It was New York City’s downtown art scene in 1981 that spawned Sonic Youth, a band that was also inspired by the late ’70s punk music explosion that was rooted in Manhattan’s East Village and centred around the activities inside CBGBs, the Bowery nightclub where it all happened.
Sonic Youth adapted the Velvet Underground-inspired dissonance and experimental noise of NYC No Wave.
Learning many of their tricks from avant-garde composer Glenn Barca’s guitar ensemble – in which Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo both played – they refined their sound throughout the 80s, moving from a free-form experimentalism to the more structured and critically hailed Evol (1986), Sister (1987) and Daydream Nation (1988).
Although Goo (1990) was their first album on a major label, it was no sell-out. Boasting backing vocals from Dinosaur Jr‘s J. Mascis and an ahead-of-their-time crossover with Public Enemy‘s Chuck D (Kool Thing), Goo was accessible in terms of songs and structure, yet still experimental in tone and texture.
Lyrics about Karen Carpenter‘s death from anorexia (Tunic) and one-minute freakouts (Scooter and Jinx) pointed to continued creative control while ultra-cool artist Raymond Pettibon’s nihilistic comic-chic sleeve paraded their continuing hipness.
Goo (1990) remains a masterclass in how an underground band can make the jump to a major label and not only survive with its soul and balls intact but flourish and reach a wider, appreciative audience.
Dirty (1992) was Sonic Youth’s closest shot at grunge‘s mainstream.
Recorded in Manhattan’s Magic Shop by Butch Vig (the producer responsible for Nirvana‘s Smells Like Teen Spirit), the album delivered a rock sound they would only occasionally recreate so vividly and efficiently.