Translation of an article originally written for HYMN.
This year marks 30 years since the Dublin group My Bloody Valentine released Loveless. While living in London, the band’s second album became one of the decade’s most debated releases by an indie band due to the circumstances surrounding its recording and aftermath. This is me looking back on the first time I heard Loveless – claiming that nothing as innovative has happened in guitar-based music since 1991.
30 years ago, in February, My Bloody Valentine released the EP Tremolo. If anyone had known by when their second album Loveless would be finished, it would probably have been marketed as a single, as the first track “To Here Knows When” later became one of the central tracks on the album. There is a lot to read about Loveless, which came out in November 1991, both on Wikipedia and less reliable sources that are full of rumours and anecdotes about the whims of guitarist, songwriter and singer Kevin Shield. This article is not about that – enough was written on that note ten years ago for Loveles‘s 20th anniversary. Shortly after that, the album was reissued and remastered (actually with two different masters in a 2CD) and ended up in the charts again. In 2013, what would have been the sequel to Loveless was also eventually released. I would rather tell you about my relationship to the record, as the groundbreaking piece of art it is considered to be by many to.
In my opinion, there have hardly been any new innovations in guitar music since Kevin Shields recorded Loveless (basically on his own) during the years 1989-1991. During that time, grunge emerged in the United States, as well as industrial rock and black metal. Together with shoegaze (the genre that My Bloody Valentine is considered to be a part of as well as progenitors of), these are the last truly innovative genres that have emerged in guitar-based pop and rock. In principle, everything following them (Britpop in particular) is partly characterized by a kind of nostalgic rehash of old ideas – from Franz Ferdinand to The Hives. Today, everything is already done by someone, somewhere in music history, and the innovations that do take place rarely have acoustic or electrical instruments such as guitar as a their source.
Loveless was something else entirely – definitely inspired by the mechanical rhythms of the budding dance music scene and its drug-induced euphoria. Although the album is often seen as a defining work in shoegaze, it could be argued that it was rather the end or culmination of the genre’s trajectory. My Bloody Valentine had actually just released the foundational work of the genre, Isn’t Anything, a few years back and were so slow to follow up on it, that basically every other so-called shoegaze group got their 2 cents first. Three records that became just as crucial to the genre as Isn’t Anything were Ride’s first album Nowhere that came out in 1990, Lush’s singles collection Gala from the same year, oh yeah – even Slowdive managed to get their debut album Just For a Day out before My Bloody Valentine’s sophomore record reached us.
What was unique about those bands, almost all of whom were London-based (an interesting video about the scene here), was that they were trying to introduce noise, bordering on pure static, into a songwriting tradition that harks back to 60s pop. The productions are comparable to e.g. Brian Wilson’s (of the Beach Boys) clear and complex vision for Pet Sounds. This is exactly the combination Scottish band The Jesus & Mary Chain had invented as early as 1985 on their debut album Psychocandy. That was also what first attracted me to the genre and made me want to discover bands like My Bloody Valentine.
I was in senior high when I first heard My Bloody Valentine. I’d read a lot about Loveless and quite naturally it became my entry point to the band. Before, back in junior high, I’d become more and more fascinated with exploring musicians taking guitar sounds to extremes in various ways. I was listening to metal and industrial rock such as Nine Inch Nails, but it didn’t really strike me in the same way as hearing Jesus & Mary Chain for the first time. They weren’t extreme because they were dark or heavy – just stubbornly idiosyncratic on the verge of stupidity. It was noise purely for the sake of noise, which became quite clear when I heard the acoustic versions of the Reid brothers’ songs.
As I got home and put the CD into my small stereo at my parents’ house, it was kinda like opening an unread book. There’s this blank page before you start and then you’re enveloped by a magical world that’s unknown, and at the same time your expectations fall away. Loveless didn’t sound anything like I thought it would. When I bought Isn’t Anything a few years later, I understood that it was actually this sound I had read about and heard descriptions of regarding My Bloody Valentine. Loveless doesn’t sound very much like a rock album. Admittedly, all the spacey sounds were originally created on a guitar, but they’d been taken so much farther using various recording techniques they started to sound like something new.
