Saturday 9 July 2022


Noise Will Set Us Free

My Bloody Valentine are now chiefly known for two things. The Brian-Wilson—like quixotic quest that lead to the recording of ’Loveless’, which nearly bankrupted their label. (Alas not entirely succeeding, leaving Creation still able to release Oasis albums.) And their tooth-rattling live performances, particularly on ’You Made Me Realise’.

And, at least in part, fair enough. The one time I saw them in their original incarnation they played a shortened set as part of a package tour. And still had time to play the extended version of ’You Made Me Realise’, with it’s mid-section of free-form noise. Though I probably got off lightly. There were nights where, no lie, the track would stretch out for half an hour and do structural damage to the venue.

And it was in noise the band found itself. They were originally just another clutch of Indie no-hopers, much as Joy Division before them had started out as second-rate punks. Figuring they were going nowhere they booked a final tour where they resolved to turn up the volume. Which they may well have originally meant purely as a fuck-you gesture. Guitarist and main man Kevin Shields has subsequently spoken of a desire to kill their own songs. They had, in the words of a later song, Nothing Much To Lose.

But noise seemed to offer possibilities. Because volume doesn’t just amplify the sound, even if that’s what it’s intended for. Inevitably, it changes the sound. You can treat those changes as interference, and try to minimise them, like people normally do. Or you can play into them.

And Shields then devised a style of tremolo playing which worked with this, soon dubbed ‘glide guitar’. Some say it came about after he’d needed to borrow a guitar, which happened to have a tremolo arm on it. Musos can ready about this here should they want. Suffice to say that, by bending and distorting the notes, it worked well with volume.

It’s true enough they came to be as influenced by others who had taken up noise before them, such as Sonic Youth and the Jesus and Mary Chain. But discovering the possibilities of noise for themselves, that may have been vital.

The ’You Made Me Realise’ EP in ’88 marked this change-over, handily marked by being their first release on Creation. (All that was before can really be regarded as juvenalia.) And from that point to this day reactions inevitably split into two contrary camps: “Is it supposed to sound like that?”, and “Who cares, when it sounds so awesome?”

Except, crucially, they never entirely tore up those Indie roots. It was like a swoony Dream Pop outfit and the most abrasive noise guitar band had been carelessly double-booked, but somehow still found a way to get along. Tracks sported Dream Pop titles, such was ’Blown a Wish’ or ’(When You Wake) You’re Still In a Dream’. 

And as ever there’s more to Pop that music snobs make out. Though music journos sooner reached for Sonic Youth comparisons, Phil Spector’s lush, epic soundscapes are as much an influence. Even now there are those who insist ‘masculine’ Rock is superior to ‘feminine’ pop. While Shields’ and Bilinda Butcher’s vocals, sometimes swapping, at others never quite overlaid, sailed over such restrictive distinctions.

Shields would insist he was influenced by Hip-Hop, despite never using Hip-Hop beats and at a time when any Hip-Hop/Indie crossover was effectively nil. What he borrowed, I suspect, was Hip-Hop’s habit of pushing disparate elements together and watching them collide, like fitting together pieces from different jigsaws. Making ‘wrongness’ work for you.

As an example listen to the opening of ’Soft As Snow’ and try and guess where and how the backing vocals will come in. Which you can’t do. They’re crazily, creatively counter-intuitive.

A great deal of great music doesn’t stake out the extremes (“the heaviest album evah” and all that), but mixes up the colours until new shades are made. And MBV would be a prime example, blissed-out and blistering all at once. Sometimes their music would be fragile wisps of things, murmured vocals floating past your ears. At others it was like getting wired up to the mains. And they’d jump from one to the other mid-track or, fairly often, do both at the same time.

It was delirious and intoxicating, like getting the punch and seeing the stars simultaneously. If we need a soundbite description, let’s go with ‘woozy noise with tunes’. Shields was after “the most beautiful songs with the most extremeness of physicality and sound.”

Though I doubt it was ever consciously intended, the music epitomised the philosophy that nothing is ever truly solid, essentially itself, separate from the rest of the world, but everything is fluid, changing and morphing. Brutal noise will eventually become serene, dreams are never so distinct from nightmares, love turns to heartbreak, and so on.

Now musically speaking, I’d come of age in the early Eighties. When Post-Punk had been stridently forward-looking, disdainful of the done-before. Which was inevitably succeeded by its polar opposite, music which was quite happy to have its roots showing. And as the Sixties had been the era most effort had gone into walling-off, it became the most brought-back, in scenes such as the Paisley Underground. To water the roots or cut yourself loose from them, that had come to seem music’s inevitable divide.

Then MBV came along and managed to look back as a way of looking forward. That Sixties psychedelic sound had in its day not been quaint or retro but been pushing at the limits. So now was the time to take up that baton and push harder.

