Toronto, 1989, club name forgotten. Onstage, My Bloody Valentine guitarist/vocalist Bilinda Butcher's white, sleeveless button-down shirt is blowing upward, revealing a flat, milky-white stomach. She is kittenishly pretty, a paragon of femininity. Yet she is also partially responsible for the beautiful maelstrom swirling around her and her three bandmates, guitarist/vocalist Kevin Shields, bassist Deb Googe, and drummer Colm O'Ciosoig. It's a massive, dynamic, annihilating sound that makes ogling a fetching abdomen seem shamefully banal.
The rhythm section is animated, Googe lunging and O'Ciosoig thrashing his kit like seasoned rock animals have done since at least the '60s. The guitarist/vocalists, however, are nearly motionless, although they constantly wring their instruments' tremolo arms while they (literally) gaze at their effects pedals and occasionally peer into the middle distance through their long fringes of hair while gently emoting into their mics.
The material—mostly taken from their then-recent Isn't Anything full-length and the You Made Me Realise and Feed Me with Your Kiss EPs—resonates with the bomblike impact of the Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy four years previous. Before our stunned ears, MBV are remaking rock in their own image: a newly discordant yet harmonious yin-yang big bang of impossibly rapturous melody and scalding noise.
They close with "You Made Me Realise," extending the cacophonous bridge—which lasts 40 seconds on the record—for several minutes into a sustained geyser of Glenn Branca–esque tone explosions. People look around at their fellow punters, trying to ascertain if what's happening is real. Some hustle for the exits, eyes closed, fingers in ears. Some grin dementedly, proud of their ability to withstand the assault. Some sarcastically dance or hold up lighters. No matter how we react, though, we all know that we'll be recounting this moment to friends for the rest of our lives.
Between songs, My Bloody Valentine say nothing to the enthralled crowd. They don't need to. Their music is more than sufficient to keep us dazzled. The gig is worth the lack of banter as well as the terminally dull 11-hour roundtrip drive my brother, friend and fellow zine writer Johnny Ray Huston, and I made from Detroit—and then some.
The next week, MBV played Detroit's St. Andrew's Hall and we three finagled an interview with them, which we published in our fanzine, You Can't Hide Your Love Forever. MBV were shy, didn't know anybody in Detroit, and after we interviewed them at the club, they just hung around with us, not really knowing what to do with themselves (this was their first North American tour). These were the rock deities who launched us into full-body pleasure spasms just a week before? And now these shrinking violets were looking to a few besotted Yank fanboys for kicks? It was an eye-opener.
It also sparked an observation: Sometimes the greatest musicians are simply ordinary folks who aren't inclined to quaff gallons of whiskey, toss TVs into hotel pools, and fuck everything in sight (not that there's anything wrong with those things). My Bloody Valentine's ascent to godhead status can be viewed as a triumph of the meek, proof that the introverted can make world-historical innovations in rock 'n' roll. MBV showed that you don't need to be some combination of alien and monstrous asshole to shift a sonic paradigm—though having a perfectionist streak, as band mastermind Shields does, helps.
Google the phrase "influenced by My Bloody Valentine" and witness the seminal impact (over 59,000 results) of an unassuming Anglo-Irish foursome whose last album, Loveless, came out in 1991.
Why all the fuss? Mainly, it's because with his breakthroughs from 1988 to 1991, Shields bestowed a new six-string dialect to rock, one so eloquent and enchanting that hundreds of bands—including those from metal, ambient electronic, IDM, minimal techno, underground hiphop—have siphoned inspiration from it. (Experimental guitarist/composer Rafael Toral even nicked the cover concept of Loveless with his 1995 album of Shields-inflected drones, Wave Field.) It's almost as if Shields found an element that's better than oxygen to breathe. To achieve this 30-plus years after a genre's emergence is a phenomenal feat.
From 1987 to 1991, MBV had one of the greatest creative runs in rock history. It rivaled those of the Beatles' 1965 to 1969, the Velvet Underground's 1967 to 1970, Can's 1969 to 1974, and Hüsker Dü's 1984 to 1987. Shields's hot streak was such that even relatively overlooked EP cuts such as "Swallow," "Honey Power," and "Glider" radiated unparalleled brilliance.
MBV's 1987 output—the EPs Sunny Sundae Smile and Strawberry Wine and the mini-album Ecstasy—finds them melding Ramones' speedy energy, Love's luxurious guitar jangle, and the Jesus and Mary Chain's feedback symphonies. The sound followed the UK music scene's post-Psychocandy/C86 obsession with amphetamined tempos, buoyant melodies, and sugary vocal harmonies. MBV's releases during this time are among the finest of their kind, proving them to be competent formalists, but only faintly hint at the seismic changes in their aesthetic to come.
