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Just For A Day (sleeve notes)

December 1990: Neil Halstead, then a mere two months into his twentieth year on the planet, is talking about the legacy of Slowdive, a group who at that point had released just one single. “The best thing for Slowdive would be, in 10 or 20 years time, loads of reviewers saying, 'Rock' n' roll would never be what it is without Slowdive',” he decides, modestly. “That's my ambition."

Fifteen years later and while the world isn’t exactly overrun with Slowdive clones, echoes of their celestial majesty can be traced throughout the more innovative fringes of rock and electronica. From 2002’s laptop-driven Morr Music compilation, which featured the likes of Mum, Ulrich Schauss and Lali Puna covering their favourite Slowdive moments, onto post rock outfits such as The Emerald Down and Readymade (and even, arguably, the epiphanies of Sigur Ros), Halstead and company’s influence has been a quietly benevolent one - encouraging artists towards ambition and poetry rather than the casual thrash of rock’n’roll, offering proof that gentle drama can be just as hypnotic as raging noise.

No mean feat for a group whose core members - singer/guitarist/songwriter Neil Halstead and singer/guitarist Rachel Goswell - met when they were both six years old and first starting making music at a Sunday youth club in Reading in an indie pop band called The Pumpkin Fairies. Slowdive themselves formed in October 1989. Original drummer Adrian Sell, who’d played with The Pumpkin Fairies, brought in his friend Nick Chaplin on bass, while Christian Savill was the only person to respond to a music press advert for a female guitarist. Savill had seen the fledging Slowdive play live a few times while hawking his My Bloody Valentine fanzine and was so enamoured that he offered to wear a dress if needs be. The band’s response? “We said, ‘Fuck it. Come on in!’” remembers Halstead.

After that things started happening very quickly. Influenced by The Jesus And Mary Chain, The House Of Love and My Bloody Valentine, the five piece immediately recorded a demo. A few months later, the band supported proto Britpop trio 5:30 and after the show Savill was approached by Steve Walters, the head of A&R at EMI Music, who asked for a tape. He passed the demo onto Alan McGee and within a couple of weeks the band were signed to Creation (they’d be jokingly referred to years afterwards as the “My Bloody Valentine Alan McGee could afford”). At which point Sell decided that things were happening just a little too quickly and left to go to university. His eventual replacement was Simon Scott, who’d already toured with Ride as the drummer of The Charlottes.

Slowdive’s self-titled debut EP, which came out on Bonfire night (November 5th) 1990, kickstarted an avalanche of wildly poetic praise for the group. “In a word, Slowdive's sound is lovely,” sighed Simon Williiams in the NME. “In a heart-palpitating paragraph, Slowdive have banished the barriers restricting creativity. They've sloped out of Reading to peddle an otherworldly noise which thrives on trembling shapes and tumbling dimensions, where atmosphere-drenched dramatics coerce with shimmering distortion to induce sublime, elegant swirls. When they really relax, Slowdive can make Cocteau Twins resemble Mudhoney.”

Over at Melody Maker, one writer had dismissed Slowdive as “Cocteau Twins’ demos” (rather presciently perhaps, as the Slowdive EP was in fact the band’s original demo, which they’d returned to after feeling dissatisfied with studio rerecordings of the songs). But as the paper’s Paul Lester noted: “I take this to be a compliment: the music on ‘Slowdive’ has a gorgeous, ‘unfinished’ quality that makes you go back to it again and again. There are no hooks, just slips and slides, and the kind of melodic shifts that cause heart pangs in the listener.”

All three of Slowdive’s early EPs (“Slowdive”; “Morningrise”, which came out in February 1991; and "Holding Our Breath", which was released in June 1991) were awarded Single Of The Week in Melody Maker. Just one snared the same accolade in NME, but only after a writer felt that the previous week’s review had been unfair. Both papers, meanwhile, were desperately trying to impose meaning on Slowdive’s music. MM decided, quite rightly, that they were “closer to leftfield film soundtracks than Lush or The Boo Radleys”, while NME had a more elaborate explanation. Slowdive, posited Simon Williams, “potentially represent the post-rave comedown, the withdrawal symptoms after the E-guzzling, floor-shuddering, farmyard-rutting fandango which, like virtually everything else in the history of entertainment, was corrupted by its own corruptive instincts.”

