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Sonic Youth

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AboutSonic Youth is a rock group formed in New York City in 1981. The group currently comprises four musicians:

* Thurston Moore - guitars and vocals
* Lee Ranaldo - guitars, vocals and organ
* Kim Gordon - bass guitar, guitar, and vocals
* Steve Shelley - 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. Part of the first wave of American post-punk groups, Sonic Youth carried out their interpretation of the punk rock ethos throughout the evolving American indie underground (as the title of their documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke demonstrates) that focused more on the DIY ethic of the genre rather than its specific sound. 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 of The Stooges and the noise experimentation of The Velvet Underground, 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.

Another influence was Norwegian-Polish industrial band Holy Toy, which Moore has called "one of the most important bands of the experimental school".

Members of the band have released books of poetry and prose (a beatnik influence is evident in both their writing and lyrics), produced films, staged shows of visual art and more. There is also an abundance of musical material recorded and/or performed with other artists and side-projects. Sonic Youth could be said to be an artistic collective as much as a traditional rock/pop band.


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 1980s 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 performing 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.

One of Sonic Youth's earliest performances was in June 1981 as part of a 10-day festival organized by Moore. Held at the White Columns gallery in SoHo, the "Noise Fest" festival also included performances by Branca's and Chatham's ensembles. The Sonic Youth line-up at this event was Moore, Gordon, drummer Richard Edson and keyboardist Ann DeMarinis. DeMarinis did not stick around for another gig, but Ranaldo joined the ensemble almost immediately thereafter. Moore came up with the name shortly before this concert, combining the names of Fred "Sonic" Smith of the band MC5 with that of reggae artist Big Youth. (Gordon, who primarily played bass guitar, has cited the propulsive, economic basslines of reggae as an indirect influence on her playing.)

Their eponymous first EP— indebted to Branca—plays very austere and reserved, consciously arty and layered. Alternate guitar tunings had been used for decades in blues music, and to a limited degree in rock 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, p. 243). 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" (Azerrad, p. 243). Rather than retune for every song, Sonic Youth generally use a particular guitar for one or two songs, and can take dozens of instruments on tour.

As Branca used unusual guitar tunings, many assumed that his approach influenced Sonic Youth's. This was only partly true, and Branca served more as an inspiration than as a model: Branca's tunings were based on exacting application of music theory and were calculated with rigorous detail, while Sonic Youth's tunings were more freewheeling, based on whatever wild experiments sounded interesting. Said Ranaldo, among other approaches, Sonic Youth "used modal tunings, open tunings (ones we made up), octave pairs, two or three strings tuned to the same note, same gauge strings in different places or even half step tunings like pair of D strings and then a pair of D sharps." (Prendergrast, 326) The latter examples (such as D and D# alongside each other) are very rarely used in pop music, and offer a distinctly jarring dissonance, imparting the teeth-rattling quality so especially prominent on the group's early albums.

After their first record, Edson quit the group for a modestly successful acting career (noted for roles in Stranger Than Paradise and Ferris Bueller's Day Off); he was replaced by Bob Bert. Sonic Youth's next two important projects, the album Confusion Is Sex and the Kill Yr Idols ep, 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. Either way, 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. These and other early tours established strong word-of-mouth for Sonic Youth: Even when they played poorly, their sound was so unique that many fans and critics were startled and impressed.

This early edition of the group found themselves described as "Pigfucker" music, a term coined by Village Voice writer Robert Christgau; other Pigfucker 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 varying degrees abrasive, noisy and confrontational.) A feud developed between Moore and Christgau, and Moore renamed "Kill Yr Idols" "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 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's, Moore and Gordon, especially, were impressed by the movement'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, p. 51).

Bert was fired following a European tour, 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 would 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, with most of the material telling stories of violence and insanity. The sound was appropriately 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 appearance by Lydia Lunch on the harrowing "Death Valley '69," inspired by the Manson Family murders.

Dissatisfied with their lack of financial success, Bert quit the group and was replaced by Steve Shelley (formerly of the hardcore group Crucifucks). Shelley's membership marked a sharp shift in the group's sound: He was a link to the group's interest in hardcore, occasionally playing hardcore-style drums on SY songs such as "'Cross the Breeze" from Daydream Nation. And he was by far the most technically proficient drummer the group had performed with. Bert has remained on good terms with the group; he and Shelley both appeared in the music video for "Death Valley '69". (Bert performed the drums on the song, but Shelley was the group's drummer when the video was made.)

