Slowdive Souvlaki
Press photo by Colin Bell / Creation Records

30 Years of Slowdive’s ‘Souvlaki’

Slowdive’s seminal 30-year-old album, Souvlaki, transcends the negativity that followed its release and carries strength through emotional relatability.

Creation Records
1 June 1993

Souvlaki was made by awkward fringe teenagers, the same kind of eccentric, music-obsessed kids in your hometown. Born in Fareham and later moved to Reading, Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead met each other when they were six years old. They went to the same schools, knew the same kids, and learned to play guitar from the same teachers. Still, their friendship didn’t bloom until their adolescent days spent at the local youth center, where Neil was charged with setting up musical equipment.

Goswell and her friend, Alison, wanted to start a group, so they would show up to play the instruments. An ostensibly scattered personality, Alison soon lost interest and abandoned the rock band pursuit, leaving Goswell to play with Halstead. However, her pursuit of making music was unwavering, and he was around, having passed her by many times between classical guitar lessons.

Rachel was deep into her goth phase and admired the Cocteau Twins and Siouxsie Sioux’s singing style. Neil, an indie kid often golfing alone in his spare time, would show up to the practice space and pick up a guitar. Neil revered the post-punk of the Jesus and Mary Chain, the indie pop of the Primitives, the jangle pop of the Byrds, and the steady ambient David Bowie‘s Low. They both had a mutual love for the Smiths and the Velvet Underground. Pointedly, their affinity for music culture solidified their friendship and branched them out into meeting like-minded people.

By 1989, they graduated from school and, still in their teens, formed Slowdive out of the dissolution of their first band, the Pumpkin Fairies. Halstead and Goswell stuck with their current drummer, Adrien Sell, who recruited his friend Nick Chaplin on bass before leaving six months later for university. Seasoned drummer Simon Scott of the Charlottes replaced him, and Slowdive were almost complete. However, they wanted to absorb one more guitarist to round them out, preferably female, so they sent out ads. Christian Savill, the only person to answer the ad, offered to wear a dress to join the band. They accepted him and decided the dress wasn’t necessary.

Slowdive hung out within the narrow Reading rock scene, attending shows at After Dark Club, where they saw the bands that influenced their sound and formation, including, Spacemen 3 (referred to as godfathers of shoegaze) and My Bloody Valentine (who became their peers/contemporaries). Savill particularly glommed onto the odd guitar tunings and immense sounds created by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and proto-shoegazers Kitchens of Distinction. It wasn’t until Savill joined the band that they began cranking up the reverb, experimenting with flanger and delay pedals, recording their first songs, and transforming into the Slowdive that we know, a group with their own idiosyncrasies that wasn’t just trying to play into the shoegaze genre or whatever was popular in contemporary rock. 

A name often used interchangeably with dream pop, shoegaze is characterized as atmospheric and melancholic, with vibes provided by ghostly vocals and smokey yet glassy soundscapes created by effects pedals. Shoegaze is experimental guitar music, essentially new-age psychedelia of the late 1980s and early 1990s with poppier tendencies. More importantly, shoegaze bands often influenced each other, borrowing and personalizing each other’s sonic experimentations. Such was the style that Slowdive enveloped and explored. In 1990, Creation Records signed the band, adding them to a roster of stylistically similar heavy hitters like My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Swervedriver. After three promising EPs, they released their debut LP, Just For a Day, in 1991.

However, Slowdive were essentially pigeonholed into the fad of shoegaze, which would soon be loathed by the music critics who created it. After the release of Just For a Day, they were chewed up by the press-created hype backlash as grunge and Britpop grew in popularity. The combination of these trendier movements brushed off shoegaze as a novelty trend with little to no traction. Unfortunately, Just For a Day struggled to take form, leaving critics to view it as an unimpressive, slogging addition to a tired trend.

Here is a noteworthy aspect of shoegaze: it is not built on charisma. These musicians had no interest in visual theatrics or exhibiting a gravitating personality to the audience. The genre name was originally meant as a slight insult from a journalist due to the lack of showmanship and the tendency to see band members crane their necks to stare down at effects pedals. Shoegaze bands didn’t have the zealous egos of frontmen like David Lee Roth or Bono, nor did they comment on rockstar attraction like Kurt Cobain, staying away from the notion of rockstardom altogether. This was the case for Slowdive, who have always been coldly sensual, sweetly melancholic, flighty, and angelic at times and despairing at others. They wanted to make music akin to the musicians they admired, meaning that, as uncharismatic as shoegaze bands were, they weren’t without charm.

Slowdive couldn’t escape the biting backlash of timely music journalism, and despite this seemingly cemented opposition, Slowdive and Creation released Souvlaki in June 1993, pre-empted by the Outside Your Room EP two weeks earlier. For the first time, listeners were exposed to a more articulated Slowdive. Their songwriting became more focused, and Souvlaki sees the band as more contemplative, cohesive, and complete. It sounds like an album that incorporates nonstructural shoegaze elements into excellent songwriting. 

