Shoegazing - A Brief Overview

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| Disco Inferno |

The term “Shoegazing” as a musical style has been referenced several times on this site and elsewhere in recent months. Perhaps it is ripe for a revisit and as a reference point for current bands seeking some fresh inspiration.

Well, if names were anything to go by, this one was on the back foot right from the start. Shoegazing germinated in Britain in the late ‘80s and lasted through to about the mid-‘90s. Its name was coined by less than enthusiastic cynics who were perplexed by the sedate behaviour and perpetual downward gaze of band members during performance. This was largely for two reasons: firstly the music was a lot more introspective and less impetuous than the first wave of grunge sweeping through America at the time. Secondly, the more layered and gentle waves of guitar that characterised it were achieved via a multitude of effects pedals and other devices – these required a regular amount of navigation during performance.

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Time does strange things to our collective perception of musical genres. These days many refer to My Bloody Valentine as the leading light amongst the Shoegazers, but at the time this would have been seen as something of an insult. The term was largely reserved for less extraordinary bands such as Ride, Chapterhouse and Lush (none of which I have bothered to feature in the sample tracks). Melody Maker magazine (RIP) referred to these more fashionable and mainstream outfits as “The Scene That Celebrates Itself”, mainly because there was a fairly tight sense of community amongst them and they regularly attended each other’s gigs.

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| Bowery Electric |

With the benefit of hindsight, what cements a wider group of bands together in an enduring notion of genre has less to do with prevailing circumstance and behaviour than a more subtle set of aesthetics which guided artists almost subconsciously. Bands such as The Cure, Bauhaus and Cocteau Twins could well be seen as precursors - a branch of British post-punk which focused more on androgyny, romance and a degree of mysticism as fuel for creative advancement.

Shoegazing set about abstracting this sound one step further away from its punk roots, replacing the chugging grind with a more delicate wash of interwoven guitars and a return to more classically-orientated song structures. As always, technology had a role to play in encouraging such changes. Readily affordable digital delay pedals with much longer sampling times gave guitarists the means to create cavernous and cathedral-like soundscapes to enhance the new aesthetic. And in the process vocals got lost in the mix like never before, lyrics becoming a secondary afterthought to a more benign sonic onslaught -singer-songwriters never had it so bad. It could be argued that, in the process, Shoegazing inadvertently gave birth to a more pristine and icy form of new-psychedelia.

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| Pale Saints |

No sooner had the Shoegazing blueprint been established than its finer exponents set about morphing and cross-breeding it in different directions. It is these bands that I find the most interesting and enduring: Slowdive’s acknowledgement of an English Folk heritage, Pale Saints’ rereading of blues riffology and hints at American West Coast soundscapes, the funk & dub hybrids of Bark Psychosis and AR Kane (who also coined the term “dreampop”) and of course the deliciously bent post-industrial dirge of My Bloody Valentine.

The above bands form the basis of the sample tracks provided. Although Shoegazing was a largely British phenomenon, I can offer one American outfit as a possible relative – Bowery Electric. Their wall of sound may be more machine-like, abrasive and inherently American at face value, but the balance between sounds and the subsumed nature of the overall result is inherently shoegazer….

…. well, for want of a better term perhaps.

Listen:

AR Kane – Spermwhale Trip Over

Disco Inferno – Arc In Round

Bowery Electric – Slow Thrills

Pale Saints – Half Life Remembered

Bark Psychosis – Man Man

My Bloody Valentine – Sueisfine

Slowdive – Primal

Download Track ZIP


29 Responses to “Shoegazing - A Brief Overview”

  1. Rory Says:

    Superb read. Well written Don.

  2. The Don Says:

    Sorry it wasn’t me. Will change that.

  3. The Don Says:

    There, fixed. I would have thought that everyone would have realised that the superior level of journalism didn’t sound like my usual drivel.

  4. Matt Says:

    Damn fine post. Thank you!

  5. The Muso Says:

    I really like that Disco Inferno track. So when it comes to Slowdive, is it Pygmalion or Souvlaki?

  6. DJF Says:

    Muso, it’s neither. The Slowdive track is off their debut “Just For A Day”

  7. pravda23 Says:

    well done on not mentioning smashing pumpkins (no sarcasm). i think it takes skill and depth to avoid the flagbearers and focus on the independent stuff.

  8. The Medium Says:

    Jesus&MaryChain Pschocandy??

  9. DJF Says:

    JAMC as shoegazers is an interesting suggestion in hindsight - they certainly were not discussed as part of that scene back in the day. They also arrived and became known for their trademark sound a few years before Shoegazing as a genre manifested itself (Psychocandy was released in 1986 if I’m not mistaken?)

