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Sonic Youth

One of the most iconic, creative and influential American post-punk acts ever to have generated white noise for the sake of it, SONIC YOUTH and, more prominently spokesman Thurston Moore, set a template for a 1,001 trailing acts that would’ve fitting into the VELVET UNDERGROUND and STOOGES lineage had SY not arrived on the scene. No SONIC YOUTH, no HUSKER DU, PIXIES, NIRVANA and MOGWAI – simple as!
Formed in New York City, in early 1981, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo had met while working with local no-wave/avant-garde composer, GLENN BRANCA. Moore’s girlfriend, Kim Gordon (bassist/co-vocalist with a fine arts degree from L.A.’s Otis College), drummer Richard Edson and keyboardist Anne DeMarinis, hooked up a few months into their tenure, although the latter musician decided that her group Interference might hold the key and an outsider’s chance to success – she was wrong.
BRANCA’s Neutral Records was the quartet’s stamping ground; their eponymous EP/mini-set SONIC-YOUTH (1982) {*5}, not unlike PiL, Factory bands and a host of avant-gardeners from both sides of the Atlantic. Jim Sclavunos stepped in to replace Edson for the band’s first full set, and probably only for the completist or SY connoisseur, CONFUSION IS SEX {*7} was released the following March. An uneasy listen, and at times eerily mind-numbing, this experimental soundscape was truly leftfield lo-fi; PATTI SMITH/LYDIA LUNCH-clone Kim Gordon taking her vocal turn in the anti-tonal `Protect Me You’, and the first of two covers, `I Wanna Be Your Dog’ (a frenzied ex-STOOGES scream-fest segued alongside the group’s `Freezer Burn’); the other was SWANS’ `The World Looks Red’, which showcased the worthy Thurston. Also included on SY’s German-only `Kill Yr. Idols’ EP release (later added to CD re-issue copies), `Shaking Hell’ was disturbingly disjointed and beautifully brutal; Kim’s demure vocal chords again taking centre stage, while `Making The Nature Scene’, plunged deeper into screech pitch. The aforementioned EP roller-coastered into car-crash territory, the swirling and dare one say it… sonic, boom, of `Brother James’, the title track and the 6-minute `Early American’, were straight from the NICO-meets-LYDIA LUNCH sour-plum songbook; note too, that Bob Bert was drafted in on drums.
“Queen Of Siam” LL, was in fact summoned to guest on SONIC YOUTH’s “killer” track, the glorious `Death Valley ‘69’, a macabre reference to the infamous Charles Manson murders. Signed up to both Homestead and Blast First in the US and UK respectively, parent set BAD MOON RISING (1985) {*7}, was as far removed from the JOHN FOGERTY/CCR timepiece than one could possibly imagine. Showing SONIC YOUTH at their most menacing and satanic, there was room on board for a straight-lift STOOGES song intro before the CRISPY AMBULANCE-esque 8-minuter `Society Is A Hole’ kicked into gear. Once again, the subsequent CD re-issue was graced by the presence of the `Halloween’ (b/w `Flower’) tracks/EP. The original offering peaked with the feverishly ethereal `I’m Insane’; perfect paranoia for vinyl vampires to sink their teeth into.
On a mission to maintain a “Spinal Tap” approach to their drummers, SONIC YOUTH finally settled with the edgy Steve Shelley (Bert would join PUSSY GALORE), while S.S.T. Records – home to BLACK FLAG, The MINUTEMEN, MEAT PUPPETS, DINOSAUR JR., et al – came calling, heralding yet another socially passionate thrash effort with EVOL (1986) {*8}. Displaying a pic of model-actress Lung Leg (and not Kim, as always assumed), set openers `Tom Violence’, `Shadow Of A Doubt’ (featuring a whispering/screaming Kim in full flow) and the single `Starpower’, proved their most accessible alt-rock release rather than noise-driven hardcore. Three other significant missives were threaded into the album’s mix: namely LYDIA LUNCH starring role on the collaborative `Marilyn Moore’, The MINUTEMEN’s Mike Watt performing bass on `In The Kingdom #19’ and a cover of KIM FOWLEY’s `Bubblegum’ (a CD exclusive), plus the locked-groove for SY’s paean to “Madonna, Sean And Me” (the UK title) for finale piece, `Expressway To Yr. Skull’.
