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You Made Me Realise: In Praise of My Bloody Valentine

You Made Me Realise: In Praise of My Bloody Valentine

03 February 2013, 09:00
Words by Thomas Hannan

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.


The new band would first bear fruit with the release of another two limited edition EPs – they loved the things – for Lazy Records, 1987’s Strawberry Wine and Ecstasy (later compiled as the similarly rare Ecstasy and Wine LP) before a jump to Creation Records after impressing on a bill they shared with label head Alan McGee’s Biff Bang Pow! outfit. It’s interesting to note that it’s at this point that the 2012 reissue series starts paying attention to the MBV back catalogue, with everything from their debut Creation EP You Made Me Realise in 1988 onwards coming in for a thorough spring clean, eschewing every release before it. A line in the sand has been drawn, it appears. It might be helpful to think of the pre-Creation MBV as an entirely different band – one with different members, different instruments, songs they were embarrassed by and, once Butcher joined, one who only stuck with the name My Bloody Valentine because they could never agree on a replacement. One can only assume that the reason these pre-YMMR releases haven’t been given the reissue treatment is that Shields simply didn’t think they were good enough. A reputed perfectionist, it speaks volumes that the subsequent EPs are finally being made widely available once again – clearly, and rightly so, he must be really rather proud of their work.

As if reacting directly to its title, You Made Me Realise was the point at which critics finally started taking My Bloody Valentine’s proto-shoegaze rumblings as seriously as Shields was. Its title track opens the new EPs 1988-1991 collection in a way that confirms McGee’s proclamation that they could be the “Irish Husker Du” were the words of a man with more insight than he’s often given credit for – the scratchy top end guitar tones and constant snare drum trills owe a lot to the more aggressive moments of a record like Zen Arcade. However, it’s a song whose reputation has been built almost solely on its live renditions; there’s no “holocaust section” to the 3’47 of its recorded duration. Here, it’s an invigorating and decidedly punky introduction to a really rather fine EP of hazy, lusciously down-tempo rumbles (‘Slow’), infectiously twisted takes on the jangles of Teenage Fanclub (‘Thorn’) and lullabies gone wrong like ‘Cigarette In Your Bed’ and ‘Drive It All Over Me’, the latter combining some particularly macabre lyrics (“get in the car and drive it all over me”) with one of their sweetest, most simplistic melodies to gift a gorgeous close to an EP that’s never less than really, really lovely.

The glaring promise of You Made Me Realise was followed up on with the unveiling of their debut album proper – 1989’s Isn’t Anything. And if things had have ended here, MBV would still be talked about solely in revered terms – this is a wonderful record that marries moments of quite sublime indie pop to an aggression and fascination with the abyss not matched by any of their peers. Space and restraint are two aspects to their sound mastered here perhaps even better than they managed anywhere on Loveless. Whereas its follow up will always be the first port of call for anyone wanting the full assault of MBV firing on all cylinders, Isn’t Anything’s possession of unnervingly tranquil moments like ‘No More Sorry’ and ‘Lose My Breath’ set it apart as an artefact to be celebrated very much for its own distinct merits.

It was recorded over a fortnight during which the band lived in the studio, making the most of their money by recording for up to 22 hours at a time, waking each other up when it was time to lay down a part. No wonder everything about it sounds so brilliantly confused; its more raucous numbers like ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ (whose fascinating B-Sides all appear on the EPs disc) and ‘Sueisfine’ (whose titular chorus gets mutated throughout the song until Shields is essentially yelling “suicide, suicide” ‘til close) deliver an effect akin to what it must be like to regain consciousness in the middle of a Sonic Youth gig.

Wanting to strike whilst the iron was hot, My Bloody Valentine quickly set to work on what was to become their masterpiece, claiming to the label that they could have Loveless recorded in five days – an assertion that should prompt anyone with a minor interest in the history of early nineties avant-indie to offer up a chuckle. Two long years, a quarter of a million quid and a thoroughly shattered relationship with Creation records later (McGee dropped MBV after Loveless claiming he could never work with Kevin Shields again), its day finally came – but not before biding time with the release of the Glider and Tremolo EPs, again included on EPs 1988-1991 in a remastered glory they’ve never before been granted.

