Only My Bloody Valentine could keep people in on a Saturday night with the promise of a new record. So whilst you listen to ‘MBV’, why not take a trip down memory lane with Thomas Hannan’s retrospective of what made them so great in the first place.
Taking a cursory look back at the rest of the Creation Records roster, the very idea of My Bloody Valentine’s masterwork Loveless being released on a label that has become so synonymous with the rise, success, excess and implosion of something as comparatively base as Britpop seems exceedingly peculiar. Though it dabbled in the more leftfield aspects of indie rock and dance now and again, Creation’s strengths lay in launching bands who looked like folks who worked in the pubs you drank at but whose songs sounded like those you’d end up communally shouting yourself hoarse to at a festival, drunkenly hugging a stranger. Though a great deal of it was enormously successful and some if it brilliant (indeed, some of the brilliant stuff wasn’t that successful, and vice versa), it’d be difficult to call much of it high art – a claim I’d happily level at Loveless.
An interesting point highlighted by the recent remaster and reissue job done on the band’s two Creation albums and numerous EPs is that Loveless seems like as much of an anomaly in the MBV back catalogue as it does in that of the label that, rumour has it, chucked the best part of a quarter of a million quid at its manufacture. Great though nigh-on every song contained in this series is, and at times confrontational, blissed-out and atonal as they get, you can forgive contemporary MBV fans in 1991 for being knocked for six by Isn’t Anything’s eventual successor. There’s been nothing quite like Loveless before or since, but being as we are blessed with the opportunity to revisit prior works sounding better than they ever have, it’s a delight to remind oneself that their pre-Loveless material for Creation suffers only in comparison to the classic that ended it. These records are a testament to the fact that Kevin Shields’ lot were never less than really bloody good. And once, they were impeccable.
Though it’s doubtful they did so intentionally, MBV know how to build a legend. In the time between their final album and their 2007 reformation, rumour has it that Kevin Shields discarded hundreds of recordings of new MBV tracks, ones that range from the purely dissonant to, if some talk is to be believed, bordering on jungle. Thing is, nobody’s heard any of it. Chat about there being a new album ‘this year’ has gone on for the past 20, with even the eventual appearance of these long-rumoured reissues coming as something of a surprise. For a while it seemed as if MBV had split up in the best way any band can; without any fanfare, they just stopped making music.
Much like that of Nick Drake (of whom no film exists, anywhere) their legend has been bolstered by the fact that relatively little footage of their renowned live show is available, and what there is certainly doesn’t live up to the way we’re told it sounded back in the day – there’s only so much justice a fan-recorded YouTube clip from a late Eighties performance can do to a band reported to be quite this cacophonous. As such, talk of their live prowess reached near-mythical levels, discussed either in increasingly exaggerated terms by people who once experienced it, or left to the imaginations of a new generation who thought they’d never get to have it ravage their own ears.
Then, a reformation in ‘07 and OH MY GOOD GOD. It turns out they really did like to mutate a single note from ‘You Made Me Realise’ in to up to half an hour of unrelenting squall so loud that both times I experienced it I could feel my lungs rattling around inside my rib cage. Reaching 130dB, the band affectionately referred to it as the “holocaust section”. Earplugs were handed out at the beginning of their reunion shows in a gesture that at first seemed cute, but instantly became a matter of physical necessity. Hell, I like noise – purely atonal, dissonant, confrontational, nasty noise – and have been to see my fair share of it performed live. But this was a sound that would make Merzbow cry blood.
Now, thanks to one of history’s most painstaking remastering jobs helmed by Shields himself, the records hint at that live power in a way they never quite managed before. I won’t bore you with further talk of decibel levels, the limitations of the modern compact disc player or mp3 compression – just be assured that the improved sonics of these reissues are a revelation, and wholly justify a second purchase. Rest assured Shields has not just spent all this time on the liner notes.
My Bloody Valentine evolved from far less deafening beginnings. Though their fondness for noise was always apparent, it often took the form of more of a hissing, crackling sound rather than the repeated punches to the head of later releases, and sat atop songs that veered between a punky thrash and bubblegum pop, bits of it even bordering on twee. Formed in 1983 by teenhood friends Kevin Shields and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig in Dublin, Ireland, the band who eventually would become known as My Bloody Valentine would experience numerous personnel, name and stylistic changes before settling on a core line up; Shields and Ó Cíosóig remain two original members of a group that in its infancy also featured singer Dave Conway and his girlfriend Tina Durkin on keyboards. This quartet relocated to Berlin for the recording of their debut mini-LP This Is Your Bloody Valentine, with Conway assuming the role of chief songwriter. Released in January 1985 on Tycoon records, it’s a curious and now hard to come by record heavier on goth-rock and tinny thrash guitars than it was on either melody or sonic prowess.
After it failed to make much of a commercial or critical impact, the band relocated to London to record a series of EPs, losing the under-confident Durkin somewhere along the way. Rather than search for a replacement keyboardist, the band focused its efforts on recruiting a bass player and ended up enlisting the services of Debbie Googe, who plays with them to this day. Their first release with Googe (and only one on Fever records) was December 1985’s Geek EP, a Cramps-esque romp of which Shields is said to be pretty ashamed, the lack of attention paid to it leading him to contemplate whether a move to New York – and away from My Bloody Valentine entirely – might be a better option.
Thankfully, he stayed put. And though their next release, The New Record By My Bloody Valentine, might have a title as imaginative as that of an early Leonard Cohen record, it in fact saw a more forward thinking, focused, increasingly bonded MBV take on the indie-pop sound of the time (Tallulah Gosh, The Pastels et al.) with far more pleasing results than displayed on its predecessor. This early line up would release one more limited edition EP – 1987’s Sunny Sundae Smile, on Lazy Records – before parting company with Dave Conway, whose struggle with a recurring gastric illness began to take precedence over life in what was at the time a mildly unsuccessful indie rock group.
Step forward Kevin Shields. Though vocalist Bilinda Butcher was also recruited through the age-old method of putting an ad in the music press (cementing the present day line up), she was less of a replacement for Conway than a shift towards a new way of doing things entirely – which, it’s probably fair to say, was Shields’ way (the pair also began a brief relationship at the time). Now operating as chief songwriter and co-lead singer with Butcher, Shields oversaw a re-think of My Bloody Valentine through which the band as we know them today would really start to take shape.