The Jesus and Mary Chain is the next big noise from England.
The band's sound, defined by William Reid's guitar-as-blunt-instrument, is a wall of white noise, a juncture of distorted electronics and chaotic imagination, with feedback used as a main motif rather than an accent. It's boys making noise with electric toys, and the result is somewhere between an adrenalinerush and a heart attack.
"There's a certain . . . quality about volume that can't be found elsewhere," explain's William's brother Jim Reid, the quartet's lead singer and songwriter, in a dour Scotch accent from his home in London. "That's one of the reasons we use extremity in sound. But noise is only a part of what we do. It'd be just as accurate to say we're a drum group, 'cause we use drums also. We use bass, we use guitar. And we use noise to create a Great Effect."
The Effect shows up both in live performance (the band will be at the University of Maryland's Grand Ballroom on Tuesday) and on the Jesus and Mary Chain's debut album, "Psychocandy" (reviewed on this page). One might suspect an album that obscures most of its pop melodies with layer upon layer of white noise to be somewhat impenetrable, but British critics have been ecstatic in their praise.
It's important to understand, of course, that the British music press -- from the old-line weeklies like Melody Maker and New Musical Express to the new pop glossies like Smash Hits and No/1 -- is fueled by an obsessive drive to uncover new sounds; that the process is equal parts cynical and fawning; that what is championed is also dismissed, sometimes by the end of an article, though more often in a matter of weeks; and that in the generally safe, antiseptic world of British pop, a group like the Jesus and Mary Chain -- all sullen intensity, gloomy lyrics and provocative attitude, with a meaningless name calculated to offend -- is not the harbinger of a new wave, but a shock wave intent on giving the system a kick in the behind.
"You take away the music press and nobody knows who the group is," Reid concedes. As for the invent-and-destroy mission in which said press seems perpetually engaged, he says, "It's a power they have because they have the readership. What usually happens is they take a group and hold it up as something to be worshiped, something fantastic. And as soon as it's successful, they attack it.
"Still," he adds, "it's always fun to create confusion in the minds of so many different people. So many journalists have said so many ludicrous things about our group. It's great fun to stand back and watch."
And to provoke more press with the occasional minor riot or through petulant encounters with employers and fans. At various times, the group has been banned from its record company offices in England, arrested in Germany and thrown out of its own concerts. It also has a reputation for playing 25-minute concerts in a state of total collective inebriation, sometimes with backs to the audience.
Because its records are for the most part antithetical to commercial radio airplay, the Jesus and Mary Chain is in the odd position of being more written about than heard. As a result, it has been branded as everything from the ultimate antipop group to the '80s equivalent of those punk progenitors, the Ramones and Sex Pistols.
"That's a joke, to compare us," Reid grumbles. "Anybody that's said that has completely misunderstood the whole group. People have got hysterical, but when it comes down to it, we're just a pop group."
"It's just a different way of producing pop music. There's no set formula for making a pop record or a pop show. We make records to please ourselves . . . I don't expect everybody to understand the group, but I can't understand when people can't see past the noise, when they can't see there's more than chaos, there are songs."
Sounds like the old "iron fist in the velvet glove" routine -- in reverse. Under the formidable drone of noise, the piercing wail, lurks a fervid imagination, audible in snatches of rough-hewn but evocative imagery. Maybe that's what "Psychocandy" is all about -- a harder-than-nails exterior with a treat at the center.
The sound comes off as an explosive variation on the defiant simplicity of much rock 'n' roll -- what one writer described as creating spontaneous chaos and amplifying it. Of course, when the press made the Jesus and Mary Chain's stance trendy and the group was signed to a record contract, the company asked the Reids to tone down the feedback. (They didn't.)
The Chain sometimes presents itself as a pop mutation that sprang to life 18 months ago, fully realized. But there are obvious links to mutations past.
"I was influenced more by the idea of punk than by the actual thing that had taken place," Jim Reid says. "Some of the punk ideas and ideals were actually quite attractive, but what was happening then was absolutely and completely worthless. So many different people were trying to get ahead under the banner of punk rock, it was unbelievable. As soon as somebody gave punk rock its name, it was completely destroyed."
What were those attractive punk ideals? Reid thinks for a moment.
