The problem with Sonic Youth is that they get right on my tits.
There – I’ve said it. The fact that one of the most supposedly coolest bands on the planet is a frustratingly inconsistent grab-bag of scratchy guitars and half-arsed can’t-be-bothered ‘tunes’ is probably not a popular point of view, but screw it – I’m fed up with half baked, mediocre albums such as Sonic Nurse, and have decided that all four of them need a good slap round the back of the legs (and it looks like I’m not the only one).
Consider, if you will, the evidence:
Daydream Nation – one of my favourite albums of all time (except for the half-arsed feedback noodling, of course). However, once you consider that the whole thing is really an elaborate piss take on the concept of the ‘rock album’ (i.e., a seventy minute running time, each band member being represented by a symbol a la Led Zeppelin, a song cycle entitled Trilogy, self-consciously dumb ‘rock’ lyrics – “You got it, ride the silver rocket, can't stop it, burning a hole in your pocket”), then it starts to take on a slightly different hue. Daydream Nation is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but it’s Sonic Youth both paying homage and taking the michael out of what they consider to be the bloated American rock record. I’m sure the band look upon as some type of high falutin’ art/conceptual as well as a damn good rock record, but it isn’t really. Subsequent Sonic Youth releases have returned to their more experimental roots, which do not make for great records – that means that their greatest ever release is in essence part piss-take, which can only means that’s very little mileage in their more left of field recordings. This is highly unfortunate, as everything else they have ever recorded fits neatly into this latter category.
Every Other Sonic Youth release – in stark comparison to Daydream Nation, most of Sonic Youth’s recorded output verges dangerously on being hugely disposable. Goo has its moments, but once you discount boring, pointless fillers such as My Friend Goo, Scooter and Jinx and Mildred Pierce, what are you left with? Six three-quarter decent songs, and one that outstays its welcome very quickly (Tunic (Song for Karen)). Sonic Nurse? No thanks. Washing Machine? Passable, I suppose. A Thousand Leaves? Zzzz.... Murray Street, the supposed return to form? Plastic Sun is another rubbish Kim Gordon song (see below), and as for Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style – sheesh. A collection of random words that supposedly pass for lyrics – and they took eight months recording this?
Kim Gordon – I’m sorry, but Kim Gordon is ever so slightly rubbish. In my humble opinion, she can’t play bass for toffee, and she doesn’t so much sing as breathe heavily – which is all very, you know, punk rock and all that, but surely you’ve got to mix it up over the course of a career, not stay in the same rut for twenty flippin’ years. When it works, it works brilliantly (Drunken Butterfly from Dirty) – when it doesn’t, you want to chisel your ears off in protest (My Friend Goo, Plastic Sun).
Then there was Perfect Partner – a film and rock concert ‘mash-up’ that, whilst admirable in ambition, was 98% unmitigated tosh (the factt that it was backed with Arts Council money should speak volumes) . I saw it at the Brighton Dome and the place was half full (the people who stayed away obviously knew something I didn’t). After the ‘gig’ (which spanned 50 minutes and was completely atmosphere-free, much like a Russ Abbot party), my brother asked why none of the musicians backing Kim Gordon (including Jim O’Rourke, who looked as if he was daydreaming about cream cakes) had been in fits of laughter when Kim started to writhe under a silver blanket (the sort of thing they give marathon runners at the end of a race). We could only assume it was because they were being paid too much.
Sonic Youth live at the Forum, 1996 – a while back, I saw SY perform at the Forum, promoting their Washing Machine album. One of the support bands was called Descension, who came on and made a godless, ear grating, wholly improvised racket for no apparent reason. In protest, someone in the audience threw a glass at the drummer, whio took umbrage and waded into the crowd, fists flailing. Someone else threw a glass full of water at the guitarist, but it missed and hit his amplifier, which promptly went up in smoke. Two security guards the size of Hampshire later, the water-throwing muppet was out on the pavement, leaving Descension to rumble on, much to the chagrin of the audience, who absolutely bloody hated them.
A little later, Sonic Youth come on to frenzied applause. They then start to make exactly the same noise as Descension – a trademarked scree of feedback and high-end ear shredding. But instead of rushing the stage and giving the band a collective Chinese burn, the audience stroked their collective chin and nodded in time to the ‘music’.
I have absolutely nothing against bands who want to come on stage and make a godawful racket for no reason – if that’s their bag, give them some respect and above all, don’t chuck stuff at them! However, if the headlining band starts doing exactly the same thing, why should you even give them the time of day? Thurston Moore made a comment about Descension, along the lines of ‘the band who would not be denied’ – it got the biggest cheer of the night, which only goes to show that all rock audiences are stupid.
(The episode at the Forum seems to have become infamous in music circles for being a ‘riot’ – it was nothing of the sort. A few people down the front threw bottles, but certainly not the ‘rain of glass’ that Stefan Jaworzyn seems to remember. I think this is a better description of what really happened. And yes, after Descension, Sonic Youth were incredibly boring).
Lee Ranaldo’s ‘artwork’ – ahem.
The piece consits (sic) of a bare speaker wired to a piece of the physical gallery, in this case a steam radiator. The tape loop plays a 5 second hi volume burst of sound every 6 minutes. Otherwise the piece remains silent.
This sounds like an analogy for the entire recorded output of Sonic Youth to me...