Psychocandy, Darklands, Automatic, Honey's Dead, Stoned & Dethroned

"More important than the Sex Pistols!" screamed many journalists when the Jesus and Mary Chain surfaced in 1984. The British music-press hype machine was well-oiled, but Glasgow, Scotland's Mary Chain (led by brothers Jim and William Reid) were a prototype of what has become the UK knee-jerk "Next Big Thing": an initially off-putting, ironic sound, hyperstylized look, and prima-donna tendencies as proof of "crazy rock 'n' roll" attitude.

This scribe saw a Cleveland gig on that first Mary Chain tour; the band's disinterested shoe gazing has since been misappropriated by many self-important indie acts. A friend's group opened the show and told tales of the Mary Chain showing up late, demanding a case of fancy beer 15 minutes before set time, and emphasizing in their contract that they only do 45 minutes. And at 45 minutes on the dime, the Chain switched off the guitar pedals midbridge and walked off.

Ah, but what they did before slumping from the stage was impressive. The Mary Chain combined two prevailing underground-rock godhead growls—the Ramones' irreverently rejiggered teen pop and the Velvet Underground's white noise—splitting the floorboards 'neath your feet, though you barely noticed because the melodies had you floating.

The Mary Chain made an amazing first impression. And, as evidenced by Rhino's reissues of the first five Mary Chain albums (padded with three videos per disc), the band's initial hype didn't secure U.S. chart success, but they nevertheless became one of the most influential modern rock units.

That influence is mainly due to a superb debut, Psychocandy (1985). The theretofore unplundered depressive melancholy of doo-wop melodies was fed through Phil Spector's wall of sound, reimagined as angsty squalls of feedback, then zombified by a Joy Divison–esque cryptic moan. It sounded like Brian Wilson in a goth trench coat harmonizing inside a turbine.

Darklands (1987) was a letdown, not so much for the songwriting (which was less obviously referential), but because of the usual burnout groups experience after a perfect debut. The Mary Chain tamped down the feedback, sweetened up the vaguely violent lyrical bent, and, if the music seemed milder, things were actually getting groovier. Witness the Day-Glo glam of Automatic (1989). The most blatantly fun and rocking record of their oeuvre, it's also their most original, fusing Psychocandy's fearsome feedback and Darklands' rainy-day hooks while pushing to the fore the '60s go-go-boots shake that was always in their Doc Marten souls. Pixies even covered "Head On" soon after; the Chain were in their rock-star prime.

All of which makes Honey's Dead (1992) an odd bump. Still groovy, with more of the electro drum sounds of Automatic, and a slight return to sustained feedback and darker wordplay, the album should've been the next master move, but it sits stale, perhaps because its beats are beholden to the Madchester acid-house scene then popular in Britain.

Midtempo acoustic-strummed romance rears its heart in bits of Honey's Dead, and would be the sole sound of Stoned & Dethroned (1994). Their biggest U.S. hit, "Sometimes Always" (featuring Mazzy Star vocalist Hope Sandoval), was a gorgeous statement, and an exceptionally vindictive thing to hear on American radio. Stoned & Dethroned is a textbook example of how to make your band's sound gracefully mature. But it nonetheless felt like a ride into the sunset.

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It wasn't, though, as the band resurfaced four years later with a decent Sub Pop album (Munki, 1998), then folded in 1999. However, the Mary Chain catalog continues to intrigue moody youth: My Bloody Valentine drew inspiration from their swirling, feedback-laden pop; Black Rebel Motorcycle Club began as practically a tribute act; Brian Jonestown Massacre, Reigning Sound, and the Kills owe them a nod; and the Raveonettes have made a career out of about six Mary Chain tunes. Even quieter candy peddlers like the Shins or Arcade Fire whip up heart-swelling tumult in the fashion of the Reid brothers.

Again, it's easy to forget how derided Phil Spector–cum–Beach Boys teen melodrama was by the mid-'80s. The Jesus and Mary Chain dug up that corpse and shot it through with a postmodern distorted energy, thus saving pure pop for an agitated millennium. Damn if they haven't ended up nearly as important as the Sex Pistols.

editor@thestranger.com