Sonic Youth was a legendary Noise Rock / Alternative Rock band known chiefly for its noisy, experimental avant-garde tendencies and extensive use of prepared guitars, unorthodox tunings, heavy distortion, and feedback in their songs. They've been a significant influence on Alternative Rock in The '80s and were a key influence on My Bloody Valentine and, by extension, the entire Shoegazing movement. Formed in 1981 in New York City, their final lineup was as follows:
- Thurston Moore - Guitar, vocals
- Lee Ranaldo - Guitar, vocals
- Kim Gordon - Bass, vocals, nowadays guitar
- Steve Shelley - Drums (1985-2011)
- Mark Ibold - Bass (2006-2011)
Past members include:
- Richard Edson - Drums (1981-1982); left the band for an acting career, better known as Vito from Do the Right Thing.
- Bob Bert - Drums (1982-1983, 1983-1985);
- Jim Sclavunos - Drums (1983); played on the Confusion is Sex album
- Jim O'Rourke - Guitar, bass, synthesizer (2000-2005)
- Anne DeMarinis - Keyboards (1981-1982); left before the band ever recorded anything, making her Sonic Youth's very own Pete Best.
Thurston's explanation for the name is that it's a combination of MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith's nickname and the tendency of contemporary reggae acts to include "Youth" in their names (such as "Big Youth"). The "youth" part has kind of become bitterly ironic since Thurston, Kim, and Lee are in their fifties now, with Shelley and Ibold (the youngest members) not far behind. In a magazine interview, Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü fame remarked (at least ten years ago) that "Old Youth" would be a more appropriate name. The song "Granny Cool" — by his other former band, Sugar — is probably a Take That! aimed at Kim Gordon. Mould apparently regards Sonic Youth as pampered and overexposed; however, he's more or less the same age as Sonic Youth's core members, and he too continues to release rock recordings.
Drawing on a wide variety of influences ranging from proto-punk acts like The Stooges and the Velvet Underground and Hardcore Punk to avant-garde musicians Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, and John Cage, Sonic Youth's early career was spent largely being a Sensory Abuse Noise Rock band and struggling with lack of recognition and cycling through a succession of drummers. Notably, the band sparred with music critic Robert Christgau over a dismissive review (renaming their song "Kill Yr Idols" to "I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick" in concert), had a disastrous debut in London ending in instrument destruction (which paradoxically got rave reviews) and released a mediocre debut suffering from horrible production, Confusion Is Sex, that hardcore fans love but everybody else tends to ignore.
Starting with 1984-1985, the band managed to sort out their career, finally obtaining a permanent drummer with Steve Shelley of The Crucifucks (whose hyperactive style fit the group very well indeed), getting Record Producers with actual ears to work on their albums and toning down their extreme True Art-iness in favour of a middle ground between avant-garde noise and energetic Alternative Rock. With albums like Bad Moon Rising, EVOL, Sister, and its universally acclaimed double album Daydream Nation, the band refined its Signature Style, striking the perfect balance between arty, experimental Noise Rock and accessible, catchy Alternative Rock. Thurston and Kim also got married in this period and remained together until late 2011. However, not all was fun and games: The band suffered from distribution and payment issues from its indie record labels, Homestead, SST and Enigma — Thurston had some particular choice words for Enigma, deriding it as a "cheap-jack Mafioso outfit" and trashing them over their difficulty in supplying Daydream Nation to stores.
Sick of being jerked around by distribution deficient indie labels, Sonic Youth jumped ship and signed on to Geffen Records' sublabel DGC in 1990. Their first album for Geffen DGC, Goo, represented a concentrated blast of alt-rock noise, and accordingly sold better than previous albums and spawned the band's biggest hit: "Kool Thing." In the same year, Kim's staunch support persuaded Geffen to also bring on board devoted Sonic Youth fans Nirvana, making them indirectly responsible for the popularisation of Grunge in The '90s. Nirvana and Sonic Youth quickly became friends too (Sonic Youth's Whores Moaning EP was a blatant Shout-Out to Nirvana's Hormoaning, and its cover showed one of Kurt Cobain's toys). Their follow-up, Dirty, was produced by Butch Vig and engineered by Andy Wallace (the guys behind Nevermind) and also proved to be a decent success.
Many fans predictably whined It's Popular, Now It Sucks! after Sonic Youth went to a major label and gradually began abandoning the band in droves. This didn't initially affect their popularity much, as the band managed to pump out more successful albums and underwent a stylistic evolution starting with Washing Machine, abandoning their Punk Rock roots and indulging more freely in long noise jams. Kim also began playing guitar more often and eventually abandoned the bass entirely. They also found enough free time to release experimental records on their SYR label and collaborate with experimental noise musicians such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich, Christian Marclay, and Mission of Burma.
