Wednesday, July 23, 2008


My Bloody ValentineToday's music sucks. I want to talk about a time when music was good.

Wired recently posted a piece dredging up the "shoegazing" genre and what it is (or isn't) all about. Combined with the current My Bloody Valentine tour, it got me reminiscing.

When I was in college, I worked at my (first) university's radio station, WPSC. I eventually took over as music director in 1990. College radio in those days was the way a lot of little-known bands got discovered, so record labels would just send me shit all the time and I'd listen to it and see if there was anything good in the pile and if there was, I'd put it on the air.

I started noticing a lot of stuff coming out of England that had a similar, dreamy sound to it. Of course I was well-acquainted with goth and new wave bands from England, and I'd been a fan of bands like the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cocteau Twins for several years.

But this stuff was a little different; it was thick sounding, very melodic, heavy on the guitars, and alternating between poppy riffs in one song and noisy jam sessions in the next. The whole "wall of sound" thing. It was in some ways pretty similar to stuff you'd have heard in the late 1960's, and it was obviously heavily influenced by drug culture, but it was more modern and it was often pretty dark. Very different from anything I was hearing out of the United States, or even out of England just a couple years before.

LushIn the mid-90's, I transferred to NYU and started working in a little record store in the west village that was owned by a British guy, a German guy and an American woman. Naturally, we stocked British pop music, Euro-beat and trance, and American indie music. It was pretty awesome. By then I knew the name given to this movement - "shoegaze" - and I was a big fan of many of the bands and had seen a lot of them live. Even some old favorites, like the Cocteau Twins (who were total goths when they started out) had gotten roped in and hopped on the bandwagon.

The really shitty thing is that the British music press got hold of this group of bands and made it their mission to put them out of business. The term "shoegazing" itself is meant to be derogatory - the press coined it to refer to these bands because they're constantly looking down at their mass of pedal effects on stage. The British music industry is completely self-destructive - the instant a style gets at all popular, it's got a price on its head. It's almost like a contest to see who can nail the coffin shut. Article after article gets written slogging off every band attached to the genre in any way, until they're forced to break up or change their sound. This led directly to the death of the movement around 1995-1996.

(On the other hand, British bands also have pretty thin skin, as you can tell by the Wired article. It's easy for the press to push their buttons, and they know it.)

Anyway, check out video from some of my favorite shoegazers, and read some of their stories. If you like what you see, click any of the inline links to buy some CD's.

Slowdive - Alison

This song brings back serious memories for me. I'll leave it at that. I feel lost whenever I listen to it, still.

Somewhat funny story: the album this song is from is called Souvlaki. The band said they picked this name after visiting New York and seeing it written on a sign. They just liked the look and sound of it. They were embarrassed to discover later that souvlaki was a dish made of barbecued meat. They didn't realize it was a word that every New Yorker knew.

Less funny story: this album was savaged in the press, and the band changed their name to "Mojave 3" and their style to a sort of faux-country. It didn't work, and they faded into obscurity.

Lush - Sweetness and Light

Lush was my favorite band from about 1990 through 1993. I saw them live in both 1992 and 1995. The 1992 show at the Ritz in NYC remains to this day the best concert I have ever been to - and honest to god, I still hear people talk about that show randomly on the street every now and then. It was just a crazy show. A giant mass of people moving as one through the whole show, especially during "Sweetness and Light", which is from their best album Gala. I remember the band being backlit in blue during the entire song.

Lush - Nothing Natural

I made it my goal in life to meet Miki Berenyi - the lead singer - who I thought was the most beautiful woman in the world at that time. You know, what with the exotic face and the manic panic hair and the most amazing speaking voice I've ever heard and all. I did finally meet her at the 1995 show, and of course it was just incredibly awkward and weird. Oh well. I think she gave me a case of the "asian fetish", though, which I've found to be incurable.

Their 1992 album Spooky was almost as good as Gala. In fact, I liked it so much I named my cat after it. (Unfortunately, Spooky died young - feline leukemia. Very sad.) Then they went downhill. Their last album, 1996's Lovelife, was an attempt at going Britpop. It didn't work. Chris Acland, their drummer, committed suicide that same year, and that was the end of Lush.

Chapterhouse - Pearl

Dumb video but this is a classic song. The thing about shoegazer bands is that a lot of them had really big egos. Pretty obvious in this video. Someone loves him some closeups!

This song is really about 2 minutes longer than this - they cut it down for the video. Rachel Goswell of Slowdive sings backup. Also, as far as I know, they actually wrote the beat in the second half of the song - the same beat was used later by Siouxsie and the Banshees and also some hip-hop artist in the late 90's.

Chapterhouse only had one real shoegazer album (Whirlpool), though their last(?) album Blood Music might have actually been even better. It was more of an electronic-infused rock album. Unfortunately they never made videos out of any of the best songs on it.

The Cocteau Twins - Pink Orange Red

The Cocteau Twins straddled several genres and were also really their own thing, but they've got enough in common with other shoegazer bands that I put them here. For one thing, Robin Guthrie, the Twins' guitarist and main songwriter, produced Lush's Spooky album, among other songs of theirs. And Emma Anderson of Lush calls them her favorite band.

