Perfect Sound Forever

'90's Noise

Part 1 of 4 by G.E. Light
(May 2006)

'We use volume as an instrument':

Listening to music is listening to all noise
—Jacques Attali

On May 9, 1974, Jon Landau saw Bruce Springsteen open for Bonnie Raitt in Cambridge, MA. About this evening he wrote: "Last Thursday at Harvard Square Theatre, I saw my rock and roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else. I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen" (Marsh, p. 131). Almost twenty years on (February 2, 1992, at Slim's in San Francisco, to be exact), I saw and heard the future of rock and its name was My Bloody Valentine. Of course, as I write this reflection on my rock and roll decade past, this post-future rock is dead, kaput, finito.1 In fact, the effort to get to that time and place on the West Coast seemingly destroyed not only the band but also basically bankrupted its label as well. Such cheery assertions as Jon Landau's now infamous statement about Bruce Springsteen as rock's future have long since come to reek of brash consumerism, as the seasoned journalist himself turns adoring fan only to become producer/business partner. But the quest remains for the next BIG thing. In this essay, I instead plan to consider a kind of LAST thing, that is the last music of the last century, as it were an apocalyptic, millennial death knell for Rock and Roll.

Even such an inveterate rock folklorist cum bricoleur as Guided by Voices' Bob Pollard is now given to proclaiming "This song does not rock," however ironically, on record ("Over the Neptune," Propeller) and as an intro at live shows (San Francisco, Memphis). When exactly did rock die, how, and why? Of course, rock is not dead; The Rolling Stones lumber on, each new tour a license to license signage, crossbrand themselves with imported hops and basically print as much currency as they see fit. But rock as a significant cultural phenomenon is certainly moribund, as the more interesting acts today--the bands 'that matter' to borrow the old Clash chestnut--seem intent on fracturing genres and expectations, from basic song structures to accepted instrumentation to the very classic gestural displays of what Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie have styled 'cock rock' (pp. 373–6).2 I realize that 'rock is dead' prognostications have become a somewhat clichéd response to any challenge of the hegemonic powers of certain specified rock dinosaurs of the 1960's and early 1970's, as Lawrence Grossberg has cogently argued (pp. 122–3).3 This time, however, the clarion call has real force. Clearly, the majority of high school and college age students no longer purchase those same 'key' albums from thirty plus years ago, like The Eagles, Greatest Hits; Led Zeppelin, IV (ZOSO, Runes, 'the one with "Stairway," Dude!'); Santana, Abraxas; and The Rolling Stones, Hot Rocks or Sticky Fingers. Furthermore, their record collections look dramatically different from those of my freshman college roommates in 1981, something I couldn't have said even seven years ago about the students I taught then.4 Sales data (thanks in large part to Billboard's capitulation to the SoundScan point-of-sale revolution starting on 5/25/91; [Koelsch]) prove that varieties of urban music (not to mention the dreaded teen pop of boy bands and untouchable chesty teases) have left traditional rock sales marginalized to a nostalgic baby boomer generation.5 But my argument, as opposed to Grossberg's, is specifically musical: about how a generation of artists in the late '80's and early '90's tore down and began to rebuild the classic structures of rock music, through electronics, non-traditional instrumentation, and post-production editing and tape looping. What they created, I call it Noise rock, was done as both a nod towards Jacques Attali's seminal work and an attempt to distinguish between his concern with free jazz and mine with a subject more affiliated to rock and roll.6

The rest of this essay will bring this noise by examining a series of case studies involving active 1990s bands (My Bloody Valentine, Henry's Dress, The Flying Luttenbachers, The Ex, Boredoms, Godspeed You Black Emperor) who had a significant hand in deconstructing rock as it had been known since at least the late 1960's: some use instrument technology, some production and/or post-production effects, some simply the human voice, and some all of the above.7 What they all have in common is a quest for the essence of popular music in the gritty details of the mundane world around us. It is not so much the death of rock as its reconfiguration into a variety of noise(s).

