Last week, I mentioned the distorting lens of history relative to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and thought it would illuminating to remember how you heard about that kind of band back in 1991. Not in a get off my lawn / walked to school uphill both ways kind of way, but rather to show how the 90s so thoroughly transformed how underground culture is disseminated.
Back in the 80s, there was college rock and there was modern rock(*). The ur-college rock band was R.E.M. but it basically covered all the small, independent music being played on college radio stations across the US – your Pylons, your Butthole Surfers, Dead Milkmen, Del Fuegos. Lots of local bands – it was the era of the college radio station LP featuring local bands who dreamed of playing the gig of their life in front of a major label A&R guy at the annual CMJ music conference in New York. Modern rock was usually from Britain and generally descended from New Wave. The Cure reigned supreme, alongside Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths, Sisters of Mercy, Echo and the Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs etc. You could still go to your local mom and pop record store and buy Killing Joke t-shirts long after anyone would have any cause to.
Back then, record stores enforced this segregation via bins dedicated to imports. I think the idea was that imports were more expensive and that most record buyers wouldn’t want to swim through $10 extended remix 12″es. But it was more of a cultural divide; if New Wave yielded modern rock, then it was easy to go backwards one step to arrive at dance music and disco – the most unpunk thing ever. This animosity (to Animotion?) was never better expressed than in the Dead Milkman’s tongue-in-cheek “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything).” (**)
By 1988, My Bloody Valentine had signed to Creation and released Isn’t Anything. This was before the wave of bands that would make that label a marker of cool in the US – maybe you’d have heard of the House of Love, but the Primal Scream didn’t get big until “Loaded” and the Jesus and Mary Chain weren’t associated with Creation (***). So rather, they were lumped in with the sensitive (non-dancey) foreign bands like the Cocteau Twins, the Smiths and the Church. I’m sure there are still loads of underground music heads in their 40s who still associate this era of MBV with the goth kids at their school.
By the turn of the decade into the 90s, there were signs of both camps breaking large – on the US side there was Sonic Youth, the Pixies, The Replacements and Dinosaur Jr (sorta). The UK had the Stone Roses and the Jesus and Mary Chain. All of this was scooped into an emerging alternative / modern rock commercial radio format which had a bumper crop of hits from both sides of the Atlantic to choose from. I remember a new station launching in Columbus, Ohio called CD101 and it’s hard to believe they would have bands in rotation like Siouxsie, the La’s, Ride, Lush, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Blur and the Farm – on top of the Blue Aeroplanes, Something Happens and An Emotional Fish. So in retrospect, you’d think Loveless would have every opportunity to make a mark.
And then came “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
I can still recall seeing that video for the first time in the living room of one of the last parties of the summer (September 1991), just after debating the merits of the Sex Pistols album (my argument was: great songs, major label production). I cannot remember another moment where one song came out of nowhere and changed everything overnight. But change it did – thereafter, commercial alternative was on a non-stop kick of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, followed by Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and the soundtrack to Singles. And so the metal-leaning, male sound of grunge became the sound of rock for the early 90s in the US, even as rave culture in the UK gave rise to the early Too Pure stable and the “true” rockers went Britpop.
So where did that leave Loveless? It appeared two months after Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine toured the US that winter in support of Dinosaur Jr with a regional opener (the Midwest got Babes in Toyland). Several of my friends really liked it but nobody thought it was any kind of revolution.
(*) yes this is slightly reductive
(**) Which, ironically, made the Billboard club charts. Also, please don’t tell me about the pre hip-hop Beastie Boys mixing it up at Danceteria or the Mudd Club. That’s exactly why kids like me spent their childhoods dreaming of moving to New York City. In Ohio, acid washed jeans landed in the mid eighties and I had a mullet in high school.
(***) That the Jesus and Mary Chain weren’t associated with British indie acts of the late 80s and early 90s demonstrates that they kept their punk credentials intact.