Take yourself back to 1988. Joe Bloggs gear was all the rage, and it was still cool to wear shell-suit tracksuits. Synthesizers were the scourge of the airwaves, and the Iron Curtain was lifted, signalling the end of the cold war. In the late 80's Glam Hair Metal and Electro Synth Pop ruled the roost. Many Indie, Alternative, and Rock bands were languishing out of the limelight in the 'uncool' sector of the music industry. It seemed to be popular, bands were required to have a guitarist that could unleash at least three light speed finger-tapping solo's, along with a multitude of sweep picked arpeggio riffs, and neo-classical shredding, or a dark mysterious vocalist, armed with only a synthesizer and a troubled past. Generally speaking music was more about image than innovation, with bouffant hair, heavy makeup and tight leather cat suits, and that was only the men.
Indeed exceedingly complex lead guitar dominated so strongly, that songs and the musical scenes such as Grunge that directly followed suffered greatly. However Grunge and its contribution to the killing of masturbation on a guitar, then out of the garages of the Thames Valley came Shoegazing, so called because of the band's guitarist's apparent obsession with what was at their feet: their shoes, and their effects pedals. Shoegazing spat in the face of these over-enthusiastic shredders, with dual rhythm guitars being used in most key bands. The bastard lovechild of New Wave, Ambiance and Noise Rock, Shoegaze was formed with a no-nonsense tidal wave of droning, muddy over-fuzzed riffs, soft harmonious vocals, and so many sounds you didn't think anyone could ever coax out of a guitar. The complex melodic vocals and dual rhythm guitars give a swirling, muddy yet also bright, jangling sound. This style of music was started by bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. then crafted to a fine art by My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Lush and Swervedriver. Shoegaze bands had no particular image, and the genre is often known as 'The scene that celebrates itself' with many bands attending each others gigs.
The definitive opener for this genre was 'Isn't Anything' by My Bloody Valentine; however the archetypal Shoegaze album is the critically acclaimed 'Loveless' by My Bloody Valentine. Other notable albums are 'Nowhere' by Ride, and 'Psychocandy' by The Jesus and Mary Chain.
The heavily distorted, dry, oblique guitar sound that is synonymous with Shoegazing comes from the use of the Fuzz Box, notably the Fender Blender, and the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff ?. Guitarists like Kevin Shields, Billy Corgan and Andy Bell paved the way with this sound, and adding their trademark, such as Shields' liberal and unique use of a tremolo and Reverse Reverb, and Bell's complex use of Wah, feedback and dual rhythm guitars along with other Ride guitarist Mark Gardener. Most bands employed a Phil Spectre Wall of Sound technique for recording, as it gave a thicker, denser sound, along with strategic, and often experimental placing of microphones, and many other studio techniques such as overdubbing of guitars and sampling.
Sonic Youth were formed in New York City in 1981 by Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Ann DeMarinis (replaced in 1981 by Lee Ranaldo) and Richard Edson.
In their early career, Sonic Youth were linked with the No Wave Art scene in New York City, but have outlived most of their peers and paralleled bands. Their music has since been described as Punk, and they have been included with the first wave of post-punk bands. They have gained modest mainstream success, and are generally seen as one of the leading alternative rock groups of their time, gaining much more than critical acclaim in the underground circuit, and hailed as one of the most important bands in Rock, though they shatter the narrow confines of the genre.
Inspired primarily by the noise experimentation of Glenn Branca and The Velvet Underground, as well as the heavy, raw garage rock of The Stooges they are renowned for utilizing unorthodox guitar tunings, and for applying screwdrivers or other preparations to guitars to alter the instruments' timbre, such as running an electric drill through a Wah pedal, or hitting a guitar with a drum stick to create the tone of church bells, in an relentless guitar assault.
There is an abundance of collaborative musical material recorded and/or performed with other artists and side-projects. Sonic Youth can in many ways be said to be an artistic collective just as much as a traditional rock/pop band.
The Jesus And Mary Chain
The Jesus And Mary Chain were a Scottish Indie Rock/Noise, formed in East Kilbride in early 1884. The band that evolved around the songwriting collaboration of brothers Jim and William Reid, but also featured Douglas Hart and Murray Dalgliesh (who was swiftly replaced by future Primal Scream singer Bobby Gillespie).
