For a too-brief moment, Lush were the platonic ideal of an underground college band turning their dreams into a career. Emma Anderson and Miki Berenyi had channeled their careers as teen fanzine publishers and avid showgoers into singing and guitar-playing frontwomen, recruiting bassist Steve Rippon and drummer Chris Acland after meeting them at North London Polytechnic University. Anderson and Berenyi wrote all the songs, mostly individually but sometimes together, drawing on influences as wide as ABBA, the Shangri-La’s, and Siouxsie Sioux. They spent their early gigs opening for bands like My Bloody Valentine and the Pastels and, according to Berenyi’s crucial 2022 memoir, Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me From Success, fending off snide dismissals from asshole band guys.
On their first two releases, the six-track EP Scar and compilation album Gala, Lush drew on their love of post-punk and riot grrrl, sometimes spangled and ramshackle on songs like “Bitter” and “Sweetness and Light.” The latter song, an early fan favorite, exemplified their sense of elegance, laying down a bed of flange for Berenyi and Anderson’s high-pitched harmonies to float through, a blueprint for the sound they’d carry through their 1992 debut, Spooky. In retrospect, it was probably not the most auspicious time for an opaque British rock band known for beautiful harmonies to release their first proper album. Grunge was exploding around the world, and disaffected men from San Diego to Australia were being stalked by besuited label thirst-buckets looking to hit post-Nirvana paydirt. A band fronted by two women from the London underground whose guitar sound conveyed sangfroid rather than ennui was decidedly not that, and the UK was going in a more man-heavy direction, too, with the massive success of Primal Scream’s house-oriented psychedelia and the louche Britpop lads priming for a takeover.
As signees of the eclectic 4AD, Lush initially fit better alongside the label’s arty, college-radio roster—like Throwing Muses and the Pixies—and by 1989, Lush were near-instant heroes of the British press. “We are racking up write-ups on a weekly basis and score a full-page Melody Maker interview barely after our first rehearsals with Steve,” Berenyi writes in Fingers Crossed. “While the plaudits are flattering, they were worryingly premature and punters expecting to witness the Next Big Thing are disappointed to find that Lush are a stumbling band fronted by a painfully shy and barely audible vocalist.”
By the time Lush started recording Spooky, they had already been through the British press’s love-hate wringer a couple of times, and they’d also already been categorized into a scene that would become known as shoegaze—as in self-absorbed guitar nerds all staring at their shoes—a derisive term in the UK that, incidentally, scanned as “cool as hell” in the U.S. They’d recorded a few songs for Scar and Gala with Robin Guthrie, co-founder of the Cocteau Twins, and Berenyi and Anderson were directing their music in a more textural direction, with massive, staticky guitars acting as a scrim before their angel harmonies.
While Guthrie was alternately credited and blamed for Spooky’s ethereality, Berenyi writes that he was often not even in the studio, off nursing his “notorious cocaine habit.” Besides, a lot of the ethereality came from Berenyi’s voice itself, which was high and throaty, the kind of head voice that a voice teacher might scold for not coming from the diaphragm. Anderson’s higher register was much clearer, but her harmonies often floated in minor keys and weird thirds that made their songs sound as though the band was high upon a cliff, majestic but at risk of teetering off.
The album that resulted was deceptively hazy, its guitar effects coalescing into the women’s voices, giving the iridescent effect of oil circling in a whirlpool. “Stray” opens with Berenyi taking the high notes and Anderson providing the lower harmonies, in a statement about troubled wandering that sounds almost Gregorian in tone: hymnal, somehow above the earth. It bleeds into “Nothing Natural,” an Anderson-written track that follows the ascent and disappointment of a relationship, Rippon’s bass rolling like the wheel rod on a steam engine to ground the women’s rotor of guitars. Berenyi and Anderson’s writing styles were complementary: The latter’s hooks were stormy and heavier on the low end, while the former’s had a dreamier quality, letting each idea unfurl at its own pace. By drenching their songs in reverb and flange, their poppiness was almost subliminal. “Tiny Smiles” is practically a lullaby, their voices hinged in harmony and “mmm-mmms” wafting down like celestial detritus, while “Superblast!” roils at a speedy punk pace, a thrash song that confuses the prospect with the bait and switch of Anderson and Berenyi belting patiently about abandonment. The shoegaze label had missed the point: Lush were not their effects pedals, but a pop-punk band with a heightened sense of aesthetics.
”Untogether” and “For Love,” two Berenyi-written tracks, are as Beatlesian in spirit as any of the Britpop boys who came before or after, two bop-along songs telling vivid stories about other peoples’ relationships and one complicated breakup. The latter track got a video, too, which focused primarily on Berenyi’s soft-lit visage with a handful of pink roses and white daffodils, intercut with scenes of the band playing. The “Nothing Natural” video was also mostly close-ups of Berenyi singing next to Anderson, a quiet angel with bangs. Lush’s visuals were clean, high-contrast, and full of color, with the women making deliberate eye contact with the camera more frequently than looking down at their feet. They may have sounded impressionistic—their words weren’t super easy to discern without a lyric sheet—but their approach was unflinching and direct. Lush, at heart, had more in common with Nirvana: the way they could sneak pop melodies into the messy overdrive of guitar pedals, the way Berenyi’s voice, in particular, had a sort of eely characteristic, like it would disappear just as you were about to get your arms around it.
