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Slowdive
Pygmalion (sleeve notes)

The press hated it. Let’s get that out of that way at the beginning. With the UK in the midst of Britpop euphoria, there was no space – physically or culturally – for an album of ambient experimentation. Directly below the NME review of "Pygmalion" on February 4, 1995, lay a quarter page banner ad for The Flamingoes, a lowbrow London trio pushing a defiantly trad retread of sixties beat pop and third division new wave. These were the kind of bands that the weeklies were interested in. Slowdive – an intelligent, emotional anomaly – were history, in all senses of the word.

Slowdive had always suffered at the hands of the music papers of course. After the magnificent "Souvlaki" album received a pasting in the press for daring not to sound like a Suede b-side, the group found themselves with a diminished audience in the UK. A tour of Britain and Europe with fellow travellers Cranes was, says guitarist Christian Savill, "nervewracking", even though the dates were relatively well attended. But by the time Slowdive were promoting their "5 EP" towards the end of 1993, interest had dried up altogether. Savill remembers looking up from his guitar at one date in Coventry to see that the crowd consisted of a woman mopping the floor.

Enthusiasm was still high in American but the band’s US label, SBK, were growing more and more erratic. The marketing campaign for "Souvlaki", for example, which came out in early 1994, eight months after the UK release, couldn’t have more lacklustre. The band’s mailing list was sent a flyer flagging the release date. Any fan who then posted up fifty copies of the flyer around their town and sent in photographic evidence would win a copy of the record. SBK also withdrew funding halfway through the band’s US tour to support "Souvlaki", leaving Slowdive to pay for the rest of the dates themselves. Two self-funded tours of America followed in 1994, with finances being raised through sales of a live tape and a tour program which included a diatribe against the label.

Back in the UK, Slowdive found themselves at a loose end. There was little point in touring after the disastrous experience of the "5 EP" tour and gigs were few and far between. Rachel Goswell was shocked to discover that her finances were so poor that she was going to have to get a job. Savill and bassist Nick Chaplin had moved to London and picked up jobs as well. Simon Scott, unhappy with the more electronic feel of the "5 EP’ and fearing that he was going to be replaced by a drum machine, left at the end of 1993 (to be replaced by Ian McCutcheon). To all intents and purposes, Slowdive the group had quietly fallen apart.

Neil Halstead, meanwhile, was becoming more and more immersed in dance music. "When [‘Pygmalion’] was being recorded, Neil and I were very separate at that point," Rachel Goswell told Pennyblack Music’s Anthony Strutt years later. "Neil was living in London, and I was still in Reading. We were both on a techno trip, experimenting with stupid drugs, him more than me. I had a few trips up to London, where I went to some techno clubs. 'Pygmalion' was really, I think, born out of that. It reflected what we were listening to at that time. Neil was living with friends at the time, and they had an influence."

Inspired by sonic manipulators such as Locust, Halstead began to work with loops and digital technology. He peppered light, electronic flickers behind his voice and guitar in "Rutti", and looped Rachel’s vocal on the decidedly bleak "Miranda", toying with different ways of stretching and distorting sound. "The last Slowdive record was all loops and it was all constructed on computers," Halstead explained to Hybrid magazine. "We would play loops and then play over them and then steal more loops from what we played over them. So there was always an element [of humanity], although there was something quite cold about it. Although to me, I think it was the best record that Slowdive made, but I wasn't sure that it was the kind of music that I wanted to be making all the time."

No wonder. Named pointedly after George Bernard Shaw’s classic novel in which an ill-mannered working class girl is transformed into a genteel upper-class ingenue (presumably as a nod towards the transformation Halstead believed that Slowdive were undertaking musically), "Pygmalion" is a stark, almost haunted sounding album. Far from being a mind-melting blur of loops and noise collages, it’s a record of disquiet and silence, of brooding, uncomfortable ambiences and tracks which feel closer to seances than traditional songs. While the rest of Britain geared up for the Cool Britannia blow out, celebrating the simple joys of beer, football and a good old communal singalong, Halstead had busied himself constructing his version of the monolith at the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey". You didn’t so much enjoy "Pygmalion" as tremble in its presence.

