Sonic Youth was an influential experimrental rock band which formed in New York City, New York, United States in 1981 and are currently on an indefinite hiatus. The last lineup consisted of Thurston Moore (vocals, guitar), Kim Gordon (vocals, bass, guitar), Lee Ranaldo (vocals and guitar), Steve Shelley (drums) and Mark Ibold (bass).
In their early career, Sonic Youth was associated with the no wave art and music scene in New York City. Part of the first wave of American noise rock groups, the band carried out their interpretation of the hardcore punk ethos throughout the evolving American underground that focused more on the DIY ethic of the genre rather than its specific sound. As a result, Sonic Youth was pivotal in the rise of the alternative rock movement.
Sonic Youth have expressed a wide variety of influences, ranging from the influential protopunk musician Patti Smith to composer John Cage. The band has been praised for having “redefined what rock guitar could do”, using a wide variety of unorthodox guitar tunings, and preparing guitars with objects like drumsticks and screwdrivers to alter the instruments’ timbre.
Formation and early history: 1977-1981
Sonic Youth’s history began when guitarist Thurston Moore moved to New York City in early 1976. Interested in punk, Moore joined The Coachmen, a guitar-based quartet, after arriving in the city. Lee Ranaldo, an art student at Binghamton University, became a fan of the Coachmen, and he and Moore were soon friends. Ranaldo was a member of Glenn Branca’s electric guitar ensemble, touring throughout the United States and Europe. After the breakup of the Coachmen, Moore began jamming with Stanton Miranda, whose band, ckm, featured local artist Kim Gordon.
Moore and Gordon formed a band, appearing under names like Male Bonding and Red Milk before agreeing upon The Arcadians in late 1980. The band played their first show at Noise Fest in June 1981 at New York’s White Columns gallery. Branca’s ensemble played at the festival. Their performance impressed Moore, who described them as “the most ferocious guitar band that I had ever seen in my life.” After Branca’s set, Moore asked Ranaldo if he wanted to join the Arcadians. Ranaldo accepted; the band played three songs at the festival later in the week without a drummer. Each band member took turns playing the drums, until they met drummer Richard Edson.
Moore soon renamed the band “Sonic Youth”. The name came from combining the nickname of MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith with the trend of reggae artists, such as Big Youth, featuring the word “Youth” in their names. Gordon later recalled that “as soon as Thurston came up with the name Sonic Youth, a certain sound that was more of what we wanted to do came about.”
Early releases: 1982-1985
Branca signed Sonic Youth as the first act on his record label Neutral Records. In December 1981 the group recorded five songs in a studio in New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The material was a released as the Sonic Youth mini-LP that, while largely ignored, was sent to a few key members of the US press that gave it uniformly favorable reviews. After their first record, Edson quit the group for a modestly successful acting career and was replaced by Bob Bert.
During their early days as part of the New York music scene, Sonic Youth formed a friendship with noisy New Yorkers Swans. The bands came to share the same rehearsal space, and Sonic Youth embarked on its first tour, a two-week journey through the southern United States starting in November 1982, supporting Swans. During a second tour with Swans of the Midwest the following month, tensions ran high and Moore constantly criticized Bert’s drumming, which he felt wasn’t “in the pocket”. Bert was fired afterwards and replaced by Jim Sclavunos, who played drums on the band’s 1983 album Confusion Is Sex. Sonic Youth set up a two-week tour of Europe for the summer of 1983. Sclavunos, however, quit after only a few months. The group asked Bert to rejoin, and he agreed, on the condition that he would not be fired again after the tour’s conclusion.
Sonic Youth found themselves well-received in Europe, but the New York press largely ignored the local noise rock scene. Eventually, as the press began to take notice of the genre, Sonic Youth was grouped along with bands like Big Black, The Butthole Surfers and Pussy Galore under the “pigfuck” label by Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau. (Christgau saw these bands as sharing an abrasive, noisy and confrontational aesthetic.) Based on this classification, and on a negative live review by Christgau, a feud developed between Moore and the critic, with Moore renaming the song “Kill Yr Idols” to “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick” before the two sorted out their differences amicably.
