Music

Chasing Honey Bees: The Jesus and Mary Chain and the Post-Masterpiece Struggle

Their first album, Psychocandy, was a classic. And as new reissues of the Jesus and Mary Chain's first five records are released, we see the story of a band proving there is life after a masterpiece.


The Jesus and Mary Chain

Psychocandy

Subtitle: Remastered
Label: Rhino
First date: 1985-11
US Release Date: 2008-03-25
UK Release Date: 2006-07-10
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The Jesus and Mary Chain

Darklands

Subtitle: Remastered
Label: Rhino
First date: 1987-09
US Release Date: 2008-03-25
UK Release Date: 2006-07-10
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The Jesus and Mary Chain

Automatic

Subtitle: Remastered
Label: Rhino
First date: 1989-10
US Release Date: 2008-03-25
UK Release Date: 2006-07-10
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The Jesus and Mary Chain

Honey's Dead

Subtitle: Remastered
Label: Rhino
First date: 1992-03
US Release Date: 2008-03-25
UK Release Date: 2006-07-10
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The Jesus and Mary Chain

Stoned & Dethroned

Subtitle: Remastered
Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2008-03-25
UK Release Date: 2006-07-10
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iTunes

The Jesus and Mary Chain's first album, Psychocandy, is a classic. Or it will be, depending on how long a record has to exist before it attains "classic" status. There's little argument about that fact. But to look back on it as the start of the band's discography makes it an even more interesting album than if it stood alone. And now, with new reissues of the first five Jesus and Mary Chain albums -- in affordable, non-DualDisc format -- we can revisit the band's most furtive period and see their strange trajectory.

Perhaps what makes these five albums so interesting when viewed as a progression is that they start with such a brilliant album. Right out of the gates, the Jesus and Mary Chain released their best album, and easily one of the best albums of the '80s. They made their masterpiece in 1985, which raised the question: What the hell could they do next?

It's a tough question for any band after releasing their magnum opus, but it seems particularly difficult for a band when the album in question is their first one. And it isn't like Psychocandy slipped under the radar. It wasn't one of those albums that got noticed later on and was given its due after the fact. The album's due came right upon its release. It was universally lauded and, coupled with the band's stand-offish live shows, made the Reid brothers the mysterious, infamous It-boys of alternative music. Anticipation for a follow up record was high.

So what could they do? Sometimes, artists release their best work and give up. Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, for example, has notoriously fallen out of the spotlight in the ten years since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released. Other artists -- Built to Spill comes to mind -- see their best work as a stamp of infallibility, and fall into a tailspin of mediocre albums.

The Jesus and Mary Chain fall into neither of those categories. Instead, either because of the success of Psychocandy, or because of their natural inclination towards contrarianism, the band used the success of its first album as a reason to explore on other albums. Rather than constantly re-treading their trademark distortion, the band tried to make each album stand on its own.

But it doesn't all sound like confident experimentation. Often in their music, the Jesus and Mary Chain sound like a band searching for the next thing. From album to album, they island hop from one sound to another, never staying long enough to quite make it their own. So if in the present the Jesus and Mary Chain are known for their distortion and feedback, if we permanently link them with shoegaze, then we are really missing some big chunks of the band's story.

Even in Psychocandy the band is constantly battling itself. This is not to say that there is anything accidental or haphazard about the album. It's incongruities are intentional, and brilliantly executed. But when the album leads off with "Just Like Honey", there are moments later in the album that sound like they're trying to play catch-up. Despite its overuse in commercials and Sofia Coppola films, "Just Like Honey" is the band's most perfect song. Whether or not it is their best is another argument. What it is, though, is the perfect combination of the band's sound and influences. The Shangri-Las, the Velvet Underground, the band's giddy love of throbbing guitar notes -- it's all there, each element dosed out in perfect amounts.

And in that perfect song, Jim Reid sings of a girl and her "honey dripping beehive". He's found the honey right off the bat on Psychocandy. He's found what he's looking for. But, by track five, "Cut Dead", he doesn't have the honey anymore. He's "chasing honey bees". This rehash, or re-imagining, of the honey image seems like a good metaphor for the band's trajectory. Having captured lightning in a bottle with "Just Like Honey", the band spends the rest of the album -- and then successive albums -- trying to get back to that perfect sound. Where they had the honey initially, by "Cut Dead" they not only don't have the honey, but they're chasing bees -- makers of honey -- trying to find the source again. Which is what makes all the squalls and shrieks of guitar on the album sound all the more frustrated and claustrophobic. And it is also what makes the album's quieter moments sound tragically reticent. In the end, Psychocandy embraces all these emotions, lets them bounce jaggedly off of each other. And the sounds that all that jagged bouncing makes are just as vital today as they were twenty-three years ago. Which is what makes it a classic.

