Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Jesus And Mary Chain
The Observer1988
by Simon Reynolds
In their promo videos the Jesus and Mary Chain aim to be as disorientating to the eye as they are to the ear. Look again at their videos (now available on a WEA compilation, The Jesus and Mary Chain), and you can follow their attempts to find a visual equivalent to the feedback in their music. Their favourite effects are out-of-focus or an aberrant sense of colour. 'Just Like Honey' has the band in the distance with a flower in the foreground, so close to the lens it's a dazzling dyslexic blur. 'Kill Surf City' is like watching a severely distressed colour TV.
More interesting than these sometimes hackneyed attempts at psychedelia is the way The Jesus and Mary Chain carry themselves in front of the camera: they come over as listless and neurasthenic. Dressed head to foot in black, with complexions as bloodless as veal, the only vivid thing about them is their spots. Their eyes refuse to meet the camera. The Jesus and Mary Chain's passivity and introversion are in stark contrast to the pop video norm of vivacity and vigour.
It's totally appropriate for their songs, which more often than not are about being immobilised by rapture or melancholy. That said, their enervated demeanour probably has a more prosaic cause: Jim and William Reid (the creative core of the Mary Chain) find making videos tedious and aggravating. "Making a video is a disgustin' thing to have to do," says Jim. "You stand there in front of a team of strangers and move your mouth to a tape of your record, and you think, ‘This isn't what we started making music for’. The only way for us to deal with video with any dignity is to refuse to make any effort."
It has been said that The Jesus and Mary Chain are remarkable for making unhealthiness sexy and glamorous in a decade in which sex-in-pop has become an aerobic and therapeutic business. "The TV version of sex repulses me," says Jim. "It's nothing to do with what I find sexy. I think the idea of people with perfect complexions and perfect bodies and perfect clothes is disgusting."
Perfection may not be what they look for, or expect, in real life, but The Jesus and Mary Chain's music does seem to be the result of a quest for 'perfect pop'. Like Morrissey of The Smiths, they spent their adolescence immersed in music, developing fierce convictions and fantasising about making a kind of ultimate pop that drew on everything they liked. The Jesus and Mary Chain's sound isn't revivalist so much as a 'never-never pop' where the Velvet Underground meets The Stooges meets Spector meets the Stones meets Brian Wilson. Their songs trigger your acquired reflexes by dint of the resonance of their time-honoured chord changes. The Jesus and Mary Chain are a post-modern group: everything is in quotation marks. They are hooked on the epic form of classic rock; not the emotional content so much as the way that content is structured and aggrandised. This is pop about pop, as opposed to an urgent communication delivered straight from the heart.
"The songs aren't stories, they're not like a diary. I don't really have a clue what our songs are about," says William. "They're usually words thrown together to fit a line or a tune. But that doesn't mean the end result is meaningless. Sometimes the way your mind works is too complex to follow. Like with ‘Some Candy Talking’, it's obvious to us now that it was a drug song and all the people who criticised us at the time were right. But at the time we were adamant that it wasn't about that at all."
The Reid brothers formed The Jesus and Mary Chain after spending five years on the dole in their home town of East Kilbride. "I tried the alternative, which was working in a factory," says Jim. "It was the worst year of my life. I spent a whole year doing nothing, but I had to look as though I was doing something. So after a year I went back on the dole. I enjoyed the idea of not taking part in the whole factory thing. I was getting a half a bag of peanuts for doing nothing, my friends were getting a whole bag of peanuts for working. I thought I had the better deal. I got more dental work done in that period than I've had since, 'cos it was for nothing."
During the five fallow years on the dole, they dreamed their dreams of perfect pop and "talked about forming a group for years". When they finally did in 1984, it was because their father had been made redundant and three males hanging around the house led to a strained atmosphere. Are they dramatically happier now their dreams have come true? "Not at all, that's the weird thing," says Jim. "What we're doing now was our fantasy when we lived in East Kilbride. But that was because then I didn't realise that what I had then was as good as what I have now. Although I had less materially, at least then there were real dreams, something to look forward to. Now I don't have any dreams: we've achieved what we're going to and, if we're lucky, we'll maintain it at the same level. There isn't a dream anymore. Or rather, the dream is less realistic now: to take what we do to millions and millions of people, to U2 scale. Now we're in the business, we can see how unrealistic the dream is...
"The whole happiness thing doesn't last. It's like a drug. You're in new circumstances and you're ecstatically happy, but then that becomes normality. What I think is that happy people are happy, whatever situation they're in. And if you're not like that, anything else is just short-term, you get used to it, you return to your normal level of despondency."
"When we started this business, we were chasing some sort of myth — the T Rex, Rolling Stones star trip," says William. "When you get behind the door, it kinda numbs you towards it." Jim adds: "I don't like meeting people whose records I've always liked... it can ruin the record for me if they turn out to be a hateful person. That has happened a couple of times — I won't name names. But when it does, you just don't play the records any more."
For a band that works within rock romanticism and its language of obsession and impulse, The Jesus and Mary Chain are curiously detached. They don't like a record's perfection to be contaminated by the fallibility of the person who made it, or by the vagaries of live performance. Rock's fantasy adolescence stood in for any real adolescence they might have had and they don't want to be disabused of the dreams acquired then. Their music is a kind of distillation of dreams, a 'perfect pop' woven from strands from all those past moments of perfection the Reid brothers like to keep pristine.