It was at this stage SONIC YOUTH were on a high, creative plain, as they enthusiastically agreed to write the score for MADE IN USA {*4}; young Hollywood director Ken Friedman had already tried out the fragile `Secret Girl’ (from “Evol”) and discarded tracks by Southern-fried boogie band, The OUTLAWS. Deep from within the Spinhead studios in the San Fernando Valley, SONIC YOUTH constructed their (mono) experimental soundscapes around the road movie’s rushes. Not all of their music (recorded October 1986) was used for the 1987 movie (much to Thurston’s dismay) and it took several years for the soundtrack to hit the shops. SONIC YOUTH had become America’s underground darlings of the experimental jet-set, but this OST (released in February ’95) was not part of their master-plan, having been put on the backburner until demand was high.
First thing one noticed when one handled the CD package was the pseudo shop-price sticker retailing at $0.00 – if only. Made up of short-ish, 1-2 minute instrumental soundbites, the band career through the odd tune. The exception to the rule was an excellent version of the aforementioned `Secret Girl’, Kim at her sexiest, if sounding a tad Patti. Most of the tracks seemed throwaway and quite annoyingly repetitive. Take for instance `Tuck N Dar’, a proper song that reprised the previous two instrumentals. If there was any comparison, the desert sound of RY COODER on his “Southern Comfort” manifesto, was not so far removed. Of the less cinematic pieces, `Rim Thrusters’ (mouth harp by Terry Pearson), was the most excitingly upbeat on show, hinting that they’d not lost touch with rock’n’roll.
On the back of their sideline project, CICCONE YOUTH, an amalgam of the quartet plus Mike Watt (who’d moved on to fIREHOSE), and their underground take of MADONNA’s `Into The Groove(y)’, the excellent SISTER (1987) {*9} proved SONIC YOUTH had plenty left in the tank. Another complex twist of cathartic sprawl and detached freefalling, malevolent melody was at the core of very much every track on show here, `Catholic Block’, `Schizophrenia’, `Tuff Gnarl’ and `Master Dik’, self-indulgently different class; a whole 12-inches worth of “Master-Dik” meanderings (featuring a re-vamp of the RAMONES’ `Beat On The Brat’) kept fans from thinking they’d fully sold out their noisenik principles.
The aforementioned CICCONE YOUTH off-shoot re-surfaced in ’88; THE WHITEY ALBUM {*7}, achieving sample-istic freedom via the fusion meld with namesake MADONNA on the “Groove(y)” track. Watt, himself, showcased his larynx with a cover of Madge’s `Burnin’ Up’, while in between the experiments came Kim’s karaoke-type take of ROBERT PALMER’s `Addicted To Love’. Another artefact of the time was one SY’s many split-7” diversions; the independently released version of MUDHONEY’s `Touch Me, I’m Sick’, flipped with reversed-forecast of `Halloween’.
Having inked a deal with Enigma Records (who were on the verge of bankruptcy), DAYDREAM NATION (1988) {*10} suffered from nightmarish distribution, thus one of the great double albums of these transitional times was left fighting for exposure and chart status. As usual it was Radio One DJ, John Peel, who was the group’s saviour, giving airtime to the likes of charged-up classics, `Teen Age Riot’, `Silver Rocket’, `The Sprawl’, `Eric’s Trip’, `Providence’ and the trippy `Trilogy’ closing pieces. The FALL must’ve been fave raves of the group, as the self-financed “4 Tunna Brix” – referring to Mark E.’s American missus, Brix E. Smith – paid them homage by way of `My New House’, `Rowche Rumble’, `Psycho Mafia’ and er… one-time KINKS and FALL smash: `Victoria’. Early in ‘89, the cult of SONIC YOUTH was finally recognised when they were featured on an hour-long TV documentary for Melvyn Bragg’s South Bank Show.
Although duly taking the plunge when signing to the David Geffen Company (DGC), full artistic control was granted SONIC YOUTH when the band re-emerged with a Top 100 (UK Top 40) breakthrough set, GOO (1990) {*8}. Featuring a cameo with Chuck D (of PUBLIC ENEMY fame) on the track/single `Kool Thing’, the set was sweetened by their deeply haunting tribute to Karen Carpenter: `Tunic (Song For Karen)’. While the album filed in eerie melody next door to garage-punk, arty noise collages with melodic hooks were part of the make up of `Mary-Christ’, `Disappearer’, `Titanium Expose’ and minor UK hit, `Dirty Boots’.
