the jesus and mary chain
home » articles »

Welcome to the Drugstore
David Cavanagh / Select
Spring hath officially sprung, with all the copious rising of sap that that entails, and in the crisp brightness the shocking explosion of hallucinatory pink that is the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre is looking even more of a concrete cake mix eyesore than usual. The Labour Party HQ is down the Walworth Road to the left. Some of the Capital's least convivial public houses are within gunshot; there was a highly publicised fatal gangland shooting in one of them last year. And a couple of streets away Jim and William Reid, oblivious to anything but their ongoing symbiotic rock 'n' roll quest and the shadowlands beyond, count The Jesus And Mary Chain into a tasty, fuzzified tune called "Teenage Lust", off their new "Honey's Dead" album.

The studio belongs to the Reid brothers. They've done what loads of bands dream of and bought their own playground. Despite the perils of the turf outside their door, the studio's a bright little suntrap in a modernistic red-brick complex, and at least if any of their stuff ever gets nicked they won't have far to go - there's a police station over the road. The name the Mary Chain have given their little home from home was carefully chosen with their neighbours in mind. Welcome to The Drugstore.

While the Reid brothers, fleshed out by long-time additional "tour guitarist" Ben Lurie and the recently-headhunted bassist and drummer from Anxious Records grungesters The Starlings, are trying to muscle up the obligatory lewd pelvic feel for "Teenage Lust"s plotline about a young girl losing her virginity, there's plenty of chance to wander around and explore.

The loo downstairs, contrary to nervous premonitions, is a model of sophistication and hygiene. Up a flight of stairs, the kitchen is pristine white and user-friendly. Somebody's cut a picture of Kylie Minogue out of a style magazine and stuck it on the wall. There's a packet of Grapefruit & Orange Herbal Tea lying open on a shelf, with some Digestives nearby and - for those occasional moments of ill health -some sachets of Lemsip.

The room where the Mary Chain are playing has large windows all along one wall, like a common room in a school. Indeed, the chairs they're sitting on are regulation school issue navy-blue plastic seats. There's a setlist on the wall of all the songs they'll be doing on the Rollercoaster tour, which they're working through.

"We're off to Scandinavia next week," says Jim, coming into the control room. "Do, a few warm-up gigs. The rehearsals are going fine but we keep getting interrupted."

Yeah, well, sorry about that. Any chance of a couple of hours of your time in that pub opposite?

"Oh aye. Erů" he pauses.

"Actually, better make it the one down on the road."

"Been barred from the other one already, then?" someone pipes up.

Jim smiles thinly.

So The Mary Chain are back.

This ghostly, sullen, black influence on pop's wan youth return to reclaim their children. Or something. Like My Bloody Valentine, whose lengthy absence just made the rumours about them that much wilder, the Mary Chain have flourished in absentia. Everyone from Ride down (and it's a long way down) has paid varyingly intense degrees of homage to the brothers, and specifically to their feedback-drenched 1985 debut album "Psychocandy".

Although William Reid, for one believes the Mary Chain will only be fully appreciated eight or nine years after they split ("like Cubism"),their influence has spread like a bush-fire to the point where "Psychocandy" is now loads of bands' Year One. It breezed to the top of most magazines end-of-the'80s polls, clearly still intoxicating listeners five years after release with its seditionary, squalling little love-hate songs.

When the Mary Chain formed, on a creed of disgust and frustration, in the appallingly shallow pop climate of '84, they were so shockingly intense that they provoked riots at gigs. At one early gig Jim's voice had screamed the word "fuck" over and over till it was time to leave the stage. The phrase "the new Sex Pistols" was used by journalists. Nihilism. The Velvet Underground. Arrogance.

In interviews thay were a pair of spindly-legged naked flames somewhere between the Hair Bear Bunch and Class War. And although they may have mellowed to such an extent that they'll now toss avancular plaudits the way of Chapterhouse and Slowdive, never forget that these two guys were as scary as hell in the summer of 1984.

It's been quite a resurrection. When the single "Reverence" went straight in the charts at number nine earlier this year, it was their highest placing since "April Skies" made number eight in 1987. "Honey's Dead" is easily their best LP since "Psychocandy". Everyone seems happy with the way they've leapt on the latest chattery typing-pool-from-hell dance beats, while sadistically cranking up the guitars to new, outrageously loud levels of obnoxiousness and ire. And the Rollercoaster tour, which has them playing after Blur, Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine every night, scarcely looks like the gesture of a band with low self-esteem.

