“You made me acknowledge the devil in me/I hope to God I’m talking metaphorically/Hope that I’m talking allegorically” — “A Girl Like You” by Edwyn Collins
Shoegaze is a genre of indie/alternative rock that originated from a few people playing with guitar pedals, vocal effects, intense amp feedback, and holding a constant, trained focus downward at the pedals they were constantly fiddling with. What started off as a joking label for poor stage presence quickly inspired a genre of music that would influence decades of future artists to explore the limits of sound—sound as a shapeless form of noise. The Jesus and Mary Chain, my bloody valentine, Cocteau Twins, and Slowdive are pillars of the genre, and all are artists with disciples in the mainstream music world now, artists like M83, Beach House, and Grizzly Bear. This began, like any great story, in Scotland.
“Don’t you forget about me/Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t/Don’t you forget about me” — “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds
Scottish music in the early 80s was suffering. There was an attempt to be more like their neighbors down south, who were wildly successful for several reasons—the Second British Invasion was happening, the post-punk and new wave bands were kicking off, and Duran Duran had released “Girls on Film”—hard to compete with that, and the Scots’ attempt was to no avail. A few artists had started to spring up, like Edwyn Collins-led Orange Juice, but nobody was shaking things up or, more importantly, keeping up with the aforementioned post-punk and new wave movements. There was, in the Scottish music appetite, a hunger for electronic, synthpop sounds, and no longer a craving for guitar bands. The death of the six string happened roughly in this time, with musicians replacing guitar sounds for electric drum kits and synthesized keyboards.
Fast forward halfway through the decade, and we get to 1985 and Alan McGee. Alan McGee, a Scottish youth who was frustrated that there was nothing to be proud of in Scotland (when it came to music, or anything else at the time, except for Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson, Scottish football icons), and annoyed that the Sex Pistols weren’t allowed in Scotland. With friends, a dream, and a considerable loan, he started Creation Records, birthing Scotland’s soon-to-be-leading prestigious independent record label, which focussed on young artists who were pushing the envelope. Alan McGee, looking to find the next Public Image Ltd and Sex Pistols, meets the Reid brothers, Jim and William; together, they act as manager and record producer. In doing such, Alan McGee, and the Reid brothers, inadvertently started down the path that would lead to shoegaze.
“Listen to the girl as she takes on half the world/Moving up and so alive in her honey/dripping beehive, beehive” — “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain
While there isn’t truly a first major accreditation of the term to a specific band, The Jesus and Mary Chain fall chronologically into first place. Their signing story is anything short of miraculous. Alan McGee and Bobby Gillespie connected over a demo tape of theirs, and after Alan heard Jim and William Reid’s The Jesus and Mary Chain perform a soundcheck before a gig in 1984, he made the decision to sign them on the spot. They created an aura of violence, controlled chaos, and power that didn’t already exist amidst the synths and sounds of electronic keyboards and drums of the time. William Reid’s out-of-tune guitar and Douglas Hart’s two string bass (“That’s the two I use. I mean, what’s the fucking point spending money on another two? Two is enough,” he was quoted saying) combined for a cacophony of distortion and feedback that was good. Really good. And with that, The Jesus and Mary Chain worked to release their debut record, Psychocandy (1985), paving the shoegaze path from one lovely Glasgow neighborhood. Bobby Gillespie, of Primal Scream fame, played drums on this record, and the trio (along with good old Douglas Hart on bass) recorded a record that would achieve critical acclaim. Their out-of-tune guitars, the playing of said guitars into amps, and the usage of damaged amps all combined into what we now have as a seminal Scottish record. “Just Like Honey” blew up almost immediately, and the band escalated to high heights for the alternative indie rock scene of the 80s and 90s––ironic, given that Jim Reid hated performing.
