The Jesus & Marychain
Blanco y Negro Records
Automatic was The Jesus & Marychain’s third album. They had burst onto the scene back in 1985 with Psychocandy, which was a brilliant statement of intent. Heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground, Scots brothers Jim and William Reid mined the history of rock’n’roll to produce a stoner’s gothic rock’n’roll nightmare. Psychocandy was also notable because it introduced drummer Bobby Gillespie to the wider world; Gillespie would eventually leave the Marychain and go onto to form a very similar-sounding band, Primal Scream. Primal Scream hit the big time when they met up with the late Andrew Weatherall (RIP) and cooked up the 1991 masterpiece, Screamadelica. Meanwhile, The Jesus & Marychain emerged as one of the darling’s the British music press and the alternative scene in North America. Their second album, 1986’s Darklands, which cemented their reputation. It was also the first time the Brothers Reid used a drum machine, as Gillespie had left to front Primal Scream.
But Darklands is nothing, even Psychocandy (one of my favourite albums of all-time), pales, in comparison to Automatic. I have no real idea how I came across a band with a name like this in 1986, when I first discovered Psychocandy. I was not even a teenager, I lived deep in white-bread suburbia near Vancouver, BC. My friends thought David Lee Roth was about the greatest thing to ever happen to rock’n’roll, though, to be fair, we were starting to dig on hip hop. Me and Grant Hall were obsessed with Run DMC’s version of ‘Walk This Way,’ that video remains one of the greatest ever. And we were starting to dig deeper, into LL Cool J, other Run DMC works, even Boogie Down Productions. And, of course, the Beastie Boys. By the time we got to junior high, Rick Noble brought us deeper into hip hop before he up and left with his family back to Vancouver Island. But none of that was The Jesus & Marychain. I didn’t really like Darklands then.
I remember the first time I heard anything from Automatic, it was on CityLimits, MuchMusic’s Friday night alternative music show. The song was ‘Her Way of Praying.’ I was blown away. I wasn’t big on drum machines in the 80s, I have come around to see their glory, of course. But that song. Fuuuuuuuck. Beginning with that drum machine and this chugging rhythm guitar, and then Jim Reid takes the mic:
Fall to her call on a Saturday night
She’s got the hip dippin’ trick of all time done right
She’s got her lips sticking tight to her find tonight
She’s keeping time keeping time with the mystery rhyme.
And she’s crazy to want me to taunt me.
Deep on the scene she is waiting for me
Like a sin scraping skin she is screaming for me
Hope in hope in the sky she is talking to me
She’s keeping time keeping time with the image of me.
There was just that way Reid sings, dripping cool, snarling and sneering. He made Billy Idol look like a little boy. He rocked that leather jacket and sunglasses like no one before or since. Even Lou Reed looked like an amateur. Meanwhile, his brother, William, man, he played the guitar like I’d never heard, the way he coaxed not just that chugging guitar sound, but these nasty solos and then the feedback out of that machine…And the video. This pretty cinematographer in the red light district, these taciturn, leather-jacketed, sun-glassed Scots, the colours, the music, it was about the most glorious thing I’d ever seen.
Wikipedia tells me that ‘Her Way of Praying’ was not a single from the album, only ‘Blues from a Gun,’ which was released two weeks before the album, on 26 September 1989, and ‘Head On,’ which was released a month after the album, in November 1989. But ‘Her Way of Praying’ has a video, and a video in those days meant it was a single. And my memory tells me that I saw this video in the summer of 1989. And, of course, as I continually tell my students, ‘Just because you saw it on Wikipedia doesn’t mean it’s true.’
In the fall of 1989, I was in Grade 11, at a dreary suburban high school. I was a football player, but I wasn’t that fall because I had destroyed my knee the year before, in Grade 10, at a dreary suburban junior high school. It was still giving me trouble, and my doctor suggested I give the football a rest. So I did. I didn’t even play soccer, though I spent a lot of time in the gym. Anyway. That fall, I met Mike Robinson, we sat together in Biology (or maybe it was Chemistry or Physics, I can’t remember), and it turned out we both loved music. Mike’s tastes were heavier than mine and more into glam rock than I was, but we still saw level on a lot. Meanwhile, in my Art class, there was this guy who had hair like Robert Smith, I think his name was Trevor. He was in a band called Rabid Family Outing. He had good taste in music and he hooked me up with a a dubbed copy of Automatic when it came out. And me and Robinson listened to it at his big house up on the hill one afternoon when we should’ve been in Biology (or Chemistry or Physics) class. We were hooked. So much so that we immediately got ourselves up off the couch and walked down the hill, caught a bus, and went to Sam the Record Man at Coquitlam Centre and bought the album for ourselves.
