Sonic Youth

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Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth are an experimental rock group formed in New York City in 1981. Current personnel are Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo on guitars and vocals, Kim Gordon on bass guitar, guitar and vocals, Jim O'Rourke on bass guitar, guitar (and occasional synthesizer or laptop), and Steve Shelley on drums.

In their early career, Sonic Youth were associated with the "No Wave" art and music scene in New York City, but have outlasted most associated bands. They have found moderate mainstream success, and are generally seen as one of the leading alternative rock groups of their time.

Initially inspired by the noise experimentation of Glenn Branca (with whom most of the band have performed); as well as the heavy garage rock-acid-rock of The Stooges, they were known for using a variety of unorthodox guitar tunings, and for applying screwdrivers or other preparations to guitars to alter the instruments' timbre.




Moore and Ranaldo had earlier performed (together and separately) in various short-lived punk rock groups. Ranaldo was a member of Glenn Branca's ensemble; Moore and then Gordon would also perform with Branca. Gordon had a fine-arts background, and in the early 1980's there was considerable crossover between the art and music worlds in New York City. After a one-off performance with members of Glenn Branca's and Rhys Chatham's ensembles, Gordon began perfoming with various musical groups. She and Moore were dating before Sonic Youth officially formed; they would later marry and have a daughter, Coco Hayley Gordon Moore.

Sonic Youth was formed in 1981 by Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo and drummer Richard Edson. Supposedly their name mocks the preponderance of bands with the name 'youth' in the title in NYC in the early 1980s. Another version for their name origin is that it is a combination of the names of Fred 'Sonic' Smith of the band MC5 and the reggae artist Big Youth. The flyer for the group's first performance finds them named "Fucking Youth". [1] ( Gordon primarily played bass guitar, and has cited the propulsive, economical basslines of reggae as an indect influence on her playing.

Their first album--greatly indebted to Branca--plays very austere and reserved, consciously arty and layered. Alternate guitar tunings had previously been used for decades in blues music, but Sonic Youth began using a variety of tunings more radical than nearly anything in rock music history. Azerrad writes that early in their career, Sonic Youth "could only afford cheap guitars, and cheap guitars sounded like cheap guitars. But with weird tunings or something jammed under a particular fret, those humble instruments could sound rather amazing--bang a drumstick on a cheap Japanese Stratocaster copy in the right tuning, crank the amplifier to within an inch of its life, and it will sound like church bells." (Azerrad, 243) The tunings were painstakingly developed by Moore and Ranaldo during the band's rehersals; Moore once reported that the odd tunings were an attempt to intoduce new sounds: "when you're playing in standard tuning all the time ... things sound pretty standard." (Azerrad, 243). Rather than retune for every song, Sonic Youth generally use a different guitar for every song, and can take dozens of instruments on tour.

After their first album Edson quit the group for a modestly successful acting career; he was replaced by Bob Bert. Sonic Youth's next two important projects, Confusion is Sex and Kill Yr Idols, are hyper-aggressive aggregates of swirling noise. Some vocal fans contend that the group has yet to improve on Confusion is Sex while other fans see it as a promising (if somewhat amateurish) recording. Regardless of opinions, the group would not make records like Sonic Youth or Confusion ever again.

Sonic Youth formed a friendship with noisy New Yorkers Swans; SY's first two tours were brief midwest jaunts supporting Swans.

This early edition of the group found themselves descibed as "Pigfuck" music, a term coined by Village Voice writer Robert Christgau; other pigfuck groups were Big Black, the Butthole Surfers and Pussy Galore (In some ways these groups are very different from each other, but they're all to degrees abrasive, noisy and confrontational). A feud developed between Moore and Christgau, and Moore renamed "Kill Yr Idols" as "I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick" (Azerrad, 246) before the men sorted out their differences amicably.

