It’s that time of year again! Warmer weather has arrived, and with it, my summertime songs. We return to my Covers Corner feature with the version of “Surfin’ USA” that The Jesus and Mary Chain did back in 1987.
It’s classic Mary Chain, with blistering guitar and Jim Reid’s rough voice. The combo is an excellent continuation of the sound they established with their debut Psychocandy: pop music that’s layered thickly with a fuzz of feedback echoing the Kinks. Their version also sets up an intriguing contrast. A band from Scotland is singing about “Californ-i-a” and “waxing down our surfboards/can’t wait ’till June.” It’s not funny, exactly, but I love it just the same. The cover has a rebellious vibe. When Jim Reid sings, “tell the teacher we’re surfin’,” I picture a group of kids skipping class to head to the beach.
Meanwhile, the Beach Boys’ version is squeaky-clean a capella. You immediately want to jump on a surfboard yourself, or at least hang out on the sand with a radio playing. The best part, in my opinion, is towards the end with the high, ever-so-slightly nasal “yeah, everybody’s gone surfin‘” onto the fadeout. It’s youthful and sweet. The kids in this song aren’t skipping class; they’re waiting until the weekend or until the summer surf season begins.
If you’ve spent any length of time on this blog, you know that my favorite band is The Jesus and Mary Chain. I’ve been to three of their concerts and have most of the songs on Darklands memorized. Their debut, Psychocandy, set the tone, but it’s Darklands that’s my favorite of their albums.
Today we’re talking about a cover of a song from that album, “On the Wall.” “Just Like Honey” is the Chain’s best-known song and consequently the most covered, so this one is a unique find. The cover is by Gospel Gossip, a band from Minneapolis that, as far as I can tell, hasn’t released anything new since 2014. Their sound is fitting for a Jesus and Mary Chain cover: loud and somewhat dissonant shoegaze that holds a kernel of pop in the mix.
The Mary Chain version of “On the Wall” is actually a departure from their usual sound: it’s quick and layered with a drum machine. (Darklands experiments with drum machines a lot.) The typically angsty tone of Jim Reid’s voice, combined with their typically angsty lyrics, gets lost in the almost perky sound. The guitar here is lovely, but it’s lighter, smoother, and overall more positive than the slower and more meditative atmosphere of the rest of Darklands: see “Deep One Perfect Morning.”
In contrast, the Gospel Gossip version sounds almost more like a Mary Chain song than the original version does. It is much slower and more atmospheric, with a trembling guitar line under the soft vocals. That makes the lyrics stand out even more. I find the contrast between the female singer and the line “These make me taste/Like a man” interesting. The drum line here doesn’t come from a machine. It feels almost like a heartbeat. At the end of the song, with the line “I’m like a clock,” the drumbeat starts to sound like a clock ticking. It’s an excellent, subtle touch. Then it builds into “I’m like a clock on the wall” and the crescendo is such an excellent payoff. Listen below:
I discovered The Jesus and Mary Chain almost exactly three years ago – and have been obsessed with them ever since – so I figured it was appropriate to talk about why!
I’d been listening to Brakesbrakesbrakes for about two years when I heard “Sometimes Always” off their album Give Blood. I loved that song and listened to it over and over without even realizing it was a JAMC cover. Digging on Pitchfork quickly set me straight – and then I fell into the most wonderful black hole of devouring everything Mary Chain I could get my hands on: Obscure live versions of “Nine Million Rainy Days.” Comparing which was better: Honey’s Dead or Munki? (Honey’s Dead gets my vote.)
Lyrically, the Mary Chain cover a lot of the same things from song to song: you get allusions to “honey” and “cherries,” and Jim talks about death, hell, and endless dark and rainy days. No wonder they helped kick off the shoegaze genre.
Despite all that darkness, the lyrics are soaked in often bright and super-saturated Wall of Sound-type guitar washes. The best illustration of the Mary Chain’s contrasts is their cover of the Temptations’ “My Girl.” The lyrics are sunny, yet Jim sings like his cat is dying.
I like all of these contrasts, but it was “Just Like Honey” that made me fall in love with the band. It was one of life’s perfect flukes: I discovered them almost by accident, yet they came along at just the right moment. I was going through a rough transition point in my life: I wasn’t sure if I should move to a new place or stay where I was and continue being unhappy. But when I put on “Just Like Honey,” it felt like a confirmation that I was headed in the right direction. The “Be My Baby” drumbeat, like some kind of hopeful heartbeat, made me feel safe and confident in my choice to leave. Listen to the girl as she takes on half the world indeed.