Tinnitus pls: The Inspirations and Sounds of “Shoegaze”

As Elvis famously stated “Don’t step on my blue suede pedals” (I’ll never say that again I swear I’m so sorry). “Shoegaze” was a cult movement that was formed during the mid ‘80s in the UK and Ireland. The underground scene of an underground scene drew from alternative rock, ‘60s psychedelic rock, garage, noise and dream pop. The basis for this unusual cult came from guitarists more intrigued by the mechanics and science of guitar gadgetry rather than the basic playing of melodies and chords. Extensive use of amps, tremolo, whammy bars, layering and most notably the stamping on multiple wah-wah pedals depicting the guitarist constantly “gazing at their shoes” conjured up the inspiration for the movement. The robust noise contains massive amounts of distortion, drone riffs and a smothering wave of volume.

Shoegaze goes as far back as the late ‘50s/early ‘60s to psychedelic rock in the US and UK with numerous forms of art (predominately music and poetry) popularising the use of drug-taking and anti-government stances. The music of the time in particular evoked a sense of hallucination and being under the influence of drugs, with space-like and mind-altering sounds. Forerunners included the 13th Floor Elevators, one of the first mainstream psych rock bands, and of course Jim Morrison and The Doors, one of the most influential acts of the 20th century and beyond. The UK grasped the concept quickly with Pink Floyd and of course The Beatles, the latter adding a more experimental theme to their music including art rock, folk and psychedelia with Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. George Harrison in particular was searching further afield for musical inspiration and looked to Indian music and culture to diversify the aesthetic of the band creating more of a hallucinogenic and mystical sound blended with the Western pop already incorporated in their sound.

As the hippie and drug culture was slowly declining, bands in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were picking up from where psych rock left off in the form of neo-psychedelia, space and later alternative rock. Now the fundamental sounds of shoegaze were coming into the ascendency with the use of tremolos, wah-wah pedals and dense guitar sounds. Some of the first glimpses of shoegaze were seen with the band Spacemen 3, a UK cult favourite among many underground rock fans, viewed as a “drug” band due to their hypnotic style and… yeah they took drugs too.

Manchester’s The Smiths, one of the most influential indie/alternative bands of all time, had a distinct jangle-pop sound and lyricist that couldn’t easily be placed in a heavy, dense rock category. Although guitarist Johnny Marr was more interested in melodies and an arpeggio style of guitar picking at the time, he did add elements of groove and heaviness to the music of The Smiths with their 1984 classic “How Soon Is Now?”, the definitive anthem of the adolescent (and older). Marr said he wanted it to sound “intense and druggy” with extensive use of the vibrato to create tremolo giving the impression of a wavy, double guitar sound. This song became a rock favourite soon after with many aspiring guitarists fiddling with amps and pedals to conjure up similar distorted sounds. The production of the song is so complex (look it up) it baffled the band in terms of playing it live. Elsewhere, in the US, Pixies and Sonic Youth brought the noise element to alternative rock with unorthodox guitar techniques, string arrangements and tuning.

My Bloody Valentine

Irish alternative rock band My Bloody Valentine (MBV) is constantly cited as the beginnings of popularising shoegaze. Although the band began as post-punk/gothic and noise pop, their quick transition into the space realms of shoegaze made them the key influence. Guitarist Kevin Shields and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig formed the band in 1983, joined a couple of years later by bassist Debbie Googe, and then Bilinda Butcher in 1987 before their real acclaimed work was released. The foundations for the musical movement were being laid down before MBV’s influence was being heard, however, with bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut Psychocandy (1985). This may be the case, but these bands state the early works of MBV’s prolific EP catalogue, especially You Made Me Realise (1988) and their debut studio album Isn’t Anything of the same year were the true beginnings of launching shoegaze, and they were the band that really put it on the map.

Psychocandy, however, was still rife with “standard” alternative rock tunes and quickly after this the band abandoned the heavy, distorted sound and began a more conventional route of rock music as early as their next album. MBV combined all of the elements of the origins together to create the true shoegaze sound with psychedelic, soothing vocals from Butcher and space rock experiences through their Nutty Professor axeman Shields, regarded as one of the most unusual guitarists of his time. The recording of their albums consisted of the use of multiple amps, tremolo techniques, mics and layering different guitar riffs and noises. MBV’s most iconic album is Loveless (1991) yet real diehards of the band state their aforementioned first studio record is their favourite as it incorporates all elements of the band’s sound down through the years and inspired the wave of mainstream shoegaze bands to follow.

The subculture was gaining prominence before the introduction of Loveless with bands such as Ride, Slowdive, Lush, Chapterhouse and Catherine Wheel forming. Slowdive and Lush added a more melodic, dream pop sound rather than the harsh technical production of stereotypical shoegaze.

Ride’s debut Nowhere (1990) added fast-paced, noise pop with a hint of blues in places with the use of harmonicas in the CD bonus tracks “Here and Now” and “Nowhere”. Lead singers/guitarists Andrew Bell and Mark Gardener became synonymous with the genre, and Ride was, sales-wise, the most successful act with UK top ten albums to boast.

