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 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.
In 1994, the band released Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, their best-charting release in the US (until 2009’s The Eternal), which peaked at #34 on the Billboard 200. The band also released a cover of The Carpenters‘ 1971 hit Superstar for the tribute album If I Were a Carpenter.
The Washing Machine album began a shift away from their punk roots, seeing them working with longer jam sections. Two tracks showed the new approach in full force: the title track is just under 10 minutes long, and The Diamond Sea is over 19 minutes long!
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the band began releasing a series of highly experimental records on their own SYR label.
The music was mostly instrumental and improvised, and the album and track titles (and even the liner notes) were in different languages: SYR1 was in French, SYR2 in Dutch, SYR3 in Esperanto, SYR5 in Japanese, SYR6 in Lithuanian, SYR7 in Arpitan and SYR8 in Danish.
Released in 1998, A Thousand Leaves has a dreamy, semi-improvised feel, and features extended jam sections on tracks such as Wildflower Soul and Female Mechanic Now on Duty. The only single to be released from this album, Sunday, was accompanied by a video starring Macaulay Culkin.
In the summer of 2002, Murray Street was released with critics heralding a return to form, with Sonic Youth seemingly revitalised by the addition of Jim O’Rourke.
The album Sonic Nurse (2004) also received positive reviews. Rather Ripped (2006) saw a return to short, conventionally-structured, melodic songs, earning the album the #3 spot in the Rolling Stone ‘Album of the Year’ list.
In October 2011, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced that they had separated after 27 years of marriage. The band called it a day soon after.
Bass, guitar, vocals
Bass, guitar, synthesizer