    To my ears JAMC are rather part of the ongoing post-punk lineage than shoegazers - their guitar noise was more openly aggressive and less layered, as were their rhythms and beats. If anything, the Reid brothers were more intent on revisiting the legacy of hardcore synth bands like Suicide and the swagger of bluesmen like Bo Diddley than exploring a gentler aesthetic.

    To some extent Shoegazing is characterised by a certain lack of outward attitude, whereas JAMC displayed quite a lot of it (albeit in a more detached and hip manner than those before them).

    But perhaps there are arguments to the contrary?

  10. EN Says:

    You are right about post-punk, but also, if you read the book “my magpie eyes…” the way they describe them is in line with some of the new indie shoegaze generation, not only for the Creation records ties (mbv, etc), but the wall of sound/feedback aesthetic, coupled with oblivious performances… their audience however was definitely a nihilist one and would start proper punk riots at shows, which was cleverly used as their means of mainstream press promotion and underground hype with a capital H. I don’t really see the highly musical and dreamy tweeness of Slowdive having much to do with it though…

  11. luke Says:

    What a great review…more like this please…big up to the muso to being one of the more informative and progressive sites on the web - not just in sa…

  12. The Medium Says:

    Granted JAMC was not considered Shoegaze ‘cos the term wasn’t invented until 1989 ( oh and perhaps they were WALLgazers rather;)), but am I wrong in saying that most of these bands were trying to emulate Psychocandy by turning their instruments up and leaving the vocals very low in the mix, except in much more costly round about way ? So if anything they inadvertantly pioneered a scene which they were never even part of, which makes them even more detached and hipper …. nice article nonetheless

  13. DJF Says:

    Yes Medium, very valid comment. JAMC were instrumental (snigger) in defocusing attention from vocals and launching a vogue of their submergence in the mix. They probably also had a lot to do with refocusing our attention on the legacy of The Velvet Underground, which has had a lot to do with the progress of pop music in the last couple of decades.

  14. mac Says:

    I saw a video on mnet recently , it was quite like jangly shoegaze(bigsby trem etc some MBV touches). There were 2 caucasian guys and an
    oriental girl singer english lyrics but I didnt see the name of the track. Anyone know who it could be? It seemed quite recent….

  15. mac Says:

    good article
    Ride were probably worth mentioning…
    Dreams burn down is still good.

  16. The Muso Says:

    Sounds like Deerhoof, but on MNET?

  17. DJF Says:

    Blonde Redhead? Mac, I suggest you trawl through the stuff on YouTube & see if you can recognise the vid - if you have broadband that is…

  18. EN Says:

    Were the guys twins? Then it was probably Blonde redhead, Mac?

    It could have also been Enon, but thats unlikely…and maybe Deerhoof isn’t shoegazey enough… It’s more “angular” as the music heads would say.. :)

  19. The Muso Says:

    Yes, you’re probably right. BTW, Deerhoof have a free mp3 album up for download on their site. I’m going to post it sometime today.

  20. mac Says:

    thanks guys it was 23 by blonde redhead on 4ad.

  21. james Says:

    Interesting, you wanted to revisit shoegazing but you tell us you’re going to ignore the bands the name was created for & instead give us bands you like.

    You would have to be very jaded not to describe Ride as extraordinary. If they’d had the Gallagher bros personalities, they definitely had the tunes to be as big as Oasis.

    Slowdive were always the shoegazing stereotype: fey students making dreamy ambient sounds but the reality of shoegazing was much punkier. ‘Feed me with your kiss’ by MBV,
    ‘Chelsea girl’ by Ride, ‘Son of Mustang Ford’ by Swervedriver.

    Remember we’d just had the hair-metal years. People were turned off by that overt (American) showmanship, & shoegazing was about letting the music do the talking. & it certainly wasn’t dull!

    Yes, shoegazing started as bands who were clearly influenced by MBV but by the time MBV released Tremelo EP & Loveless they were de facto included. As for american groups try Medicine’s album ‘Shot Forth Self Living’. If you ‘get’ this album, you ‘get’ shoegazing, IMHO

    BTW Pale Saints were very disappointing, just one good song. ‘The Sight of You’.

  22. DJF Says:

    I went into this post with a certain degree of dread, knowing that someone out there would have a different personal take on the genre and end up disagreeing quite vehemently, but the debate is all good.

    Allow me to play self-serving spin doctor for a while. James, if you believe that Slowdive were the shoegazing “stereotype”, then perhaps your interest in the genre is centered more around one of the branches or offshoots (the “punkier” side) - much in the way that mine in more inclined towards certain bands?

