Sonic Youth - Biography
There are only a few truly great experimental rock bands, groups so massively unique that the aftershocks of their influence rumble and reverberate for decades. At the top of that very short list is Sonic Youth. Snark if you will about their longevity, but give them all their due credit. They dragged the sound of New York minimalism into the mainstream. They took techniques from composers like John Cage and applied them to electric guitars — and they didn’t do it at a conservatory or in a recital hall. They did it in hockey arenas. They did it at Glastonbury. They took the banal, brute force of American hardcore and No Wave, and folded it back into itself, creating a radical new performance idiom, one that brimmed with wry intelligence, tactical aggression, and, yes, aural and verbal lyricism. There are legions of bands formed in the last 20 years that should be paying them royalties, just on general principle. Sonic Youth belong in the rarified company of giants like Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, The Velvet Underground, This Heat, and Faust, and they’ve been active for as long — and sold as many records — as all those bands combined. Yet they continue to champion the international avant-garde to successive generations of young, open ears.
The band was formed in 1981, with Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo on guitars, and Kim Gordon on bass. The three had performed within earshot of each other in previous groups in the Lower East Side of New York City. More importantly, they had each pulled duty in the massed-guitar ensembles of Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. Much of the band’s signature sound has its origin here: sustained chords; furious, percussive attack; unique tunings and unconventional intonation; manipulation of ringing, pealing harmonics; and volume — lots of volume. Ranaldo in particular has cited the work of Chatham as being a revelation.
However, Chatham was coming from an avant-garde perspective, influenced by the drones of the Tony Conrad/John Cale/La Monte Young early-60s—era Dream Syndicate, and inclined to go for extended duration. Thurston, Kim and Lee — and, for the first four years, a variety of drummers — had something else in mind. They would break their sound down to manageable, three- and four-minute chunks, and add vocals. Sonic Youth would owe a proud debt to the avant-garde, but from the beginning, within the crust of noise, squalor, and experimentation, this was going to be a rock band.
Their first effort came early, perhaps too early, financed and released by Branca on his tiny Neutral label, in 1982. The self-titled Sonic Youth EP, recorded in a studio inside Radio City Music Hall, is somewhat of an anomaly in the band’s early discography: It echoes the sound of a number of downtown contemporaries; the songs are somewhat conventional; it is short on guitar fury; drummer Richard Edson plays roto-toms.
In November, the group piled into a van for their first tour, this time with Bob Bert on drums. With them was another new band, with whom they shared a practice space: Swans. This was the original line-up, with Jonathan Kane on drums, and Sue Hanel on guitar, who Kane describes as “fearsome.” This would be the notorious Savage Blunder Tour, which snaked through the Deep South, and afforded Sonic Youth the opportunity to fine-tune the material for their first full-length LP.
That record, 1983’s Confusion is Sex (Neutral), blows the doors off. It is a screaming maelstrom, with shrieking, tortured guitars front and center. The tracks incorporate fields of rough texture; the tone is midnight-dark; but this is a band excavating a completely unique sound. Thurston and Lee’s ability to coax an unearthly racket from guitars is remarkable. The process is always physical, using preparations like drumsticks and screwdrivers inserted in the strings, multiple bridges, and odd tunings, rather than electronic effects; it gives the record, despite the somewhat nihilistic tenor, a rich, organic quality. Just as encouraging is the Kill Your Idols EP (1883 Zensor), released that same year; the clangor is just as strong; the songwriting stronger.
The next LP, Bad Moon Rising (1985 Homestead), is, from the first five seconds, an obvious, exponential leap. Confusion is a fine record, but nothing on it indicates the possibility for the conceptual expansion heard throughout Bad Moon. The opening track “Intro/Brave Men Run” is lovely, yet it also shreds; Kim successfully delivers the band’s first anthem. “I Love Her All the Time,” is swaddled in gnashing noise, yet is downright melodic — enough so that Camper van Beethoven immediately covered it. “I’m Insane” is harrowing and amusing, as Thurston reads the titles of pulp novels in lieu of lyrics. The songwriting and performances are solid, and the songs segue effortlessly, often with damaged excerpts from/homages to The Stooges and Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. The finale with Lydia Lunch, “Death Valley ’69,” remains the most blistering hard-rock track of the band’s career. The subsequent “Flower/Halloween” 12” (1985 Homestead) is just as outstanding, and a great showcase for Kim; emphatic on the pounding “Flower”; seductive as “Halloween” writhes and undulates.
With Bad Moon Rising, Sonic Youth demonstrated they could write great songs, albeit in an experimental vein. Furthermore they showed an ability to utilize both melody and noise — not side by side, but together, fused. It raised an intriguing notion: Could or would they do it while writing more mainstream rock/pop songs? It would be a feat. The Velvet Underground had managed it; few had tried since.
