Tagged: shoegazing

Staring At The Shoes Of Giants

Back in 1991 Damon Albarn claimed that Leisure, blur’s début album, as going to ‘kill…baggy‘, the genre popularised by the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays which had also spawned Northside. As it turned out Nirvana killed grunge but blur were right about one thing – baggy wasn’t the major influence on Leisure, shoegazing was.

I was reminded of this fact after hearing a recently re-discovered demo version of Setting Sun by Oasis. The track was released as a single by The Chemical Brothers, with Noel Gallagher on vocals but it now seems that, rather than writing them specifically for that track Noel must have done an Aphex Twin*.

Whereas the version released by The Chemical Brothers sounded like a modern reworking of The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows this demo has more in common with Oasis’ with the tracks on Leisure. It is, basically, a shoegazing track. Washed out but amped up guitars, a slightly hazy feeling and a nasally vocal. It’s shoegazing 101. The scene may have been almost universally maligned but its impact was felt far and wide.

As mentioned, the debuts of both blur and Oasis owed massive debts to the likes of Ride, My Bloody Valentine and pretty much everyone else on Creation Records which was basically the official label for the shoegazing scene. And whilst many of the bands who briefly shone during the late 80s & early 90s, such as Slowdive, Chapterhouse and Revolver rarely made a dent on the charts, others fared better.

A bunch of lads from Wigan called Verve** took the washed out guitar sounds made popular by shoegazing bands and added a dollop of Doors’ style mysticism; having refined this mix over three albums with a twist of northern attitude, they went on to outsell Oasis with Urban Hymns.

Ride, another Creation signing, were one of the first bands from this scene to properly crack the mainstream; two of their first three EPs broke the Top 40 (the first Creation releases to do so, 7 years after its formation). Their debut album, Nowhere, fell just short of the top ten but Leave Them All Behind, the first single off of their second album hit number ten.

As with The Verve, Going Blank Again saw the band building on their roots, with traces of The Who and even The Byrds to be found, alongside samples from Withnail & I. Highlighting the connections, bassist Andy Bell went on to join Oasis.

Of course Ride’s efforts in the charts would pale in comparison to Oasis after they too had been signed to Creation. But whilst they were often compared to the likes of The Beatles or the Sex Pistols, in their early (and best) work, Oasis had, as I’ve said, clear links to the (generally Southern) bands who were often mocked as being ‘The Scene That Celebrates Itself‘. Adorable, one of the last signings to Creation before Oasis, have often struck me as being a prototype for the latter with a good looking, cocky front-man and songs that melded melody and razor-sharp guitars brilliantly.

Looking back at Oasis now, I can’t help thinking that if they had stayed truer to these roots their later releases would have been less like a successful Bootleg Beatles than they were.

*Aphex Twin once handed in one of his own tracks having been paid to remix a Lemonheads song because he had forgotten to do the remix.
** They added the ‘The’ after being sued by American jazz label Verve; the band’s initial offer to change their name to Verv, thereby ‘dropping an e for America’ was rebuffed.

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Adorable – Sunshine Smile

Back in the early 90s I remember writing a letter to NME (or it may have been Melody Maker, I can’t quite remember). I was annoyed at the amount of hype they were giving to a couple of new bands, undeservedly I felt. The bands in question were Suede & The Verve (or Verve as they were at the time). I thought these two bands were overrated and that the band that should be getting the attention was Adorable, who I thought deserved to be absolutely huge. As I often say, my predictions are almost always wrong.

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The reason I thought this was due to their début single, Sunshine Smile. A splendid mix of fuzzy guitars and a thundering rhythm, the song was a call to arms: it came out in 1992, as shoegazing was starting to wane but before Britpop had hit. In many ways Adorable were a dry run for Oasis – signed to Creation, front-man Piotr Fijalkowski had a knack for giving good quote, although he had both the gob of Liam and the brains of Noel. According to Wikipedia Oasis have quoted Adorable as an influence, and certainly early Oasis singles bear a passing resemblance to Adorable’s sound, which took shoegazing style guitars and added a dose of pop sensibilities & rock tempos.

Obviously Adorable weren’t huge. They hit the top end of the Indie Charts a few times, with Sunshine Smile as well as the equally excellent singles Homeboy & Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Unfortunately their (excellent) debut album, Against Perfection, failed to do much business at all, and after releasing another, much weaker second album, they split in 1994. By then of course both Suede & The Verve had been surpassed by the meteoric rise of Oasis and whilst my 17 year old self was probably wrong, Adorable certainly left some amazing tracks for us to remember them by.