It's been a while. Aside from the "Rollercoaster" single in the middle of 1990 (which turns up, re-recorded on "Honeys Dead") it's been pretty much all quiet on the Mary Chain front since the "Automatic" LP in late '89, while the Reid brothers sorted their heads out. It comes as some surprise to learn that they seriously considered packing it all in around 1990, bored with doing the exact same tour of the UK for the seventh or eighth time and sick of the songs they'd by then played to death. Never the most prolific of bands (four albums in the years 1985-'92) they let '91 drift by until they were happy that all the new songs complied with the rigorously-observed Mary Chain rule of thumb - that "every song we do could be released as a single". The delay has, if anything been a good thing. Now they've got company. It would be difficult to imagine a Rollercoaster tour happening in 1987.

Perry Farrell's Lollapalooza idea was the inspiration; he had actually invited them on to the bill for last years tour. They couldn't make it, but they might well be in the line-up for this year's. Their own provisional list had names like Ride, Lush and (planning a tad prematurely here, of course) Nirvana. Spiritualized, current Jim faves, made it to the last five.

At the time of writing the bands had yet to meet each other (aside from the odd social drink), and the whole thing had a strong touch of the wing and a prayer about it.

"Ask us when it's over."

Jim and William sit drinking, respectively, a pint and a half of bitter in one of the area's safer boozers. For two blokes now in their early 30's they're looking pretty good on it. Jim is wiry and intense. Everything he says - even "Anybody want anything from the bar?" - sounds like he's been seething over it for about 20 minute. William is much more relaxed and speaks in a slightly slurred, quizzical tone. They argue good-naturedly a lot, like brothers do, and cynically puncture each other's wilder examples of hyperbole. If there's a joke to be told they both want to be first to the punchline. They refer to each other as "him" and "him". They bicker over historical details like an old married couple.

What do these guys imagine the outside world sees, looking in at The Jesus And Mary Chain?

"I think everybody's got an idea of what the Mary Chain are all about," says Jim, already seething a little. "But I don't think anybody really has a clue what we're about." He thinks for a moment. "I suppose that we don't even know."

A lot of it centres on their supposed arrogance. The Rollercoaster idea takes suprisingly good care of their audience - putting together the best value show in the least awful venues they could find. Wasn't the feeling before that they were The Jesus And Fuckin' Mary Chain and if people didn't like it they knew what they could do?

"We're not really that arrogant these days," says Jim. "If anything we're probably pretty insecure and lacking in confidence. We've been arrogant. When we first came along we thought that you had to shout loud about how good you were to really grab people by the throat. I think we've now come to understand that it's music that grabs people. That was where the arrogance always came in."

Did they feel they were on some sort of crusade at times? It sometimes seemed in the mid-'80s like it was them and The Smiths against the world.

"We had very clear ideas about pop subversion," says Jim. "We really believed that if you could get a record like "You Trip Me Up" on Top of The Pops, it would seriously change the way people made music. And looking back I don't even know if that was particularly na´ve. I think if "Reverence" had been on Top of The Pops (it was banned for its blasphemous references to Jesus Christ's crucifixion) there would have been a lot of people watching that night who would have realised there are other ways of making a pop record than the Kylie Minogue way, that pop records don't really have to be moronic or crass.
"That was the idea. That you could make pure guitar noise and be pop stars and be on Top of the Pops. Because why bother doing it for some horrible little crowd at the ICA when you can be on TV playing for the whole country? Music only changes when the entire population of this country hears a noise they've never heard before."
He seethes a bit more, snatches at his glass.

The Jesus And Mary Chain used to be more of a proper band. Douglas Hart played bass and Bobby Gillespie played drums. "Psychocandy" was recorded as a four-piece. Nowadays if you read the sleeve credits on a Mary Chain record it'll tell you it was written, played and produced in its entirety by Jim and William Reid. Yet they insist on stressing how flimsy their knowledge of guitar playing is, and how despicable and appalling most musicians are. Here they are doing it again.
"It took me ages to learn the guitar," recalls William quizically, "and I think the reason was I was never really interested in guitarists. I'd never listen to guitar on a record, or the bass or the drums; it'd just be the whole sound of the record that I loved. I never had any guitar heroes."
"Guitarists are generally too respectful to the instrument, I find," says Jim, as William nods slowly. "A guitar is just like a hammer or a chisel. It's just something to get the job done. All that worshipping at the alter of the guitar is something we've never been into. Guitars look good. That's all we really care about. They look good, they make good sounds. You really don't need to sit down and learn to play the fuckin' thing. That would be three or four years of your life wasted. You should be doing a gig the day you get your first guitar."

