Even in the microcosm of Rock, some challenges seem impossible or difficult to imagine, especially if we rely on conventional categories, namely classifications and definitions aimed at identifying properly any music genre, movement or scene.
Thus, it was said that Punk was an instinctive, fast and full of rage, working-class music, totally different from the kind of Rock played in the early Seventies, all those virtuosic passages and pretentious jam sessions conveying, in some ways, a sense of ease and opulence. It follows that elaborated riffs and guitar duels are not to be expected in Punk. Nobody would attempt to amalgamate its virulence with a refined and highly imaginative music. Nobody but the Sonic Youth.
Based in New York, the quartet could be seen as the archetype of the independent band. In the pursuit of free and challenging experimentations, they left a huge fingerprint on the Eighties, being talented artists and representatives of the hidden and unconventional side of the decade.
Influenced by New York’s bohemian culture of late Seventies and emerged just like a filament in the rich mine of the radical and nihilist avant-garde of No Wave – along with Mars, Arto Lindsay with DNA and then with Lounge Lizards (including John Lurie), Contortions, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks with Lydia Lunch, immortalized by Brian Eno in his pivotal compilation released in 1978 No New York – Sonic Youth built their own identity during the Eighties, moving along two lines: one committed to experimental music and deeply rooted in the local scene, matching avant-garde music and contemporary visual art – Minimalism, Noise, Conceptual Art, Pop Art; the other one resulting from an asymmetrical and inquisitive glance to California, place generally associated to freedom issues and experimental arts in the previous decade.
If New York’s background could be regarded as the first source of the musical research carried out by the “sonic” four – although only Lee Ranaldo was born in the Big Apple – California has always been an evocative reference in their music. There were also personal bonds: Kim Gordon spent his youth in Los Angeles with his parents who were university teachers and a brother affected by schizophrenia, moving to Downtown New York to refine her education on visual arts, but always considering LA “my favourite place on earth”; Lee Ranaldo has always stressed the deep influence of Californian Acid Rock bands on his life and music.
Consequently, after a debut marked by No Wave attitudes, the band focused on their undeclared Graal: enfolding the cold and intellectual soul of their music with the hot and lively sound of electric guitars, working out a daring synthesis of Velvet Underground and Grateful Dead. The iconoclastic and noisy experimentation of the first albums evolved in guitar textures, apparently chaotic but of unusual style, tearing down the division between lead guitar and rhythmic section, creating a sound always oscillating from minimalism to maximalism, being at once evocative and explosive.
Bad Moon Rising (1985) was the first stage in their path towards West, an impressionistic picture exploring the ancestral bond that ties America and death. Death Valley ’69, sung with Lydia Lunch, is erroneously seen as a hymn to Charles Manson. In reality, the true purpose of this hallucinating and tribal album, which continues on the walk of a noisy Psychedelia, is to weave a symbolic narrative of the dark side of the American dream and Reagan decade.
Evol, the subsequent album, marked the passage to more traditional songwriting, refining the canon of Noise through decadent moods and hypnotic rhythms. This was the first outstanding work of a trilogy of unique creativity and originality.
In the meantime, as the Eighties progressed, its subterranean boiling magma remained hidden under sugared layers of Pop music & glittering ornaments. However, the success of Blade Runner led to the rediscovering of a cult writer like Philip K. Dick, especially among the many currents flowing under the surface. The literary and cultural movement known as Cyberpunk acknowledged him as an ideal father-like figure, considering his works a distinctive poetic heritage. Although it was Hollywood that paved the way, Dick’s dystopian worlds and schizophrenic hallucinations could not but appeal the American avant-garde scene.
Sonic Youth released in 1987 another jewel: Sister. The album shows a powerful blend of Garage Rock sounds within a frame of Noise and Psychedelia, with lyrics inspired by Dick’s lysergic pages “whose writing has more in common with philosophy than science fiction, and whose description of schizophrenia were better than those of any medical journal” as Kim Gordon remarks in Girl in a Band, her brilliant autobiography.
Another writer, William Gibson – himself in debt with Dick – was equally and enthusiastically appreciated in those circles. In Sprawl, his Cyberpunk trilogy, he proved to be very able to deal with alienation and metropolitan nightmares – themes also evoked in Sonic Youth’s lyrics – by adding a new element: a “psychedelic” narrative of cybernetic technologies seen as the next drugs, a way of escaping reality as well as devices to expand our sensory perceptions.
Hence, Sonic Youth released a double LP Daydream Nation (1988). Regarded as their artistic peak and best expression of their guitar style, it is almost a concept album, echoing popular literature, political claims and the sounds of the Sixties, in a state of chemical equilibrium.
This memorable work – maybe the Dark Side of the Moon of the Eighties? – offers, like Pink Floyd’s masterpiece, a totally absorbing experience: to do that, Sonic Youth display their electric mantel in the sky, making us feel as if the breath of guitars and the music distortions were oxygen. Guitar textures are thick and unyielding; sometimes, they turn into a deafening noise. Overwhelmed by these landscapes made of sounds, we watch them until their outlines become defined. It is like being in a virtual reality, grounded on a structure made of sounds, echoing the data matrix of the Gibsonian cyberspace
The album is full of allusions to science fiction. The fascination with this world is often conveyed by a synaesthetic approach, that is the ability of expressing at once two or more sensory experiences: the sound of Cyberpunk as well its energy, the smell of burning metal and electrical burns, fast and obsessive rhythm, oneiric pauses, dissonant tones and asymmetrical harmonies, as in a dystopian nightmare. Alienation is the predominant mood along with rage and thrills of melancholy.
The Sprawl is a song inspired by a future large urban conglomeration, expanding from Boston to Atlanta, imagined by Gibson in his novels. As an account of the sounds experimented by Sonic Youth, it shows their state of grace. By means of very refined guitar textures, it allows us to cross this vast urban area, starting from its core, rhythmic and lively, full of tension and danger. Then, on the wheels of a noisy Psychedelia, we arrive in abandoned and hallucinated suburbs, maybe only dreamed. In the middle, a spoken text. The cold and detached words of Kim Gordon emphasize the sense of alienation.
The other tracks complete the modernist architecture devised by the quartet: Thurston Moore’s hardcore riffs are full of tension as never before; Lee Ranaldo shows the best of his art in three songs evoking the sounds of Sixties; Kim Gordon, the intellectual and introspective side of the band, strengthens her feminist iconic role and her image of riot girl ante litteram; finally, the energetic and versatile drumming of Steve Shelley is the key element of the distinctive sound of the band.
Sonic Youth had their mark on Indie Rock, especially on Grunge: as a matter of fact, they told Geffen to sign Nirvana. Although they eventually lost the disruptive and innovative strength of the first years, their experience reminds us that Rock is ontologically the result of a contamination of styles and, as any important artistic expression, is subjected to a never-ending process of refashioning and formalization.
After all, art is necessary in our life. It makes the idealistic world more real, physical and understandable, allowing us to get experiences otherwise unattainable: making possible the impossible.