Counterbalance No. 84: The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Psychocandy’

The Jesus and Mary Chain
Blanco Y Negro

Mendelsohn: So… Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy is just an update on the Velvet Underground model just with more noise and less Nico? Is that about right? That’s all I’m getting from this record. I mean, on the plus side, there’s no Nico. But leading up the cons is the fact that neither Jim nor William Reid, brothers and principal songwriters, are anywhere close to Lou Reed. And Reed is about the only reason I listen to the Velvet Underground.

After torturing myself with this record for a week, I keep coming back to the word “droll”. Please don’t take that as a cue to dissuade me of my position. Just stating fact.

Klinger: Droll? “Curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement?” That droll? “A short comical sketch of a type that originated during the Puritan Interregnum in England?” I’ve gotta be honest with you, Mendelsohn—I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Mendelsohn: Yes, droll. As in British humor that you don’t quite get unless you happen to be British. Not that I don’t like a few droll laughs. If I had my way, American cable news stations would be required to show Are You Being Served? for at least eight hours of their broadcast day. Sure, I don’t get all the jokes but they will slip in enough universal truisms to keep me coming back (Mr. Lucas loves to chase the tail! Mr. Humphries loves to chase cocktail!). I will not, however, be returning to Jesus and Mary Chain because I don’t get it. If there is anything there to get. It’s a couple of speed freaks with questionable talent playing drowsy psychedelic rock or attempting to drown all of the songs in their own feedback. I know it was the 1980s, but c’mon, reactionary measures to Kajagoogoo were never meant to be met with critical acclaim.

Klinger: Well, I don’t think that’s exactly what droll means, but I’ll concede that point. Psychocandy is clearly an album that’s made its way into the top 100 of the Great List based on the unanimous and continuing critical acclaim it’s received in the UK. What I won’t concede, however, is your assertion that reactionary measures and critical acclaim are somehow separate from one another. All throughout our little Counterbalance project we’ve focused on albums for which at least part of the appeal was that they stood apart from whatever else was going on in the mainstream. I’d argue that albums from the Clash and the Ramones to Arcade Fire and the Strokes owe at least some of their allure to the fact that they weren’t disco or prog or boy bands or whatever else had people so upset back then. Psychocandy is just one more example of that.

And to me, it’s not hard to see why the Jesus and Mary Chain caught the critical fancy back in 1985. You might say that they’re just reheated Velvet Underground, but I’d argue that they add a healthy dollop of Phil Spectorian early rock into the songwriting mix. That’s apparent right from the beginning, as “Just Like Honey” kicks off with a direct nick from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”. It’s also important to note that at that time, neither the Ronettes nor the Velvets were anywhere near the givens in our cultural discussion as they became just a few years later. Psychocandy is also chockablock with references to Nuggets-y garage rock, another touchstone that had yet to be fully mined at that time. In fact, you could make the case that just as David Bowie presented the Velvets’ legacy as a proto-glam band, the Reid brothers were remaking them as a scratchy old 45.

Mendelsohn: You make an excellent argument, Klinger. Which makes my reactionary reaction to this reactionary record seem completely irrational. But here’s the thing—and I think it’s more important beyond all of the garage rock mining and the Spectorian touchstones—this album is not very good. It’s a lot of noise and no substance. When the Reids seek to emulate Reed, they succeed admirably. “Just Like Honey”, “Cut Dead”, the poppier “The Hardest Walk”, and “Sowing Seeds” could be Velvet outtakes, maybe even b-sides. But where the Jesus and Mary Chain start to trip over themselves is by incorporating Spector’s Wall of Sound ideals with massive doses of feedback. Even if the Reids had bothered to write a half way decent tune, no one can tell because the fuzz overrides every aspect of the song pushing the already suspect production values over the edge in to what essentially sounds like white noise at loud volumes. I challenge you to crank this record up to 11 and tell me that “In a Hole” and half of the other songs I haven’t already mentioned don’t sound like somebody trying to fix a faulty input jack with a sledgehammer.

Klinger: To be honest, I don’t think that Jesus and Mary Chain sound all that much like the Velvet Underground, so I don’t want to belabor that comparison all that much. They do seem to be working from the same template, and the Velvets did do it first, but to my ears there’s a fundamental difference in their songwriting approach. It seems important to note that the songs on Psychocandy were all written on the acoustic guitar—the noise came later. So as I’ve been listening over the past week, I’ve been more and more able to listen past the bits that bring to mind the sounds of dentistry and really hear the pop music that lies underneath all the screeching screechery.

That’s not to say that I can see myself returning to Psychocandy all that often going forward. To me the production lacks the low end that could help take the edge off the shrillness of the feedback—a little extra savory to offset the saltiness, if you will. But it’s still a combination of sounds that seem perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of 1985. I think of it as a time when the postmodern-ish elements were beginning to inch their way into the more mainstream culture, so you saw high art leanings interweaving with kitsch elements. It was, as I recall, kind of an exciting time. That’s what I hear in the Jesus and Mary Chain’s blending of artsy noise with straightforward early ’60s pop. I’ll let you argue that that makes Psychocandy more of a thought exercise than an actually enjoyable listening experience.

Mendelsohn: Absolutely no back end. I couldn’t quiet put my finger on it, but that was the one thing that was nagging at me every time I put this record on. That would also explain why I couldn’t stop messing with the bass/treble mix whenever I’m playing this record in the car. This record is very flat on the high end with no bass to balance it out. Makes me feel weird.

And thank you for articulating the one thing that never fails to kill my enjoyment of a record: having to think. Although, considering the time frame in which this record appeared, a thought exercise was dearly needed. But I think therein lies the rub as we watch the music pendulum swing from one extreme (the crass electro pop that dominated the early ’80s) back to the next with the heavy-handed reinterpretation of ’60s rock. The Mary Chain even admitted at once that they felt they got lucky simply because no one else was making guitar music at the time and that allowed them to fill a vital void in the music scene. My question is: did Psychocandy have to be such an obtuse exercise in rock music? Couldn’t they have turned downed the feedback and balanced the mix and still have come out on top?

Klinger: Well, their early gigs were just as likely to end up in fisticuffs as encores, so the Reid brothers obviously have a punk-fueled cantankerous streak in them, and that could explain why they weren’t especially interested in catering to the fancies of the pop market—which apparently includes you and me. Part of me salutes that kind of willful perversity—I might not enjoy everything about it, but I’m glad it’s out there because I think it forces the hand of other artists.

The general public didn’t pay much attention to the Jesus and Mary Chain (they did, however pay attention to General Public, but that’s a story for another time), but their place is solidified here on the Great List by the overwhelmingly positive critical reaction. Interestingly, and I’d have to see exactly how our friend at Acclaimed Music crunches the numbers, but it seems that this album owes a great deal of its standing here in the top 100 to its consistent positioning in the 1985 year-end lists, where it top-tenned in a number of publications, and in later lists that are specific to a certain time (e.g., the best of the ’80s, etc.) It’s almost as if that period was so bleak, with its crushing Duran Durannery and Whamosity, that critics really wanted to give it the swift kick in the gut that only the Jesus and Mary Chain—and Psychocandy—could provide.