Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sonic Youth - Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth


Released 1982 on Neutral
Reviewed by Jasonaparkes, 20/03/2007ce


Sonic Youth:

Thurston Moore - guitar; vocals
Kim Gordon - bass; vocals
Lee Ranaldo - guitar; vocals
Richard Edson - drums; percussion

1. The Burning Spear (3:26)
2. I Dream I Dreamed (5:16)
3. She Is Not Alone (4:02)
4. I Don't Want to Push It (3:34)
5. The Good and the Bad (7:59)

- Reissued on Geffen in 2006 alongside 'Confusion is Sex'/'Kill Yr Idols' with several live tracks from 1981 and a studio version of 'Where the Red Fern Grows.' The reissue features notes on the band, record and scene from Glenn Branca, Richard Edson & others. 'I Dream I Dreamed' later featured on the 33 1/3 side of 1985's 'Death Valley '69' single by Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch alongside the tracks 'Inhuman', 'Brother James' and 'Satan is Boring.'

1. Recorded in late 1981 and released in 1982 on their own DIY-label Neutral, the 'Sonic Youth' e.p. (some called it a mini-LP, twas always mid-price on vinyl) was one of many truly indie records released in the New York scene in the era we could call post-punk. The sleevenotes are better on the history than I will ever be, as the writers were there, and I wasn't.

2. As the recent BBC4 series on New York and an earlier documentary centring on the architecture of the city shown on BBC4/BBC2 (presented by a journalist/artist whose name escapes me) demonstrated, New York was a dump. In that dump, before Major Giuliani's corporate makeover and before the 11th of September 2001, there was a major scene - perhaps emanating from CBGBs and the Art Project Suicide emanated from, but probably going back to the Beats, The Velvets, the Factory, the Harlem Renaissance, and stuff like The Fugs. Bob Dylan's good on New York city in 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues.' The late 70s, early 80s saw hip-hop birthed and a world where people rented/squated in the city and followed their art. Two key waves developed - what became tagged No Wave (though some of the artists associated with that scene who weren't on Eno's No New York compilation griped) and the dance music that centred around Danceteria, the Roxy, and Soho, Basquiat-No Wave-Mutant Disco-Ze records, and a mass of names including Liquid Liquid, Konk, James Chance & the Contortions, Was (Not Was), Material, ESG, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Mars, Glenn Branca, Theoretical Girls, Arthur Baker, Afrika Bambaata, Vincent Gallo, Lydia Lunch, Lounge Lizards, Suicide, Fab Five Freddy, DNA etc. You can see why a band like Radio 4 and the whole DFA/LCD thing pines for that scene...

3. Amid all that the band called Sonic Youth formed, Edson's notes reveals that he first met Moore when he was in a band called The Coachmen (who you'd imagine were a Nuggets-inspired act?). Edson, a female keyboard player attached to a famous artist (Ann DeMarinis), Kim Gordon and Moore were the initial line-up of the band. Edson was also in Konk (2004 saw the release of Soul Jazz compilation 'The Sound of Konk') who were influenced by Brit acts like The Pop Group and Pigbag and were closer to the mutant disco vibe. This is Sonic Youth, but it isn't quite Sonic Youth. The keyboard player was replaced by guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who had a Soho loft in which the band rehearsed (before hitting on the idea they could rehearse live). Edson brought something different to the band - his notes point out a certain chemistry the Youth never explored when Moore played bass. Edson played some gigs with them, often wearing a baseball cap that Gordon thought made him look "heavy metal", and recorded this e.p. before leaving the band to pursue Konk - eventually drifting into films and television (credits include Stranger Than Paradise, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Howard the Duck, Miami Vice, Platoon, Walker, Good Morning Vietnam, Eight Men Out, Strange Days and Homicide: Life on the Street amongst others).

4. The trademark Sonic Youth chime of guitars that Courtney Love took the piss out of at Lollapolooza in the mid-90s was not quite there. It sounds like Sonic Youth, but it doesn't quite sound like Sonic Youth. The band feel as amateur as Hanley-Riley-Scanlan-era Fall, sounding like a DIY post-punk band (which I guess they were!). The e.p. sounds at various times like Damaged Goods-Gang of Four, early Scritti Politti, The Cure, The Fall, & The Slits. 'The Burning Spear' (title an allusion to the dub act, Gordon apparently used to play bass along with dub albums according to Moore's brief notes here. The 'Youth' part of the bands name apparently stems from Big Youth as the 'Sonic' part comes from the late Fred 'Sonic' Smith. Not that the Youth are very dubby really) has a strange rhythm set up by Edson and Gordon, with some feedback from Moore and Renaldo that definitely nods to Glenn Branca/Theoretical Girls (Moore had played with Branca by this point) and possibly towards Swans early noise. Towards the end something like that chime you get at the end of 'Schizophrenia' into 'Catholic Block' occurs. The Youth as we know them wouldn't really exist until employing Bob Bert and Jim Sclavunos and making records like 'Confusion is Sex' and 'Flower.'