They both claim virtual incompetence as guitarists, although Jim reckons William is the best guitarist in the world on imagination alone. It took two of them to pull off the incredible feedback noises on "Catchfire" off the new album: one to hold the guitar and one to work the tremolo pedal. In fact, Jim was holding a guitar round his neck onstage a full year before he ever learned a note on it -he'd just turn his amp up and let it feed back. The early Mary Chain gigs were thus one continuous ear-splitting feedback shriek from beginning to end.

"I think, in the studio," says William, "we're probably the least precious musicians around. If somebody in the studio can play a better guitar part than me, I'll give them the guitar. I'll give it to him," he nods at Jim, "or I'll give it to Alan Moulder (the engineer), or I'll give it too... For instance, on "Some Candy Talking", right? That bass part. He (Jim) couldn't play it. I couldn't play it. Douglas was the fuckin' bass player and he couldn't play it. We asked all the engineers in the studio can any of you lot play it, and they couldn't play it." He starts to laugh.

Jim: "It's got to be pointed out here that was an incredibly simple bass part."

"It was," laughs William, "it was so simple. Then we got in a session bassist and he couldn't play it. And in the end Dick Green from Creation Records came down and he could play it. So we were like, Quick! Run the tape!"

Jim: "We're producers, not musicians. We'll do anything to make a great record. We've been in studios in the past, with engineers and so on, and these guys can't believe we're serious. Cos we're sitting there with a bass or something, going like this," he does a fair impression of somebody who clearly has no idea how to play a bass, trying to play a bass. "And if we can't get it, we'll turn round to one of them and go, Aw look, have you any idea how this fuckin' thing works? We don't give a shit. If the record sounds good, who cares how it was made? I don't like musicians. I don't wanna end up like Clapton, wanking away at the Albert Hall like some propped up fuckin' zombie. That wasnae what the place was built for."

Eric Clapton, for the Reid brothers is clearly Satan. He's always cropping up in Mary Chain interviews as the ultimate example of hideous technical expertise - a man with the ultimate guitar vocabulary, and nothing to say. Jim finds him "disgusting".

"Musicianship's about imagination," he seethes, "not technical ability. If anything it just gets in the way. Like, Suicide could easily have been the Pet Shop Boys if they'd have gone away and learned how to play those synthesisers. But give 'em the synths - they don't know what they're doing, they'll try anything - and their first album's one of the greatest records I've ever heard."

The man is on a roll.

"I wanna see more people start bands. The more people start bands, the more good music there's gonna be around. Most people wait till they can play really well before they start bands. They don't need to. Spend an hour learning a chord or two, form a band. All you need is the confidence."

William: "When we were recording "Upside Down", our first single, there was a drum bit in the middle, on the toms, and Murray (Dalglish) our drummer in those days, couldnae play it." He looks incredulous. "It was so fuckin' simple! He kept getting it wrong. So I said, Right, oot the way. And I played it. And, like, Murray was crying. He was really upset. So I said, Well, play my fuckin' guitar then if you think you can do something good with it. Murray... God, d'ye remember him? (He turns to Jim) He was about 16, and his father thought we were ripping him off. He told Murray to demand Musicians Union rates for gigs. So Murray's asking for, like, a hundred and fifty quid a gig, and we're only getting a fiver between us!"

What's he up to now?

"I think he's working in a bank."

Jim: "We did a TV show once and Pete Townshend was on it. And he had Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd in his band at the time. And he (William) had a vintage Grestch Tennessean guitar that had this kind of horrible coffee-table colour. A classic guitar, you know?"

William: "Cost about fifteen hundred quid."

Jim: "And Dave Gilmour walks past on the way to the soundcheck and sees him sitting there with a pot of black paint, painting this wonderful vintage Grestch guitar black. Ruining the guitar, y'know? And when he sees what he's doing he goes like this (horrified look) and hurries away. Probably to tell Pete. I wish I'd had a video camera. That was one of the highlights of our career."