And while none of the other albums quite measure up, they are still both solid in their own right, and interesting to examine together as the band's trajectory. Their second album, Darklands, comes closest to matching Psychocandy. It is consistent all the way through, catchy and melodic, and establishes its own sound and mood. Gone, for the most part, is the band's famous feedback, replaced instead with a cold, pervasive space. The opening title track clocks in at five and a half minutes -- miles longer than anything on the first album -- and draws you into a new world. Where songs on Psychocandy attack, these songs leech into you. They are no less aggressive, but they are more cunning in the ways they get into your head. "Happy When it Rains" and "April Skies" tilt the band's sound on its head, using the fuzz sparsely to bolster the melody rather than obscure it. Darklands was a bold move by the band and, as a first step in their search for that next thing, it is a brilliant start.

From there, with Automatic, the band tackles a more direct sound. By 1989, the Jesus and Mary Chain seemed to be moving away from their contrarian, antagonistic ways, and as a result Automatic is the most immediate and inviting of their albums. These songs are stripped down, straight-ahead, and awfully catchy. "Head On" -- made famous again a few years after Automatic when the Pixies covered it -- is the most well-known song from the record, and is an appropriate example of its sound. The quick hook, the thundering drums, a vibrant snarl that rises in the vocals. And though its hardly a happy affair, Automatic sounds far less brooding than its predecessors. Perhaps this, or its comparative lack of complication, is why opinions on the album have been negative over the years. It is considered the first time they missed the mark. But that seems unfair.

What they certainly didn't do with Automatic was make another Psychocandy or another Darklands. Their on-going search, the next move in their post-masterpiece career, was to try their hand at something a little clearer. If Psychocandy constricted and amplified their love of feedback, and Darklands spread that love, in thin layers, over a much wider canvas, then Automatic takes the fuzz and cleans it up a little. As the band matured, and became less combative, so then did their distortion. What if, they seemed to be asking, we don't make the fuzz a wall? What if, instead, we poke holes in the wall and invite the listener in? The results, on Automatic, are much less cryptic than the previous two albums. And while it does fall off at points, it is still another interesting incongruity in the Jesus and Mary Chain canon.

Honey's Dead, on the other hand, might be where the wheels start to come off. All the searching that has gone on in the first albums, all the freedom you can hear in Darklands and the pure zeal in Automatic, have been leeched out and replaced with a frustrated complacency. The album is not without its highlights -- particularly "Reverence" and "Far Out and Gone" -- but it is really the first sign of the band seeming unsure of themselves. More than any of their other records, Honey's Dead sounds like a product of its time. This sort of electro-tinged alternative pop was on its last leg commercially in 1992, as grunge took over, and this album's sadly appropriate title tells the whole story. There is no exploration on this album, but yet it is inexplicably regarded as a return to form. It is a return to their old sound, in some ways, but hardly a return to form. It's an album that sounds like the band is walking backwards, staring at Psychocandy, unable to shake it. In 1992, the Jesus and Mary Chain finally sounded mediocre, like they had run out of ideas. The post-masterpiece search, it seemed, had claimed another victim.

Which is what makes the fifth album, Stoned & Dethroned, sound so defensive. Much like late-period Pavement, Stoned & Dethroned sounds like the Jesus and Mary Chain making music purely for themselves. They shed all of the feedback and distortion, pick up some acoustic guitars, invite famous friends in to sing, and pack the album with seventeen tracks. It is a very pleasant-sounding album, front to back, and more satisfying than Honey's Dead, but the listener never feels like they're part of the experience. Instead, it feels like you're standing awkwardly in the corner of the studio, listening while the band plays and actively ignores you.

The band went on to make more music after these, of course, and are back together in the present day. But these first five albums tell a story familiar to a lot of bands. Looking back on Psychocandy and the band's output immediately after, it shows us that an artist's career is a constant search, and if you find what you're looking for right out of the gate, you might find yourself scrambling for something else you'd like to find. The Jesus and Mary Chain were not crushed under the weight of Psychocandy's brilliance, though later albums may suggest they were ground down by it eventually. Instead, they spent those other albums trying to twist its elements into something new. They may have said all they needed to say with their first album, but where most artists would give up or give in to self-parody, the Jesus and Mary Chain took a much harder road: they went in search of something else to say. The results of that search, sometimes muddled, and not without their missteps, but so often brilliant, are what make them a great band, instead of just a band that made a great record.

There is life after a masterpiece.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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