When Isn't Anything dropped in March 1988, it instantly felt like a ground-zero moment. After its release, I couldn't listen to any other album for a month straight, except for Pixies' Surfer Rosa. Everything else seemed puny and anemic by comparison, hopelessly mired in a musty past, a scrap heap of abacuses next to a supercomputer. That feeling gradually faded, but Isn't Anything still sounds astounding in 2009, an iconic work—and yet it's not even MBV's peak.
On Isn't Anything, MBV compose beautiful melodies, tumultuous rhythms, and spectral atmospheres that reflect a perfect amalgam of male and female impulses, festooned in bizarrely distorted guitars that, as mentioned, introduced a fascinating new lingua franca to rock's Babel of Tongues. Album opener "Soft as Snow (but Warm Inside)" showcases O'Ciosoig's cardiac- infarction rhythmic finesse and a corkscrewing bass line from Googe, while Shields and Butcher strangle tortured sighs from their axes as they wax seductive to each other (they were lovers at the time). "Lose My Breath," "No More Sorry," and "I Can See It (but I Can't Feel It)" add fresh coats of tonal paint to the ballad form. For the punks, "Feed Me with Your Kiss," "Sueisfine," and "You Never Should" push those loud-fast-rules buttons, but with more roller-coaster contortions and foxier frequencies than your typical Mohawked mooks do. "Nothing Much to Lose" possesses MBV's sexiest melody and its quiet verses/rousing choruses template has rarely been bettered. Finally, "All I Need" is unprecedented, a gaseous threnody in an exploding gong factory.
How to follow up one of the greatest rock LPs ever? How about by creating Loveless, the greatest rock LP in history according to many serious heads, including former Stranger freelancer Mike McGonigal, who argued to that effect for a book issued in Continuum's 33 1/3 series. (The tome details Loveless's long, painful, expensive birth, but it didn't "nearly bankrupt" Creation Records, despite scuttlebutt to the contrary.)
From the first seconds of opener "Only Shallow," the listener feels as if she's thrust into a thrilling new future where guitars sound like vacuum cleaners the size of spaceships and voices disperse into a sensual mist of phonemes. In fact, Shields and Butcher revolutionized the "oo" phoneme on Loveless, where it's a recurrent signifier for longing and gratification. Their voices conjoin like an alternate-universe Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood, solarized and smeared into an androgynous woosh of desire, frustration, and ecstasy, vividly capturing the contradictory feelings that arise in intense relationships.
Shields explained his innovative guitar technique to McGonigal: "I found that if there was only one guitar track whilst the vocals were going, split between different amps and mics, the sound was bigger, especially when you use open strings and tunings and the tremolo arm on [Fender] Jazzmasters or Jaguars... It's hard to explain the guitar bending. What you hear is what is between the sound." Shields also uses what he calls "reverse reverb"—heard on the stunning "To Here Knows When" and "Blown a Wish"—which fosters that "ultra-melted guitar sound."
More convincingly than any rock band (even Sonic Youth), MBV use unconventional methods to foreground indistinctiveness and make disorienting hazy dream/drug states seem natural and alluring. Loveless's rock is swaddled in multiple layers of gauze and is seemingly zonked to the gills on codeine; by all rights, the music here should leave you numb. Instead, it elucidates extreme emotions until you swoon at the oversaturated aural plenitude MBV generate. On Loveless, MBV assimilate and reconstitute elements from the Jesus and Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins, and Dinosaur Jr. into a unique mélange of force and finesse, energy and entropy.
One of rock's most gripping sagas has been the agonizing wait for the follow-up to Loveless. After signing to Island, MBV scrapped two attempts at it; covers of Louis Armstrong and Wire songs are the only MBV efforts to see daylight since they left Creation Records. Meanwhile, band members have gone on to do some good work elsewhere, if nothing as momentous as their MBV music. O'Ciosoig has worked with Mazzy Star vocalist Hope Sandoval, Googe has played in Snowpony with Moonshake's Katharine Gifford, Butcher's musical activities have been very infrequent.
Unsurprisingly, Shields has been busiest, joining Primal Scream as guitarist from 1998 to 2005, recording four tracks for Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation, and accompanying Patti Smith on guitar for The Coral Sea, her spoken-word tribute to the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Of Shields's many remixes, those he did for Primal Scream ("MBV Arkestra [If They Move, Kill 'Em]") and Mogwai ("Fear Satan") stand as his most extraordinary post-Loveless works. Ultimately, though, they're exasperating glimpses at what Loveless's successor could've been.
MBV's reunion shows have been earning mostly positive reviews, with "mind-blowing" a recurrent adjective among friends of mine who've witnessed them—even though no new material has surfaced. On April 27 at WaMu Theater, Seattle will finally find out if My Bloody Valentine can reclaim the alchemical blitzkrieg bliss that made their live performances so galvanizing. Let's hope they can still take it to the infamous bridge of "You Made Me Realise."