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POP MUSIC : Jesus and Mary Chain's Expanding Horizon : 10 QUESTIONS, 13 ANSWERS

April 26, 1992|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. and

LONDON — The first music in three years from what is arguably the most influential British band of the '80s was greeted here with understandable enthusiasm.

"A scorching return to form (by) what has to be the most important band working in Britain today," declared the New Musical Express about "Reverence," the group's first single from its "Honey's Dead" album. "The very pulse of modern rock is beating within these sturdy grooves."

Most American rock fans would probably assume that such lavish praise would be reserved for one of the British bands that are massive in the States--say Def Leppard, whose latest album entered the U.S. charts at No. 1, or the Cure, which will be playing stadiums again this summer in the United States.


The raves, appropriately, are for the Jesus and Mary Chain.

With an independence inherited from the Sex Pistols and a fearless instinct for emotional extremes reminiscent of the Velvet Underground, brothers Jim Reid and William Reid--the founders of the London-based band--made three of the most absorbing rock albums of the '80s.

Still, the Jesus and Mary Chain has yet to crack the U.S. Top 100. One reason is the music's radical sensibilities. Its dark, obsessive themes and relentless guitar feedback seem every bit as extreme at times as the Sex Pistols, who also never reached the Top 100 in the United States.

The Jesus and Mary Chain was banned from Britain's "Top of the Pops" TV show recently because its "Reverence" single was considered inappropriate for young viewers:

I wanna die just like Jesus Christ

I wanna die on a bed of spikes

I wanna die and go see Paradise.

I wanna die just like JFK

I wanna die on a sunny day

I wanna die just like JFK

I wanna die in the U.S.A.

While easy to dismiss as shock tactics, the lyrics--in the context of the Jesus and Mary Chain's work--suggest how some people are so desperate for recognition or identity that they might be willing, if all else fails, to settle for a death that will go down in history. The song has caught on at U.S. college and alternative radio, but it has shown little evidence of mainstream airplay.

Yet there are signs that this may finally be the breakthrough year for the band. It'll be on the "Lollapalooza" tour this summer across America, and the MTV crowd heard a lot in recent months of the Reids' sound thanks to the Pixies' hit remake of their "Head On" single.

On the eve of the album release (see review, Page 70), the brothers sat in their recording studio reflecting on the "Top of the Pops" ban and all the talk about how this might finally be their year.

Question: What was your thinking with "Reverence"? You must have realized a lot of people were going to be freaked out by it. Wasn't there some other image you could find?

Jim: That question seems to assume that the lyrics are some cheap, sensational stunt or something, and that's not what the words ever were to us. To me, any subject is OK to talk about. I'm ready to listen to anybody's point of view about anything because that's how you learn things. Nothing upsets me unless you are going to get a knife and point it in my eye or something.

Q: Have either of you ever written anything that makes you wince and think, "I'd better not release that song"?

William: We edit ourselves, but we don't censor ourselves--if you can see the difference. If we wrote a lyric that we thought was the greatest we'd ever written, I'd like to think we'd put it on the record even if someone told us that it was going to get the record banned in every country and destroy our career. Music is important to us. It has been our life for as long as I can remember. People are always using words like obsession to describe our music, which is probably right because music is an obsession with us.

Besides, if we really wanted to shock people, I don't think we would have used these lyrics. I think these lyrics are too well cut, too well engineered. If we would have wanted to shock, we only need to put in the songs all the silly little words that seem to press buttons in people . . . all the sexual words that you can't print in papers or use on the air.

Jim: What we are really saying is that after years and years and years of trying to do our best, we don't give a damn what some people think is acceptable or not acceptable to them.

That's not the same as a shock thing. We liked the punk movement, but we never set out to be the Sex Pistols and just shock people with what we said and what we do. In fact, we've even gone out of our way over the years to steer clear of that type of approach because anything you do of that nature can come across as a bit false, and I don't think there is anything false about our music.

Q: Are you optimistic that things might be opening up for you now in America--the Pixies' success with "Head On," the U.S. success of a lot of other young British bands?

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