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(Credit: Paul Rider)

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When shoegaze went stratospheric: My Bloody Valentine masterpiece 'Loveless' turns 30

My Bloody Valentine’s second album, Loveless, is an undisputed masterpiece. The sonic embodiment of something exceptional coming from a period of great hardship, never before had an album been so visceral yet so serene. Dense, complex and enchanting, Loveless affected everyone around it in both good and terrible ways. 

The album made the band de facto rulers of shoegaze but also bankrupted their label, Creation. It took over two years to complete, with sessions spread across 19 London studios and even caused Creation’s second in command, Dick Green, to have a nervous breakdown. He was so shaken that, allegedly, his hair turned grey overnight.

All-consuming and emotionally affecting, Loveless remains an intricate sonic odyssey 30 years after its release. One interesting aspect about the album, of course, is that it took so long to record that the band even managed to release two EP’s, 1990’s Glider and 1991’s Tremolo, before it finally hit the shelves in November 1991. Getting the album finished was a Herculean task, with the band’s mastermind, Kevin Shields, having an extended Pet Sounds moment. 

Shields recorded the majority of the tracks alone, save for the vocals, which were done in tandem with co-vocalist Bilinda Butcher, and two drum tracks. All but ‘Touched’ and ‘Only Shallow’ were built from samples performed by drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig. This came about because he was suffering from physical ailments during the majority of the recording sessions, and aside from the two, he only managed to record samples of drum patterns he was able to perform. This didn’t phase Shields, however, who recalled some time afterwards: “It’s exactly what Colm would have done, it just took longer to do.” 

Shields even claimed that listeners are unable to tell the difference between Ó Cíosóig’s live drumming and the drum loops — apart from obvious instances in which they’re intended to be electronic, such as the gargantuan ‘Soon’. In fact, the album is a colourful patchwork of samples, as Shields once explained: “Most of the samples are feedback. We learnt from guitar feedback, with lots of distortion, that you can make any instrument, any one that you can imagine.”

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The album’s defining element is, of course, Shields’ perfected technique, which became known as ‘glide guitar’. His iconic and genre-defining method famously sees him bending the guitar strings slightly in and out of tune, creating a wailing sound that no one had ever heard before. 

He’d utilised it on the band’s previous outings, including their 1988 debut Isn’t Anythingbut now, he had the full might of a slowly fading record label behind him, and all the time in the world – or so he thought, anyway. 

The additional time, money, and the pernickety nature of Shields as a producer truly brought his technique and ideas to life. Of his glide guitar, Shields admitted: “People were thinking it’s hundreds of guitars, when it’s actually got less guitar tracks than most people’s demo tapes have.” As a side note, no chorus or flange was used on the guitars, distinguishing the band from their shoegazing contemporaries such as Ride, Slowdive and Chapterhouse. Ever humble, Shields recalled: “No other band played that guitar like me… We did everything solely with the tremolo arm.” He was right. This is another crucial factor that elevated Loveless to mythic levels; the musicianship is genius and totally unique. Even today, it remains a mystifying piece of production. 

Of the quite frankly ridiculous amount of time that went into making the record, Shields used the example of ‘When You Sleep’ when talking to Select in 1992: “We recorded the drums in September ’89,” he explained. “The guitar was done in December. The bass was done in April. 1990 we’re in, now. Then nothing happens for a year, really. So it doesn’t have vocals at this stage? No. Does it have words? No. Does it even have a title? No. It has a song number. ‘Song 12’, it was called. And I’m trying to remember…the melody line was done in ’91. The vocals were ’91. There were huge gaps though. Months and months of not touching songs. Years. I used to forget what tunings I’d used.”

(Credit: Steve Speller / Alamy)

The irony of Loveless is that initially, Creation thought the record would be finished in five days, and just how wrong they were is astonishing. Before too long, Shields’ creative control proved too much for many. Bass player Debbie Googe stopped visiting the sessions when she realised how “superfluous” she was, and many engineers were either fired or walked out due to just how agonising sessions were. 

The only engineers who truly had a hand in Shields’ realising his vision was the iconic Alan Moulder and, latterly, Anjali Dutt. Even Moulder would come and go, opting to work on other projects with Shakespeare’s Sister and label mates Ride instead. Of the process, Moulder said: “It wasn’t collaborative at all… Kevin had a clear view of what he wanted, but he never explained it.”

Shields added: “These engineers – with the exception of Alan Moulder and later Anjali Dutt – were all just the people who came with the studio… everything we wanted to do was wrong, according to them.” Although he apparently disdained every engineer save for Moulder and Dutt, on the sleeve, the band credited everyone present during the sessions “even if all they did was fix tea”.

Regardless of the pain it took to come to life, Loveless has no down points, no blemishes; it is a perfect album. From start to finish, it is a cathartic whirlwind of emotions that takes you from the lascivious to the heartbreaking. Narcotic, sobering and visceral, it’s a glorious blend of every human emotion, making it one of the most essential albums of all time.

As soon as Ó Cíosóig’s snare beat comes in at the start of track one, ‘Only Shallow’, you’re pulled into this ethereal beast. ‘To Here Knows When’ is a fuzzy dream-like trip, ‘When You Sleep’ is a gothic and beautiful piece of shoegaze with a climax that is unmatched, ‘I Only Said’ is a layered uplifting trance and ‘Soon’ is one of the best album closers of all time. Heavy, industrial but danceable, ‘Soon’ was the moment when guitar music moved into the future. These are just five highlights.

Everyone from Brian Eno to Robert Smith and even Billy Corgan have showered praise on the album. Establishing shoegaze as a true genre, ever since release, it has been the go-to record for anyone hoping to push the boundaries with their efforts. Encapsulating the spirit of 1991 blending guitars with the electronic, it has a timeless feel that many of its contemporaries do not.

All in all, it is estimated that the record cost around £480,000 to produce in today’s money, something that is disputed by everyone in the band. Either way, it was a lot in the grand scheme of things. However, Creation head honcho, Alan McGee, was so fed up by the time it was released that after a short tour supporting the record in the north of England, he dropped the band. The band, namely Shields, had become unbearable. McGee recalled: “I thought: ‘I went to the wall for you. If this record bombs, I’ve stolen my father’s money’. And they were so … not understanding of anybody else’s position.” He told The Guardian in 2004, “It was either him or me”.

The band fell apart soon after this, and it would become a sporadic touring and recording project, creating them a dedicated cult following that is unrivalled. Unable to live up to the expectations that his masterpiece had brought, Shields “went crazy” and cut himself off from the music business and the media. This drew many facile comparisons between him, Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson.

A strange tale; never before had a band created such a pioneering masterpiece and then been swiftly dropped. A funny old story from a funny old time in music, everything about Loveless is enduring, and it will continue to be until the end of time. 

Listen to the album in full below.