Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless", by Mike McGonigal

How wonderfully bizarre it was to start reading Mike McGonigal's contribution to the 33 1/3 book series and only a couple of days later, to be greeted with news of a long-awaited follow-up to "Loveless". More on that later on, but first, the book. McGonigal doesn't try to write a sensational expose or to uncover the untold "real story" behind the album. His opinion of the album sticks rigidly to the orthodox fanboy template -- he makes no attempt at criticism or to goad the reader into thinking about "Loveless" in a unique way. But all of this is made perfectly clear from the very beginning, as McGonigal bluntly states that the album has already been praised and dissected in so many different ways, while acknowledging that he doesn't feel that there's much left for him to write about in that regard. Instead, he digs into what has been a fairly untapped resource for information about "Loveless" -- the memories of the band members themselves. Kevin, Belinda, and Debbie are quoted at length from a series of exclusive interviews done specifically for this book during 2005 and 2006 (Colm declined to be interviewed). As far as I am aware, compared to any other piece that has been written about post-1992 MBV, this amount of access to the band members is unparalleled. McGonigal relies on them for fresh perspectives and to fill in previously unrevealed details, while for the most part he simply writes what he hears and resists the urge to play rock critic. Between the interviews, the few exercises in myth-busting, and McGonigal's easy-going style, it's plenty good enough to make this book an engaging read.*

[*aside: I found a bunch of typos and factual errors, but only one of them annoyed me: the continuing American habit of writing "You Made Me Realize" (American spelling). I can't think of another example in music in which two spellings of the title of a piece of music float around and people feel free to use whichever one is more convenient to them. McGonigal even makes light of it, getting all "well, that's the way we spell it here" on us, but this type of error is unforgiveable. The title of the EP is "You Made Me Realise". There is no editorial direction on titles. Does anyone in America have issues with the title of Talk Talk's "The Colour of Spring"? Should we be correcting the grammatical error in Oasis' "Standing on the Shoulder of Giants"? Is anyone insisting that the text of "Hamlet" should be translated to take into account modern American spellings? The whole realise/realize thing is so stupid.]

I was giddy to learn that Shields consciously borrowed from Phil Spector's production style, even as far as recording entire songs in mono (e.g. "To Here Knows When"!). The MBV-Spector similarities always seemed natural and obvious to me, and I am happy to finally find out that the connection was genuine and intentional. The most controversial chapter deals with the cost of the album and the relationship with their former label Creation. The book was pulled from printing, at the band's request, because Shields was displeased with how McGonigal told this portion of the story (granted, it's only fitting that the release of a book about "Loveless" would be subject to a series of delays). Shields felt that McGonigal was sourcing too heavily from David Cavanaugh's "The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For the Prize", saying that it read like an accountant's take on things and that 80% of that book was made up. He goes on to claim, with ever greater and more ridiculous hyperbole, that Cavanaugh's book has dropped out of sight and practically vanished from the realm of publishing history, because everyone knows how ridiculous it truly is.

Sure, compared to Oprah's Book Club, Cavanaugh's book wasn't a big seller. Inasmuch as a book about UK indie rock can be termed "successful", "The Creation Records Story" has done quite well for itself and is fairly well-respected. It breaks down the lives of the people who ran the label in impeccably well-researched detail, but was far weaker in providing intimate detail about the bands, some of whom did not cooperate with Cavanaugh while he was writing the book. McGonigal, as you might expect, remains neutral on the subject, inasmuch as he doesn't try to take sides and declare who he'd rather believe. He quite plainly rewrote the chapter to give more space to Shields' side of the story, but continues to reference Cavanaugh throughout this book. This has to be viewed as a smart decision in the interest of having his book see the light of day.