A support slot to PUBLIC ENEMY that year, and also stepping out with NEIL YOUNG on his “Ragged Glory” tour in ‘91 (much to the distaste of Neil’s more conservative fans!), the exposure could only reel them in greater rewards. In 1992, many thought DIRTY {*7} to be a disappointment, the UK Top 10 record being overproduced and overtaken by their new rivals and labelmates, NIRVANA. Bigger in Britain than Stateside (where attendant single `100%’ reached the Top 30), renowned knob-twiddler Butch Vig steered them towards the grunge market rather than propelling their individualist pop-fuelled ideals into their formulary glorious chaos. Striking out for the common man (or woman), Kim and the lads took on an overtly political approach on the likes of the Reagan/Bush-baiting of `Youth Against Fascism’, `Sugar Kane’, `Chapel Hill’ and `Swimsuit Issue’.
Sticking with Vig’s clean production, song structure and acoustic-ness, a psychedelia twist was apparent on the combo’s umpteenth set, EXPERIMENTAL JET SET, TRASH AND NO STAR (1994) {*6}. While it was hard for the group to steer clear of grunge and the NIRVANA-meets-HOLE stereotypes (Kurt Cobain had also committed suicide a couple of weeks prior to its release), the transatlantic Top 40 set also delivered yet another UK-only hit by way of `Bull In The Heather’. The meat and bones of the “Experimental” set finally took shape around about closing time; `In The Mind Of The Bourgeois Reader’ and `Sweet Shine’, re-booting a certain degree of impact and oomph.
Kim’s guilty pleasure music tastes (as also portrayed in her FREE KITTEN side-project) was there for all to see when she led SONIC YOUTH into the pop world of The CARPENTERS, and their karaoke UK Top 50 take of `Superstar’, a song incidentally scribed by LEON RUSSELL. Married to Thurston nigh on a decade, each branched out on their own individual musical exploits after Kim gave birth to their first child, Coco Hayley. Meanwhile, RANALDO was also giving solo worker THURSTON MOORE a run for his money on a couple of low-key sets, while the mainman was helping to score EVAN DANDO film vehicle, “Heavy”.
Back on SONIC YOUTH terra firma, the double set WASHING MACHINE (1995) {*8} was certainly put out to dry by many fickle fans who’d baulked at their low-key alt-rock appeal of their previous set. `Panty Lies’, `Saucer-Like’, the narrative of `Skip Tracer’, the pastoral `Unwind’, and The SHANGRI-LA’S-meets-John Carpenter-ish `Little Trouble Girl’, had just about restored equilibrium. And if one wanted SONIC YOUTH tripping out on prog, the 19-minute `The Diamond Sea’ was just the ticket to continue their new paths to glory.
It seemed inevitable that their dalliance with the pop world would come to an end and, in A THOUSAND LEAVES (1998) {*7}, SY restored their bond with avant-garde experimentalism. When Moore and Ranaldo extracted a bit of cold soul to their dissonant drones, Kim would whisper-to-a-scream through the screeching `Female Mechanic Now On Duty’, `French Tickler’ and `Heather Angel’. Running in at over 70 minutes, accessible tracks centered on swansong minor hit, `Sunday’, while 20 mins was afforded the softer, ecliptic `Hits Of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)’ and `Karen Koltrane’.
Marking their appreciative lineage from minimalist ambience to no-wave, and back again, SONIC YOUTH (on their own SYR imprint), guaranteed Chinese whispers in the delusions of grandeur studio tour of avant-garde composers through GOODBYE 20th CENTURY (1999) {*4}, a curious record that pitted them against the likes of Christian Wolff, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, JIM O’ROURKE, et al.
Post-millennium delivery NYC GHOSTS & FLOWERS (2000) {*4} was another shapeless, arty-farty collision of the minds, and also a tribute of sorts, inspired by the beat poets who once upon a time fed their wayward muse on the Big Apple’s mean streets. Featuring an Allen Ginsberg-derived title and William S. Burroughs cover art, the album was only partly successful in capturing the wild-eyed passion of the era. Fans had once again felt short-changed, and the poor sales figures distanced themselves (probably intentionally) from the mainstream.
Their first straight-up rock’n’roll album (if SONIC YOUTH could ever be described as dealing in straight up RnR) in almost five years: MURRAY STREET (2002) {*7} found Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo and Shelley (with O’Rourke now a fully paid up member) reining in much of their tendency to free-form noise experimentation with a refreshingly prudent approach to their too often wearingly familiar craft; `The Empty Page’, `Rain On Tin’ and the 11-minute `Karen Revisited’, restoring the faith somewhat.
Often releasing sets aimed at just a small section of their fanbase, SONIC YOUTH described their next entrée into soundtrack-land, DEMONLOVER (2002) {*4} as “the film score that you dream about doing” and, by all accounts, they were in their element during its recording. Having previously selected `Tunic’ from their “Goo” album for his movie, Irma Vep, director Olivier Assayas was eager to collaborate more closely with Moore and Co., this time on a project inspired in part by Japanese Hentai pornography.
