A Brief History Of Shoe Gazing

The short-lived scene will always have its detractors, but a new compilation seeks to shine a light on its most enduring names....
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The short-lived scene will always have its detractors, but a new compilation seeks to shine a light on its most enduring names....
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In the late 1980s a sub-genre of UK indie music emerged, characterised by layered, effects-heavy guitars, repetition, subdued vocals and a noisy but unaggressive attitude. The sound became increasingly popular until 1992 when the music press gave it the derogatory name ‘shoe gazing’, and Still in A Dream is an exhaustive five-disc collection of tracks documenting the full life of this short-lived scene.

The sound of shoe gazing - often referred to since simply as shoegaze - 
took its influences variously from Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Husker Du, The Cure, The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine and The Cocteau Twins. Although The Cocteau Twins had been around for a decade before the scene got going, they’re closely associated with it because the band and the scene reached a height of popularity at the same time. Cherry –Coloured Funk from 1990 is included on Still in a Dream and it’s a typical example of their dreamy, psychedelic noisescape. This sound, along with Elizabeth Frazer’s beautiful ethereal vocals, was approximated by many of the more ambient shoe gazing acts and guitarist Robin Guthrie had a more direct influence on the emerging scene by working as a producer for Lush.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, with their pop melodies buried beneath feedback, were another obvious touchstone for the scene. Their uplifting 1990 release Rollercoaster comes across like a punk Mr Tambourine Man and, entertaining as it is, its inclusion only really makes sense chronologically, since by this time they’d moved in a more conventional pop direction which doesn’t quite sit with the rest of this collection.

Bands like Spacemen 3, The Telescopes and Loop were playing a new brand of psychedelia in the late-80s, and while none of these bands were ever identified as part of the shoe gazing scene, their experimentations with repetition and huge, distinctive guitar sounds were acknowledged as an influence on it. Spacemen 3’s Hypnotised is included and it’s a timeless, shimmering, two-chord blues classic that’s guaranteed to improve your mood, while The Telescopes’ Precious Little is stop-start, sneering, space rock. Loop’s electrifying Arc-Lite is also here, featuring a slashing, amped up riff, repeated over freak out drums to mesmeric effect.

It’s unfortunate that perhaps the biggest single influence and instigators of the shoe gazing scene are absent from this collection. My Bloody Valentine could be powerful and exhilarating, gorgeously melodic or a combination of both. They were completely original and spawned a great many imitators. A true history scene feels a little incomplete without something from them, though, in truth, pigeonholing MBV in with the rest is like classifying The Beatles as Mersey Beat – ultimately they were much bigger than the scene that they most obviously inspired.

When shoe gazing was at its most popular in the early 90s, its two biggest stars were Lush and Ride. Both were great bands and each band could justifiably have had several songs included here; thankfully the two selections that are included are excellent. Lush’s gorgeous De-Luxe is an edgy, jangly pop song with a driving beat, soaring harmonies and vivid lyrics, while Ride’s Drive Blind, is a rousing gothic slab of noise from their debut EP. These two exhilarating songs exemplify what excited people about this new style of music and both Ride and Lush released several EPs with songs of equivalent quality at the time.

At a lower level, Chapterhouse were another mainstay of the scene. They infamously followed Nirvana at the 1991 Reading Festival. This being just a few weeks before the release of Nevermind, a good percentage of the crowd was already wearing ‘corporate whore’ t-shirts. Predictably, Chapterhouse’s atmospheric drone and subdued stage presence didn’t measure up too well, giving an early pointer as to where musical fashion was heading. Their Falling Down is included here, and it’s an atypically upbeat, wah-wah-driven baggy tune.

Among the other acts from the early shoe gazing scene with tracks included here The Boo Radleys, with their huge anthem Kaleidoscope, the ultra-mellow Slowdive by Slowdive, Waiting for the Angels by The Darkside and the brilliant drumbeat-driven psychedelic rock of Suzanne by Moose.

Melody Maker tried to convince its readers that Curve would be massive back in 1991. The duo got the cover of the magazine after only a couple of EPs, the first of which was made single of the week. Still in a Dream features Ten Little Girls from that EP, and it’s hard to see what the fuss was about, sounding as it does like a lightweight prototype for Garbage.

Slightly stretching the shoe gazing definition but included anyway are Th’ Faith Healers with the amazing Gorgeous Blue Flower In My Garden- a mad, folky discordant, punk nursery rhyme. Swervedriver were always identified with the scene because of their Oxford roots rather than their swirling, alt-rock sound but their Rave Down fits into the collection quite nicely.

There are plenty of tracks from more obscure bands from the early 90s which are well worth discovering. Aruca by Medicine starts off as pure Butthole Surfers-style noise before giving way to a blissed-out, acid house drone. Sugar Your Mind by Swallow is a hypnotic, laid-back pysch-pop song, Spooky Vibes by Blind Mr Jones is ambient pop with a soaring flute hook and Babysbreath by Loveliescrushing is another lovely, shimmering noisescape.

Tellingly, highlights from later on in the scene tend to come from America where the scene peaked much later, comfortably occupying space alongside grunge. Mercury Rev’s Bronx Cheer is a fabulous song, as is the MBV-like Orange Creamsickle by Astrobite. Luna’s 23 Minutes in Brussels is sensational; like Carlos Santana guesting on a Spiritualized track. The Hinnies have been described as a cross between The Pixies and The Beach Boys, which seems accurate judging by the laid-back psychedelic pop of Gong.

In the early 90s the music press wielded the influence to conjure up a scene from something this slight and they also had the power to wreck it. The term shoe gazing was a mocking reference to the perceived motionlessness of these bands on stage. The implication was that they were uninteresting, especially when compared with the high intensity performances of Mudhoney, Tad, Nirvana et al. Maybe the scene lacked controversial personalities too – there were no car-crash relationships, petty rivalries or high profile casualties, just mutual support and respect. It must have been easier for the headline-writers of the time if their rock stars were living their lurid, hedonistic fantasies for them. For whatever reason, from 1992 reviews for bands identified as part of the shoe gazing scene were suddenly overwhelmingly bad.

Most of the bands featured here fizzled out quickly, but some like The Boo Radleys and, remarkably, given their status as pillars of the scene, Lush managed to reinvent themselves to find success as Britpop acts, playing much less interesting and inventive music (compare Kaleidoscope to Wake Up Boo, for example).

Other bands like Swervedriver and Spacemen 3 offshoots Spiritualized and Spectrum, had managed to keep enough distance from the scene at its height not to be tainted when it all went sour and continued relatively unscathed.

The biggest casualties were Ride. They were a talented group but they were obliged to drastically change their sound to move with the times and they lost their way. They first switched to psychedelic rock then veered towards hard rock before giving up completely, tainted by association with a scene that had been deemed obsolete.

Still In A Dream is a thorough document of this short-lived scene, from its early stirrings, through its peak years and its last twitches. The scene produced no huge stars but its leading lights made some great and genuinely original records. This collection shows that its minor players could hit the heights too. As a sub-genre of British indie it was way more forward thinking and innovative than the Britpop scene that dominated the rest of the 90s and it could be time to reassess the music of that decade and rediscover some its forgotten highlights.

Still in a Dream – A Story of Shoegaze 1988 – 1995 is out now on Cherry Red Records. Get it here.