SONIC YOUTH – DIRTY (1992)

SONIC YOUTH – GOO (1990)

June 26th, 1990, Sonic Youth released their sixth full-length studio album, Goo, through DGC Records. Sonic Youth blazed a trail through the 1980s. Since their formation in 1981, they became one of the most influential and beloved alternative rock bands by consistently shattering the preconceived norms of what a rock band should conform to. Working within the most standard of rock ‘n roll formats, vocals, guitars, drums, and bass, Sonic Youth pushed these most hackneyed elements to the absolute limits; cacophonous rage melted in sinister atmospherics, which gave way to atonal bursts. And yet, within these avant-garde freak-outs and cinematic soundscapes, the band never lost sight of a great song or vibrant hook.

Albums like Bad Moon Rising (1985), EVOL (1986), Sister (1987), and Daydream Nation (1988) displayed all facets of Sonic Youth’s considerable musical ambition. These albums were released on various independent labels, such as Homestead, SST, and Enigma, but Goo was Sonic Youth’s first for a major label. 

1988’s Daydream Nation established the band 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 doling out waves of discordant, incongruous, cutting-edge alternative rock. 

Sonic Youth was formed in New York City in 1981 by guitarist Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon (who later married). They derived their name from MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith and reggae artist Big Youth. Guitarist Lee Ranaldo joined the group within a year, with drummer Steve Shelly joining in 1985. Shelly’s addition was a tipping point in the evolution of the band’s sound. 

After Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth announced they had signed to the major label Geffen Records. This move was met with no small amount of consternation among their devout fanbase, worried that major label intervention would dull Sonic Youth’s attack. But time would prove the band had little interest in toning things down or adhering to any perceived mainstream standards.

To Geffen’s credit, they didn’t interfere with the band’s process or sound. Left to their own devices, Sonic Youth delivered an album as noisy and sonically diverse as anything they had previously released. Goo feels like a natural progression along the colourful, noisy arc of Sonic Youth’s vital story.

“Dirty Boots” opens the album—Steve Shelly’s propulsive drumming and percussive shaker buoy its meandering, minor key slacker guitar lines. The band released the song in April 1991 as the third and final single from the album. The accompanying music video features them playing in 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. The video was shot months before Nirvana released the nuclear bomb known as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

No one could have known at that time the seismic impact Nirvana would have just six months later. Still, the gesture displays Sonic Youth’s open support and promotion of the underground grunge and alternative rock music scene at that time. Sonic Youth’s championing of the underground is an integral part of their story.

“Tunic (Song for Karen)” follows. Kim Gordon takes the lead vocal in this elegy to Karen Carpenter of the legendary folk-pop group The Carpenters. In breathy, spoken word, Gordon describes the waifish singer’s dichotomy, “I feel like I’m disappearing / Getting smaller every day / But I look in the mirror / I’m bigger in every way.”

Gordon then imagines Carpenter saying goodbye to Hollywood, “I’m in heaven now / I can see you Richard / Goodbye Hollywood, Goodbye Downey / Hello Janis, Hello Dennis, Elvis and all my brand new friends / I’m so glad you’re all here with me / until the very end.”

Gordon wrote in her memoir Girl in a Band, “Karen Carpenter had interested me for a long time. The Carpenters were such a sun-drenched American dream, a feel-good family success story like the Beach Boys, but with the same roiling darkness underneath. Obviously, Karen Carpenter had a strange relationship with her brother, Richard, a great producer and 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.”

“Mary Christ” explodes with jittering punk energy. It’s full of angular guitars and spikey call-and-response vocals from Moore and Gordon. If there was one song to signify that Sonic Youth had transitioned from indie darlings to major label headliners, “Kool Thing” represented that leap. The song announced the band as alternative rock royalty. 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. 

The song’s effortless, low-slung swagger feels vicious and infinitely “Kool.” Steve Shelly’s drums sound like rounds of machine gun fire as Moore and Ranaldo shoot blazing shards of the guitar across the incendiary rhythm section. It’s a standout track of the era.

“Mote” sees a jangly strummed guitar swim against the current in a sea of discordant, wild guitars pulsating beneath. Lee Ranaldo’s vocal sounds disembodied but engaged as he floats on top of the controlled chaos. It’s a gripping track, laced with a gripping of an edge-of-your-seat energy.

“My Friend Goo” finds Kim Gordon asking, “Where did all my friends go?” over barbed guitars and insistent drums. “I miss those late nights / Just you and I up in my bedroom ’til sunrise / Could spend the night talking to you / Even if I was the only one talking.” The catchy, minor key blast of “Disappearer” sees the band’s usual noise guitar passages kept somewhat in check in favour of darkly melodic droning and 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 abrasive guitar passages throughout. The song is effectively instrumental until it explodes into a cacophony of noise and guttural death-metal screams. 

“Cinderella’s Big Score’s” intro oozes with a cinematic dread. Drenched with a beautifully ominous feel, Moore and Ranaldo’s serrated guitars swell and moan above Gordon’s and Shelly’s rhythm section. The song blows wide open as Gordon takes the vocal lead during the verse. Shelly’s drums are stunning. The song breaks down again, with shards of melody rising from the murky depths just long enough to be dragged under. It’s an astonishing piece of music that could only have been executed by Sonic Youth.

“Scooter And Jinx” is a one-minute interlude of wailing guitars and bass resembling the racetrack’s screeching tyres. “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. “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 that would define the coming decade. Sonic Youth’s importance cannot be understated. They impacted and influenced everything from My Bloody Valentine’s melancholy shoegaze, Nirvana’s noise rock leanings and the countless wide-eyed replicators who would denounce studio production in favour of the wild, raw sound Sonic Youth pioneered. 

Sonic Youth is a crucial piece of the puzzle for understanding how and why other alternative artists like Nirvana were able to bring the underground to the mainstream and challenge the dominant music industry homogeny. Sonic Youth’s modus operandi was to take the underground to the mainstream without pandering 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 they had 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. 

Essential…!