Sound of Confusion
How Shoegaze Defied Critics and Influenced A Generation
They call it the "holocaust section” and it can last upwards of 25 minutes. For almost 20 years — give or take a 13-year hiatus — it’s been anticipated and feared at every My Bloody Valentine show, including a string of reunion gigs for the recently resurrected band, to the excitement of deafened ears and nauseated stomachs. Author Mike McGonigal, who wrote about the band’s Loveless album for the 33 1/3 book series, described it as "what it must be like to stick my head inside a jet engine.” After a reunion show in June, Bradford Cox (Deerhunter, Atlas Sound) blogged that "it was the single loudest thing I have ever experienced. The sound moved my face. My balls retracted. It was like standing in front of the mouth of hell.”
This powerful sonic blast is the middle segment of "You Made Me Realise,” My Bloody Valentine’s 20-year-old, four-minute single. Described to McGonigal by MBV singer, guitarist and producer Kevin Shields as "such a huge noise with so much texture to it, it allowed people to imagine anything,” with this one song MBV started a sonic revolution that has lasted two decades.Shields and MBV are revered for their studio trickery and musical innovation, all the more so because their classic 1991 swansong, Loveless, will go down in history as one of the greatest albums ever made. But MBV’s longest-lasting achievement was popularising a short-lived period of music built on introspective, often morose songs masked with transmutation between noisy and serene soundscapes.
The press mostly called it "shoegazing,” a term met with hesitation by those in the scene and overwhelming praise from critics with something new to write about. There were brief flirtations with chart success by innovators My Bloody Valentine and pin-ups Ride, but the splash of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991 brought the advent of grunge. Unlike shoegazing — a scene that never had a true figurehead, arguably due to MBV’s failure to complete a long sought-after Loveless follow-up — grunge swept the world. The more mainstream Britpop scene moved in on the ’gazers territory in 1993 (even converting a few, like Ride and Lush, who swapped distortion pedals for crisp jangle and straight-up hooks) to become a global phenomenon. From there, it was only a matter of time before the introverted kids that eschewed an image for the sake of the music would either fold or reinvent their sound.
But a funny thing happened after those pioneering bands disassembled their pedal boards. Their legacy continued — not so much in the homeland of its birth, but worldwide, particularly in North America. Labels like Darla, Clairecords and Morr released new records that captured the era’s spirit while evolving the sound of swirling guitars. As Shields said, the moment in "You Made Me Realise” that allowed people to imagine anything started being heard in unimagined scenes: the extended jams of post-rock, the chest-caving low end of drone and doom metal, the tranquil fringes of electronica and the more obvious realms of pop and rock.
Like any genre, "shoegazing” has many parents; most date the first traces back to the drugged-out noise and motionless performances of the Velvet Underground. More obviously, the groundwork was laid in early ’80s Britain by the Cure albums Faith and Pornography, by the swirling buzz-saw noise and anti-social behaviour of the Jesus & Mary Chain, the ethereal textures of Cocteau Twins and the hypnotic drones of Spacemen 3. Noisier sounds emanating from the U.S. — Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth — added another element.
"This is always a tricky question,” according to Clairecords founder Dan Sostrom. "There’s always a constant evolution of sound and it’s hard to pinpoint one specific instance. A semi-recent discovery for me is Rhys Chatham. He was making incredible guitar compositions in the ’70s that — to me — are a great precursor to the shoegaze movement. Nobody ever seems to name-check him though.”
As a scene, shoegazing coalesced in London around the release of MBV’s 1988 debut Isn’t Anything, inspiring dozens of bands to build effects-laden guitar sounds, playing loud, eddying melodies. The press caught on quickly, and independent labels like Creation and 4AD did too. Most bands were British: Slowdive, Ride, Lush, Moose, Pale Saints, Curve, the Telescopes, Seefeel, Revolver, Chapterhouse and Secret Shine, but the U.S. spawned the Swirlies, Medicine, Drop Nineteens, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Smashing Orange and Lilys. Even Canadians like An April March and Gleet (later SIANspheric) got in on it.In its earliest days, terms like "dream pop” were thrown around by the UK music press; British journalist Steve Sutherland even dubbed it "the scene that celebrates itself,” a dig at the incestuous tendency of bands to support their peers. But "shoegazing” is the term that stuck, to the chagrin of many participants.
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