The Jesus and Mary Chain

 Observer, 29 March 1992

by Simon Reynolds

For a while it looked like The Jesus and Mary Chain had slipped into the ‘where are they now? file. "We’re lazy bastards," says William Reid, explaining the two-and-a-half-year gap between their new album, Honey’s Dead, and its predecessor, Automatic. "But in a way , it’s lazier to knock an LP out every year like some bands do," adds his brother Jim. "We take our time because we want every track on our albums to be a single."

Besides, staying out of the public eye was probably a shrewd move. From late 1989 to early 1991, The Mary Chain and their noise-pop ilk were eclipsed by the Manchester indie-dance crossover bands like Stone Roses. Jim Reid agrees: "I think that if we’d brought out this record a year ago there wouldn’t have been as much interest as there is now."

While many of their erstwhile kindred spirits were converted to rave culture (most notably Primal Scream, whose frontman Bobby Gillespie once drummed for The Mary Chain), the Reid brothers kept their distance from house music’s matey euphoria. "We’re too sure of what we’re about to be affected by fashion," says Jim. "And there’s a lot about the rave scene I don’t like – the return of hippie ideas, the phoney positivity. Humans aren’t going to evolve into a higher life form in three years, just because everyone’s swallowed a ton of Ecstasy."
Nonetheless, rap and house have had a subliminal influence on The Mary Chain. Their new material is still thick with their trade mark, heavily-distorted guitar, but it is more groove-orientated. The recent Top Ten single, ‘Reverence’, doused a churning hip-hop beat with caustic Stooges fuzz guitar.
"You can’t ignore what’s happened in the last few years," explains Jim. "We realise that we’ve always lacked a decent rhythm section." But then, part of the stylised charm of The Mary Chain’s classic 1985 debut ‘Psychocandy’ was the rudimentary nature of its backbeat. "Rhythm never mattered to us before. Now we want our records to sound stronger."
Since ‘Madchester’ blew over, the British rock climate has changed in the Reid Bros’ favour. Last year was dominated by an upsurge of noisepop bands influenced by The Mary Chain, whether directly or indirectly (via the brilliantly innovative My Bloody Valentine, who began as J&MC copyists).
The Mary Chain’s current ‘Rollercoaster’ tour (whose bill includes My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr and Blur), highlights their elder statesman role. "The idea of our band was always meant to alert people to the fact that you didn’t need to be a guitar virtuoso to make great music. Imagination is more important than expertise. The fact that when we made ‘Psychocandy’ we’d barely been playing guitar for weeks, inspired a lot of people to form their own bands."
‘Rollercoaster’ has been widely compared to 1991’s Lollapalooza tour; where seven top alternative groups crisscrossed the US to reach an audience of half a million. But while Lollapalooza had vague counter-cultural pretensions, the Reid Bros see ‘Rollercoaster’ as return to "the package tour of the punk era, when The Clash, Buzzcocks and Slits would play on the same bill."
Coincidentally, The Mary Chain look set to play on this summer’s Lollapalooza sequel, as a first step in a long overdue bid to conquer the US. The J&MC have signed to Def America, the label founded by Rick Rubin, whose previous successes include The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, and the Black Crowes.
The Jesus and Mary Chain helped invent the aesthetic that now dominates alternative music: ‘record collection rock’. Drawing on their enormous and eclectic musical knowledge, groups such as Primal Scream and Teenage Fanclub weave a sonic quilt of reworked elements from rock history. Jim Reid reckons rock has always worked like that: "I don’t think I’ve ever heard a record that I haven’t understood in terms of its reference points and influences." But while The Rolling Stones, say, started as obsessive collectors of ancient blues records, they also, intentionally or not, provided a soundtrack for their times. Rock bands today tend to reflect only their love of rock history.
Another problem with The Mary Chain’s rock-for—rock’s sake aesthetic is that their lyrics often appear to be a mosaic of phrases chosen because they sound cool or are vaguely sensational (as in "I wanna die like Jesus Christ" on ‘Reverence’), rather than to communicate anything. The result is music that is spectacular rather than involving.

