Amy Britton considers the cultural, musical and political importance of one of the great albums of the 1980s

The closing of 1985 was a great time for Scotland, securing a world cup place and unleashing one of their greatest musical acts on the world. There were also flickers of hope for the UK as a whole in the socio-political world, as the CBI called for the government to invest £1billion in unemployment relief, a move which would cut unemployment by 350,000. The latest MORI polls also showed Conservative and Labour support were almost equal at 36% - the future was not clear. How appropriate, then, that this aforementioned great band would make music which famously lacked clarity. This band was the Jesus and Mary Chain, who had already come to attention with “Upside Down”, the first ever release for the iconic Creation records.



Considering the wave of unemployment, they were perfectly qualified to provide a relevant soundtrack, given that the heart of the band, brothers Jim and William Reid, had spent five years on the dole. This was time well spent however, as it was used writing and recording, as well as constructing the moody gothic image of the band.

The early sound was fairly conventional, but the introduction of heavy walls of feedback marked them out. William Reid claimed “we began using noise and feedback (because) we wanted to make records which sounded different.” Early live shows continued this route of unconventionality - Jim Reid’s guitar was left out of tune, drummer Murray Dalglish’s drum kit was limited to two drums, and bassist Douglas Hart’s bass had just two strings. To quote Hart, “that’s the two I use, what's the fucking point in spending money on another two? Two is enough.” This was everything Thatcherite Britain was against - minimalism, unconventionality and a refusal to succumb to spending. However, the Conservative government itself was in as much chaotic disarray as the sounds of the Jesus and Mary Chain – on 22nd November, Thatcher was urged by her MP’s to call a general election for 1987, even though the deadline was not until 1988.

By the time “Psychocandy” was released, the line-up of the Jesus and Mary Chain had changed, with Murray Dalglish being replaced by Bobby Gillespie. The band had also courted their fair share of controversy by this stage, with them all being arrested for the possession of amphetamines and Jim Reid having confessed to use of LSD. In the indie world, however, controversy is no barrier to success – “Upside Down” had topped the indie chart and stayed there for 76 weeks, thus making it one of the biggest selling indie singles of the 1980’s with sales standing at around 35,000. But, as successful as their music might have been, how appropriate was it for the time? In the political world, Labour leader Neil Kinnock had suspended the Liverpool District Labour Party amid allegations that the revolutionary socialist group Militant Tendency was operating behind it. Liverpool had gathered itself something of a reputation as a stand-alone socialist city, but its council was truly supportive of its people – but clearly anything with “revolutionary” tendencies was to be feared, even if there was scope for postitive outcome. At least revolutionary music was thriving as revolutionary politics was being oppressed.

The Jesus and Mary Chain were breaking all the rules, with their amphetamine-fuelled twenty minute gigs to small audiences. Events at the gigs quickly became exaggerated by the tabloid press – The Sun claimed that their gigs descended into riots, and ran an article focusing on the drugs and violence aspects of the band, labelling them “The New Sex Pistols.” As with politics, the press was whipping up fear over the revolutionary once again. Liverpool’s council may have been hitting the headlines for its broad horizons, but other local councils were proving quite different to this as several banned the Jesus and Mary Chain from playing in their area.

Such an enormous impact before the release of their debut album meant that they had something to live up to. Luckily, when it arrived it did not disappoint. Very much the Reid brothers album (the cover sleeve features just the two of them) it is an intriguing blend of Spector-inspired harmonies with the walls of feedback that had become synonymous with their legendary gigs. The blurry photography and crackly writing on the inner sleeve reflect the albums sound better than any written description could. The following month, Bobby Gillespie left the band to focus on his own band Primal Scream, but his drumming style is an important, key part of the album.

In spite of the brilliance of the album, it was still the gigs which gathered the most attention, with Alan McGee saying of one particularly riotous gig, “this is truly art as terrorism.” Whilst the album is peppered with sweet imagery – candy and honey – the impact of this band in a world apparently frightened of progress was anything but a sugar coating.

Amy Britton


From a future book on key albums of the Thatcherite age. Read Rosey's piece about The Jesus and Mary Chain in the R*E*P*E*A*T Book - details here