a history of shoegaze music

Soundtrack in my head: Slowdive, “Shine”

As a DJ, the genre of music that has had the most influence on me is a genre known as shoegaze music–even though most of it isn’t danceable. It is characterized by a “wall of texture and sound” that seems to flood the room.  Characterized by ethereal liquid layers of long, pedal-dampened tones sounding somewhat like sympathetic drone strings on the Indian sitar, the music at times can be moody or dreamy, but at other times can overpower the listener with non-stop pulsating energy.

Alternately thunderous and sensitive, jagged and smooth, harsh and beautiful, this genre seems to mix male and female energies more so than any other genre I’ve seen.  It would not surprise me if a scientific study found that shoegaze bands were more likely than any other genre to be composed of both men and women.  Given that it wasn’t until the 1980s that bands composed entirely of women became widely popular (think The Go-Go’s and The Bangles), this wouldn’t be surprising.

Many people have their own theories about when and how the genre started.  For me, it started with this song I heard by a previously unknown group called the Cocteau Twins while listening to the radio show “The Big Beat” on WXRT in Chicago one night in 1984:


I had never heard anything like this in my life. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand the lyrics–I would later learn that lyrics are often drowned and barely audible or understandable in this genre.  I bought the album this song appeared on–Treasure After listening to the entire album, I went outside and stared at the sky for about three hours.  This was quite unusual for a seventeen-year old for whom staying home on a Saturday night was unheard of.

(I feel I should note here that the Cocteau Twins often avoided the phenomenon of music videos which was sweeping the music industry in the early 80’s.  More recently, many “fan videos” have surfaced on YouTube in an attempt to make up for that.  I’m not sure how the former members of the band feel about it, but some are posted here.)

At that time, the Cocteau Twins sounded unlike anything I’d ever heard before.  I do consider them to be the first “shoegaze” band. As I’ve gotten older and more knowledgeable about music, I now realize that the Cocteau Twins, like any band, had their influences and predecessors.  Counter-intuitive as it may seem, I believe the roots of the genre started in the punk movement of the late 70’s with Siouxsie and the Banshees (who, at the very beginning, had a drummer named John Ritchie who would later become known as Sid Vicious).

Music Journalist Paul Morley wrote this about the band, “The Banshees took a distinctly individual way out of punk’s smoking ruins, skimmed past the quaking rocks of a fragmenting pop culture, slyly violated listeners inherited sense of fun and formed and devised their own mighty sense of glamour and passion.”  While widely credited with founding or inspiring the “goth” tradition in rock and alternative rock, I think they also inspired a genre that over a decade later would be referred to as “shoegaze.”

I didn’t realize the clear connection between Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cocteau Twins until I heard the Cocteau’s first full length album “Garlands.”  You can click here for the Banshees’ 1981 release “Spellbound,” and note the similarity with the Cocteau Twins’ “Wax And Wane” off of 1982’s Garlands. In fact the “Wax And Wane” video was a live recording from a 1983 concert that had Siouxsie and the Banshees and Cocteau Twins on a double bill together.

While the Siouxsie and the Banshees continued to develop a more with a gothic punk/pop sound, the Cocteau Twins’ subsequent releases became less dark.  They approached an almost New Age sound with 1986’s album Victorialand, which opens with the track below, “Lazy Calm.”

Click here to see a video in which the band members collaborated with minimalist composer Harold Budd in their joint 1986 release The Moon and The Melodies.

By the mid- to late-80’s the Cocteau Twins were quite popular on college campuses. While living in the dorms around that time, I knew of many people who were introduced or “turned on” to their luscious sound.  This dormitory ritual usually involved having a friend lie down on a bed, giving them a pair of headphones to wear, asking them to close their eyes and listen to the music.

The Cocteau Twins in their early years were on the 4AD label, and many of their label-mates put out similarly influenced music.  All shared similar traits of textured, layered sounds, moodiness, dreaminess, and sometimes a rather dark sound.  Two songs below from Dif Juz and Throwing Muses appeared on a 4AD compilation released in 1987 called Lonely Is An Eyesore.  In addition to the above bands, the compilation also featured tracks from the Cocteau Twins, Colourbox, This Mortal Coil, The Wolfgang Press, Dead Can Dance, and Clan of Xymox.  I would consider this the best representation of what was then referred to as the “4AD sound,” (this being before The Pixies became big) and which I consider to be representative of what I call the “first wave of shoegaze.”

What many people consider (including Wikipedia’s writers) to be the beginning of shoegaze I consider to be the “second wave” of shoegaze.  One of the bands, Lush, had an EP and their first full length album produced by the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie.  (See this link for a Lush song that connects the shoegaze and punk genres).

But other bands took the shoegaze sound in remarkably different directions.  One band widely considered by many to be the originators of the “shoegaze” sound is My Bloody Valentine.  Their sound was distinct from that heard on the 4AD.  Their 1991 release Loveless was highly influential, and the album’s opening song in the video below made a bombastic statement about the band’s new direction:

Another band associated with the shoegaze genre, Ride, took a distinctly 60’s influenced route. Their song “Seagull” off the Nowhere album in 1990 I would consider to be the ultimate air-guitar anthem, but there’s not any good videos of it on YouTube–this link, however, presents the song with goodsound quality  Below is the opening track off of their 1992 release Going Blank Again.  N.B.–in 1991, I was lucky enough to see Ride open for Lush at Cabaret Metro in Chicago.  The two bands on that tour reportedly took turns being the opening and headlining act.

Another band from this era that was highly influential was Slowdive, who had a more dreamy take on the genre.

It was around 1991 that the word “shoegaze” began to be used by British music journalists to describe the genre, and it wasn’t mean as a compliment.  It referred to the fact that band members were often seen looking down at their feet–likely due to the genre’s heavy reliance on guitar pedal effects.  But this was also around this time that the record industry–looking for a sure seller–started goose-stepping to grunge, at which point genres like Shoegaze and Baggy were tossed aside and ignored.

However, starting in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, Shoegaze started making a comeback and began what I call it’s “third wave,” which continues today–which many refer to as “nu-gaze.”  In my view, this revival became possible with the advent of online music and Internet radio, which lessened the ability of record companies to decide for the masses what music they would hear, and had an effect of democratizing the music business to a certain extent.  As such, many musicians began to look at the first two waves of shoegaze music for influence, and the genre is more diverse than before.  Below are some contemporary examples of this “third wave of shoegaze” and you can see these bands intertwine other musical influences such as 80’s pop, Sonic Youth, bubblegum pop jangle pop, the Beach Boys, and even disco.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bzge5vY72hE&w=640&h=360]

And finally, here is a shoegazing tribute from someone who clearly understands the diversity of the genre.

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