Listening to the album now, it’s remarkable how influential it’s become. "Trellisaze" – described, fairly accurately, in the NME as "the endless ticking of what sounds like an underwater grandfather clock" – perfects the desolate isolationist post-rock that the then nascent Labradford were striving to develop. "Cello", on the other hand – which the NME declared consisted of "little more than a lone cello" – pretty much invents Sigur Ros in one fell swoop. Despite lasting for a mere minute and half, its funereal ambience – at once pastoral and poisoned somehow – is instantly familiar to anyone who owns a copy of "Agaetis Byrjun" or "()".

Prior to the recording of "Pygmalion", Halstead attended a meeting with Creation’s Alan McGee in which he was told that unless he could deliver a pop album the group would be dropped. The Boo Radleys, whose "Lazarus" had shared elements with Slowdive’s "Souvlaki Space Station" just a few years previously, would manage the transition and score a Top Ten hit with the summery pop of "Wake Up Boo". But Halstead wasn’t interested.

If anything, knowing that "Pygmalion" was essentially his resignation letter to Creation, he went out of his way to make it as unpoplike as possible. "With the abstraction of Pygmalion, we had reached as far as the band could go," he admitted later. "I think for a while, particularly towards the end of Slowdive, I got to the point where I didn't like music, almost." Goswell, as usual, is slightly more candid. "It was consciously made as weird as we could because we knew Creation wasn't interested in us anymore," she says. "McGee wasn't there. Sony had just been brought in. We knew we were going to get dropped so we thought ‘fuck it, let’s just do this and get dropped’."

And, yes, the press had a field day. "Disc jockeys and TV programmers will yelp ‘I can’t do anything with this,’ the kids will run to the hills, and a forward-thinking Thames Valley mason will work on their headstone," wrote John Harris in the NME. "’Slowdive’, it will read. ‘They could have had the world, but they decided to go all skeletal and wibbly and make sneakingly fascinating records that will sell absolutely fart all.’ Funny buggers." In Melody Maker, Jonathan Selzer was – as seemed to be the tradition with Slowdive album reviews in the paper – vicious. "Nothing ever sounds at stake in Slowdive’s music, because they’d never had a vision. They’re content to drift on empty, and all that’s left is an insipid attempt at prettiness, as if somehow that would speak for itself. ‘Tresllisaze’, ‘Rutti’ – what do these titles say to you, other than ‘Slap me’?"

The band were preparing to rehearse for a UK tour when the call came through from Creation, setting in stone what they’d essentially known for months - it was all over. Hearsay – possibly helped along by the myth-making McGee – held that Oasis had actually demanded that Slowdive were dropped before they signed to Creation, even though their debut single, "Supersonic", came out a good ten months before "Pygmalion". Halstead and Goswell were unperturbed. "Blue Sky And Clear" had been picked up for inclusion on the soundtrack to a movie called "The Doom Generation" and they’d been hard at work on the soundtrack to another film, "I Am The Elephant And You Are The Mouse" (which still remains unreleased).

Anyway, Halstead had a plan (of sorts). He, Goswell and drummer Ian McCutcheon booked a small studio in London to record a new batch of songs with a lighter country influence. "There was really no intention of a release or anything," he remembers, "it was just a case of recording songs to see how they sound and taking it from there." Halstead took a break of a couple of months to visit Israel and Egypt, and returned to find that Goswell had given the tape to 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell. For a while they considered carrying on under the name Slowdive, but eventually plumped for a new beginning. Mojave 3 was born.

"Slowdive didn’t so much split as take a shift in direction," says Goswell. "It didn’t seem right to carry on with the same name. We needed to get a fresh start and all the pieces fell into place for us to get one."

Or as that tombstone doubtless reads: "Slowdive. They could have had the world, but decided to put their name to three impossibly beautiful albums instead." RIP Slowdive, long live Mojave 3.

 



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


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