MY BLOODY VALENTINE: the resurrection
director's cut, Spin, August 2008
By Simon Reynolds
My Bloody Valentine made a lot of noise in America in 1992. Figuratively: their album Loveless, released at the end of the previous year, had become a critical and hipster sensation. And literally, with a spring '92 tour of the US that's been rated as the second loudest in history. "I was too young to see it myself but here in LA it's a badge of honor have been at their show at the Roxy " says Brian Aubert of Silversun Pickups, just one of countless bands influenced by My Bloody Valentine's neo-psychedelic bliss-blast . "The legend goes it was so loud that people's shorts were blowing about and flapping from the sound waves. People's hair was rippling." On each night of the tour MBV climaxed their set with the Loud Bit--the "middle-eight" of "You Made Me Realise," actually a chasm of one-chord cacophony that the group sadistically stretched out for as long as twenty minutes, although it's hard to be totally sure with audience members losing track of time and some even losing consciousness.
After this deluge of din came a deafening silence. Seventeen years of it, a quiet that grew increasingly perplexing and frustrating for Loveless's ever-expanding legion of fans, pining for the sequel that never came. During that time the album's sales accumulated steadily (worldwide they're estimated at a quarter of a million) and the legend of its agonizingly difficult, protracted, and costly making swelled. So did the rumors about the band's unmaking, their collective spirit shattered by the struggle to create a follow-up to surpass Loveless. A tarnished halo of mystique gathered around My Bloody Valentine's leader, singer/guitarist Kevin Shields. This eccentric recluse and driven perfectionist became alt-rock's very own Brian Wilson, his grim wrestle with a Smile-like Unfinished Masterwork swallowing up a million dollars along with his group's will to live.
Now, long after most fans had passed through the stages of grief and reconciled themselves to the band's utter extinction, in a final confounding twist My Bloody Valentine have reformed, announcing a slew of tour dates and festival appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, plus remastered reissues of Loveless and its just-as-fabulous 1988 predecessor Isn't Anything. Shields has even, tantalizingly, alluded to the possibility of a new album.
For a group that would change the face of alternative music and release arguably the greatest rock record of the Nineties, My Bloody Valentine spent a mighty long time being mediocre. Formed in Dublin in 1984 by Shields and his drummer friend Colm O' Ciosig, for four years they eked out an existence on the British indie rock scene, where they stacked up a fairly substantial discography of singles, EPs and one album and for their pains were generally regarded as derivative and corny. In those formative years, their sound bore the heavy imprint of then-fashionable icons of UK indie, such as Nick Cave's psycho-blues outfit The Birthday Party and above all The Jesus and Mary Chain, whose feedback-drenched Sixties-evoking pop songs and riot-ravaged gigs made them the sensation of 1985. For a while un-originality served MBV well. In 1986, the UK music papers were desperately searching for the next Mary Chain and in typical literal-minded fashion latched onto Xeroxes of that group (rather something new but capable of instigating the same level of turmoil ). MBV enjoyed a smatter of way premature hype , soon to evaporate when the group's lack of genuinely distinguishing characteristics became apparent.
Around this time--early 1987--I met the group for the first time, at a gig where they were second from bottom of the bill: an amiable bunch, I thought, but decidedly retro with their Stooges circa 1969 haircuts. Later in the year an enthusiastic friend played me their single "Sunny Sundae Smile" and there was a discernible improvement: at least the Valentines were now ripping off the cutting edge of the American rock underground, the blizzard-guitar post-hardcore sound of Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. But with alt-America roiling with madcap creativity, groups like Sonic Youth, Big Black and Butthole Surfers, it was hard to care.
Career-wise, a turning point occurred in My Bloody Valentine's horizontal trajectory (you couldn't call it a "rise" at that point) across the UK indie scene, when they played support to another Sixties-influenced band, Biff Bang Pow. That group included Alan McGee, boss of Creation, the label that gave the world Jesus and Mary Chain and (later) Oasis. When MBV blew Biff Bang Pow offstage, McGee was convinced they were the UK's Husker Du, potently mixing " pure noise and pure melody" (as Shields put it), and he promptly signed them on the spot.
