The Story Of Shoegaze In 7 Records

WHAT is shoegaze and where did it even begin? And who did it best? There are some answers but there are even more questions – like, for example, why?

Why did My Bloody Valentine do what they did? Why did they play their guitars like that? Why did Moose insert what we know now as the shoegaze sound into a perfectly acceptable indie-rock song? I don’t know, and they probably couldn’t say exactly why either.

At the time – around 1989 until around 1993 – shoegaze was a tiny scene. The name (as explained below) was used by a journalist after hearing a label exec say it, and it stuck. The bands played music often without verses and choruses and felt no need to act out rockstar fantasies on stage, preferring to stay still, focussed, tapping guitar pedals. Barely moving their hips.

They were derided for this, but it is one of the great things about it: the bands were (often) both men and women. There was no macho posturing. The whole gender thing became indistinct, helped in no small part by the amorphous, shape-shifting music.

The context was the end of 11 years of suffocating conservatism in Britain by Prime Minister Margaret ‘The Iron Lady’ Thatcher and her succession plan with the bland, faceless John Major. The internet was new and not widely used. It was a time of civil unrest with riots about new taxes and conditions in jails. Rave culture was building momentum, itself a kind of new punk.

Madchester was off its chops. Grunge was about to hit. Britpop – so clean and tidy and tuneful and chirpy – was waiting in the wings.

And so shoegaze became a sort of short-lived but incredibly powerful form of sonic rebellion, misusing the instruments to make something new. The antecedents were clear – The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Krautrock, Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain – and this was good lineage.

But in truth it was a tiny, insular scene. It became a kind of meme in the magazines who covered it. It was dubbed “the scene which celebrates itself”. Coverage of it also became a parody of itself. Critics found it hard to describe the music because it had few or indistinct lyrics and so much weird emotion just in the guitars. Once the phrase “sonic cathedrals” was used more than once, it became a laughing stock.

 

 

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, it’s just my favourites and some memories of the time. Shoutout to Spaceman 3 and Spiritualized, Swervedriver, Chapterhouse, Curve, Lush, Pale Saints, The Telescopes, Catherine Wheel, Mogwai, Ripe, and Drop City.

Shoegaze is also not only in the past tense. It has been re-born by a couple of new generations now and that only happens when the music was good to begin with. It’s funny that a term so despised by the original bands can be so accepted: the new breed including Melbourne’s own most excellent Lowtide and bands like The Cherry Wave (from shoegaze central, Glasgow); DIIV from Brooklyn; and Fazerdaze of Auckland, New Zealand, don’t seem to mind too much.

Neither do those who were there in the beginning and have reformed off the back of it. Slowdive’s self-titled record of 2017 was a triumph, as were their tours. Ride reformed in 2001 then again in 2014, and also released a record in 2017. Shoegaze – behold these sonic cathedrals.

Moose

Jack EP (Hut, 1991)

THE very term “shoegaze” – and its offshoots “shoegazer” or “shoegazing” – is awful and I couldn’t believe at the time that it took off. But remember that right through the ’90s two very important music magazines came out weekly, out of London: Melody Maker and NME.

Their writers were inventing scenes and genres left, right and centre to keep people buying their magazines and to be one ahead of the competition. What seems to have happened was a guy called Andy Ross, who ran the Food label and managed early Blur, hired someone who was dating the guy from Moose. So he went and saw Moose and Chapterhouse (and Ride, Slowdive et al) and got swept up in the whole emerging scene.

A few years ago he published his diary entries from the time which reveal he used the word “shoegazers” to describe Moose and others in 1991, like revealing the source of the Nile or some shit. The Holy Tabernacles. It was because they didn’t “perform” and preferred to be basically motionless playing their music.

He told a writer from the NME of his brilliant new descriptor. This was Steve Lamacq, who had already coined Fraggle (indie-rock in baggy shorts) and Camden Lurch (early PJ Harvey etc) so he had form, and he duly used it in print, passing it off as his own idea. Genre born. The bands despised it; those who reformed later grew to love it.