"The lyrics are probably too close to us to explain," says Jim. "And I don’t think that because you’ve written a song, that gives you the right to tell somebody what it means. Our songs are pretty abstract and people probably get a loads of different ideas of what they’re about. And that’s fine by us."

Friday, December 5, 2014

Art Review, 2006

by Simon Reynolds

From the start, The Residents saw themselves as a sound and vision entity. Way ahead of punk’s indie label revolution, the San Francisco group set up not just their own record company, Ralph, but a do-it-all-yourself production facility, which included, alongside studios for recording music and graphic design, a huge sound-stage for making films.

Before they’d even released their debut album, 1973’s Meet the Residents, the band had embarked on a movie, Vileness Fats, intended to be the world’s first fourteen-hour musical-comedy-romance set in a world of one-armed midgets. The project was pursued fitfully for four years only to be abandoned in 1976. But the warehouse HQ on Grove Street did spew out a stream of innovative and derangingly strange music videos and short films, and these, along with footage from the aborted Vileness, are now being honored with a MOMA retrospective.

Mixed-media performance and audio-visual malarkey were the norm in San Francisco’s postpunk scene. Tuxedomoon, an electronic cabaret outfit who recorded for Ralph,
came out of Sixties underground theater, with one member having belonged to the
legendary all-gay troupe Angels of Light,, while SF industrial band Factrix staged mind-bending spectacles in collaboration with local performance artists like Monte Cazazza and Mark Pauline (the robot-builder and pyrotechnician behind Survival Research Laboratories). Punk certainly opened things up and created a new climate in which bands like the Residents and Devo could find an audience. But in truth the Residents were post-psychedelic rather than post-punk: the group had been in existence since the late Sixties and had arrived in San Francisco from their native Louisiana
just as the high tide of acid rock was ebbing. According to Residents’ spokesman Hardy Fox (the group itself shuns interviews and has preserved its anonymity for over thirty years), the band “sprang from the fact that psychedelia dead-ended. The people who were doing experiments in that direction stopped when they had barely scratched the surface.”  Those “people” included the Beatles, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart. Undeterred by the fact that they could barely play instruments, The Residents wanted to pick up where their freak heroes had left off. And, whether onstage or in their videos, they wanted imagery as weird and wigged-out as their sounds.

The visual work does indeed closely mirror the arc of the Residents music, (de)evolving from a lo-fi yet genuinely uncanny neo-Dada to a high-tech but increasingly sterile kookiness. The early “promos”--scare quotes because when they were made in the late Seventies there were hardly any places on American TV that showed videos and nobody, except maybe the cable TV fringe, would dare to show the Residents films--have a macabre whimsy and gorgeous grotesqueness that at various points brings to mind the Quay Bros, Eraserhead (a late-night movie-house fave with the San Francisco postpunk set) and the Anglo-surrealist children’s animations made by Postgate Films (The Clangers, Bagpuss, Pogle’s Wood).  In  Third Reich’n’Roll (1976) the Residents cavort in Ku Klux Klan-like head-dresses made from newspaper, pounding percussion as their mutant cover of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances” plays. 

