In the public imagination, rock ‘n’ roll is tied to freedom. Elvis shakes his hips, teenagers scream for the Beatles like they’ve never screamed before, you get in the car, you hit the open road, you blare your music and ride off the edge of a cliff, free as a bird. You start a mosh pit, have wild sex, take drugs with abandon, destroy your enemies, do what you feel. You live fast, you die young, and so on and so forth.
Sonic Youth have one foot in that conventional (at this point) concept of rock ‘n’ roll freedom, but they simultaneously represent a tradition of freedom tied to the mind-expanding potential of art. They can be placed in a line of artists who followed their own impulses regardless of the strains of commerce or the dominant means of expression. They have as much in common with Fluxus, the Beat poets, the Pop artists, experimental filmmakers, conceptual modern-classic composers, free-jazz pioneers, and mystical poets as they do Chuck Berry and the Stones. They’re making rock music, but they’re also reaching for some kind of other place, trying to break past conventions and get to something new. They’re always straddled this line between rock and Art, between being a commercial rock band and being artistic adventurers always on a quest.
The Whitey Album
The story goes that Sonic Youth crossed some line into commercialism when they signed to Geffen Records in 1990, but the truth is they’ve been walking the same line right from the start. These reissues of three quite different Sonic Youth-related recordings reaffirm that feeling, giving a chance to experience the many dimensions of the musical universe the band has been exploring for the past quarter of a century.
Sonic Youth grew from the punk, no-wave, and art gallery scenes of late ‘70s NYC. Sonic Youth the band’s 1982 debut EP, was released on Neutral Records, run by avant garde musician Glenn Branca, who also brought Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo into the fold of his guitar ensembles. You’d expect Sonic Youth to sound especially intellectual, then…cold and experimental and heady. Yet the first line of the first song is “I’m not afraid to say I’m scared / in my bed I’m deep in prayer.” And that song. “Burning Spear”, also has a rhythmic, almost dance-oriented pulse to it.
In some ways Sonic Youth feels like it captures the essence of Sonic Youth. There’s the haunted feeling that would later occupy the entire Bad Moon Rising album. There’s a rock energy but it’s screwed around with, ripped down and then built back up. Kim Gordon’s vocals on “I Dreamed I Dream” have that same dream-poem quality of those on songs throughout the band’s discography (“fucking youth / working youth,” she repeats). The guitars slowly build in a particular way you can find on nearly every Sonic Youth release, up to and including their most recent album Sonic Nurse.
At the same time, Sonic Youth sounds first and foremost like a band in the midst of figuring out their personality. Drummer Richard Edson (who went on to act in films like Stranger Than Paradise and Do the Right Thing) plays in jazzy polyrhythms that fit awkwardly with the rest of the music, pointing them shakily toward worldbeat. Moore’s singing voice sounds underdeveloped compared even to their next record, 1983’s Confusion Is Sex. The songs themselves capture a ghostly, eerie aura but don’t have the ferocity and presence they would soon have….or that they had already, judging by the live recordings added to Sonic Youth for this reissue. The seven live tracks recorded in 1981, including several songs that aren’t on the EP, have a dark, nervous energy missing from the studio recordings. The sound quality isn’t perfect, but the recordings themselves surpass the EP in giving a sense of where Sonic Youth was coming from when they began, the way that they were taking this hardcore intensity and melding it to a heady, experimental way of thinking about rock.
Jump forward through Sonic Youth’s career about six years, past the four albums that cemented their style and grew it in an even more unique fusion of rock and art—Confusion Is Sex, Bad Moon Rising, Evol and Sister - and right before you reach their classic modern-sci-fi epic Daydream Nation you get to a “side project” that is as intriguing as any of the proper albums. Ciccone Youth’s The Whitey Album grew from a one-off single of Madonna covers that they did with bassist Mike Watt, reportedly to help him get over the death of his Minutemen bandmate D. Boon. The idea of stardom and the iconography of celebrity are themes explored often by Sonic Youth. Combine those with the interest in the intersection of pop song and experimental song destruction, and you get these Madonna covers: “Into the Groove(y)”, with Moore singing “Into the Groove” along with a sample of Madonna’s voice and a mish-mash of percussion and guitars, and “Burnin’ Up,” sung and played by Watt.
Both covers are part of The Whitey Album, and form both of that album’s pop music subtext, along with a brilliantly nonchalant Gordon-sung karaoke cover of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” Moore’s brief rap “Tuff Titty Rap”, the hip-hop tapestry feeling of “Hendrix Cosby”, and drum machines and samples strewn throughout. The Whitey Album is on the whole an example of the playful side of Sonic Youth’s experimentalism. The bulk of the album is devoted to jaunty instrumentals with a loose, goofy-funk quality about them, with titles like “Needle-Gun” and “March of the Ciccone Robots.” A sound collage approach meets fool-around jamming in some middle place that feels especially inspired. The scope of the album is wide enough to include a Ranaldo spoken piece (“Me & Jill”), a scattershot hip-hop-influenced re-do of Confusion Is Sex‘s “Making the Nature Scene”, junkyard instrumentals created from scraps of sounds from who-knows-where, and a minute of silence. In its devil-may-care approach to criss-crossing genres and ideas without a end goal in mind, The Whitey Album is reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s ‘90s/‘00s experimental SYR EP series, but it’s more fun. In its own way, it feels like the essence of Sonic Youth, or an essence at least.
The notion that Sonic Youth take themselves too seriously is exploded not just by The Whitey Album, put by close listening to the band’s whole discography. Another similarly misguided notion is that Sonic Youth are all about the head, that their songs are intellectual exercises without heart. The band is more like a continuing example that songs can be intellectual, and visceral, and still in their own way emotional. Sure, you won’t find anything that could be described as sentimentality in Sonic Youth, but you’ll certainly find raw passion.
Thurston Moore’s 1995 solo album Psychic Hearts, the third of the new reissues, sometimes feels entirely ruled by passion. As its title indicates, it’s a collection of Valentine’s cards to imaginary women. At times it feels like an album-length apology to women for male arrogance and ignorance, as Moore directs song after song to women who’ve suffered abuse, who are struggling with life, who experience sexism in a harsh, halting way. Along with that Moore celebrates a few of his artistic heroes, through song title allusions like “Ono Soul” and “Patti Smith Math Scratch.”
It’s an altogether more personal album, one stylistically dominated by Moore’s Beat-like style of freestyle poetry and his driving, bluesy guitar playing (his book title Alabama Wildman comes to mind as an apt description of this album’s style). It feels like a relative of Sonic Youth’s 1994 album Experimental Jet Set, Trash, & No Star, thematically (picking up on the tone of songs like “Self-Obsessed and Sexee”) and musically – that album grew from solo demos by Moore. But Psychic Hearts is much more forceful. Moore adopts one basic style and tone, and drives it until it explodes into vapor…that is, into a 20-minute instrumental “Elegy For All the Dead Rock Stars.”
Sonic Youth destroyed their idols (Kill Yr Idols), they feted them and goofed on them (Ciccone Youth), and here Moore cries for them. Those complex relations between rock stars and listeners are a constant theme in their music, and Sonic Youth has also consistently tried to redefine “rock musician” as someone who makes art, who exposes connections, explores streams of thought and sound, and does it all with the physicality and courage of extreme noise and hardcore punk. And they’re always evolving in this direction. For example, Moore has described the next Sonic Youth album, Rather Ripped, as pop music sounding like the theme song for Friends. The Ciccone Robots march on…