June 26th, 1990, Sonic Youth released their sixth full length studio album, Goo, through DGC Records. Sonic Youth blazed a trail through the 1980’s for alternative rock. Since their formation in 1981, the band has become one of the most influential and beloved alternative rock bands on the planet. Albums like Bad Moon Rising (1985) EVOL (1986) Sister (1987) and Daydream Nation (1988), were released on various independent labels Homestead, SST and Enigma. 1990’s Goo was Sonic Youth’s first for a major label.
1988’s Daydream Nation had established Sonic Youth as the standard bearers of the underground alternative rock movement. With the release of Goo, the band rubber stamped their importance. The album brought Sonic Youth out of the shadows of the underground and into the light. It shot them to the top of the alternative rock pile and into the top 100 of the Billboard Charts. Quite an achievement for a band so discordant and incongruous.
Sonic Youth was formed in New York City in 1981 by guitarist Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon (who were later married), and they derived their name from MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith and reggae artist Big Youth. Within a year, guitarist Lee Ranaldo was part of the group. Drummer Steve Shelly joined in 1985. His addition was a tipping point in the evolution of the band’s sound.
After Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth announced they were signing a recording contract with major, Geffen Records. This move was met with no small amount of consternation among their devout fanbase. But they needn’t have worried, the band didn’t tone things down or adhere to any perceived mainstream standards. To Geffen’s credit, they didn’t seem to interfere with the band’s process or sound either. The result being, Goo is an album as noisy and sonically diverse as anything Sonic Youth had previously written.
The third and final single from Goo, “Dirty Boots” opens the album. Released in April of 1991. Its meandering, minor key slacker guitar lines are buoyed by Steve Shelly’s propulsive drumming and percussive shaker. The accompanying music video for “Dirty Boots” features the band playing a pool hall full of Gen X youths. The video’s main protagonist, played by Lisa Stansbury wears a Nirvana, Bleach era t-shirt throughout. This was months before Nirvana’s Nevermind and lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were released. No one knew at that time the seismic impact Nirvana would have just six months later, but the gesture does display Sonic Youth’s very open support and promotion of the underground “grunge” music scene at that time.
“Tunic (Song for Karen)” follows, Kim Gordon takes the lead vocal in this elegy to Karen Carpenter of The Carpenters. Gordon’s breathy, spoken word approach, describes the Carpenters lead singer as saying goodbye to Hollywood, and hello to other dead rock stars like Elvis and Janis Joplin.
“Karen Carpenter had interested me for a long time,” Gordon wrote in her memoir Girl in a Band. “The Carpenters were such a sun-drenched American dream, such a feel-good family success story like the Beach Boys, but with the same roiling darkness going on underneath,” she said, adding: “Obviously Karen Carpenter had a strange relationship with her brother, Richard, a great producer but also a tyrannical control freak. The only autonomy Karen felt she had in her life she accepted over her own body. She was an extreme version of what a lot of women suffer from – a lack of control over things other than their bodies, which turns the female body into a tool for power – good, bad, or ugly.”
If there was one song to signify that Sonic Youth had transitioned from indie darlings to major label headliners then the single ‘Kool Thing’ was it. It announced, without a shadow of a doubt, that SY were the new alt-rock behemoths. Kim Gordon takes on vocal duties, with none other than Chuck D of Public Enemy adding a back and forth spoken word with Gordon in the breakdown.
“Mote” has, what seems like a sea of discordant and wild guitars pulsating beneath a jangly, strummed guitar. Lee Ranaldo’s vocal sounds disembodied but engaged as he floats on top of the controlled chaos. It’s a gripping track, full of infectious energy.
“Disappearer,” also a single from the album, is a song about how signs, both literal and man-made, distort your perspective. It’s a catchy, minor key blast. Much of the band’s usual noise guitar passages are kept in check in favour of darkly melodic droning, pedal point motifs.
“Mildred Pierce ” is driven by Kim Gordon’s fuzzed out bass and Steve Shelly’s rock solid backbeat. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo weave caustic, contagious guitar passages throughout. The song is effectively instrumental until it explodes into a cacophony of noise and almost death metal screams.
“Titanium Expose” closes out the album with tight, jagged, angular riffs and cascading drums before locking into a four, four romp, displaying all that makes Sonic Youth such an appealing proposition. There’s an infinite “cool” to everything they produce, no matter how atonal they get, they never lose sight of the essence of their sound. “Titanium Expose” features Moore’s verse vocal and Gordon’s chorus vocal, which resembles an audible sigh, pulling the listener closer to its source.
Goo is a landmark album. On its release in 1990, it violently rattled the mainstream’s cage. Softening the public up for the ensuing onslaught of alternative rock and grunge, that would define the coming decade. Sonic Youth’s importance cannot be understated. They impacted and influenced everything from the melancholy shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine and noise rock leanings of Nirvana. To the countless wide-eyed replicators who would denounce studio production in favour of the raw, grungy sound Sonic Youth excelled at.
Writing for Tidal, Jakob Matzen said that Goo was a “crucial piece of the puzzle to understand how and why other alternative artists (like Nirvana) were able to bring the underground to the mainstream and challenge the dominant music industry hegemony.”
Sonic Youth took the underground to the mainstream without pandering one iota to the concerns of commerciality or current trends. They stayed steadfast to their ideals. The mainstream eventually came to them. It was for others to smooth out and interpret the blueprint Sonic Youth set. Goo is a stunning album that deserves all the accolades it regularly receives. From its distinctive cover art by Raymond Pettibon (brother of Black Flag’s Greg Ginn) to the music within, it’s a heartfelt, visceral ride through a colourful landscape of beautiful noise.