    The point I want to make is that “pure” examples of a particular genre are often quite boring and uninspiring and that it’s the stylistic upstarts and hybrids that are the most interesting and enduring. This doesn’t mean that I’m disinclined towards Slowdive at all - I still believe that they are one of the finest exponents of majestic guitar noise and the closing moments of “Primal” are ample evidence of this.

    On the subject of Ride, I enthusiastically connected with their early EPs and debut album at the time of their release, but their material after that was downhill. Reason? A little bandwagon known as Britpop which many a promising shoegazer band attempted to hop onto. Another example of this was “The” Verve, whose early EP’s and “A Storm In Heaven” album were way superior to their later work after they befriended Oasis.

    And if I listen to anything from Ride today I don’t hear the creative conviction displayed by their more enduring contemporaries - or maybe I’m just jaded?

  23. Goran Says:

    Hey, don’t you find the Pale Saints guy on the left bears a slight resemblance to our own “TheMuso” :)

  24. Liam G Says:

    Oi! Is it my imaginayshiyun or are you fookin’ tossers barkin up the wrong fookin’ tree? Nowt give a fookin’ toss about poncey fookin’ southerners who play their fookin’ guitars like fookin’ gerls. We conkered the fookin’ world an showed them how it done, verse-chorus-verse-chorus like and if you really want be fancy like there’s this thing me brother calls ta middle eight. I justs stands there with me hands neat behind me back like and reaching up on tippytoes for me mike ‘cos that roadie tosser always put it too high on the fookin’ stand! It took me fookin’ ages but that Richard Ashcroft eventually come round to his fookin’ senses and behave like a true Manc. I told him he’s not a fookin’ spaceship and the drugs don’t work!

    Nurse! Who stole me fookin’ droolbucket??!!

  25. The Muso Says:

    Easy now, remember that I have moderation control :)

  26. The Don Says:

    Fuck that’s funny.

  27. james Says:

    If you had feelings of dread maybe it was because you knew you were going to be pushing a controversial view of shoegazing, but obviously you would be, because you write a blog called ‘themuso’ & if you didn’t it would very likely be a re-hash of the wikipedia article on shoegazing, which by the way was updated about 2 days after you wrote this piece to say that Bauhaus were an influence on shoegazing so I guess someone’s paying attention.

    The funny thing about that is that 2 of the bands you offer samples from, Bark Psychosis & Disco Inferno, do show Bauhaus influences, so if they are shoegazing then shoegazing is influenced by Bauhaus, but I’ve never seen an article, nor heard anything at the time (1990-92) that suggested anyone thought these 2 bands were shoegazing.

    I’m sure Bauhaus did have some influence on shoegazing bands but no more than the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen or other popular indie groups. You would surely have to acknowledge Loop, Spacemen 3 & J&MC as more direct influences first.

    Whether shoegazing is ‘punkier’ is just my opinion, listen to the evidence you gave us. MBV stands apart from the other tracks for it’s excitement. It has that rush that punk provides beneath it. Compared to the worthy (ie dull) AR Kane, shoegazing is the iron fist in dream-pop’s velvet glove.

    My point about Slowdive was that there was (& still is) that fey image of shoegazing, (which would more accurately describe ‘twee’,) that I never thought fitted the reality of shoegazing. & the ‘only’ accepted shoegazing band that fitted that fey image was Slowdive. That’s not to say that I don’t like Slowdive. What they did was remarkable in the way Gary Numan made a rock album with synthesizers, they made an ambient album with a conventional drum & guitar indie band.

    I can sympathise with you about Ride. Even though I call them my favourite band I’m really only talking about the first 4 EPs & first 2 albums. I don’t think their problem was britpop as much as the tension between Andy & Mark which as long as it was in balance defined everything that was great about the group, but when it went off balance then the group went downhill.

    But I did enjoy the Bowery Electric track, so I might check out more from them. May I suggest Galaxie 500 & Ultra Vivid Scene as other US bands worth checking out.

  28. Liam G Says:

    Mmmm, Galaxie 500 - another trio with an Asian female vocalist. I see a pattern developing.

  29. dave Says:

    late to the party…but great article(and site/blog)
    Its funny(to me) that I was heavily into a couple of these bands…esp Ride(saw live in 91-ish) and Pale Saints(esp. Blue Flower)…but it was only a couple of years ago that I even heard the term shoe gazing!?! Good drugs, I guess. But I also have a hard time with genres and what fits where… ;)

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