July 21st, 1992, SONIC YOUTH released their seventh full-length studio album, Dirty, through DGC Records. Sonic Youth had been steadily kicking in doors since the early ’80s. No other band, up to that point, had done as much to promote the virtues of alternative rock. Albums like EVOL (1986), Sister (1987) and the blistering masterpiece Daydream Nation (1988) all paved the way for a new respect and reverence for the sounds of the underground.
The band signed with major Geffen Records in 1990 and released Goo, their sixth album. That batch of songs refined Sonic Youth’s sound even further. After signing to a major label, some hardcore fans cried foul and accused the band of “selling out.” But the truth was, if Goo was an attempt by the band to commercialise their sound, it was an epic failure, mainly because Goo sounded nothing like the commercial rock music made in 1990.
After five albums that pushed the limits of noise-rock and experimental soundscapes, exploring song structures, melody, and hooks within their trademark chaotic sound seemed like a natural enough path. Sonic Youth were masters of their destiny. They didn’t follow. That bullheaded surety of foot and their thrilling music inspired legions of fans and musicians.
And so when it came to supporting the release of Goo, Sonic Youth took to the road, touring Europe and North America twice in 1990.
Preceding the mainstream breakthrough of Grunge and Alternative Rock, Sonic Youth hit Europe again in the summer of 1991. This time, they brought a bevvy of young bands to open the shows. These bands were on the cusp of helping Sonic Youth push the alternative rock manifesto over the edge and into the mainstream. Nirvana, Babes In Toyland, Dinosaur Jr. and Gumball ripped through Europe with glee alongside Sonic Youth. Director Dave Markeyin chronicled the tour for his 1991 documentary The Year Punk Broke.
In late 1991, Sonic Youth began to assess their options. For the follow-up to Goo, they chose to work with producer Butch Vig and mixer Andy Wallace, who had both worked in the same roles on Nirvana’s Nevermind. It’s unclear how much influence Nirvana’s use of the duo had on Sonic Youth’s decision to use them. It’s certainly a possibility that they may have taken into consideration, at least on a semi-conscious level.
By 1991 Butch Vig had built a resume that perfectly positioned him as one of the coming decade’s go-to producers. His albums sounded sonically lush, massive, warm, natural and ultimately void of the previous decade’s saccharine studio gimmickry. Butch let the bands he worked with breathe. He accentuated and encouraged what made each of them unique. Up to this point, he’d brought the very best out of Nirvana (Nevermind), Smashing Pumpkins (Gish), TAD (8 Way Santa), Urge Overkill (Americruiser), and many more.
Sonic Youth sent a series of cassette tapes to Vig in late 1991 featuring their new compositions. While Vig liked what he heard, he felt uncertain, as the recordings consisted of long instrumentals, and the producer needed help to discern the song structures. The second batch of cassettes that Vig received showed that the band had performed some self-editing with the compositions. Vig recalls: “I wanted it to sound like Sonic Youth, but I wanted to get a bit more focused, which was tricky. They were totally up for it, but they were doing what they do and were not always aware of what that was. So I was trying to make some of the songs more concise, but I didn’t want to make them write three-minute pop songs…”
Vig moved to New York City for three months in early 1992, and the band began recording the album at the Magic Shop in March. Vig continues: “The experience was great. We did the record in about five weeks and would go in every day at noon and record until about 11 p.m. Kim and Thurston would go out, and I went out all the time with them to cafes, jazz shows, and poetry readings. It was exciting. It was the first time I got to experience New York City from that point of view.”
Dirty opens with the album’s first single, “100%.” The song was written about the murder of band-roadie Joe Cole. Joe Cole had worked as a roadie for Black Flag, Hole and Sonic Youth, among others. Cole was a lifelong best friend of Henry Rollins. After attending a Hole concert at the Whisky A Go Go in LA, Cole and Rollins were returning home after having stopped at an all-night grocery store. Two armed men approached them, demanding money. Angry that Rollins and Cole had only $50 between them, the gunmen ordered the two men to go inside their house for more cash. Rollins entered at gunpoint. However, Cole was killed outside after being shot in the face at close range, while Rollins escaped out the back door and alerted the police. The murder remains unsolved.
