Sonic Youth is undoubtedly the most important band to me personally for a number of reasons. First off they were the first band that I listened to that not many other people I knew were listening to, and more importantly after hearing them I realized that a rock band can do literally whatever they wanted. Why weren’t more artists being as unique as SY? That uniqueness and individuality translated to “this band doesn’t give a fuck!” in my mind and that was a good thing. A very good thing.
I decided that since this band has been such an important part of my life, and I can say in complete honesty that I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for this band, that I would write up a post for each of their albums. Though I’m not aiming to review them (that’s been done, obviously, as some of these albums are almost 30 years old), I would rather go through them chronologically recalling how they affected me when I first heard them, or what I think about when I return to them over and over again after all these years. The posts most likely will not appear day after day in sequence, but I’ll keep the series going until it’s done.
I was still pretty young when my brother got “Confusion is Sex/Kill yr. Idols” (too young to have any money of my own). DGC was in the process of re-releasing SY’s entire back catalog and I remember there was an ad in Spin that had a list of all the albums (up to “Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star”…which will give you some idea of the timeline here) and we were dutifully trying to get all of them.
One of the things that I remember about hearing this album for the first time was that I couldn’t stop listening to it. It was so curious to me. It “sounded like shit,” was my first thought as I was still deep in the throes of a Smashing Pumpkins “Siamese Dream” obsession, with it’s meticulously clean, “perfect” guitar tone and crystal clear production. Sonic Youth, in comparison, sounded dark, mysterious, evil, scary in some ways. Walking to school listening to this album (on a Memorex that I dubbed from the CD) on my Walkman as I walked to school I remember listening to “Shaking Hell,” and the power of Kim Gordon’s voice, with the sparse emptiness of the hollow accompaniment echoing in the distance, coming off as cold, perfectly matching the brisk Fall of Western New York.
“Freezer Burn/I Wanna Be Your Dog” was a favorite, and I sure as hell didn’t know that this was a cover song, let alone who Iggy Pop was. The sheer energy and noise of “Inhuman” was the first time that I heard a song that just used noise as an instrument. Thurston’s atonal yelps sounded at once wrong and perfect. This sounded like music that anyone could do, but at the same time I knew that only Sonic Youth could. This sounded like music that I wanted to make, or at least it was music that wanted me want to make music, but I didn’t know where 90% of the sounds were coming from.
Slack stringed weirdness at the beginning of the title track serves as uneven punctuation as the near-steady (-ish) accelerando throughout the song gets a start before another loud and squealing guitar comes crashing into the track. An entire song, on an actual album, that I was hearing for the first time, that used just cluster chords and gesture as the entire harmonic structure (though I definitely didn’t think of music in these terms when I was 13). Why do you need chords anyway? The song is tense and then to increase the tension they speed it up to a frantic pace after a section in the middle that breaks the song up a little bit. It all makes sense to me now, but then I was just in awe. I guess I still am but in a bit of a different way.
“Brother James,” listening to it now shows more the direction that the band would head in as they moved toward “Bad Moon Rising,” with verse/chorus/verse structure and guitar lines that, though off-kilter and de-tuned, are actual riffs.
Listening back to this now I am left thinking something that has been on my mind for a long time. It’s not the elements of a song – the melodies, harmonies, structure, lyrical content etc. – that a person connects with instantly, it’s the timbre. That’s the most exciting part of listening to music, in my opinion. Think of it this way: how often in life do you get to experience something that you have never experienced before, or didn’t think was possible? How often do you get to see something that you have never seen before? Find out that something you couldn’t even conceive of actually exists? How often do you get to hear something that truly doesn’t sound – actually sound – like anything you have ever heard before?
To me, it seems that that is going to be the dividing line for people. The first thing one is confronted with when listening to music is the sound. For some it’s an impenetrable barrier, while for others it is a welcomed change from everything else that we’ve ever experienced. That element of otherness is something that continues throughout most of Sonic Youth’s discography, and I still remember my 12 or 13 year old self getting excited about music stripped to its most basic elements, and how powerful that could be.