Shoegaze, a subgenre of indie-rock categorised by obscured vocals, distortion, and noise, is most often associated with bands like My Bloody Valentine (MBV), Slowdive, and Ride. MBV’s landmark album loveless, released in 1991, is often seen as the pinnacle of the genre. However, the foundations for this peak were laid throughout the 1980s as part of the post-punk movement sweeping the UK, and in particular, Scotland.
In a post-Sex Pistols world, musicians across the whole UK were looking to capture the same energy and anger, and the post-punk movement of the 1980s was born. However, it was at this time that Scotland specifically produced a previously unimaginable number of successful pop bands. The ripple effect this created across the Glasgow music scene was significant: musicians felt more than ever that they could produce widely successful music. For many working-class Scots, growing up they felt as though there were pre-planned job routes for them to follow. But in the wake of Thatcherism and the decline of heavy industry, unemployment reached record levels. Around the same time, punk and post-punk record labels like Rough Trade, 4AD, Postcard and Fast Product inspired a new generation of musicians who saw music as an escape from otherwise unpromising prospects.
For example, Jesus and Mary Chain (JAMC), formed in East Kilbride in the early 80s, rose to critical and commercial success following the release of their debut album Psychocandy. For some, this was the first step towards what we now know of as the genre of shoegaze. It was thanks to the Mary Chain that My Bloody Valentine, after numerous style and personnel changes, settled on the sound of loveless– the genre’s defining album. But without the Scottish experience and the connections that East Kilbride brought to the JAMC-founding Reid brothers, we arguably wouldn’t have Psychocandy, and perhaps not shoegaze either.
In Tenement Kid, Bobby Gillespie, friend and ex-drummer of the Mary Chain describes the isolation he felt as a teen in Springburn, growing up angry at Thatcher’s treatment of the working class, his familial relationships, and West Scotland sectarianism, and how it led him to JAMC: “I had an anger from an early age. It comes from home, and it comes from Glasgow […] when Punk came along, I was ready for it.”
In her contribution to the 33 ⅓ series, Paula Mejia explores Glasgow’s influence on Psychocandy: “The Mary Chain would not be who they are, nor would they have written Psychocandy, had they grown up somewhere besides East Kilbride.” The members of the band describe to her how limited the music scene in East Kilbride, and even Glasgow, was at the time of them growing up.
Jim Reid has discussed how they felt the music scene leading up to the collapse of the miner’s strike became bland and corporate. The Reids and their friend Douglas Hart decided that since none of this music sounded like what they wanted to listen to, they would make it themselves. It was even their East Kilbride roots that led them to commercial success – through Gillespie they found Creation Records’ Alan McGee (Gillespie’s school friend) and thus their manager and first record deal. Even after JAMC’s departure from Creation, McGee went on to sign My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride; but perhaps he wouldn’t have, had he not found such success with the Mary Chain.
Jesus and Mary Chain weren’t the only Scottish band making new, shoegaze-like sounds in the 1980s. Grangemouth’s Cocteau Twins are another of the most influential bands in the genre and are often credited with the creation of related sub-genre, dream pop. The founding members of Cocteau Twins felt the same way about Grangemouth as the Mary Chain did about East Kilbride.
Singer, Elizabeth Fraser, assumed she would follow in her mother’s footsteps into local trade, and music was her escape from her “horrendous” hometown. She joined Cocteau Twins when she was 17 at a local disco night – Robin Guthrie, who sometimes DJed, noticed that when he played post-punk songs, most of their peers left the dancefloor, but Fraser always stayed. He asked if she’d like to join his band, and the rest is history. Like JAMC, this shared music taste in an otherwise alienating town led to their connection. The influence of the Scottish post-punk scene in the 80s was particularly felt in the Cocteau’s early music – their 1982 debut Garlands, for example. Even the band’s name was taken from an early Simple Minds song.
Throughout their career, Cocteau Twins kept close creative control over their image and music, and added mystery that aided them in their popularity. The media struggled to get any sense of how or why they created their music – “Responses […] in their early years were […] muffled non-sequiturs, inaudible whispers, uncomfortable laughs, and Scottish expressions like, ‘I dinna ken.’” Vaughan Oliver, who designed their early album covers, said of their attitude “[they] were very Scottish […] I would ask them what they liked, and they would respond with, ‘No. Our music’s not about that. We don’t want a picture of anything.’” This mystique and their unique sound meant they were increasingly incomparable to anything that had come before them. It is, therefore, hard to truly emphasise the influence Cocteau Twins had on the shoegaze genre. Even at the time, key bands like Slowdive, Ride, and A.R. Kane all owed a debt to the Cocteaus and to Guthrie’s production.
Both Jesus and Mary Chain and Cocteau Twins had a profound impact on the sound of shoegaze. Indeed, the English acts that came to define the genre wouldn’t have made what they did without this group of Scots. Their talent and sheer creativity allowed them to take the post-punk music surrounding them and turn it into something new, but so too did their upbringings and the circumstances they found themselves in. For Jesus and Mary Chain, the anger and isolation they experienced growing up in East Kilbride led them to punk, to each other, and to commercial success via Alan McGee. For Cocteau Twins, a similar sense of isolation (and Grangemouth’s disco night) found them Elizabeth Fraser, and their Scottishness gave them a total lack of self-importance and an air of mystery that let their influence spread far and wide.
Although the importance and influence of the Mary Chain and Cocteau Twins is well recognised, shoegaze is still largely associated with (later) English and, in the case of MBV, Irish bands – and it’s time we start seeing the genre as something that might not have happened without the trailblazing of these Scottish artists.