Formed in: 1984, Dublin, Ireland
Key Albums: Isn't Anything (1988), Loveless (1991)
My Bloody Valentine are one of the most influential acts in alternative music history. The London-based band's radical approach to the guitar —treating it with so much reverb that it becomes thick walls of 'tone'— single-handedly inspired the shoegaze movement. And their 1991 LP, Loveless, has reached mythical status. Not only has it influenced everyone from U2 to TV on the Radio, but, to this day, MBV main-man Kevin Shields has been unable to make a follow-up, despite sinking five solid years and £500,000 into the attempt in the mid-'90s.
American-born guitarist Kevin Shields met local drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig as teenagers in Dublin in the late 1970s, when the pair joined a teen punk band called The Complex and ran with petty street-gangs. After leaving school, the friends played in a short-lived combo called Life in a Day, before deciding to start their own band in 1983 with a singer named Dave Conway. After some false starts, the trio were at the core of My Bloody Valentine when the band were born in 1984.
Initially taking influence from The Cramps and the Birthday Party, the budding garage-rock band, under the council of Gavin Friday, left Dublin to settle, first, in Amsterdam. There, they quickly wound up "poverty-stricken," lasting three months before leaving due to pressures from immigration authorities. They moved to Berlin, took up in squats, and immersed themselves in the city's music scene.
"Berlin was extremely influential to us," Shields recounted, to Spiral Scratch. "We were completely influenced by the Birthday Party and the Scientists and... we found the situation there at the time totally incredible. The first Atonal Festival was taking place when we were there and everybody we knew was taking part or involved. We could see groups like Einstürzende Neubauten and other really quite experimental groups playing."
Their first record, 1984's unremarkable mini-album This is Your Bloody Valentine, showed a heavy debt to the Birthday Party, and bared little resemblance to the band My Bloody Valentine would become when they relocated to London, settling into the city's squatting culture at the beginning of 1985.
Freshly transplanted to London, MBV began playing with bassist Debbie Googe, who began rehearsing with them and continued, every week, unsure if she was in the band or not. Over the period of a year, the band would release three EPs —Geek! in 1985, and This is Your Bloody Valentine and Sunny Sundae Smile in 1986— of '60s-influenced guitar jangle, to tepid reaction from press and audiences. After that, Conway vacated his role as vocalist, leaving Shields to assume 'frontman' status, and opening the door for the addition of another vocalist: Bilinda Butcher.
In 1987, Butcher auditioned for the role by singing Dolly Parton's "Bargain Store," and was anointed the band's new vocalist and guitarist, even though she barely knew how to play. Her arrival coincided with a radical change in My Bloody Valentine's sound. The 1987 EPs Strawberry Wine and Ecstasy replaced the jangle with white-hot guitar sound; an idea they followed to the logical extreme with the song that would define their newfound sound: "You Made Me Realise."
Having signed to fledgling Creation Records (then best known as the home of Primal Scream), the band finally didn't have to "worry about recording costs and budgets," and began experimenting, at length, in the studio. "We could do anything, use anything," Shields believed. Experimenting with tape-loops, sampling, backwards phasing, reverberation, the guitar tremolo, and 'bouncing' frequencies between opposing amplifiers, Shields fashioned the 'wall of guitar' sound that would come to define both My Bloody Valentine and the shoegaze movement.
The very first shoegaze record was My Bloody Valentine's 1988 single "You Made Me Realise," a live-set staple whose hellacious, noise-lashed sonics would progress to the blistering, eardrum-rattling climax the band dubbed 'the holocaust.' Lavishly praised by the English press, it set the scene for their debut album, Isn't Anything; a set almost immediately acclaimed as one of the best records of the 1980s.
Making a Masterwork
Following its success, the band quickly set about work on the follow-up, but the turnaround became anything but quick. Across three years, a dozen studios, and with 18 different engineers, Shields chased an elusive dream of perfection. The recordings were rumored to have cost Creation £250,000 and pushed them to the brink of bankruptcy; claims Shields later dismissed as "literally 100% lies."
By the time Shields was really hard at work on Loveless, he was working essentially solo. After playing drums on three songs, Ó Cíosóig suffered a breakdown. Still squatting at the time, he found his American girlfriend up for deportation and himself persecuted by police, and subsequently "fell apart."
Shields took the opportunity to increase his experimentation: sampling the drums Ó Cíosóig had played, cutting them up, and using them as rhythm elsewhere. Just as she'd 'joined' the band by continually showing up, Googe stopped turning up to recordings, feeling "superfluous" with Shields in charge of everything. And Butcher, by then Shields' lover, felt out of place with their relationship suffering as the recordings did.
Such suffering produced an album of sainted martyrdom. Upon its release, Loveless was immediately showered with lavish praise, but, Shields later offered, "few touted it as a revolutionary record." It has gone on to become one of the most influential of all alternative albums, something Shields accidentally hinted at when he told the NME, on release of Loveless: "our records always make a lot more sense years later."
Yet, the glories of Loveless set an impossible standard, one that Shields has spent the next two decades trying to live up to.
Next: Shields' descent into madness, the slow death of My Bloody Valentine, and their unexpected rebirth...