Last week I alerted you to the re-mastered and re-issued My Bloody Valentine LPs, as well as a compilation of their EPs and some rare and unreleased tracks. I though this might be a good opportunity to listen to the entire recorded output of my favourite band and come up with some suggestions of tracks to listen to in order to get a flavour of the band and their progression from a post-punk, gothy band from Dublin to one of the most influential bands of the early nineties.
I started with This Is Your Bloody Valentine, their debut mini LP from 1985. I wasn’t aware of the band at the time, partly because they were a quite obscure Irish band who were only well-known in Berlin and Dublin, but mostly because I was only 10 years old. It’s a patchy affair; guitarist Kevin Shields and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig form the core of the band, with original vocalist Dave Conway and his girlfriend Tina playing keyboards, no Bilinda or Debbie, and none of the squall of noise that would later come to define the band. Tiger in my Tank is quite fun though!
The band moved back to the UK, parted company with Tina, recruited Deb Googe on bass, and released three singles – Geek, The New Record By My Bloody Valentine and Sunny Sundae Smile. This section of the listening was a bit painful as the goth influence gradually disappears to be replaced by a rather jangly indie sound. What is interesting is the gradual appearance of the scratchy wall-of-noise guitar sound which would come to dominate the band’s sound. I think it’s most pronounced on We’re So Beautiful from The New Record By My Bloody Valentine. Oh, and I do have a soft spot for the jangly banality of Sunny Sundae Smile which I bought on 7″ from a friend’s older brother when I first got into the band in 1990.
Dave Conway left the band shortly after Sunny Sundae Smile and Kevin took over on lead vocals, also recruiting Bilinda Butcher as a second guitarist and vocalist. The next couple of releases, Strawberry Wine and the mini LP Ecstasy, were later compiled as the Ecstasy & Wine LP and show a marked shift away from the fuzzy, bubblegum pop sound, towards a more detached, Byrds-meet-Jesus-&-Mary-Chain sound. Kevin and Bilinda’s vocals are much lower in the mix than Dave Conway’s had been and there is definite experimental edge to the sound. My favourite track from this period is Clair, which sounds like it’s drowning in feedback but which is actually backed by a looped recording of a screaming Beatles audience.
With the lineup settled the band were signed to Creation records and produced their first genuinely exciting EP, finally causing the music press to sit up and listen. The EP – You Made Me Realise – is consistently exciting, with Colm’s drumming showing the aggression and power that would define the band live and Kevin’s experimentation with the guitar sound moving to a new level. The striking title track contains the 40 second section of white noise that would later be stretched to anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes when the band played live, becoming infamously known as the ‘holocaust’. The second track on the EP – Slow – is credited with being the first track to show the distinctive us of the tremolo to distort and glide the sound. They followed up this astonishing EP with the equally brilliant Feed Me With Your Kiss, the title track which is a splendid chunk of indie rock with the vocals low down in the mix, and remains one of the heaviest and also most accessible things the band ever did.
Hot on the heels of these EPs came 1988’s Isn’t Anything LP and any vestiges of the jangly past were blown away. Mixing dream-like, shimmering soundscapes like No More Sorry with the noise assault of (When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream and the detuned, see-sawing of Soft as Snow, the first side of the LP is fascinating, but it’s the second side of the LP that had the most impact and which provided the template for the shoegazing scene that was to follow. Opening with Feed Me With Your Kiss and Suesfine, it takes a breather with Several Girls Galore and You Never Should before the drum assault of Nothing Much to Lose and then ends with the slow shuffle of I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It). Simply wonderful.
The first 5000 copies of Isn’t Anything came with a free 7″ containing two instrumental tracks, imaginatively called Instrumental #1 and Instrumental #2. #1 is a fairly standard slab of noisy, wall-of-sound stuff, but #2 uses a sampled beat from a Public Enemy record and adds swooping, distorted guitar sounds to great effect. This example of the influence of dance music, which was seeping into the music scene at the time, is really interesting and paved the way for my favorite My Bloody Valentine record.
The Glider EP was the first record of My Bloody Valentine’s that I bought when it came out (in Our Price in St Albans) and is still the one that excites me the most. Soon, with its sampled drums, indecipherable vocals and swooning, droning guitars is still my favourite track of all time, but the rest of the EP is excellent as well, with the repetitive swooping drone of Glider and the otherworldly sounds of Don’t Ask Why and Off Your Face rounding it out nicely. I got a bit obsessed with the EP, listening to it endlessly while reading Chaos by James Gleick. Soon was remixed by Andy Weatherall, but the remix didn’t really do anything interesting and remains a curio at best.
Finally, the run of astonishing EPs came to a close with the Tremolo EP. The lead track – To Here Knows When – is perhaps the ultimate distillation of what Kevin Shields was trying to achieve, with the guitars so distorted and drenched in feedback that they sound like they have melted all over the indistinct vocals and the low-key, rattling rhythms. The rest of the EP is very variable, with one excellent track in the shape of Honey Power and two weaker ones in Swallow and Moon Song.
And so to Loveless. Widely regarded as the band’s best LP, and surrounded by a fascinating web of myths, stories and tales of excess, delays, illness, obsession and financial chaos. I won’t go into it all here but there are detailed discussions about its protracted and difficult birth on Wikipedia and in Loveless by Mike McGonigal. During the recording Colm was suffering from a debilitating illness and most of the drums on the LP are programmed. Kevin pretty much made the record in its entirety, playing all the guitar and bass parts and working the keyboards and samplers. Bilinda contributes vocals and Colm produced the 1 minute long ambient Touched track as well as drums for the LP’s opening track, recorded after he had recovered. Deb Googe is pretty much absent from the LP. For me, this sums up the problems with Loveless – the detuned, sweeping guitars, fey, indistinct vocals and sampled feedback are all present and correct but it feels like something is missing – specifically Deb and Colm who were part of what made the band so powerful live.
It is a great LP though, eclipsing anything produced by any of the other bands around at the time who had borrowed their sound from Isn’t Anything. Highlights include the opening track Only Shallow, as well as the towering Come In Alone and the fuzzy, soporific Sometimes (used to magical effect in Lost in Translation which Kevin helped to soundtrack). The two tracks taken from the preceding EPs – Soon and To Here Knows When – are also excellent. However, the LP is patchy; the sampled feedback becomes a bit sickly and there is a lack of power to some of the tracks.
The EPs 88-91 CD which came out in 2012 contains a few rare and unreleased tracks. Of these, only the full 10 minute edit of Glider and a track called Angel, which sounds like it’s from around the same time as the Glider EP, are really all that interesting. The two missing tracks, both covers (of We Have All The Time In The World and Wire’s Map Ref 41ºN 93ºW) aren’t really worth tracking down unless you’re a completist!
So there you have it, I did it so you didn’t have to! If you like any of the music on here, please track it down and buy it. The re-issues are worth a go if you don’t already have the albums or EPs already, but you might struggle to get hold of the older stuff. You can usually get it, but it’ll be second hand and expensive. There was an unofficial compilation called Things Left Behind which collected the early singles, and there’s Ecstasy and Wine to take you up to the beginning of the re-issues. Happy hunting.