That’s exactly what they did. Like Let it Bleed or Who’s Next, you can tell immediately that EVOL (1986 SST) is a great record. From the first down-stroke, the opening track “Tom Violence” is stunning. It has a deliberate, crushing pressure to it, yet the listener floats inside it, suspended in liquid. “Shadow of a Doubt” establishes a gentle dynamic, which is abruptly broken to great effect. “Star Power” is an uninhibited gallop, pure pop. The LP continues through a myriad of moods, until the sprawling, final track. “Expressway to Yr. Skull” is the best thing they ever wrote. It is swaggering, euphoric, deranged, and contemplative. Leave the needle in the final, locked groove, and the drone will continue forever.
The follow up, Sister (1987 SST), rocks. It’s a more straightforward effort than EVOL; a bit less rough around the edges; another step towards a larger audience. “Schizophrenia” is a pop standout; “Catholic Block” is hard charging; “Cotton Crown” slowly billows to ecstasy. Sonic Youth seemed poised to break out. The late New York Times critic, Robert Palmer, announced that the band was "making the most startlingly original guitar-based music since Jimi Hendrix."
Of course, in the minds of most fans, it all leads to the next record, the double-disk extravaganza, Daydream Nation (1988 Enigma). Having grown disgruntled with the accounting practices (or lack thereof) at SST, the band jumped to Enigma, which was distributed through EMI. This would afford them an opportunity to break through to a new audience, and they made the most of it. Spread across this set are examples of all of Sonic Youth’s strengths: Kim’s emotive vocals, sometimes seductive, sometimes insolent; Lee’s vivid sonic textures and poetic dream-weaving; Steve’s nuanced ability to carry the band to plateaus of delirium; Thurston’s droll wit and implacable demeanor. And through it all, guitars — interlocking, chiming, dancing, crashing, bobbing, and weaving. “Teen Age Riot” provided their most ebullient anthem yet; “Silver Rocket” launches at breakneck speed; “The Trilogy,” at nearly 15 minutes, completes the journey with suitable splendor.
While critically embraced, Daydream Nation did not have a smooth entry into the marketplace. Shortly after its release, Enigma went out of business, making the record difficult to find. However, Sonic Youth soon signed with a major label, Geffen/DGC, who reissued it to additional acclaim in 1993. It has been in print since, and is consistently listed at the top of various “best-of” lists as one of the most influential records of the 1980s.
Now finally signed to a major, the band took a shot at MTV and mainstream success. In 1990, DGC released Goo. The first single, “Kool Thing,” featured a cameo by Chuck D. of Public Enemy, received heavy play on MTV, and remains their biggest selling single to date. These days the kids can play it on the video game Guitar Hero. In 199,1 they toured with an unknown band called Nirvana; the tour was documented and released as a feature film: 1991: The Year Punk Rock Broke.
Afforded the stability of being on a major label, the band has since enjoyed a long series of consistent releases. In 1992 they flirted with grunge on Dirty (DGC); Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994 DGC) had another popular single, “Bull in the Heather”; 1995 saw them headlining Lollapalooza and releasing Washing Machine (DGC), which features an appearance by Kim Deal of the Pixies and the epic highlight “The Diamond Sea.” Alt-rock vagabond Jim O’Rourke joined the band for two records, Murray Street (2002 DGC) and Sonic Nurse (2004 DGC), both of which benefited from his production sheen. The band fulfilled their contractual obligations to Geffen with the straightforward, song-based rocker, Rather Ripped (2006 DGC).
As good as these later records are — and some of them contain fabulous, gorgeous material — when evaluating the overall arc of their career and accomplishments, Sonic Youth’s true legacy becomes apparent. Despite achieving lasting, mainstream success and commercial durability, the band has maintained an unswerving commitment and allegiance to the experimental music scene. Through side projects, collective ensembles and solo appearances, SY members continue to plunge into free improvisation, noise, and more.
Demonstrably, in 1997 the band put its money where its mouth was and founded its own label. For a decade, Sonic Youth Records has featured an astonishingly diverse array of releases, including improvisations, soundtracks, post-beat turntablism, and of course, howling guitars. Most noteworthy, though, is SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century (1999 SYR), in which the band tackles the work of experimental composers including Cornelius Cardew, John Cage, Christian Wolff, James Tenney, Steve Reich, and Yoko Ono. Many of these pieces date to the 50s and 60s, but Sonic Youth and Friends breathe new life into them. Even while glancing backwards, they’re moving forwards.
Sonic Youth returned to its roots and recorded the double album, The Eternal (2009, Matador) for New York City based Matador Records. In 2011, the band went on hiatus upon the announcement of Moore and Gordon's separation.
Each member continues to release solo and collaborative releases and perform live in various musical settings. In 2012, Lee Ranaldo announced that several Sonic Youth collections and archival material are planned for release during the 2010's. This began with the excellent live album, Smart Bar Chicago 1985 (2012, SYR).