Recent word that My Bloody Valentine are back together in the studio, albeit minus exasperated bassist Debbie Googe, re-recording tracks abandoned during sessions for the Glider EP prompted the sort of flurry of anticipation and speculation you might expect on news that JD Salinger was on the point of completing his follow-up to The Catcher In The Rye. 1991’s Loveless, released by Creation was feted by Alan McGee as an immortal and unparalleled work of rock’n’roll genius. That Alan McGee was wont to greet all Creation’s releases as immortal and unparalleled works of rock’n’roll genius should not detract from the compliment – on this occasion he was right.
Loveless was a flaming, phosphorescent reignition of the physical possibilities of rock music, a genre which even by the mid-Eighties, many had considered defunct. It was the culmination of a quite bizarre self-reinvention on the part of a band many had considered, frankly, insipid – imagine Donovan becoming Led Zeppelin. Loveless was the culmination and vindication of the resurgence of the rediscovery of the rock guitar as a sonically, emotionally, meaningfully and meaninglessly potent thing-in-itself, the ravages of Eighties post-modern irony and the rise of dance music notwithstanding. MBV were intensely, moltenly, anti-nostalgic. This was the future and this was an idea of what it was going to sound like.
Except . . . that was that. In the subsequent 12 years, and following a lucrative transfer from Creation to Island Records, Shields and MBV have maintained one of rock’s most conspicuous silences. Apart from a couple of cameo appearances with Primal Scream, a bit of mixing work for groups like Curve, “Outro” an instrumental contribution to a 2002 compilation . . . nothing. No full-blown My Bloody Valentine product, anyway.
Many put this down to what the see as Shields’ lackadaisical prevarication – he’s fended off inquisitors over the years with vague, the-dog-ate-my-studio-type excuses and promises of imminent new material. But perhaps the real answer is more complex than that, touches on issues broader than the mere dithering of one errant guitar genius.
My Bloody Valentine started up in Dublin in the early Eighties, when Kevin Shields and Colm O’ Ciosoig met through a little punk band called The Complex. They hooked up with one Dave Conway performing vocal duties and acquired their moniker, taken from a Hollywood b-movie. In a show of determination to forge their own musical identity they left Dublin for the continent. “In Dublin, if you put a stick in the spokes, if you want to do something different, they don’t want to know,” Colm once remarked. After a few abortive gigs in Amsterdam they became abandoned there, lapsing into the sort of helpless penury and squat living they’d have to get used to over the next few years, with Shields forced to earn a living cleaning out cowsheds. Finally, in 1985 they cut their first release, a mini-LP that was raucous but under-produced and derivative by groups like The Birthday Party. Discouraged, the band briefly went their separate ways, Shields back to Dublin, Colm and Dave to the Centrepoint hostel in London.
They regrouped, however, with Debbie Googe now on board and, under the wing of Creation associate Joe Foster and their sound began to take on a more streamlined, sweeter, approach, very mid-Eighties in its mid-Sixties feel, idyllic but listless. They were one of a number of groups travelling in this musical direction including The Wedding Present. Primal Scream, The Shop Assistants, who would be gathered together on the NME’s now famous C86 compilation, a landmark moment (some might say indictment) of mid-Eighties indie. They made EPs with sickly titles like Sunny Sunday Smile. They seemed to have found their small niche.
Then a frustrated Dave Conway left the band and the whole structure and emphasis within MBV began to change. Although Conway, lyrically had shown a dark, mischievous streak (he would later attempt a pulp teen novel) this hadn’t really soaked into the fabric of the music which still seemed tentative and in keeping with the dull indie times. Even with the recruitment of Bilinda Butcher, the band did not initially metamorphose as EPs like Strawberry Wine attest. Indeed, her girly, deadpan vocals made them seem if anything, still more generic – a sad boy’s Primitives. This, however, was an awkward transitional period for the band. (Vocals had always been problematic for MBV – among those who auditioned for them were a chap from Yorkshire who delivered heavily accented raps condemning nuclear war). When Shields finally got to arrange and take charge of the band’s music, however, a miraculous implosion took place – MBV became about the sounds of the guitar. “I’m too obsessed with what can still be done with that instrument,” Shields once said. “There’s something organic, live about it, like a living animal. I fall in love with guitars.”
