5 Reasons Sonic Youth changed the world.
Sonic Youth were not only one of the most influential bands in the world – they were also one of the most wonderful. Sure, there’s been mass-marketed t-shirts, there’s been bitter in-band politics, there’s been some terrifically self-indulgent side projects and spin-offs. Sonic Youth though man, there’s no-one like Sonic Youth.
This band played their instruments like no-one had ever played their instruments before: swamped in dense layers of violent feedback, guitars tuned and effected out of recognition, screeching, hissing, droning into a distant abyss that only they knew existed. They changed everything.
In June 1981 Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon settled on the name Sonic Youth and, so the legend goes, their sound just sort of fell into place. After recruiting Lee Ranaldo to play guitar and a stream of drummers they unleashed a stream of fearsome noise-rock soliloquies. Their early albums Kill Yr Idols and Confusion is Sex blended punk, no-wave, drone, avant-garde jazz and any number of made-up genres you’d care to mention. It was a sort of not-so-carefully constructed racket that would go on to underpin their later, more melodic release like their 1988 breakthrough record Daydream Nation and its 1990 follow up Goo.
If Daydream Nation laid the foundation for Sonic Youth’s entrance into the canon then Goo was the cement that made sure they would stay there forever. Goo was a pre-eminent shoegaze record shrouded in garage and hardcore punk. Its Raymond Pettibon-designed artwork is now for sale on t-shirts in high street retailers and worn proudly by fans and wannabe cool kids alike. And it is cool. It’s a symbol for a terrifying, exciting, underground noise crashing into a drab, otherwise silent mainstream musical landscape. An album which would pave the way for a whole new generation of bands to follow their blueprint, breaking down what ‘noise’ meant and exactly how it was to be consumed.
In celebration of Goo and its impact on modern music, here are 5 reasons that Sonic Youth were one of the most important bands in the world.
Redefining The Noise Rock Template
The story goes that Sonic Youth’s frontman Thurston Moore didn’t take kindly to being grouped in the then-burgeoning ‘pigfuck’ movement. When journalist Robert Christgau compared his band to the likes of Big Black and Flipper in the Village Voice he responded in kind by titling one of his songs I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick. Not very nice, but kind of fair enough. Sonic Youth were always far more complex than a grunting, droning assault. They took ideas from jazz, like alternative tunings, and repositioned them in the context of rock music.
They were fearless in their approach and their ingenuity. Lee Ranaldo was frenetically bashing his strings with a drum stick before Tom Morello had even picked up a guitar. The band’s use of prepared guitars and screeched, wailing vocals were in true opposition to anything anyone else was doing at the time. Merging their love of off-kilter technique and hardcore punk approach gave Sonic Youth an edge that propelled them far beyond the imaginations of any of the other bands Christgau compared them to. Whether or not that deserves him death by phallus, well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Bringing Noise To The Mainstream
In 1985 Sonic Youth met Steve Shelley, hired him as their drummer – allegedly without audition – and became a songwriting force to be reckoned with. Their first album with Shelley was 1986’s EVOL. The record set the template for everything the band would achieve over the next five years. It was woozy with expectation, hooks starting to show and melody burgeoning into the foreground, but its release on Greg Ginn’s SST Records ensured its status as fiercely credible, underground and pure punk rock. It wasn’t until 1988 though, with the arrival of Daydream Nation that Sonic Youth really found themselves centre stage. The album’s opening couplet Teen Age Riot (a top 20 hit) and Silver Rocket have become the go-to Sonic Youth songs and it was their first album to chart outside of the US.
Their next album Goo was even more commercially successful and as Sonic Youth set off to tour the US and Europe with Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr – two of the biggest bands of their time FYI – they continued their rise. Goo is probably Sonic Youth’s most lasting document. With T-shirts available to buy in high street stores and fans frequently citing it as their segue into the band’s catalogue it’s a perfect starting point for anyone still mystified by Sonic Youth and all they have to offer. A breakthrough album in the truest sense, and one that’s stood the test of time.
Bringing The Mainstream To Noise
Before Goo propelled Sonic Youth into the spotlight the band had propelled the mainstream into themselves. In 1986 a side-project by the name of Ciccone Youth, featuring SY members along Minutemen’s Mike Watt, released a record called The Whitey Album, a collection of noisy, boisterous covers of chart hits of the day including Madonna’s Into The Groove and Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love interspersed with weirdo pop influenced original material. It was a recognition of everything they stood against and a tongue-in-cheek way of embracing the pop culture they were surrounded by at the time. The album is playful, funny and intelligent, in many ways it’s unlike anything that came before it.
If you’ve not heard Madonna slowed down, fuzzed out and drawled into a microphone then you haven’t lived. It’s pure, ecstatic, genial, brilliance.
Influencing All Your Favourite Bands
Sonic Youth are among the most influential bands of all time. Their impact reached the UK in the washed out blur of shoegaze, especially through the melancholy happiness of My Bloody Valentine – a band who almost coexisted with Sonic Youth and seemed to mirror their greatness in many ways. Their daring, innovative approach to their instruments and production influenced Nirvana, and in turn countless wide-eyed replicators, to detune. Bands would denounce studio production in favour of a raw, grungy sound that would go on to echo well into the 21st century.
A quintessential band’s band who will go on drip feeding ideas to young musicians for years and years (and maybe even one more years). There’s even an excellent band from London called Sauna Youth now. If that’s not evidence of a legacy well earned I just don’t know what it is.
Doing Whatever The Heck They Damn Well Please
Starting in May 1997 Sonic Youth began releasing their own music on their own label; Sonic Youth Recordings. This ultimate creative freedom gave the band a new kind of credibility, the nine albums they eventually released on the label are difficult, noisy and uncompromising. Instrumentals that could be ascribe to torture camps, collaborations with extreme artists like Merzbow and pretentious titles like J’Accuse Ted Hughes made the albums purposefully obtuse and inaccessible. But that was the point. That had always been the point.
Sonic Youth began life as a group of kids experimenting because they had to, experimenting because they were limited to the shittiest equipment. They ended up experimenting because they wanted to, because they needed to and in between they wrote some pretty incredible pop songs that never for a moment wavered from their noisy, confrontational beginnings. Sonic Youth man, there’s no-one like Sonic Youth.