In 2008, ever-winsome pop outfit The Magnetic Fields surprised audiences by staging an album-long homage, writ in the style of The Jesus and Mary Chain's legendary 1985 debut, Psychocandy. They called it, fittingly enough, Distortion.
It's the word —and the sound— that defines Psychocandy. The album finds brothers Jim and William Reid lashing their guitars in wave after wave of effects. Though it's not a lo-fi record, it was one of the first musical outings to deliberately use recording fidelity —or lack thereof— to change the tone of familiar instruments. Here, guitar hisses like an untuned radio; bass notes are often just muffled vibrations rattling the lower-end; and the drums sound harsh and metallic yet are mixed muffled and distant.
Producing the album themselves, the band —the Reids, bassist Douglas Hart, and stand-up drummer (and future Primal Scream leader) Bobby Gillespie— took a revolutionary step, building a harsh, fuzzy, washed-out wall-of-sound from traditionally 'bad' recording tones.
Their hero was, fittingly enough, the master of the wall-of-sound, Phil Spector, who, in the 1960s, imbued bubblegum pop-songs with Wagnerian grandeur. The the specter of Spector's unexpected production on The Ramones' 1980 LP, End of the Century, resounds with every buzz-saw guitar, but Psychocandy isn't some punk record. It's, instead, a classic pop album, merely buried under lashing layers of distortion and fuzz. The Reids' pop sensibility is impeccable: there isn't a single song on this, their very first album, that isn't thrillingly melodic, that isn't instantly memorable.
Verse, Chorus, Noise
The LP opener, "Just Like Honey," is an undoubted classic, and its sister song, "Sowing Seeds," is just as good. Both liberally lift the classic "Be My Baby" beat —perhaps the most copied drum intro in pop-music history— for pop-songs slow, sweet, and lazy, sung in a completely disaffected, seemingly-disinterested drawl.
"Never Understand" rattles along with the hanging-ten rhythm and heliophonic vocal inflection of an early Beach Boys songs, but takes such aural sunshine and drowns it under a shower of noise. It, too, has a sister song, "My Little Underground," which rides a boy-band push-beat but takes to defacing the melodies with wicked spirals of shrill, tinny, scary discordance.
That is, in many ways, the way every song on the album works: classic licks, hellacious noise. And, in 1985, it was the latter that mattered. As era recordings went synth happy and struggling with the new frontiers of digital recording, the raw, 'real' sounds of the '60s seemed revolutionary. The Jesus and Mary Chain took that a step further, of course; treating the process of recording as its own kind of tool; a production 'sound' as meaningful as the songs themselves.
It wouldn't take long before other caught on: Psychocandy was essentially the blueprint from which the shoegaze movement was built. Yo La Tengo were hugely influenced by the record. Later, along came bands like The Raveonettes, The Legends, and Crocodiles, who worked as diligently to recreate that Psychocandy sound as others have bowed down before, say, Pet Sounds.
Psychocandy became a landmark, and justifiably so. It feels like one of those perfect pop records: 14 songs, 38 minutes, nary any space wasted. It's instantly lovable, and infinitely rewarding. You come for the noise, stay for the songs.
Record Label: Blanco y Negro
Release Date: November, 1985