Catherine Wheel also gained notable chart success and added hard rock with a heavy metal-esque feel, especially in their second record Chrome (1993). After this record they veered down more of a heavier path. The lead singer Rob Dickinson is a cousin of Iron Maiden’s multi-talented frontman Bruce Dickinson.

The seminal shoegaze album, however, is Loveless and one of the most iconic of the alternative rock scene. It added experimental guitar techniques to create a hallucinogenic experience like the guitar had just been invented. Nothing sounded or still sounds like it; more of a sonic experience rather than a rock experience. The album is heavy yet when you break it down isn’t fast or overbearing. MBV signed to Creation Records in 1988 along with other shoegaze and alternative rock bands to produce the majority of their EP collection and their first two studio albums.


Loveless (1991)

Several engineers were brought in to oversee the sophomore studio record, but Shields stated that only a couple of them meant anything and the rest would “fix tea”. The band was very insular when it came to their sound and had a clear vision for the outcome of the album. Shields was always fascinated with funny guitar riffs and the science of sound. He developed tinnitus during the recording of Loveless due to the dense noise from amps and speakers while mixing.

The album begins with the heavy and distorted “Only Shallow” with a few breaks for Butcher to add soothing, almost trad Irish vocals (from an Englishwoman) in the midst of Shields’ tremolo guitar riff before the cacophony of chaotic, thick guitar smashes ensue, which don’t sound too dissimilar to an elephant being raped… by… something… The wavy, trippy outro is something Felix Baumgartner would be listening to as he broke the sound barrier hurtling towards Earth. Though an obvious choice, it’s probably my favourite shoegaze song. The main “riff” on “I Only Said” sounds like some sort of electric viola played by a resurrected Vivaldi. Softer melodies are added with tracks such as “Sometimes” and the spiralling pirouette of “Blown a Wish”.

Though Loveless proved pivotal in the shoegaze movement, it lived up to its title (literally) displaying no affection towards Creation Records. The album was so costly financially it began the downfall of the record company towards the mid to late ‘90s and half of the company was sold to Sony in 1992 by co-founder Alan McGee. This and the emergence of the alternative rock spin-off phenomenon “Britpop” in the early to mid ‘90s would prove to be the final chapter. Oasis signed to Creation in 1993 and kept it financially stable with releases such as their debut Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995). Record labels saw the future in Britpop, and shoegaze was slowly becoming a thing of the past. Bands such as Ride were now eliminating their distorted sounds and eventually disbanded in 1996. Andrew Bell went on to form Hurricane #1 and joined Oasis as their bassist in the late ‘90s up until their subsequent demise in 2009. Lush moved completely to Britpop during the mid ‘90s, Creation ended in 1999, bands like Chapterhouse were leaving signs that the genre was dying with their move to more conventional rock sounds drawing from similar influences coming out of the “Madchester” scene of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s such as The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, and most importantly of all, MBV disbanded in 1997 leaving the yearning for influence lacking.

Shoegaze left a mark on music to follow, be it music that pushed it aside (Britpop, grunge), or music that artists turned to after its demise (post-rock, ambient/space rock). Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were among the wave of grunge bands to follow that would bring alternative rock to the masses, but it was Nirvana in 1991 with their iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Nevermind that really broke through, and grunge was now the revolution a disenfranchised youth was seeking in the US. The lo-fi era also began with bands such as Pavement further eliminating the typical macho, spandex guitar culture which wafted from the ‘80s rock scene. Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins cites Kevin Shields as a major influence in his guitar playing and the band’s sound. Modern ambient rockers pay homage to shoegaze in particular bands such as God Is an Astronaut. The Garden of Ireland rockers are pure instrumentalists with space rock blasts with a dash of melodic ambience in the middle of it all. It’s easy to hear the influence here.

The genre has seen a slight resurgence in the last 12/15 years with “nu-gaze” and the reformation of My Bloody Valentine in 2007 and Ride at the end of 2014. MBV released a long-awaited third studio album m b v in 2013, and Ride announced a tour for 2015 and that new material isn’t out of the question. Shoegaze was the final push to ignite the beginnings of mainstream alternative rock from the 1990s to the present and inspired guitar experimentation and science that never would have been discovered otherwise. Kevin Shields and MBV in particular still remain highly influential across the globe today inspiring many different cultures to continue where they left off. Loveless is placed in the top half of the Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time at number two hundred and twenty-one. Rock bands from Japan and Korea as recently as the last 2/3 years have collaborated in reliving Loveless in the form of tribute albums – Japan’s Yellow Loveless (2013) and Korea’s Blue Loveless (2012), illustrating how far MBV’s and shoegaze’s influences have stretched.

Recommended listening:

  • My Bloody Valentine
    • Isn’t Anything
    • Loveless
    • (try their EPs as well)
  • Ride
    • Nowhere (include CD bonus tracks)
    • Going Blank Again
  • The Jesus and Mary Chain
    • Psychocandy
  • Slowdive
    • Just for a Day
    • Souvlaki
  • Lush
    • Spooky
  • Chapterhouse
    • Whirlpool
  • Catherine Wheel
    • Ferment
    • Chrome
  • Spacemen 3
    • Sound of Confusion


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