During another tour of Europe in 1984, Sonic Youth’s disastrous London debut (where the band’s equipment malfunctioned and Moore consequently destroyed the equipment onstage in frustration) actually resulted in rave reviews in Sounds and the NME. By the time they returned to New York, they were so popular they played shows practically every week. That same year Moore and Gordon were married and Sonic Youth released Bad Moon Rising, a self-described “Americana” album that served as a reaction to the state of the nation at the time. The album, recorded by Martin Bisi, was built around transitional pieces that Moore and Ranaldo had come up with in order to take up time onstage while the other guitarist was busy tuning his instrument; as a result there are almost no breaks between the songs on the record, which feature walls of feedback and pounding rhythms. Bad Moon Rising featured an appearance by Lydia Lunch on the album’s single “Death Valley ‘69”, inspired by the Charles Manson Family murders. In contrast to their abrasive, atonal material of the time, the band considered the song relatively conventional. Due to a falling-out with Branca over disputed royalty payments from their Neutral releases, they were signed to Homestead Records by Gerard Cosloy and by Blast First in the UK (which founder Paul Smith created simply so he could distribute the band’s records in Europe). While even the New York press ignored Bad Moon Rising upon its release, now viewing the band as too arty and pretentious, Sonic Youth was becoming quite critically acclaimed in the United Kingdom, where the new album had sold 5,000 copies in just six months.
Claiming he was bored with playing Bad Moon Rising live in its entirety for over a year, Bert quit the group and was replaced by Steve Shelley, formerly of the hardcore group Crucifucks. The band was so impressed with Shelley’s drumming after seeing him play live they hired him without an audition. Bert has remained on good terms with the group; he and Shelley both appeared in the music video for “Death Valley ‘69”, as Bert performed the drums on the song, but Shelley was the group’s drummer when the video was made.
SST and Enigma: 1986-1989
Sonic Youth had a long fascination with influential indie label Sst Records. Ranaldo said, “It was the first record company we were on that we really would have given anything to be on.” Sonic Youth eventually signed to the label in early 1986 and began recording Evol with Martin Bisi in March of that year.
Evol itself represented an evolution of sorts for the band: in addition to increasingly melodic material and the impact of new drummer Shelley’s playing, the record also dealt with themes of celebrity, particularly with songs like “Expressway To Yr Skull” (called “a classic” by Neil Young) and “Marilyn Moore”. Signing to SST catapulted the band on to a national stage, something that did not happen to their peers in the New York underground. The mainstream music press subsequently began to take notice of the band. Robert Palmer of the The New York Times declared that Sonic Youth was “making the most startlingly original guitar-based music since Jimi Hendrix” and even People praised Evol as the “aural equivalent of a toxic waste dump.” Evol is also notable for a guest appearance by bass guitarist Mike Watt, a friend whom the band coaxed to come to New York after he was deeply depressed by the death of his bandmate, D. Boon.
On 1987’s Sister, Sonic Youth continued refining their blend of pop song structures with uncompromising 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). Sister sold 60,000 copies and received very positive reviews, becoming the first Sonic Youth album to crack the Top 20 of the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics poll.
Despite the critical success, the band was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with SST due to concerns about payment and other administrative practices. Sonic Youth decided to release their next record on Enigma Records, which was distributed by Capitol Records and partly owned by EMI. The 1988 double LP Daydream Nation was a critical success that earned Sonic Youth substantial acclaim. The album came in second on the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll and topped the year-end album lists of the NME, CMJ, and Melody Maker. In 2006, it was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. The lead single from the album, “Teen Age Riot”, was the first song from the band to reach significant success, receiving heavy airplay in modern and college rock stations. A number of prominent music periodicals including Rolling Stone hailed Daydream Nation as one of the best albums of the decade and named Sonic Youth as the “Hot Band” in its “Hot” issue. Unfortunately, distribution problems arose and Daydream Nation was often difficult to find in stores. Moore considered Enigma a “cheap-jack Mafioso outfit” and the band began looking for a major label deal.
Major label career and alternative icons: 1990-1999
In 1990, Sonic Youth released Goo (their first album for Geffen), which featured the single “Kool Thing” on which Chuck D from rap group Public Enemy guested. “Kool Thing” became the song that many casual music fans associate with the band; it was later featured in the video game Guitar Hero III and was made available as a paid download for the Rock Band video game. The record is considered much more accessible than their previous work. Their 1991 tour with the then relatively unknown Nirvana was captured in the film 1991: The Year Punk Broke.
In 1992, the band released Dirty on the DGC label. Their influence as tastemakers continued with their discovery of acclaimed skateboard video director Spike Jonze, who they recruited for the video for “100%”, which also featured skateboarder turned actor Jason Lee. This song, along with the Gordon tune “JC” contain lyrical references to the murder of Joe Cole, a friend who worked with the band as a roadie. The album features artwork by Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelley. In addition, Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise opened on numerous occasions for Sonic Youth in the late 90s. “Dirty” features a guest appearance by Ian McKaye (Minor Threat and Fugazi) playing guitar on the track “Youth Against Fascism”.