Besides Branca, Patti Smith, and the Stooges, another early influence was the hardcore punk of the early 1980s; after a seeing a Minor Threat performance in May 1982, Moore declared them "The greatest live band I have ever seen." (Azerrad, 273) While recognizing that their own musical aspirations were very different from hardcore, Moore and Gordon, especially, were impressed by hardcore's speed and intensity, and by the nationwide network of musicians and fans. "It was great," said Moore, "the whole thing with slam dancing and stage diving, that was far more exciting than pogoing and spitting... I thought hardcore was very musical and very radical" (Julia and Gonzalo 51).

Bert was fired following a European tour, he was replaced by Jim Sclavunos, who quit after only a few months. The group asked Bert to rejoin, and he agreed, on the condition that he not be fired again.

Sonic Youth gradually incorporated more conventional elements of pop music into their work, while still maintaining an experimental quality. Bad Moon Rising (1984), was a loose concept album. Most of the material told stories of violence and insanity, and sounded accordingly claustrophobic: There are almost no breaks between the songs on the record, which feature walls of feedback and pounding rhythms. Still, songs such as "I Love Her All the Time" and "Brave Men Run" boasted a relatively more mainstream structure and harmonies. Bad Moon also features an appearence by Lydia Lunch on the harrowing "Death Valley '69", inspired by the murders committed by Charles Manson's "family".

Dissatisfied with their lack of financial success, Bert quit the group and was replaced by Steve Shelley (formerly of hardcore group Crucifucks). Shelley's membership marked a sharp shift in the group's sound: he was a link to the group's interterest in hardcore, and he was by far the most technically proficient drummer the group had performed with.

EVOL (1986)--their first record released on SST Records--was the first album to feature a song written and sung by Ranaldo. On the record the listener can hear the band beginning to craft songs that could be almost considered pop (such as "Star Power" and "Expressway to Yr. Skull") from the raw stuff of psychedelic feedback and distortion.

On Sister (1987), Sonic Youth continued refining their blend of pop-music song structures with uncompomising experimentalism. Another loose concept album, Sister is partly inspired by the life and works of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (the "sister" of the title was Dick's fraternal twin, who died shortly after her birth, and whose memory haunted Dick his entire life). It recieved very positive reviews, and remains one of the best-loved records among Sonic Youth's fans. The group regularly played songs such as "Schizophrenia" and "Kotton Krown" long after the album's release.

But it was the double LP Daydream Nation (1988), which exceeded all expectation and earned SY unanimous crossover critical acclaim and a new record deal with a major label, Geffen Records. On Daydream Nation they had perfected their style, becoming virtuosic sculptors of guitar noise which could unfold with nearly symphonic grandeur. The album became an instant indie classic; it included some of the band's best-known songs, such as "Teen Age Riot" and "Candle", and "The Sprawl", inspired by the works of writer William Gibson.


Managing to stay financially viable in the cut-throat music industry while maintaining some sense of self and dignity, Sonic Youth have proved highly influential on underground rock music. They were particularly important in the growth of grunge: their 1991 tour with the then-unknown Nirvana being captured in the film 1991: The Year Punk Broke.

1990 saw the release of Goo (their first for DGC), which featured the single "Kool Thing" on which Chuck D from rap group Public Enemy guested. "Kool Thing" became the song that most casual music fans associate with the band. The record, while perhaps not on the same level as the previous three, is still very solid and is much more accessible than their previous work.

In 1992, the band released Dirty (DGC). Their influence as tastemakers continued with their discovery of avant skateboard video director Spike Jonze who they recruited for the video for "100%" (the song was dedicated to the recently murdereed Joe Cole), and with the revival of Macaulay Culkin via a video for "Sunday" directed by the very young Harmony Korine.

In the meantime, members of the band diversified their talents. Kim Gordon collaborated in Free Kitten, and started an MTV-adored clothing label X-Girl, based in L.A. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore have played with many experimental/noise musicians, including William Hooker, Nels Cline, Tom Surgal, Alan Licht, Don Dietrich, Christian Marclay and Mission of Burma, among others. Steve Shelley runs the Smells Like Records record labels, as well as playing in backing bands for Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Two Dollar Guitar.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the band began releasing a series of highly experimental records on their own Hoboken, New Jersey-based label SYR. The music was mostly instrumental, and the album and track titles and even the liner notes and credits were in different languages: SYR1 was French, SYR2 Dutch, SYR3 Esperanto and SYR5 Japanese. SYR3 was the first to feature Jim O'Rourke, who went on to become an official band member. SYR4 was different -- it was subtitled "Goodbye, 20th Century" and featured works by avant-garde classical composers such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich and Christian Wolff played by Sonic Youth along with several collaborators from the modern avant-garde music scene, such as Christian Marclay, William Winant, Wharton Tiers, Takehisa Kosugi and others. The album recieved mixed reviews, but most critics praised the group's efforts at popularising the composers' works.