Musically, a crucial shift had also occurred, with the departure of original singer Dave Conway and arrival of Bilinda Butcher, who now shared vocals (and soon a bed) with Shields. The latter had launched himself into intensive experiments with guitar-texture, the first fruits audible on the ethereal 1987 single "Strawberry Wine" but really flourishing on their astonishing debut for Creation, the You Made Me Realise EP. On the eve of its release in August 1988, My Bloody Valentine played a one-day Creation Records festival in the sweltering confines of London's Town and Country Club. So high was the group's standing with McGee, MBV were headliners, placed above even veteran Creation acts like Primal Scream. I recall their performance as thrilling but shambolic, the delicacy of the EP's eerie "Cigarette In Your Bed"--a sort of Sonic Youth psycho-ballad--completely trampled.
A few months later I got to interview the Valentines about their next Creation EP Feed Me With Your Kiss and imminent album Isn't Anything at the squatted house where Shields and O' Ciosig lived. The location was only a few hundred yards from the Town and Country, in a part of North London called Kentish Town with a long-standing Irish population. Back then, occupying abandoned buildings was less harshly prosecuted by the UK authorities than nowadays and squat culture, with its free rehearsal spaces and grubby circuit of below-the-radar gigs, was vital to the ferment of UK music culture. For young bands struggling to get careers off the ground, not having to pay rent meant they could pour their slim resources (often gleaned from claiming unemployment benefit) into equipment. They could also afford to hang out, come up with ideas, do the long hard slog of shaking off influences and coming up with an original sound. "MBV wouldn't have gotten anywhere if we hadn't been able to squat," Bilinda Butcher told me. "You need somewhere you feel free to make a noise." O' Ciosig concurred: "If we hadn't squatted, we'd probably have got really depressed and left London. We sat around a lot, sure, but that's conducive to coming up with ideas. We wrote the 'You Made Me Realise' EP in a rehearsal room in our squat."
The building itself was pretty grotty. I remember a fridge so badly in need of defrosting, the doors couldn't be closed because of bulging ice, and the bizarre sight of the banister rail on the Victorian staircase, just hanging there surreally in mid-air, all its legs having been kicked away during a recent out-of-control party. In a murky upstairs room, I lowered myself gingerly into a shabby, slightly moist armchair and talked with the group for about three hours. It took that long to get stuff out of them. I was fearful throughout that the tape recorder wasn't going to pick up anything: the group were incredibly soft-spoken. On transcription, Butcher's faint and faraway tones could barely be extracted from the tape hiss. But then that was just like the group's music, which took the Jesus and Mary Chain's knack for "hidden melody" buried in feedback and Husker Du's love of smudging vocals into snowdrifts of open-tuned guitar to the outer limits. Listening you often wondered if a particular strand of high-end sound was a vocal harmony, a heavily-effected guitar, or an aural hallucination triggered by your ears being saturated by treble overload.
It transpired that MBV's lexicon of disorientingly innovative guitar-tones came from Shield's continuous sustained use of the tremolo arm (as opposed to the brief twinges favored by most guitarists) while he simultaneously strummed the strings frenetically, and from an effect called "reverse reverb". The result was what the group variously called "glide guitar" and "the not-really-there-sound".
"The thing is, the sound literally isn't all there," Shields explained. "It's actually the opposite of rock'n'roll. It's taking all the guts out of it, there's just the remnants, the outline." Isn't Anything's engineer Dave Anderson later claimed that Shields had got him to erase all the actual playing from the record and keep only the reverse reverb after-image of the chord-strum.
The technicalities of how MBV got their unique sound are secrets that a legion of bands scrabbled to work out in the years following Isn't Anything. What matters--then and now--is the effect on the listener, and why it struck such a resonant chord with audiences at that point in pop history. As Butcher explained to me, "It's like that bit in the middle of "You Made Me Realise", where it just levitates. You know it's there, and you know it's coming, but when it happens, half the time you forget it's on. Your mind completely wanders, you forget it, then you remember it."
