THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN: LET’S STOP MOANING ABOUT IT
illustration by angie samblotte
In the fall of 1985, “We Are The World” and Whitney Houston were dominating the charts, and then out of nowhere came the Jesus and Mary Chain on a mission to destroy rock ‘n’ roll in order to save it. Their debut Psychocandy started riots—or at least really enthusiastic fights—when it came out thirty years ago, and now they’re touring an anniversary set to celebrate the power of negative thinking. Co-founder Jim Reid reveals the worst decision the band ever made, and explains how to disgust a record company exec without even trying. They’ll be playing the Glass House, the Fonda and FYF Fest. This interview by Kristina Benson.
Your first shows in Los Angeles were in Huntington Beach in the winter of 1985. That was your first time in California. Did you go to Brian Wilson’s old house?
Jim Reid (vocals/guitar): When we got to Los Angeles in 1985, we were looking for a version of America, a version of Los Angeles, that didn’t really exist anymore. Having said that, it didn’t really disappoint us. For us it was like walking about in a movie. You grew up watching it on TV. I can’t remember if it was on that particular trip, but I remember I was quite into Lenny Bruce at the time and I went to the house he used to live in. I was reading Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce by Albert Goldman, and I went to the outside of the house and I picked a dandelion from the curb outside the house of Lenny Bruce and I still got it in a jar.
You were so confident back then. There’s a video of a journalist asking why people love you and you say because you’re the best!
Jim Reid: It was bravado rather than confidence. It was really the opposite of confidence, when you’re really not sure of where your place is in the scheme of things or you kind of decide you’ll kind of bluff it a bit and that’s the way it comes across. We hadn’t a clue what we were doing, we didn’t know what we were up against, and we just talked it up a bit—it’s as simple as that.
It’s very convincing.
Jim Reid: We were terrified.
There’s an interview where you say that you’ll be bigger than the Rolling Stones.And then [drummer and later Primal Scream founder] Bobby [Gillespie] starts making out with his girlfriend.
Jim Reid: Oh God. I think we got our confidence from inside of a bottle back then. It’s hugely embarrassing! That particular interview follows us around. I know it came out on our reissues. But even before that, people would talk about it. At the time, someone said like, ‘The guy that is going to interview you, he’s a massive Joy Division fan, so whatever you do, don’t upset him.’ That was like a red flag to a bull, so we went out and said Joy Division were dreadful and he was certainly disgusted. I was a massive Joy Division fan myself, but I didn’t realize I’d be talking about these things thirty years later.
Jesus and Mary Chain basically broke up in L.A. in 1999—and didn’t [your brother] Jim Reid: William get arrested after the last show for trying to fight a cop?
William got absolutely wasted, I think. He got chucked in the drunk tank because he was drunk and disorderly. We were a bit out of control at that time. Unfortunately the last time we played in L.A. is what broke the band up. We played at the House of Blues and the hostility between me and William was barely contained … and then it wasn’t contained, and we went for each other on stage, and that was the end. We broke up after that.
When you went to Warner for Psychocandy—or a hybrid of Warner and an indie called Blanco y Negro—one of the marketing people told a journalist that you were ‘one of the most revolting and disgusting groups he’d ever seen.’ I imagine he’d seen a lot of revolting and disgusting groups, being a record executive. What about you was so extra disgusting?
Jim Reid: It was the 80s! Thatcher’s Britain! Everybody that worked for a record company then was dressed up in Armani suits. We probably spilt a bit of egg salad on the trouser leg of his Armani suit. They weren’t used to little working class kids that didn’t come from Chelsea or the King’s Road. We were disgusting to them because they were disgusted by anything, almost. It says more about the record company than it does about us.
How many albums did you have to sell before they started to pretend to like you?
Jim Reid: They never pretended to like us. It was always a kind of an us-and-them attitude. And we more or less we were signed to Warner. I mean the Blanco y Negro thing … it was Warner, any way you want to dress it up. And we had Jeff Travis [of Rough Trade] in the middle. He was kind of the guy that was the interpreter, if you know what I mean. They never understood us—they barely tolerated us—and it was always a constant struggle to get what you wanted from them. It was not an ideal situation. If I could go back and do it again, I’d probably do it differently. That was the biggest mistake we made of our careers, was to sign to Warner Brothers. records. At the time, we grew up watching Top of the Pops on TV. It was a national institution in the U.K. And watching David Bowie and Mark Bolan on ‘Top of the Pops,’ we thought, ‘That’s what we want to do.’ That was at the time of the indie scene in the U.K., but we had ideas above and beyond that. We wanted to be like T. Rex, we wanted to be David Bowie, and we thought you had to go through a major label to get to that. Boy, were we wrong. It was never going to happen. We just existed in the wrong decade for that kind of pop stardom. We did all right, but it was a constant struggle. Those people at Warner Brothers didn’t have a clue about what we were trying to do. They were selling music the way other people sell cheeseburgers. We didn’t quite see it that way.
