Features I by I 24.01.14

Slowdive: 10 essential tracks that prove their shoegaze mastery

It was never really “cool” to like Slowdive.

The band emerged from the burgeoning Thames Valley scene in 1989 and was the brainchild of childhood friends Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead. Joined by Nick Chaplin, Christian Savill and various drummers, they were almost immediately stacked alongside similar-sounding peers Chapterhouse, Ride, Catherine Wheel and Swervedriver – a group of bands that were becoming increasingly disliked by the snarky British music press, and had been labelled, disparagingly, as “the scene that celebrates itself”.

This all meant that despite a few well-received EPs, Slowdive’s shy, thoughtful ambience was prime fodder for the press’s pent-up vitriol. They had simply touched down at the wrong time, and as the backlash to My Bloody Valentine’s critical success flourished, Slowdive had to fend off a torrent of derision they never asked for, and certainly never deserved.

Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards delivered the death blow to Slowdive’s British reception when he proclaimed “we will always hate Slowdive more than we hate Adolf Hitler” in a notorious interview back in 1991. It was a line that was hard to recover from, and betrayed a sentiment that confused (and admittedly amused) Slowdive themselves, who had met the Manics before and actually got on pretty well with them. The band were at this point a Melody Maker punchline, and had been overshadowed by the fascination with rougher hewn US grunge and later the Britpop scene and its lager-swilling laddish appeal.

Unsurprisingly this took a toll on both the band itself and their relationship with label Creation (who had shifted direction after the success of Oasis), and amid waning popularity and a seemingly never-ending slew of shelved demos, longstanding drummer Simon Scott walked out in early 1994, frustrated with the lack of progress. Slowdive were dropped by Creation a week after the release of their third album Pygmalion in 1995, and even though Halstead, Goswell and replacement drummer Ian McCutcheon formed Mojave 3 and signed to the 4AD imprint, it felt like the Slowdive sound had reached its obvious conclusion.

In the years that followed however, something unexpected began to happen: as the critical jibes and industry giggles dissipated, a cult following grew around the Thames Valley band’s brief run. In 2002, bespoke German imprint Morr Music acknowledged this definitively by releasing bumper tribute Blue Skied ‘an Clear, a collection of Slowdive covers penned by a legion of artists who actually cited the band as an influence. This felt like all that was necessary for a reappraisal that quickly gathered steam, and in the decade that followed, Slowdive’s status was quite rightly bumped from indie also-rans to bona fide shoegaze linchpins.

The following list is all you need to hear to get you started on the Slowdive sound, from their teenage beginnings to their experiments with Warp-patented electronics.

‘Avalyn 1’
(from Slowdive, 1990)

Slowdive were fresh out of high school when they inked their record contract with indie giant Creation. They were so young, in fact, that initially Creation boss Alan McGee thought he might have discovered the next Musical Youth, and was dismayed when he found out they were actually older than they looked. Their youth only makes it more remarkable how prescient ‘Avalyn 1’ was, hallmarking the band’s particular sound and becoming notorious for bringing fully grown men to tears at shows.

(from Morningrise, 1991)

When Morningrise was released in 1991, Simon Scott had become the band’s regular drummer and Slowdive were still basking in the light of a scene that hadn’t yet become a laughing stock. ‘Morningrise’ certainly wears the band’s devotion to The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine on its sleeve, and it’s easy to hear how they became lumped in alongside fellow melancholy types Ride, Lush and (early on, at least) Blur.

‘Catch the Breeze’
(from Just For A Day, 1991)

Mere moments after Melody Maker had called the band’s third EP Holding Our Breath “immaculate and serene”, the shoegaze backlash began, and what was once seen as whimsical and dreamy was now dismissed as flimsy and creatively limp. Slowdive’s debut album Just For A Day faced a battle on multiple fronts – from embittered journos who’d grown sick of a sound they had helped champion, and from those awed by My Bloody Valentine’s ragged and rightfully acclaimed Loveless, which gave a jagged edge to a faltering sound. It was their loss, and ‘Catch The Breeze’ shows a band who weren’t really interested in riding the most obvious wave to success.

(from Just For A Day, 1991)

‘Waves’ may not be as canonical as ‘Catch The Breeze’, but it completes the picture of Slowdive in 1991, blending the band’s expected heart-melting harmonies with Neil Halstead’s hazy vocals. It’s here we can accurately hear the chiming, cascading motifs that would be later picked up and reshaped by Ulrich Schnauss, M83 and others, and would come to represent shoegaze’s second wind.

(from Souvlaki, 1993)

‘Alison’ opens Slowdive’s 1993 opus Souvlaki, and is one of the band’s best-loved anthems. Hardly surprising, as it finds Slowdive unusually unashamed of their pop tendencies, and in a fairer world this would have been the hit single that saved their career. Sure, it might lack the experimental touches that gave Souvlaki its edge, but what ‘Alison’ lacks in weirdness it makes up for with pure heart.

‘Souvlaki Space Station’
(from Souvlaki, 1993)

It was Slowdive’s insistence on experimentation that set them apart from the litany of similar bands in the early ’90s, and nothing shows that quite as well as Souvlaki‘s grand centrepiece ‘Souvlaki Space Station’. The band’s crashing waves of noise are augmented by echoing dub techniques and electronic flourishes informed by Halstead and Goswell’s “stoned” studio workouts. It’s hardly surprising that ambient music originator Brian Eno was invited to record with the band during the Souvlaki sessions – sadly though, only two tracks (‘Sing’ and ‘Here She Comes’) made it to the final release.

‘When the Sun Hits’
(from Souvlaki, 1993)

For many listeners ‘When The Sun Hits’ remains Slowdive’s finest achievement – the perfect blend of the band’s eager experimentation and songwriting smarts. Sporting a riff that embeds itself in your brain like a subliminal message, and some of Halstead’s most confident vocals, it’s the song to play to naysayers who are certain they’re not interested in shoegaze and/or Slowdive.

‘In Mind’
(from 5 EP, 1993)

The band weren’t exactly riding the wave of success they should have been when they followed up Souvlaki with the 5 EP, and found it clumsily referred to as “shoe techno.” Funnily enough, they managed to pre-empt a sound that would later actually catch on (Kompakt owe them a debt of gratitude), and the band’s early fusion of rolling beats, delicate synths and reverberating vocals is much harder to write off with hindsight.

‘Crazy For You’
(from Pygmalion, 1995)

During the recording of Pygmalion, Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell became enamoured with techno, and the electronic touches that were a novelty on its predecessor were now the focal point of the recordings. ‘Crazy For You’ sounds as if there’s a pop song desperately trying to pull itself from a dubby haze of Space Echo decay and feedback loops, and exhibits the duo’s obsession vividly. Slowdive knew they were about to be dropped from Creation, and that fact helped them put together the most uncompromising material of their career.

‘Blue Skied ‘an Clear’
(from Pygmalion, 1995)

Loose and skeletal, ‘Blue Skied ‘an Clear’ has taken on a life of its own since Pygmalion‘s disastrous release. It’s one of the band’s most mature and pensive songs, blending the percussive shimmer of Talk Talk’s similarly ambitious Spirit of Eden with a nose of Americana – something that paved the way for Halstead and Goswell’s imminent Mojave 3 excursion.

Read next: The 30 best post-rock albums of all time



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