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Chain Smoking - The Jesus & Mary Chain Reissues

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Dusted's Jon Dale looks back at the Jesus & Mary Chain's recently reissued classics, Psycho Candy, Automatic, Darklands, Stoned & Dethroned, and Honey's Dead,

Chain Smoking - The Jesus & Mary Chain Reissues

In Simon Reynolds’ excellent post-punk dossier Rip It Up and Start Again, the Jesus and Mary Chain (aka, to all intents, the brothers Jim and William Reid) call in the end times. Marking a shift from ‘futurism to retro’, as Reynolds would have it, the Mary Chain’s ‘record collection rock’ punctures the intellectual precociousness of post-punk, posing instead a recourse to the very notions of ‘rock history’ the likes of Scritti Politti and the Vic Godard disavowed; rockism in action, as it were. Although he cagily acknowledges the thrill of the Mary Chain’s first album Psychocandy, Reynolds is wary of their allusive discourse and their recuperative moves. Indeed, if you flick through some of his earliest writing, anthologised in Blissed Out, the Mary Chain are again whipping boys: ‘The return to rock represents an abstention or introversion, a retreat (the Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘My Little Underground’), a local culture rather than any doomed attempt at a global overhauling.’

The argument is a convincing one, whether you follow Reynolds’ line, or others like Steve Redhead, in whose End-of-the-Century Party the Mary Chain are ‘pop archaeologists’, ‘arch ironicists in pop archive terms’, a group who have ‘pastiche off to a t’. At the core of this position is a delicious turn-of-the-worm, whereby the Mary Chain represent retro-derived rockist authenticity (all that referencing of pop’s past as historical reclamation) while also being postmodernists par excellence (all that referencing of pop’s past as postmodern pastiche). (As an interesting aside, by my reading Redhead sees this as in some ways a continuation of post-punk, but never mind.) I suppose your position on the Jesus and Mary Chain will ultimately depend on what kind of ideological investment you’re willing to make: whether the Mary Chain sounded the death knell for post-punk’s futurism or if they represent the giddy thrill of liberation-through-noise, the next/last in a lineage of outsiders trying to break in to/through pop’s aesthetic-industrial complex.

You can place me firmly in the latter camp: Psychocandy is still an absolute rush, twenty-one years after it hit. The deceptive simplicity of their pop songs is the key: inserting buzzsaw feedback into pop wasn’t an entirely unpredictable formal leap for these Velvet Underground fans, nor injecting moves from surf and 60s girl groups. The Mary Chain were compared to the Sex Pistols more times than they deserved, largely for their socio-cultural impact in England, but Christgau got it right when he said ‘the formal coups that have made [Psychocandy] such a sensation are pure Ramones’. Perhaps it’s the very obviousness, the brazen cheek of the ‘formal coups’ that makes Psychocandy so thrilling: the glee of the obvious, the dumb joy of total trash. It sounds righteous. And are the Mary Chain one of the few pop groups to make of feedback a manifestly erotic object?

Psychocandy and its satellite singles would have been hard to repeat, hence the problem facing the Jesus and Mary Chain in 1986: replicate the formula and you’re doomed to purgatory as novelty, shake things up too much and you’ll lose the fan base, who’ll only complain that they liked the old stuff better. 1987’s Darklands trialled one escape hatch: nix the feedback. The fear that dropping the veil would render the Mary Chain boring was misdirected - sure, there isn’t the immediate, brutish thrill of noise, but Darklands is redemptive, at times even playful: those who groan at the “Sympathy for the Devil” ‘woo-woo’s at the end of “Nine Million Rainy Days” don’t credit the Reid brothers to enough intelligence and humour. Every song is strong but I’d say the opening salvos of the title track and “Deep One Perfect Morning”, alongside the closing “About You”, are the best - crepuscular, happy-sad ballads, the latter so good that Sandie Shaw covered it beautifully on her solo comeback album in 1988.

From hereon the Mary Chain lost their way a little - 1989’s Automatic sounded like a ploy to take and tame the American market, from the controlled deployment of noise to the amping up of classic rock signification; it was the closest the group came to parody or true pastiche. (The line about the ‘cool, black Pepsi Coke’ at the end of “Here Comes Alice” is the giveaway - product placement as ‘countercultural’ interpellation.) Yet there are still some fantastic songs on this, the most by-numbers ‘rock’ album of the Mary Chain’s career - “Head On” and “Between Planets” are both essential. And for those who complain about the drum machine, well, just ask the group’s first drummer Murray Dalglish - you don’t need to beat up a rhythm box…

1992’s Honey’s Dead saw the group taking up the slack of the indie-dance crossover with “Reverence”, the first time the Mary Chain hitched their wagon to a movement - that it worked so well was as big a surprise as the general lift in quality in the Reid brothers’ songs on this record. They evaded the risk in repeating familiar concerns (loosely: sex, death, girls, failure, religion, death, drugs, and death) by offering perhaps their strongest set of songs-as-songs since the debut: and yet it still doesn’t feel quite as thrilling as those first two records. Although I’d argue the Mary Chain never wrote a bad song, they could sometimes tread water: “Catchfire” and “Almost Gold” are particularly rote, but the album is saved by Jim Reid’s pop dreams on “Far Gone and Out”. Two direct revisitations and/or admissions: the group quote themselves on “Sugar Ray”, and sample Neubaten’s “Tanzdebil” on “Tumbledown”.

I may be alone in thinking the Reid brothers produced some of their best work in their final years. By my reckoning their third ‘return to acoustic roots’, there’s no grand, overarching theory behind 1994’s Stoned and Dethroned sounding as good as it does. The implicit naturalism in the ‘acoustic’ settings is a misnomer as it’s a) not exactly the key motivator for the songs and b) a bit of a lie anyway - the group may have turned down the volume, but not the intensity. At the time, the brothers were barely on speaking terms and thus the internal group dynamic was fractious, which makes the light, graceful air of Stoned and Dethroned surprising. Hope Sandoval duets with Jim Reid on lead single “Sometimes Always” in tribute to Nancy and Lee, or Bobbie and Glen.

All of which closes off the Rhino reissue treatment. There was one more, slightly patchy album, Munki, then an acrimonious onstage split in 1998. For fans who already have all the albums, there are no extra tracks, no unreleased material, only three videos from each record: no great shakes, I guess we’re to hold out for the rarities box set, due later this year. But if you’ve somehow missed the Mary Chain, missed out on the liberated rush of Psychocandy or the gentle grace of songs like “Drop”, “About You” or “Feeling Lucky”, then this really is it, the bedrock of the Mary Chain’s career. Post-punk turncoats, or not.

By Jon Dale

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