Sonic Youth hit a huge speedbump when all of their instruments, amps, and gear were stolen on July 4, 1999 during their tour and their new album NYC Ghosts & Flowers quickly got a massive panning due to its self-indulgent jamming and pretentious, humourless, Narmy lyrics. However, they managed to recover quickly through the addition of new member Jim O'Rourke and releasing Murray Street, which was roundly hailed as a return to form. Most of their material since has been more accessible and melodic, with the avant-garde freakouts reserved for the SYR releases. Ever since, they've recovered their stolen gear, lost O'Rourke in 2005, recruited former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold in 2006 and left Geffen in 2008, moving to indie label Matador Records. In 2011, Moore and Gordon divorced, and the band went on hiatus shortly afterward.
- 1982 - Sonic Youth EP
- 1983 - Confusion Is Sex (Bundled together with the Kill Yr Idols EP on re-release by Geffen)
- 1985 - Bad Moon Rising
- 1986 - EVOL
- 1987 - Sister
- 1987 - Master-Dik EP
- 1988 - Daydream Nation (Double album, considered their masterpiece)
- 1988 - The Whitey Album (released as Ciccone Youth, a parody of pop and alternative rap with tongue in cheek covers of "Into the Groove" by Madonna and "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer)
- 1990 - Goo (First album released on a major label)
- 1992 - Dirty
- 1993 - Whores Moaning EP (An attempt to out-Pun Nirvana's Hormoaning)
- 1994 - Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
- 1994 - TV Shit (Recorded with Yamatsuka Eye)
- 1995 - Washing Machine
- 1995 - Screaming Fields of Sonic Love (Compilation of material up to Daydream Nation)
- 1995 - Made in USA (Soundtrack recorded in 1986, released in 1995)
- 1998 - A Thousand Leaves
- 1998 - Silver Session for Jason Knuth EP (Its name is a tribute to a Sonic Youth fan who committed suicide)
- 2000 - NYC Ghosts & Flowers
- 2002 - Murray Street
- 2002 - In the Fishtank 9 EP (Recorded with The Ex)
- 2004 - Sonic Nurse
- 2006 - Rather Ripped
- 2006 - The Destroyed Room: B-sides and Rarities (Compilation)
- 2009 - The Eternal (First album after returning to an indie label)
Sonic Youth Recordings series:
- 1997 - SYR1: Anagrama
- 1997 - SYR2: Slaapkamers Met Slagroom
- 1998 - SYR3: Invito Al Ĉielo
- 1999 - SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century (Double album of covers)
- 2000 - SYR5
- 2005 - SYR6: Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui (Live recording)
- 2008 - SYR7: J'accuse Ted Hughes
- 2008 - SYR8: Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth (Live recording from the Roskilde festival with Merzbow)
- 2011 - SYR9: Simon Werner a Disparu (Soundtrack for the French film Simon Werner a Disparu)
In 2011, the band announced they were taking an indefinite hiatus following the divorce of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.
"Confusion is Tropes:"
- Album Title Drop: Daydream Nation's title comes from the line "Daydreaming days in a daydream nation", from the "Hyperstation" section of the suite which closes the recording, "Trilogy".
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: "Unmade Bed".
- Alliterative Title: Rather Ripped.
- Author Appeal: Kim likes writing songs about Karen Carpenter, re-framing her as a feminist icon who was a victim of oppressive patriarchal figures. The band's obsession with the Carpenters was one of the reasons for the critical revaluation of the duo during the 80's and 90's.
- Lee and beat poetry.
- Awesome McCool Name: Thurston Moore is a pretty badass name.
- Banging Pots and Pans: Referenced in "Youth Against Fascism".
- Canon Discontinuity: Sonic Youth, and Confusion Is Sex and NYC Ghosts & Flowers are this as well.
- Captain Obvious: During the chorus of "Total Trash", Thurston finds it necessary to point out that "it's a natural fact that I'm not no cow".
- Careful with That Axe: "Death Valley '69".
- MIIIIIIIIILDREEEEEEEED PIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERCE!
- Concept Album: Sister is actually a loose Concept Album inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick. Daydream Nation maybe isn't quite a concept album, but several of its songs allude to the works of William Gibson, especially Neuromancer ("The Sprawl" even has one in its title).
- Cover Version: "I Wanna Be Your Dog" by The Stooges, "Bubblegum" by Kim Fowley, "Hot Wire My Heart" by Crime, "Nic Fit" by The Untouchables, "Into the Groove" by Madonna, "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer, "Within You Without You" for a Beatles tribute album, "Electricity" for a Captain Beefheart tribute album, "Superstar" for a Carpenters tribute album, "Touch Me I'm Sick" for a split single with Mudhoney and the entire SYR4 album.
