A love letter to guitar-based rock music


December 2, 2001

BY JIM DEROGATIS pop music critic

There was a school of thought among critics during the rise of hip-hop and techno in the early '90s that held that after five decades of rock 'n' roll, everything that could be done with guitars, bass, and drums had been done. But two albums arrived in 1991 to discredit that notion.

The first was Nirvana's "Nevermind," which used the oldest of three-chord formulas to remind listeners that there is no more powerful musical force than a simple, indelible rock tune. The other was My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" (Sire, 1991), an album that invented an entirely distinctive sound all it own. It remains one of the most complex and disorienting albums in rock history, though in its own way, it is every bit as catchy and energizing as "Nevermind."

While the supporting players were valuable, the story of My Bloody Valentine is really the story of Kevin Shields, just as the tale of the Smashing Pumpkins is really that of Billy Corgan. The two auteurs shared similar influences and musical ambitions, though Corgan drew more heavily from classic rock bombast, while Shields was devoted to psychedelia and the idea of creating a world that existed only in the space between the headphones.

Born in Queens, N.Y., Shields moved to Dublin with his family when he was 11 years old, and he never shook the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. School took a back seat to music--he learned to play guitar by mimicking the down strokes on the Ramones' concert album, "It's Alive"--and his parents let his bands rehearse in the living room on Sunday afternoons.

My Bloody Valentine formed in 1983 as a gloomy, mascara-wearing Goth band enamored of the Cramps, the Doors and the Birthday Party. In 1985, it recorded the "This Is Your Bloody Valentine" E.P. in Berlin. "The first one was crap," Shields said frankly a decade later, and the first version of the band split up in 1986.

Relocating to London, Shields regrouped with veteran drummer Colm O'Ciosig and new member Bilinda Butcher on vocals and guitar (Shields and Butcher shared a romantic relationship that lasted until around the time of "Loveless"); Debbie Googe joined later on bass. The band started over with a pair of 1987 E.P.s, "Strawberry Wine" and "Ecstasy," which ushered in a sunnier, more optimistic vibe reminiscent of West Coast '60s psychedelia (especially the L.A. band, Love).

In 1988, the group signed to Creation Records, home of the Jesus and Mary Chain and the nascent "shoegazer/dream-pop" scene of modern psychedelic guitar bands. With "You Made Me Realise," Shields hit on the sound that would become his signature. "Glide guitar" involved strumming the strings of his Fender Jazz Master while holding the tremolo arm or "whammy bar," a relic of the surf era that provided a unique pitch bend. As a result, the instrument was constantly going slightly in and out of tune, an effect Shields amplified with the backwards reverb from a digital effects pedal.

"In '88, a lot of elements came together at the same time, and a lot of extreme things happened," the musician told me in 1995. "What I did then was virtually invent my own way of playing. It didn't come about in any conscious way; it just came about from messing around on borrowed equipment. It felt playful, but on a much stronger level. Everything was adding up, and I was 25 then. Everything starts to come in and you go, 'God, what was I messing around with before?' "

The road had been paved for the band's crowning achievement, but it did not come easily. My Bloody Valentine spent almost three years crafting "Loveless," and it cost Creation half a million dollars. ("I don't cry, but it drove me to tears--just drove me insane," said the label's founder, Alan McGee; only the subsequent success of Oasis bailed the company out.) Some 16 different engineers contributed, though Alan Moulder emerged as the dominant sonic architect besides Shields, and Corgan would later tap him to work with the Pumpkins based on that experience.

Because of its labored creation, fans assumed Shields was a perfectionist. "That's one of the great misconceptions about this band, that everything is intellectual and there's an awful lot of time spent in the studio perfecting things," he said. "Everything you ever hear on our records, virtually all the overdubs are first-take stuff, and all the guitar parts are first or second take. It's more like capturing the moment. For me, everything hinges on one critical thing, and that's being in an inspired state of mind."