What do you think people may have missed on Psychocandy? What wasn’t really appreciated at the time?
Jim Reid: The record has really been pulled apart. I suppose just that it is a pop record as much as it is a noise record. Everything is in the title: ‘Psycho candy.’ It’s a one-word review of the contents of the record.
You said being in a band that nobody knows about is the worst thing that could happen. Was that why you wanted to be famous?
Jim Reid: That kind of goes without saying, really. Same with anything. If you’re going to write a book and no one’s going to read it … I can’t think of a sadder thing than that. You’re going to make a record that no one ever hears? I mean, that’s terrible! If you’re going to be in a band and no one knows you exist, it’s almost like, ‘What’s the point?’ And that’s kind of like what I was saying about why we were kind of pushing against the indie scene. It seemed like a celebration of failure—it seemed like bands were happy to play in a room above a pub for twenty of their friends. To us that just seemed like, ‘Why? Why bother?’ The idea of being in a band that no one knows about, to me, is just depressing beyond words really. We felt pretty good about what we were doing and we wanted as many people as possible to hear what we were doing, and that’s it.
At the same time, the music you were making—it’s Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain, and ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ is topping the charts. And there you are making out with your girlfriends on TV and telling journalists that Joy Division is rubbish and everything is terrible. How were you reconciling this thing where you wanted to be famous, but you also wanted to be negative and make hostile music?
Jim Reid: Because we weren’t happy with the state of music at that time. We actually were naïve enough to think we could actually change it. We thought that if people could hear an alternative to the kind of crap coming out the radio at that time, they would buy into it. We felt if we could get our music to a certain level, then after that, it would happen by itself. We thought that people bought all that crap in the mid-80s because they didn’t hear anything else: ‘Well, yeah—rock ’n’ roll music has lost its teeth! Let’s give it a bit of attitude again! There are people making all these records and videos where they’re all standing holding guitars but you can’t fucking well hear them so why don’t they turn the guitars up?’ We thought that somehow rock music had lost its way and we wanted to put some of the values back into it that we’d grown up with. We’d just gone through the whole punk thing and it seemed to go from punk attitude to the opposite of the punk attitude within a couple years. We couldn’t understand what had happened so we were trying to set things right. We were spectacularly naïve. We really did think that the music we were making was good music, so therefore we felt it would be played on the radio—and even to this day, if it had been played on the radio the story might have been different. We were never going to change the music scene in the mid-80s, but we could have changed it a little if we’d been given a bit more opportunity. Unfortunately the attitude of these idiots that worked at Warner went right across the whole industry. The people who chose what got played on the radio or MTV … that’s just how music executives were in the mid-80s. We were a tiny little speck that really couldn’t have made much of a difference. But we had fun trying!
In the U.S. we’re constantly encouraged to be positive, but in the past you were relentlessly negative, to the point that you spoke more about what you didn’t like than what you did. So you’ve had a fruitful and productive career due to negativity—
Jim Reid: That’s the reason why we came up with title for our box set. The Power of Negative Thinking. It was a reaction to all that kind of Oprah Winfrey-ism, positive attitude, positive outcome … that’s utter bollocks. That’s bullshit. That’s not true. It’s a reaction against that—most of what spurred us to get up and get off our asses to actually do anything has been how bad things have been. It was more driven by being disgusted with the music and the state of the music scene than being inspired by other great music. We couldn’t stand the records we were hearing on the radio. Even on the pages of the NME: ‘Why are Kid Creole and the fucking Coconuts on the cover of the NME? Let’s sort this out, let’s stop moaning about it and get up and fix it!’ That’s what we were doing. The Power of Negative Thinking.
THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN PERFORM PSYCHOCANDY WITH SUPPORT FROM COLD CAVE ON THURS., AUG. 13, AT THE GLASS HOUSE, 200 W. 2ND ST., POMONA. 8 PM / SOLD OUT / ALL AGES. WED., AUG. 19, AT THE HENRY FONDA THEATRE, 6126 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., HOLLYWOOD. 8 PM / $35 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. AND ALSO WITH FRANK OCEAN, MORRISSEY, D’ANGELO AND MORE AT FYF FEST ON SAT., AUG. 22, AND SUN., AUG. 23, AT THE L.A. SPORTS ARENA AND EXPOSITION PARK, 3939 S. FIGUEROA ST., LOS ANGELES. FYFFEST.COM FOR ALL INFO.