Sole survivors: the legacy of shoegazing

Shoegazing is a half-forgotten musical genre, but its legacy lives on, says Robert Webb
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The Independent Culture

There was a joke circulating in the early Nineties. Q: How can you spot an extrovert indie guitarist? A: They stare at your shoes, rather than their own. Shoegazing was the rather dismissive term given by the music press to Britain's indie scene, circa 1989-94. The music was characterised by a six-string drone, quiet harmonies and an introspective take on the rock 'n' roll sneer.

Emma Anderson formed Lush, one of the most successful acts from the period. "When we started out in 1989 this shoegazing thing didn't exist," Anderson says. "We became aware of the movement in about 1990." Anderson wasn't offended by the name, although she does think it ridiculed unfairly. "What it really meant was that we were staring at the effects pedals, I think, rather than our shoes," she says. Wedged in between the heady Madchester years of the late Eighties and the excess of mid-Nineties Britpop, Shoegazing was too laid back to predict a riot, too unconfrontational to make the tabloids. No shoegazer was ever going to slurp tea at No. 10.

It's recently become the subject of a 16-track anthology from Sanctuary Records. Like A Daydream, compiled by the former Melody Maker writer Ian Watson, is the first retrospective of the movement some tagged "the scene that celebrates itself". This nickname referred to the apparent mutual support enjoyed by the bands: journalists reported that it often seemed as though a significant portion of the audience at a shoegazer gig was other shoegazing groups, cheering on their chums (whilst, one assumes, staring at their Airware).

Along with Lush, the bands highlighted - most of whom were signed to either Alan McGee's Creation or 4AD - include Ride, Curve, Cranes, Chapterhouse, Telescopes and Slowdive. Ride provide the harmonious title track. Curve are represented by the velvet-chainsaw buzz of "Horror Head". Slowdive's "When the Sun Hits" tiptoes around a looping, swooning melody that typifies the genre. The vocals on "Pearl" by Chapterhouse are so low-key they're lost in the fuzz. Also-rans include the prog-influenced "Mercy Seat" by Ultra Vivid Scene, not unlike some of the more psychedelic outings of Robyn Hitchcock, and Great Yarmouth's own Catherine Wheel, whose "Black Metallic" is as cool as a raspberry ripple on a North Sea beach.

This was the first pop movement since punk to prominently feature women. Slowdive had the guitarist Rachel Goswell and Cranes were built around the brother/sister duo Jim and Alison Shaw. Anderson, who formed Lush with a schoolmate, Miki Berenyi, found that the fact half the band was women was neither a boon nor a bane. "We used to be asked by journalists if we had problems with our label, but there were plenty of other women on 4AD," she says. "So, no, we didn't have a problem. It wasn't like we were on a major corporate label."

Lush, like many of the bands, took their lead from the progenitor footwear-gazers, My Bloody Valentine, an early discovery of McGee, who signed the four-piece in the mid Eighties. "My Bloody Valentine were important," says Anderson. "But we had some quite diverse influences. We had quite a pop sensibility." Nor were Lush solely a studio band. "We played in pubs a lot." So did Anderson find a lot of her compatriots at their gigs? "Not really," she says. There was a camaraderie, though. "We knew Chapterhouse, who shared our management, and Ride. I think the picture painted isn't quite accurate. It was just a case of lazy journalism."

Robin Guthrie of fellow 4AD signees The Cocteau Twins produced Lush's first EP, "Scar" and their debut album, 1992's Spooky. Guthrie leant heavily on drum machines and preferred to plug the guitars directly into the effects, rather than an amplifier. "The records have that Cocteau sound," Anderson concedes. "But the songs were very much written by us and rehearsed before we went into the studio with Robin. If we had done those records with somebody else, the songs would have been exactly the same." The Anderson-penned hit "Sweetness and Light" is a high spot of the new compilation.

Lush split in 1996, after the suicide of their founding drummer, just as Blur, Oasis and Pulp were roughing up British pop. "The movement got a bit of a kicking," Anderson admits. "When our first album came out, in America Nirvana were happening. Over here bands like Suede were coming through and they were more of a precursor to Britpop than bands like us." By mid-decade, people had had enough of the shoegazers. They were all laced up with nowhere to go.

Although the genre is now half forgotten, Anderson can hear its legacy. "Post Britpop, lots of bands sound very shoegazery," she says. "The press wouldn't call it that though." Its rhythms echo in acts as diverse as Radiohead, Sigur Ros and Mogwai. Played back to back, Slowdive give Coldplay a run for their money and Pale Saints' bass lines grumble over chord shapes not unlike those of Editors.

Ten years on, Anderson has gone on to form Sing Sing and also DJs at a shoegazing club, Sonic Cathedral. She spins tracks by House of Love and even Roxy Music and Simple Minds. "After all," she says, "how much Slowdive and Telescopes can you listen to in one night?"

Like A Dream: The Story of Shoegazing (Sanctuary) is out now

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