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Makes You Want to Feel: The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Head On"

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Tuesday, Jan 21, 2014
Though not from the Mary Chain's most acclaimed album, 1989's "Head On" is one of the band's better offerings, a classic example of how the proper amount of attitude can elevate a song.

Yes, Psychocandy is far and away the Jesus and Mary Chain’s best album; there’s no disputing that. None of the records Jim and William Reid have put out in the nearly 30 years since that LP’s release have quite matched that record’s almost primitive appeal, a result of its jarring yet alluring juxtaposition of honey-sweet melodies and a nigh-unyielding cacophonous roar of white noise. It’s been argued that the band’s creative downfall has been its efforts to tidy itself out, actions which completely miss the point of what’s appealing about its best music.

On its surface, the 1989 single “Head On” shouldn’t be my favorite Mary Chain number. The lack of layers of feedback reveal the band is peddling a rather straightforward arrangement; the most noticeable bursts of guitar noise are in the form of a ‘50s-style riff William Reid trots out between verses. More unpalatable to my sensibilities is the song’s reliance on synth bass and a drum machine, utilized to make up for the Reids’ lack of a full group at that stage. The synthetic rhythmic section robs the Mary Chain of much-needed thrust, and though I’m partial to dated-sounding synth bass in choice contexts, the most unflattering task it can be made to do in my opinion is to pound out strict root-note eighth notes. Which is exactly what happens on this track.
So why do I love “Head On” so much? Chalk it all up to the attitude, my friends. I place so-called rock ‘n’ roll attitude low on my list of musical priorities (all the posturing in the world means nothing to me if your melodies are weak and your riffs suck), but here Jim Reid has his hooks in me from the first word go with the understated yet utterly self-assured way he delivers his lyrics. Simply put, on “Head On” Reid sounds like the coolest guy on the planet, tossing off killer lines like “The way I feel tonight / Oh I could die and I wouldn’t mind” with laconic confidence. Even when the guitars do roar at the climax of each chorus, Jim Reid steals his brother’s thunder, first with “I can’t stand up / I can’t cool down / I can’t get my head off the ground”, and then “I take myself to the dirty part of town / Where all my troubles can be found”. Where depending on the occasion Reid’s detachment as a frontman can convey everything from mannered distance to hostile indifference, on “Head On” his stance places him as the deserved center of attention, an unwavering oasis of rockstar calm around which the rest of the song orbits around.

Funny enough, the Pixies’ noisier and more energetic take on “Head On” from 1991 doesn’t pack the same wallop. That’s because in the process of seemingly correcting the track’s deficiencies the Pixies lost sight of what makes the Mary Chain original so appealing in the first place. On their version, the Reids didn’t have to come out guns blazing to grab your attention. On an album consider something of a dark horse in the band’s catalog, there’s four minutes where the Mary Chain stop mucking about and plant two feet firmly in the ground, look me dead in the eyes, and say dead serious stuff like “The world could die in pain / And I wouldn’t feel no shame” in the confidence that I will flinch first. The Mary Chain sells that attitude completely in this noise pop classic, and that’s enough to make me forgive the synth bass.

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