In 1994 the band released Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, their best charting release in the United States, which peaked at #34 on the Billboard 200. The album was filled with low-key melodies and even produced a hit single, “Bull in the Heather”. Moore and Gordon’s daughter, Coco Hayley Gordon Moore was born earlier in the year, and many of the songs from the album were never played live because there was never a full tour to support the album due to Gordon’s pregnancy.
The band headlined the 1995 Lollapalooza festival. By that time, alternative rock had gained considerable mainstream attention, and the festival was parodied on The Simpsons 1996 episode “Homerpalooza”, which featured voiceovers from the band. They also performed the final credits theme for that episode.
Gordon collaborated in Free Kitten, and started a clothing label X-Girl, based in Los Angeles. Ranaldo and Moore have played with many experimental / noise musicians, including William Hooker, Nels Cline, Tom Surgal, Don Dietrich, Christian Marclay and Mission of Burma, among others. Shelley runs the Smells Like Records record label, as well as playing in backing bands for Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Two Dollar Guitar.
From Sonic Youth’s earliest days, Gordon had occasionally played guitar with the group. About the time of A Thousand Leaves and Washing Machine she began playing guitar more frequently, resulting in a three-guitar and drums lineup. These songs were something of a shift for the group’s sound, and would lead to the introduction of a fifth member a few years later.
The Washing Machine album started a major shift in the band, away from their punk roots, that working with longer noise-jam sections and included two tracks that showed the new approach in full force - the title track “Washing Machine”, which is just under 10 minutes long, and “The Diamond Sea”, which is over 19 minutes long.
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 in French, SYR2 in Dutch, SYR3 in Esperanto, SYR5 in Japanese, SYR6 in Lithuanian, SYR7 in Arpitan, and SYR8 in Danish. SYR3 was the first to feature Jim O’Rourke, who went on to become an official band member.
SYR4 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 received mixed reviews, but some critics praised the group’s efforts at popularizing and reinterpreting the composers’ works.
Later DGC period: 2000-2006
On July 4, 1999, Sonic Youth’s instruments, amps, and gear were stolen in the middle of the night while on tour in Orange, California (see initial post on Usenet). Forced to start from scratch with new instruments, they recorded NYC Ghosts & Flowers and opened for Pearl Jam during the east coast leg of their 2000 tour.
In 2001 Sonic Youth collaborated with French avant-garde singer and poet Brigitte Fontaine in Fontaine’s album “Kékéland”.
When the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred, several members of the band were blocks away, Jim at their NYC studio (Echo Canyon on Murray Street), and Ranaldo and his wife Leah nearby at home. After the attacks, they curated the first U.S. outing of the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival in L.A. The festival was originally scheduled for October 2001, but it was delayed until March the following year due to the attacks.
In the summer of 2002, Murray Street was released; many critics heralded a “return to form for SY”, seemingly revitalized by the addition of Jim O’Rourke, who became a full member during this period, playing bass guitar, guitar, and occasionally synthesizer. This was followed in 2004 by the release of Sonic Nurse, an album similar in sound and approach to its immediate predecessor that also received positive reviews. “Pattern Recognition”, a song named after the 2003 William Gibson novel, finds the band once again using Gibson’s work for inspiration. The band also showed their pop culture commentary and sense of humor with the track “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream”, a faster-tempo song sung by Gordon, which spoofed Carey’s life, including her short-lived relationship with rapper Eminem, which originally appeared on a 2003 split 7” with Erase Errata (on the album cover, the reference to “Mariah Carey” in the title was replaced by “Kim Gordon” due to potential copyright issues. Sonic Nurse had decent sales, in part 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 The Pixies and The Flaming Lips, but the concert was canceled due to lackluster ticket sales. When the band toured later that year, they played extensively from their 1980s catalog.
On October 6, 2005, Los Angeles CityBeat reported that some of the gear stolen in 1999 was surprisingly recovered and that it might be used for recording of the next album, then tentatively titled Sonic Life. The report also said that Jim O’Rourke might be leaving the band soon; his departure was confirmed by Lee Ranaldo in an interview to Pitchfork Media. In May 2006, the group announced on their website that ex-Pavement member Mark Ibold would play bass for the band on their upcoming tour.
Rather Ripped was released in Europe on June 5, 2006 and in the USA on June 13, 2006. Compared to previous Sonic Youth recordings, the album features many short, conventionally structured, melodic songs and fewer feedback-fuelled left field improvisations (the band’s avant-garde tendencies nowadays have been largely exorcised through SYR releases and solo outings rather than band albums). Later that summer, Sonic Youth played the 2006 Bonnaroo Festival, as well as Lollapalooza, promoting the album. In December, Rolling Stone made it their number three Album of the Year 2006.
