Joni’s In The Tall Grass

Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation turned 30 this year, a double album that was some kind of apex of US indie-punk. I tested it out this week, seeing how it sounded after not having heard it for years. It’s front loaded with Teenage Riot, their most essential song and the few that follow it are almost as good- Silver Rocket, The Sprawl, ‘Cross The Breeze and Eric’s Trip- but not quite as good. Lee Ranaldo’s Hey Joni was the one that stood out to me, a noisy, full throttle tribute to Joni Mitchell (possibly) or a girl from Lee’s past (possibly) that breaks down towards the end, twin overdriven¬† guitars feeding back, with Ranaldo saying ‘It’s 1963, it’s 1964, it’s 1957, it’s 1962…. put it all behind you, now it’s all behind you’. Lost youth.

Hey Joni

Their 1989 cover of Neil Young’s Computer Age is a blast and a joy, pretty much my favourite Sonic Youth track (and somehow typical of them to cover a song from Neil’s most misunderstood record, his 1982 vocoder and synths album Trans, an album that baffled his fans and record company alike). Sonic Youth rewire it for guitar and burn it up.

Computer Age

She’s A Sad Tomato

Watching an R.E.M. documentary the other night reminded me a) what a good band R.E.M. were in the 80s but also b) how they kept that going into the mainstream- such an unlikely band to be stadium size, multi-million selling albums big. After Automatic For The People I always think they tail off very quickly but the fade was delayed longer than that. I didn’t think too much of Monster when it came out but Crush With Eyeliner is really good- it shimmers and throbs and has groove. New Adventures In Hi Fi has several 90s peaks on it too. Being massive and mainstream and still being interesting is a difficult trick to pull off. In retrospect they should have called it a day when Bill Berry left- that would have left everything intact.

Which then led me to this 90s Sonic Youth masterpiece. Sonic Youth crossing over with New York fashion shows and Cara Delevingne in tow. Sonic Youth crossed back pretty quickly.

Girl In A Band

I read Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl In A Band last week and very good it was too. The book divides into three main parts: her upbringing in California and her entry onto the world of art in the late 60s and early 70s; her move to New York and the best part of three decades spent in Sonic Youth and married to Thurston Moore; the bringing up a young family of her own while being part of an experimental guitar band and the effects of Thurston Moore’s affair and the break up of her marriage. The entire book is cut through with a sense of loss and questioning, as the ramifications of Thurston’s actions lead her to re-assess most of what went before. The breakdown of the marriage clearly brings the band to an end- more loss. Her childhood also contained the loss of a brother to mental illness and she constantly questions her relationships- with men, with art, with life. The chapters are often brief but full of insight, a series of postcards from her life. By the 90s the book also brings in a wide supporting cast, including Kurt Cobain (more loss), the New York art and fashion worlds, the gentrification of the city (loss again), Beck, and The Beastie Boys. It’s sad in parts, angry and furious in places too, moving but uplifting too as a new Kim emerges at the end. It’s a thoroughly affecting read and another first rate female rock autobiography from the last couple of years to hold up alongside Viv Albertine’s and Tracey Thorn’s books.

Sonic Youth moved from indie to major in the 1990s, having seen the pitfalls of The Replacements and Husker Du doing the same in the 80s and wanted to avoid making the same mistakes. Their output didn’t really suffer- Goo (on Geffen) stands up strongly, close to Daydream Nation and their 80s indie-punk classics. Dirty Boots, Kool Thing and Bull In The Heather are all just as good as Teenage Riot (well, almost as good as Teenage Riot), Expressway To Yr Skull and Death Valley ’69. They were just recorded in bigger, more expensive studios.

Death Valley ’69


In 1988 Sonic Youth put out The Whitey Album, not very well disguised as Ciccone Youth and in tribute to Madonna Louise Ciccone. Most of the attention was on the record’s cover versions. These had been put out as a single on New Alliance in 1986 and were expanded out for the album. Coming at a time when Sonic Youth were being praised to the heavens for Daydream Nation this was possibly an effective way of defusing some of the hype- some noise, contributions from Mike Watt, jokey covers plus a hip reference to krautrock with the song Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu! The cover of the album was a photocopied close up of Madonna’s face. Madonna apparently gave her blessing to it, remembering the band from her clubbing and Danceteria days. Ciccone Youth did their Madonna thing on Into The Groove(y) and Burnin’ Up. Someone on Youtube has done the decent thing and set the music to clips of Desperately Seeking Susan (the only Madonna film that is actually watchable).

Better still though was their version of Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love. The video and vocal were recorded in a karaoke booth for $25- D.I.Y. punk rock in attitude, style and cost. It was also a very effective way of sending up Palmer’s video with Kim Gordon singing the song deadpan and dancing with images from the Vietnam War flashing over the top.

This is the standard setter and last word in ironic cover versions. And still sounds great.

Keeping It Peel

October 25th is Keeping It Peel Day across the internet. I’ve taken part previously- the sound of John Peel’s voice followed by something familiar and brilliant, or unfamiliar and brilliant, or just plain puzzling, was one of the joys of the man’s radio show. In previous years I’ve posted Keeping It Peel songs by Half Man Half Biscuit, The Redskins and Sabres Of Paradise. I dallied briefly with posting a song from The Cramps only Peel Session but we’ve had a surfeit of Crampiness in recent weeks- not that you can have too much but I thought some of you might be getting bored- and when searching my d/ls folder found this, Sonic Youth covering The Fall’s Rowche Rumble…

Rowche Rumble (Peel Session)

And also this from long lost blissed out, groovy, Balearic dance act Fluke, who I always had a soft spot for…

The Allotment of Blighty (Peel Session)

The two together, I think, kind of covers some of the spirit of the man and the radio show.

Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout The Stormy Weather

So we skip seamlessly from Big Youth to Sonic Youth. I’ve got several Sonic Youth records but when it comes down to it the only one I need is the opening song from their 1987 double opus Daydream Nation, an album that seemed to signpost a new big thing. Fact is, whenever I think I’m going to listen to Daydream Nation I never get any further than playing Teen Age Riot three or four times. That’s not to say that the rest of the album hasn’t got anything going for it- it has- but the rest of it isn’t Teen Age Riot. It’s Sonic Youth’s perfect moment. I can make a case for Death Valley ’69 and much of Goo (I love Dirty Boots) and some later stuff like Murray Street and also some of Ciccone Youth (they’ve got a good way with covers- their versions Neil Young’s Computer Age and the Carpenters’ Superstar are both superb). But Teen Age Riot is head and shoulders above- from it’s smoky intro with Kim Gordon intoning blankly to the riff and then Thurston’s half-spoken, half-sung vocals, a tribute to sloth king J Mascis, and the whole effortlessness, pre-slacker controlled noise of it all. US indie-punk cool.

Teen Age Riot

Of course sometimes they’re insufferable obtuse as well, noise-for-noise’s sake, music from the head rather than the heart or the loins. Record collectors and rock critics let loose in an instrument shop. I suppose I shouldn’t carp- many bands don’t make one song that’ll be remembered twenty five years after it was recorded.

>Hang On To Your Detuned Guitars

Sonic Youth do their Sonic Youth thing to I Know There’s An Answer, a song off The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which as everyone knows is one of the greatest albums since blah blah. This is pretty good actually, nicely ramshackle.

I Know There’s An Answer started life as a song called Hang On To Your Ego, which some members of the Beach Boys refused to sing claiming it was hippy nonsense. Which it probably was. Doesn’t make them right to make Brian go and change it though does it?