Swoony oblivion and narcoleptic bliss were all the rage in alternative rock culture of the late Eighties and early Nineties. Dinosaur Jr's J. Mascis was the slacker icon of the era, hiding his face behind a curtain of hair and his melodies beneath a sandstorm of Big Muff distortion, mumbling his way through interviews and even on at least one occasion (with unlucky me) forgetting to turn up for them altogether. My Bloody Valentine's dazed-and-bemused aura and indistinct, non-thrusting presence was perfect for their music and perfect for the time. Like their American peers, their conversation had a curious quality of articulate inarticulacy. They talked quite eloquently about how they didn't really know what they were doing, had no concept or masterplan, were just drifting hazily through both the creative process and Life itself.
Underground rock groups of this era tended to mix Romanticism's classic ideals of "surrender" and "the sublime" with late Sixties psychedelic impulses (expressions like "blow your mind", "blissing out" and "wig out" were revived with only a faint patina of retro irony) plus their attendant drugs. What gave it a contemporary edge was the addition of a very late Eighties political fatalism and apathy that bordered on capitulation. In 1987, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had triumphed with her third election victory in a row; in America, two terms of Reagan would be followed in November 1988 with his Vice President George Bush taking the White House. With Conservatism in seemingly impregnable ascendance, many young people drifted away from politics and into inactivism. A new psychedelia had emerged, but with the 1960s's militant optimism replaced by a dream-your-life-away resignation that grunge grrrls L7 would later rebuke with their 1993 anthem "Pretend We're Dead."
Death's close analogue "sleep" emerged as the guiding metaphor for alternative rock, as if youth had gone into hibernation in the hope of waking up in more congenial times, Thatcher-Reagan just a bad dream. In 1988 Sonic Youth put out their masterpiece Daydream Nation, but MBV had gestured at the idea the previous year with “Safe in Your Sleep” on the Ecstasy EP. Chatting in the Kentish Town squat, it became clear that a weird oscillation between sleep deprivation and slug-a-bed drowsiness was key to MBV's vibe. Isn't Anything was recorded in a single week with only a couple of hours sleep per night. "Often, when we do the vocals, it's 7.30 in the mornings, I've usually fallen asleep and have to be woken up to sing," said Butcher. "Maybe that's why it's languorous. I'm usually trying to remember what I've been dreaming about, when I'm singing."
"Dreampop" was one term bandied about to describe the horde of British bands who tried form themselves in the image of Isn't Anything, a legion whose number included Ride, Lush, Slowdive, Chapterhouse, and Pale Saints. "Shoegazer" is what stuck, however, on account of the way the bands shied from meeting the audience's gaze. In the guitarists's case, they had an excuse, since they were typically activating an array of foot pedals in a doomed attempt to approximate the Kevin Shields Sound.
MBV was also highly influential in terms of their androgynous image. Accidental as it was, there seemed to be a subliminal sexual politics to their line-up, a gender spectrum ranging from regular-guy Ciosig through butch-looking bassist Debbie Googe (actually gay, although she rarely talked about it) to tousled boy-dreamer Shields and willowy pre-Raphaelite beauty Butcher. On the records, it was often hard to tell the lovers's voices apart, especially because Shields sometimes sang the higher parts and Butcher the deeper ones. But androgyny seemed to run right through the core of MBV's sound and spirit, with its paradoxical blend of might and vulnerability, force and tenderness, or as Shields himself put it, 'an attitude of uncompromising strength yet, at the same time, a fragile sense of uncertainty'. That balance would carry them through the troubled creation of Loveless, but, toppling towards doubt and despair, prove the undoing of My Bloody Valentine thereafter.