As for Moose, they were great; really rough around the edges and unpolished in their noise-scapes, which was a nice antidote to the hospital-grade cleanliness of some others. They did two fiery DIY EPs for Hut Records before moving on and going soft. The first The Verve album (A Storm in Heaven) was on Hut too, and guess what? It’s shoegaze.

My Bloody Valentine

‘Only Shallow’ (Creation, 1991)

THE masters. Everyone was simply in their vapour trail and any shoegaze band would fail to cite the spectacular, obtuse, gorgeous MBV as a major influence at their peril. Why? Because they invented it – in the modern context – with their three EPs You Made Me Realise, Glider and Tremelo and first album Isn’t Anything. Then perfected it on second album Loveless, of which ‘Only Shallow’ is the opening track.

The album took two years to make, at 19 studios. Figurehead Kevin Shields had by now struck upon an idea which became known as “glide” guitar – a Fender Jazzmaster with a modified tremolo arm. It was – he once said, recalling when he discovered it – a “melting” sound.

He was also into sampling and liked Meat Beat Manifesto, Nitzer Ebb and Skinny Puppy but he liked Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth (EVOL and Daydream Nation) more, and there it was. The Loveless album. It is what I’d call superhuman but it – like Ride and Slowdive and many of these picks – defies gender, with ‘Only Shallow’ pinned down by co-songwriter Bilinda Butcher’s fatigued, magical singing voice.

Shields often talked about taking rock music and rebuilding it to make it, in his words, “the remnant, the outline”. In this way My Bloody Valentine were as important to British music in the late ’80s/90s as Burial is in the new millennium. The trouble was Nirvana; Nevermind had been out a few months and grunge was already coming to kill our darlings.

Ride

Fall EP (Creation, 1990)

JUST magnificent. Slightly baggy – ie. influenced by the Manchester uprising of the time, The Stone Roses particularly, who in their early days were quite fey and Byrds-like. Opening track ‘Dreams Burn Down’ remains one of the best and most enduring shoegaze songs of all time probably (not probably, definitely, maybe) and it rightly found a place on Ride’s debut album Nowhere which was released not long after their superb run of three EPs, including this one, in just a few months.

There was a sense of building intensity through the three EPs which culminated here in the final track ‘Nowhere’. The song named the debut album to come but didn’t feature on it, and it showed that the micro-scene of young UK bands making this compelling new style of experimental rock music were A) Up for it; B) Forever in the debt of My Bloody Valentine; and C) actually experimental, rather than just posing.

The term “shoegaze” hadn’t been coined yet, Britpop wasn’t a thing yet (Blur in fact were playing with Ride and Chapterhouse in the early days); Oxford peers Radiohead hadn’t written ‘Creep’ yet; and raves were still deeply, deeply underground. Ride, however, still students, were about to emerge blinking into the mainstream, the insular genre’s first unwilling poster-children.

‘Dreams Burn Down’ still feels so alive and vibrant and LOUD. Mark Gardener’s gender-neutral voice and his and Andy Bell’s equally coruscating and tender guitars were – and are – a revelation. Interesting that Bell later joined Oasis – Britpop and grunge effectively killed the first generation of shoegaze bands.

Slowdive

‘Alison’ (Creation, 1993)

THE next generation of shoegaze came not long after the first. This is the second best ‘Alison’ song ever written, the first was by Elvis Costello, but let’s not get distracted.

Slowdive, from Reading, named themselves after a Siouxsie and the Banshees song. They made an album in ’91 called Souvlaki (with ‘Alison’ opening the show) two years later. More subdued than their peers perhaps; more of a Cocteau Twins, A.R. Kane and Galaxie 500 influence. Yet the tunes ignited quietly and majestically every time.

‘Alison’ takes flight around a minute in, multitudes of guitars, just multitudes, but then it drops again. Slowdive were relatively conventional in that sense. It’s possible to track many of their songs back to ‘8 Miles High’ by The Byrds. ‘Alison’ even has a distinct narrative – can anyone say what the abstract poetry of MBV or Ride was actually about?