The music served as a form of revolt for a time that needed one. People were fed up with the abandonment of 60s and 70s era rock sounds packed with the missed fervor and energy that came with kickass performances. The Jesus and Mary Chain sound was synonymous with bulldozing barriers, screaming to the world, and punching squares in the face. As their popularity thrust them into the limelight, so did their reputation as a band whose performances spurred on violence. Several shows of theirs ended in brawls, broken equipment, and smashed bottles that littered the venue floors. The Jesus and Mary Chain offered a reaction to the times, a reaction to a formality and abandonment of individuality from mainstream artists in the 80s, rejecting the need to be featured on shows like Top of the Pops or the newly-birthed MTV to be seen as good. Also, it’s not like Maggie Thatcher would have been listening to The Jesus and Mary Chain, which was a pull for many people.
“When I look at you/Oh, but I don’t know what’s real/Once in a while/And you make me laugh.” — “When You Sleep” by my bloody valentine
While The Jesus and Mary Chain were more on the aggressive frontline, when it came to the genre, they opened the door for other high-distortion guitar bands. Their performances stood as something largely antithetical to the genre at large, which was emphasized by the lack of violence from an artist like my bloody valentine. An artist that is now synonymous with establishing and truly setting the foundations for shoegaze, my bloody valentine is what can only be described as having a sound similar to staring at the sun for too long, looking away, and still having the imprint of the sun in your vision. Like The Jesus and Mary Chain, my bloody valentine won over Alan McGee’s eyes and ears after opening for his band Biff Bang Pow! in 1988 and landed a deal with Creation Records. They would go on to release You Made Me Realise, an EP that featured 5 tracks. It ranged in sound, with a song like “thorn” echoing Buzzcocks’ raucous guitar playing, while a song like “drive it all over me” contrasted with soft-vocals over repeated guitar riffs, something which you could easily hear as an influence on The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. It debuted well––in fact, well enough to earn them a deal for their debut-album, Isn’t Anything, which was released later that year. The album soared to the top of the UK charts and set a standard that avant garde rock was not dead amidst a sea of electronic, mass-produced pop rock of the time. Alan McGee, now riding the Creation Records wave of both signing and managing a number of critically acclaimed up-and-coming artists, was rightfully thrilled, giving them carte blanche for their next record in 1989.
Fast forward two long years and Loveless is released, but not without the group recording in nineteen different studios, a grueling number of engineer switches, singer/guitarist Kevin Shields falling out with Alan McGee, and the album bankrupting Creation Records. While receiving an initially lackluster reception, Loveless now sees attention as the album that plugged mainstream audiences into the shoegaze genre. The group’s sound culminates with this record and stands for everything Kevin Shields had hoped it would stand for. Album opener “Only Shallow” opts to shock-and-awe audiences with rearing drums and throbbing guitar tracks that work in conjunction as much as against one another, a battle for sonic space. This, along with Bilinda Butcher’s soft, dreamy vocals (recorded typically after a nap, or while half-asleep) has listeners simultaneously existing in a soft dream world while blasting ear drums with strumming and tambourine smashing. “When You Sleep” is a softer track, something that arouses feelings of love and trancelike fixations with loved ones. The song features something Kevin Shields brought to life, his “glide guitar” technique. To generate the sound of multiple guitars with just one handy, Shields holds the vibrato bar while strumming. The effect causes strings to change their tuning, going incredibly taut or loose as can be, and when mixed with his reverb pedals, gives us a guitar sound like on “When You Sleep.” The album’s sounds join to create a wall of sound that is hard to decipher, making it impossible to really pinpoint what noise is coming from what instrument, and the beauty of it is an album that remains one of the purest and beautifully haunting pieces of music to come from the genre and from the 90s. Guitar rock wasn’t dead, as Alan McGee and other youths once thought; it was just waking from a deep, deep slumber.
