In 1985, The Jesus and Mary Chain released its massively influential landmark debut Psychocandy, an electric shock of rock 'n' roll and sugary sweet pop as one big feedbacking sound.
The band was lauded in the U.K. press for its irreverence and unpredictably destructive live shows, But, as Paula Mejia writes in a new book from the 33 1/3 series, the album is "an unapologetic swooning love letter to pop music" from a band unabashedly embracing not only the leather-clad Hamburg-era Beatles, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, and Marc Bolan and David Bowie, but '60s girl groups, bubblegum and the full spectrum of pop.
Though exhaustive research and conversation, Mejia dives into the band's history, interviewing band members Jim and William Reid, Douglas Hart and Bobby Gillespie, as well as scene familiars and Glaswegian contemporaries, finding a band shaped as much by Margaret Thatcher's U.K. and the realities of their neglected working class neighborhoods as it was by its deliberate pop ambition, despite its seemingly anarchic noise.
Gambit: I imagine you've been getting everyone's individual recollections of shows in each town on tour.
Mejia: Oh, yeah. One of the most entertaining and surprising conversations I had was with a guy from Baltimore from Aberdeen. The was a bar at the bookstore I was at, Atomic, and he came up to me afterward and said, "You know, it was great hearing about that. I first saw The Mary Chain when I was 14 in 1985. I busted my chin at the show. There was a mosh pit." Then he had this other great story about trying to see The Pastels with his cousin, who was really underage and couldn't get into the show. They ran into Bobby Gillespie and he said, "Tell your cousin to stand by the fire door." He kicks open the door so he can get into the show under the radar. You had also considered writing about [Galaxie 500's] On Fire and [Broadcast's] Tender Buttons, two more albums I love.
I would love to do something in the future about one of those bands, though there's a couple books about Galaxie 500. That really just started out as an exercise. I was really surprised neither of those were in the series already. They have such an important place in pop cultural history, for sure. It was one of those things where I tried this free writing experience, when I listen to the albums top to bottom, which had the most interesting notes at the end, and the Psychocandy one was by far the most interesting, and pointing into all these directions I hadn't thought about initially, and I decided to go with that one, then this all happened.
Do you remember the first time you heard the album?
I wish I did. I got into it through Darklands. I had heard Darklands first. We had the CD at the radio station I worked at in college. I'm pretty sure I had heard some of the songs from Psychocandy around, and just from being really into My Bloody Valentine, but I don't remember the first time I heard it, but I'm sure it was like every time I've heard it — just totally barraged by the feedback in a really good way.
Maybe I don't have a strong memory of it because it felt like, "Oh, yeah, this is part of my life" and made sense.
With the noise and its presence throughout the album, I listen to a lot of music you could consider noise, or having lots of noise, though my focus is never necessarily on the noise itself but in how it serves the song. How do you listen to the band over the years, or are you anticipating that noise to blow you away each time?
I was thinking about this recently because I think for a lot of bands that use noise as as texture in the music, like the Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and Ride and a couple of bands that flourished in that time, creating that kind of texture superseded lyrics. That's especially true for My Bloody Valentine. You can't even hear [the lyrics] most of the time, and it doesn't really matter. You look up the lyrics and they're just words like "blow" or "kiss" or whatever, and you put them together and it maybe doesn't make sense, but the way they fit along with the noise is really interesting. With The Mary Chain, William wrote those lyrics, and in a similar way, it was this outpouring, and not a ton of "OK, what's the placement with this particular bit of feedback?" There was a more of a texturing thing there as well.
What they were doing technique-wise — as much as they made it sound effortless and onstage looked like they didn't care that much behind some sunglasses — there was a lot of thought about how it all was put together. The book makes a great case for the band as a great pure pop band through Psychocandy, which isn't necessarily what people would have heard.
That was a revelation for me, going through the process of writing this book and interviewing people. I had always thought of The Mary Chain as a punk band. They seemed like the natural iteration of someone like The Sex Pistols, or an explosion of something that had been totally unprecedented. But when I talked to them, they totally surprised me, especially Bobby Gillespie. I think he was the one who told me, "We were totally into Top 40. We wanted to be on the charts. We wanted to play on Top of the Pops. We wanted to travel all over the world." Being this pop band was always the plan. It wasn't, "We're gonna make a ruckus and leave." It was very much setting the blueprint for developing an idea of what a pop band was, and what they wanted to do. That was a surprise to me. When I had that piece of the puzzle, it made sense,
I was surprised, too, to find out Jim and William Reid spent years before they put out the record just sitting in their bedroom, staying up all night drinking tea and planning the perfect band. It was really studious.
