The Jesus and Mary Chain - Honey’s Dead
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I haven’t cut my hair in so long that it’s starting to look more like William Reid’s every day and, honestly, I couldn’t be more pleased. Now all I have to do is start hanging out in a lot of smoke-saturated and unappreciative night clubs and seedy alleyways, getting so high on my motorbike and feeling so quick in my leather boots—and I’ll be that much closer to being a member of one of the greatest bands of the last twenty years.
The Jesus and Mary Chain are often considered shoegazing pioneers for their early noise-pop sound, but much more so, they set the scene for the genre with their attitude. The JAMC didn’t seem to give a damn about anything, with an incendiary (literally) stage presence that was so can’t-be-arsed and lazy, as well as a too-cool image to match. Apathy never seemed so urgent. The Velvet Underground invented cool and by the mid-80s The Jesus and Mary Chain were their only worthy successors. I can see a young Noel Gallagher catching one of the early shows and scribbling in his notebook—wear sunglasses. show contempt for audience. find a formula that works and never change. hate your peers. insult the legends. PISS EVERYONE OFF.
Pretty much everyone seems to agree that Psychocandy is the JAMC’s greatest achievement, and they’re right. It’s certainly the best example of that utterly fabulous and entirely appropriate persona, it gets points for being their first, and it’s their most influential and innovative. But what they’re wrong about is that it’s not their greatest album. Nah, that’s Honey’s Dead—because it’s got the same attitude and same singular sound (although a different singular sound than Psychocandy), but it’s also got all sorts of other niceties like diversity, structure, and most notably, brevity—all things that Psychocandy lacks.
See, Psychocandy was an album with 15 tracks, but only three songs—by the end of the third track on the album, the pattern is set, and that’s more or less it. The rest of the songs are basically just variations on those first three--some are better, some are worse, but all are redundant, and at twelve supplementary tracks, that’s a lot of redundancy. You’ve got the Spectorian, quasi-trippy ballad about love/drugs (“Just Like Honey” a.k.a. “Sowing Seeds” a.k.a. “Some Candy Talking”), the loping, girl group-inflected, catchy and sweet but heavily distorted rocker (“Taste the Floor” a.k.a. “A Taste of Cindy” a.k.a. “You Trip Me Up”) and the fuzzed-out, howling, insane, PNK FCKNG RCKRS that still maintain some pop sensibilities (“The Living End” a.k.a. “Never Understand” a.k.a. “In a Hole”). Some of these clones even share the exact same drum beats, similar oh-ohs, and virtually identical melodies. They were three intoxicating, innovative and benchmark-setting songs, but to repeat them over and over again until they are rendered joyless and dull was near-sadism on the part of the Reid Bros.
Still, it established the Jesus and Mary Chain as one of the most important bands of the 80s, and rightly so. But they had trouble properly following it up. 1987’s Darklands almost entirely tossed the feedback and gruesome noise of their debut, opting instead for a more standard 80s alternative sound. This wasn’t necessarily bad in itself—hell, VU did the same thing in their day with their self-titled album and it’s rightly hailed as a classic. But however cool the Reid brothers were, they could never be as poetic or creative as Lou Reed was, and it’s hard not to miss the distinctiveness of the first album. That’s forgivable. What isn’t, though, was the replacement of recently departed drummer Bobby Gillespie (off to form Primal Scream and change the course of UK music five years later) with a drum machine. Now, Bobby wasn’t the best of drummers—as a matter of fact, he’s something of a proto-shoegazer equivalent of Meg White, and didn’t really even play the drums before he joined the band. But he shared with the Reid brothers a love of real rock and roll and a passion for what they were doing, which is all of what the JAMC were about--you should be doing a gig the day you get your first guitar,” as Jim Reid says. Plus, he could really pound when he was called on to do so. You can’t coax that kind of urgency out of a late-80s drum machine. It cheapened their sound, and heavily burdened their music for the next five years.
