Vol. 1, Issue #12 July 7th - July 20th, 2006

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

Kill Your Idols -- Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth played The Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa on June 21st and it was a dull affair. Every time they got their energy going, they killed it off with another song from their new album, Rather Ripped. I have listened to the album at least seven times in a vain attempt to like it, but the songs are completely unmemorable. Sadly, this is one of those jump-the-shark albums, like The Cramps’ Fiends of Dope Island, when I realized one of my favorite bands had become a lame comedy act, or The Residents’ Demons Dance Alone, where the most imaginative and witty band in the world lost their humor and creativity in one blow.

It wasn’t always like that.

The first time I heard Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo’s guitars, which would later lead Sonic Youth into battle, was on the recording of Glenn Branca’s “Bad Smells,” from the collaborative album with John Giorno, Who Are You Staring At? “Bad Smells” is a sixteen-minute attack written for choreographer Twyla Tharp that featured an orchestra of eight electric guitars, with bass and drums. It was a transcendental experience. Branca’s music bridged the classical minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich with the feedback and experimentation of The Velvet Underground. It was both pretentious and visionary, and so “New York” that it stank like the Hudson River. The pulsing rhythm and beautiful dissonance grabbed you by the heart and held you there to the end. A friend of mine auditioned for Branca a few years later and was taken aback when he discovered that every note was written down like orchestral music.

I first heard Sonic Youth a few years later, in 1986, when a friend gave me a home-recorded tape of “Bad Moon Rising” and “EVOL.” This was during that magic time when Industrial music took over the underground and had a profound impact on punk, dance music, and progressive rock. Sonic Youth was in the middle of it all as the punk/pop band with industrial leanings; it had a melody, but dovetailed nicely with both the drone and sound effect records, like the ones by Nurse With Wound and Christian Marclay, and the noise pop of The Butthole Surfers and Bongwater.

Their album Daydream Nation (1988) was listed in The Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry earlier this year, but it was really their next album, Goo (1990), that was their breakthrough to the mainstream, and their first for a major label, that had the deeper cultural impact. The success of the album led to the signing of Nirvana to the same label - I shutter to think of the alternate routes music might have taken if Goo had failed and Nirvana hadn’t been signed.

Goo was notable for a lot of things. Its success proved that the mainstream could hear something rawer than the plush productions of hairy metal and still respond, which opened the door for grunge. It was a subversive production because they went back to analogue vacuum tube mixing boards for their first major CD – i.e. digital – release. Rapper- now political commentator - Chuck D appeared on the song “Kool Thing,” giving him credibility in the wake of perceived racist (at least anti-Zionist) remarks made by fellow Public Enemy member Professor Griff. Most importantly, Goo was filled with memorable melodies and passionate performances that made you feel like the band was happy to be alive, even in light of their depressing lyrics.

Sonic Youth continued to make interesting albums through the end of the century, but it seemed like less people were buying them. Somewhere in there they seemed to loose touch with their muses, and they also became The Grateful Dead. Before their show in Tulsa a lot of people told me that they wanted to see Sonic Youth. When I would ask them to name a single song by the band, no one could do it; like the Dead shows became the closest thing to being in San Francisco in 1966, Sonic Youth became the band that discovered Nirvana, and the closest you could get to experiencing the music that inspired Kurt Cobain without the use of Peabody’s way-back machine.

I certainly don’t regret seeing Sonic Youth live. I went with a friend who saw them live in New York City twice, and he said one time they sucked, the other time they were great, and this performance was somewhere in between. I was standing only a few feet from Thurston Moore, and it was fascinating to watch an old master applying his craft.

The major problem was the material. The whole time I have been writing this I have had Rather Ripped droning on in the background, and while it’s not unpleasant, it’s simply not memorable, which is the worst kind of music; even bad songs will often stay in your head.

A lot of critics are saying that this album is a change in direction; well, the same could be said about Elvis when he got fat and started sucking. I’ve always resented it when people make excuses for their favorite band’s latest piece of crap. In truth, there are two sides to the band now; they release their experimental work in limited releases, and their “commercial” albums for the masses, which is why anything approaching their early work has disappeared from their top forty contenders. This attitude of separating their potential teenybopper crowd and their hardcore fans has seemed snobbish in the past, and with Rather Ripped, it has become detrimental to their art. I understand that they like having hit records, but castrating their songs is not the answer.

Sonic Youth released an EP years ago with the Nietzscheian title “Kill Yr Idols.” It’s time to kill any hero worship of Sonic Youth.

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©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.