I have no idea if Shields still has an axe to grind with McGee. Maybe he overreacted to being reminded of McGee's reminiscences, as they were told via Cavanaugh. His comments carried a strong whiff of sour grapes from where I sit (AKA the truth hurts"?), but that's something that we will never know for certain. Fifteen years on, McGee has managed to let bygones be bygones and has gone out of his way in interviews to praise MBV. He even called them the best band he ever had on Creation. Granted, these are feelings that he can afford to have after earning zillions from Oasis and shutting down his label on (more or less) his own terms, as opposed to being forced into bankruptcy by MBV's spending habits. From Shields' side, "Loveless" ended up sounding exactly how he wanted it to, and it continues to sell and to provide him with a steady income. So what gives? McGonigal's new interviews demonstrate that McGee and Shields' memories of 1989-1991 are so divergent that there is absolutely no middle ground with which to reconcile their stories. McGee tells of numerous near-breakdowns from various Creation employees and and having to borrow cash from his parents to release master tapes of "Loveless" in exchange for unpaid studio bills. Shields tells of the entire band being literally homeless during that time, squatting at friends' flats because Creation claimed they didn't have the money to pay them regular salaries. What's more, he says "Loveless" didn't cost Creation anything because it was recorded using MBV's own money that they had earned through sales of their other records.

For the rest of us, it's an individual choice as to whose persons' version of the truth is more trustworthy. My take is that Shields was far too immersed in his own problems at the time (finishing the album plus his deteriorating relationship with Belinda, both of which are discussed quite candidly in the book) and was not seeing the big picture. By secluding himself in an all-out effort to craft the album as he wanted it, he probably took no notice of how many livelihoods were dependent on the decisions he was making. In a fair bit of high comedy, he confidently claims that he added up those studio bills himself (um, from memory, and long after the fact) and the total couldn't possibly be any more than 160K pounds. You know, nowhere close to the 250K that other people have claimed, end of story, why the complaints?, no sirree, get off my back jack, etc. Yes, a measly 160K -- a mere pittance for an indie label run by drug-inhaling hooligans who, collectively, didn't even have a sixth grader's grasp of accounting.

Last week saw MBV retake the lead in their sixteen year race versus Guns N Roses to be the first to release the long-awaited, prohibitively expensive, endlessly delayed follow-up to their highly acclaimed November 1991 album. Axl and his hired guns looked to have built an insurmountable lead once they started touring again, but talk of a release date for "Chinese Democracy" has died down considerably in the past couple of years. Little did we know that MBV were lulling us all into a false sense of security while they retooled and readied their Myspace page for worldwide release!

We all tend to get misty-eyed even at the vaguest details about any remote possibility of perhaps maybe hearing some new MBV material, and although this kind of news still tugs at my heartstrings, in my head I know better than to get excited because we've heard all this before. Many many many times, in fact. McGonigal cops out a bit at the end of his book, alluding that "Loveless" is so good that he has no burning need to ever hear another MBV record and that we should all stop bugging Kevin about it, because the guy really has been busy all these years. I call bullshit. People only make these kinds of excuses for bands once they've been lying dormant for near-geologic periods, at which point mythologizing takes the place of instinctual anticipation. Nobody would have claimed, in 1993 (or 1994 or 1995 or 1996) that "Loveless" was just too damn good, so don't bother with the follow-up. There hasn't been another MBV record because Shields hasn't gotten around to making one, not because of the distractions of broken mixing desks, interpersonal band relations, and other side projects.

He didn't have a problem getting off his ass to release material under the MBV name for the "Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip" compilation. This album, BTW, kicked off the first bout of "they're back now ... no really!" hysteria as it featured the first new material released under the MBV name since 1993. It happened so long ago that a lot of fans don't even remember that particular "comeback" (McGonigal neglected to mention it in his review of the band's post-"Loveless" activities). The waiting has gone on for so long that it literally dates back to the days when I first discovered the internet and would track down MBV fan sites and message boards to look for info on their new record. One year, I remember reading about how MBV were under pressure to deliver some sort of finished product to Island, but no prob, Shields claimed that he was 100% sure they'd have at least an EP done by the end of the year. I believe that year was 1997. In 2004, Amazon incredibly began taking pre-orders for an MBV box set that featured remastered and live material. There was even a shipping date listed.

To sum it up: I haven't stopped hoping, but I've definitely stopped offering predictions.

[update 15/11/07 ... and the very next day, they announce tour dates. A Coachella appearance is rumoured for 2008, and I am currently entertaining silly dreams of flying to California if that happens.]

No comments: