My Bloody Valentine (MBV) and Gang of Four, from Ireland and England, respectively, have little in common musically. MBV, formed in the early 1980s, are among the pioneers of shoegaze, a dreamy form of textured and distorted guitar and vocals, often played at very high volume.
Gang of Four, formed in the late 1970s, were a post-punk band whose metier was a strong emphasis on socio-political issues, with lyrics notable for an anti-materialistic slant that frequently critiqued the ills of capitalism.
If they are so different, a reader may wonder, what are they doing together in the same column? There are two reasons. First, both MBV and Gang of Four are highly influential bands that had a lasting impact on later musicians. Second, both have been making news in recent times—a cue, if one were needed, to start rediscovering their catalogue of music.
MBV are the more enigmatic band. Led by guitarist and singer Kevin Shields, they released their first two albums in 1985 and 1988. But it was their 1991 album, Loveless, which saw them being described as the pioneers of shoegaze. Their fuzzy sound and the unique manner in which noise and obscured vocals blended together, creating a woozy yet ethereal soundscape unlike anything that had been heard before, won them high praise and a staunch tribe of fans.
Loveless was a magnum opus, each of its songs a trademark of MBV’s genre-defining style. Bilinda Butcher’s and Shields’ androgynous vocals intertwine ethereally, almost whisper-like, with the rest of the instrumentation: guitars, samples, bass and drums. The term shoegaze refers as much to the dreaminess of MBV’s music as it does to the attitude of the band, its members gazing down and playing without the antics or histrionics which marked the punk era that preceded MBV’s emergence. Loveless’ 11 songs, from the opener, Only Shallow, to the last one, Soon, marked the beginning of an innings that many thought would see more releases soon.
It didn’t happen. The band all but disappeared. For 22 years, there was no new album and although they played a few live gigs, they remained an enigma. Taking shoegaze’s self-effacing attitude to the extreme, Shields, Butcher, drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig and bassist Debbie Googe shunned publicity so assiduously that they have rarely faced cameras since the 1990s. Then, after swirling rumours about a new album, in 2013 they suddenly released m b v, a new full-length, on their website.
A virtual stampede led to the site crashing: m b v, a worthy successor to the band’s two-decade-old debut, continued in the band’s hazy, experimental style that is able to make distortion of guitars and other electronic instruments curiously pleasurable aurally. Fans were overjoyed.
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MBV had not tried to recreate themselves; neither did they try to clone Loveless. The result was an evolution of their style, albeit with a bit more abstract, free-form jazz style innovation.
MBV had other eccentricities. Even as music streaming sites became the predominant medium for listeners, most of their albums were not available on these. And then, after m b v, the band went into hibernation again. Radio silence followed for eight years. Till March when Shields, 57, who was born in the US but lives like a recluse in Ireland, announced two things: The band would put all its albums, singles and EPs on streaming sites; and two new albums were in the works. MBV are back and their shoegaze-loving fans can look forward to more from that genre’s original creators.
Gang of Four, on the other hand, are not back. Emerging from the British punk scene of the 1970s, the band, founded by guitarist Andy Gill and singer Jon King, released its first album, Entertainment!, in 1979. It was an immediate hit. It had punk’s spareness, with layers of funk and rock added. But what stood out was the lyrics.
Named after a political faction of four Chinese Communist Party officials who were tried and imprisoned, Gang of Four’s songs are sardonic commentaries on the ills of society and politics—mainly hitting out at mindless consumerism and injustice.
On Entertainment!, Gang of Four angrily deride politicians, media, and the misplaced historical importance placed on powerful and influential personalities (in Not Great Men, they rant: No weak men in the books at home/ The strong men who have made the world/ History lives on the books at home/ The books at home). In Damaged Goods, it is about sexual hypocrisy (Your kiss so sweet/ Your sweat so sour/ Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you/ But I know it’s only lust).
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In 1983, after three more albums, the band all but broke up. Although Gill, who died at 64 last year, and King, 65, tried to revive the band, they never regained their early glory. Gang of Four never really made it big or achieved the success they should have. Yet the first three albums, especially the debut, would become rock’s most influential work.
Many prominent bands of later years have acknowledged the influence of Gang of Four. Among them are R.E.M., Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers. And now, like MBV, they are back in the limelight. A box set, 77-81, comprising their first two albums and several early singles, came out in March. Older fans will rejoice—and younger music lovers can learn about one of rock’s most impactful but underrated acts.
Five tracks to bookend your week
2. ‘Only Shallow’ by My Bloody Valentine from ‘Loveless’
3. ‘Sometimes’ by My Bloody Valentine from ‘Loveless’
4. ‘Damaged Goods’ by Gang of Four from ‘Entertainment!’
5. ‘At Home He’s A Tourist’ by Gang of Four from ‘Entertainment!’
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