Where to start with noise-rock pioneers Sonic Youth

Where to start with noise-rock pioneers Sonic Youth

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Sonic Youth

Why it’s daunting: The four core members of Sonic Youth were (and remain) excessively prolific. The group put out 17 LPs, half as many EPs, a handful of compilations, a series of ambient experimental recordings, along with various side projects— including one under the Ciccone Youth moniker that yielded a cover of Madonna’s “Into The Groove”—and appeared on a number of film soundtracks. The 2006 rarities collection The Destroyed Room only scratches the surface of the multitudinous additional material the band produced.And since the disollusion of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage after nearly three decades together, they’ve both pursued projects outside the band; the same goes for guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley. These are four shark-like musicians: They must keep making new music to survive.

Our Band Could Be Your Life author Michael Azerrad is fond of a David Bowie quote—“It’s not who does it first, it’s who does it second.”—that pretty aptly encapsulates Sonic Youth’s shadowy, standoffish pioneer status in comparison to the mainstream success of other groups. That sentiment rings loud and clear in the business history of the band, which rode the wave of grunge on Geffen into a wider spotlight and then faced the discomfort of exposure when opening for Neil Young in 1991. And then there’s the colossally loud, unforgiving wall of sound that is the “noise rock” label. The name Sonic Youth comes from Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5 and reggae artist Big Youth—and those seemingly incongruous influences coalesced around a moniker that signified an undying effort to search for new sounds. 

Sonic Youth is, to its core, a massively loud band, and not in a traditionally melodic way. (Though the three-vocalist split among Moore, Gordon, and Renaldo does break down into some intriguing comparisons to Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison.) It’s a punishing, exploratory surge of multiple “prepared” guitars—instruments affixed with various items like screwdrivers stuck between the strings and fretboard—in alternative tunings, showing the significant influence of Lou Reed and avant-garde composer John Cage. As Azerrad notes in his book: “[Sonic Youth] could only afford cheap guitars, and cheap guitars sounded like cheap guitars. But with weird tunings or something jammed under a particular fret, those horrible instruments could sound amazing.” The band found a way to innovate past its limitations to explore the fertile sonic ground it wanted to cover.

Possible gateway: Goo (1990)

Why: Sonic Youth’s first record on a major label (the Geffen imprint DGC) is the single most inviting album the band ever produced, even though the songs still remain soaked in enough heavy distortion to connect back to elements of hardcore punk. It’s also the album most frequently featured in the performances from 1991: The Year That Punk Broke, a documentary about the band released in 1993, after it released follow-up album Dirty.

The progression on Goo helps listeners adjust to Sonic Youth’s prickly sensibilities. It starts cleaner and more approachable than any other Sonic Youth record, beginning with the circling guitars on “Dirty Boots,” transitioning to a downright-catchy Thurston Moore chorus, then giving way to the gloomy, chugging haze of “Tunic (Song For Karen),” in which Gordon imagines Karen Carpenter happy in heaven after her death from anorexia complications, talking to Dennis Wilson, Janis Joplin, and Elvis. The traditionally punk “Mary-Christ” features Moore and Gordon trading distorted vocals, yelling over in-your-face snare drum hits; in contrast, “Kool Thing” is the closest Sonic Youth ever came to sounding radio-friendly, four minutes of sweeping guitar screeching with a guest spot by Chuck D of Public Enemy. Gordon’s growling lyrics take aim at LL Cool J—following the prickly and insulting interview she had with him for Spin magazine—and the resulting cavernous takedown is the tip of the iceberg, its immediate pop fury hiding all kinds of prepared guitar noises behind that one ruggedly polished riff. 

Renaldo’s one lyrical and vocal contribution to the record, the seven-minute “Mote,” is an early litmus test for deep exploration of the band’s catalog. For three and half minutes, it’s a straightforward rock song, with booming guitars and pulsating drums, but as with many Sonic Youth tracks, that formula doesn’t prove satisfying, so it pushes through another four minutes of cascading distortion, the first sign that for this band, traditional song structure is the exception, not the norm.

