My Bloody Valentine's tortured rise, fall and rise again is the stuff of rock legend, says John Robb.
It's 1991, New York, and My Bloody Valentine are screeching their way into rock'n'roll legend. A band at the height of their powers with a new album, Loveless, that tops every critic's list, they're bludgeoning the assembled mass of music-industry types with an ear-splitting, 25-minute onslaught of pure white noise. The guitar howl is hitting a painful threshold. People have their fingers in their ears and lesser mortals leave the room. Your author is one of the few who are blown away by the sheer audacity of the motionless band making such a huge sound.
It's a brilliant pop art moment. When the song, You Made Me Realise, finally kicks back to its indestructible garage band riff, it's one of the greatest releases in a rock'n'roll song ever. This was My Bloody Valentine doing what they did best: beating fans into submission with a revelatory blend of come-to-bed melodies and chainsaw guitars. But shortly after, with the music world at their feet, they disappeared into the studio and never re-emerged. Until now. After 17 years in the wilderness My Bloody Valentine have returned - much to the excitement of the music press and their adoring fans alike. Cue cyberspace frenzy, sold-out gigs and top billing on the summer's major festivals.
But what makes MBV so special? And why is it that their name is still invoked with hushed reverence by scores of today's indie stars? Certainly, their strangely sensual songs drenched in feedback-ridden soundscapes have provided the template for a host of groups: their use of distortion, vibrato, and digital reverb reinvented the notion of what a guitar can do. But there's more. Some groups arrive fully formed, while some have to struggle to find their sound. MBV were definitely the latter, and knowing the path that lead them to greatness is essential to understanding their sound and their enduring appeal.
The first incarnation of the band formed in 1983, but five years later - and three before their legendary New York showcase - MBV were still just another bit-part underground band. Coming out of Dublin they had trekked round Amsterdam and Berlin, working their way through the bohemian squat scene and absorbing its dark aesthetic and wheezing sound. When the initial line-up collapsed, the guitarist Kevin Shields, the drummer Colm O'Ciosiog and the bassist Debbie Googe were at a loose end. Finding it hard to recruit new members, they drafted Shields's then girlfriend Bilinda Butcher into the line-up and, at a stroke, stumbled into their classic sound.
Gone was the garage-punk favoured by their former frontman. Butchers' dreamy, barely-audible vocals fused with their squatland wall of sound guitars to make music that was both hypnotic and life affirming. Catching them several times live at that period I saw a band that somehow managed to combine bone-crunching power, coy sensuality and a punk rock no-compromise spirit. There was nothing else like them.
The band went into the studio and produced two albums, the second of which was the ground-breaking Loveless. Its recording was a torturous undertaking that pushed the band and its label to the limits. Shields's endless reworkings nearly bankrupted Creation Records and though the album was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, it failed to deliver commercially. Soon after their triumphant New York showcase MBV and Creation parted ways and the band signed to Island Records.
The pressure to create an album that could surpass Loveless was immense, so with their advance from Island, Shields built himself a studio and threw himself into the task. Speaking to him during that period I saw a man who was lost in a fug of creativity, every single drum loop was analysised over and over as the relentless search for perfection engulfed him. As the weeks turned to months, and then to years, the "work in progress" became a running joke in the music business. Throughout the Nineties group members left because there was simply nothing for them to do. And so it was that one of the greatest indie band of all time - certainly the loudest - went out with a whimper rather than the bang we all expected.
Until now. Which begs the question - with all those sold-out shows, the long-awaited album pencilled in for later this year (do we believe them?) and Shields declaring it will sound like MBV always did - will they have stood the test of time? In a music world of X Factor and American Idol, vocal correction software and band stylists I for one, think their bitter sweet anarchy is more relevant than ever.
John Robb is a journalist, musician and author of Punk Rock - An Oral History.