Venue: Camden Roundhouse, London
Reviewers: Phil W (bold) & MMT (italics)
As we entered the auditorium, a girl standing at the door offered us each a pair of bright yellow ear plugs. I was about to refuse them but Matthew, always a much wiser man than I, accepted a pair and suddenly I felt left out and wanted some too. I reached deep down into the bucket and plucked up one of the little plastic packets. It’s one of those unlikely moments that seems irrelevant at the time but makes so much sense later on. I’d never been offered ear plugs at a gig before and had never really felt I needed them, but looking back now it’s all very clear why we needed them.
Once inside, on either side of the stage stacks of amps and speakers reached high up to the roof of the Roundhouse. There were racks of classic Fender guitars; Jaguars, Jazz Masters, Mustangs - their key is the floating tremolo that effectively gives the player a second bridge. Rows of effects pedals surround the microphone stands, the drum kit has a special mic over the kick drum and in front of the kit sat a white bass guitar fitted with humbucking pickups. Perhaps the band may turn out to be quite loud, I pondered. My Bloody Valentine were always known to play at legendary volumes. I’ll keep the ear plugs close to hand and if it gets too loud I might give them a go…
I never loved My Bloody Valentine at the time. I was aware they were massively critically acclaimed, but somehow I could never quite get with it. To start with, they just scared me when I was fifteen – hearing them on John Peel was like the batteries in my stereo were slowly grinding to a halt, or some gremlin had got into the speakers. But when I was sixteen I bought “Isn’t Anything” on cassette in an Our Price sale, and slowly came to Quite Like it. My favourite tracks were the ones with a bit more tune, like “Soft As Snow” or “No More Sorry”. But by the time they came to be – slightly unfairly – lumped in with the rest of the Shoegazing genre that they accidentally spawned, I preferred the more structured approach of Ride, or the ace coolness with tunes of Curve. A less challenging listen than the “classic” second album “Loveless”, anyway. That’s what I wanted in 1991/2.
But almost two decades later, it’d be a foolish man indeed who’d pass on the chance to accompany Phil to Camden to see the recently-reformed noisy pioneers. And Ma Taylor she no raise no fool.
I never really listened to My Bloody Valentine until I was at university and I started out with Loveless. I’d become fascinated with the euphoric properties of guitar distortion and had become vaguely aware at some point I’d missed an entire movement known as Shoegazing. Sonic Youth had done plenty of experimentation with the guitar sound and I’ll be forever indebted to their influence, but somehow I was after something bigger and louder. Something heavily distorted but also smoother and almost blissful. Within a few spins I’d fallen in love with My Bloody Valentine’s seminal classic. It was never exactly what I was after but it has been a hugely influential album for me. The guitars sounded amazing, the production consistently fascinating. I loved the way the vocals were mixed equally with the guitars, treated no differently in the mix to any other instrument, no longer the lead. If anything, the only real problem I’ve always felt with the record was that it just wasn’t loud enough!! Legend had it that live the band were torturously loud, but they had broken up long before I discovered them and for years the idea of seeing them reform was like a crazy dream that could never be.
While Phil likes to get right in among the crowd, pushed right up against the barrier (and surely dangerously close to the speakers considering who the band were!), I’m more of a peripheral browser. Even before I became the claustrophobia-niggled bundle of nerves I am today that’s where you’d find me at the big gigs. Seeing what I could find on the edges of things. In this case it was a couple who’d brought their own sandwiches from home. I don’t think we’re at a teenage metal gig somehow, dude!
We certainly weren’t! In the thick of things at the front of the crowd, leaning on the barrier, I found myself relatively free of pushing as I mingled with the 30-somethings. On the front row I had a chat with a guy and his girlfriend about The Pixies; it really might have been the early 90s. The crowd was civilised, seasoned, and left you with that niggling concern that many of them didn’t get out much.