The band released The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities in December 2006. It features tracks previously available only on vinyl, limited-release compilations, b-sides to international singles, and some material that had never before been released. This marked the band’s final Geffen release.
Independent agents and signing to Matador: 2007–present
In 2008 the band independently re-released Master-Dik for the first time on CD in March exclusively at their online store. They also released two more editions to the SYR, SYR7: J’Accuse Ted Hughes, and SYR8: Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth. SYR7 was released on April 22, and SYR8 was released July 28. On June 10, they also released a compilation album on Starbucks Music, called Hits Are for Squares. The first 15 tracks were selected by other celebrities, and track 16, “Slow Revolution”, is a new recording by Sonic Youth.
Also in June, the band was the subject of an intensively researched biography, Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth written by music journalist David Browne. The book was cited as “compelling” (Salon), “compulsively readable” (Publishers Weekly), and “an expressway to the soul of the influential band” (Vanity Fair). The book featured new interviews with the band as well as nearly 100 friends, family members, and peers. It was published by Da Capo and included over 60 rare photos.
On August 30 2008, the band premiered two new songs at the final McCarren Park Pool show. Thurston Moore stated that in November 2008 the band will start recording a new studio album. The band did not continue their contract with Geffen, being discontent at the way Geffen handled their last four or five albums. On September 8, 2008, it was confirmed by Matador’s Matablog that Sonic Youth will release its sixteenth album (titled The Eternal) in spring, 2009, on Matador Records. In December 2008 it was also announced that the group had recently collaborated with John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin fame) on a piece that served as the soundtrack for a new Merce Cunningham Dance Company piece. This work was performed by the company on April 16-19, 2009, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in celebration of Cunningham’s 90th birthday. On February 12, the band revealed the cover art for The Eternal via their website and blog. The album, produced by John Agnello, was released on June 9, 2009. With the release Matador Records also offered an exclusive live LP only available to those who preordered the album.
On October 14, 2011, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced that they separated after 27 years of marriage through a statement by Matador. The announcement has raised doubts over the future of Sonic Youth after Matador revealed that plans for the band remained “uncertain,” despite the fact the band had previously hinted they would record new material later in the year
In a interview on November 28, 2011, Lee Ranaldo said that Sonic Youth are “ending for a while”. “I’m feeling optimistic about the future no matter what happens at this point,” Ranaldo said. “It was a pretty good tour overall. I mean, there was a little bit of tiptoeing around and some different situations with the travelling – you know, they’re not sharing a room any more or anything like that … It remains to be seen at this point what happens. I think they are certainly the last shows for a while and I guess I’d just leave it at that.” Ranaldo also suggest there are no plans for Sonic Youth to record new material. “There’s tons and tons of archival projects and things like that still going on,” he said. “I’m just happy right now to let the future take its course.”
Musical style and influences:
Sonic Youth’s sound relies heavily on the use of alternative tunings. Scordatura on stringed instruments has been used for centuries and alternative guitar tunings had been used for decades in blues music, and to a limited degree in rock music (such as with Lou Reed’s Ostrich guitar on The Velvet Underground & Nico), but Sonic Youth began using a variety of tunings more radical than nearly anything in rock music history. The tunings were painstakingly developed by Moore and Ranaldo during the band’s rehearsals; Moore once reported that the odd tunings were an attempt to introduce new sounds: “When you’re playing in standard tuning all the time … things sound pretty standard.” Rather than re-tune for every song, Sonic Youth generally use a particular guitar for one or two songs, and can take dozens of instruments on tour. This can be the source of much trouble for the band, as some songs rely on specific guitars that have been uniquely prepared.
Besides Branca, French avant-gardist Brigitte Fontaine, Patti Smith, Public Image Ltd (PiL) and The Stooges, another influence was 1980s-era hardcore punk; after seeing Minor Threat perform in May 1982, Moore declared them “the greatest live band I have ever seen”. While recognizing that their own music was 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.”
Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo have expressed on numerous occasions their admiration for the music of Joni Mitchell, such as this quote by Thurston Moore: “Joni Mitchell! I’ve used elements of her songwriting and guitar playing, and no one would ever know about it.” Additionally, Joni Mitchell has always used a number of alternative tunings, as does Sonic Youth. The band named a song after her, “Hey Joni.”
Members of the band have also maintained relationships with other avant-garde artists from other genres and even other media, drawing influence from the work of John Cage and Henry Cowell. For a 1988 Peel Session, Sonic Youth covered three songs by The Fall and “Victoria” by The Kinks, also covered by The Fall. Sonic Youth has featured album art by several well-known avant-garde visual artists, such as Mike Kelley and Gerhard Richter, whose paintings from his “Candles” series was used as artwork on Daydream Nation.