Perhaps the long-standing respect given to Souvlaki shows that it isn’t bogged down by a fleeting trend. Yes, it is pinned to a particular style, but it transcends the movement, standing on its own singular merit. The opener and sole single, “Alison” – about two co-dependent, drug-addled youths trying to communicate through their highs – exemplifies the entire album with total effort. The song roves on steady rhythms from sure-handed guitars, drums, and lead vocals from Halstead, complimented by Goswell’s harmonies in the chorus.

Halstead and Goswell are a fluid team of singers on Souvlaki, which emerges firmly in the floating melodies of “Machine Gun”. One of the most satisfying elements of the album is the way Halstead and Goswell alternate vocal duties like two speeds of breeze with differing temperatures. This effect occurs throughout the album as they trade off vocals between and within songs. Goswell and Halstead’s voices soar over steady mid-tempo rhythms, droning background sounds that phase in and out, pleasing downbeat guitar strumming, strong bass foundations from Chaplin, and head-nodding drumming from Scott.

Slowdive even contacted Brian Eno during recording, hoping he would assist in writing better songs. Eno listened to and commended their music, but preferred to collaborate with them, appearing on two songs: “Sing” and “Here She Comes”. On the former, co-written by Eno, the famed musician and producer applies resonant keyboard blips that add dimension to spacey guitar notes and ride their irresistible inertia. His keys are lighter on the latter, along with Scott’s faint drumming, which only accentuates the somber, shadowy dance of Halstead’s guitar and vocals.

A densely multi-layered composition, “Souvlaki Space Station” rides on a rhythm set to a tremolo effect and Chaplin’s streamlined bassline, which is pushed close to the foreground, fitting into what was stylistically popular through most of the 1990s. This is a style of moody bassline that chooses a cool, brooding pop factor over the flashy guitar solos and riffs of hard rock and is noticeable in the music of trip hop-influenced bands like Garbage and the Cardigans and in “Some Velvet Morning”, a B-side to Souvlaki. The most rocking song on Souvlaki, “Where the Sun Hits”, is mounted on a Pixies-inspired bassline, the guitars kicking into the main riff with power unprecedented for Slowdive.

Shoegaze’s trademark craned-neck posture doesn’t only point to a rejection of showmanship. Objectively and with or without intention, it could imply a sense of painful shyness or a lack of confidence and self-esteem, tieing into Souvlaki’s thematic elements: the strain of a withered, failed romance and the emotional vulnerability that follows. Goswell and Halstead began dating after graduation. However, they broke off their romantic relationship while working on Souvlaki, leading Halstead, their primary songwriter, to write alone for the first time. The story goes that he rented a small cottage and isolated himself there for two weeks, immersing himself in a newfound misery to explore and reshape.

Halstead emerged from the cottage with songs like “40 Days” and “Dagger”, both arguably elegaic, alluding to death and memorialization as Halstead mourns his breakup and dwells on his misery. On “Dagger”, he considers himself to be the hurtful one, singing and strumming his acoustic guitar alone, only hearing a whisper in a world of noise. He watches his “sweet thing” burn away on “Where the Sun Hits”, and contemplates cold loneliness among strangers on “Here She Comes”. “Melon Yellow”, a dulcet, mellifluous tune and a personal favorite, carries a sense of resignation as Halstead sings, “So long, so long / It’s just a way to love you,” meaning “If you love them, let them go.”

Many songs are lyrically enigmatic, yet obvious in the context of heartbreak, as Halstead dives deep into sinking imagery (“Machine Gun”), shadows that look like his soul (“Here She Comes”), and dancing and sleeping figures (most songs), possibly alluding to an emotional distance between the two, such as in “Altogether” when Halstead sings “Sleepyhead, where did you go / I saw you turning, but I couldn’t catch your eye” between classic Beatles-esque pop harmonizations of “yeah, yeah, yeah”. A sense comes across of a relationship heavy with infatuation on one side and casually light on the other. His romance ended as a painful dream, with both of their feelings poorly communicated.

In retrospect, Souvlaki is generally considered second to Loveless in terms of quintessential shoegaze, but as opposed to My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive preferred delicate textures rather than cacophonous intensity. As a result, Souvlaki isn’t as overwhelming as Loveless. It isn’t massive, although it is certainly expansive. It feels light like a rolling fog or the dance of grass, simultaneously melting yet iced over, dark yet bright, layered in subdued vocals, distorted guitars, and draped in serene space.

Nineteen years after releasing their unheeded third album, Pygmalion, and their subsequent drop from Creation Records and disbandment, Slowdive regrouped to play Primavera Sound Festival in 2014. They released their self-titled fourth album three years later and will soon release a fifth. Additionally, Neil Halstead has been praised by several publications as one of Britain’s most remarkable songwriters.

The last decade and more has seen bands like Nothing, Ringo Deathstarr, Cigarettes After Sex, Beach House, and DIIV stir up a shoegaze revival, as well as shoegaze elements seeping into metal, as heard in bands like Deafheaven, Loathe, Alcest (with whom Halstead collaborated). Slowdive’s second coming and Souvlaki’s lasting glory shows that shoegazing is not just a novelty trend that dissolved shortly after solidifying, which is more than can be said about many musical trends that seem to lose life shortly after birth.