Their sound derives from Noise Rock and Post Rock bands, such as Big Black and Slint, with influences of Twee Pop, and more than a passing resemblance to Cocteau Twins.
The musical press sung their praises, however it was their live performances that got the most attention and gained notoriety. The Mary Chain's earlier performances have become the stuff of legend in Indie circles. Playing in front of small audiences, the Mary Chain earned their notoriety by playing very brief gigs, some lasting no more than 10 minutes and consisting of a constant barrage of feedback and distortion, as well as playing with their backs to the audience and refusing to interact with them. Many shows climaxed with the Reids destroying their equipment, and riots in the audience ensued. All of this publicity delighted manager and Creation Records boss Alan McGee, who saw it as a great opportunity for the band to get much needed exposure. He would simply ensure people from the music press were present while these events naturally transpired, and so guaranteeing heavy coverage in the musical press. The violence that seemed to follow the band culminated in an event that is now regarded as Indie Folklore.
On March 15, 1985, the band played a show at the North London Polytechnic in front of one of their largest crowds up to that point. Supporting band Meat Whiplash had already stirred up violence before the Mary Chain even set foot onto the stage by throwing a bottle back into the audience when it was thrown at them. By the time the Mary Chain started their short set, the audience was already raging for violence and because of the size of the audience, and the riot that occurred was far bigger and wilder than any other that had occurred at a Mary Chain gig. The musical press were present at the gig, and this event consequently became referred to as 'The Jesus and Mary Chain Riot'.
In The Thick Of It
My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine formed in Dublin in 1984, and consisted of Kevin Shields, Colm O'Ciosoig, Debbie Googe and Bilinda Butcher. Their thick, churning, layered sound came courtesy of perfectionist and guitar genius Kevin Shields, and Bilinda Googe, armed to the teeth with enough effects pedals to sink a ship. They were dubbed Shoegaze, due to the current wave of British bands using heavily distorted guitars, and soft, hushed vocals not different to those by Bilinda Butcher, which created a strange contrast between harsh and abrasive, and calm and tranquil. One critic called their music 'Beauty under siege' which Their first album 'Isn't Anything' released in 1988 pioneered the Shoegaze movement, wearing its Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain influences firmly on its sleeve. Colm's drumming is much more spastic and reminiscent of thrashy punk rhythm, Debbie Googe's bass is hardly discernable, and the guitars are very coarse and abrasive, which is only a fraction of what was to come on 'Loveless'.
'Isn't Anything' paved the way perfectly for the critically acclaimed 'Loveless' released in 1991 which gained the title best album of the 1990's, and was such a hard act to follow for reclusive perfectionist shields, that the band never released another album. You only have to listen to three seconds of 'Only Shallow' to realize that the album is the epitome of Shoegazing. The unique recording processes and techniques employed by Shields and his team of 16 sound engineers, created a wall of sound effect, and copious overdubbing, and backwards sampling gave the guitars a merged, multi layered effect, with the bass lying fairly low, and the vocals similarly low, and often breathy and high pitched.
The Band disintegrated around 1994, after Debbie Googe moved on to form Snowpony, as she had not played bass on their recordings since 'You Made Me Realise'. Colm O'Ciosoig eventually left and recorded an album with Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star. Kevin Shields occasionally worked with other artists, notably Curve, and Primal Scream. He eventually revealed in 2003 on a public radio interview that Island Records had stopped financing his My Bloody Valentine work after he spent 500,000 of their money, and dragged them close to bankruptcy.
Ride were formed in Oxford by Andy Bell, Mark Gardener, Laurence Colbert and Steve Queralt in 1988. Their sound is very much derived in their use of the twin rhythm guitars of Bell and Gardener, both heavily distorted, both using Wah pedals, and both feeding back off each other.
'Nowhere' was the debut album by ride, and is considered second only to 'Loveless' in the greatest Shoegaze albums, including the track 'Seagull'; a shimmering mass of jangly rhythm guitars and piercing feedback.
The band matured quickly after the release of 'Nowhere' and now started to include influences of Neil Young, however they still couldn't gain mainstream success, and eventually were forgotten with the coming of the Britpop movement. Tensions were now running high in the band, particularly between Bell and gardener, and in 1995 during the recording of Tarantula the band dissolved due to musical and personal difficulties between Gardener and Bell.