Started in February 1989, Loveless was two years in the making, something unheard of in the limited-finances realm of indie-rock. MBV ran through studios (a total of nineteen by the end), engineers (sixteen) and money, with a total cost ranging from 280 thousand dollars to over half-a-million, depending on whose version of events you trust. In 1999, Alan McGee told me Creation had spend 270 thousand pounds on Loveless, bringing the label close to bankruptcy at various points. "I could see my label slipping away. I'd even mortgaged my own house. In the end, I had to emotionally blackmail Kevin to get him to finish." In other accounts, McGee has claimed that to pay off one of several studios used by MBV he borrowed the equivalent of 40 thousand dollars off his working class father, and, worse, that it was the insurance money for his mother's death. Shields, for his part, has consistently argued that the amount spent was much smaller and not that far from the norm for major indie-rock bands like Creation's own Primal Scream.
What is clear that Shields and his increasingly forlorn comrades quickly fell into a dysfunctional lifestyle, addled by a fatal combination of perfectionism and procrastination. "We arrived in the studio at 6 PM and… began to work about 11 PM," Shields told one interviewer. "Then we ordered the dinner, which took about three hours. Actually, in a night in the studio, we worked about only a hour and a half..." Dick Green, McGee's partner at Creation and a man whose hair would famously go grey over night on account of Loveless-induced financial worry, recalled a nightmarishly endless litany of " studios and tape and engineers and equipment, taxis and food (lots of food, I seem to recall)", with the obsessive Shields invariably finding some defect in the mixing desk and insisting on moving the operations, at great disruption, to a new studio.
It was a time of emotional chaos in the Valentines camp, too. Shields and Butcher began to break up even while still cohabiting; they also developed tinnitus and had to desist from recording for a while. Ciosig, meanwhile, had a kind of nervous breakdown, caused by the precariousness of his living circumstances. "I went through a bad year-squatting in various places and getting evicted all the time… I was essentially homeless. After every day in the studio I'd walk down the streets until I'd find an empty house to live in."
It wasn't all darkness. In 1988-89 UK pop culture was convulsed by the mind-bending sound of acid house. Most of the roster of Creation--a label infatuated with all the myths of rock'n'roll decadence and debauchery--threw themselves enthusiastically into the rave scene's druggy vortex. "Me, Primal Scream, and the Valentines went to house clubs three times a week, getting shitfaced on Ecstasy and having these intense spiritual experiences," McGee told me.
My Bloody Valentine had been interested in dance music for some while. Isn't Anything came with a free single and the track "Instrumental B" was based around a Public Enemy breakbeat loop, while Shields told me "it was the weird sampling in hip hop records that inspired us to create eerie guitar effects in the first place"--probably an exaggeration, but as a statement of artistic intent and sonic impurism, a honorable one. The influence of hip hop's grinding groove power and house music's hypnotic trance was plastered all over "Soon", the lead track on the Glider EP with which MBV broke their studio-bound silence in 1990. Ambient pioneer and U2 producer Brian Eno hailed the song as setting "a new standard in pop . . . the vaguest piece of music ever to be a U.K. hit” (it actually just grazed the outside edge of the Top 40).
On their next release, 1991's Tremolo EP, My Bloody Valentine got into sampling--but rather than the recognizable loops and quotes you got in rap and rave, they use it to reprocess their own guitar feedback and vocals. The results--the amorphously wilting drone-tones of stand-out tune "To Here Knows When"--were vaguer still than "Soon", but amazingly, this time, a real-deal UK chart hit, reaching #29. Finally, near the end of '91, came Loveless. Released on Sire, it was the first time most American alt-rockers heard the group and has subsequently become an almost mythic release, a rite of passage on a par with the first Velvet Underground album. "I first heard them when a friend made me a tape of Loveless," recalls Brian Aubert. "It was scary and alien at first, I thought my stereo was melting. I didn't like it at first, but that's almost a clue to the things I'm really really going to like over the long run. When I got the CD, that's when I realized that someone had deliberately designed it to sound that way, like a melting canvas. The effect is like an orchestra of noise, and the almost inaudible vocals just send chills down my spine. In Silversun Pickups we love guitar noise, but that particular sort of blankety way, enfolding you. MBV were the ultimate at that, the best. When you compare them to other shoegaze groups, like Slowdive and Lush, those bands sounded much cleaner and prettier."
