Sonic Youth's 30 years on the fringe
When I was 13 I started reading Guitar World - I was obsessed with the guitar. I was listening to a lot of blues-rock stuff - Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck. But reading Guitar World helped me to go further back (Robert Johnson, Django Reinhardt) and wider/broader (Alan Holdsworth). I would read about my favourite guitar heroes (Ritchie Blackmore) and learn about new ones.
It was through the pages of Guitar World that I discovered Sonic Youth.
Listening to Dirty was mind-altering. I found room for Sonic Youth near the top of the list of my favourite bands. A list that still, at that point, revolved around The Rolling Stones and The Kinks and Santana and The Beatles and The Yardbirds.
Sonic Youth's music was a fresh new sound to my ears - I picked up Goo and Dirty and then worked back from there, picking up EVOL (1986) and Confusion Is Sex (1983); eventually hearing the seminal one-two of Sister (1987) and Daydream Nation (1988) and then buying 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and 1995's Washing Machine when they were released.
I saw Sonic Youth on the Washing Machine tour - Foo Fighters opened; it was a good double bill, if a little strange. It felt like two separate audiences, somewhat uneasily sharing the room. During the break between bands we overheard kids too young to know very much about Kurt Cobain but dressed a lot like him saying things like "apparently this Sonic Youth band is, like, really alternative".
Nearly a decade later I flew to Auckland to see the band again - after 2004's Sonic Nurse; it was while Jim O'Rourke was, fleetingly, a member. This time J. Mascis jerked the curtain; it seemed a better fit.
I'm not the biggest fan of the overly gimmicked play-a-classic-album-live routine but I do (still) regret not flying up to have a third bite at the Sonic Youth live cherry when they were performing Daydream Nation in its entirety.
The general consensus tends to be that post-Washing Machine Sonic Youth's discography is patchy-at-best; the albums are petering out, the band has run out of ideas. But I disagree. I think there's a lot to like on 1998's A Thousand Leaves, 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers, 2002's Murray Street, 2004's Sonic Nurse, 2006's Rather Ripped and 2009's The Eternal. Okay, there's no one classic album there - not one of those, track for track, could compete with Daydream or Sister or Goo or Dirty or Washing Machine - but there's plenty of evidence of plenty of ideas.
Then there's the Sonic Youth Recordings (SYR) series. Since 1997 the band has released limited edition EPs of noise and improvisation, collaborations with DJs and influential alternative/noise artists (John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich). Most recently SYR9 is the soundtrack to French film Simon Werner a Disparu; I'd argue it's one of the best things the band has done in years. Overall the SYR series might fly under the radar - as it's basically designed to - and might be for the stronger stomachs only but there's a lot of incredible music (and art, if you like) here.
How about that band-name, Sonic Youth? It's iconic - but it's also ironic. The band's oldest member is zeroing in on 60. It's like the band name went from being cool to even cooler; for a while there the name Sonic Youth might have seemed naff - not now. It's hipper than ever as this band celebrates 30 years on the fringe.
I've always liked that Sonic Youth has only ever flirted with the mainstream. And while whole albums might be deemed unlistenable (Confusion Is Sex) there is a lot of accessible material. (Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star is probably the band's least experimental offering; it's very easy to like - it even starts with an acoustic track!)
I've seen Sonic Youth performing The Diamond Sea with the pulse of strobe lighting sending the song skyward, transporting listeners also, in an ethereal sense. I've also seen this band all but fall apart on stage. To me they're the epitome of a group that learned the rules first - so that they could get tear them up and forget them, carrying on by writing their own. They've moved through and around punk and post-punk, they've flirted with a version of grunge, they've been deeply experimental and oddly placid, almost safe. They've been hugely influential but they've retained their urgency, energy and originality - no one has stolen their thunder; made them seem irrelevant or past their used-by date.
There are nods to free-jazz and plenty of, er, sonic innovators and improvisers. The band has embraced hip-hop and pop music - as cultures, as sources for ideas, as something to mirror, to trace around, to react to, to challenge and pay tribute to. The band has recorded elegies for Karen Carpenter and Jimi Hendrix. They've also written songs celebrating Joni Mitchell and Mariah Carey. They've recorded with Chuck D.
Sonic Youth is a band I've been listening to for half my life now - as long as I've been listening to bands that are almost completely dissimilar, Deep Purple for example. And I can still find new things in the old material. And I'll still be interested - every time - in hearing a new album. In terms of being blown away by an album. I've got an iPod that has every Sonic Youth album, all the b-sides I've collected, EPs, their SYR releases, live bootlegs - all sorts. And pound for pound, there's more music by Sonic Youth that keeps inspiring me, keeps me inspired than just about any other band working in the broader pop, rock, punk and alternative fields.
There are more than a dozen Sonic Youth albums that hold some form of magic for me. From howls and squeals of feedback and odd guitar treatments to the four-on-the-floor drumming (Steve Shelley is basically Moe Tucker if she played a conventional kit). It helps that there are three unique writing (and singing) voices propelling this band. It helps that there are three guitarists teasing and tweaking both melodic and rhythmic ideas; playing with angles. It helps that I have kept listening to the music, sure. But that's because they've kept making it. And as long as they do I'll keep checking in.
Kim Gordon has also managed, in her own inimitable way, to be a fashion icon, a sex symbol (while mocking the idea of being any kind of sex symbol) and a feminist icon. She's a punk rocker, serious artist and mother. She's never had an issue being all of these things - and more. She's never made a point of making it about being those things.
So, you might have guessed from all this: I'm a Sonic Youth fan.
How about you? Are you a Sonic Youth fan? What got you into this band? What are your favourite albums? Or have you never been a fan? Could you never understand the buzz? (Usually, the buzz emanates from Lee Renaldo's guitar, just so you know.) Maybe you were a fan for a while but don't feel the band has released anything exciting in some time now. Or are you more a fan of the music from the last 10 years than the 20 before that?
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