Spooky came at a precocious time, when Berenyi and Anderson were approaching their mid-twenties, and beginning to molt into their more adult selves. It was partly a vessel for building something powerful and beautiful atop the painful memories Berenyi writes about in her memoir, coming to terms with her grandmother’s horrific abuse and her divorced parents’ messiness in general. Where Anderson could be more pointed in her lyricism, Berenyi tended towards the dreaminess (”Stray,” “Ocean”) of organisms, using the blue tide and green fields as imagery. “For Love,” one of Lush’s most popular songs, is not about a whirlwind romance as its enthusiastic tempo might imply, but about her relationship to her parents in light of their broken marriage.
The titans of shoegaze were always presented—whether via their conceptually far-flung, wall-of-sound guitars or the diaphanous photographs that depicted the band members—as serious bands purveying serious music. (Perhaps it was the correct term after all.) “There’s some heavy class snobbery. Middle-class is a dirty word at the moment,” Berenyi told the Glasgow Herald’s Peter Easton upon the release of Spooky. “They think that bands like us and Ride and Slowdive are rich kids whose parents bought all their instruments. Just spoilt brats. A bit of a misconception.” And apart from the occasional key figures—My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher and Debbie Googe, Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, all of whom defined their bands’ sound—there were few women to take the mantle in a scene where genius was measured by the overdrive of a guitar pedal.
After Spooky’s release and constant stateside touring, Lush were truly welcome figures in the U.S. Not only were they a pair of women leading a band, Berenyi was the rare woman of color in the alt-rock scene of any subgenre—her mother was Japanese—and she became a de facto frontwoman thanks mostly to her fire-engine-red dye job, which translated into a kind of charisma. (She also wore really cute minidresses with rugby stripes and black tights with cutoff jorts, a true 1990s style idol.) This wasn’t the easiest position in an era overrun with male shitheads—Berenyi’s former boyfriend, the ’80s punk figure Billy Childish, once wrote a poem about her entitled “Someone Else’s Little Jap,” for one, plus Berenyi and Anderson were constantly asked to wear sexualized outfits in photo shoots, which they refused. They were feminist and plucky despite certain condescending perceptions of women who harmonize in high keys. “People suggest we don’t say anything with our music, that we’re apolitical, but some of the subjects we deal with are really quite disturbing. Because we’re not shouting and screaming, people don’t register that,” Anderson told The Observer’s Simon Reynolds, in February 1992. Their love songs could pine, but mostly they were about female desire and willful rejection of their own lovers; “Laura,” a bass-driven rollicker, was about a general world-weariness and finding comfort in the music of Laura Nyro.
Still, Spooky got a slight drubbing here and there, the British press’ fickleness haunting Lush again, even as the album hit No. 7 on the UK charts. The U.S. wasn’t always kind, either. “British band gets sidetracked by its avant-garde leanings. As a result, baby-voiced singing drowns in a midtempo wash of atmospheric guitar noise,” went Billboard’s review, which was not bylined but giving Man. Perry Farrell liked them, though, and Lush (with new bassist Phil King) were booked for 1992’s Lollapalooza festival. They were the only women playing on the main stage, which Berenyi says in her memoir could be pretty dreadful, be it their tour manager taking bets on which of the men could fuck her and Anderson or truly gross sexual harassment from, Berenyi writes, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis and Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes.
But their opening slot helped Lush’s popularity in the U.S., and soon they’d be touring the states constantly, albeit on some weird bills. After the release of their second album, Split, I saw them headline Denver’s Ogden Theater on August 4, 1994, when they played with this new rock band from L.A. called Weezer. That lineup wasn’t nearly as ill-fitting as their tour a couple of years later with the Goo Goo Dolls and the Gin Blossoms, those post-grunge, alt-adult-contemporary superstars that cursed mainstream rock in 1996. Lush released one final album, Lovelife, that same year, but as Britpop took over and management and label situations in both the U.S. and the UK soured, their fate was in question. When Chris Acland, Lush’s drummer and close friend, died of suicide in the fall of ’96, the band was done for 20 years, up until one brief reunion and EP in 2016.
Thirty years later, Spooky stands out more for what it wasn’t than what it was: it wasn’t a by-the-numbers shoegaze album, nor was it comfortably situated in shoegaze’s sister genre, dream pop. The album is an example of how labels tend to pigeonhole a sound and cloud it for what it was; easy consumption is not close listening. Lush were first and foremost a DIY punk band who were witness to and part of the mainstreaming of the underground, a pop band with a love of loud-ass guitars, and an important band that made alternative rock music massively more interesting in a time of recovering male metalheads. Mostly, though, they left a lasting document of determination and beauty, two teen fanzine publishers made good.
Additional research by Deirdre McCabe Nolan.