Friday, June 20, 2008

An Illustrated Guide To... My Bloody Valentine

Let's start with a round of hipster word association with that name. Two albums of boundary-pushing bliss; nearly bankrupting Creation; fastidious attention to detail; shoegazing; haven't done anything for years. Well, there's varying amounts of truth to all of that, but the bigger picture is far less complicit with easy pigeonholing. As the band limber up for the first of five long sold out nights at the Roundhouse following last week's two ICA 'rehearsals' that seem to have been nothing of the sort, plus remastered versions of those two albums in July - how long did that process take, do you think? - this is how a goth inspired jangly band from Dublin ended up creating a genre out of next to nothing and then, some prevarication later, blasting it apart.

Kevin Shields was actually born in Queens, New York on 21st May 1963, moving with his family to Ireland when he was ten. The youngest of five, he had a Catholic upbringing but had his head turned by glam and punk, and at fifteen joined The Complex, an Oi!-style punk band which also featured drummer Colm O'Ciosoig. Having toyed with becoming a Butthole Surfers-esque noise band, in 1983 the pair formed a band with singer Dave Conway and his keyboard playing girlfriend Tina, naming the band after Paramount Pictures' flop attempt to cash in on the post-Friday The 13th slasher film boom two years earlier (which, in a case of art imitating, um, art, is currently being remade.) With limited opportunities at home the band moved to Holland and then Berlin, where they recorded the mini-album This Is Your Bloody Valentine, released in January 1985, an unfocused Cramps/Birthday Party inspired thrash featuring only the odd distortion pedal to suggest later developments. The band moved to London a few months later and Tina left, the remaining trio bringing in a permanent bass player for the first time, friend of a friend Debbie Googe, formerly of Somerset anarcho-punks Bikini Mutants.

December saw the Geek! EP, which apparently fetches up to $200 on the open market, followed by The New Record By My Bloody Valentine EP the following September. It was with this record, released on former Creation associate Joe Foster's Kaleidoscope Records, that the band moved into waters somewhere between C86's dark jangle and Jesus & Mary Chain's feedback frenzies. The Primitives' label Lazy Records put out the Sunny Sundae Smile EP in February 1987, a further coalescing of the wall of noise melodies that would go a little way towards the MBV trademark sound.

Sunny Sundae Smile

Shortly after its release Conway decided to leave due to ill health and what he saw as a failure to reach personal potential. After music press adverts for a new singer failed to work Shields became co-vocalist alongside Bilinda Butcher, a fan and another friend of a friend who Shields also taught to play guitar. While getting themselves together, the newly reconfigured band held off demands for an album with two late 1987 releases, August three-track EP Strawberry Wine and November four-tracker Ecstacy (later combined as Ecstacy And Wine). While still buzzsaw bubblegum, an ethereality started to creep in, aided by Butcher's vocals, that began to mark them out seperately.

Maybe it was this that impressed Alan McGee in January 1988 when MBV played with his own band Biff Bang Pow!; McGee has been quoted as saying he felt he'd found the British Husker Du. Approaching them about an initial single deal for Creation Records, agreement was met about an EP, released in August 1988 officially without a title but usually referred to after its storming opener You Made Me Realise, which buried a pop melody under layer after layer of distorted and feeding back guitar, including a section of pure white noise where a bridge would normally be. This was track two.


It went down so well that another four-track EP, led by the oddly off-key, tender yet brutal Feed Me With Your Kiss, followed immediately before the eventual debut album, November 1988's Isn't Anything. Shields had learnt how to work the studio and the band pushed themselves, deliberately existing on two hours sleep a night, creating a sound rarely heard even in the post-J&MC age - some of the Chain, some Cocteaus, some Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Spacemen 3, sure, but never together like this. Rushed along by O'Ciosoig's athletic drumming, the hazy, cut-throat guitar lurches and rushes combined with boy-girl vocals that sounded almost too casual, made for what had been known in previous years as 'dream-pop' only more explicit, while the inscrutable lyrics dealt with alienation, disorientation and suicide but most of all contributing to what Simon Reynolds identified three years later as 'vampiric'. "And, of course, the way the vampire myth works is as sexual allegory - the rush of blood away from the head, the idea that excess brings on pallor and neurastenia, that sex makes you ill."


