Sub Pop), was a commercial flop which failed to chart, and the divided sound which pervaded the record was noticeable. The Reid brothers were not getting along at all, and were barely speaking. William Reid would record his parts with the band when his brother was not in the studio, and Jim would take the same approach. The tension culminated in September of that year, when the Jesus and Mary Chain played a tumultuous concert at the House of Blues in Los Angeles that ended in a screaming match. William decided to leave the band after the performance, and the next year, their official break-up was announced.
William Reid spent his post-Mary Chain days working on his solo project, Lazycame, and Jim Reid formed the band Freeheat. In 2005, they reunited in the studio to record “Song for a Secret,” a Jim Reid solo effort. In 2007, the Jesus and Mary Chain announced their tentative reunion, playing their first show of the new millennium at the Coachella Music Festival on April 27th, appearing with actress-turned-songstress Scarlett Johansen on stage. Several performances followed the event.
Where the Jesus and Mary Chain now stand in the canon of rock & roll is difficult to pinpoint. On the one hand, they more or less stole from the likes of Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, and even Phil Spector. On the other hand, they were true pioneers of a particular sound, and gave rise to bands such as Singapore Sling, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and the Raveonettes, to name a few. Ultimately, all of this band's worth is more or less stored in the 1985 debut, which sounded like more of a drug-addled accident than a meticulously crafted near-masterpiece. And, had it been meticulously crafted, it would have also been, most likely, a failure. The band's carelessness is what was so initially intriguing about them; their ability to ignore their audience during shows and not even face them; their penchant for drowning out their otherwise melodious songs with a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard wall of sound; their abnormally short performances that left so many concert-goers feeling short-shifted. These were all traits that were wholly original. It was only when the Jesus and Mary Chain began acting like a normal band that people stopped taking notice.