Scene Spotlight: Shoegaze (Part 1)

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Just Like Honey

Part 1 of ?

THESE POSTS ARE MEANT TO BE PLAYED LOUD.

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What IS “shoegaze”?

Briefly, it’s a subset of psychedelic music. It is generally based on a traditional rock band setup (though electronic-rock hybrids and purely-electronic variants exist), but it often de-emphasizes intelligible lyrics and guitar riffs in favor of multi-layered guitar tones and warped or distorted instrumental textures.

If all that sounds too arty or obscure, relax: many popular (or semi-popular, or formerly-popular) artists, such as Beach House, Deerhunter, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, Coldplay, Mazzy Star, The Cranberries, Sigur Rós, and early Radiohead draw heavily on the form.

Maybe you’ve heard shoegaze and didn’t even know it!

There are sometimes quite strong and beautiful melodies, but these may be buried in a dense wall of sound. You can find precedent in the Velvets, Can, Neu!, Phil Spector, Brian Eno, Big Star’s “Kangaroo”, Bowie’s “Heroes”: basically, music which foregrounds overwhelming density, feedback, oscillation, texture or drone as intentional compositional element.

To re-create such an effects-heavy sound on stage, the musicians are often manipulating an array of foot pedals – hence, they gaze at their shoes whilst performing.*

It was a originally derogatory term, applied to a wave of such bands (mostly from the UK) in the late 80’s/early 90’s. The movement paralleled the electronica explosion occurring in dance clubs around the same time; a generation tired of the old rock tropes, looking to expand the musical vocabulary and listeners’ minds with more experimental sounds.

You may also see it called “dream-pop” (this is impressionistic music, mostly concerned with internal states) or “noise-pop”.

Though I’ve talked about the earlier precedents, to my mind the proud mama and papa of the genre are two Scots bands: The Cocteau Twins, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

Cocteau Twins – Carolyn’s Fingers

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Never Understand

These bands represent the two opposing-yet-complementary poles shoegaze moves between – the Cocteaus: shimmering, light and “feminine” (though they still could be harsh and dissonant, particularly early on); and the JAMC: abrasive, dark and “masculine” (though often quite melodic and pretty underneath the din – “Never Understand” sounds like a Beach Boys record being played on a table saw).

(We’ll return to gender-expression in shoegazing later in this post).

These bands, plus some UK touring by American indie rockers experimenting with the proportions of “noise” and “melody” in a pop song – Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. – lit the shoegaze fuse.

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Before that happened, a few interstitial steps.

Close Lobsters were another Scots band, who opened for the Mary Chain in 1986. They were generally a jangly indie-pop band, but that jangle that descends from the Byrds also often intersects with shoegaze; linked by the use of sustain/reverb, which shimmers and elongates and affects the listener’s perception of time; the way an un-damped bell keeps on vibrating long after it’s struck.

In 1987’s “Mother of God” (hey, there’s that male/female dichotomy again) they take a simple chugging Velvets-like groove, and at around the 4-minute mark start to stack sound on top of ringing sound until it reaches the sky; then punches right through it, heading straight for the titular deity:

Close Lobsters – Mother of God

This is probably controversial (and not representative of the band’s usual chiming style); but in retrospect, the droning/sliding chords and heavily-effected, wildly-oscillating guitars of the Smiths’ 1984 track “How Soon Is Now?”* seem to prefigure shoegaze pretty clearly:

The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?

The House of Love were sort of a “Stone Roses before there was a Stone Roses” – heavily influenced by 60’s rock, fronted by a druggy shamanistic type. They had a handful of pretty-great tracks.

One of those, “Christine”, catches them closer to the JAMC (particularly that doomy, gothy drum/bass sound on the chorus):

The House of Love – Christine

Loop and Spacemen 3 are sometimes seen as predecessors to the shoegaze scene; while certainly more than capable in the use of distortion, these bands often created their lysergic effects less from the layering of guitars, and more from the hypnotic use of Stooges-like repetition:

Loop – Collision

Hold on a second, I smell burning:

Spacemen 3 – Revolution

If that doesn’t make you want to riot in the streets, I don’t know what will.