My Bloody Valentine: sequencing bricolage in E

It's a harmony in my head

Whenever I'm in doubt about things I do
I listen to the high street wailing sounds in the queue
—Steve Diggle

Perhaps the prototypical 1990's noise band is My Bloody Valentine, which began life in the 1980's as an ethereally wispy indie pop band creating second-rate, Brian Wilsonesque melodies backed with jangly guitars very much in the vein of such C86 stalwarts as The Bodines, The Soup Dragons, The Mighty Lemon Drops, or The Close Lobsters. This version of My Bloody Valentine was perhaps best exemplified by the early single, "You Made Me Realize" to which we will return anon. Creation Records founder Alan McGee notes that he didn't like the early group, thinking they were a 'wimpy anorak band,' but a January 1987 live show surprised him: "I was shocked to find it was like an English Hüsker Dü' (Story)." With 1988's "Feed Me With Your Kiss," the band entered a new phase masking the still sweet harmonies behind a newfound Spectoresque wall of sound, a concept further developed by the Glider and Tremolo EP's. My Bloody Valentine in this era were

developing a new and private lexicon of sounds and effects... They make the guitar sound like a windscreen shattering into a jackfrost pattern... My Bloody Valentine [were] remarkable for reconciling the two great pleasures in rock today, apparently at odds with each other: the masculine pleasure of the oppressive, spine-tingling arse-quake, and the feminine bliss of the border-dissolving, spine-melting oceanic wash. But then both are forms of surrender to sound. (Reynolds, 120–1)
In this context, Tremolo's "Honey Power" becomes the archetypal song, even though the feminine lyrics and the masculine riffage are not mixed, instead succeeding each other in turn, a kind of democratic daisy chain. For a more direct version of this uncanny mixture, one should especially watch the video of "Only Shallow" with Belinda Butcher's singing face montaged to wildly cavorting guitar and bass frets (Story). But our story really begins and ends with their 1991 masterpiece (and now, alas, clearly final album) Loveless and the legendary tour that followed.

My Bloody Valentine's (MBV) aural adventure Loveless cannot be fully comprehended without a nod towards other noisy arts/construction movements of the 1970's and '80's (like NY's no-wave scene and SF's Survival Research Labs built objects, industrial arts wargames spectacles). Furthermore, it is an extension of the band's own earlier reworking/feedbacking of classic Spector production effects and Wilsonesque lyrics in such tracks as Isn't Anything's 'Feed Me with Your Kiss,' where a hint of a melody wafts behind a veritable wall of guitar effects.8 But Loveless also suggests links to older musical traditions as well. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press "trace a thread that runs through Indonesian gamelan, Aboriginal didgeridoo music, Indian raga, Tibetan devotional music... John Cage... My Bloody Valentine, right up to ambient techno artists like the Aphex Twin" (p. 181). This tradition "shares a belief that minimal-is-maximal" (182). Shields himself specifically notes the liberating influence of 'techno and rap' which allow for new versions of sound structures and production mixes (Story).

Loveless also presents its own postmodern takes on the work of art in the age of digital reproduction and on the indeterminacy of meaning, mining a musical vein of Benjamin adumbrated with reception theory. MBV works in dual threads of noise and minimalism.9 Singer/Guitarist Kevin Shields states, "A lot of what we are is about sound. We use volume as an instrument a lot live" (Interview), and he further elaborates a desire to decenter the vocalist in the mix and focus on the instruments producing the trademark "muffled sound... like fluff on a needle" as opposed to the typically 'bright' radio friendly sound of most pop, a music which "you have to look into as opposed to it comes out to you" (Story). Ironically, the album is represented not unlike the previously mentioned video montage by a barely discernible and definitely disembodied shot of a guitar's fretboard seemingly about to dissolve from the wild vibrations of the strings.

Ironically, what does come out to you from Loveless is the sheer power and volume of the music. Rachel Felder confirms this fact:

Ever since its Isn't Anything LP was released, the band's live shows have been as much about hyperbolically loud volume as about the music itself. That volume heightens their music's intensity as well as adding to the painful disorientation of it... The audience's experience at a Valentine's show recalls what Roland Barthes wrote in his essay "Musica Practica," where he discusses the intensity of musical connection you get from playing an instrument yourself. (p. 29)
The noise is arrived at by some technical wizardry, as Reynolds and Press explain: "On Loveless, they go beyond the ethereality of "glide guitar" into full-blown alchemy (sampling their own feedback and playing it on a keyboard, so that there's even less sense that what you hear was generated by physical acts and fleshly creatures)" (pp. 220–1). The soundcheck for the February 2, 1992, San Francisco Loveless tour debut at Slim's was a testament to the independence of electronics, as the sequencer kept going off at the wrong time and with the wrong item. Frontman/producer Kevin Shields noted that the sequencer is "less reliable than a human being; it's a stupid thing that doesn't have any sense. Quite often it decides not to work." The band continued with the sequencer because they "didn't want to use tape; when we play live, we want to be able to change things."

