25 Years After Its Imperial Phase: Who Killed Shoegaze?

With the release of MBV's Loveless, 1991 marked the high water mark for shoegaze before the music press turned its back with a nose-high snort of derision. Ben Cardew looks over the history of the genre and asks if its decline was simply because the music just got boring

Whenever the story of shoegazing is told today – when Slowdive reform to headline festivals or Lush announce comeback dates – it typically reads like a story of betrayal. A wave of young bands in thrall to the sound of My Bloody Valentine come barrelling out of Southern England to wild media acclaim, only for the press to turn on their former darlings, consigning them to the inky dustcart of history at the mere sight of Brett from Suede’s ripped cardigan.

It is a story that has found a sympathetic audience among the international brigade of young shoegazing fans who have discovered Slowdive, Ride, Chapterhouse et al via filesharing sites, YouTube and blogs. And there is a grain of truth in it, too: in 1992 – the year of Lush’s debut album and Ride’s monumental Going Blank AgainMelody Maker asked ‘Whatever Happened to Shoegazing?’ in a funereal cover feature, while Slowdive’s excellent second album Souvlaki, released in May 1993, was slated in the British press. Melody Maker’s Dave Simpson, for one, declared that he would “rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to it again”. Charming.

“By autumn 1992, the honeymoon period shoegaze had enjoyed with the press was well and truly over,” writes Neil Taylor in his liner notes to Cherry Red’s new compilation, Still in a Dream A Story Of Shoegaze 1988-1995. “As bands had progressed, so too egos had spilled over and a few choice words were batted backwards and forwards between them, usually via the gleeful intermediary of the music papers. The press, ever capricious, had also grown bored, its attention distracted by the search for the Next Big Thing.”

We all love the story of the overlooked genius, unappreciated in their time, and it tastes even better when we can cast the media in the role of villain. But, as anyone who was following British indie music in in the early 90s will tell you, this view is far too simplistic. Yes, the opinions of the music press counted for a lot in early 90s Britain. But the general public weren’t blindly turned away from the charms of shoegazing because of journalistic hubris. 

Shoegazing, frankly, got boring, its success in inspiring bands to turn up the effects pedals laying the seed of its own destruction, as the genuine sonic innovation of the early shoegaze acts was subsumed in an easy-to-apply formula of guitar drone and mumbled vocals. Faced with a tsunami of pale shoegaze photocopies muttering about girls over studio feedback, it is little wonder that the sexy, nuanced pop of Suede, Blur, Pulp etc proved a welcome respite for journalists and listeners alike.

The origins of shoegazing can be traced back to the 1980s, as bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins and – especially – My Bloody Valentine reinvented the idea of how a guitar could sound, pairing beauty-and-the-beast sonic innovation with dreamy vocals that shied away from the idea of singer as musical figurehead. The notion of shoegazing as a distinct musical genre started to solidify in 1990, when several of the bands who would go on to become the genre’s leading lights released their first records: Ride’s eponymous EP in January; Swervedriver’s Son of Mustang Ford in July, Chapterhouse’s Freefall in September and Slowdive’s Slowdive EP in November. (Lush’s debut mini-album Scar came out at the end of 1989.)

Shoegazing’s imperial phase followed in 1991, a year that saw My Bloody Valentine release Loveless and Ride bother the UK top 20 with the Today Forever EP. 1991 also saw the second wave of shoegaze loom into view, bands like Moose and Curve who might not have pioneered the genre but whose existence bolstered talk of a shoegazing “scene”. In fact, it was in a review of a Moose gig at London’s ULU that Sounds journalist Andy Hurt first coined the terms “shoegazers”, referring to the band’s habits of staring at their effects pedals during gigs.

If you were looking to persuade neutrals of the merits of shoegazing you could probably stop with the musical output of 1990 and 1991. It is notable, for example, how distinct the big shoegazing bands are from each other sonically: Ride weld big pop hooks to buzzing guitars; Lush are delicate, dreamy and, well, lush; Swervedriver sound like a grunge act in waiting and Slowdive are ambient, sweet and surprisingly beautiful. 

Chapterhouse, meanwhile, surprised me when I revisited their work. I had long dismissed them as shoegaze also rans, all swirl and no soul. But ‘Falling Down’ – lead track on the Freefall EP – strikes me now as a futuristic rock beast that gleams with the promise of a better world some 25 years on, riding the Ashley’s Roachclip break (as sampled by EMF, 2 Live Crew and Bassomatic among many others) and a raucous wah-wah riff. More importantly, perhaps, the song serves as a reminder that shoegazing, for all its love of fuzz and mumbling, could be notably forward-looking, home to other-worldly guitar innovation, drum machines and sampling. You can hear this in the work of My Bloody Valentine, of course, but also in Slowdive’s quasi-electronic ambient glide, Moose’s propulsive drone and Curve’s industrial gothisms.

This seems so obvious a point in 2016 that you wonder how British audiences in the 90s could have dismissed such futuristic endeavour in favour of Britpop’s sentimental charms. Were we, perhaps, so nostalgic for a time when Britain ruled the pop waves that all it took was a hint of Blur’s Kinks-ian melodies for shoegaze to be forgotten? 

