The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy

Paula Mejia

October 19, 2016 
The following is from Paula Mejia's book, The Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy. Paula Mejia is a writer, journalist and critic. Her work has appeared in The Criterion Collection, NPR, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and other publications.

Wielding an instrument onstage has the potential to elevate an ordinary person to the level of a deity. Looks don’t necessarily matter all that much up there. Talent helps, but is not essential (ahem, Sid Vicious). It’s more about what one does when on that pedestal, which is like a Mount Olympus of sorts. “Onstage we’re one of the sexiest groups you can imagine,” Jim said of the band in 1985, goading yet another interviewer. “Three or four guys in leather, rolling around and showing their backsides to the audience.”

But what does it mean for a self-proclaimed sexy band—named the Jesus and Mary Chain, no less—to infiltrate the sacred canon of pop music with their arms crossed and black shades on, avoiding the spotlight altogether? Is what they’re doing sacred or sacriligeous? Either way, the band knew the word “Jesus” would be enough of a trigger to get people talking about them. They had taken a page from one of their favorites, the Sex Pistols, a name that had been chosen by their cunning manager Malcolm McLaren. A band named the Sex Pistols was as unprecedented for the press at it was for the public, according to Trevor Dann, who helped land the Mary Chain one of their first video performances on BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test before Psychocandy’s release. “The [Mary Chain] was the first big thing we’d had since the Sex Pistols. Because here’s a list of things [you] shouldn’t do: You shouldn’t name yourself something that presenters have a hard time saying,” Dann notes. “So being called the Sex Pistols … you forget how radical that was. Sex was not a word that you said!”

This radical idea recalls that old Oscar Wilde quote, “The only worse thing than being talked about is not being talked about.” By consciously changing their name from the Daisy Chain to the Mary Chain—one that dripped with intrigue and controversy—it was more a good marketing move on their part instead of sacrilege. The name Jesus and Mary Chain had been chosen by William and was intended to be puzzling. “I don’t know where [William] got it from, but he just said ‘The Jesus and Mary Chain.’ And at first it sounded like, ‘Naah, no way,’” Jim Reid told Philadelphia’s Phawker in September 2015. “And then you kind of think about it, you think, ‘Well, fuck, that sounds like no other band.’ So we went with it.”

The name “Jesus and Mary Chain” could mean anything. And nothing. By invoking the names of both Jesus and Mary, were they implying a sense of partnership? Was it a slight nod to fellow bands of outsiders they admired, like Echo and the Bunnymen or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks? Was it all just a joke? The “chain” bit was reminiscent of a bike gang, a gaggle of greasers, or a group of train-hopping vagabonds. Or were the chains a reference to teenagers feeling shackled by mom and dad?

Trevor Dann has his own theory: “I always thought it was in the tradition of John Lennon saying ‘The Beatles are more popular than Christ,’” he says. Given their love of the Beatles’ look and sonic sensibilities, it’s not out of the question. But the name had no origin story. It was just a jumble of words William drew out of his mind, as he would later say. “Jesus,” “Mary,” and “chain” were but three nouns strung together into a rather confounding phrase. They knew they’d be asked about it, though, and they were ready with an arsenal of conflicting stories to keep people guessing. According to Barbed Wire Kisses, the band said that they drew the name from a line in a Bing Crosby film. Later, they would deny this statement completely. Then there was also the yarn they spun about seeing it on the back of a cereal box, in an advertisement for a “gold Jesus and Mary Chain.”

None of the band members were raised Catholic, though. But their curiosity about religion is evident in their lyrics—which, over six studio albums, continue to revolve around themes of prayer (“Her Way of Praying”), hell (“Gimme Hell”), Jesus (“Bo Diddley is Jesus”), reverence (a concept important enough to make for the eponymous title of a song bearing the same riff as the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”), and death (“Cut Dead,” “In a Hole”). Hell, Psychocandy could very well be read as a concept album probing questions of life and death, not unlike one of their favorites, The Velvet Underground & Nico. So while their band name might not have been influenced by religion directly, they were at least interested in it as something to wonder about. “It’s kind of a fascinating subject,” Jim told Phawker’s Jonathan Valania. “I discovered the Bible when I was like in my late teens and out of curiosity read through it to see what it was all about. But, in the end, came away with the idea that it’s kind of a lot of mumbo jumbo.”

Regardless, the British press took the opportunity to read more deeply into the name and use it as a means to judge the band. Thus the Mary Chain were consistently praised as either the Second Coming or crucified as one of the worst things to happen to popular culture. “The idea that you say the word ‘Jesus’ in the context of a pop song, and worse, in the name of a band … it was deliberately courting a controversy,” remembers Dann. “It was the sort of thing that the tabloid newspapers picked up on, the flame was fanned for a little while, and some gigs got banned.” In a 1986 profile of the band, the journalist Richard Lowe, writing for The Hit, found the band’s “naiveté” and idealism touching, but questionable: “The Jesus And Mary Chain are not the ‘new messiahs’ that some have claimed them to be; simply three lads from East Kilbride who want to give the bland and boring world of pop music a much-needed kick up the backside,” he wrote, adding, “Wish them luck in their crusade—at least someone’s trying.”

Their crusade may have even got them banned from American television in 1987, though. CBS had wanted to run one of their videos on the Top of the Pops’ iteration in America. While the Mary Chain had by then appeared on Britain’s Top of the Pops, the network’s Program Practice Department had a hunch that U.S. networks wouldn’t be as keen to run a video by a band bearing this possibly inflammatory name. They were right: The network attempted to level with the Mary Chain, and work out a compromise that would announce them as the J and M Chain instead. As Craig Rosen of the Los Angeles Daily News reported at the time, the band refused, complaining that the name “sounded like a discount shoe store.” So their dreams were dashed. It was all the better for them to attract attention, though. “It was good being hated, but also knowing that you were doing that without even trying,” Bobby Gillespie says to that effect.



From JESUS AND MARY CHAIN’S PSYCHOCANDY. Used with permission of Bloomsbury Academic. Copyright © 2016 by Paula Mejia.

More Story
Whose Death Gets to Count, and For What? In her biography of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, Wrapped in Rainbows, Valerie Boyd explains why it was so difficult...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.