- The Cover Changes the Meaning: "Superstar".
- Clumsy Copyright Censorship: The artwork to Sister was a series of photo collages, which included some copyrighted material. Thus the front and back covers have big black bars over the offending pictures. A recent reissue at least replaced the black bar on the back with something more subtle — A conveniently placed bar code that only partially covers it up.
- Cultural Cross-Reference: The school level in Silent Hill has a list of teachers which says "K. Gordon, T. Moore, L. Ranaldo, S. Shelley". Silent Hill 3 expands on Gordon's relation to the main characters — sadly, it's a completely different character with just the Name's the Same. Also, the name of the main character Renton Thurston from Eureka Seven is a combination of Renton from Trainspotting and Thurston Moore.
- Cool Big Sis: Kim was a big sister figure of sorts to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, whom she helped get signed to DGC.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Their self-titled debut EP has much less of the guitar noise you'd expect from them; it's also the only Sonic Youth release where most songs are in standard tuning. Furthermore, before Steve Shelley joined on EVOL, their sound was much closer to their no wave influences.
- Epic Rocking: From their main album releases, we have:
- Bad Moon Rising: "I Love Her All the Time" (7:27)
- EVOL: "Expressway to Yr. Skull" (7:19)
- Daydream Nation: "Teen Age Riot" (6:57), "The Sprawl" (7:42), "'Cross the Breeze" (7:00), "Total Trash" (7:33), "Trilogy" (14:02)
- Goo: "Tunic (Song for Karen)" (6:22), "Mote" (7:37), "Titanium Exposé" (6:27)
- Washing Machine: "Washing Machine" (9:33), "The Diamond Sea" (19:35, making it their longest track on any of their studio albums, though it was edited down from an even longer 25:50 version, which is available as a B-Side of its eponymous single. [It was also edited down to a much more regular length of 5:15 for the A-side.])
- A Thousand Leaves: "Female Mechanic Now on Duty" (7:43), "Wildflower Soul" (11:05), "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)" (11:05), "Karen Koltrane" (9:20), "Snare, Girl" (6:38), "Heather Angel" (6:09)
- NYC Ghosts & Flowers: "Free City Rhymes" (7:32), "NYC Ghosts & Flowers" (7:52)
- Murray Street: "Disconnection Notice" (6:24), "Rain on Tin" (7:56), "Karen Revisited" (11:10), "Sympathy for the Strawberry" (9:06), "Sweet Sauce" (7:34; Japanese bonus track)
- Sonic Nurse: "Pattern Recognition" (6:33), "The Dripping Dream" (7:46), "Stones" (7:06), "I Love You Golden Blue" (7:03), "Peace Attack" (6:10)
- Rather Ripped: "Turquoise Boy" (6:14), "Pink Stream" (6:57)
- The Eternal: "Anti-Orgasm" (6:08), "Antenna" (6:13), "Massage the History" (9:43)
- And that's not including a bunch of other long songs on their EPs, B-sides, SYR series, live releases, bonus tracks, and so on. Evidently, different band members had different opinions about brevity versus sprawl; some members evidently tended to favour concision, while Moore has commented, "If I was the leader [of Sonic Youth] as much as everyone says I am, every song would be 20 minutes long." Also, as seen in the lists above, some albums have a lot more of this than others; some didn't have a single track break the six-minute mark, while others (Daydream Nation, A Thousand Leaves, Murray Street, Sonic Nurse) have around half their songs qualify or sometimes even more.
- Grief Song: Gordon and Moore respectively wrote "JC" and "100%" about friend and roadie Joe Cole after his never-solved murder.
- Happily Married: Thurston and Kim (well, until 2011, anyway), Lee and his wife Leah.
- Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: The 6'6" Moore is a foot taller than Kim.
- Incredibly Lame Pun: Master-Dik, Whores Moaning, The Whitey Album).
- Actually, "dik" is the Dutch word for fat; most of the Master=Dik EP was recorded for radio in Amsterdam. Which makes the song/album title a very weird Bilingual Bonus.
- Intentionally Awkward Title: In their early years, they were sometimes billed as Fucking Youth.
- In the Style of...: "Eliminator Jr." tries to sound like ZZ Top.
- Last Note Nightmare: "Becuz Coda".
- On some level, "The Diamond Sea", which begins as one of the band's prettiest songs and slowly devolves into an epic-length noise jam. Terrifying for the uninitiated.