This was an odd place for Mike and I to agree on music, usually the bands we loved in common were louder, more aggressive in a traditionally American sense, like Living Colour
. This was not our usual meeting place.
Once we had our own copies, we parted company, and I went back to our dreary little home in our dreary little suburb and blasted this loud. No one else was home, which was a rarity in those days. Automatic hit me full on from the getgo.
‘Here Comes Alice’ is a mellow intro the album, built up from the drum machine and a synthesized bass, William Reid’s vocals make the song:
Here she comes walking down the street
She’s got something you would love to meet
It’s her heart and her heart is black
Think of ice cream sliding into a crack.
The heat sticks to summer’s heavy sweat
Hang around it’ll get hotter yet
You got the shakes and it’s goin’ get worse
Don’t you know it’s all a part of the curse.
She’s got the hit that takes you into space
Suck mud and make a deal for that taste
You got nothing but you’re riding on a star
You couldn’t guess that she could take you that far.
Some things are so hard to say
Even though you’d say them every day
Don’t let your life be the butt of a joke
Get your lips round a cool black Pepsi Coke.
Not the most profound lyrics, but that doesn’t matter. In fact, in some cases, The J & MChain’s lyrics are almost cringe-worthy on other albums, but it. Doesn’t. Fucking. Matter. He’s William Reid, and you are not. In fact, since their voices are largely interchangeable, it doesn’t fucking matter, period. Jim, William, whatevs. You’re not them. It’s all in the delivery. In the meantime, William’s guitars (Jim can also play a mean axe) begin to tear away from the bass and Jim’s rhythm, searing and soaring around the track as the song slowly builds to something other than what it appeared to be.
But ‘Here She Comes’ ends and ‘Coast to Coast’ comes flying onto the scene, a faster song, chugging bass and rhythm guitar, and William Reid’s lead all post-punk glory all around the track. Jim’s vocals are the coolness that he is, it doesn’t matter what he’s singing. But this track also seemed to announce the arrival of this album, a louder, nastier version of anything on Psychocandy or Darklands, there is something darker and more sinister in The Jesus & Marychain’s sound now. And it worked gloriously. It was subversive music, and there wasn’t any one particular thing that made it so, it was of a parcel.
And ‘Coast to Coast’ devolves into this feedback-laden bit of lead guitar, before the song chugs back into place.
‘Blues From a Gun,’ which became their highest charting single to that time, is all guitars and drum machine, menacing and in your face. Both Jim and William trade nasty licks over the drum machine and synthesized bass. There is something dangerous about this track, something lurking just below the surface. A few years later, I was living in Ottawa and sort of dating Tracy, who hated this album. It gave her the willies. There was something unholy about the band, she said. She may have been right. And that’s why I loved them.
‘UV Ray’ ends Side One. With a jittery drum machine beat, William Reid’s guitar is strangulated, and then the brothers are trading great big power chord licks back and forth, whilst Jim is singing something about drugs, Jesus, tears, and nightmares that won’t go away. It’s a glorious track, especially when William’s distorted, vicious guitar takes over towards the end.
Side Two opens with the glorious ‘Her Way of Praying.’ Listening to it now, 31 years later, it’s still a stunning, visceral, glorious track. And it remains one of my three most favourite of The Jesus & Marychain’s catalogue of songs.
‘Head On’ would go onto greater fame a few years later when the Pixies covered it on Trompe le Monde, their initial swansong. But, as much as I love Pixies, they had nothing on The Jesus & Marychain. Whereas in Black Francis’ hands, the song became unhinged and looney-tunes, in that way only Black Francis could, the guitar lick didn’t give Joey Santiago the room to do his thing. But. On the original, that drum machine is menacing. The synthesized bass chugs along. And Jim Reid’s self-loathing is impressive, as she ‘is crazy to want me.’ This is the poppiest track on the album, the one most likely to chart, and yet, it was not the big hit it probably should’ve been.