These are stopgap releases, and though they’re fine in their own right, knowing that they’re born of the Loveless sessions leads to a propensity to judge them a little more harshly than one would something like You Made Me Realise. What Glider represents is the first fascinating snapshot of the ideas being toyed with during the Loveless sessions – whilst ‘Soon’ would eventually rear its head as that LP’s closing moment, and indeed become arguably the band’s signature song, as important to the process was the need to work through the phasing, gently pulsating guitars of ‘Don’t Ask Why’ and barrage of swooping noises that is the atonal title track, devoid of rhythm or melody but rich in the waves of guitar squall that would eventually define their sound (as well as handful of unreleased songs and dreamlike instrumental workouts, a rare ten-minute version of ‘Glider’ appears on EPs, and it’s a delight). Moments like the ignorable but pleasant enough ‘Off Your Face’ might be of less significance, but regardless of Glider’s slight incoherence and continued status as a curiosity rather than an essential tome in and of itself, these songs deserve to be out there, and it’s great that they are again – especially sounding as exquisite as they now do.

Glider’s only-just-superior sister EP Tremelo is slightly more expansive in vision, the ‘Long Fade’ version of album highlight ‘To Here Knows When’ offering a glimpse in to what Loveless might have been like if they’d just left the tape running a little longer on every song (answer: really awesome). It also contains a number of textural instrumental passages that were unlisted on the liner notes but regarded by the band as being proper songs, a sign of how soundscapes and noise manipulation would pay just as much a part in the eventual full-length as riffs, rhythm and melody. But like Glider before it, Tremelo tails off with a couple of songs (‘Honey Power’, ‘Moon Song’) that merely sound like the band treading water, waiting for something big to happen.

It all leads up to Loveless. And thanks to a stunning remastering job from Shields, it has a power to blow minds apart in wholly new ways. It’s no exaggeration to call it a huge step up, not only from Isn’t Anything, not just from Glider and Tremolo, but from all guitar music that came before it. But what is there left to say on the subject? I could tell you it’s got a fair claim to being the best guitar record ever, that its juxtaposition of noise and melody has had an influence comparable to that of Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground, that there’s simply not a note on it that’s less than perfect… But if you’re anything like me, you can just reel those kind of statements off without thinking what they actually mean. These reissues give you a chance to listen to an album you thought you knew everything about in a way akin to being gifted a third ear. I really don’t think there’s any worth in me telling you how good Loveless is – you know, right? You’re a clever, handsome bunch. Telling the readership of The Line Of Best Fit that Loveless is great is a bit like penning a piece for Empire magazine about how The Godfather is, yeah, actually as good as people say it is. But what I will say is that all of the grandiose, hyperbolic things that get levelled at it are not just the empty opinions of superfans and academics; they’re facts. Try it again.

And then, with the world at their feet… nothing. Dropped by their label after differences between Shields and McGee became irreconcilable, they signed with Island records for a sum in the region of £250,000 and set about building a studio from which no album was ever born. Shields talked of going “crazy”, Googe left in 1995 claiming she “hadn’t been very happy in a long time” and became a taxi driver before forming Snowpony with her girlfriend Katherine Gifford of Stereolab, Butcher got her green belt in Tae Kwon Do and Ó Cíosóig started work with Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions. Despite Shields’ regular reiterations that there would definitely be new MBV material at some point, it became increasingly difficult to believe him with every passing year. Then, with the aforementioned 2007 reformation and world tour, they showed every band how such reunions should be carried out by hitting the perfect middle ground between dreamlike elegance and punk rock fury. They remain a sublime live ac –and it helps that despite sixteen years out of the game, so many of the songs they play still sound so ahead of their time.

An albatross most bands would kill for, Loveless is a record so important its creators have thus far been incapable of moving on from it. The saddest thing about that is not that it seemed – at least until now – to have ended MBV’s career after only a pair of ‘proper’ albums (for example, it’s nice that there are only two series of Spaced, right?). The saddest thing is that the bands who claim it as an influence today seem similarly stuck for ideas.

Hear the remastered albums in their entirety by clicking here and find track listings and release information here.

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