PSYCHO BABBLE: How Fresh Air Music Critic Ken Tucker Wound Up On The Wrong Side Of History


Hard to remember now but there was a time when the Jesus & Mary Chain, who play Union Transfer on September 8th, divided the population of planet Earth into two camps: Those who were sure they were the Second Coming and those who thought they were the end of Western Civilization. Fresh Air/Entertainment Weekly music critic Ken Tucker used to write for the Inquirer back in the day and we recently happened upon his two-thumbs-down review of the JAMC’s 1986 show at the Trocadero in support of their polarizing debut Psychocandy, which has since been judged a seminal and deeply influential classic. Now, Tucker seems like a decent fellow and ordinarily he is an astute critic, but this review is not just a personal low point, it is a low point for music criticism itself. We all write things we wish we could take back and we allĀ  but this is notable not only for its aesthetic wrongheadedness but the epic fail of its attempt at snarkastic mockery. Pretty sure he would like this to remain lost in the dustbin of history, but no such luck. Sorry, Ken.

BY KEN TUCKER FOR THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER A young Scottish band with only one album in circulation, the Jesus and Mary Chain has already accomplished something truly impressive: The group has grown its hair in a manner that reminds you of the way yours looks after you’ve taken a nap and the side of your face has all those little red marks from the wrinkles in the sheet. And the Jesus and Mary Chain has achieved this – get this – without taking naps onstage and without any noticeable sheet-wrinkles on its members’ faces.

Music? Oh sure, they make music, if you’re not going to be picky and insist that “music” mean things like melody and harmony and timbre. Making its Philadelphia debut at the Trocadero Wednesday night, the Jesus and Mary Chain drew a packed crowd that came to see why this foursome had been hailed as ”the new messiah of the maelstrom” by England’s pop newspaper Melody Maker, and whether all that talk about the band’s deafening noise was true.

As it turned out, the noise wasn’t deafening at all. Loud, yes. Abrasive, yes. But this is precisely the band’s strategy. Guitarist William Reid and bassist Douglas Hart set up a high-volume squall of electronic feedback, while drummer Bobby Gilles pie slams insistently and vocalist Jim Reid mutters incomprehensibilities that occasionally yield obscure phrases such as “I gotta keep my distance” and “Just like honey.”

At the Trocadero, the Jesus and Mary Chain’s feedback was kept to a loud, insistent hum. One, ah, composition drifted into another. Gillespie, a puritanical sort, did not permit himself a seat behind the drums – he stood, stoop-shouldered over his drum kit, tapping his instruments in the most perfunctory way imaginable, the better for us to understand his self-imposed discomfort. Ah, art.

The Jesus and Mary Chain has a reputation for being truculent, and indeed, guitarist Reid and bassist Hart spent the entire performance with their backs to the audience. Reid, adding a bit of showmanship to his moodiness, not only turned his back to the audience but squatted down on his haunches for most of the show, thus almost completely obscuring himself from the audience’s view.

Taking my cue from the band members, I turned my back on them for a few numbers. This was indeed an improvement; after all, the audience members I was then facing were doing things that the Jesus and Mary Chain were not – dancing, smiling, registering a variety of human emotions. After a mere half an hour, perhaps miffed at the cheerful, enthusiastic response it received, the Jesus and Mary Chain unplugged its instruments and shuffled offstage.

In the name of fairness and full disclosure, let the record show that I’ve been wrong early and often. Used to think Rush was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then I turned 16. Was really, really into the Alarm for a time I am ashamed to say, but then so was Jon Stewart. Even hitchhiked to Rhyl when I was visiting Wales back in ’84, just because they were from there. Horrible town, don’t bother. Let’s see, could not stand Arcade Fire dude’s voice when the first album came out, so much so I turned down the offer of a cover story assignment and then a day or two later a switch went off and I LOVED that guy’s voice and, of course, the album blew up big and I felt like a fool with a paper ass. Hated Neutral Milk Hotel dude’s voice for the first three or four listens and then In The Aeroplane Over The Sea became one of my Top 5 Favorite Albums of all time. Was pretty sure The Grifters would become bigger than Jesus and the fact that you are right now saying to yourself ‘Who the fuck are the Grifters?’ only bears out just how wrong I was. So I am hardly above reproach. However, even back in 1986, when I was all of 20, I knew that not only was Psychocandy brilliant but all the critics that hated it were old and in the way.