Staring At the Floor, Tearing Off the Roof: A Brief History of Shoegaze
About 25 years ago, I went to see the great indie-rock band Dinosaur, Jr. play in an old movie theater that had been converted into a music venue. After years of neglect, the place teetered between majesty and decay. A little rehab could have restored it to art-deco glory, while a middling tremor could have reduced it to rubble. Before Dinosaur, Jr. played, the members of opening band shuffled onto the stage and — without making eye contact with the audience or each other — plugged in their guitars and unleashed swirling, deafening sheets of sound in which distortion, feedback and harmonics comprised elements of songs that came on like dreamscapes, simultaneously ethereal and brutally physical. The effect was hypnotic, both for the audience and for the members of the band, who stared passively at the floor even as they tore the roof off the old edifice. I didn’t know it, but I was experiencing My Bloody Valentine, whose album “Loveless” — now regarded as a classic — had just been released. It was both beautiful and punishing, and it marked a pivotal moment for a style that had come to be known as “shoegaze” for the way that the bands cast their eyes toward their feet as they played. One of My Bloody Valentine’s peers in the early ‘90s scene was Slowdive, whose 1993 album “Souvlaki” remains a touchstone of the era. Slowdive disbanded in 1995, but recently reunited and released its self-titled album in May of this year. In honor of the band, which plays at The Truman on Friday, Nov. 3, here’s a brief look at five groups that helped to define a sound.
The Jesus and Mary Chain
This Glaswegian band became alternative rock icons virtually from the moment that their 1985 debut album “Psychocandy” hit record store shelves. Brothers Jim and William Reid wrote songs that could have been sunny pop confections (the Beach Boys are often invoked as an influence) and then did extreme violence to them with squalling guitars and cavernous echo. The other band most commonly mentioned as an inspiration is The Velvet Underground, but not the version that came up with “Sunday Morning” or “Pale Blue Eyes.” The antecedent here is “White Light, White Heat,” an album that is simultaneously ugly, noisy and exhilarating. The Jesus and Mary Chain probably arrived just a bit too early to be considered an official part of any shoegaze movement, and their songs were often too concise and direct anyway, but there’s no doubt that the band’s excoriating sonic approach provided the style with its signature sound.
My Bloody Valentine
This Irish quartet felt around for its sound in the late 1980s until extensive experimentation and two years in the studio yielded “Loveless,” its second full-length album and a pinnacle in the annals of shoegaze. Bandleader Kevin Shields, a relentless perfectionist, employed an array of effects and an unconventional use of the tremolo arm that allowed him to expand and distort his guitar sound into something massive and amorphous. Combined with the crystalline, haunting vocals of Belinda Butcher, the result was often mesmerizing. After “Loveless,” Shields returned to the studio for months that stretched into years without producing a new My Bloody Valentine album. The group slowly dissolved. But in 2013, they returned with “m b v,” an album that earned them universal acclaim, quite a feat for a band that spent two decades out of the spotlight.
Ride emerged from Oxford, England in 1990 as the shoegaze band most likely to hit it big, merging the neo-psychedelia of My Bloody Valentine with the more concise songcraft of The Stone Roses to create a sound that was simultaneously challenging and accessible. Their full-length debut, “Nowhere,” made them stars in the U.K. on the strength of tracks like “Vapour Trail” and the swirling, swelling “Polar Bear,” and then the 1992 follow-up “Going Blank Again” expanded Ride’s reach by reining in its sound. The music is still thick with guitars, but the atmospheric haze has been burned off by sun-kissed songs like “Twisterella,” which would sound great on the radio anywhere and anytime. After two more albums in the 1990s, the members went their separate ways, and guitarist Andy Bell went on to join Oasis and the Oasis spinoff Beady Eye. This past June, Ride released “Weather Diaries,” its first album in 21 years. A deeply satisfying set of guitar-drenched pop songs, it’s one of the year’s great left-field surprises.
Built around the songs, voices and guitars of Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson, Lush lived up to its name, drenching its songs in dreamy textures without the abrasive quality of many of its peers. And like most of those other bands, Lush released a handful of albums and EPs in the 1990s that made them famous in England and cult figures in the States. The album “Lovelife” (1996) was the band’s last release until a brief reunion in 2016, and it was much more of a straight-ahead pop affair that produced a series of ear-catching hit singles in the U.K., including the hard-driving “Ladykillers.”
Where My Bloody Valentine confronted listeners with its wall of sound, Reading, England’s Slowdive welcomed them with something warmer and less dense. Their second album, 1993’s “Souvlaki” (No. 2 on Pitchfork’s list of greatest shoegaze albums), is replete with echoes of hazy 1960s psychedelia. The term “dream pop” is often used to describe the music of the shoegaze bands of the 1990s, but never more aptly than with songs like “When the Sun Hits,” which perfectly balances volume, restraint and melody in a manner that allows you to bliss out while you rock out. Like many of their peers, Slowdive split up in the middle 1990s only to reform two decades later. Released in May 2017, the band’s fourth album — simply titled “Slowdive” — shows them to be wholly reinvigorated on a bracing set of songs that displays all facets of the band’s personality, from the delicate, pretty “Sugar for the Pill,” to the out-and-out ferocity of “Star Roving.” The result is one of the most enjoyable rock albums of the year.
—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He's on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.