Back in my hardcore days, as I’ve mentioned before, I oftentimes got teased because I like melody, and I liked pretty sounds. I was unapologetic then and remain so today. And so ‘Halfway to Crazy.’ This is the pretty song on the album, with William Reid’s lead switched from menacing and vicious to sunshiney and bright. And it works for the song, which is the standard-issue boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl bit. But, as usual in Jim Reid’s style, it becomes something more, something beautiful and grand:
Crazy I’m halfway to crazy
Suicide could save me
Oh is that much too extreme
It’s such a sad and sorry scene.
Lovers tongue tied
And tied to the tongue
Making deals going bad by the dawn
Every dog must have its day
And then it’s got to pay and pay.
That’s me being torn at the seams
Going mad in the middle of a dream
Catch me getting it wrong from the start
Catch me ’cause I’m falling apart.
Crazy I’m halfway to crazy
Suicide would waste me
Homicide would break me
Tongue tied and tied to the tongue.
Oh is life as bad as dreams
I guess that’s just the way it seems.
And that’s followed immediately with the menacing, dirty, and dank ‘Gimme Hell,’ with its drum machine and synthesized bass, William Reid’s guitar snarls and growls, and Jim is effortless in his delivery.
Gimme hell gimme hell gimme hell
She said as she fell
Tongue tied tongue tied tongue tied
She could never lie
So come on little sugar
Let me get your soul
Dig deep crazy like a success show
She can’t bawl and she can’t shout
She can’t bawl and fuck it out
Gimme hell she gives me hell
I’m fucking up anyway
Well I’ve been good
And I’ve been mean
And I’ve been looking for a Coke machine
So come on.
The guitars chug, they preen, they shine, they soar through the badlands of the city, they look down those dark alleys best avoided, and the guitars just don’t give a fuck. Neither do Jim and William Reid. This might be one of their most glorious moments on wax.
That was the original end of the album, ‘Gimme Hell’ was the album closer. But when it was re-issued on CD, it got two bonus tracks that give Automatic a proper ending. First, ‘Drop’ is an acoustic, almost pretty song, not even two minutes long; it’s here and then it’s gone. And then, ‘Sunray’ is 95 seconds of drum machine, guitar feeback, and snarling glory that shows The Jesus & Marychain ain’t going out like that.
And as much as I loved this album in 1989 and still do today, critics were not kind to it when it came out. Jim and William Reid made this album together and alone. They wrote the music, they played the music, they engineered the music, they played the music. Jim handled vocals on most of the album, and played guitar, synthesizer and programmed the drum machine. William handled vocals on three tracks, played guitar, synthesizer, and programmed the drum machine. That was it. And critics hated that drum machine. Oh, boy, did they ever. But that was the entire point, really.
Over the years, the critics have changed their mind, and come to see Automatic for the glorious, amazing, vicious album it is. Even the Drunken Hipsters, as my buddy Sébastien calls Pitchfork, argues this should be seen as a highlight in their catalogue. Well, no shit. Thanks for showing up to the party. I think the greater problem Automatic has it is the precursor to what is rightly regarded as their masterpiece, Honey’s Dead.
Honey’s Dead arrived in 1992, at the height of shoe gazer and grunge and blew all that the fuck out of the water. Preceded by the absolutely nasty and vicious single, ‘Reverence,’ which was huge, got banned on the BBC, in part for the band’s name and in part because of the lyric: ‘I want to die just like Jesus Christ’ and ‘I want to die just like JFK.’ Honey’s Dead moved The Jesus & Marychain from the underground to the overground in the UK, and it moved them from college radio onto alternative rock radio, and it was a game changer.
But Automatic was the shift, the palette-cleanser that allowed Honey’s Dead to emerge. And, frankly, given my choice between the two of them, I will take Automatic. It’s just rawer and more visceral. It’s Iggy and the Stooges to the Velvet Underground.
Honey’s Dead was the apotheosis of The Jesus & Marychain. Their next album, Stoned & Dethroned, in 1994, was mellower, shinier, and almost pretty, including an incredible duet between Jim Reid and his then-girlfriend, Hope Sandoval. That was followed four years later by Munki, their least successful album ever. By then, they were done. William quit the band on that tour after a fight with the other guitarist, Jim was heavy on the bottle. It was kinda sad. And then they split.
They did reform eventually in 2007, at Coachella, and that led to a lucrative few years of touring and playing around the world. They released a single for a forgettable TV show soundtrack around 2008, and then in 2016, 18 years after their last album, they dropped Damage and Joy
, produced by Youth
. It was uneven, but a welcome comeback. It’s highs were reminiscent of their glory days.