Yet here was Neil Halstead, a country music fan, seeming to sing of a girl and her mystery sister and drugs and their altered states (“With your talking and your pills/Your messed-up life still thrills me”) but also possibly about death and remembering someone who is missing: “I guess she’s out there somewhere.” It’s ambivalent and almost semi-conscious, and utterly beautiful.

Pretty cool too that the intro is a dead ringer for New Zealand band Straitjacket Fits’ ‘Lay Down In Splendour’, from 1990. As outlined elsewhere here the Flying Nun bands were into this aesthetic waaaaay back.

Teenage Fanclub

Everything Flows (Paperhouse, 1990)

“NOT shoegaze!” they will cry, and the band moved further and further away from it with every step after debut album A Catholic Education. But instead of MBV, Teenage Fanclub came from Neil Young, Big Star, and Sub Pop.

Everything Flows is pure heads-down guitar rock, plain as day, simple as day. Two guitars, three singers. That’s why it pushes me toward Neil Young and Crazy Horse and their sound in ‘Down By The River’ and ‘Cortez The Killer’: maxed-out but kinda straight-down-the-line. The outro on ‘Everything Flows’ is one of the finest and most powerful moments of the era. Even the whole back half of the song. It’s hypnotic and mesmerising.

The song is about a feeling, and it’s only referred to as “the feeling” which is cool because that’s what we’re dealing with here. Shoegaze is a feeling, super loud with tiny shifts in timbre echoing the white noise of the outside world. The feeling is … I don’t know what? “I’m looking for a place to go, but only for a little while. And then the feeling.” It could be the secret manifesto of shoegaze, this song.

Underground Lovers

‘I Was Right’ (Polydor/Guernica, 1992)

IT was happening in Australia too, of course. All the great ’90s stuff did, concurrently: shoegaze, grunge, techno. Whatever else, everything else. They weren’t called shoegaze and most of their songs aren’t but this single from Leaves Me Blind just is.

It was very much in the moment. Philippa Nihll’s voice is soft-focus even though she’s defiant. Just one guitarist in this band: Glenn Bennie. An individual wall-of-sound, his very own homemade sonic cathedral.

The clip for this has Philippa windblown and riding a motorcycle for most of it, intercut with flashes of Glenn’s guitars: Fender Jazz, Fender Precision, Vox Teardrop. When it breaks down, it’s like New Order meets MBV. Amazing stuff.

I remember seeing them around this time at the Prince of Wales in Melbourne. It was off the hook, somewhere in the sweet spot between a rave, a mosh and a symphony orchestra made up only of guitars. During this song and the others like it – when we stopped dancing like Bez – there was nowhere to look but down, as the floor opened up to the upside-down, where all was chords and noise and infinity.

Bailter Space

Thermos (Flying Nun, 1990)

IF one of the key performance indicators of good shoegaze is the ability to control and ultimately withhold chaos, then Bailter Space are right there. Their history of experimental noise-rock and vast walls of sound – as a three-piece band – go right back to the rich post-punk scene in Christchurch, New Zealand.

As The Gordons, they were too loud and atonal even for Flying Nun who ignored them at the time but re-released some of their stuff later. The Gordons morphed into Bailter Space with (eventually) the same members and started making more melodic tunes but with no less intensity.

Thermos is their second album, and while some of the tunes go toward a sort of industrial sound much of it is classic shoegaze. Songs like ‘Fused’, ’Ad Man’, ‘Fish Eye’, ‘Earth Fed’, and ‘Skin’ exist on drone, monotony and that idea of turning back from chaos right at the edge of it only to return again and again and again.

Like so many of their Kiwi peers, Bailter Space took their main cues from Joy Division and so it is here, particularly in Alister Parker’s lyrics about future worlds and disassociation and dystopia; skin, machines, fires in the sky. Just your common science fiction nightmares. Yet his songs have no narrative, just imagery, which in 1990 put them right in the shoegaze pocket. It’s as if he was speechless, submerged by the sound and only able to get out a word or two of warning.

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