My Bloody Valentine releases Loveless album
In 1991, My Bloody Valentine released their sophomore album, Loveless. While recognised by generations of critics and music lovers as the magnum opus of both the band, and of the shoegaze style they helped create, it was not the most popular guitar record of the 1990s. Nor was it the most commercially successful guitar record of the 1990s. It was, however, the most revolutionary guitar record of the 1990s.
Most Revolutionary – A Bold Claim
Admittedly, this is a bold claim. After all, the 90s saw the flannel-clad, angst-ridden Seattle grunge scene go global. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, made the transition from subcultural icons to platinum-selling pop-cultural phenomenons.
Alternative rock stalwarts of the preceding decade like Sonic Youth, R.E.M., and Dinosaur Jr, continued to put out critically acclaimed, genre-defining records. In the UK, when the music press turned on shoegaze, Britpop bands like Blur, Oasis, and Pulp, filled the void it left. The decade was rife with legendary rockers. And yet, none of these bands were particularly revolutionary during the 1990s.
Few people would argue against the quality of the best and brightest groups of the grunge and Britpop era, nor the sustained brilliance of their forbears, and neither shall this essay. However, one could certainly argue that while brilliant, they were working off of relatively well-established templates.
Grunge was a logical evolution of 1980s punk and alternative rock, with shades of heavy metal. Britpop evoked the power pop of The Kinks and The Beatles. Bands like R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and The Pixies, were definitely revolutionary in their own right, but by the 90s, they weren’t really reinventing the wheel. Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘revolutionary’ thusly:
Oxford English Dictionary
“Involving or causing a complete or dramatic change.”
The key phrase here is “complete or dramatic change”, and by this metric, Loveless undoubtedly qualifies.
My Bloody Valentine was formed in Dublin in 1983, by childhood friends Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig.
In 1985, they released their debut mini-album, This is Your Bloody Valentine, and the EP Geek. In 1986, these were followed by The New Record by My Bloody Valentine.
David Conway as Vocalist
All of these releases featured vocalist David Conway. What stands out about these records is their mediocrity. They were highly derivative of post-punk and gothic rock bands like The Birthday Party and Joy Division, they sold poorly, and they received an underwhelming critical reception.
Bilinda Butcher replaces David Conway
In 1987, they ditched David Conway, and hired vocalist and guitarist Bilinda Butcher. That same year, they released the single Strawberry Wine, and their second mini-album, Ecstasy.
Trademark Sound Develops
It was at this point that they began to develop their trademark sound. The vague, androgynous vocal style of Shields and Butcher, combined with sweet jangle pop melodies, and feedback drenched noise. They may have been ripping off The Jesus and Mary Chain, but critics and audiences alike acknowledged that they were doing it well.
Kevin Shields’ Experimental Approach
Kevin Shields is by no means a virtuosic guitarist. What makes him revolutionary is not his technical abilities, but his experimental approach. Beginning with the release of their 1988 EP, You Made Me Realise, Shields introduced a new style of playing, known as glide guitar. He modified
the tremolo system on his Fender Jazzmaster, loosening it to allow him to hold it while strumming simultaneously, resulting in a continuous pitch modulation. Combined with open tunings, reverse reverb, and layers of distortion, he created sounds never heard before.
“No other band played that guitar like me”, said Shields in Mike McGonical’s 2007 book “My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (33 1/3)”. “No one used the tremolo arm aside from us. We did everything solely with the tremolo arm…I just kind of found my own way, and my own feel, my own way of playing. I didn’t have to consciously think about it. I was able to express this constant feeling of expression. It’s hard to explain the sound of the guitar bending. What you hear is what is between the sound, with the open tunings and the guitar bending.”
Indeed, the serpentine, fluid movement of Kevin Shields’ glide guitar has an allure all its own. At its most subdued, it’s like a strangely graceful drunken dancer. Dipping and weaving, losing and regaining its balance, but never quite falling down. At its most extreme, turned up to eleven and feeding back into itself infinitely, it can evoke orgasmic howls, the throes of passion, or the yearning for it.
Bilinda Butcher’s Vocal Style
“Move on top, because that way, you touch her too”, Bilinda Butcher coos on “To Here Knows When”. The swirling maelstrom of warped guitars seems to do just that, draping themselves over her breathy sighs like a lazy lover in the middle of the night. Stretching all the way back to the blues, rock and roll has always been saturated with sex. Within this catalogue of sexed up classics, Loveless still stands as one of the finest sonic representations of sensuality, and of sexual longing, ever recorded.
Vagueness As A Stength
One of its biggest strengths is its vagueness. The vocals are mixed so low as to be almost indecipherable, merging seamlessly with the guitars. This allows the listener to project their own emotional response on to them. “Loveless intimates sensuality and sexuality instead of stating them
explicitly”, says Heather Phares of Allmusic. “Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s vocals meld perfectly with the trippy sonics around them, suggesting druggy sex or sexy drugs”.
Sampled Feedback Technique
Another revolutionary technique employed by Shields on Loveless was his use of sampled feedback, recorded to DAT tape, and played back on a keyboard using an Akai S1000 sampler. “Most of the samples are feedback”, said Shields in a 1991 Lime Lizard interview. “We learnt from guitar feedback, with lots of distortion, that you can make any instrument, any one that you can imagine.” Not unlike Jimi Hendrix, Shields utilised guitar feedback not merely as an effect, but as a
major compositional element.
Trace The Loveless DNA
While revolutionary, Loveless was not made in a vacuum. Since the early 1980s, The Cocteau Twins had been making gorgeous, reverb-drenched dream pop.
