The most gripping rock 'n' roll connects so strongly that it feels like it is being pumped directly into your bloodstream. But not every great record carries the universality of tone to connect with amass audience in the manner of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson or U2. The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Psychocandy" is one of those albums that people either love or hate. Mostly hate.
Numerous critics in Britain and the United States described the 1985 LP as one of the most original and compelling works of the '80s, but the band was the object of more ridicule and scorn than perhaps any critic's favorite since the Sex Pistols.
Most radio programmers and rock fans were repelled by the Scottish band's aggressive use of guitar feedback, and the Jesus and the Mary Chain's live shows didn't help soften feelings. Lead singer Jim Reid frequently staggered about on stage or sang with his back to the audience. Shows rarely lasted more than 20 minutes, causing occasional outbursts that were frequently exaggerated into "riots" by the British press.
So there weren't many tears shed when the Mary Chain went into hiding early last year, releasing just one single in the past 12 months. Most rock fans viewed the feedback and abbreviated shows as gimmicks, and they figured the Mary Chain had used up its tricks. Good riddance.
Jim and William Reid, the brothers who founded the band four years ago in their native Glasgow are preparing for a counteroffensive. They've returned to the recording studio and expect to release a single next month, with an album (on Warner Bros.)to follow this summer. And guess what:no feedback this time.
Don't, however, take this musical change as a sign of surrender.
"We're not changing our music because we think people will like us better without the feedback," said Jim Reid, 25. "We are changing because we've changed. We want to do different things now. To me, 'Psychocandy' is the best record that has ever been made, but there is no point in trying to make it again. If we went on like that forever, it would be pathetic."
The Reid brothers, shy and soft-spoken, aren't natural performers and they aren't any more natural during interviews. They seemed so hesitant at the start of the interview that it wouldn't have been surprising for them again to take their leave after 20 minutes.
Nestled on a couch in the offices of Rough Trade Records here just before noon, the pair seemed to tune in and out of the conversation, like distant stations on a failing radio.
They seemed wary, taking turns at keeping the conversation going--as tag-team partners would. Both seemed angry about the way the British pop press has treated them: hailing them at first as exciting new forces, then downgrading them as passe.
"It was the year of guitar groups in 1986 in the British press," said Jim Reid, "so they liked us. Now, it's the year of American dance music
But they seemed most disturbed by descriptions of what they described as minor disturbances at a few early shows as "riots."
"There would be a little thing that happened at a show and the press would use the word riot ," said guitarist William Reid, 28. "It gave us the image of being stupid or manipulative, like this group that does anything to get in the papers."
But why just 20-minute shows?
"It was never a strategy to get people angry or draw attention to ourselves," Jim Reid said. "We just stay on stage until we feel the boredom set in ... until it becomes dull for us. We didn't get out our watches and say, 'Oh, it has been 20 minutes. Time to go.' The funny thing is everyone is always saying how rock 'n' roll is supposed to be fresh and spontaneous, so when someone is spontaneous, everyone gets up in arms."
"Just Like Honey"--the opening track on "Psychocandy"--is a glorious piece of pop music. It opens with the echo-dominated drum sound and haunting romanticism of old Phil Spector classics like "Be My Baby." But Jim Reid's understated vocal suggests the wary obsession of the Velvet Underground.
William Reid's guitar feedback is artfully layered on top of the sound to give the whole thing an unreal feeling--as if underscoring the difficulty of maintaining one's emotional balance in the face of romantic compulsion.
Elsewhere, however, the music on "Psychocandy" is as shrill and unsettling as the chain-saw maneuvers of Einsturzende Neubauten, the German machine-shop group. It is this "noise" that is at the heart of the Mary Chain controversy.
"The truth is we couldn't play our instruments and we wanted to find a way to make the songs more exciting," said William. "It was like, 'How are we going to make these pieces of pop sound like a piece of art?' The white noise and feedback just sort of evolved. We've always considered songwriting our main strength."
The irony, William said, is that the absence of feedback on the new album will lead to another controversy.
"I don't know what is going to happen when this LP comes out because it know it is going to upset a lot of people who loved 'Psychocandy,"' he said. "Compared to (the first album), the new one is going to be a fairly slick production. I don't mean we are going to have an orchestra with us or anything, just a better drum sound, better recorded bass, better recorded guitar."
Why hasn't the band returned with an album sooner?
"Songwriting," Jim said.
"We had three years worth of songs for 'Psychocandy,' and we just didn't have enough new songs ready until now. Most groups try to work by a schedule, regardless of how many songs they've got. You should release records when you've got one ready, when you've got something to say. otherwise you just keep your mouth shut."
The Reids are looking forward to touring after the album is finished, but they aren't making any promises about the length of the shows.
"If someone comes to see us, they see how we feel on that particular evening," said Jim Reid. "They just seem to get upset that we don't do the little stuff between songs, the 'Here's a new song' or 'Are you having a good time tonight?' I hate all that."
The singer admitted there have been nights when he has walked on stage intoxicated. "I'm not a natural performer ... a Mick Jagger. I feel like (an idiot) on stage, so I try to make it for it sometimes by taking something and sometimes you don't judge properly."
One source of anxiety, he said, is the difficulty of re-creating live the finely layed guitar textures found on the "Psychocandy" album.
"Any (track)on the album has at least eight guitar tracks on it," Jim Reid said. "You go on stage with one guitar and an idiot sound system and you start out playing what you know is great record and you listen to what's coming out of the speakers and you almost feel like saying, 'I'm sorry. That's crap. Go back and listen to the record.' I've often thought some nights that if I could get away with it, I'd mime to our records."
But there have been some nights, he said, where the sound has worked.
"Some of the gigs have been fantastic ... among the best nights of my life. You are standing there in the middle (of the speakers)and you hear this sound and you think, 'My God, that's us doing this,' and you feel unbelievably proud. When this happens, you never want to leave the stage.
William looked up when his brother said an hour and a half.
"Well," he corrected, smiling, "maybe an hour. . . ."