The album itself remains legendary for taking three years to master in studio at a cost of $500,000.00 and nearly bankrupting the band's British label, Creation.10 Shields himself defends the lengthy recording process thusly:

It was nowhere near as traumatic as people made out. The only trauma was in the slowness. ... It became a kind of constant battle not to finish it off quickly... After the first seven weeks, we had all the basic tracks laid down... It [the extended process] saved the music but ruined the budget and blew any chance we had of making money, but I'm proud of the record.
Of course, Alan McGee has a somewhat different take on the whole process: "Two and a half years... Treated like shit - I can't explain how hard it was working with the guy. I had Dick re-mortgage his house for them. I spent every penny I had in my bank account" (Hewitt, p. 119). Indeed, the wait was worth it, as no less an authority than Brian Eno said the single "Soon" "sets a new standard for pop" (Graff, 480). McGee himself has relented, stating to that 'the best album I've ever put out is Loveless' (AlanMcGee0900_part1_broad.rm) and noting that
Kevin is the genius architect musician.
... I mean he's an obsessive genius but in five years I got two records.
... Nobody's made records like that ever.
... If I had to summarise Kevin Shields in one sentence, I'd say 'Irish as you could possibly ever be, in the great tradition of the true fucking Irish genius,' which is a quotation from the bible according to Shane McGowan. Shields is a true genius. And his vision is so futuristic and so ahead of what anybody else ever went for.
(Hewitt, pp. 119–21)
Trey Anastasio forever redeems all his jamband crimes and misdemeanors when he remarks that "Loveless (sic) is the best album recorded in the '90s. History will tell, and 20 years from now that album will be considered a complete classic, while a lot of the albums that are real popular today will have been forgotten" ( Even The New York Times joined the bandwagon: "My Bloody Valentine offers pure defiance: songs in which thickly layered guitars and nearly indecipherable voices add up to a tuneful murk: elusive but memorable" (Pareles). Jon Savage sums up MBV's genre-busting, post-modern appeal:
It's this moony, hermetic quality that gives My Bloody Valentine their power. Unlike most modern pop, they offer not a palliative but an aural solution to contemporary problems. Both in their constitution--two women and two men-- and their records--both noise and music—they suggest not only a fusion of apparent opposites but a way through the chaos that is today's emotional and physical reality. Through their profound, almost environmental, acceptance of confusion they make a different future conceivable.
(p. 285)
It is just such enlightenment I seek by clustering at first apparently unrelated types of artists in this essay.

We can perhaps best trace My Bloody Valentine's descent into noise by examining the reworking of the early 3:30 pop single "You Made Me Realize" into a 17 plus minute feedback maelstrom which typically closed the shows on the 1992 Loveless tour (Vancouver). As Martin Kemp noted in the March 1992 issue of option magazine, "It's difficult to describe being in the middle of the pounding, incessant noise of My Bloody Valentines' (sic) "You Made Me Realise" unless you've actually seen the band live" (Becker, p. 231). He posits a dual response of either hypnotic release or violent revulsion. Cavangah speaks of them toying "with the levels of audience comfort by using volume and distortion almost as weapons" (p. 235). A friend describes that epiphany thusly:

I remembered a while ago that I had heard part of "You Made Me Realize" live in late '91/early '92. Skeleton Crew was playing at the 312 in downtown Birmingham and we weren't going on until midnight, so we went to UAB to see if we could get into Dinosaur JR./MBV (who happened to be playing that very night - it hurt our own audience turnout, I can tell you!). We got there just as MBV were finishing, and I can't believe I've ever forgotten that sensation of getting closer to the hall and hearing this ungodly wash of noise and thinking, 'What the fuck IS that?' It was so goddamn loud we couldn't bear to stand in front of the open doors, and the brave lot who were in front had this look of terror/disdain on their faces (which we though hilarious - bunch of Philistines). We couldn't get in - sold out and a couple of tightasses at the door - but it was incredible nonetheless, even vicariously. (Brocato)
My own experience was similar, except that I found a central point stage front at Slim's, where one was actually slightly behind the speakers and thus was hearing the slightly muffled wash bounce back from the surrounding brick walls. The whole effect plus the reddish psychedelic images being projected to the left of the band on a midsize screen suggested to me what an early Warhol/Velvet Underground downtown Factory event must have been like, especially in the middle of "Heroin." Well except for the drunken corporate A&R suit who plowed through the crowd spilling beer everywhere but on his own starchy white ass. On the plus side, I moved to the bar along Slim's back side across from the main entrance and sat mutely beside Greil Marcus and some other guy I didn't recognize (T. J. Clark to venture a semi-educated guess); now for a total music nerd, that's cool beanz! And as a point of possibly overloaded interpretive interest, when the concert was over Shields did not say goodnight. He said 'goodbye' (Cavanagh, p. 370).11

See Part 2 of 4 of the '90's noise article

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