Of SONIC YOUTH’s original score (taking up the first half of the disc), `Move Away’, a rhythmic slow builder with Kim on vocals, was by far the most accessible track, though it still comes on like CAN in a k-hole. In `Control Freak’, tinkling cymbals and throbbing waves of noise, lapse into melancholy strummed guitar chords and distant feedback. Elsewhere, `Safe In Hell’ could’ve been excerpted from an early VERVE flip-side, which could be a good thing, while `Teknikal Illprovisation’ sounded like Eraserhead in a rainforest, which probably wasn’t; GOLDFRAPP, DEATH IN VEGAS, SOULFLY et al, diverged significantly from SONIC YOUTH’s abstractions.
The playfully-titled SONIC NURSE (2004) {*6} offered up more music therapy for hopeless noise-pop addicts on a record that witnessed the resurgence of Kim Gordon. Having taken a back seat over the last half decade (in terms of whispered, NICO-meets-PATTI vocal parts), she restated her hip-queen credentials on contemporary-culture shredding standouts like opener `Pattern Recognition’, plus `Dude Ranch Nurse’ and the pop culture suite, `Kim Gordon And The Arthur Doyle Hand Cream’.
Yet it was on the acclaimed RATHER RIPPED (2006) {*7} that KG really came back into her own, heralding the album’s open-plan, aggravated pop sympathy on opener `Reena’. With O’ROURKE having departed to continue his solo/soundtrack career, and the band pared down to the original unit that recorded their late 80s/early 90s masterworks, there was a definite sense of coming full circle without abandoning their avant-garde template. While the set resurrected some vital minor chart status and a bit of cash, piledrivers and pill-divers balanced their poetic freewheeling assaults via `Sleepin’ Around’, `Jams Run Free’ and `Turquoise Boy’.
Aside from all their un-major label sidesteps (and there were more than a few), Matador Records would release the group’s revitalised blast, THE ETERNAL (2009) {*7}. Officially adding a fifth member in former PAVEMENT bassist, Mark Ibold (an inspirational move all round), churning guitars, stonkingly sexy tunes and lo-fi strollers, pierced their way into one’s subconscious through `What We Know’, `Antenna’ and the pounding `Anti-Orgasm’. Top 20 in America and Top 50 in Britain (now that was a turnaround), SONIC-YOUTH had re-opened their doors to fans of their post-punk salad days.
In their time as purveyors of punk and hip-trip hardcore, SONIC YOUTH delivered some excellent flipside covers: `Ticket To Ride’ + `Within You Without You’ (The BEATLES), `Electricity’ (CAPTAIN BEEFHEART), `Computer Age’ (NEIL YOUNG), `I Know There’s An Answer’ (The BEACH BOYS), `That’s All I Know (Right Now)’ (The Neon Boys), `Is It My Body? (ALICE COOPER), `Personality Crisis’ (NEW YORK DOLLS), `Ca Plane Pour Moi’ (Plastic Bertrand) and `Moist Vagina/MV’ (NIRVANA).
It was a fitting epitaph to the 30 years of SONIC YOUTH when they self-released the soundtrack score to Fabrice Gobert’s French teen thriller, SIMON WERNER A DISPARU (2011) {*6}. Needless to say, SY’s customary cocktail of layered soundscapes and MOGWAI-esque touches (from masters to servants it seemed), the moody Moore was in his element on themes stretched across the board. Whether Kim’s lack of vocal participation was a factor in the band’s subsequent break-up in 2012 (Kim and Thurston also divorced), it mattered little when the 60 year-old branched out on her own for the Massachusetts-based duo, BODY/HEAD (alongside the relatively unknown Bill Nace). Meanwhile, Thurston continued to take part in numerous activities and side-projects, while running his own Ecstatic Peace imprint.
KIM GORDON was still busying herself with her BODY/HEAD project; from live set “No Waves” (rec. 2014) to “The Switch” (2018), when she sandwiched in a GLITTERBUST eponymous LP in 2016 that saw her team up with Alex Knost (of Tomorrows Tulips). Then almost out of the blue, and possibly overdue, the SY icon finally liberated her debut solo set: “No Home Record” (2019). As claustrophobic and challenging as one might’ve expected, producer Justin Raisen allowed her (with WARPAINT drummer Stella Mozgawa and others) to experiment and echo a post-industrial sound not too detached from SONIC YOUTH’s halcyon days.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/MCS/SW // rev-up MCS Sep2013-Oct2019

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