“Umm, hello” Kevin Shields said shyly as the band shuffled uneasily onto the stage. They all took up their instruments and for a moment all looked at each other with mild concern. There was a feeling suddenly that now, as the gig was about to start, the band were bewildered with the idea that anyone bothered to even show up at the gig at all. The band looked old, Kevin had gone grey and Belinda looked like someone’s mum. She smiled absently to herself, clutching in her hands a seductive sparkly red Mustang. Then Colm beat his drumsticks together and the band literally exploded. A tidal wave of white noise rippled across the crowd, you could actually feel a breeze coming of the stage. My vision blurred, my ear drums bulged and suddenly it all became very clear and I fumbled in my pockets for those yellow ear plugs the girl gave us both on the way in.
They kicked off with a couple of classics (“I Only Said” and “When You Sleep”) that even I with my lust for “tunes” could hum along with! And there’s no getting around the fact that the sound was immensely impressive! I could literally feel my trousers quaking with the vibrations! Visually too they’d compensated for the fact that MBV have always looked like a gang of scruffy teachers on a night off by having some cool lo-fi indie images projected massive onto the back wall: a camera whizzing through country lanes, colours and shapes, corridors. Interesting stuff.
The band played with stunning clarity and at ear bleeding decibels. It’s like watching a gig from the inside of a jet engine. Their sound is tight and fast, burning through decade-and-a-half old classics with fresh new discovery. One after another they deliver up classics I’d dreamed of hearing live, plucking up material from both albums and their EP’s. When You Sleep, Only Shallow, To Here Knows When, Blow A Wish, Soon. Feed Me Wish Your Kiss sounded like a metallic punk played in a furnace while Sueisfine would certainly have whipped up a moshpit if the audience had been ten years younger. And with each song the volume just got louder, their sound euphoric and rapturous. Asteroids burst, volcanoes erupted, geysers exploded and stars went supernova. My Bloody Valentine created a ruptured world carved with walls of distortion and feedback, of canyons and seabeds and wailing coastlines.
Debbie’s bass rumbled through everything, pushing the instrument’s tone to previously unfound levels; always playing tightly with Colm’s drumming, the pair facing each other, driving the music with near metal fury. Kevin and Belinda’s vocals interweaved as they played their guitars, fingers clutching the tremolo bar as they strummed; tugging the guitar strings like the sea tugs the shore.
Towards the middle of the set though, I was starting to flag a bit. Having few lyrics to catch hold of, and not much to look at other than the pretty colours, my attention began to wander off. But the set-closer, a 25-minute version of “You Made Me Realise”, was enough to capture anyone’s attention right back! It came to a climax with a 20-minute barrage of riffing, feedback and chugging drums which relentlessly battered away at the crowd, building in sonic assault till it was almost unbearable. People were literally running out of the moshpit with their hands over their ears – as if they hadn’t expected it! I went through waves of enjoying it then feeling sick then enjoying it again – but there’s no denying it was an immense sensation.
The ending was immense, something stunning and incomparable. As I leaned on the barrier, earplugs in and fingers over them, the sound was still deafening. Every now and then I eased off the ear plugs just a little and heard nothing but an immense rush of air coming from the stage. As I looked about me, the people on the front row rotated as fans pushed to the front, found it too much to bear and started heading for the door. The moshpit depleted to less than fifty percent of what it had been. As I looked up to the balcony, from both sides people were pealing off and heading for the doors. All the time the band continued to play, faces to the floor, the same note over and over again in a constant barrage of sonic annihilation. On and on - a part of me never wanted it to end, wanted to let my senses continue to be so entirely absorbed with the sonic maelstrom. Then the next minute I wanted it to end, didn’t think I could bear it anymore either. But then I was back again, wanting it to go on forever in its swirling tornado of white noise, sucking up the world it had created and leaving nothing behind but devastation.
The gig ended. People cheered but no-one could hear them, we were all deaf. The few people that had lasted till the end began to politely file out of the room. There was a hushed atmosphere across the entire venue. I saw Matthew, still alive and well at the edge of the stage. He too had survived the war where so many had fallen. “Like being in a war!” he shouted from somewhere far away, “I’ve seen things man….”. We all had. Life wasn’t going to be quite the same now. Indie dinosaurs had briefly returned to the stage to shake us up and show us how it could be or could have been or once was. And we knew not to worry, one day we would hear again and be better for it all.