Behold the Shoes: A Brief History of Shoegaze
No, it’s not a great name: “shoegazing.” Very few artists who’ve actually played in that style like the term; Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai has called it “a dumb term made up by clueless… idiots… if someone called us shoegazers, I’d be pretty unhappy.” The other leading candidate seems to be “dreampop,” which is also not quite satisfactory.
But we’re stuck with those words, because it’s undeniable that there’s a certain tendency in rock music, especially British rock, that bubbled up most prominently in the early ’90s. Whether it was mercilessly loud or quietly restrained, its hallmarks were drones that seemed to hover in the air instead of emanating from hands-on-guitars; breathy singing that stayed low in the mix, becoming a tonal element rather than a vehicle for putting lyrics and melody in the spotlight; and signal-processing through chorus and flange effects that split dissonant chords up into rich, prismatic arrays. The “shoe” part is the insult: the idea was that these bands spent so much time staring at their effects pedals that they didn’t bother building rapport with their audience. But the “gaze” is about right. Their music was about slow, intent sensory experience, focused attention, drawing the world in rather than moving through it.
Dreampop took a while to evolve. There are hints of it in the Velvet Underground and Neu!, and in the Byrds ‘”Eight Miles High,” and all over the Cure’s first four albums. But it really started to come together in the late ’80s; you could hear the fog-clouds billowing up all over the world. In the U.K., Spacemen 3 were turning riffs into druggy, dreamy mantras; in New Zealand, Bailter Space were figuring out the expressive and abrasive possibilities of sustained, gliding guitar tones on early albums like Tanker Nelsh (“Grader Spader” is shoegaze avant la letter).
And in Boston, two bands defined two points on the shoegazing continuum. Dinosaur Jr., savage and blurry, coated J Mascis‘s vulnerable melodies in an electric thicket of spines and bristles, cranking up their volume until the tactile part of their performances was as important as the auditory part–You’re Living All Over Me was their statement of purpose, but the psychological violence of 1988′s Bug is even more compelling. Meanwhile, Galaxie 500 were exploring how the gradual slither of dreams could be channeled into pop; even when they played fast, they sounded like they were moving underwater. (The rhythm section of Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang always seemed to be playing in dynamic arcs, cresting and descending like waves.) Their Peel Sessions album, collecting BBC radio recordings, is a terrific set on its own, and additionally fascinating for the covers that reveal the way Krukowski, Yang and Dean Wareham dove into musical history to find antecedents in unlikely places – both the Sex Pistols ‘punk rock howl “Submission” and Buffy Sainte-Marie‘s hippie meditation “Moonshot” nestle right into their aesthetic.
The two key moments in the evolution of the shoegazing aesthetic were the release of My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything, in November 1988 (the same month as Loop‘s Fade Out), and Loveless, three years later. eMusic doesn’t have much MBV at the moment, but we do have three phenomenal tracks: Loveless opener “Only Shallow” (on the Amateur soundtrack), MBV mastermind Kevin Shields ‘remix of Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater,” and best of all, Shields ‘brain-melting 16-minute remix of “Fear Satan” on Mogwai’s Kicking a Dead Pig. (Sorry, Mogwai. You don’t get to decide whether or not you’re shoegazers.)
Once dreampop started to coalesce, there were a few other American bands who picked up on its ideas. The Swirlies – also Bostonians – crossbred blizzards of glorious guitar noise with homemade low-tech weirdness on their early records, particularly Blonder Tongue Audio Baton. (Fans of the more electronic-sounding wing of shoegazing music shouldn’t miss their 1998 remix collection Strictly East Coast Sneaky Flute Music.) Kurt Heasley’s band Lilys began their career deeply in debt to My Bloody Valentine before evolving in other directions; they finally released two great early-’90s songs, “(Won’t Make You) Sleepy” and “The Any Several Sundays,” on 2000′s Selected EP.
For the most part, though, shoegaze was a British phenomenon. The most singleminded of the U.K. crop were Loop, many of whose songs power-drill a single chord, or maybe two, until the friction heat makes them smolder. (Fade Out and A Gilded Eternity are both glowing, monomaniacal albums). Ride were about the closest thing the movement had to a psychedelic pop band; eMusic’s got a nifty BBC-sessions collection by them, Waves, which includes covers of their inspirations Dead Can Dance and Pale Saints. (Also worth hearing: their biggest hit, “Leave Them All Behind,” which appears in a panoramic live version on Live Light.) Lush, fronted by the airy-voiced Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson, revved up the fluttering, chiming sound of the Cocteau Twins (whose guitarist Robin Guthrie produced some early Lush records) into focused, zigzagging songs. There were Moose and Slowdive and Seefeel and the Boo Radleys and a dozen little bands that surfaced long enough to throw an EP or two into the scene’s heady cloud of smoke.
And, of course, there was Swervedriver, whose newly reissued first two albums – 1991′s Raise and 1993′s Mezcal Head – sound fantastic more than 15 years later. You can hear their evolution across those records: Raise‘s headlong “Son of Mustang Ford,” first released as a single in 1990, is basically My Bloody Valentine’s 1988 “Feed Me With Your Kiss” filtered through Iggy and the Stooges ‘”Search and Destroy.” By the time they recorded “Rave Down” the next year, they’d slowed down and limbered up, letting long skeins of guitar noise unwind like cables. Mezcal Head is an album-length burst of pulsing dissonances and enormous, somersaulting rock riffs, a scale-model city built out of a thousand guitar tones. While it’s playing, time keeps going by in the outside world, but it somehow seems to pass at a different rate. The band might have been staring at their pedals while they made it, or they might have been staring into space. It doesn’t matter; what lingers is the burning intensity of their fixed, concentrated gaze.