Still, they came up with a couple of classic singles—“April Skies” being their biggest UK hit to date, reaching #8 on the charts and “Happy When it Rains” being co-opted almost 10 years later for Garbage’s alternative hit “Only Happy When it Rains”. Automatic was a step in the wrong direction, though, relying even more heavily on a somewhat synthetic, more...automatic sound, and the album was relatively poorly received, despite the fact that it contained “Head On,” probably their best pop moment to date. By 1992, it had been seven years since the JAMC had really been relevant. They had reached a dead end musically, and it had been three years since they had released anything new. So they picked up Monti, the drummer of JAMC disciples Curve, got Alan Moulder to return on the decks, organized the post-Lollapalooza Rollercoaster tour with the always hip My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr., and up-and-comers Blur, and released Honey’s Dead. It was a return to their early peaks not only in the title (whose light/dark contrast recalls Barbed Wire Kisses and Psychocandy) but in volume, shock (lead single “Reverence” was banned from Top of the Pops, but still went top ten) and once again, creativity. Honey’s Dead was the follow-up that Psychocandy always deserved, the White Light/White Heat to its Velvet Underground & Nico.
The Honey’s Dead sound is arguably even more addictive and rewarding than the sound of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s legendary debut. By 1992, Madchester had long since risen and fallen, but the sound had left its mark on the Reid Brothers, and consequently Honey’s Dead is far baggier and groovier then anything else the band has done. This new influence, combined with a renewed respect for heavy distortion and fucking awesome guitar effects as well as the Reids’ unchangingly lazy, hazy vocals and semi-sensuous lyrics, creates a sound that is almost shockingly sexy. Listen to “Teenage Lust” for proof, as it is the sound of just that—chugging, sultry and highly dangerous. The Honey’s Dead sound is one of the most purely exciting you will ever hear.
Honey’s Dead isn’t exactly The White Album when it comes to variety, but it’s not half as repetitious as Psychocandy, either. There are dizzying, propulsive rockers like “Tumbledown” and “Rollercoaster” (on which Monti really gets a chance to shine, demonstrating exactly why The JAMC should never touch a drum machine again) slow burners like “Teenage Lust” and “Catch Fire,” and sweet ballads like “Sundown” and “Almost Gold” (which point the way to 1994’s calmer, quieter follow-up, Stoned and Dethroned), all of which follow a basic pattern. But then there are songs unlike anything else on the album—the fabulous rave-up “Far Gone and Out,” the blistering “Sugar Ray,” and of course, “Reverence,” which piles up layers and layers of guitars and Reid’s breathy whispers over an incredible groove to create one of the JAMC’s best (and most signature) singles. The band even takes the piss out of themselves at the end with a semi-reprise of “Reverence” called “Frequency,” which also incorporates the “with the radio on!” recurring chant from The Modern Lovers’ “Frequency”—a jab, perhaps at their slight tendency to (self) plagiarize.
And one of the main advantages this album is, finally, its length. At eleven tracks plus “Frequency,” this album is of an absolute perfect length. Lesser tracks on the album like “Good for My Soul” and “I Can’t Get Enough” are forgivable, and far more enjoyable, because there just aren’t that many of them. It’s an ideal state of affairs, whereas at 15 tracks, Psychocandy was exactly three and a half tracks too long, making the lesser tracks toward the end almost infuriating—when you hear the opening drum beat from the Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” stolen for the third time on Psychocandy’s “Sowing Seeds,” you’ll know what I mean.
Honey’s Dead belongs with that extraordinary and rare set of albums like VU’s White Light/White Heat, My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything, and most recently, Wire’s Send. These are albums that stumble upon a sound that’s unique, sexy, and danceable, and perhaps more importantly maintain it for the whole album without getting boring or repetitious. NME writer Victoria Segal wrote in her review of the JAMC’s 21Singles collection that expecting The Jesus and Mary Chain to match their early impact would be “like expecting a meteor to leap out of its crater and fall to earth all over again”—but even if not as many people noticed, they did it. Absolutely essential.