A classic example would be vocals. Sixties beat groups were forever battling old-school engineers, who were insistent on making vocals prominent and distinct so listeners could hear the words. Whereas the bands wanted them to be made part of the rhythm. So MBV pushed down the vocals even further, setting them amid the other instruments, just another sound source.

Leading on from which, could you claim their sound was psychedelic? It’s not something you’d say of the bands which most influenced them. And, inevitably enough, Wikipedia labels them as Shoegaze, plus the charmingly oxymoronic Noise Pop. But psychedelic music plays with loss of form, epitomised by those liquid wheel light shows, in order to project a disorientating sense onto the listener. Which tended to work best when there was some semblance of form left to attack. Relatively straightforward song structures and simple tunes were bent and twisted, almost beyond recognition but never quite. Which sounds very much like… well, you may be ahead of me.

Abandon All Spatial Metaphors

What was effectively their first album, ’Isn’t Anything’, came out later in ’88. Later described by Mark Fisher as “a great album, for sure, but it's the sound of a band still escaping from rock. No doubt that gives the album a sense of drama that is absent from the anti-climax that is ’Loveless’. ‘Isn't Anything’ has more jagged edges, a terrain whose variegation makes it more palatable to rock tastes. ’Loveless’, by contrast, is a world with no edges, a world of deceptive similarity in which it is easy to become lost (for to locate yourself here you must lose yourself)… everything is smeary, bleary, blurred, slurred. Listening, you're drawn towards images of what is neither solid nor liquid, but viscous: honey, molasses, clotted blood…”

And Simon Reynolds was just as right to say it sounded “the same as before, only more so - more lustrous, languorous, inchoate, phantasmic… They've never been more them.” Escaping from planet Rock? After take-off, achieving orbit is simultaneously a complete breakthrough and a logical next move.

’Isn’t Anything’ still has semi-coherent lyrics (well some of the time) and a semi-recognisable band photo on the cover (albeit already blurring at the edges). But the band had already been replacing choruses with hummed vocals or instrumental breaks. Now, they were doing away with with such things altogether.

Similarly, the standard hierarchy of instruments of the traditional rock band is simply jettisoned. The album should come with a warning - “abandon all spatial metaphors all ye who enter here.” (i always associated that with the way the sleeve was in unassuming lower case, much like this sentence, something carried through to their track listings on i-tunes today.)

Fisher went on: ”Rock's propulsion and compulsion, its scurrying towards release, is suspended, perpetually deferred, captured in a dilating tension… regular sonic laws do not hold (you find yourself unable to say whether the album is trebly or bassy; the sonic geography of high and low is smoothed into indifferentiation).”

While Reynolds called in “[not] 'rock' so much as magma, a plasma of sound that barely conforms to the contours of riff or powerchord.” Fisher compared it to Turner’s squalls of brushwork.

And if that doesn’t sound much like a band album, we were to discover later it wasn’t. Shields wrote as much as he had on the predecessor, all tracks bar one. But by this point he was also recording almost all the instruments himself, so fixated on getting things down the way he wanted. Debbie Googe doesn’t seem to have played any bass, despite getting credited. Moreover, Shields would often leave months between his laying down one instrument and another, a long way from Rock notions of immediacy and band tightness.

Further, ’Isn’t Anything’ is a series of tracks which combine to make up a great album. ’Loveless’ is more a great album which doesn’t really reduce to a series of tracks. There’s often interludes which seem to belong to neither one track nor the next, more to the album as a whole, working like conjunctions in a sentence. The result is, it’s one of my most-loved albums and I’d be pushed to name half the tracks from it. And very few of the words.

In short, ’Loveless’ is the album where the band most got to sound like themselves, which should surely be the aim of every band. But all this means its achievement is heard best in the context of its predecessor. Listening to ’Loveless’ alone would be like watching ’2001’ by jumping straight to the Stargate sequence. Of course you can, and in one sense you’re cutting the chase to get the goodies. But in foreshortening the journey, what do you miss? And most creators are like that. Each new work can stand alone. But it’s so much richer when seen as part of an ongoing narrative, and you’re so much poorer to wrench it from that narrative.

As the band brought out two innovative albums with a hefty gap between, and then (for the longest time) no more, this seemed to create a space for others to occupy. Pretty soon their wake had spawned a whole genre, soon dubbed Shoegaze. With most of the bands as cluelessly copyist as the original my Blood Valentine had been with Indie.

But as ever with genuinely innovative bands, their actual influence radiated wider, happened more slowly and wasn’t always so transparent. There are for example few Post-Rock outfits who don’t bear the MBV DNA. Like those live performances of 'You Make Me Realise', this could be an album whose influence never actually ends…

It even sounds good played backwards at half speed. No, honest!

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