5. 'I Dream I Dreamed' contrasts Ranaldo's underrated vocals (...was a joy when he sang 'Mote' at ATP in December, his lead vocals are one of the great facets of the band...) with the now common rapping style of Gordon - this is the kind of thing she would advance on with 'Flower', I guess it's the female equivalent of Lou Reed's talking/singing style. New York was full of non-singer singers if you think of Patti Smith, Richard Hell, David Byrne or Tom Verlaine. 'She is Not Alone' opens with a dominant percussion sound and some angular chimes, sounding like a formless-jam, strange percussive noises that sound like bits of Cages' 'Sonatas & Interludes' and then a late vocal from Moore intoning the title over and over. Surprisingly enjoyable...

6. 'I Don't Want to Push It' opens with the kind of guitar later associated with Fugazi and acts like Minutemen, before the odd sounding drums/percussion and minimal bass come in. Moore's notes suggest he was trying to sing a track from 'Ege Bamyasi' in the style of Damo Suzuki, but I'm not sure I'd have got that if it wasn't said. I think he means 'I'm So Green'? Moore goes for some repetition, "I know I know I know I know I know I know..." before we pare down to the stripped rhythm and then some wild guitars come in. This sounds like the band called Sonic Youth finding themselves. It's Sonic Youth, but not as we know it...

7. The e.p. concludes with the instrumental 'The Good and the Bad', just under eight-minutes long it's likely this stretched on inifinitely live and is probably the place Youth-epics like 'The Diamond Sea' and 'Expressway to Yr Skull' developed from. I wouldn't have said the later Youth-material sat well with much post punk, since it was the next step-on, but 'The Good and the Bad' and all of this e.p. sits well alongside p-p-material from the 70s and 80s, round up the usual suspects: Swell Maps, Scritti Politti#1, The Raincoats, The Fall, The Slits (more Peel Sessions' Slits - both bands could/couldn't play conventionally and so it came out unconventional), Wire, Gang of Four, Josef K etc.

8. I do wonder what the Youth would have been like if they'd pursued more of the directions here, or if Edson had stuck around, or if Moore had switched to bass. 'Sonic Youth' hints at many possibilities and makes it clear why Moore & co have other projects on the go; as Holger Czukay said, "An index of possibilities!" I'm not sure what a whole album with Edson would have been like, it might have sucked, but with events the way they went, it's all a bit theoretical.

9. 'Sonic Youth' was a surprise, I've known the Youth since first catching the name in an ironic piece in 'Smash Hits (probably about 86/87, Age of Chance's version of 'Kiss' was also mentioned - can you believe the first place I read about Husker Du and The Leather Nun was Smash Hits?) and bits of 'The Chart Show.' Key albums like 'Sister' and 'Daydream Nation' became familiar and I became a fan, buying the records that followed, as well as catching up with what I'd missed. I got back as 'Confusion is Sex' , which didn't appeal to me at the time (...it's in a pile of records I'm re-listening to, I've finally found the copy of 'Psychedelic Jungle' I thought I'd lost!...) - and that combined with the tune-free 'Sonic Death' which someone taped me put me off getting the 'Sonic Youth' album some people subtitled 'the blue album' (...though it was an e.p. or mini-LP). So I didn't get to hear this album until it was reissued by Geffen alongside 'Confusion is Sex', I liked the cover and the idea of the bonus tracks, and the fact it was only five earth pounds in Fopp. 'Sonic Youth' like the more arcane/experimental works of the band re-set some of the ideas you have about an institution that have been going so long. This wasn't Sonic Youth...but it is Sonic Youth? Of course it's not as great as the later stuff (I'm one of those people who plump for 'Daydream Nation', or 'Washing Machine', or 'Sister', or...), but it's different. I was thinking that it was undervalued and unsung and nobody talks about it...then Cat Power mentions it in this month's Uncut! Oh well...


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