EVOL (1986)—their first record released on SST Records—was also 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 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.) It received 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) that 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 that 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," "Candle" and "The Sprawl," inspired by the works of writer William Gibson. A number of prominent music periodicals, including Rolling Stone and Spin Magazine, hailed Daydream Nation as one of the best albums of the decade.


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 played a particularly pivotal role in the proliferation of grunge: Their 1991 tour with the then-unknown Nirvana was captured in the film 1991: The Year Punk Broke.

1990 saw the release of 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 most casual music fans associate with the band. The record is considered much more accessible than their previous work.

In 1992, the band released Dirty (DGC). 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 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.

Two years later, the band put out Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Possibly their most adventurous album, it was filled with low-key melodies and even had a semi-hit single, "Bull in the Heather", which gained even more attention when it was played at the Free Tibet Concert in 1996.

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 Los Angeles. 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 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 track "Washing Machine" which is just under ten minutes long and the last track "The Diamond Sea" which is just under twenty 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 and SYR5 in 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 received mixed reviews, but most critics praised the group's efforts at popularizing and reinterpreting the composers' works.

On July 4, 1999, Sonic Youth's instruments were stolen in the middle of the night while on tour in 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.

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 Lee and his wife Leah nearby at home. After the attacks, they curated the first US 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. Many critics declared the album to be their finest work in over a decade.

This was followed in 2004 by the release of Sonic Nurse, an album similar in sound and approach to its immediate predecessor. "Pattern Recognition," a song named after the 2003 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 Doyle Hand Cream," a faster-tempo song sung by Kim Gordon which spoofed Carey's life, including her short-lived relationship with rapper Eminem. (On the album cover, the reference to "Mariah Carey" in the title was replaced by "Kim Gordon" due to copyright issues, which presented the issue in an even more postmodern and ironic light). 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 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.

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, tentatively titled 'Sonic Life'.[1] The report also said that Jim O'Rourke might be leaving the band soon; it was confirmed by Lee Ranaldo in an interview to Pitchfork Media [2]. When Jim O'Rourke did play for the group, he would play bass guitar, guitar, and occasionally synthesizer. 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.

In the early years of the 21st century, Sonic Youth has found a following in the community of neo-jam band fans. The band performed at the 2003 Bonnaroo Music Festival, which featured a large collection of jam bands. While Sonic Youth comes from a different background than the typical jam band (punk/post-punk as opposed to psychedelic), their approach to this background is similar to the jam bands approach to their own. Some prominent jam band musicians have long noted the influence of Sonic Youth; in the Phish documentary Bittersweet Motel, a Sonic Youth poster can be seen in the band's recording studio.

Rather Ripped was released in Europe on 5th June 2006 and in the USA on 13th June 2006. As with Sonic Nurse, the majority of the tracks were written by Moore. Compared to previous Sonic Youth recordings, the album features many short, conventionally structured, melodic songs and fewer feedback-fuelled leftfield improvisations (the band's avant garde tendencies nowadays been largely exorcised through SYR releases and solo outings rather than band albums). Sonic Youth will also be playing the 2006 Bonnaroo Festival, as well as Lollapalooza.

Despite being an enduring, yet blurred fixture to the underground rock scene, Sonic Youth has its share of distinguished fans and mainstream accomplishments. Artist Kelly D. Williams, professional skateboarder Ed Templeton, and actor David Arquette, among others, are some of the more notable Sonic Youth devotees. In 2006 the band's album Daydream Nation, often cited as their best work, was inducted into The Library of Congress' National Recording Registry. The Library of Congress' National Recording Registry documents America's history in sound. Its mission is to preserve recordings "that are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important and/or inform or reflect life in the United States." Here's what the National Recording Registry's website had to say about the album:

"Pioneer members of New York City's clangorous early 1980s No Wave scene, Sonic Youth are renowned for a glorious form of noise-based chaos. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo had previously performed with Glenn Branca's large guitar ensembles, and their alternative guitar tunings and ringing harmonies attest to this apprenticeship. On Daydream Nation, their breakthrough album, the group's forays into outright noise always return to melodic songs that employ hypnotic arpeggios, driving punk rock rhythmic figures and furious gales of guitar-based noise. Bassist Kim Gordon's haunting vocals and edgy lyrics add additional depth to the numbers she sings."


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