In 1989 I had it all. A fringe past my nose. A matelot top. A gothy girlfriend who wore hooped tights and Dr Martens. A taste for snakebite-and-black and baggy joints made mostly of Old Holborn. An almost unfeasible degree of social awkwardness. I was 15 and I lived in a south Oxfordshire country town on the fringes of the Thames Valley: I was born to shoegaze.
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It had started with Ride’s first demo tape, circulated among my friends after someone’s older brother got a copy at Manic Hedgehog Records in Oxford. We were primed for it – having gone through the standard dweebs’ trajectory of metal and then goth, we were getting a taste for the melancholy and widescreen thanks to Siouxsie and the Cure both getting a second wind in the late 80s and making glorious albums. Acid house was happening somewhere out there, and snippets of siblings’ tapes and John Peel started to prime us for hypnotic discombobulation as a form of recreation. And on this tape, in the sheets of guitar sound, the repetition and the pained harmonies, there was something that hit those spots, but more importantly felt like it was ours.
This was music that sounded like chucking a whitey by the bins round the back of a country pub, like the weird rush of copping a feel during a hour-long snogging session, like the chest-compressing awkwardness of trying to talk to that girl in the sixth form who had different-coloured hair each week, like tumbling through the abyss after smoking flatpress hot knives, like lying in meadows staring up at circling insects. There was plenty else out there that was exciting, too – we were getting into the aggro weirdness of Butthole Surfers, the boho urbanity of Sonic Youth, the alpha-stoner heaviosity of Dinosaur Jr – but the other groups were from another world. As we hoovered up everything we could find by Ride, Slowdive, Chapterhouse, My Bloody Valentine, Bark Psychosis, Telescopes, Pale Saints, Loop and Lush, on the other hand, it was like someone had purposely designed a kind of psychedelia for our slightly isolated, slightly sad, hormonally saturated lives.
The bands looked like the boys and girls we had crushes on or wanted to be. Generally as awkward as us, but – hiding behind those fringes or tresses, staring down at their effects pedals, staring into the distance as they pulled out sheets of white noise or cascades of melodic twinkle – transforming into something that felt impressively aloof, or even a bit noble. As the huge noise and fragile songs turned our mundane emotions and worries into something transcendent, here was a kind of performer whom we could imagine ourselves being: not really speaking much and diddling a Rickenbacker as a Brixton Academy moshpit surged. (OK, admittedly my own attempts at making a noise at the time started and stopped with being the worst bass player a Hendrix covers band ever had, but the thought was there.)
The bands weren’t all awkward or ethereal. The girls of Lush were anything but indie-schmindie manic pixie dream girls or floaty-skirted Timotei princesses: they were rock stars. Never mind riot grrrl – seeing Miki Berenyi at the Reading After Dark club respond to a fat oaf chanting “Get yer tits out” with “Why, aren’t yours big enough, you cunt?” was enough to turn anyone righteously feminist. And it was far from homogeneous: Loop’s brain-damaged noise led us to the Stooges, the Telescopes’ wig-outs to Sun Ra, Lush’s sidereal pop to the Cocteau Twins. Lush, Chapterhouse and Slowdive all more than flirted with electronica: indeed some of the remixes from that time stand up as splayed-out-on-a-beanbag classics for the ages and fetch silly money from DJ/collectors.
We all grew up and into other things – in my case, tipping over into techno Stalinism before my teens were out – but shoegaze never left me. It wasn’t just that it showed me what it meant to have a local scene that you could be proud of, and that great things could come out of places as cripplingly uncool as Oxford, Reading and Slough. It wasn’t just that it soundtracked me cutting my musical teeth, going to my first gigs, having those first cackhanded sexual and pharmaceutical experiences. It wasn’t even that it was perfect music to be 15 to. It was that this little, awkward scene really did generate killer music.
Obviously the influence has echoed on through “nu gaze” and “chillwave” and M83 and Air and Fennesz and so on and on – and as time passed I would start meeting people from Tokyo or San Francisco who would go wobbly with envy that I’d seen Lush at the After Dark or Slowdive at Oxford’s Jericho Tavern. Each time this happened, the cognitive dissonance was extreme: the idea of an event associated in my mind with snakebite-and-black vomit and the smell of tarry hash in a car park resonating across the world and decades was hard to countenance. But then for all our dweebishness, we did find transcendent moments, so why shouldn’t the world get excited about that?