JIM Reid talks to Fiona Shepherd about Jesus and Mary Chain’s plan to play their iconic album Psychocandy live, 30 years after it was first released.
Around a decade ago, a shadowy cabal of critics and music know-it-alls gathered in a Scotsman garret to pontificate and pronounce on the greatest Scottish albums of all time. When the deliberations concluded and it was all over bar feeble protestations concerning the Bay City Rollers, the Jesus & Mary Chain’s audacious, tempestuous debut Psychocandy was deemed to be the seventh greatest of them all – although I recall agitating for it to be Number One. That accolade went instead to Screamadelica, an album fronted by the Mary Chain’s original drummer, one Bobby Gillespie. Sure, Screamadelica has its moments, quite a number of them in fact, but it didn’t and still doesn’t cut a swathe quite like Psychocandy, as the Jesus & Mary Chain hope to demonstrate when they play the album live in full for the first time next week.
“The title describes the record – it’s a one-word review of the contents,” says frontman Jim Reid, his soft drawl bringing back memories of those entertainingly nonplussed interviews given by the band at the height of their mid-80s infamy.
To music fans of a certain generation, the Jesus & Mary Chain were the most exciting thing to emerge from East Kilbride/Scotland/the known musical universe since…well, ever – a surly band of scruffy, spotty brothers in tight leather trousers with a bad attitude, great tunes and lashings and lashings of thrilling, squealing feedback to send the kids wild.
Looking back, it wasn’t rocket science. In fact, much of their style and sound had been summarily nicked from the Velvet Underground, from the distortion to the stand-up drumkit to the indoor shades. But context is everything and, in 1985, back when indie meant obscure, there were precious few musical miscreants banging on the door of the pop charts.
“We were driven by the appalling music that we heard on the radio,” says Reid. “We detested the 80s production techniques, that big snare drum that went through several echo effects that everybody and their cousin had on every single record that was made in the 1980s. We just thought ‘let’s shoot this down’ so we were really quite driven to eradicate all the crap that we could not stand.”
Jim Reid and his older brother William had been threatening to form a band for years but it wasn’t until their dad subbed them some money from his redundancy pay that they bought a portastudio and began demoing their spiky-sweet songs. Local musicians Douglas Hart and Murray Dalglish (later replaced by Gillespie) were recruited, as was manager Alan McGee. The amps and the attitude were cranked up and a series of crazily chaotic gigs followed, generally lasting about 20 minutes or until the audience got restive, whichever came first.
“For that first six months, a year, we did not give a f***,” says Reid. “We were totally in it to please ourselves. The idea of a career hadn’t really dawned on us yet so we were just up there thinking, ‘what are we going to do tonight?’ The audience just happened to be there, eavesdropping on our fun. I think people sensed that anything was possible.
“I remember we played this totally non-musical gig at Liverpool University. William would start playing a riff and it would just go on and on and then I would join in and sing whatever came into my head. We did that for half an hour and that was the gig. We had the nerve to mingle with the audience afterwards. They wanted to tear our heads off! But we knew we couldn’t be that self-indulgent forever.”
Such reckless volatility contrasted starkly with their sober focus in the studio as they worked on their first album. The band had already turned heads with their driven, distorted debut single Upside Down, released on McGee’s nascent Creation Records, and knew where they wanted to go next.
“We couldn’t play that well so it forces you to use your imagination a bit more,” says Reid. “We’d imagined orchestrated feedback, sounding like it was played by a thousand guitars, that’s what we had in mind. We fumbled around with the technology of the day and we ended up getting approximately where we were aiming for.”
That aim was to deliver a sound like “a Shangri-Las song backed up with [Einstürzende] Neubauten, or the Birthday Party playing Bananarama”. These days, the notion of beautiful melodies rubbing up against ugly noise is practically old hat. In 1985, it sounded novel and exhilarating, propelled inexorably by Gillespie’s rudimentary, feral drumming. According to Rolling Stone, this was “the opposite of sugarcoating the pill; it’s like wrapping sandpaper around a Tootsie Pop”. The Jesus & Mary Chain had issued a declaration of intent. Against some expectations, Psychocandy was greeted as an instant classic.
“A lot of people had written the band off at that point,” says Reid. “People used the word ‘hype’ all the time with the Mary Chain and I think people thought it was all about publicity and there was not a lot of substance. I still think there’s about a dozen songs on that album that could have been singles.”
A number of those songs have never been performed live, as the band were already looking ahead to their next album, the less iconoclastic but equally loved Darklands. “Psychocandy was such a statement you couldn’t really go back and redo it,” says Reid. Perhaps not in the studio, but revisiting the album live, searing feedback and all, is the plan for these forthcoming shows.
Reid will cop to some nostalgia but cautions “it’s not a recreation of a 1985 show. It can’t be – I wouldn’t fit into those leather trousers any more. Whereas the shows back then were all about falling over drunk and chaos and riots or what have you, this is just about the album.”
There are nerves too. “I’m not a natural frontman, I get very nervous. I used to drink a lot – I still drink a lot. It’s almost 30 years [since the release of Psychocandy] and we’re having this conversation so that gives you some confidence. But having said that, this is a scary thing to do. P***ing on people’s memories… I’ll just go off and bite my nails now, shall I?”
Over those 30 years, band members have come and gone and the Mary Chain has split up and got back together, but Jim and William Reid and their fractious fraternal relationship have remained a constant. Earlier this year, Alan McGee – who seems to have form working with bickering brothers – returned as their manager. Just like the old days, eh? But without any new music.
“We’ve been talking about doing a new album for years,” says Reid. “I suppose it depends on how me and William get on at these shows. It’s true, we have a difficult relationship and we push each other’s buttons. Let’s just wait and see what happens after these shows. If we’re both still alive, then maybe we’ll make a record.”
The Jesus & Mary Chain play Psychocandy at Barrowland, Glasgow, 21 and 23 November