“It makes you wonder, if they’re handing out earplugs to everyone, why they don’t just… y’know, turn it down a bit” commented Paul in the pub before the gig.
“Because sound doesn’t work like that” was the answer from his friend who’d been the previous night, and, like a masochist, was putting himself through it again.
I had a pretty good inkling of what he meant, and the My Bloody Valentine gig experience bore it out. Sound is waves through the air, you don’t just hear it; when it’s loud enough you feel it, physically, in your feet, in your legs, in your chest. Hearing is essentially just feeling sound waves with the sensitive hairs of your inner-ear, your brain interpreting that feeling into auditory signals which can, and usually do, feel like a mental experience rather than a physical one. But that’s a trick of the mind. My Bloody Valentine invert that trick, and make a seemingly mental experience into a physical one.
The gig didn’t start that loud, or didn’t seem to; Em and I both had earplugs in (which I do at most gigs these days, and have for half a decade or more) and whilst the sound seemed clearer and louder than some gigs I’ve seen when I’ve had them in, it didn’t seem… dangerous. But by halfway through the gig, when “Only Shallow” was unveiled, and “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, and something else from Isn’t Anything that was fiercely pummelling and physical, I popped my earplugs out for a second and realised that things had become extraordinarily loud, the volume almost imperceptibly upping from song to song.
I’ve often wondered how Kevin Shields made the sounds he did on record, how the melodic toplines of Loveless, which sound like synthesisers but which we know aren’t, are coaxed from a guitar. I thought seeing them live would enlighten me, but I’m none the wiser; there seems little correlation between what My Bloody Valentine physically do onstage and the sound that erupts from them. Sometimes Debbie Googe plays her bass in a way you’d recognise, for instance, but mostly she seems to strum at it, gently, as if it were an acoustic guitar at a campfire sing-a-long. Her strums come from the shoulder, whilst Bilinda Butcher’s come from the wrist; they’re both static other than that, pretty much, their entire bodies still, Debbie’s arm moving, Bilinda’s wrist pivoting.
Colm is, unsurprisingly if you think about Isn’t Anything, a bizarrely powerful drummer; so much of My Bloody Valentine has seemed so ethereal to me over half my lifetime that the bludgeoning strength of the drums took me by surprise. It shouldn’t have. The songs from Isn’t Anything were the most brutal and physical, searing rock’n’roll destructions; those from Loveless were most beautiful, trippy creations that bend your perceptions; “Soon” was astonishing, psychedelia made real. The new songs, from mbv, were the strangest. The three eras fitted together with far more logic live than I would have expected, about a third of the gig from each.
I’ve been expecting the eruption, the volcano of sound, that comes during that pause in “You Made Me Realise”, since I was about 16 and first heard Loveless, since my elder brother gave me a compilation of Creation Records singles that included “You Made Me Realise”. I’ve read about it levitating people, about it making people feel sick, about it lasting half an hour and venue security guards with air-traffic-control headphones on mouthing to each other “what the fuck is this shit?” as the maelstrom bends time. A guy in front of us started filming it on his phone, and gave up after eleven minutes. It went on, I think, for about half as long again. A steady stream of people shuffled past us and out of the auditorium. Maybe they had tube trains to catch. Maybe it was too much. I laughed my head off at points, turned around to look at faces; some aghast, some ecstatic, some bewildered, as if they didn’t know to expect it.
The volume of this volcanic eruption is phenomenal, alarming. I worried for the fabric of the building we were in. The noise seemed to shift in pitch and tone, slowly increase in volume, vibrating different parts of your body as it changed. I took my earplugs out at one point, for about thirty seconds or so, and the physical crush of sound that was affecting my whole body suddenly consumed the inside of my head too. Not everyone was wearing earplugs. Who knows how those who didn’t managed to get home afterwards; their senses and orientation must have been mashed.
We left the gig giddy and exhilarated, a little baffled and intensely impressed. My Bloody Valentine are a band Em and I both share love for, a band we both brought to the table when we got together many years ago. It’s taken us 12 years, almost, to see them live; I hope we get to see them again some day.