The band had the tapes for their new record in their NYC studio, Murray Street, during the September 11, 2001 attacks. Murray Street was the beginning of a return to form for SY, seemingly energized by the addition of Jim O'Rourke to the lineup, and is arguably their finest work in over a decade.

Their most recent album is 2004's Sonic Nurse, which garnered critical acclaim and is perhaps their best work since Daydream Nation. The guitars are blistering, and Steve Shelley's drumming is the most intense it's been in years. "Pattern Recognition", a song named after the most recent William Gibson novel, finds SY once again using Gibson's work for inspiration. As the opening track on the record, SY clearly signals a return to the postmodern well. The band also showed their pop culture commentary and sense of humor with the track "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Conan Doyle Hand Cream", a faster-tempo song sung by Kim Gordon which spoofed the Carrey's life, including her short-lived relationship with rapper Eminem (on the album cover reference to "Mariah Carey" in the title was replaced by "Kim Gordon" because of copyright issues, which presented the issue in even more postmodern and ironic light). Sonic Nurse had decent sales due to performances on TV talk shows including Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The band was also slated to perform in 2004's Lollapalooza tour along with acts such as Pixies and Flaming Lips, but the concert was cancelled due to lackluster ticket sales. When the band toured later that year, they played extensively from their 1980s catalog and the new songs fit perfectly beside the classics. One memorable show in Detroit ended with a 30 minute noisefest freakout featuring members of Wolf Eyes, the opening act.


In 1994, journalist Alec Foege published a full-length biography of the band called Confusion is Next: The Sonic Youth Story. Sonic Youth's career is also chronicled in Our Band Could Be Your Life, a study of several important American underground rock groups by Michael Azerrad.


Official full-length releases


  1. Sonic Youth1 (Neutral, 1982)
  2. Confusion Is Sex1 (Neutral, 1983)
  3. Sonic Death2 (Ecstatic Peace, 1983)
  4. Bad Moon Rising (Homestead, 1985)
  5. EVOL (SST, 1986)
  6. Sister (SST, 1987)
  7. "The White(y) Album" (Enigma/Blast First, 1988, as Ciccone Youth,
    with Suzanne Sasic, J Mascis and Mike Watt)
  8. Daydream Nation (Enigma/Blast First, 1988)
  9. Goo (DGC, 1990)
  10. Dirty (DGC, 1992)
  11. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (DGC, 1994)
  12. Screaming Fields of Sonic Love (DGC, 1994)
  13. Washing Machine (DGC, 1995)
  14. Made in USA (Rhino, 1995)
  15. A Thousand Leaves (DGC, 1998)
  16. SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century (SYR, 1999)
  17. NYC Ghosts & Flowers (DGC, 2000)
  18. Murray Street (DGC, 2002)
  19. Sonic Nurse (DGC, 2004)

1 Reissued in 1987 by SST
2 Reissued in 1988 by SST as Sonic Death -- Early Sonic 1981 - 1983


Repackaged for CD by DGC with Confusion Is Sex in 1995

Official single releases



  • Azerrad, Michael: Our Band Could Be Your Life, Little, Brown, 2001
  • Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Sonic Youth (". All Music Guide. Retrieved June 13, 2005.
  • Ignacio, Julia & Gonzalo, Jaime. Sonic Youth: I dreamed of noise. Barcelona: RUTA 66, 1994.

External links

de:Sonic Youth fr:Sonic Youth it:Sonic Youth nl:Sonic Youth sv:Sonic Youth pl:Sonic Youth


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