Mar 23, 2014

Best Band Ever: The Jesus & Mary Chain

image of Scottish noise-pop group Jesus and Mary Chain

"Good artists borrow. Great artists steal." - Unknown
Musicians have been copying The Jesus and Mary Chain for a very long time now. Or, well, copying copies of copies, which, as we all know, deteriorates the quality of information as rapidly as a game of Telephone. [It is entirely likely that a large percentage of the present-day JaMC copycats have never heard of the band.] I'm not naming names here but that's only because I don't know them... Because copyists aren't worth knowing, not really. 

Ah, but thieves bring something to the table! 

The Jesus and Mary Chain belonged to the highest caste of pickpockets, slipping their hands into the pockets of The Beach Boys for melodies, The Velvet Underground for dissonance and The Stooges for pure sinister vibes, thus combining the furthest extremes of what could be called "cool": bottle blondes and jocks playing volleyball on the sunny shores of California / pale kids with shitty haircuts in leather jackets and blacked-out sunglasses / burnouts huffing glue under the bleachers. It's almost a joke, really, and there definitely is a strong comedic element, frequently unrecognized, in JaMC's music but impossible to miss in the deadpan braggadocio of their (hilarious) interviews. 

If Miles Davis was The Birth of The Cool, then Jesus and Mary Chain were the Rebirth.

Since attitude is such a large part of The Jesus and Mary Chain, let's start there. This is a 1986 interview done for Belgian television:

Jim Reid is the one who's doing most of the talking in this video. And, lest you take him too seriously, that is all he's doing - talking. Jim understood the power of saying and doing outrageous things. I mean, look at his fucking hair. He talks shit on anyone and everyone to get a reaction. Despite elsewhere citing the Sex Pistols as a major influence, here he says he doesn't even like them. Jim drops the names of then-current chart-toppers and you know he'd privately squeal with joy if Boy George took the bait and mentioned JaMC in a Culture Club interview. 

In 1986, saying an unkind word about Joy Division was the social equivalent of pissing on a ten year-old kid in the middle of Sunday school. So, naturally, Mr. Reid calls them "fucking rubbish." The interviewer exclaims, "God!" and looks to Jim for confirmation that, surely, it's a joke... but Jim just keeps going and the poor man is clearly left stunned and dejected, calling again on his deity, "Oh, God..." 

"The Living End" from JaMC's first album, Psychocandy, is exactly what Joy Division would have sounded like if Ian Curtis sang about motorcycles and narcissistic solipsism. So, why does Jim Reid act like no one else ever played a guitar before his band came along? Because he's right. Unless you're on some Harry Partch shit, there are only twelve notes in music. On a purely mechanical level, it's all been done a long time ago. From this realization, the most intelligent artists will trace the roots of any given style (in their chosen medium) back to the source. From there, the uninspired artist will borrow, the inspired artist will steal. [Incidentally, I submit that the name of the band is a reference to the Force of Inspiration, though the Reid brothers would never deign to admit this in an interview.]

There is a distinction worth examining here: a distinction of worth. For an artist to offer something of value to the world, they must first possess it. In other words: I can't give you a dollar if I don't have a dollar. If the most popular guy I know has a dollar, a dollar that I've seen on many occasion, and I decide to make a forgery of the dollar to give to you... Well, I haven't given you a dollar. I've given you a Wavves album. But if I steal that dollar, then it's mine now, to do with as I please. [This is all intended as illustrative metaphor. Don't steal dollars.]

"Upside Down" is the first single released by JaMC, pre-Psychocandy, so, the first song many people heard by the band and, in every way, completely unique to the world's experience of pop music, nevertheless entirely composed of elements lifted from the past. It is, absolutely, a bent of genius to hear the 5:40-6:05 segment of "Heroin" and think to add a Stooges bassline, "California Girls" the drums up a bit and throw some "ah ah ah"s around, but there's more happening than that. This is not a xerox of any one of these aspects but rather a regurgitation of them all. For these elements to be available for use by JaMC, the Brothers Reid had to have so fully immersed themselves in the aforementioned soundscapes (Yeah, probably with drugs.) as to blur the lines of separation between their very identities and the songs. In this way, they became The Velvet Beach Stooges Undergound Boys. It may be that, in a world where every sound has been made, the highest aim a musician can have is to curate the greatest museum of noise through one's own work, to house the masterpieces of one's heroes in the vault of one's own being. 

I don't think I'll top that last sentence today, so I'll bow out here and leave you with some of my favorite songs, in historical order, by the best band ever: The Jesus and Mary Chain

[Edsel Records finally put together absolutely comprehensive deluxe versions of every JaMC LP, with bonus discs full of b-sides, demos, interviews and awesome booklets with essays from band members. I pre-ordered them as soon as they were announced and they were all I listened to for nearly a year. Check them out: Psychocandy / Darklands / Automatic / Honey's Dead / Stoned & Dethroned / Munki]

Thank you for your time. Are there any questions?


P.S. This is actually the first in what I'm going to call the Best Band Ever series. There is no "best band ever" but there are certainly phases in one's life where a band seems to embody the culmination of all music. This series is intended as a tribute to those bands. So, please, even if you are already familiar with the band discussed above, I encourage you to share this post on your social profiles, in case some of your friends have yet to experience this amazing music. Thanks, again. 


  1. Replies
    1. I haven't quite decided if I will be dealing with solo artists in the Best Bands Ever series. But, yeah, Kate Bush is definitely going to be covered at some point.

  2. TJ&MC HANDS DOWN - Top 20 band for me. Thanks for the post.

  3. Anonymous8:47 PM

    "Ah, but thieves bring something to the table!"

    Ha, reminds me of T.S. Eliot's observation that bad writers borrow while good writers steal. I guess the main crux of it is making the material your own no matter where it came from.

  4. Anonymous8:50 PM

    "Ah, but thieves bring something to the table!"

    That reminds me of T.S. Eliot's observation that bad writers borrow while good writers steal. I guess the crux of the matter is taking the material and making it your own and not a cheap knock-off.

    1. Right. I stole that quote at the top of this article, actually. Kind of a joke....