Right, technicals. As well as varied open tunings, analogue phasing onto tape and reverse reverb effects - he claims there were very few actual overdubs on either album - Shields had developed a form of guitar playing involving adjusting and taping up the tremelo arm of his Fender Jaguar so its pitch could be constantly bent while playing almost normally, a manoevure he dubbed 'glide guitar', where "the sounds just seem to be there, floating around". Shields told Guitar World magazine in 1992 "about ten years ago, I virtually gave up playing guitar because I thought I could never do anything as truly different as most of the guitarists I liked... I decided just to follow my whims, play for a laugh, go out and jam on garage rock. That's how this band started." Inevitably, plenty of guitarists were inspired to try and work out how he did it, usually by buying a shitload of pedals. In fact the term 'shoegazing' was coined in 1990 by Sounds magazine to describe the way Russell Yates of fuzzy janglers Moose would have his lyrics taped to the floor, but the NME picked it up to refer to pedal studiers such as Ride and Slowdive, as well as anyone else from the Thames Valley region who liked distortion such as Swervedriver and Kitchens Of Distinction. The Melody Maker preferred the soubriquet The Scene That Celebrates Itself, a clique-antipathating statement that got well reused when Blur appeared.

It was from the land of the shoegazers that the band went into the studio in February 1989 without any new songs written, pretty much to see what happened with the idea that the album would be more studio based anyway. What happened has gone down in legend and myth. Seventeen engineers, including co-producers Shields and O'Ciosoig, are listed, although Shields has said that they were included even if all they did was make the tea; the bulk of the actual work has been ascribed to Alan Moulder (later U2, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Moby) and when he was later called away to other work Anjali Dutt (Oasis, Boo Radleys). The work took place in an estimated nineteen studios, often spending a single day inside before deeming it unsuitable. In the meantime two EPs emerged, both merely crediting Moulder as engineer. The first, Glider, appeared in April 1990 and was notable for lead track Soon, even by the standards previously set out a groundbreaking statement melding hip-hop drum loops (Shields had previously sampled Public Enemy beats for a rare B-side), Philip Glass keyboards, enigmatic vocals and power drill guitars. Brian Eno said it "set a new standard for pop. It's the vaguest music ever to have been a hit". That was followed in February 1991 by the further adventures in narcotic squall of the Tremelo EP.


Vocals - engineered by Guy Fixsen (Breeders, Stereolab, Sundays, Pixies BBC sessions), lyrics written overnight before early morning recording - were only recorded in May 1991, 27 months after work began, and constituted Bilinda Butcher's first contributions bar a few lyrics. Shields had also taken over studio bass duties, as he often had over the previous three years (while an admirer of Googe's live bass playing, he thought it not quite what he wanted on the records), while O'Ciosoig spent large parts of the sessions out of action ill and contributed direct recordings to only two tracks, otherwise supplying drum patterns which Shields sampled and cut into shape, a technique he wasn't averse to applying all over the album.

If this was difficult for the band it was impossible for Creation, who were still independent and had Primal Scream emerging but had been fighting off debts already for several years. Co-founder Dick Green suffered a nervous breakdown he partly ascribes to the wait and McGee reputedly had to dip into his father's life savings to pay off studio creditors. Even the mastering took nearly two weeks after the editing computer threw the entire album out of phase - and this an album recorded in mono to emphasise the guitar sound, something he'd briefly tried to inflate acoustically in the studio with limited success by building a huge tent to play in. The estimated total bill is still a matter for much debate - Green says £270,000, Shields claims to have calculated £140,000, insiders told the Melody Maker a figure around £250,000. Shields also estimated that the total recording time added up to four months. McGee understandably never quite forgave Shields for making an album that never stood a chance of recouping (it peaked at number 24), refusing to nominate the album for the first Mercury Music Prize, letting their contract quietly elapse once promotion was completed and as recently as last year dismissing them in the Guardian as "my joke band" (not to be confused with the "genius artist" epithet he gave Shields three years earlier in the same publication).