The goal on "Loveless" was to capture the feeling of walking downtown on a Sunday morning when the streets are deserted and you feel strangely uncomfortable, despite the familiar surroundings. The 11 songs are an odd combination of beautiful, lulling melodies and disturbing, unsettling noises. With the ever-swirling mix, they are like an aural evocation of bed spins--or the rush of a powerful drug.

"It was influenced a little bit too much by Ecstasy culture," Shields said. "A lot of the melodies and hook lines that come from the instruments are extremely dinky and toylike. For me, that was the aftereffects of experiencing too much Ecstasy."

Like the Cocteau Twins, the Valentines rarely wrote songs that were "about" anything. Titles such as "To Here Knows When," "When You Sleep," and "Soon" evoke more than they actually say, especially because the words are often inaudible, with the vocals placed behind the wall of guitars. The stray phrases that do emerge complement the sounds to underscore the band's recurring themes: lustful yearning, the longing for blissful escape, and feelings of overwhelming alienation. "Sleep/Like a pillow/Downward and/Where/She won't care/Anyway," goes the opening of "Only Shallow."

Adding to the mystery is the dreamy, sensual way in which the songs are sung. "Often when we do vocals, it's 7:30 in the morning; I've usually just fallen asleep and have to be woken up to sing," Butcher said. "I'm usually trying to remember what I've been dreaming about when I'm singing."

Hypnotizing tape loops and the shimmering sound of Shields' glide guitar add to the dreaminess; it's as if you're listening to the album through a wall, or while submerged underwater. Even the propulsive rhythms are sonically slippery; most of the percussion sounds were treated or triggered electronically. Yet for all of the audio trickery, the band could reproduce "Loveless" perfectly onstage.

Although they barely moved while they played, to this day, the Valentines were the loudest group I have ever seen in concert. You didn't hear the music so much as you felt it in the pit of your stomach when they toured to support "Loveless" in 1992. There are tales of the shattering volume and dizzying mix literally making some fans sick to their stomachs.

"A lot of what we've done is perceived by people as coming from somebody who's not quite sane, or a bit woozy or dreamy," Shields said. "That's why when we play live, it's quite aggressive or confrontational. ... What I do is about consciousness, being conscious of a feeling in my whole body. The trouble with the attitude toward psychedelic music is that it's about your head only. And to me, all non-Western people when they get into altered states of mind, it's the whole body that's involved."

Three months after the release of "Loveless," the band parted ways with Creation and signed to Island. Shields invested the advance in building a home studio in London, but time dragged on; he ran into equipment glitches, suffered what he called "mental problems," and shelved one completed album because it wasn't good enough. The only post-"Loveless" Valentines music that I've ever heard is a relatively straightforward cover of Wire's "Map Reference" on the 1996 tribute album, "Whore."

"Too often when people make good records, there's an aftershock effect, and they collapse psychologically and emotionally,'' Shields said in '95. "Brian Wilson is a classic case of that. I'm trying to prove that you can make genuinely interesting music and come out with new ideas without an emotional drain to the point where you break down. I could make another record that would top the others we've made--I've been ready to for a while now--but to me it's extremely important to make that record in such a way that I'll be able to make another one. For lots of small, petty, human reasons that I won't go into, I'd like to be around in five years' time, making better and better records."

In fact, while various Web sites track his doings (Shields has contributed to recent recordings by Primal Scream, Curve, and J. Mascis), the follow-up to "Loveless" is still nowhere to be found. But that doesn't diminish Shields' accomplishment in '91.

Brian Eno praised "Loveless" as one of the most creative rock albums ever made, Radiohead's career is unthinkable without it, and Trey Anastasio pushed hard for Phish to cover it during one of that band's special Halloween shows. "'Loveless' is the best album recorded in the '90s," Anastasio said. "History will tell, and 20 years from now that album will be considered a complete classic, while a lot of the albums that are real popular today will have been forgotten."