Valentine's day again

September 26, 2008


From a distance of 17 years, there's little question that two albums released in 1991 shaped much of the decade that followed and will continue to have a profound impact on rock 'n' roll well into the future.

By virtue of its commercial success and the way it epitomized a moment in time, Nirvana's "Nevermind" must rank first. But in terms of stretching the artistic boundaries of what can be done with guitars, bass and drums and creating a unique and powerful sound that stands as a real alternative, "Loveless" is every bit as significant. And, unlike Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine has survived for an encore.

The story of My Bloody Valentine is really the story of Kevin Shields. Born in the New York borough of Queens in 1963, the soft-spoken musician moved to Dublin with his family when he was 11. He never shook the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, and that vibe permeates his music. As a teen, 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 he formed his legendary band in 1983 as a gloomy, mascara-wearing goth band enamored of the Cramps, the Doors and the Birthday Party.

The group's first EP, "This Is Your Bloody Valentine" (1985), is forgettable -- "The first one was crap," Shields told me years later -- and My Bloody Valentine Mach I split up in 1986. Relocating to London, Shields regrouped with veteran drummer Colm O'Ciosoig and new member Bilinda Butcher on vocals and guitar (Shields and Butcher were a couple until around the time of "Loveless") and the group was completed when Debbie Googe joined on bass. The band's second act started in 1987 with a pair of EPs introducing a sunnier vibe reminiscent of '60s West Coast psychedelia. But the new sound really took shape after it signed to the U.K. indie Creation Records in 1988.

As the launch pad of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Creation already was the center of the "shoegazer" or "dream-pop" movement of modern psychedelia, a scene as noteworthy in Great Britain as grunge was in the United States, and with "You Made Me Realise" Shields hit upon his signature sound. "Glide guitar" involved strumming the strings 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 shifting in and out of tune, an effect he amplified with the backward 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," Shields told me in 1995. (The group hasn't given any recent interviews.) "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.

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, and 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 confessed. "A lot of the melodies and hook lines that come from the instruments are extremely dinky and toy-like. For me, that was the aftereffects of experiencing too much Ecstasy."

Like the Cocteau Twins, one of their inspirations, 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.

Yet for all of the slippery haze on record, My Bloody Valentine live was one of the most intense experiences I've ever had at a rock show. Although they barely moved while they played -- not for nothing were they called shoegazers -- the Valentines were the loudest group I've heard; you didn't hear the music so much as you felt it in the pit of your stomach. There are tales of the shattering volume and dizzying mix literally making some fans sick to their stomachs, and on the current reunion tour, the band is handing out free earplugs to every concertgoer.

"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 in '95. "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."

Judging by reviews in the British press of the reunion shows at home, My Bloody Valentine has lost none of its intensity onstage. The question that remains is whether this jaunt is a one-time-only reminder of the band's accomplishments, or the beginning of a third act: All of the material in the current set comes from "Loveless" or the EPs that preceded it.

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.

"Too often when people make good records, there's an aftershock effect, and they collapse psychologically and emotionally," Shields said when we spoke 13 years ago. "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."