By Ché Salgado
Navigating the modern musical landscape can be a tricky thing. People love to go on about the records they love, the subgenres they love, and once in awhile, you’re going to encounter someone who can’t help but flex their knowledge as though it were an actual sport. These sorts of people are going to be throwing all sorts of terms and names at you, and if you’re unacquainted, you can find yourself the target of many eye-rolls and raised eyebrows and pretty soon, every sentence seems like it’s going to come with the prefix “you’ve never heard of…!?” So as a way to bring you up to speed and salvage your cred, we here at KTSW present to you The Official KTSW Subgenre Starter Kit. Mind you, this isn’t a complete education about any of these subgenres, if you’re interested about any of these we encourage you, the reader, to do more research in your free time, these are just some big names that can spare you the humiliation of answering that daunting prompt, “Have you heard…” with a no.
Perhaps the hottest (and most annoying) buzzword in indie rock today, it seems anything with a fair amount of reverb gets called shoegaze in 2016. “Oh, it’s kind of shoegaze-y,” yeah, yeah. Truth is, even when OG shoegaze was going down, nobody really knew how to categorize it. Nevertheless, The Canon has taken hold, and what was once a subjective and derivative term for the bands in and around The Scene That Celebrated Itself is now well-established music history. Here’s three records bound to come up anytime someone wants to get in a conversation about classic shoegaze (likely another person who’s just got into the subgenre, as everyone else is tired of talking about it.)
Slowdive’s 1993 record, Souvlaki – Panned when it came out, as all their records were at the time. Slowdive’s Souvlaki has since become lauded as a proto-dreampop masterpiece. Written during the breakup of two of its members, frontman Neil Halstead and guitarist Rachel Goswell, the album, though seeming overwrought in its time, is perfectly fitted for 2016, where that overwrought emotion is en vogue. With a solid front half featuring a collaboration from Brian Eno, Souvlaki, despite what the jaded ‘heads may say, is worthy of your time.
Ride’s 1992 record, Going Blank Again – Never was there a band that defied the shoegaze mold as brashly as Ride. They maligned the term, and for good reason. I’ve seen Ride live, they don’t gaze at their shoes. Right from the start, Ride were rockstars. There’s this misguided sentiment among music fans, especially fans of shoegaze, that ego is evil, that being a “rockstar” is grotesque. Either they’re saying that never having heard Going Blank Again or saying that in spite of it.
Conventional wisdom would have me write instead about the more recognized 1990 debut, Nowhere, but listening to that record again, though it might be better, more focused, Going Blank Again is a snapshot of Ride at their rockstar zenith. Songs like “Time of Her Time” could be on records like Bandwagonesque, not Isn’t Anything. A friend of mine once outlined the theory that Ride were the most arena-ready band out of any to come off of the Creation Records roster. He wasn’t wrong.
My Bloody Valentine’s 1991, Loveless – Question: Is this whole article a ruse to give me an excuse to put in words about Loveless? Answer: Yes.
Of course it’s here. Why would Loveless not be in this article? The only articles about shoegaze without Loveless are articles that go out of their way to not include Loveless. That’s how much of a monolith this record is.
For what reason? There’s not really a unified answer. I’ve heard it be praised for “making guitars sound like synths.” Even The Strokes did that. Is that really an achievement? I’ve heard it be praised for “sounding like it were being played underwater.” What? Is that even a complement?
I personally like it because I think hearing it is being witness to Kevin Shields’ taking a technique to its absolute limit, even if he had to (allegedly) push his label to bankruptcy to do it. Whatever your (made-up) reasons for liking this record are, it is, at the core, just a solid pop record. Underneath all the noise, in structure, these songs are well-thought out, and there’s no need to make up fictional accolades to give this record. It doesn’t need them.
As punk’s first wave was nearing the end of its life, bands who followed in the punk tradition but branched out into more sophisticated song structures. What does post-punk mean? Again, who knows really. What we do know is that groups like Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four, Wire, Joy Division and others took the anxieties that punk had expressed and carried them on in an increasingly varied musical form long after punk had become a punchline, long before it was reclaimed in the 80s with hardcore. With more sophisticated song structures, humorous lyrics, “ice-pick-y” guitar tones, post-punk would become the stepping stone to translating the themes of punk to a wider audience, for better or worse, making them acceptable, almost conventional.
Wire’s 1977 record, Pink Flag – Walking the line between punk proper and post-punk, Wire’s classic record, Pink Flag, evokes the genre it grew out of by containing many short and punchy power chord classics. Also to be found on this record are sophisticated pop songs not unlike the Pixies. Hell, they probably influenced the Pixies.
Songs like “Reuters”, and definitely “Mannequin”, are stone cold pop classics that, despite their radio ready structures, manage to contain the discontent of punk but through a lens endemic to Wire’s style, humor, which might well be their most important ingredient.
Though apparently taking themselves fairly seriously, they never sound it, so the music doesn’t come across as overbearing as other bands in the post-punk genre.
Public Image Ltd.’s 1978 record, First Issue – Bands who come across as overbearing, PiL might be one of them. Whether it’s making your most accessible song a diatribe against Malcolm McLaren and the emptiness and saturation of first-wave punk, or making the album opener a nine-minute sprawl complete with wailing vocals and gnashing, painfully treble-y guitars. And there’s good reason for John Lydon, frontman of PiL to desire to separate himself from punk’s past, as well as delivering a wave of veiled insult to Malcolm McLaren, who got punk’s poster boys, the Sex Pistols, together. It’s because Johnny Rotten and John Lydon are the same person. After the Pistols’ breakup in 1978, Lydon took his continued rage to new musical areas, seeing the punk game as a husk of what it had been, now occupied by those trying to make a buck off the anger and alienation (a running theme throughout pop music history).
Mission of Burma’s 1981 record, Signals, Calls, and Marches – Taking post-punk back to where punk started, back across the Atlantic to the States, Mission of Burma on their debut EP, Signals, Calls, and Marches exhibit a style ahead of their time. They sound like a bit like Parquet Courts at times, taking the fury of punk and adding pop structures that make the songs feel fully formed as opposed to brief musical vehicles for a critique on a facet of society. These are pop songs with a message about all manner of things, wealth, fame, violence, even Max Ernst. Being essentially the preeminent American post-punk band, Mission and this record assured the themes we’d developed here would not be lost.
And so now, as you venture out into the world of indie rock show after parties or college radio station meetings, go safe in the knowledge that you, dear reader, have the know-how to deflect the eye-rolls, to deflect the queries about your musical knowledge. Go secure in the fact that you have a cursory understanding of some of the biggest albums in some of music’s biggest subgenres with a foundation to learn more. After all, it’s really all that half these people know anyway. Just be sure to tell them about the Official KTSW Subgenre Starter Kit.
Bill S. Preston Esquire on October 3, 2016
Record labels were like “Don’t call it punk, call it new wave, that’s marketable”.