In 1985, The Jesus and Mary Chain unleashed their gleefully chaotic noise-pop on the world with their proto-shoegaze classic, Psychocandy. Stateside, Sonic Youth eschewed pop appeal in favour of nihilistic walls of noise.
Dinosaur Jr combined soaring, classic rock riffs with extreme levels of gain, and J Mascis’ distinctive slacker drawl. The DNA of all these bands can be found in Loveless.
Had My Bloody Valentine merely regurgitated these influences, Loveless would not be revolutionary. But Kevin Shields broke them down to their constituent parts, and recombined them in a feat of musical molecular gastronomy.
The Cocteau Twins floated along on a cloud of ethereal bliss. The Jesus and Mary Chain injected squalls of harsh noise into Beach Boys style pop, like teenage delinquents spiking the punch at a high school dance.
With Loveless, on the other hand, My Bloody Valentine alchemised walls of fuzz and feedback into achingly beautiful dreamscapes.
The Key Contradiction
This is, more or less, the key contradiction of shoegaze. Its aim is not to merely contrast ugliness with beauty, but to find the beauty in ugliness. When it’s done right, the end result is something akin to watching a star explode. Awe-inspiring, violent, and infinitely more beautiful than a mere
Beginning with You Made Me Realise, My Bloody Valentine’s previous releases hinted at this juxtaposition. Loveless saw the peerless perfection of it, on a scale unmatched before or since.
High Expectations For Loveless
The expectations for Loveless were so over the top, that anything short of revolutionary would not have sufficed. Their 1988 EP’s You Made Me Realise, Feed Me With Your Kiss, and their debut album Isn’t Anything, made them critical darlings, and spawned legions of acolytes and imitators.
Their pre-Loveless EP’s, Glider and Tremolo, released in 1990 and 1991, respectively, raised the anticipation to a fever pitch.
Brian Eno said of Glider’s trance rock anthem “Soon”, later featured on Loveless, that it “set a new standard for pop”. He went on to describe it as “the vaguest piece of music ever to get into the charts”. “It was the first band I heard who quite clearly pissed all over us”, said Robert Smith of
The Cure. “It’s the sound of someone who is so driven that they’re demented. And the fact that they spent so much time and money on it is so excellent.”
Loveless allegedly cost around £250,000 to record, across nineteen different studios, and eighteen engineers. Creation Records was almost bankrupted in the process. While faulty equipment was an issue, Shields’ uncompromising attitude didn’t help. The tambourine part alone in “To Here Knows When” took a whole week to record. He went months without seeing daylight, experienced tinnitus, and severe sleep deprivation. While every engineer was thanked by name in the album’s liner notes,
“even if all they did was fix tea”, it’s fair to say that he was not the easiest guy to work with.
Shields Did Most Of The Work On The Album
However, Shields ended up doing most of the work himself. Bassist Debbie Googe is not featured on the record, and her parts were instead performed by Shields. He also took over Bilinda Butcher’s guitar parts, which she apparently didn’t mind.
Drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig experienced severe health problems during the recording. With the exception of ‘Only Shallow’, and his solo instrumental contribution, ‘Touched’, his parts were programmed by Shields from samples of what he was able to play in his compromised state.
End Result Raised The Bar So High
The results speak for themselves. So close to perfect was Loveless, that it effectively lead to the dissolution of the band, and saw the beginning of the end for the mainstream popularity of shoegaze at the time.
Albums released in its wake by UK imitators like Slowdive, Ride, Lush, and Chapterhouse, received mixed to vicious reviews in the UK music press. The work of these bands has since seen a critical reappraisal, but for much of the 90s, Loveless proved too great an achievement to live up to.
April Welsh of Clash magazine wrote that Loveless “raised the bar so high that it subsequently collapsed under its own weight, paving the way for the onslaught of American-imported grunge that followed from its untimely end.” As grunge faded, Britpop took over, and some former shoegaze
bands updated their sound to stay relevant.
However, that didn’t stop plenty of American acts, unswayed by the opinions of the NME and their ilk, from absorbing its influence. The Smashing Pumpkins were clearly indebted, and worked with Loveless engineer Alan Moulder.
Billy Corgan told Spin magazine, “It’s rare in guitar-based music that somebody does something new […] At the time, everybody was like, ‘How the f… are they doing this?’”. “When it was done, I was both exhausted and exhilarated”, said Bob Mould of seminal hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü, a significant influence on Kevin Shields. “Loveless had a profound effect on me.” Closer to home, The Edge of Irish compatriots U2, cited Loveless as an influence on Achtung Baby.
In this century, shoegaze has seen a new wave of bands revitalising its popularity. Bands like M83, The Radio Dept., and Deerhunter have been dubbed “nu-gaze”, incorporating synthesizers and electronic elements into their music. Others, like Silversun Pickups, Ringo Deathstarr, and DIIV,
sound a little closer to the genre’s first wave. Deafheaven and Alcest have merged shoegaze with black metal, gaining critical acclaim, and pissing off black metal elitists simultaneously. None of these bands would exist without My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless.
Since its release, Loveless has been consistently recognised as revolutionary, both by artists who inspired it, and even more artists inspired by it. To imagine rock music without it, is like imagining heavy metal without Black Sabbath, punk without The Ramones, or synth-pop without Kraftwerk.
Loveless was not the most popular guitar record of the 1990s. Loveless was not the most commercially successful guitar record of the 1990s. But Loveless was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most revolutionary guitar record of the 1990s.