Oh yeah, the record. Released in November 1991, Loveless was far from a joke. The Isn't Anything sonic blueprint was pushed almost to snapping point, ethereal melodies vying with densely whacked-out effects and sonic envelopes, guitars coiling around each other, lyrical meaning buried in the mix, almost like ambient dreampop encased in a centrifuge. It really is an album that defies logical explanation. That's why all reviews of it read like this.

When You Sleep

Creation did finance a short tour to promote the album before washing their hands of MBV, and it's one which has gone down in legend, Mojo later rating it the second loudest in history. Described by NME eyewitness Danny Kelly as "more like torture than entertainment", it chiefly went down in legend for You Made Me Realise, more specifically the 'holocaust' section where that mid-section white noise breakdown was extended... and extended... and extended, reputedly for up to half an hour but more often for around a still excruciating ten minutes. Basically, however long it took Shields to ascertain that everyone present and unprepared had been sent into a sensory deprivation form of delerium, hypnosis and general altered state of consciousness by the sheer volume of the sustained attack.

You Made Me Realise

Now you know what it's supposed to sound like here's what we mean. Not the greatest sound recording, and actually recorded on the Glider tour in May 1990 when the holocaust is in a work in progress three minute form (starting at 2:58), but watch for the bloke about thirty seconds into it who unwisely decides this is just the time to enact a stage dive.

Fairly certain Shields never tried this arrangement, though.

So what then? My Bloody Valentine signed to Island Records in October 1992 for what Shields reckons was £500,000, which funded a purpose build studio in Streatham. However problems with its mixing desk led to a falling out with the label and eventually among the personnel, and the label payroll was eventually made one band lighter in 2001. Two covers did appear, Louis Armstrong's We Have All The Time In The World for a charity compilation and Wire's Map Ref. 41°N 93°W for a tribute album. Rumours spread - at least three albums' worth of new songs shelved or delivered to the label with no outcome, experiments in jungle and D'n'B inspired by pirate radio, houses in advanced disrepair and/or covered in barbed wire, Shields keeping up to twenty chinchillas around the place (actually, Shields and Butcher have confirmed that one). Essentially, when it came down to it, Shields could never find a way to gainfully follow an album that pushed back the boundaries of his chosen sphere. He kept himself busy, though - he contributed the usual clanging guitar noise on record and live to Primal Scream's XTRMNTR and Evil Heat albums, recorded with the Manic Street Preachers, contributed four solo tracks to the Lost In Translation soundtrack which was nominated for a Bafta, added live backing to Patti Smith's readings from her book The Coral Sea - a live recording is imminent - has remixed Mogwai, Yo La Tengo, the Go! Team and Placebo among others and has worked with a Canadian dance company and French Mazzy Staralike Le Volume Courbe. Speaking of Mazzy Star, O'Ciosoig was the other half of Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions, Butcher added vocals for Dinosaur Jr and Collapsed Lung and Googe released three albums as the main member of Snowpony alongside ex-members of Curve and Stereolab. Meanwhile the experimental Athens, Georgia band Japancakes became the most explicit of the many bands who hold MBV in thrall when they covered Loveless in its entireity for an album released last November, vocals replaced by pedal steel guitar and cello.

However, in the official year of the comeback, 2007, and in the midst of 'nu-gazing', Shields told Magnet magazine in January "we are 100 per cent going to make another My Bloody Valentine record unless we die or something", and in November revealed to Ian Svenonius out of Nation Of Ulysses, The Make-Up and Weird War on his music talk show Soft Focus that he was tinkering with an album comprising a three quarter finished record started in 1996 with Butcher plus "a compilation of stuff we did before that in 1993–94 and a little bit of new stuff." Although nobody has since been any more forthcoming on the latter, live dates were shortly afterwards announced for this year, including Bestival, Electric Picnic, Benicassim, Roskilde, Fuji Rock and the US ATP, as well as these Roundhouse dates and a short North American tour. At the ICA warm-up, You Made Me Realise lasted twenty minutes. From here, who knows where.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post and well informed, unlike some other blogs spewing out completely ridiculous shit like "without MBV there'd be no Sonic Youth"

Very glad you clarify the term "shoegaze" too. Even better that you recognise the distinction between the 'shoegaze' scene as invented by NME and 'the scene that celebrates itself' of Melody Maker.

Thanks for adding my link to your blog.