- The transition in "Freezer Burn/I Wanna Be Yr Dog".
- "Mildred Pierce" does this towards the end, where all of the instruments spiral out of control and a distorted voice screams the title repeatedly.
- Literary Allusion Title: "The Sprawl" and "Pattern Recognition" are William Gibson references (and they have several other references to him). "Rain King" may be one to Saul Bellow's novel Henderson the Rain King (which also inspired Counting Crows' otherwise unrelated song of the same title). Sister is named in honor of Philip K. Dick's fraternal twin, who died shortly after her birth; her death haunted Dick for his whole life. "Mildred Pierce" is one to, well, Mildred Pierce. The bonus track "Where the Red Fern Grows" (included on a reissue of their self-titled EP). And so on.
- Long-Runner Line-up: Their four-piece line-up of Thurston, Kim, Lee and Steve lasted fifteen years, from 1985 to 2000. After that, they gained Jim O'Rourke and later Mark Ibold, but kept their four "core" members.
- Loudness War: Their later material got hit with this somewhat. Rather Ripped and The Eternal are the worst about it among their main albums, each being DR6 and clipping pretty badly. Some reissues have problems with this as well.
- Minimalistic Cover Art: Most famously, Daydream Nation features just the painting Kerze (Candle) by German artist Gerhard Richter, plus the band's name and the album title. Some of the other album covers (e.g., Sister's) are not at all minimalistic, though.
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: ALL OVER THE FREAKING PLACE. Seriously, they've done everything from 1-10 and even bordered on 11 at times due to sheer noisiness and chaos. However, as a general rule, 5-7 is more typical- as typical as Sonic Youth ever get, anyways.
- Mondegreen: The reason why the band wrote "Society Is a Hole". To quote their website:The title was born out of a Black Flag lyric that Thurston misheard. The song "Rise Above" contains the line "Society's arms of control", which Thurston misinterpreted as "Society is a fucking hole". Impressed with the lyric and later discovering it was incorrect, he took the line for himself.
- Mundane Made Awesome: "Take a walk in the park? SHIT YEAH!" from "Eliminator Jr."
- New Sound Album: Bad Moon Rising, EVOL, Goo, Washing Machine, Murray Street.
- They changed their sound somewhat on each of those, but none is an extremely radical departure- more a case of a each representing a subtle refinement and slight reshuffling of their sound rather than a full-out, abrupt change.
- No Title: The ninth track of Washing Machine is officially untitled — the back cover track-listing doesn't even include a track 9, going straight from 8 to 10. It's usually referred to as "Becuz Coda", due to being a reprise of (and the originally intended ending to) the album's opening track, "Becuz".
- Nonindicative Name: They are called Sonic Youth even though many band members are in their mid to late fifties. (This wasn't the case earlier in their existence, though.)
- One-Woman Song: "Reena", "Helen Lundeberg", "Marilyn Moore", "Mary Christ", "Sugar Kane".
- Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: Every. Single. Song.
- Maybe on later albums. Not so much their earlier albums.
- Piss-Take Rap: "Master-Dik" and "Into the Groovey".
- Pun-Based Title: Quite a few. Perhaps most famously, "Hey Joni" double as a Shout-Out to the blues standard "Hey Joe" (best known in Jimi Hendrix' version from Are You Experienced) and Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: The final lyrics of "Pipeline/Kill Time" are an almost-whispered "We. Should. Kill. Time." Given how often it's repeated, it could also qualify as Broken Record and Madness Mantra.
- Rapid-Fire "No!": The chorus of "No Queen Blues".
- Rock Me, Asmodeus!: Averted. See "Satan Is Boring".
- Self-Titled Album
- Shout-Out: Frequent in their songs, both in titles and lyrics — "Hey Joni", "Marilyn Moore", "Expressway to Yr. Skull"'s alternate title "Madonna, Sean and Me", "Master-Dik", "Teenage Riot" (a humorous jab at J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr's reputation for laziness), "Tunic (Song for Karen)", "My Friend Goo", "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)", "Karen Koltrane", "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" (it had its title changed to "Kim Gordon and..." for legal purposes), "New Hampshire" (the Steve and Joe mentioned are the guys from Aerosmith), "Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)", "Thunderclap (for Bobby Pyn)", "Eliminator Jr" (meant as a nod to ZZ Top's Eliminator and Dinosaur Jr.).
- Some of them are pretty subtle. It'll probably be obvious just from its title that "The Sprawl" is a shout-out to William Gibson if you've read his early novels, but if you haven't, the title seems generic enough not to be a reference to anything. The song also uses text from the novel The Stars at Noon by Denis Johnson in its first verse. Similarly, people familiar with Philip K. Dick may grok his influence on Sister almost immediately, but almost everyone else will think it just has weird lyrics.