Goo’s track sequencing is like a Formula One racecar with the lug nuts on each wheel loosened. At first it runs as designed, a minutely engineered masterwork fine-tuned for high-performance. But then one wheel falls off, then another, until it explodes into a cacophony of beautiful, fiery wreckage. The highlights on the back half of the record—“Mildred Pierce,” “Cinderella’s Big Score,” and closer “Titanium Exposé”—show what the band can accomplish when focused on its own unraveling. Goo descends into a swamp of distorted yelling and instrumental breakdown full of the sort of touches that can be found all over Nirvana’s middle-finger tracks on In Utero.

Next steps: No Sonic Youth crash-course would be complete without 1988 landmark double-album Daydream Nation

A de facto point of unity as a universally praised release, this is the point when Sonic Youth melded all of its avant-garde aspirations with an underlying pop beauty. Gordon’s first turn on the mic for the record, “The Sprawl,” has her alternately antagonizing (“Does ‘fuck you’ sound simple enough?”) and shaming listeners (“Come on down to the store / You can buy some more, and more, and more, and more”), and exemplifies why Daydream Nation has often been characterized as a rebuke to Reagan-era America. But underneath that attitude is lulling, lush instrumentation, building something beautiful out of the hard-fought chaos that results from adjusting guitars to the right pitch. This is the unimpeachable classic in Sonic Youth’s arsenal.

There are many stylistic paths to explore after the opening salvo of Goo and Daydream Nation, all of which depend on whether a listener finds the tighter, more traditional rock songs more inviting, or wants to journey down the rabbit hole of the meandering psychedelic aspects on the longer tracks.  

One choice is to complete the band’s midcareer mainstream exposure peak with 1992’s Dirty, which has Sonic Youth’s highest-charting single, “100%” (whose video was directed by Tamra Davis and Spike Jonze), and gems like “Chapel Hill.” 

Another option is jumping back to 1986’s EVOL, where the band first coalesced the scrappy, unrefined sounds of its previous albums, Confusion Is Sex and Bad Moon Rising. That continued on 1987’s Sister in the ramp-up to Daydream Nation. Take EVOL’s “Expressway To Yr. Skull” (also listed as “Madonna, Sean And Me” and “The Crucifixion Of Sean Penn”—the band clearly had some kind of obsession going), the longest song on a Sonic Youth LP to that point: It features the gradually denser layering that would appear later on “Teenage Riot” and “Tunic.”

Yet another option is to flash forward to the band’s creative revival in the 2000s, with 2002’s Murray Street, which saw the band add producer Jim O’Rourke as a permanent fifth member, and 2004’s Sonic Nurse. The former is characterized by fewer songs that expand out into distortion suites; it’s the album-length spiritual successor to the 20-minute alternate version of Washing Machine’s “Diamond Sea.” The latter is a return to the tighter songwriting of Daydream Nation and Goo, which the band slipped away from on 2006’s Rather Ripped and its final album, 2009’s The Eternal.

Where not to start: NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000)

When Sonic Youth embarked on a tour, the group typically brought a giant array of equipment because its specially prepared guitars made it impossible to tune and retune for multiple songs with the same instrument. In July 1999, after a west-coast tour stop, a truck containing 20 years’ worth of Sonic Youth’s personally modified gear was stolen. With no hope of the unique and familiar instruments returning, the band went back to New York and restocked for the remaining dates with gear that hadn’t been used in years, a move that inspired a firm break in a new direction when writing songs for what became NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Forest fires are a completely natural part of the ecosystem, and losing that gear was a cleansing natural burn for the band that opened up the opportunity for a renewed creative direction. But first it left behind the sonic equivalent of a forest full of charred trees. For a band that craves the feeling of wild experimentation as much as Sonic Youth, misfires are a byproduct of that process. NYC Ghosts & Flowers is the most obvious front-to-back dud in the band’s catalog. Jim O’Rourke gradually became a vital piece of Sonic Youth’s final upswing throughout the next decade, but his first collaboration with the band is the absolute worst place to start for anyone looking to dig into the work of such a prolific and seminal band.