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Subshine smile by fdecomite on flickr

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Friendly Fires – Jump In The Pool

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I’ve no doubt that most of you, being infinitely cooler than I am these days, will have been aware of Friendly Fires and their amazing single Jump In The Pool for aeons, but I’m still relatively new to their work. They were recommended to me when I asked for suggestions for likely albums of the year and having listened to their eponymous debut album a great deal since first getting hold of it, I have to say that it’s likely to feature highly in my final list.

Their are very few duff tracks on Friendly Fires, and of the many great tracks probably 2 or 3 really stand out. Of those, opening track Jump In The Pool is my (current) favourite as it seems to sum all that’s great about the band with its blend of punk-funk rhythms, shoegazing style guitars and an air somewhere between euphoria & wistfulness. I assumed that the band were from Williamsburg or some other unfeasibly trendy corner of New York but in fact they hail from St Albans in the not very rock & roll county of Hertfordshire.

Still, don’t let that put you off as in many ways Friendly Fires remind me of a younger LCD Soundsystem in the way that they make music you could dance to at the same time as getting all introspective (as LCD Soundsystem did to such great effect on All My Friends) which is pretty impressive no matter where you’re from.

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The Big Pink – Too Young To Love

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One of the guys who works with me occasionally sends me music he thinks I might like. The most recent track he passed over is by a band called The Big Pink who include one of his mates. Apparently they’re already being tipped for the top which made me laugh a bit.

I wasn’t laughing because they’re not any good, in fact I really rather like their track Too Young To Love: it’s a nice blend of sweeping guitars, stabs of keyboards and an off-kilter drum beat. No, the reason that it made me laugh is because it reminds me an awful lot of the next big things – from about 1992.

To my 30-something year old ears The Big Pink’s Too Young To Love could have been released by any one of Slowdive, Chapterhouse, Lush, Moose or any other number of shoegazing bands from the early 90s (if you don’t believe me check out Pearl by Chapterhouse at the bottom of the post). That isn’t a bad thing – after all, what are Kasabian if not a re-imagining of the Happy Mondays with Leicester accents rather than Mancunian ones?

However it really does go to show that there’s nothing new under the sky and that it’s becoming harder and harder to do anything original. But even if The Big Pink aren’t doing anything original, at least they’re doing something good (though they really should change that name before it’s too late).

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Damon Albarn: The Best British Musicians Of The Last 30 Years #2

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It only seems fitting that as The Olympics draw to a close I should be writing about someone who has added so much to our enjoyment of the games. I’m not talking about any of Britain’s medallists, although they’ve obviously helped. No, I’m talking about Damon Albarn, the man responsible, with his friend and artistic partner Jamie Hewlitt, for the BBC’s brilliant intro credits and music. The animation & music are inspired by the story of Monkey, familiar to a generation of 30-something Brits as the character from Chinese mythology who lit up our TV screens in the late 70s& early 80s. Albarn & Hewlitt’s version (Monkey – Journey To The West) is a bit different though: they made it into a full on opera and have now released an album. Not bad for a guy who started off in the shoegazing/baggy scenes of the early 90s.

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In fact, when you look at where Albarn started it really is amazing to see how far he’s come. As much as I loved early Oasis Damon Albarn’s constant creative reinventions leave Noel Gallagher looking like the one-trick pony he’s become. Whilst Oasis found a formula and have reworked it ever since (with diminishing returns in terms of quality) Damon has jumped from genre to genre, getting stronger all the time.

He first hit the charts with blur and their second single There’s No Other Way: at the time it was a perfect piece of baggy inspired pop. Looking back, it’s actually one of their weakest tracks, and not even the best track on their début album Leisure. For whilst it was the wah wah and beats of There’s No Other Way that caught the public’s attention, much of the rest of the album seemed to have more in common with the less mainstream shoegazing bands which seemed to be coming out of the home counties at a rate of one a month back in 1991.

It should have been obvious where blur’s hearts lay: in one interview Albarn claimed that blur had killed baggy (in fact I’d argue that U2 did that with the release of Achtung Baby) and songs such as Wear Me Down could have been produced by Chapterhouse (check out Pearl if you don’t believe me). For all that, the album was a bit of a hodge-podge (although Sing, which featured on the soundtrack to Trainspotting, was a bit of a lost gem): since then the band have admitted that they rushed the recording & release of it in order to ride the wave of popularity.