Thurston Moore mournfully delivers the lines “I can never forget you/ The way you rock the girls/They rule the world and love you/ a blast in the underworld..” over a simple, stop/start ascending bass riff, a straight-ahead drum pattern and a sea of discordant guitar noise. Moore continues, talking directly to Cole, “But can you forgive the boy/ Who shot you in the head/ Or should you get a gun/ And go and get revenge? / A 100% of my love up to you true star/It’s hard to believe you took off/ I always thought you’d go far..”
“Swimsuit Issue” features some stellar tribal drum work from Steve Shelly. The song’s heavy wall of sound intro gives way to a stabbing noise guitar. Kim Gordon is menacingly narrating a tale about a then-current Geffen employee who was remanded to therapy for sexual harassment. “Don’t touch my breast; I’m just working at my desk.” The last section of the song features Gordon naming all of the models in the March 1992 issue of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
The album’s fourth single, “Drunken Butterfly”, is one of Dirty’s more energetic and aggressive tracks, featuring a riveting vocal performance from Kim Gordon and heavy riffing from Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore. According to the Sonic Youth website, “The lyrics to this song were taken wholly from song titles and lyrics by the band Heart.” Initially, the track’s working title was “Barracuda”, after the Heart song of the same name. The final title for the song was taken from the Heart song “Dog & Butterfly,” which sounds a bit like “Drunken Butterfly”
“Shoot” is a beautiful, tense sonic landscape. Its languid, sinister verses have a laid-back, cool aura that builds in intensity and volume before dropping back to its cinematic spaciousness. Kim Gordon is at her hushed and breathy best. The third single, “Sugar Kane”, featured a music video directed by Nick Egan. The video was shot in New York City and portrayed Sonic Youth performing during a fashion show that showcased “Grunge” clothing. The video also marked the first acting appearance in film of actress Chloë Sevigny.
The second single, “Youth Against Fascism”, opens with a signature Steve Shelly drum pattern and Kim Gordon’s filthy, fuzz-drenched bass. Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi contributes additional guitar parts to the song. The music video for “Youth Against Fascism” was also directed by Nick Egan. The video was shot in the concrete flood control channel of the Los Angeles River, with the band playing while freestyle motocross bikers ride around them. Thurston Moore rages throughout, berating the proponents of hatred and bigotry: “You got a stupid man, you got a Ku Klux Klan/ Your funky battleplan, it’s the song I hate, it’s the song I hate…A Sieg heil-in’ squirt, you’re an impotent jerk/Yeah, a fascist twerp, it’s the song I hate, it’s the song I hate…”
“Chapel Hill” is about the town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the 1991 murder of bookseller Bob Sheldon. The owner of Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill, Bob Sheldon, was considered the cornerstone of Chapel Hill’s progressive and radical scene by many. In 1991, someone walked into his bookstore and shot him; the murder remains unsolved. Many suspect that the CIA executed it. The day the bookstore owner was shot, Sonic Youth were playing a show at the Cat’s Cradle venue, around the corner from where the murder occurred.
The album closes with “Creme Brulee”, a loose, free-form jam, recorded when Gordon was randomly playing guitar and singing with Shelley playing the drums while Moore was trying to turn on his malfunctioning amplifier. Unbeknownst to the band, guitarist Lee Ranaldo was recording the whole thing.
The album’s fifteen songs show further proof that there were few bands better than Sonic Youth between the years 1987 and 1992. Although Daydream Nation is arguably their best album from that period and of their career, the other three albums, 1987’s Sister, 1990’s Goo, and 1992’s Dirty, still rank as essential Sonic Youth recordings. Dirty certainly has its detractors; it’s possibly the group at its most exuberant and accessible, which was always bound to piss off some, considering Sonic Youth’s history.
Dirty was the perfect halfway house to turn the curious into the obsessive. The album was pitched just right for the time it was conceived. It’s intense, odd and uninterested in tempering their more extreme nature, but it’s also easier to digest, instantaneous and sounds like a massive alt-rock banger should. After Dirty, the band released the more lo-fi-sounding Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star in 1994 and the more inaccessible Washing Machine in 1995.
Dirty may not be the critical darling that Daydream Nation is, it might not be the cool transitional record Goo was, or a hardcore fan favourite like Evol or Sister, but it was an essential bridging record. It was the perfect record at the ideal time. The songs have a quality that urges you to return to them repeatedly. Sonic Youth’s influence and tireless innovation paved the way for legions of musicians. They never rested on their laurels. Dirty is an exhilarating, taut, fun and finely balanced masterclass.