Or, we’ll just decide to have a bed-in with Boston’s Galaxie 500. Drawing deeply from the Velvet Underground, G500 were also linked to the so-called “slowcore” scene, along with Low, Bedhead, Codeine, Seam and others. Their guitars are not so much “layered” (usually just one, either liquid, or blaring), as they are “reverbed to the moon and back”. If I could afford it, I’d buy the G500 box set for everyone here; the otherworldly alchemy between Dean Wareham’s guitar tones, Damon Krukowski’s jazzy drumming and Naomi Yang’s Hooky bass is magical.

As a child of the 80’s, I used to think this beautiful, unsettling song was about nuclear winter, but it’s probably just about a regular old snowstorm.

And probably also about being really, really stoned:

Galaxie 500 – Snowstorm

(You can stream and/or purchase digital copies of all of Galaxie’s albums at Bandcamp. You can, and you should.)

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Moose were reputedly the first band to have the term “shoegaze” applied to them (though the lead singer claimed it was actually just a taped-down lyric sheet on the stage that was the object of his attention, it was too late, and the deeply-stupid term stuck).

One boy:

Moose – Boy

And one girl:

Moose – Suzanne

Ride’s debut, Nowhere, is considered a classic of the genre. However, I don’t really care for its production (too thin & harshly-metallic) and the songs are mostly too samey.

But it does have “Vapour Trail”, with lovely cello:

Ride – Vapour Trail

Personally, I prefer their next album, Going Blank Again , and the pop sugar-rush of “Twisterella”:

Ride – Twisterella

I mentioned Garbage earlier. I quite like Version 2.0, and Garbage wrote more varied songs, but they owe more than a little to Curve, not just in the way they fuse dance beats and guitars, but for pretty much swiping Toni Halliday’s vocal tone:

Curve – Horror Head

I haven’t run the numbers, but I am pretty sure that shoegaze tends toward a higher-than-average-number of female players and singers, than does rock music in general.

Among other things, shoegaze can be a way to use shatteringly-loud guitars in a less-stereotypically masculine way than usual. Heavy metal and punk guitars often have the volume, and sometimes the texture, but are utilized like ugly metal bars installed over the window of a boys-only treehouse; they are meant primarily to repel or overwhelm, rather than envelop.

To get all Freudian for a minute, shoegaze often brandishes loud guitars as avatars of the womb as well as the phallus.

Shoegaze can be both loud as hell, and lovely as heaven. It’s “noise” that’s not afraid to be “pretty”; it’s beauty, contrasted and enhanced by scars of feedback.

Plus, there’s always just something nice about an ethereal female vocal floating above the racket.

Lush – Sweetness and Light

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that song.

Even when the singer is male, vocals may often tend toward a more androgynous tone:

Pale Saints – Throwing Back The Apple

Not coincidentally, shoegaze is often WAY better makeout music than most punk or metal is.

If I’ve named the Cocteaus and the Mary Chain as shoegaze’s thesis and antithesis, then Ireland’s My Bloody Valentine are the synthesis.

Both beautiful AND brutally loud, the band’s music not only seems to me to share the best traits of both its “parents”, it often also suggests the act of love itself.

The coed coital coos of Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher being a prime example:

My Bloody Valentine – Only Shallow

My Bloody Valentine – To Here Knows When

My Bloody Valentine – Swallow

MBV’s 1988 LP Isn’t Anything made them into de facto scene leaders; then 1991’s game-changing Loveless went off like a bomb, and its effects rippled far outside the UK.

Here’s some Czech shoegaze from 1992-1993:

The Ecstasy of St. Theresa – Fluidum

The Ecstasy of St. Theresa – Swoony

And the good ol’ US of A:

Swirlies – Jeremy Parker

Part 2 coming soon!

*There is additionally somewhat of a tradition of “anti-performance” amongst shoegaze bands, and this also played into the term – they often just didn’t interact much with the audience. In the JAMC’s early 20-minute sets, they played with their backs to the seats (and prompted a riot on more than one occasion). Later, they’d face the audience, but wreathed in dry-ice fog, with blinding white spotlights aimed directly into the audience’s eyes.

Many bands at the height of the scene were far less confrontational, but embraced a democratic, ego-less ethos (or affectation if you prefer) that saw them downplaying rock traditions like “a frontperson” or “moving around” – there will be no windmilling power chords or stage banter here. Shoegaze is not about a single personality, it’s about a vibe, a sound, a feeling; it’s all about the music, man.

Buncha neo-psychedelic hippies.

**The Smiths’ frontman, Morrissey, also generally avoided the use of gendered pronouns in his song lyrics, so that the songs could be applicable to anyone.