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The band toured the album heavily and jumped into the rock & roll lifestyle with a vengeance (a jump that is delightfully documented in Alex Autobiography Bit Of A Blur): however they obviously became disillusioned with the music they were performing as their next release Popscene was a total change in direction. It did very little business in the charts and never appeared on an album (at least in the UK): but it’s a great insight into what would become Albarn’s trademark of jumping from one sound to another. And whoever directed the video for Song 2 had obviously seen Popscene’s, even if no-one else had.

Following the disappointment of Popscene blur started ploughing their own farrow even more. As the rest of the world fell in love with the US & grunge, blur released Modern Life Is Rubbish, which channelled The Kinks into the 1990s. It also saw Albarn’s song writing, in partnership with Graham Coxon, really start to blossom.

Tracks like Starshaped (the name the band gave to the shape they took when they passed out on their hotel beds after a night of carousing), Colin Zeal, Sunday Sunday & Chemical World were light years ahead of the tracks on Leisure. They told tales of characters inhabiting the real Britain of the 1990s: far from perfect, decidely eccentric and absolutely fascinating. And in the album’s final track, Resigned, blur produced their first classic. It’s over 5 minutes long, made up primarily of swathes of guitar and what sounds like a knackered old organ, and sees Albarn sounding like he’s about to end it all. And it’s beautiful.

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Of course it was far too good an album, and too far out of step with the rest of the UK at the time, to really achieve the success it deserved (although it did go gold). I remember seeing blur on the Modern Life Is Rubbish tour – the set was designed to look like a lounge from a 1950s British house and at one point Albarn gets into what looked like a TV. The show was amazing and yet the venue wasn’t even full and, at a Q&A session the band did before the show, there can’t have been more than 30 fans (I was one of them). Just a year later they were playing to thousands of people at Mile End greyhound stadium following the huge success of their next album Parklife.

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Parklife made blur the biggest band in the UK. Tracks such as Boys & Girls, Parklife & End Of A Century perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the time as well as showcasing an increasingly adventurous range of music. How many other chart-topping bands would release a single, To The End, with the chorus sung in French and a full orchestral backing? Or a song which is more like a piece of stream of consciousness prose with musical backing, recited by a Cockney actor? Once again the album’s highlight was an extended nod to their shoegazing roots, This Is A Low: all reverb and organ it showed a band utterly at ease with their own brilliance.

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The third part of blur’s British trilogy was The Great Escape an album which, if I’m honest, I never really cared for. It was over-produced, over the top and rather disappointing. That said, The Universal, with its Kubrick-esque view of the future (and Clockwork Orange inspired video) is an absolute classic. Unfortunately much of the rest of the album seemed to suggest a band believing their own hype and running out of ideas. It was also the album that included Country House, which started the blur v Oasis ‘war’: ridiculous when you consider that Country House & Roll With It are two of the weakest tracks either band have ever produced.

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However, this being Albarn, their next album was entirely different to The Great Escape. The eponymously titled blur opened with Beetlebum, one of the most beautifully downbeat love songs you’re ever likely to hear, whilst Song 2 saw blur selling grunge back to the Americans. M.O.R. is a joyous slice of noise whereas On Your Own sees the band fiddling round with Roland 606 drum machines (not something you can imagine Oasis attempting to pull off). Country Sad Ballad Man more or less defies description, You’re So Great is an amazingly touching love song (crackles & all) whilst the georgeous Look Inside America saw blur come to terms with the country that they had spent so long trying to distance themselves from.

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This was probably my favourite blur album and, after this, I lost interest in them a bit. Whilst tracks such as Tender, Out Of Time and the amazing Coffee & TV (which saw Graham Coxon take lead vocals in a move that harealded his eventueal departure from the band) showed flashes of blur’s brilliance, it seemed more & more like the band were losing interest in what they were doing. And this probably explains why Coxon left blur and Damon Albarn went on to try his hand at everything from traditional African music (Mali Music) to dance & hip hop with the utterly post-modern Gorillaz. As if that wasn’t enough he managed to corrall some of the planet’s greates musicians to join a band known only be the title of their, to date, only album.

All of which leads us back to where we started, with Damon Albarn writing an opera, in between running a record label and all of his other projects. I haven’t written as much about these as I have about blur because, if I’m honest, I don’t enjoy them as much. That doesn’t change the fact they show what a truly talented musician he is and also highlight why he is, along with Paul Weller, probably the best British musician of the past 30 years.

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Swervedriver – Duel

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I’ve been having a bit of a play with blip (the musical Twitter) this evening and have continued an early 90s nostalgia trip that started on the train home tonight. Basically I’ve been listening to lots of bands that, rightly or wrongl, were categorised as shoe-gazers back in the day.

