After a ravishing show by Tsunami, Eggs and Rodan, I stood by the door of a bar in the balmy summer air of an Oxford night and chatted with Jenny Toomey. I was probably slouching. 'Hey' she said, 'you should always be proud of your height.' 'Yeah?' I replied, kind of half heartedly. 'SURE.' She continued. 'Thurston Moore is always saying that.'
This is one of my abiding memories of Sonic Youth.
Here's another: riding home in the train after a day spent sitting down the Vic café at the Art school. It must have been the summer of 1988. There's a girl sitting across the carriage dressed in the green blazer of one of the more prominent of Glasgow's Girls' schools. She clutches a transparent carrier back from Fopp housing a 12" record called 'Death Valley '69'.
I used to have a real problem with Sonic Youth. There used to be a real division drawn between what was Pop (and hence acceptable) and what was Rock (and hence not). Husker Du, for example, were frowned upon, which was something I could never understand because weren't songs like 'Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely' and 'Could You Be The One' amongst the finest Pop songs ever recorded?
Sonic Youth were another group to pour scorn on, presumably for being over indulgent American noiseniks. But they made reference to John Zorn and weren't there all kinds of connections to the New York New/No Wave bands like the Contortions? But I was young and impressionable so I did what I was told. It wasn't until 1987 that I would give in and buy a Husker Du record (Warehouse - Songs and Stories, naturally), whilst it took another year before I caved in and bought a Sonic Youth record.
The first Sonic Youth record I bought wasn't even a Sonic Youth record. Instead it was their version of Madonna's 'Into The Groove' that they recorded under the Ciconne Youth moniker, and that had been released two years earlier. I thought it proved beyond doubt what I had secretly thought all along: Sonic Youth were as great a warped, weird and wired Pop group as The Pop Group.
'Into The Groovey' was a strange record indeed, but my brother bought the Whitey Album and I didn't like that much at all. So the first real Sonic Youth album I listened to fully was 1987's Sister which, through the summer months of 1988 became the most listened to record around the house. Particularly when there was housework to be done. Sister became my favourite soundtrack for housework, alongside Fire Engines' Lubricate Your Living Room and I still have difficulties doing the vacuuming or ironing without wanting to hear '(I got a) Catholic Block', 'Tuff Gnarl' or 'Hot Wire My Heart'. There was also a great tape I made for a friend that started with a rudimentary mixing where Jack Kerouac merged into 'Schizophrenia'. It sounded magical.
After that I delved back a bit and scrounged taped copies of 1986's Evol (with the aptly titled mind-blowing 'Expressway to Yr Skull') and '85s Bad Moon Rising which included the aforementioned 'Death Valley '69' complete with Lydia Lunch vocals. Bad Moon Rising also included 'Brave Men Run (In My Family)' a title which may or may not have been inspired by the Ed Ruscha painting of the same title. And maybe the inspiration went the reverse direction, the painting being executed in 1984, the same year Bad Moon Rising was recorded and of course Ruscha is not averse to using song titles in his work, I mean witness his great Elvis 'I forgot to remember to forget' and 'I remembered to forget to remember' pieces.
Perversely in 1988 I didn't choose to buy or even scrounge a tape of the widely lauded Daydream Nation album. I preferred instead to wallow in the blissful noise of My Bloody Valentine with their Isn't Anything record, a record which, at the years end, many would place beside Daydream Nation as proof of a Rock renaissance but really if you knew what was what you had to choose between the two. The world of Pop has always been about making determined choices, and then changing your opinion on a whim years later.
I first listened to Daydream Nation in August of 1989. I picked up a pre-recorded cassette in a Tampa mall and tried to play it on the collective stereo that was shared between the strange group of friends and acquaintances I was spending the summer with. It never lasted in the machine beyond track 3, the preference being for REM and Cud's cover of the Kinks' 'Lola'. I took to playing Daydream Nation on my headphones at the beach, which was probably quite surreal back in 1989, although the way culture has fragmented itself to the point where Sonic Youth appear worldwide as cartoon figures it may seem less so now.
Daydream Nation still sounds like a fantastic record and it's still my favourite Sonic Youth album. There are so many great PopNoise classics. 'Teen Age Riot' is a hilarious comic strip explosion in Technicolor, as indeed is 'Silver Rocket' which makes for one of the best double header starts to any album ever. And what about 'Total Trash' which today sounds like the blueprint for Pavement circa Slanted and Enchanted, and say what you will about the Malkmus man, that record is still some mighty moment in sonic delight, and whilst we are on the subject have you heard Richard Buckner do Pavement's 'Here'? 'Candle' actually reverberates just like My Bloody Valentine in places, and 'Kissability' has Kim Gordon at her finest. Finally the fourteen minute 'trilogy' that rocketships off the planet with the chainsaw spiral of 'the Wonder', accelerating towards the sun and slingshotting back to earth, just like in Thunderbirds, with the sequence that Blue Aeroplanes sampled in their live shows to start their epic duel with Tom Verlaine's delirious 'Breaking In Your Heart', finally slowing, sweeping back around and around, down through the clouds and into the sparse groove of 'Hyperstation' with it's duelling Television guitars growing and growling into something sinister, disappearing into icicle white before 'Elliminator Jr' scratches in with Kim's moans and yelps, jack hammer drums and slicing guitars which itself chases itself into the ground with an abrupt finality. Like I said, great PopNoise.
With Daydream Nation Sonic Youth defined the vacuum of Gen X sonically with a record that couldn't help but send you spiralling inwards on yourself, and as a record it defines a moment of irrevocable change for both the band and culture. In the blink of an eye we had, post-Daydream Nation, a culture where there was suddenly no recognizable 'alternative', a culture where all that was once ignored for being laughably 'unprofessional' was suddenly embraced. And for me, I cant help but see Daydream Nation as the last moment where that spirit of an independence struggling to assert itself (and where there was still an intrinsic awareness of the very importance of the struggle) was still kicking and pulling weird faces just because it wanted to, and not because 'that's what weirdo kids do...' After Daydream Nation it was all a comic strip.
Not that I blame Sonic Youth, and even though I never listened much to them after that it was more because there was so much else to discover. Besides which I heard Goo and didn't think much to it. I think they've developed in stranger ways recently, down the avenues opened up by the growing interest in the possibilities offered by the collapsing of boundaries between Rock and Classical musics, something they themselves were always at the forefront of doing and you cant deny them their dues after all, can you? And I did enjoy last years' nyc ghosts and flowers for what it's worth.
Still, I can't shake the feeling that the best of Sonic Youth comes from a time before weirdo PopNoise cacophony became just another fragment of the globalised product of Alt-Kulture. A time when you would have to scratch in the dirt to hear a song like 'Starpower' instead of have it beamed to your home replete with a gaudy video.
© Alistair Fitchett 2001