This was not the sound of a band recording together in a studio, but the result of several years of experimentation in a range of studios. Neither did it sound loud and energetic, nor particularly dissonant. One factor that I, in retrospect, can see must taken into account is that I, at that time (roughly a decade into the record’s exsistence ) was used to CDs being mastered at noticeably higher volume. That partly has to do with the fact that back when Loveless was recorded, analog tape was still used to record. This master was transferred to a digital format to be housed on a CD. If you are interested in the technicalities, go read about the ‘loudness wars’ on Wikipedia. At the same time as the technology for digitizing music was improving during the 90’s, engineers also started recording on digital media, resulting in digital masters from the get-go. As a result, loudness gradually increased.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that a remastered vinyl pressing of Loveless came out, but I’ve heard neither that or the original press from 1991. If you’re more interested in the work behind that reissue (which also took Shields several years to make) ) you can read this interview for Pitchfork. In short, I wasn’t getting my ears blown off the first time I heard Loveless. It took a while until I started to appreciate the many many melodies, both in the vocals (one of the songs has a dozen vocal tracks) and what I later realised were sampled guitar and vocal sounds. By sampling e.g. feedback from his guitar, Shields could then “play” this sound on his keyboard – thus basically inventing brand new instruments.
The drums too, were mostly sampled and edited together, since the band’s drummer wasn’t in the best of health in the period where the album was recorded. There weren’t a bunch of guitar effects either – something I was accustomed to from other shoegaze bands. Shields vehemently opposed the use of guitar pedals. Instead of just using a wahwah pedal, he went as far as manipulating his guitar tracks through a series of EQs instead, just to achieve a similar effect. No wonder it took so long to finalise and mix all of the tracks. To this date, it remains unknown just how much the album cost record label Creation, but rumours of £250,000 (a huge amount for an independent label at that time) are still circulating, even though Shields has claimed that the studio time itself cost very little, but that the band members also had to support themselves for several years using the money they were getting paid.
If you watch interviews with Kevin Shields (like the 1991 interview where he’s joined by Bilinda Butcher, it’s obvious how little he really cared about the music press, the concerns of the label and the fans’ expectations. He did exactly as he pleased and if you are a perfectionist (which he no doubt is) you’re usually the only one left in the studio, fiddling with details, long after everyone else has tired.
The fact remains that Creation Records already had substantial debts and that the situation was became volatile. Rather than the £250,000, label head Alan McGee has indicated that the debt was in the order of one million pounds. Even though the album eventually came out and received praise (just like the band’s previous release for Creation), it only sold silver and not gold. The same autumn Creation had greater success with Primal Scream’s equally groundbreaking dance pop album Screamadelica. But even that was not enough to save the company, leading McGee to sell 49% of it to Sony Records the next year.
Although Screamadelica sold platinum in the UK eventually (i.e. more than 300,000 copies), that’s still not an awful lot compared other guitar bands such as The Stone Roses, whose debut album sold more than a million copies in the UK, or Oasis’ debut for that matter (also on Creation Records, 1994) which more than four million Brits went out to buy. And compared to the 1991 record most fondly remembered today – coincidentally released the day after Screamadelica – Nirvana’s Nevermind has sold over 10 million copies in the US (which is defined as one up from platinum, or “diamond”).
Yeah sure, Loveless was groundbreaking but it took several years for the rest of the world to catch on. In many ways the album was more groundbreaking than Screamadelica, which was largely created by producer and DJ Andrew Weatherall by radically remixing Primal Scream’s original recordings for the album along with samples from old records. He had already done just that with My Bloody Valentine’s track “Soon”. “Soon” was actually the first single, or the first thing the public got to hear off of Loveless, when it came out on the Glider EP in 1990. “Glide guitar” was, as a side not, what Kevin Shield’s tremolo-laden playing style would be called. On Weatherall’s remix, which was released later that year, it became even clearer that “Soon” was in many ways a dance tune. I can only imagine how much better it would’ve sounded on a 12 ”maxi with its deeper grooves than on the thin album version I heard on my CD-player.
