Like most music obsessives from time to time I have wondered what it must have been like to be there at a pivotal moment in music history. You know, like avoiding the sweat dripping off the ceiling while the Fab Four hone their post-Hamburg rock and roll in The Cavern. Or watching the light show and Syd Barrett in psychedelic melt down mode at the UFO. Or even hanging with the art school punks at CBGBs as they watched as Blondie’s pop moves took New York’s indie screen global.
The nearest I ever got to a seismic pop moment was in a small and sweaty basement room bizarrely sited on Oxford Street by Tottenham Court Road tube. For there in 1991, the club, known as the Syndrome, became the meeting place for the main movers of the London wing of British indie, some of whom would go on to create some incredible music.
Energised by both the danceable grooves coming out of Manchester and the visceral punky thrills of grunge jetting in from America’s North West coast, the likes of Blur, Ride, Lush, Moose and many others began to fashion a musical response that kept the energy of punk but , how shall we put this, was a little more cerebral. And the music these middle class punks played (for many of the bands were from the posher parts of London and the South East) became known as shoegazing (after some of the musician’s habits of looking at their feet while messing with effects pedals).
As well as absorbing the primitive, yet arty sounds of bands like Dinosaur Junior and Sonic Youth, the Shoegazers were almost all highly influenced by the feedback drenched howl of My Bloody Valentine. Many bands also kept the melodic obsession of the C86 bands in creating sweet, often catchy tunes that they buried under howls of effects and white noise.
Shoegazing, just like The Syndrome, didn’t last too long, but for a couple of the bands it was a springboard to better things. Sadly though most of them didn’t see the musical tidal wave of Brit Pop coming and the music press quickly lost interest in shy, retiring musicians from Surrey and turned their attention to boisterous Beatles-obsessed northerners. In fact almost all of them were history by the mid -90. Except that is in the US where a couple of bands from a city on the nation’s West coast kept the genre alive.
So with My Bloody Valentine releasing their first album in twenty or so years there is no better time to go back and revisit some of the less well known protagonists of the Shoegazing (a term which not surprisingly almost all the bands associated with it hated) era. There are profiles of eight bands and you can hear them, along with some fellow travellers in the Spotify playlist.
* The most under rated 80s indie bands here
* Under rated British 90s indie bands
Shoegazing wasn’t purely a British phenomenon. There were many American bands on nodding terms with effects pedals and wall of sound guitars. The best of the lot were probably The Drop Nineteens, Velocity Girl and another band who will be popping up in a minute who went on to much greater things. Velocity Girl were more melodic than many of their Brit contemporaries, something that didn't go un-noticed by the producers of the film Clueless who added their early single My Forgotten Favorite to the movie’s soundtrack. The album Copacetic, which followed in 1993, has plenty of strong tunes like Audrey’s Eyes which owed more to Brit bands like The Darling Buds than they did to MBV. However with the slightly bizarre epic opener Pretty Sister Velocity Girl showed they could build effects-laden cathedrals of sound (coughs) just as smartly as any of their British rivals. The follow up, Simpatico took things in an even more poppy direction and yielded a big indie hit in Sorry Again. Sadly the band were history by the end of the 90s.