There may be a hint of that. But shoegazing also suffered from the musical context in which it was born. It is one of those strange quirks of fate, in fact, that shoegazing probably sounds more futuristic in 2016 than it did in 1991, when the indie world was picking over the impact of records like Primal Scream’s Loaded, The Happy Mondays’ Pills ‘n’ Thrills & Bellyaches and The Stone Roses’ ‘Fools Gold’, wildly original guitar records that borrowed from the production techniques of electronic music and rave. In this context shoegazing sounded almost like a throwback, with Chapterhouse being dubbed “My Baggy Valentine” for their use of sampled drums.

The other point easily forgotten in the pick-and-mix, universal musical jukebox of 2016, where listeners can plunder three types of music before lunchtime, is that shoegazing was about far more than just the big acts. In Britain especially, it became popular quickly and this led to the inevitable raft of imitators, bands who aped the obvious traits of the genre with little of its futuristic bent. These bands didn’t just copy shoegazing, they suffocated it, burying it under a wave of mumbly sludge.

Meanwhile, history was waiting in the wings. Nevermind was released in September 1991, with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ following as a UK single in November. Oasis played their debut gig in August 1991. And Radiohead first released ‘Creep’ in September 1992. By March 1993, when Suede unleashed their eponymous debut album, shoegazing was to all extents and purposes dead for British audiences.

Internationally, though, it was a different matter. In his liner notes to Still in A Dream American journalist and Springhouse drummer Jack Rabid explains how US audiences were starting to get into shoegazing just as the Brits cooled off. His own band scored a major-label deal in 1991, while acts like Boston’s Drop Nineteens started to forge an American response to the shoegazing sound.

American shoegazing wasn’t without its merits – LA’s Medicine, for example, released several excellent records – but it rarely approached the experimental heights of the British pioneers, seemingly content to ape the genre’s obvious signifiers without branching out a great deal further. What’s more, it faced a UK audience that, by now, was growing sick of fuzz and mutter, as Suede’s promise of dirty sex and David Bowie guitars loomed into view.

American readers might think of this as fickle. But to do so is to overlook the fundamental differences in how audiences in the UK and US experienced shoegazing, thanks largely to the gulf between British and American media in the early 1990s. Britain is a small country geographically, with a hugely influential, publicly funded national media player in the shape of the BBC. America is a vast geographical expanse, dominated by commercial media companies. So while American music fans in the early 90s might have heard Ride on MTV or read about Revolver in a month-old NME, shoegazing was a rare commodity for them.

In Britain quite the opposite was true: even in the pre-internet era it was easy for Britons to hear these bands on Radio 1, to read about them weekly in NME and Melody Maker and to see their videos on Saturday morning TV. It was easy to grow to love them, in other words. But it was also easy to get bored when the innovation seemed to dry up.

Could things have ended otherwise? Could shoegazing have found a way out of its musical morass? Seefeel’s Plainsong EP, released in late 1993, suggests so. Sex-filled it is not. But the three songs within demonstrate a path down which shoegazing could have evolved, combining guitar wash with ambient electronics to form a mid point between the IDM of Autechre and the swoon pop of Slowdive. 

Seefeel would go on to explore this sound further, eventually signing for Warp, while Chapterhouse would enlist Global Communication to remix their 1993 album Blood Music. Slowdive’s 1995 final LP Pygmalion, meanwhile, would take a similar dive into electronics. But it was too little, too late and by then the gig was pretty much up for the shoegazers: Slowdive were dropped by Creation the week after Pygmalion was released and Blood Music was Chapterhouse’s last studio album. 

At that point the idea of shoegazing being rehabilitated some 25 years later would have got you laughed out of the NME offices. And yet this is where we stand in 2016, with Lush the latest act to announce their reformation, hitting terrain already warmed by reunion tours from Ride, Slowdive and Swervedriver, as the slow drip of the shoegazing revival, first hinted at in the early 2000s with the arrival of bands like The Radio Dept. and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, have seen it reach a far wider audience. But has the material they produce been any good?

These reunion tours have been rapturously received and it would be churlish to write off the joy at seeing bands in the flesh that seemed lost to the digital ether. And yet you have to wonder where it will all end: Ride and Slowdive have talked about new material, while Lush actually have a new EP slated for release. The hope is that this will allow these bands to move forward, rather than getting stuck in the groove of lucrative nostalgia. To do so, though, the shoegazing pioneers will have to make sure their new material is considerable stronger than anything released by their endless imitators in the new millennium, who tends to re-hash the old guitar glories of 1991 rather than take shoegazing in any new directions.

There are, admittedly, one or two exceptions to this rule: Deafheaven’s fusion of black metal and shoegazing is a bolder new take, while Ulrich Schnauss’ 2001 and 2003 albums Far Away Trains Passing By and A Strangely Isolated Place take up Seefeel’s mantle of electronic shoegazing, imbuing it with a Christmas fireside warmth. But they are the exceptions to the rule and you’d be hard pressed to claim that shoegazing has done anything but regress since the glory years of 1990 to ’91. That’s not necessarily a problem – music can arguably be enjoyable without being progressive – but you know you’re in a strange situation when bands who have reformed in their late 40s sound considerably more forward-thinking revisiting their glory years than the copyists they have spawned. It’s therefore perhaps right to be wary of over-romanticising a genre ultimately it fell victim not to the whims of the devious musical press, but to its own circle of ever-diminishing returns.

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