Ultimate Genre Guide: Shoegaze
- By Stephen Troussé
- 15-Sep 2021
Siren songs! From the outposts of industrial Scotland, a bright and mysterious new British psychedelia flowers in the shadow of post-punk. The band’s decayed drone, romance and reverb prove to be the womb of shoegaze.
“The Sonic Cathedral must be built…”—so London’s long-running shoegaze nightclub puts it, with a nod to the utopianism of situationist urbanist Ivan Chtcheglov, the shameless boosterism of Factory Records’ Tony Wilson and the bathose of Phil Cornwell’s Pretentious Music Journalist from Steven Wright In The Afternoon. It’s not entirely clear where the phrase originated—the earliest recorded instance appears to be Barney Hoskyns’s dismissive review of U2’s October in 1981—but there’s little doubt the band that inspired it were the Cocteau Twins.
Because while the Sonic Cathedral, like Gaudís Sagrada Familia, may be the labour of many generations—nugazers like School of Seven Bells and M83 have busied themselves on the façades; Beach House have added a charming cloister; Slowdive, Ride and Lush contributed nave, apse and transept; Chapterhouse and The Telescopes modelled certain gargoyles and Kevin Shields, of course, painstakingly constructed all 18 spires—the chief architects were Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser.
It’s hard to overstate their achievement: eight albums, eleven EPs and eights singles between 1982 and 1996 that conceived, refined and perfected an entirely original flowering of British psychedelia. Of course they weren’t without precedent: the teenage Liz Fraser had the name of Siouxsie Sioux tattooed on her arm, and the sleeve of their debut, 1982’s Garlands, was drafted as part of Nigel Grierson’s college project designing alternative sleeves for the Banshees’ The Scream. You might find the first airborne seedling of the whole Cocteau forest in the moment John McGeoch strapped on a 12-string in 1980 on “Christine” (Barney Hoskyns, confirming his sonic cathedral credentials, wept in prose, describing it as “a waterfall of crystals”).
But in trying to find the source of the shoegaze delta, you might just start with Grangemouth, the small, beleaguered industrial town on the banks of the Firth of Forth, where the oil refinery still belches smoke and sends Blade Runner plumes of flame high into the Falkirk night. In this context, then, the Cocteau Twins aren’t simply godmothers/godfathers of shoegaze or psychedelic visionaries, but like fellow traveller David Lynch, part of a longer tradition of beauty conceived in the shadow of infernal industrial light and magic…
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