“Singing on a famous street/I want to love, I’ve all the wrong glory/Am I just in Heaven or Las Vegas?” — “Heaven or Las Vegas” by Cocteau Twins
Releasing Heaven or Las Vegas in 1990, Cocteau Twins delivered sounds of a delicate nature that heavily contrasted with The Jesus and Mary Chain’s overwhelming rawness and my bloody valentine’s domineering wall of sound. If The Jesus and Mary Chain and my bloody valentine stood for shoegaze as rock, Cocteau Twins were shoegaze as pop—or as it can be called, dream pop. “Ethereal” is often used to describe the genre and is the one word that really encapsulates the sound of this record—whether it’s Elizabeth Fraser’s instrument-like vocals or Robin Guthrie’s thumping drum machine loops, it really feels like listening to a dream. Their songs are hard to decipher lyrically because they weren’t written to hold some greater meaning; instead, they were written for sonic synthesis with the instruments (i.e., to sound good when you press play). The record’s opener, “Cherry-Coloured Funk,” is a testament to the genre’s emphasis on a sonic blitz. Guitar reverb drips throughout the track, serving as a blanketing of sorts for the marauding drum track and angelic vocals. Songs like “Heaven or Las Vegas,” or “Wolf in the Breast,” are more pop-oriented, and are songs you could picture groups like Beach House or Real Estate releasing. The sounds, similar to my bloody valentine, are meant to overwhelm. Joy, ecstasy, elation, whatever emotion you wish to use, is this record and this group. The album has a pulsating energy that can only really make you wonder how you haven’t heard something like it before, something that sounds like a transcript of dreams that speak to life, death, and to pop-fueled advancements within the new genre.
“Listen close and don’t be stoned/I’ll be here in the morning/’Cause I’m just floating/Your cigarette still burns/Your messed-up world will thrill me”— “Alison” by Souvlaki
Slowdive, all throughout this period, were relatively in the background as a young bunch of kids that were semi-interested in Siouxsie and the Banshees and abstractly playing guitar. They signed with Creation Records when they were all 19 and had released a few singles and EPs for the first few years. Just For A Day was their first release, to a relatively muted response from the press. The early 90s saw the beginning of a downward trend of acceptance for the genre, and Slowdive were dragged along with it. Dreary, boring, lackadaisical guitar playing with muted vocal emotion wasn’t cutting it anymore against the rise of Britpop, with groups like Oasis and Blur taking headlines for general hooliganism and rip-roaring stadium performances (long live the Gallaghers). As teenagers, this was obviously hard to hear. It’s hard enough as it is to not do well on an essay in class; imagine not doing well on an album released internationally. When they went back into the studio in 1992, they had one goal in mind: make a pop record. They brought in the likes of artists like Brian Eno for inspiration, pushed themselves with their songwriting, and eventually came to release Souvlaki in 1993.
The album, as probably expected, was panned on release. A poor press campaign, dying love for shoegaze, and an overall desire to just crush the dreams of a teenage group produced quotes like, “I would rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to it again,” from Dave Simpson of Melody Maker. Harsh. However, Souvlaki has since been recognized as a masterpiece in the genre. Comfy, pillow-like guitar sounds combine for beautiful tracks like album opener “Alison” or “Here She Comes.” Their sound differentiates itself from my bloody valentine, and Cocteau Twins, and The Jesus and Mary Chain by taking a chilled stance on the aggressive, beat-the-audience’s-ear-into-submission style of sound. Slowdive sounds like what I imagine floating through space feels like, balancing on a fine line of tension and release. The tension is felt on a track like “When the Sun Hits,” which builds to a crescendo-ing of vocals, drums, and guitars. It’s a beautiful track and one that feels at times like nostalgia, and at others like the furious nature of a long walk home on a rainy night. The group draws heavily from ambient music, from artists like Aphex Twin and Brian Eno, and it’s clear to see the differentiation from their predecessors.
“I had a good run playing horses in my mind/Left my heart out somewhere running/Wanting strangers to be mine” — “Drunk in LA” by Beach House. These shoegaze pioneers’ legacy is clear in artists like Deerhunter, Animal Collective, Perfume Genius, The Spirit of the Beehive, and DIIV. The fascination with the study of dreams, the subconscious, and what the mind sounds like when played out with a guitar and some friends is a wonderful one, and one that spawned a genre of music that seemed to exist with and against the signs of the times. It died out as the 90s decided to latch themselves onto grunge, with groups like Nirvana, Hole, and Soundgarden—but not before giving us a glimpse at what it sounds like to dream out loud.