It’s fair to say that the divorce of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore ranks among the more earth-shattering in the history of rock. Their split in 2011 brought to a conclusive end a three-decade project that inspired countless musicians and listeners alike. Founded in 1981, Sonic Youth reflected shifting trends in the music scene from no-wave to Madonna, to hip-hop, to grunge, while retaining their identity as exemplars of experimentation and artistic integrity. Personal lives aside, Sonic Youth brought intelligence and a sense of unanimity to an American underground scene prone to centrifugal diffusion.
Walls Have Ears is the latest in a series of archival releases that have revisited the band at different points in their career. Last fall, Sonic Youth dropped Live in Brooklyn 2011, a remix of Brooklyn, NY – Williamsburg Waterfront – August 12, 2011 (2020), that captured their final performance in the US. At that point, Sonic Youth had become an institution, not just among underground music fans, but more generally, as reflected through their annual summer concerts in New York City. Not quite Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park, but an affection had grown. Only days later, Moore and Gordon’s divorce would be announced.
In contrast to that career-spanning LP, Walls Have Ears is a reissue of an unofficial bootleg first released in 1986. Recorded during the tour for Bad Moon Rising (1985), it captures what might be called the late adolescence of Sonic Youth. Consisting of material from three UK shows, this double LP is intentionally uneven and abrasive – the sound of a confident band still finding themselves. Fan favorites like “Expressway to Yr. Skull”, “Death Valley ’69”, and “Kill Yr. Idols” are present, though their evident edges are sharper and more minacious. As an artifact of Sonic Youth’s sound immediately prior to EVOL (1986) and their breakthrough masterpiece, Daydream Nation (1988), the 18 tracks on Walls Have Ears underscore the long, uncompromising road taken for their eventual success.
“Please put more of this guitar here,” Moore instructs a sound technician at the start of “Kill Yr. Idols”. This passing comment could preface this entire release. During their early career, Sonic Youth were, if anything, an effort at deconstructing the possibilities of the electric guitar, rendering it more a tool than an instrument. A nightmarish quality subsequently emerges across these tracks, signaling a refusal of easy melodies and any identifiable aural respite. Sonic Youth’s work, especially Daydream Nation, was partly a response to the bleakness of the Reagan era. One can readily grasp how a British audience enduring Thatcherism would be equally receptive to their approach.
The first eight songs draw from a show in London on 30 October 1985. Setting the tone, Claude Bessy, a legendary figure of the underground scene at the time, introduces Sonic Youth by saying to the crowd, “Shut your fucking face. I want just two minutes of your attention.” Things get more caustic from there. Initial tracks like “Green Love” (renamed “Green Light” on EVOL) and “Brother James” (from their 1983 Kill Yr. Idols EP) bring the band’s atonal, alternate tunings into the foreground, laying the groundwork for a climactic version of “Expressway to Yr. Skull” that lasts almost ten minutes. Moore’s vocals sound remarkably like Neil Young‘s on this last song, providing at moments an unusually tender human presence above the din.
After a single song interlude of “Blood on Brighton Beach” (aka “Making the Nature Scene” from their 1983 debut Confusion is Sex) recorded at a gig in Brighton on 8 November 1985, the remainder of Walls Have Ears dwells on another, earlier show in London from April 1985. It should be noted that this patchwork album does not move forward chronologically. Furthermore, the material on hand is a selection of concert moments. This reissue does not offer complete recordings of these shows.
Highlights from this third act include “Ghost Bitch” and “Death Valley ’69”, both from Bad Moon Rising. In fact, “Death Valley ’69” appears twice, with the first version (track 8) renamed “Spahn Ranch Dance” with Steve Shelley on drums. A unique feature of this release is that two of Sonic Youth’s drummers are involved, with Bob Bert playing at the April event and Shelley performing in October. Though little difference can be detected from a musical standpoint, this album documents a key transitional moment in the band’s history.
Other eccentricities can also be heard. Track five is a 30-second snippet of Madonna‘s “Into the Groove” played on stage, undoubtedly a reflection of Sonic Youth’s part satirical, part serious engagement with her music that resulted in the brief formation of Ciccone Youth with Mike Watt of the Minutemen and The Whitey Album (1988). Another experimental track is “Speed JAMC”, which consists of a tape of the Jesus and Mary Chain fast-forwarded until it reaches a raw, screeching tone. Both bands had been compared at the time. Stage banter also ensues. At one point, Moore deadpans that they will start playing Grand Funk Railroad songs.
Taken together, Walls Have Ears is a wild, unvarnished listen that gets back to the difficult, defiant essence of Sonic Youth. In his excellent history of the band Goodbye 20th Century (2008), David Browne writes how the original bootleg release of Walls Have Ears was upsetting for them, demonstrating an early inability to have complete artistic control over their material. This new reissue is clearly meant to set the record straight with the band’s imprimatur.
Walls Have Ears is certainly less valedictory than Live in Brooklyn 2011. Yet, by virtue of this, it gives a stronger sense of how Sonic Youth earned their unimpeachable credentials through a long-standing ethos of contravention that unsettled musical and artistic complacencies of the time. These live recordings showcase this commitment and the labor involved before they became elder arbiters of indie taste during the 1990s, legitimating numerous bands and trends through their generous mentorship and support.
Some people argue that Sonic Youth died well before they split up. Their early noise rock grittiness had been replaced by a commercial sheen, starting with LPs like Dirty (1992) and Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994). Either way, there is a nostalgia and even spookiness to this album that unavoidably surfaces from its unbridled energy, their surprise denouement, and the passage of time.
Kim Gordon once famously remarked that people will pay a lot of money to see other people believe in themselves. Sonic Youth believed in themselves circa 1985. Walls Have Ears testifies to this unwavering conviction.