My journey home was made a lot more pleasant thanks to Ride, Slowdive, Lush & many more. However just now I dug out a band who, whilst being around at a similar time to these bands, definitely brought a bit more attitude.

Swervedriver had more in common with bands like Mudhoney & Dinosaur Jr. than Slowdive but, because they were signed to Creation (this was in the days before they signed Oasis) they often ended up being lumped in with the ‘scene that celebrated itself’. But, as you can hear if you listen to Duel, they definitely knew how to rock: they also, as Duel again shows, had an amazing ear for a melody, meaning their tunes were perfect little slices of rock pop.

Unfortunately, and contrary to what Noel Gallagher once said about his former label-mates, due to the financial idiocy of Creation owner Alan McGee, the band got screwed and never fulfilled their full potential. They’ve now reformed so if they’re playing near you it might be worth checking out Swervdriver to see if they still manage to blend melody & rock into such perfect little packages as Duel.

Swervedriver box-set on Amazon

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Drop Nineteens – Winona

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One of the joys of having a shared iTunes in the office is not just that you discover new music, but also that you re-discover tracks that you had long forgotten about. One such track that just came back into my life courtesy of a colleague’s library is Winona by the Drop Nineteens, a slice of American shoegazing pop from 1992.

Whilst most people always think that shoegazing was a solely British affair there were a number of bands who took up the mantle of staring at their feet whilst playing guitar pop with loads of effects & feedback: of these the Drop Nineteens were certainly my favourites. There’s a playfulness about their records that chimed with me, and still does now. The fact that they named a song after the biggest teenage heart-throb of the time (now better known for her interesting ideas on shopping) shows that their was a sense of humour behind all that reverb.

The album Winona was taken from, Delaware (which now costs a small fortune), was a hit & miss affair. Some tracks, such as Winona & the title track, are absolutely magnificent, blending pop & noise perfectly. But on other tracks the noise starts to dominate and you’re left with something that resembles a poor man’s Pixies. Unfortunately not enough people heard the amazing tracks and, according to the gospel of Wikipedia, the band split in 1995 having failed to live up to their early promise.

Still, when you’ve created something as lovely as the Drop Nineteens did with Winona, I guess it’s always going to be hard to top.

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Lush – Sweetness & Light

Apart from loving the bizzare mix of cover versions that Radio 1 has produced, I’ve spent most of this Christmas getting in touch with my inner shoe-gazer: Lush have helped with this.

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Lush – Sweetness & Light
Back in the early 90s, as most of the country (or that part of it under the age of 30) got on with getting messed up and dancing in fields, there were a stern bunch who were more interested in playing lots of guitar and staring at their shoes. The music weeklies (in those days there were more than one) mocked them, but I loved them. Few of them produced amazing albums, but quite a few produced incredible songs, & Lush were amongst those.

Sweetness & Light is almost certainly their finest moment, although many people will probably remember them for Ladykillers, the much more Britpop-ish number that came towards the end of their career. But it’s in the washed out vocals, sweeping guitars and chugging drums of Sweetness & Light that Lush truly reached their peak. It’s just a shame it was also one of their first ever releases; like so many bands they were cursed to never match their early potential.

Still, that shouldn’t stop you enjoying what is a truly wonderful piece of early 90s English guitar pop; grunge may have killed shoegazing & Britpop stolen its crown, but this has more soul than the first and a million times more wit than most of the dross that the latter turned out. It’s all in the name really; this is sweet and light.

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Midnight Movies – Patient Eye

Midnight Movies make an incredible noise on all their songs – and Patient Eye is no exception…

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Midnight Movies are my new favourite band after I saw them supporting The Raveonettes last night. Some lovely people who I met at a conference in Seattle took me to see the band at an amazing restaurant/concert venue in Seattle called The Triple Door where Midnight Movies absolutely blew me away.

Midnight Movies are made up of 2 guys & 2 girls, all of whom are incredibly talented, able to play multiple instruments; lead singer Gena Oliver plays drums on several occasions whilst drummer Sandra Vu plays flute on one song.

Anyway, live Midnight Movies were somewhere between The Doors, My Bloody Valentine & Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, although their recorded work doesn’t have quite the same level of “Wow – what the *&^ was that?!” (although you should still buy both of their albums to date). Still, if you live anywhere where Midnight Music are playing, you really ought to check them out. And you could also do what I did, which was to buy their single Patient Eye on 7″ and get the band to sign it, in anticipation of their impending stardom. But don’t do the other thing I did, and lose the record a few hours later.

And if you have anything to do with the music industry in the UK, you should give Midnight Movies a deal as their current label has no UK distribution and these guys could be huge…

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