The four One-Minute Movies for the sixty-second tracks off 1980’s Commercial Album are visual haikus as exquisitely eerie as the tunes, full of images that linger in the memory: a female corpse cocooned in cob-webs, a rheumy-eyed geezer watching TV on a bare mattress who suddenly levitates to the ceiling, a dead pig with roman candles stuck between its trotters. In several of these micro-movies, The Residents appear in their famous Fred Astaire meets Un Chien Andalou image: the elegance of top-hats, tails, and canes disrupted by the gigantic, veiny eyeballs that completely replace their heads. A fractured tale about a mis-shapen misfit with  Zelig-like traits of recurrence and ubiquity, Hello Skinny (1980) pays homage to Chris Marker’s La Jetée with its black-and-white stills, the  collaging of photographic and drawn material further recalling Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python.

The Residents had a parasitical-cum-parodic relationship with mainstream pop culture, which they regarded as a new form of totalitarianism, evil because of its banality. Hence the love/hate for the Fab Four expressed in the cover of their debut album, a defacement of Meet the Beatles’s famous cover; hence Third Reich ‘n’Roll’s  transformation of the entirety of Sixties pop into the soundtrack for Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. By the mid-Eighties, the group launched a massive project, the American Composers Series, 20 albums across 20 years that would honor-through-vandalisation the work of figures like George Gershwin and Hank Williams.  (In the event, the series sputtered to a halt after just two records). It’s as this point that things start to go awry with the Residents output, sonically and visually: the irritatingly goofy cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” is out-dulled only by the uninspired animations that accompany it, while The Residents’ video for their take on John Philip Sousa "Stars and Stripes” is a smug and clunky exercise in anti-militarism (World War III rendered as an amusement arcade shooting gallery designed by Lari Pitman and Disney: clown-face bombs, rabbits riding on top of intercontinental missles, and so forth).

What the later Residents work, like the flat and strangely static 2000 video for “Constantinople”, shows is that 98 times out of 100, analog trumps digital. Computers can create the most superficially “fanstastical” images, but because you literally can’t believe your eyes, there’s no sense of the unheimlich, none of that “dreamed” quality possessed by the Residents’ early work, made when the group had to get by with hand-made props, stage sets, and costumes, with lighting and camera-work, and above all with their own bodies. 

Melody Maker, 1989? 1990?

by Simon Reynolds

     From the start, The Residents had a parasitical relation
to the pop culture that surrounded them. The sleevenotes to
"Meet The Residents", their 1973 debut, describes how they
spent the Sixties scavenging together a collection of sonic
detritus: "cassettes of soldiers in Vietnam singing songs
with impromptu instrumentation... reels from second hand
shops... sound effects and bird call collections from garage
sales ... even a few bootleg tapes of well-known pop artists
going avant-garde between takes". They were samplers long
before the invention of the Sampler.

     The early Seventies were a time when pop culture had
become so pervasive, so totalitarian, that its myths and
protocols began to replace 'real life' as pop's subject
matter.  Glam was one version of this meta-pop practice
(whether self-consciously articulated, as with Ziggy Stardust
and Roxy Music, or brutally vacant as with Glitter). The
avant-garde vandalism of The Residents was another. "Meet The
Residents", with its grotequely defaced Beatles cover, was
the birth of what has since become practically a genre of
plagiarism and misappropriation (Culturcide, Pussy Calore,
Laibach etc). Musically, "Meet The Residents" makes me think
of The Band, of all people: a polyglot commingling of
American traditional musics (R&B, proto-funk, New Orleans
jazz). But in The Residents' case, it's as though this
poly-rhythmic bouillabaise is being played on invented
instruments, or has been adapted to non-Western scales with
only partial success.

