Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

With this kind of kick-off, you have to ask why the 90s weren’t better. The striated rills of drum that open “Soon” sound like God cracking his knuckles: ten seconds later the wavefront of the song hits you and his uncanny rhythms become your own. A lot has been written about the fabulous sound Kevin Shields could get out of his guitar, how he made the instrument talk in tongues for him and how My Bloody Valentine’s songs sounded like they were in a state of perpetual, endless dissolve. All that stuff is true, but what makes “Soon” so extraordinary is everything else that’s going down – especially, as I say, the rhythm. There’s no sound on “Soon” as slippery or displaced as the alien keening of “Only Shallow” or “To Here Knows When“‘s celestial smear: Shield’s guitar switches from teasy bouncings to great gutsy roars but by Valentine standards it’s quite straightforward. The things that really churn up the song and drive it forward are the motorised bass grind, that delirious beat, the enraptured voice – and the interplay between all these, the tectonic shifts of bass over beat, the way the voice rides and tames the landslide guitar even while getting smothered in it. Rhythm and structure had been MBV’s secret aces ever since they’d put out “You Made Me Realise”, a five-track nail-bomb of compressed beat power where Shields used his guitar to reinforce Colm O’Ciosog’s drumming, and the rhythm mattered more than anything else, pulling the songs back then letting them burst to raging, erotic effect.

The amazing thing about “Soon” is that in sound and arrangement it was the furthest thing imaginable from fifties rock and roll, but still in a literal sense it was a rock and roll song, a record that aimed squarely at the hips. “Soon” may have sounded like an atmospheric storm, but it also felt impossibly carnal – those hungry, whited-out kissers on the single’s cover aren’t there by accident. If you had to explain sex to a machine, you could play it this song: the steady tumble of the rhythm, the excitable bubble of the verses and then the exhausting joy of release as engorged surges of guitar swamp the track. “Soon” isn’t warm or funky, nothing like it, but it is sexy: sex as an abstraction, as a fundamental force.

(And now I’ve tried haltingly to describe it, let’s put “Soon” in context. Even if it wasn’t intentional, the happy effect on punk in Britain was to provide an amnesty, an opportunity for pop to start again and build itself up better this time, away from the public eye. That was what indie music was about, both the rediscovery rock that it turned into and the relentless boundary-pushing modernism that peaked here, with “Soon”. “Soon” was the edge of pop, almost the last time that a guitar-drums-bass-vocals outfit could sound so new, so unselfconscious and so irresistible. The innovation game was up: bands could take the easy way out, buy a bunch of tasty pedals and wander around inside the very accomodating spaces Shields had so kindly set up with Loveless. Or they could try to pick up on the rhythmic explorations of “Soon”, digressing into dance music or pure abstraction. For My Bloody Valentine itself, “Soon” proved impossible to follow, and Kevin Shields has ended up as the post-punk Brian Wilson, albeit one whose masterpiece was released. In the end, only one band took pop further out, and then never made it back. Their story to follow.)