Although hardly anyone outside the band's immediate circle knew it at the time, Loveless was virtually a Kevin Shields solo album. Apart from Butcher's vocals and Ciosig's weird ambient doodle "Touched" (plus the odd flurry of drumming on a couple of tracks), every sound on the album originated from Shields's hands. Googe stopped turning up after feeling "pretty superfluous" when Shields couldn't communicate his desires and instead played the bass parts himself. Ciosig's emotional disarray and physical ill-health meant he contributed drumming to just two songs; Shields took elements of his playing and looped them into beats for the rest of the album.
My Bloody Valentine re-grouped for the Loveless tour, which quickly became notorious on account of the punishingly extended versions of "You Made Me Realise". The group's own nickname for the Painfully Loud Monotony segment was "the holocaust", but Shields subsequently liked to talk of it as an act of generosity. "It was brilliant watching the crowd reactions," he told me in 1995. "Normally people respond in obvious ways to the obvious musical triggers. But with that huge rumble, it was like everyone's imagination opened up at once, because by and large it was what people were thinking they were hearing that counted. It was like a big blank canvas, a giant sensory deprivation tank. But also in a strange way like putting a huge wall in between us and the crowd."
A wall was indeed to rise up between the band and their fans, built out of high expectations, of massive ardour invested but cruelly thwarted. An early bad augury was the fact that, despite the critical garlands and promising sales Loveless received, Creation immediately dropped the band. "It was either [Kevin] or me," McGee said many years later. Although he's sometimes described Loveless as "the best album I've ever put out", in recent years he's characterized MBV as "my comedy band… a joke, my way of seeing how far I could push hype." Undeterred by Shields's difficult reputation, Island Records signed the group for a reported quarter of a million pound advance, which the group spent on building their own recording studio.
"In retrospect, we had a totally over-ambitious plan to find a premises, build our own studio, and get the follow-up to Loveless out by July 1993," Shields told me in 1995. But the mixing desk developed a mysterious "ailment" and by the time the technological problems were sorted out, the post-Loveless momentum had dissipated. So had the initial advance from Island. By 1995 the members were forced to move in together in a South London house to save money and were selling off equipment to keep the operation afloat.
In terms of their musical vision, MBV were hopelessly confused, undermined by what had hitherto been one of their virtues, their open-ness to inputs from outside the indie guitar canon. At one point they were besotted with thrash metal, their night owl lifestyle having made them fans of a small-hours minority interest music TV show called Noisy Muthas. But they were simultaneously fixated on the post-rave genre of jungle, aka drum 'n' bass, tuning in obsessively to the dozens of pirate radio stations that broadcast its hyperspeed fractured breakbeats, warped samples and booming sub-bass. "When I first listened to jungle, it seemed full of possibilities in a way I hadn't encountered since early hip hop," Shields told me. "Raw, yet as out-there as you can get. Hip hop reeducated us about rhythm; now jungle's reeducating everyone again."
Inspired by how jungle breakbeats "shift and inverse on themselves, the way there'll be ten different beats at once, or effects like the beat's exploding," Shields and O'Ciosig threw themselves into learning how to program drums with a computer, but the digital modus operandi didn't gel with their more intuitive, hands-on approach to making music. Soon the group "felt like people trudging through the mud with our heads down not seeing where we're going." An album of drum 'n 'bass influenced material was recorded, but eventually dumped. "It was dead. It hadn't got that spirit, that life in it," Shields admitted in a later interview. To another journalist, he confessed, "I lost it.… I reached a sort of stalemate with myself."