If they're that bad at playing guitar now ("Oh aye, we're useless"), what were they like in the summer of 1984? What, for instance, was their first gig (ten minutes supporting The Loft at Alan McGee's club The Living Room in Tottenham Court Road) like?

Jim: "It was awful."

William: "It was not."

Jim: "It was, it was shite."

William: "It was not."

Jim: "It would be easy to sit here and tell you that it was fantastic, but the truth is it was rubbish. We hadn't even bothered to rehearse, and we'd known about the gig for three weeks. We played to about 12 or 15 people."

William: "It wasn't like that."

Jim: "It was."

William: "It wasn't. You don't even remember it. It was brilliant. Every song was so fuckin' deep with noise. You felt it was coming from somewhere else. We were flying..."

How many songs would you have got through in those ten minutes?

Jim: "About 25."

William: (irritated): "No, if you remember, we used to do about four cover versions cos we didn't have any of our own songs."

Jim (peeved): "Well, why are we talking about the old days anyway?"

William: "Because there's a load of kids out there who would have been about eleven when we did that gig and it's interesting for them to hear us talking about it."

Jim: "Aye, well, I suppose so."

William: "A lot of people don't know our history. They just think we've been around forever."

Jim: "Aye. Fair enough."

What, then have been the pivotal moments in the history of the Mary Chain? The lyric of "Reverence" rates as a current favourite in the brothers' minds. Getting dragged offstage at the Venue in Glasgow in '84 and kicked out the back door with the immortal words: "You'll never work in this city again!" was an early highlight. The same promoter, incidentally, rang back six months later to re-hire them. Then there was the mad tour of Germany that same year with Bobby Gillespie on drums.

"He had a great time," recalls William. "He hadn't really wanted to join in the first place, because he'd got Primal Scream up and going. We said, Bobby, you've got to help us out here, we've got no drummer, and he was going, Aye, but I'm a guitar player, y'know, and... All I remember from those gigs is I used to kneel in front of my amp all through the gig, with my back to the audience. And I can remember looking at Bobby and just laughing our heads off for 25 minutes. Like a couple of wee kids. It was fuckin' brilliant!"

Then there were the patented Mary Chain stencilled T-shirts, as modelled by the brothers themselves. Jim's said "FUCK FUCK FUCK". William's went "FUCK C*** CANDY C***". They had vague plans for a retail chain to flood the nation with them. Jim's still a bit disappointed they didn't get it together.

For a truly cosmically crucial Mary Chain moment, however, both Jim and William agree that you'd have to backtrack considerably further, to the days of sunny East Kilbride when the band was just starting. Picture the scene. Jim couldn't sing. William couldn't play guitar. Douglas couldn't play bass. "We were shit," admits William, "but Douglas was ten times shitter." They had a gig lined up, but no idea what to do with it. They knew they wanted to make an incredible amount of noise, but they didn't know how. How did you get noise out of a guitar anyway? They didn't have a hell of a lot to go on.

What happened next was true crazy farce. William, on the lookout for FX paraphernalia, bought a Japanese-made fuzz pedal "from a guy round the corner" for ten quid.

"Plugged it in. I was using this old twin reverb amp. And..." His eyes light up at the memory. "Ohhh... You didn't even need to touch the guitar. It just went ppkkhhwwhhkkhhpppwwhhhkkkhh!!!"

"Looking back on it," says Jim laconically, "the pedal was probably broke."

William: "The pedal was broke. It was completely fucked. As I discovered when I tried to flog it to some other bloke for a tenner a few weeks later. But the noise it made. It was almost as if another member had joined the band."

So getting a broken fuzz pedal was of huge significance to the eventual career of the Mary Chain?
"Definitely," says William as Jim nods in amusement. "I'd say our whole career swings on that pedal."

Back at The Drugstore they take a stab at "Reverence". William, hunched over his guitar, is producing caterwauling grief from his strings, but sure enough looks like he only picked the instrument up that morning. The other guitarist looks far more competent. They all sit round the drumkit, grooving away. Kylie's still in the kitchen, and one sachet of Lemsip is now missing.
And as you wave adios and leave them to it, and make your way out into the mean streets below, you're already singing it softly to yourself. "I wanna die like Jesus Christ... I wanna die on a bed of spikes."
There, as thay say goes the neighbourhood.

back to articles