- Something Blues: "Winner's Blues" and "No Queen Blues".
- Spoken Word in Music: "Providence", a song where the only vocals are a message Mike Watt left on Thurston Moore's answering machine.
- Step Up to the Mic: Lee sings noticeably fewer songs than Thurston and Kim, usually only singing lead vocals on one or two songs per album.
- Subdued Section
- Surprisingly Gentle Song: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star opens with "Winner's Blues," a solo acoustic song by Thurston.
- Take That!: "Youth Against Fascism" is 3 and a half minutes of Thurston insulting George H.W. Bush (Yeah, the president sucks/He's a war pig fuck/His shit's out of luck etc. etc.), "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream" lampoons Mariah Carey, "Peace Attack" is a mellower but still pretty ripshit pissed indictment of George W. Bush. "I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick" is self-explanatory.
It's the song I hate
- "Youth Against Fascism" is more of a Take That! to political rock songs that were so prevalent at the time with most of the bands not even knowing what they're protesting.
- Those not recognizing it as a piss take: either they didn't pay attention to the refrain, or over-applied WMG to make it mean whatever they hoped it meant. Self-explanatory, though:
It's the song I hate
I believe Anita Hill
- Thurston still sneaks in an actual Take That!:
The judge'll rot in hell
- "Swimsuit Issue" is one to a rather loathsome former Geffen employee; "The Ineffable Me" is similar in subject.
- "Kool Thing" was a Take That! directed at LL Cool J (of all people), apparently prompted by an interview Kim Gordon had with him.
- For those who were wondering, Robert Christgau and Thurston Moore have since sorted out their differences and made up. Christgau even gave A Thousand Leaves an A+, his highest rating.
- Then there's their "cover" of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano", which is just the newborn Coco Gordon-Moore mewling for a few seconds. This could also be considered Affectionate Parody; Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore would later collaborate with Yoko Ono on the album Yokokimthurston, and Moore called one of his solo songs "Ono Soul" as a Shout-Out.
- "Youth Against Fascism" is more of a Take That! to political rock songs that were so prevalent at the time with most of the bands not even knowing what they're protesting.
- Titled After the Song: Bad Moon Rising is named after a Creedence Clearwater Revival song, of all things.
- Two First Names: Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley. Lee Ranaldo arguably applies, as the given name is pronounced the same, but spelled "Renaldo".
- Viewers Are Geniuses: Their work may qualify in many cases. Their lyrics often read like Word Salad Lyrics to the uninitiated, but many of these cases are actually subtle literary references that will simply look like word salad to readers unfamiliar with the works in question. Their music also often qualifies between the unusual compositional techniques, inaccessible and often abrasive songwriting and arrangements, musical vocabulary inspired by works often well off an average rock fan's radar, and so on.
- Vocal Tag Team: With a few exceptions, whoever wrote the lyrics sings the song, giving the band three different lead singers. Thurston and Kim tend to sing somewhat more songs than Lee, but he still gets at least one or two songs on most of their albums (or, on Daydream Nation, three - it is a double album, though).
- Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers loved to mock Thurston for this, saying at one point "Did you have an actual mom?". Thurston and Kim also may possibly qualify, since they named their daughter Coco Hayley Gordon Moore.
- Word Salad Lyrics: Especially prominent on songs where Lee sings, with lines like "He's a steel drum wedding ring Pontiac doorknob ten" and "She's a beautiful mental jukebox — a sailboat explosion/A snap of electric whip crack."
- Self-awarely parodied in Lee's "Skip Tracer".the guitar guy played real good feedback and super sounding riffs
with his mild mannered look on, yeah he was truly hip
the girl started out in red patent leather
very "I'm in a band" with knee pads
we watch her fall over and lay down
shouting the poetic truths of high school journal keepers
row house row house pass through, let the city rise up
twister, dust buster, hospital bed, I'll see you see you see you on the highway
- Despite this, some examples that seem like this are actually examples of Viewers Are Geniuses (or Genius Bonus), as the band is fond of placing references to obscure literature in their lyrics. See Shout-Out and Literary Allusion Title, among others, above.
- Self-awarely parodied in Lee's "Skip Tracer".
- Xtreme Kool Letterz: Some of their song titles, such as "Tuff Gnarl", "Kotton Krown", "White Kross", and "Kool Thing".
- Also, the band (and their fans) have an idiosyncratic habit of always writing "yr" instead of "your".
- Yr Cheating Heart: Moore had an affair, the discovery of which ended his marriage to Gordon and the band itself.