I've always thought that there were really two schools of shoegazing - one born from My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Spiritualized, and the other from the Cocteau Twins.

The Cocteau Twins (This Mortal Coil) - Song to the Siren

This is one of the Cocteau Twins' most famous songs and it's not even really theirs (or it really is, depending on your perspective). It's a cover song recorded under a different name and minus their bassist Simon Raymonde.

The record label at the forefront of the Twins' brand of shoegazing was called 4AD. They still exist, but they do different stuff now. Ivo Watts-Russell, who owned and ran the label, was a huge fan of the Twins, and they were his flagship band. But he was a fan of all his bands, so every once in a while he'd get them all together to do kind of an "all-star" thing that he would produce, and he called this "band" This Mortal Coil. (Incidentally, I had the pleasure of going out to dinner with Ivo and his girlfriend one night, and it was like being in the presence of royalty.)

This was the Cocteau Twins' biggest contribution to This Mortal Coil. David Lynch used it in Lost Highway.

It was a famous song at the time partly because it was the first time anyone could understand what Elizabeth Fraser was singing. She's famous for her intentionally indecipherable words. I used to be madly in love with this woman, probably because she always seemed like she was in need of rescue. She hid in her music, rather than using it to express herself. She was deeply disturbed for a long time - you can even see it in her eyes.

She came out of her shell on the album Four-Calendar Cafe, which is not coincidentally probably the worst Cocteau Twins album. But she sang intelligible lyrics about her life and her problems. It took away from the music itself, though, and it didn't sound much like the Cocteau Twins. I also saw them on this tour and they sounded really thin and not very good, and they played mostly songs from their previous two albums.

They sort of went back to their older style for their last album Milk and Kisses, and it is a great album. I saw them on this tour too, and I am glad I did. They were like a different band. They opened with "Pink Orange Red" - an old song to start the show! - and they played a ton of their back-catalog, but remixed in new ways. It was like they knew this would be their last tour, and maybe they did. That was in 1996, and as far as I'm concerned, their breakup that year was the death of the genre.

Fraser has turned up in other projects over the years. For example, she sang on Massive Attack's "Teardrop", which is now used as the theme song to the TV show "House". I'm not sure what Robin Guthrie or Simon Raymonde are doing.

My Bloody Valentine - Soon

I've talked about My Bloody Valentine before. Hell, I'll probably talk about them again. They are amazing. They inspired me to buy my Jazzmaster. Their album Loveless blew. my. fucking. mind.

My Bloody Valentine are survivors - they still exist, and in their original form. They're just not very active. Kevin Shields, their lead guitarist and songwriter, occasionally writes solo stuff and produces various things - he's worked on the soundtrack to several of Sofia Coppola's films, for example.

But the story of their fall from grace in the 1990's is infamous. They nearly dragged down 4AD's main competitor, Creation Records, with them. Given a $250,000 advance on their followup to Loveless, the band squandered it on a studio that never worked properly as Shields went through a nervous breakdown. At one point, he reportedly submitted 100 songs to the record label, all of which were rejected out of hand. He's also rumored to have nearly finished an entire My Bloody Valentine album before throwing it out as not up to standard.

But at least their story is not one of destruction by external forces. They weathered their internal storms and amazingly, despite 16 years apart and Shields' erratic behavior, they're now all back on tour together. Shields is once again promising an album to follow. I'll be there to see them in September, so this isn't the last you've heard of them.

My Bloody Valentine - Sometimes

Incidentally, this song actually was in "Lost in Translation", but this isn't that scene. I do think it was playing when they were going over Rainbow Bridge just like in this collage, but the rest of it seems a little cobbled together.

Sofia Coppola has good taste in music, I will give her that.

Ride - Twisterella

I really don't know much about Ride, but I always loved this song!


  1. Anonymous7:51 AM

    Sounds like you caught the tail end of the "Madchester" movement...

    Lush! I'd almost forgotten about them. Actually, my favourite songs of theirs are probably less "shoegazing" and more "grrl" - that is, "Hypocrite" off 1994's "Split" and "Single Girl" off 1996's "Lovelife"...

    Yeah that Ride song is a classic! We didn't get that music video here in Australia; we got a less performance-based one. Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept" also has a very similar sound and vibe; it makes we want to droop around the house (cf. also the music video for Sonic Youth's "100 Percent"...

  2. I always forget about the Manchester thing but yes, I was familiar with it. I remember reviewing Inspiral Carpets and Happy Mondays stuff for my radio station. I missed the Stone Roses' first album - I started paying attention probably a year after that, at which point the whole thing was in decline.

    I wasn't as into that stuff anyway, though I liked some of it. It didn't blow me away like some of the bands that came later did.

    I hated those two Lush albums you like :)

    ok maybe "hated" is too strong a word for Split, that album still has some songs that sound like them, they're just produced differently. Lovelife was just not Lush to me, though.

  3. Anonymous11:21 AM

    I suspect Lush started to become more "Britpop" in sound, which is more to my tastes. Probably due to my influences at the end of the Thatcher era, when the music was less wall-of-sound and more of a punk angry youth aesthetic.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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