On top of the musical crisis, Shields was afflicted with a psychological "meltdown", having resumed the biorhythmically disjointed lifestyle of the Loveless years (sleeping by day, working by night) and become a chronic weed-smoker. "The things I experienced were quite unreal," he told me. "I've been totally out there, I can honestly say I've experienced everything Aldous Huxley wrote about in 'The Doors of Perception'." Elsewhere he described pot-smoking as making him "soft in the head" and inclined to waste hours watching "shit movies".
Shields acknowledged how generous Island had been in supporting the group financially, telling me. "In a way I've done a lot more harm to the industry than vice versa!". But by 1998, the label's patience ran out and they stopped advancing MBV further monies. For a total tally of half-a-million pounds, scores of hours of music had been recorded but the only publically released fruit was a cover of a track by Wire for a tribute album. By that point, the group had effectively disbanded, with Googe and O'Ciosig having gone off to form or play in other bands.
Finally, in 2001, Island formally released MBV from their contract. In the meantime, legally in limbo, Shields had embarked on a series of handsomely remunerated but lackluster remixes for sundry indie bands. He'd also become an axe hero for hire, playing with his old soul-mate J. Mascis and actually joining his old label mates Primal Scream, for whom he contributed production and guitar-noise expertise in the studio and surprisingly basic, glide-free guitar on tour.
Shields's first high-profile flourish of creativity came with the four new tracks he contributed to 2003's Lost in Translation soundtrack (Sofia Coppola being a massive Loveless fan), with the worldwide success of the movie reportedly earning him his first million. Then in 2005 he stood onstage with Patti Smith at the Meltdown festival she curated in London, daubing abstract guitar soundscapes to accompany her poetic incantations. Titled The Coral Sea, the collaboration was released as a double-disc earlier this summer. "My Bloody Valentine were like my favourite new band," Smith told me. "I had left the rock scene in 1979 and had been leading a quiet life and when I returned and explored what was going on, I fell in love with MBV. Oliver Ray, who was in my band, played the album to me and I thought there was something wrong with it. I said, "did you leave it on the radiator?". He said, 'no, that's their music'. To me their sound was the logical next step for rock'n'roll ."
Many other groups agree. U2's The Edge cited the Valentines' music as a major influence on the group's drastic sonic reinvention circa Achtung Baby, while Smashing Pumpkins's Billy Corgan went so far as to hire Loveless engineer Alan Moulder to work on Mellon Collie.
Intriguingly, MBV's influence isn't limited to guitar bands: for many prominent electronic musicians, Isn't Anything and Loveless was a crucial factor in their shift from indie past to techno future. And in recent years there's been much chatter about an imminent shoegaze revival. Brian Aubert thinks it's already here. "As we get closer to 2010, which is twenty years on from the original shoegaze, I hear more and more bands in our circle going for that blanket-type sound with calm vocals. It's like everyone's done with the jagged, cut-and-dry dancepunk sound that comes from Gang of Four. Personally, I thank God for bands like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. They took a lot of bullets for us, paved the way for bands like us to a large extent. The Valentines deserve to come back and reap some rewards. They probably have more fans now they did at the time."
Is money actually the spur for this reformation--offers MBV couldn't refuse? It seems unlikely, somehow: Shields is an idealistic fellow, and besides, doesn't really need the dough, having done very well out of Lost In Translation's success. Maybe the reunion's real motive is, well, motivational: a team-building exercise to work up the camaraderie and psychological momentum to finally complete the sequel to Loveless. Being the focus of all that white-hot adoration at shows could well galvanise the band out of a decade's inertia. Indeed in early 2007, Shields promised that the group was "100% going to make another...record unless we die or something". Later that year, in an interview with VBS.TV, there were tantalizing allusions to the contents of a new release: it would consist of a "half-finished album" from 1996/97, material from 1993–94, and "a little bit of new stuff." It sounds a bit cobbled together, distinctly lacking the epic-ness of scope and vision that Loveless II would seem to demand. But it would provide an element of narrative closure, rewriting the band's story with a happier ending, possibly even pointing to a fresh start. I wouldn't count on it, though. We've been here before.