Bell moved on to form Britpop band Hurricane #1, however this was permanently disbanded when he was asked to play bass in Oasis in 1999. Mark Gardener and Laurence Colbert collaborated to form the short-lived The Animalhouse. Gardener also toured as a solo artist, and Colbert also plays for a Bob Dylan tribute band called The Zimmermen. Queralt has retired from professional music and was last seen working in retail management for Habitat in Cumnor in Oxford.
Since the break-up, both Bell and Gardener have reflected on the group's dissolution, with Bell especially admitting a large part in the process. In the end it appears that they were too young and too obstinate and had no real idea of where the band would head when they changed their style.
Slowdive were a shoegazing band formed in 1989, and lasting until 1995. They formed in Reading, Berkshire and signed to Creation Records in the UK. The band consisted of Rachel Goswell, Neil Halstead, Nick Chaplin, Christian Savill, originally Adrian Sell, who was replaced by Simon Scott in 1989, who was subsequently substituted by Ian McCutcheon in 1994. Goswell and Halstead had known each other since early childhood in Reading, Berkshire.
They released some of their initial demos as the 'Slowdive EP' in late 1990. Their sound was heavily influenced by the Cocteau Twins and Creation Records label mates My Bloody Valentine, especially their gratuitous use of distortion, guitar effects and muted vocals.
Their debut album 'Just for a Day' was written and recorded in six weeks, and was felt to be a let down, after the significant success of the previous three EP's. However 'Just for a Day' had and has its own strange, displaced beauty and attraction. It is by far the most light and dreamy of their albums, which spurred the lighter version of Shoegaze; Dream Pop. Yet it also combines white noise with this cloudiness, along with the crushing distortion that was synonymous with Shoegaze bands, and also incorporating lush harmonics and great sustained notes. White noise was a technique that was rarely used by Shoegaze bands; though it shows their roots in Noise Rock bands like Big Black and Scratch Acid. The only misjudgment they made was that they tried to cover up missing musical parts by drenching a song in white noise.
Subsequently, the UK music press had started to pick up on the American Seattle grunge scene, and the more pensive and experimental sounds of Slowdive, label mates Ride, Chapterhouse and other Shoegaze bands disappeared from the limelight. American label SBK postponed the release of the album after a disastrous viral marketing campaign (involving vandalism of a public statue) and in early 1992 the band toured the U.S.A. with Ride, returning to the U.K. fresh to record a second album. They were renowned for their pounding, thrashing, live performances, pelting into their songs, amps cranked. In studio, they combined that with just enough restraint to experiment, and try something different.
Slowdive were dropped by Creation in 1995, a week after the release of fourth album 'Pygmalion' Halstead had been cautioned before the recording of the album that the contract with the label would be terminated unless he delivered a Pop album.
After being dropped from Creation, Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell and Ian McCutcheon recorded an album of country-influenced songs, and were signed to label 4AD, changing the band name to Mojave 3. Both have also released solo albums for 4AD. Christian Savill formed Monster Movie, a dream pop band that picked up and continued to evolve from where Slowdive left off. In 2004, Simon Scott created Televise, a group which stripped back the lengthy swells of noise and feedback and experimental song structures that defined Shoegaze to focus on a more radio-friendly, commercial brand of Indie Rock.
The Future Of Shoegaze
Following the ultimate demise of the first wave of Shoegaze bands, who eventually
disappeared in the early to mid 1990's a new breed of Shoegazers, affectionately known as Nu-Gaze have emerged, taking the heart, soul and inspiration from the original bands, and taking it to new levels.
A few bands that fit under this tag are Autolux, M83, Bethany Curve, Televise and Joy Zipper. The Nu-Gazing scene is strong within its own community, reviving the phrase 'The scene that celebrates itself', which was once used on their forerunners. New record labels, such as The Gaia Project, and Bella Union are facilitating this new wave of Shoegaze bands, which is gaining in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in South America.
So, if you feel like forming a Shoegaze band, stock up on Modulation pedals, tools, more fuzz than you can shake a stick at, and at least one copy of 'Loveless' and you will have a sporting chance.