“Kool Thing,” “Dirty Boots,” “Bull in the Heather”
Who Are They?
The band that redefined what a guitar can do (and one of the most important bands in alternative history).
The story behind Sonic Youth is a long one, as this band has more albums than Lady Gaga’s had hairdos (is that an accurate form of measurement?). Since the entries on this blog have been running a bit long lately, I’ll try to keep this history short and sweet so we can get to the fun part (where you read my fangirly account of this band).
Thurston Moore had a few bands before forming Sonic Youth with his soon-to-be ex-wife Kim Gordon in 1981. The name came from combining the names of MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and reggae artist Big Youth. After seeing guitar virtuoso Lee Ranaldo perform with an impressive guitar ensemble, Thurston and Kim snagged him for their band. Each member took turns playing the drums until they met Richard Edson, and by December 1981, Sonic Youth had released its first EP.
After some shuffling of drummers, the band went on its first tour with fellow noisy New Yorkers Swans, and released its first studio album, Confusion is Sex, in 1983. Sonic Youth and the rest of the noise rock scene was well received in Europe, but largely ignored in the US. When the press here in the states finally began to take notice, Sonic Youth (along with Big Black and Butthole Surfers) was lumped under the so-called “pigfucker” label, coined by Village Voice critic/curmudgeon Robert Christgau.
(Fun fact: Thurston and company didn’t appreciate the “pigfucker” label thrust upon them, which led to a little feud between the band and Christgau, culminating in the song “Kill Yr Idols” being renamed “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick.” Both parties have since sorted out their differences.)
But thanks to hate from the critics and a destructive London debut show, Sonic Youth returned to New York in 1984 with a cult following and a gig practically every week.
After another drummer switch to Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth signed to SST Records and released two slightly more accessible albums, 1986’s EVOL and 1987’s Sister.
The band didn’t achieve universal acclaim until 1988’s masterpiece, Daydream Nation. The album’s lead single, “Teen Age Riot,” found its way on to modern and college rock radio rotations, catapulting Sonic Youth into the mainstream.
Based on Daydream Nation’s success, it really didn’t come as a surprise that the band made the decision to sign to a major label in 1990. Sonic Youth’s first release on Geffen Records was 1990’s Goo, followed by 1992’s Dirty. Both albums were noticeably more accessible than the independent label releases, and with singles like “Kool Thing” and “100%” (plus the band’s highest charting album of the decade, 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star), Thurston and company quickly became alternative icons.
After a few more studio albums and an appearance at Lollapalooza and on The Simpsons, Sonic Youth released a series of highly experimental albums on its own label, SYR.
(Fun fact: The experimental album SYR4, subtitled Goodbye, 20th Century, features works by avant-garde classical composers such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich and more.)
Where Are They Now?
Disbanded, but their legacy lives on.
After most of their instruments were stolen in 1999, Sonic Youth was forced to start from scratch on what would later become NYC Ghosts & Flowers. The following two albums, 2002’s Murray Street and 2004’s Sonic Nurse, marked a return to form for the band, and received mass critical acclaim.
(Fun fact: Sonic Youth was heavily influenced by William Gibson, author of the groundbreaking cyberpunk novel, 1984’s Neuromancer. Several of the band’s songs reference his novels, including “Pattern Recognition” on Sonic Nurse, which is named after the Gibson novel.)
Six years after getting their gear stolen, Thurston and the gang got most of their equipment back in 2005 and used it to record Rather Ripped the following year.
Sonic Youth ditched Geffen after fulfilling its contract and signed to Matador Records to release The Eternal in 2009. Little did we know, this would be the final album from the band.
On October 14, 2011, Kim and Thurston announced they were separating after 27 years of marriage. In an interview later that year, Lee confirmed that Sonic Youth was done for a while.
Two years later, Lee admitted that Sonic Youth would probably never get back together, citing the progressively uncomfortable dynamic between Kim and Thurston after the two finally divorced.
But Why Sonic Youth?
Because this band is incredibly important, even if they’ll never get back together.
What Does Sam Think?
I put off listening to Sonic Youth for the longest time. It was one of those bands that everyone kept talking about, but I never really understood the significance. When I went through my intense Nirvana phase, I kept hearing about Sonic Youth, as Kurt Cobain cited them as a major influence. Like with Bikini Kill and PJ Harvey, I didn’t give this band a chance until I got to college. And I’m kind of glad I waited because I don’t think I would have appreciated Sonic Youth in high school.
To me, Sonic Youth basically picked up where The Velvet Underground left off. This band’s experimentation is staggering. From the odd guitar tunings to the avant-garde reinterpretations of classical pieces, Thurston and the gang definitely weren’t afraid to step outside the box.
Even if you don’t enjoy post-punk or noise rock, you have to appreciate the impact this band left on the alternative scene. Without them, we probably wouldn’t have Nirvana.
The underground scene will always remain underappreciated. Even though Sonic Youth made it into the mainstream, they had already established themselves as underground heroes. Most people (including myself) get into Sonic Youth through Daydream Nation or the first few major label releases and discover the earlier albums much later. There’s nothing wrong with that. The most exciting part of discovering a band with a long history is going back in time to hear that band’s progression.
Though I’m incredibly biased when it comes to hyping my favorite ‘90s bands to non-listeners, I honestly believe Sonic Youth is required listening. If you consider yourself a music fan at all, you’ll give this band a chance (I recommend starting with Daydream Nation). You may not like it, but you have to realize how important Sonic Youth was to the popularization of alternative music. Of course Nirvana is up there, too, but Sonic Youth did most of the legwork for them.
I wish Thurston and Kim could get along so the band could possibly reunite, but divorce is tough on everyone. For now, we have an impressive discography to appreciate and a ton of individual projects from each member.
Sonic Youth is dead, long live Sonic Youth.
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s