The first, strange fruits of this was 1987’s You Made Me Realise, an astonishing fast-cut psychedelic blur of a song, spinning like a carousel right off its axis and rolling off God knows where. It should have been a Melody Maker Single of the Week but this writer was so stunned at MBV’s metamorphosis that he could only gibber confusedly, including it as an afterthought in that week’s column. Critics had been used to kicking MBV up and down the pages of the music press but now, derision turned almost overnight into an almost embarrassing orgy of awestruck infatuation. Live, MBV would take to extending the mid-section of “You Made Me Realise” into a ten minute, sustained peal of white noise. Shields loved it (“one night we extended it to 30 minutes”). Maybe this was a case of guitar-pissing on all those crits and doubters who’d ignored MBV or kicked sand in his face over the years.
Holdout cynics did suggest that MBV were merely Mary Chain copyists, resorting to feedback to hide a multitude of inadequacies. That was a misapprehension, however. As Shields protested, MBV didn’t dally with effects for their own sake but were engaged in a far more subtle, more layered, more transformative studio process. The details of this are a little techie and unmagical – overdubs, bass distortion pedals, sampled and reprocessed feedback, channelling a tremolo through a Fairlight V2000. The cumulative drift and gist of Shields’ approach, however, was overwhelming, the implications staggering. In an interview, Shields once said that the only guitarists he liked were Jimi Hendrix and Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis. That was pertinent. Hendrix had enlarged the possibilities of rock guitar way way beyond the imaginings of his merely virtuoso contemporaries, while Mascis was one of a number of proto-grunge guitarists from across the Atlantic sending a hurricane through the whimsical, tumbledown structures of indie Britrock. Shields would develop and systematise the raging, petulant, unchannelled guitar energy of Mascis and co.
On 1988’s Isn’t Anything, Shields and Bilinda Butcher shared vocal duties and what was immediately striking was the wonderfully disproportionate relationship between the gargantuan, distressed sturm und drang of the guitarsound and the fragile and enervated voices. “Soft As Snow (but Warm Inside)” seems literally to groan under its own weight. It was an inversion of the conventional mode of expressing passion and power onstage musically – the singer centre stage, unleashing vibrato broadsides of heartfelt defiance, projecting and emoting in the grand manner as the musicians provided a deferential and unobtrusive velvet backdrop. From Whitney to Robbie, from Hucknall to Bono, from Celine to Sinead, this is the way it has always been done, always will be done. With MBV, however, even as the guitars sandblasted your eardrums, it was as if they weren’t all there, as if the energy invested in the sound had all but spent them. If you wanted to get all post-structuralist about it, you might gibber something about MBV demonstrating the notion of the death of the Author (or singer, or central human presence) and the rise of the primacy and pleasure of the text (the “text” here being the music).
Lyrically, this theme of was played out in sexual imagery, on songs like “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, sex, like the guitars, wasn’t an empowering force but debilitating. There’s something faintly, unhealthily sadistic/masochistic about the way in which Bilinda’s small, drowsy, concussed vocals are ravaged in these songs. “Love me black and blue”, she sings on “No More Sorry” (actually a deeply moving and emotionally pertinent account of abuse). Bilinda offers the more prosaic explanation that by the time they came to record her vocals she’d been up all night and was practically asleep. This, also, was key to the crux of My Bloody Valentine. As well as the odd mental side-effect of a bit of grass, Shields would become interested in the notion of hypnogogia, which, he explained, is “the term for that state just before sleep when you have brief, surreal flashes of scenes, almost like cartoons”. On tracks like “Several Girls Galore” and especially “All I Need” MBV were beginning to emulate musically that fuzzy state on the periphery of consciousness – time lags, sudden starts, illusory shapes leaping out at you from the hailstorm of sound.