"Well, we never really put any importance on learning to play a guitar, for a start. When we got Douglas Hart to play the bass, he couldn't. There's certain things in a group that just aren't important and that's one of them. You don't have to learn to play to be any good . . . We despise groups that worship the musical instruments they play."
All four members of the band grew up in East Kilbridle, a "new" Scottish town; they were typical teen idles whose main ambition was to "get out of there quickly." Jim Reid, now 24, was 15 when punk seized the throat of the rock world and shook it up as rock had once shaken up pop.
"When I was really young I was into glam rock," he says, "but I didn't really start to buy records until punk rock came along. I admit, I did get caught up with it at the time. I had short hair and torn jeans like everybody else. I was intrigued by the Pistols, Subway Sect and the Clash, though they went on to become the biggest joke in the whole world. I get annoyed when people say we're a punk rock group. I tend not to think so."
Oddly enough, Reid points to another source of inspiration: the first band to make rock as dangerous on the inside as it was on the outside.
"Probably the Velvet Undergound were the biggest influence," he says. "They were more of a punk rock group than any of the others. To me, their attitude was more along the lines of what a group should be -- they made records and music to please themselves and nobody else. That was art, it wasn't just pop music. It was as important as any van Gogh painting or Mozart piece, or whatever."
Not surprisingly, according to Reid, "attitude is everything."
Feedback, on the other hand, is just something -- a hook to hang a career on, a device. "At the beginning," Reid says, "it was quite uncontrollable, that was our live sound. But we decided we wanted to be a bit more in control, so it became more like metallic clang, white noise on the guitar. William's usually pretty much in control of what he's doing. We have had a few pieces of advice offered from the record company but we wouldn't accept it."
Reid doesn't see himself as a musical deconstructionist, though it's obvious the band greatly enjoys pitching stones into the placid pool of modernist pop. "Do we want to upset the music business? It's not worth upsetting," Reid insists. "Pop music can be trivial and 99 percent of the time it is . . . Nothing ever changes. You're talking as if a pop group could actually change something. I've never seen any pop group change anything in my whole life."
Why bother, then?
"Because personally I like to make music, I like to make records," Reid explains. "One of the bad sides of what I do is I have to put up with the actual business . . . But I'm in the business of selling records. It may sound bad but I'm a businessman. I don't like it when groups pretend they're not looking for success. That's lies. Anybody that makes a record wants it to sell."
And to sell it, you need more than attitude.
"Let's face it, no matter what your attitude is, or what your attitude towards the music business is, if you don't have a song you don't have anything. If 'Psychocandy' had a terribly good sound but no songs, it wouldn't have gotten much recognition, people would have just ignored it."
Take Einstu rzende Neubauten, another white-noise band that incorporates power tools into its act. "They've got an incredible sound," Reid says, "but when I listen to it I think, why couldn't they have stuck a Sonny and Cher type song in there somewhere?"
It's a surprising comment from the latest incarnation of rock's bad-boy stereotype. But the Jesus and Mary Chain members often find that their reputation as shock troupers has preceded -- and exceeded -- them.
"People have got the idea that the group is some bunch of hooligans," Reid says. "It's a bit depressing. We used to get real head cases, idiots that came because they thought there was going to be some kind of fight or punch-up, but we don't really get that anymore."
Tuesday's show will most likely follow form, clocking in at somewhere between 25 and 30 minutes. At the 9:30 club last month, on their first blitz through town, the group spent most of their time with their backs to the audience, suggesting a certain contempt that Reid is quick to put in perspective.
"We don't despise the audience . . . They don't come into it. I don't know the people -- they're complete strangers to us, who gather to watch what we are doing. How can you despise complete strangers?"
Feedback will certainly be a central element Tuesday, though Reid warns that "we're considering a total sound change, but we don't know what to do yet. The white noise has been going on a bit now . . . "
He does admit that the band is unlikely to perform sober, drunkenness apparently being the path to righteousness in the production of Great Effects. "That's the way we like to do it. I like to enjoy it, much the same way that if I went to a party, I'd like to enjoy it. So what do you do? You drink, which is what we do."
Has the band ever tried to play a concert sober?
"Quite often. Trouble is, it's incredibly boring."