All of this before the term shoegazing - coined by former Sounds journalist and Food records supremo Andy Ross - had even been mentioned. What intrigued and confused the critics about Slowdive, it seemed, was their apparent disinterest in the traditional musical forms of the day. They rejected rock and punk in much the same way the punks had rejected everything that came before them, a tough concept for the NME in particular to come to terms with. “I've listened to a lot of classical music, and think that's been the biggest influence on me,” said Halstead at the time. “Most rock music is really bland - just a reaction to a beat. It's the kind of thing that you don't really listen to when it comes on. You just sort of move to it when you're drunk. I wanted to create music that you can really listen to and be moved by".

Create, they did. With perhaps a little more desperation than their fans might have guessed. Halstead originally told McGee that Slowdive had an entire album’s worth of material ready to go, but he’d been bluffing. As a result, songs were written on the hoof in the studio, with Goswell free-associating words and the entire group jamming and experimenting with sounds. Often they got lost in a stoned haze to ease the creative process along a little. And, thanks to confidence, talent, and a clearly attentive muse, it all worked beautifully. “The first Slowdive record,” relates Halstead, “we went into a studio for six weeks and had no songs at the start and at the end we had a album.”

Lyrically, Slowdive were helped by the inherently abstract nature of the music they were creating. Although Halstead told interviewers that his lyrics were “tales of personal experience purposely abstracted to the point of incomprehensibility”, sometimes they were just random words which popped into his head. “Some of it was ad-libbed at the time,” admits Goswell. “Some of it was just nonsensical. Like 'Celia's Dream' was about a rabbit. It was about a film we watched about a rabbit.”

It all made sense at the time, obviously. Or if it didn’t, it didn’t really matter. Cast iron meaning was a rockist concern after all, like a distinct chorus, verse or middle eight. Possibly Slowdive’s sole concession to tradition was admitting that, on one level, what they played could be seen as drug music - and therefore didn’t have to have a meaning as long as the feeling was right. “Slowdive music is quite suitable for drugtaking,” Halstead told St Etienne’s Bob Stanley, then a Melody Maker journalist. “The records are laid-back. But it's a drug in itself. I think it has hypnotic qualities.” Years later, Goswell was more candid. “Certain drugs can be very creative and certain drugs can be very damaging,” she told Nick Hyman. “Myself and Neil dabbled in most things. Experimented I would say but not to the extent to where it was damaging. The staple really has been smoking dope and that’s it.”

Whatever the influences and motivations, “Just For A Day” (named after a line in “Celia’s Dream” - “She told me she loved me/Love, just for a day”), is a deeply ornate record. Far from being vague and unfocussed, the album runs on a subtle yet distinct sense of drama, progressing from the brooding loss of “Spanish Air” to the pristine last waltz of “Ballad Of Sister Sue” and drifting to what appears to be a landing of sorts with the luxurious sweep of “Primal” - a song which becomes darker and darker with every cello sweep and distant vocal cry from Goswell.

It is, declared the NME, a record you could lose yourself within. “Recorded through a few layers of gauze and, I should imagine, a morning mist, 'Just For A Day' is no record to listen to if you want to get anything done,” declared Andrew Collins. “It's an ordinary, nondescript Thursday morning. Bus stop. Cashpoint. Tube. Work. Except you've got Slowdive on your earphones. and suddenly you're Patrick Swayze in ‘Ghost’, moving amongst the oblivious mortals, unnoticed, separate, parallel, there but not all there. With a cornflower blue aura. Just count how many trains you miss. They thunder into the station, and they thunder out again, while you melt through the slats of a bench. Only Slowdive can do this.”

But even then, the tide was beginning to turn against Slowdive and the shoegazing movement as a whole. With grunge mere weeks away from devastating the British charts, the music press was already moving on. Paul Lester in Melody Maker decided the album was a “major fucking letdown”, and that the band had been ruined by “too much attention, too soon”. Tellingly, it would be two years before the band returned with their masterpiece.

Listening today, free from the constraints of fashion, “Just For A Day” is a bold, mesmeric album. Not quite the triumph that was to follow with “Souvlaki”, but hardly a letdown either. It’s the sound of a young band feeling their way through a new form and style, the sound of a personal exploration in both music and emotion. Or as a certain Icelandic band might have put it, it’s a good start.

December 1990: Christian Savill, bright-eyed with ambition, is looking ahead. “'We wanna be timeless. We're still really young, and we're going to get better. We haven't got a masterplan, but soon people are going to start comparing other bands to Slowdive." Time to lose yourself all over again.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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