Recent quotes from Lee Ranaldo suggests Sonic Youth have played their last shows “for a while” comes on the back of the recent low-key announcement that Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are separating.
If this is to be the end of Sonic Youth it will leave a considerable void. They came out of the early 80s New York punk/No Wave scene with a self-titled EP in 1982. It’s different to the Sonic Youth that many people know and love, sounding a little creepier, especially the slow-burning I Dreamed I Dreamed, with many of the tracks a lot more rhythmically based. Their career can be neatly divided into 3 phases, split by decade (1980s/1990s/2000s).
In the guitar wasteland of the early 1980s they sounded, well… scary. Particularly their very early material but even then they had the potential to create moments of sheer joy. The moment on ‘Confusion Is Sex’ when Freezer Burn lurches into a chaotic version of I Wanna Be Your Dog with Gordon on vocals is nothing short of exhilarating. Their early material focused on droning guitars but there were times when they sounded gloriously nasty, such as Death Valley ’69 and much of the material on 1986’s Evol.
They were always a democracy regarding vocals, duties alternating between Moore, Gordon and Ranaldo. Towards the end of the 80s they were beginning to let more conventional, almost ‘pop’ song structures into their sound on albums ‘Sister’ and the seminal ‘Daydream Nation’. The latter of these albums contained anthem Teenage Riot which sounds unconventional even to this day, with the first minute or so given over to Kim Gordon cooing over some electric guitar strumming before the riff kicks in properly and Thurston Moore takes over.
The early 1990s saw the band move toward tighter song structures on albums like ‘Goo’ and ‘Dirty’, which found success in an environment where alternative guitar music was beginning to gain traction on MTV etc but they weren’t afraid to tinker with the formula, with a decidedly odd collaboration with Public Enemy’s Chuck D on Kool Thing. ‘Dirty’ utilised the crisp, punchy production of Butch Vig while also finding time for dreamier excursions such as Theresa’s Sound World.
This gave way to lengthier tracks as the 1990s wore on such as the 19 minute Diamond Sea while still remaining capable of an alt-pop classic like Sunday which musically foreshadowed Blur’s Coffee & TV by 2 years and featured a bizarre video starring Macaulay Culkin.
By the turn of the century Sonic Youth had been around almost 20 years, and resembled a credible Rolling Stones. Their days of sounding “dangerous” were pretty much over. Far from settling into a comfortable groove of repeating themselves, their material in the 2000s saw them focus on melody with albums like ‘Murray Street’, ‘Sonic Nurse’ and ‘Rather Ripped’. Rain on Tin, from 2002’s ‘Murray Street’ shows what superb musicians they had become, with guitar work recalling the work of Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’, and they also turned out pop songs with original, unusual melodies like Unmade Bed from 2004’s ‘Sonic Nurse’.
They did, however, run a parallel career of experimental SYR releases, many of which were a struggle to listen to. They consisted of dodgy ‘noise’ experiments, eg. ‘Hidros 3’ a collaboration with Mats Gustafson featuring some particularly unpleasant groaning from Kim Gordon. Most of their main albums featured a track like this, usually one to skip over (eg, Providence from ‘Daydream Nation’, the sound of 4 musicians disappearing up their behinds, and many of Kim Gordon’s shoutier moments). And as for the bands they referenced? At best obscure and at worst unlistenable.
Their concerts were legendary. I was lucky enough to see Sonic Youth in Vicar Street in 2009 which was an uplifting experience, with some real hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments. Unlike REM, they haven’t petered out. 2009’s ‘The Eternal’ was just as vital as any Sonic Youth referenced above. They’ll be missed, that’s for sure.