1991’s Loveless was a long time in the making. Earlier that year, Shields offered an ominous pointer for future difficulties when he spoke airily of sitting in the studio for hours, days waiting for guitar inspiration to strike. “And if nothing happens for a fortnight then that’s £6,000 down the drain. It’s only money.”
However, Loveless proved more than worth the wait and poor Alan McGee’s fretting. Strangely, on “Soon”, which enjoyed an Andy Weatherall remix, they slid effortlessly in with the baggy times, the riff rotorblading upward as Colm and Debbie reveal a versatile, rhythmical element that would remain tantalisingly untapped. Elsewhere, however, this was the noisenik yet evanescent MBV of Isn’t Anything, only way more so. On the ravaged “Only Shallow”, Bilinda’s vocals are as insubstantial as condensation, yet strangely the more effective for that. Meanwhile, the guitars scrape across the song like a giant chalk. The stunning “Blown A Wish” seems almost to capture the condition of infatuation in all its quivering incandescence while the sensual roar of “What You Want” seems to add a new colour to the rock prism.
It’s with “To Here Knows When”, however, that My Bloody Valentine pulled out every stop and achieved something like transcendence. As elsewhere on Loveless, the lyrical content is negligible, all but burnt up by the sonic firestorm that blows back and forth between the speakers. “To Here Knows When” floods your head with wave after undulating wave of mauve, pink and blood red, twisting and shifting strangely in pitch as almost to make you feel nauseous with joy. “There’s a lot of things going on,” Shields told me enthusiastically. “We really wanted people to check their stereos with this one. There’s things in it that even the engineers barely remember doing, tons of really subtle inflections. And yet it’s just one guitar.”
Strange connections: In 1968, Bob Beamon leapt an astounding 8.90 metres to set a new long jump record. The same year, Jimi Hendrix made Electric Ladyland, an album which seemed to launch rock way beyond the pit into the 21st century. In 1991, one Mike Powell finally broke Beamon’s long-standing record with a leap of 8.95 metres. Similarly, that year, Loveless exceeded even Hendrix’s sonic extremism. Both records still stand. Loveless was rock music taken to a point of near-complete ecstasy/unconscious, to a point of abstraction, perhaps total wipeout. It has never been exceeded.
In the immediate aftermath of MBV’s success came a slew of imitators in the form of the so-called shoegazing scene – groups like Ride and Slowdive who offered an often fuzzily pleasant but more dilute and manageable version of the MBV sound – it was a scene which eventually evaporated. MBV did have the consolation of being a band’s band, with Shields revered on both sides of the Atlantic by the likes of Nirvana, The Afghan Whigs, Primal Scream. A lucrative deal with Island and talk of Shields constructing his own recording studio seemed to promise a future of untrammelled exploration and sonic expansion, maybe even cross-fertilisation as Shields chatted excitedly of new developments in underground dance music like drum’n’bass. Yet misfortune would hamper him. The studio he built proved defective. Eventually, an impecunious MBV were forced to sell off old equipment and move into the house where their studio was kept, a cramped commune. Shields looked on helplessly as Britpop supplanted the avant-garde tendencies of early Nineties rock. “From a sonic point of view, English music has moved completely backwards,” he complained in 1999. “Everything is justified in terms of the past.” Meanwhile, however, Shields was unable to produce something that lived up to his vaulting aesthetic ambitions.
And maybe he never can, maybe that’s the point. Perhaps “To Here Knows When” (which actually went top 30 as part of the Tremelo EP) wasn’t a new beginning for rock but an end – less a show of strength than a final, spectacular haemorrhage, the last supernova, an unconscious act of self-immolation. To attempt exceed it has meant drifting off into the more amorphous and iconically less effective realms of keyboards, sampling, electronica and sound engineering. Maybe Loveless is a compendium of the last things left that could be done with a guitar, the last hope rock music had for reinventing itself. Or does Mr Shields have one last shot in his quiver? Will we find out? The answer, let’s hope, is soon.