     "Third Reich 'N' Roll" (1976) develops The Residents
idea of the totalitarian nature of pop's rise to the level of
this planet's Esperanto of desire. It turns Sixties pop into
the soundtrack for Hitler's Blitzkrieg. "Swastikas On Parade"
is a segue of bubblegum classics like "Psychotic Reaction",
"The Letter", "Land Of 1000 Dances", competing with
divebombing Stukas, sirens, and machine gun fire, plus free
jazz gibberish and giddy constellations of Sun Ra synth.
"Hitler Was A Vegetarian" is a more downered trek through
songs like "96 Tears", "It's My Party", "Pushing Too Hard"
and "Gloria". Imagine The Clangers aspiring to the poignancyt
of Erik Satie.  "Third Reich 'N' Roll' is probably The
Residents' masterpiece.  As an added bonus, the CD includes
their hell-spawn (per)version of "Satisfaction", and "Beyond
The Valley Of A Day In The Life", in which "samples" of the
Beatles' wiggier moments are reconstructed into a wholly new

     "Fingerprince" (also from 1976) is re-issued for the
first time in its full length. Along with the Hawaian guitar
pastiche "You yesyesyes" and the hilarious "Godsong" ("all
that God wanted to be/Just a normal deity"), there's two
pieces of particular interest. "Jealous Westinghouse" ,
described as a mini-opera, consists of electro pulsations
like Acid House at 16 rpm and doggerel dialogue in a Muppet
hillybilly twang. "Six Things To A Cycle" (a ballet) is an
atypically tropical suite of of crazy percussion and
Creatures campanology.

     "Duck Stab" (1977) is another fine collection of
25th Century nursery rhymes, conceived in the spirit of Dada
and Alfred Jarry. It's accompanied by "Goosembump", a
project undertaken with Snakefinger, whose aim was to bring
to the fore the macabre overtones latent in kindergarten
ditties. All the sounds were produced from childrens' toys,
but were drastically peculiarised by "adult studio toys". The
result is a suite of nauseatingly rubberised nursery rhymes,
that at times ("Three Blind Mice") are creepy almost
beyond endurance.

     Even more unsettling is "Eskimo", The Residents' 1979
elegy for the extinct Inoit culture of the now-thorougly
Americanised Eskimo. While their liberal tolerance for Inoit
rituals (e.g. bathing in urine, exterminating all superfluous
newborn girls) is a tad dubious, the album is a superb sonic
evocation of the irreconcilably alien Arctic lifestyle
(walrus hunts conducted in conditions of
disorientating white-out, 'arctic hysteria' induced by the
sensory deprivation of the long winter darkness).

     "Not Available" was actually recorded in '74, in
accordance with N. Senada's "theory of obscurity": the idea
that creating music in the understanding that it is never to
be heard, is the only way to avoid subconsiously pandering to
an audience. But Ralph Records slipped it out surreptitiously
in '78, when The Residents were falling behind their deadline
for "Eskimo". It's not that radical, actually: its cheapo,
pre-programmed beats making it a distant, Dadaist cousin to
shopping mall or funeral parlour muzak.

     "The Commercial Album" (1980) is probably the best
introduction to The Residents. It consists of 40 pieces each
exactly one minute long. The idea is that, since most pop
songs contain a verse and chorus repeated three times within
three minutes, if you condense that span down to one minute
(the length of most commericals) you get the kernel of the
song without the extraneous matter. Here, the result is a
collection of 'jingles' as intricate and succint as a haiku
poem (one of the prettiest is called "Japanese Watercolour")
and a sound somewhere between the Human League circa
"Reproduction" and the Suicide of "Dance".

     After "The Commercial Album", The Residents seemed to
lose their way. "The Mole Trilogy" and its sequels "Tunes of
Two Cities" and "The Big Bubble" amount to an impenetrable
allegory of something-or-other. Only the most dedicated fan
could be bothered to slog through through the dank, drab
textures of "The Mole Trilogy" to reach enlightenment. Then
there's the flaccid "God In Three Persons", a couple of live
albums, and a fine collection of material by Snakefinger
(their favourite collaborator, the now deceased guitarist
Philip Lithman).

The "American Composers Series" (The
Residents 20 year project of tributes) has brought back a
measure of rejuvenation to their sound. It seems we can
apprehend more clearly the nature of their alien-ating method
when they bring their warp factor to bear on something we
know already.  The mystery continues...