I did an event recently in Glasgow, and Douglas Hart and I were in conversation with a woman ... who does walking music history tours. He was saying how their "practices" were mostly them just talking about the whole aesthetic about the band, what they wanted to do — they never practiced. They didn't pick up their instruments that much. It's this great punk gesture — you don't have to "know" how to play your instruments. Just do the thing.
You hear about how much of a mess, a fun mess, the shows could be, seemingly off the cuff. So it's interesting reading them as an aspirational pop band.
That's one of the great dualities of them as band, and it makes sense — the psycho and the candy, the depravity and the sweetness.
Bobby told you other bands in the scene at the time were "glorifying failure." Bands don't typically become bands to not be noticed.
It was interesting hearing about their sort of detachment from what was going on in the indie music scene, especially in Glasgow, where it was so vibrant — bands like Strawberry Switchblade, The Pastels, Primal Scream. I think they orbited that, and had an appreciation for it and certainly had friends in the scene — I think it was Jim who said something like, "I didn't want to be the kid playing in front of his friends. I want to be on Top of the Pops."
I think about this in terms of when people "sell out" from their scene. I just read [Against Me!'s] Laura Jane Grace's book Tranny ... She talks a lot about how the second they signed to Fat Wreck Chords, they had an immediate backlash from people who were in their scene and accused them of selling out, and that continued forever to the point where people took instruments from their hands while they were playing, poured bleach on their merch. Crazy stuff. People do this to get noticed, but when someone gets the slightest bit of attention or starts making money from their art, people are very quick to call you a sell out. But wasn't that kind of the point in a lot of ways in the first place? It's always a contentious thing, because now I don't know how bands can do it. If South By Southwest is any indication, the corporate sponsorship and the music have become totally intertwined to the point where it's hard to know what's what.
Someone from the Vaselines, I think it was Eugene Kelly, was saying it was great to know that someone who had made a record of that impact was living up the road. It gave people the sense that it was doable.
We're now kind of allowed the cultural latitude to listen to whatever without regarding it as a guilty pleasure. The band was in a similar place. You described the scene as "people who love Television and Nancy Sinatra equally."
It was just a massive love for all these different kinds of sounds. It was a little unprecedented at the time ... Music scenes were a lot more territorial. You were into gothy stuff, you were into pop music, you were into punk, but rarely did those things meet, in music and socially, But they were like, "We love The Shangri-Las and Nick Cave. Why can't you like these two things? We like it for different reasons, but it moves us. Why not be open to that?" Putting that into music as well is a huge statement. You can like all these different things and you can crash them together in a way that seems totally unpalatable and works.
You were able to do a lot of interviews, with members of the band and from that time.
Everyone lived in different places. The Mary Chain is touring, Douglas lives in London and is a filmmaker now, Bobby lives in London and is in Primal Scream — I met with everyone individually. I talked with Jim Reid first, then got in touch with Bobby, and I had the hardest time tracking down Douglas. I had an email that just kept bouncing back. Once I talked to Bobby, which was an amazing conversation, he said, "You wanna talk to Douglas?" He also put me in touch with Karen Parker, who did the vocals for "Just Like Honey." Everyone was fantastic. I was so grateful for how generous everyone was with their time and their stories.
What was your time like in Glasgow, retracing some of those steps?
I thought it was really important for me to go, that I had the means and the time to go. As a journalist you want to have a grasp on what you're talking about, what you're writing about, so I thought it would be irresponsible of me to not make a concerted effort to understand the context in which the album was made, the place.
A friend of mine was finishing his last year of university there, so I stayed with him ... We walked around the city, went to pubs, saw some art. But the really telling thing for me was going to a comedy club. As weird as it sounds that really helped me get a grasp on humor there. And also talking to people there, too. I didn't realize how funny some of these songs were.
Around that time, the Mary Chain was in Glasgow doing one of the Psychocandy reunion shows. I talked to Jim there. A couple days later I saw their London show. Both of the shows were so different. The Glasgow one felt like a homecoming. People were going mental. And people of all ages, too. Kids, young adults, people who were probably in their 20s when Psychocandy came out. In London, it was like seeing a show in New York, where people stand still with their arms crossed.