The CD version of Loveless probably sounds brilliant on a big soundsystem with a “cleaner” sound, on which you can turn up the volume to fill the entire room. On my little stereo, the sound didn’t impress me much with its midrange-heavy quality. As a matter of fact, all the band’s EPs between 1987 and 1991 had been released on 12″s, which must have given them a completely different sound. However, Shields didn’t want any singles to market Loveless (two songs had already been released on EPs, I guess). In the US the album was released by Sire, who picked “When You Sleep” and “Only Shallow” as promos. The latter became the band’s only song that charted in the US, resulting in new a music video from Angus Cameron, who’d also shot the videos for “Soon”, “Swallow” and “To Here Knows When” (he’s also supposed to be the man behind coverart for Loveless). That songs from the album were being dispersed gradually over the course of two years does say something – both about how My Bloody Valentine managed to create something of lasting relevance and that it took the audience some time really to discover the record. It’s remarkable that almost two years passed between the videos for “Soon” and “Only Shallow”. Perhaps it can be likened to the long wait Mayhem’s fans underwent for their debut LP, which was released in 1994 (four years after the band began recording).
After the release and subsequent tour, Shields slowly turned into a hermit and broke with Alan McGee and Creation (who were already upset with the money they’d spent), while working on a follow-up. It must have been incredibly difficult to even picture a direction for his musicianship after that. The band managed to get a new record deal (with Island) and invested in building a home studio. But the sad truth is that perhaps not of it really mattered, neither for Shields himself nor the band’s fans. Because nothing could surpass Loveless in any case. It’s been said that Shields had some major mental health issues during the second half of the 90’s and the band eventually split in 1997. Loveless thus became their final album (in that incarnation).
But around ten years after the release, interest in shoegaze had again began to grow, for example in Sweden, where another nostalgic wave of guitar bands who thought music ‘used to be better’ was appearing. One of them was Radio Dept. from my hometown Malmö. I watched their first chaotic gig and felt a shared enthusiasm for noise and a wall of distorsion. Somewhat earlier I had started listening to Sonic Youth, who expanded my perception of what can be considered music. There were also musicians working in an electronic idiom who were interested in the same border between music and noise. The Austrian artist Fennesz had released his acclaimed album Endless Summer in 2001, on which he also used sonic blankets of guitar. I became so interested in their ideals that I convinced my friends that our final high school project should be about “perfect sound” in music production. My friends wrote about rnb and drumnbass while I wrote about shoegaze and lofi.
One of the artists I interviewed back then (who played in LKWRM) told me that he suffered from tinnitus since going to a My Bloody Valentine gig during their European tour. Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher are also supposed to have contracted tinnitus during the recording of Loveless, which certainly contributed to the constant delays. It was a period that was characterized by extremely loud gigs (and rave parties), especially if you went to watch grunge bands such as Smashing Pumpkins. PA systems and amplifiers had become increasingly powerful over the years and there was still no legislation that limited decibel levels at clubs and festivals. Today, shoegaze still exists as a genre following yet another revival, but today it feels like even more of a paradox: to make music that is extremely taxing on our ears despite us becoming accustomed to lower and lower hardware quality. Laptops, bluetooth speakers and airpods can hardly do the music justice. When I finally got to hear My Bloody Valentine at the Roskilde Festival a few years ago I was also disappointed. The volume was far too low to fit the band’s sound.
I can only speculate as to what I would have felt if I, as a teenager today, had discovered Loveless on some streaming platform – poor bitrate, shoddy computer speakers and all. I guess I would have been even more disappointed. Maybe people who read this will be too. I can only urge you to buy the album (preferably on vinyl), visit your friend with the massive speakers and ask them to turn the volume up. Next best bet: get a pair of decent headphones (ones that cover the whole ear) and just listen to the disc back to back. That’s how it’s meant to be heard, since all the tracks are woven together with instrumental codas inbetween between. Then let’s check back in after another 20 years and see if you remember the experience or not. At least I remember the first time I heard Loveless 18 years ago and 12 years after it was released. That’s a memorable album for sure.