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Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy (2CD+DVD)

November 18, 2011

Jesus and Mary Chain PsychocandyRoll: 3-2-13
Album: Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychocandy

My introduction to The Jesus and Mary Chain wasn’t the seminal noise-pop classic,  Psychocandy, but their third studio effort, Automatic (1989). It was the tape I bought after a girl named Thai showed me their singles and B-sides compilation, Barbed Wire Kisses (1988). It sounded pretty good to me, especially the catchy head-nodder “Sidewalking.” But what I immediately gravitated to wasn’t Mary Chain’s natural strengths—Phil Spector by way of a jet engine factory—but the deep, distorted guitars mixed with tight, mechanized, drum machine beats. It’s the sound producer Alan Moulder took to the extreme on Automatic. I didn’t know it at the time but I was really looking for Ministry‘s Land of Rape and Honey, and not Mary Chain at all. I’d figure it out a few months later.

I also don’t think I particularly cared for Mary Chain’s screeching-train-wheels aesthetic. I liked my noise beaten into submission and not allowed to roam dangerously free. It’d be a few years before I really began to appreciate and enjoy truly  “industrial” music. And I certainly didn’t like anything that sounded like a ’60s girl-group song my parents might have danced to at the hop. I’d already had my dalliance with golden era rock’n’roll a few years earlier with La Bamba and now it just sounded old and lame.

But industrial noise and golden era rock’n’roll are, of course, what Psychocandy is all about. Or, as Jim Reid says in the liner notes for this reissue, “wouldn’t it be great if Einsturzende Neubauten had Shangri-Las songs—why doesn’t somebody do that, let’s do that!”

Since Thai was the kind of girl I’d have arguments with over who was the biggest Pixies fan, this inability of mine to “get” what made Mary Chain so great naturally led to a few more arguments. I specifically remember her mocking me over my accidentally calling the aforementioned b-sides compilation “Barbed Wire Love” once. This could quite possibly been during an argument over which Mary Chain tape was the best. I steadfastly maintained it was Automatic, a stance I would wouldn’t relinquish for years.

So it was a few years before I actually picked up a copies of Psychocandy and the follow-up, Darklands, feeling Barbed Wire Kisses was all I needed from their sloppy early years. I was wrong of course, as I was about Automatic which has weathered the least well of all their albums.

Though I think an argument could be made Barbed Wire Kisses is their best single-disc collection of songs, probably their one truly timeless opus—and only flawless artistic statement—is Psychocandy. With it, Mary Chain could be credited with creating a new sub-genre in rock: noise-pop.

Admittedly, by this point there’d been plenty of noise-rock bands cropping up already (Sonic Youth, Neubauten, Birthday Party, etc) and catchy pop tunes were no stranger to punk bands like The Buzzcocks or The Ramones. But nobody had so audaciously combined sunshine bubblegum with literal noise before. There are shrill tones on Psychocandy which are nearly (and for some people completely) unlistenable.

“Nails on a chalkboard” has often been used to describe the album, but it could be more accurately described the sonic equivalent of a shrapnel grenade made out of frozen television static at a beach party hosted by Archie Andrews.

It’s a combination everyone since has shied away from duplicating. From either the pop or the noise trajectory, they always come at it with too much of a preference for one or the other—either unable to write the hooks or too careful not to obscure their precious melodies with fuzz and static.

What’s surprising is that it took somebody so long to come up with the concept. Though it was released in 1985, the album somehow captures the zeitgeist of of alternative rock circa ’82 better than any record released in ’82. Yet somehow it remains outside of time, sounding as fresh as the day it was released. It could be because, with so many young bands borrowing heavily from the Psychocandy template, it also captures the zeitgeist of 2012 quite well. Which makes it now, more than ever, essential listening.

But is the 2CD+DVD deluxe edition essential?

That depends how much of a Mary Chain completest you are and if you bought the dual-disc edition in 2006 and the Power of Negative Thinking b-sides box set. Even if you have, you might actually find this set worth trading up to. It gathers the all the early singles, b-sides, demos, BBC sessions and out-takes of the period into one concise package.  Though the majority and these tracks are otherwise spread over various compilations and the box set, it’s the cohesiveness of this 3-disc edition that’s appealing. Everything from 1984-85 is here and you get to hear it without it being diluted by the stylistic changes of their later singles and albums.

As far as previously unreleased material, there isn’t too much but what there is as stellar as anything else they did in this period. Most notable is the near-mythical “Jesus Fuck” out-take which is pretty much as excitingly violent as the hype would have you believe. Also we get 5 previously unreleased Portastudio demos. The quality of the demos is a pleasant surprise since the inclusion of these types of recordings are usually a grin-and-bear-it ordeal enjoyed(?) by only the most fervent fans (Robert Smith‘s atrocious home demos on The Cure reissues are a perfect example of what band should not include). Though more primitive, these versions hold up nicely against their proper recordings and you can see why they caught the attention of Bobby Gillespie, getting them their first London gig which resulted in their deal with Creation Records.

The DVD is a little more interesting than the usual bonus visuals as it includes a handful of amusing television interviews where the Brothers Reid outdo the Brothers Gallagher for sheer bravado. Jim Reid, for one, was either completely delusional in his estimation of his band’s worth or he is one of the world’s most underrated deadpan comedians. A particularly memorable clip has Gillespie making out with an unidentified girl while the Reids volley snarky retorts at an increasingly uncomfortable host.

So it turns out that Thai was right all along. Psychocandy was, and remains, one of the best and most important albums of the ’80s. Now it’s one of the best reissues released in 2011.

Additional reading: The Story Of The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Psychocandy

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