Sonic Youth: Points of Departure
No band is an island. The best songwriters tend to be sponge-like soaker-uppers of music, film, fine art, literature and other forms of culture, be they popular or obscure, and these influences often find their way into the music, helping listeners branch out and develop new interests. With Points of Departure, we use our favorite groups as springboards for broader cultural investigations and highlight some of the cool things you might get into via your record collection. This week: Sonic Youth.
Science fiction writing is usually associated with industrial music -- which makes sense, considering all the digitized synthesizers -- but Sonic Youth are the rare band that melds technophilia with old-school tube amps instead sequencers and drum machines. The connection reaches all the way back to Beat writer-cum-cyberpunk-godfather William S. Burroughs, the ‘Naked Lunch’ author whose disjointed, stream-of-consciousness cut-up technique and stylized dystopian visions informed sci-fi greats like Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Burroughs’ impact on the band can be seen -- literally -- on the cover of their 2000 album ‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers,’ which features a screen print titled ‘X-Ray’ made during his days moonlighting as a painter. But it was more through the words of Dick and Gibson that he influenced the Youth’s music. ‘The Sprawl’ off ‘Daydream Nation’ explores the fictional megalopolis that was the setting of Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer,’ while 1987’s ‘Sister’ is a concept album inspired in part by the life of Dick, whose works have been turned into Hollywood blockbusters like ‘Minority Report,’ ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Blade Runner.'
Sonic Youth have been inspired by a wide swath of music over the years -- punk, hardcore, the Grateful Dead -- but it’s the band’s roots in the downtown New York City No Wave scene of the ‘70s that made the biggest impact on their sonic template. No Wave was a movement that encompassed underground film, performance art and visual art. Musically, it's more easily defined by its common elements -- a focus on dissonance and atonality, with repetitive rhythms and an emphasis on textural soundscapes over melody -- than any overarching consistency. Contemporary avant-garde composer Glenn Branca fronted a No Wave band called the Theoretical Girls, and when he branched out into orchestral guitar performances, then-recent NYC transplants Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo played on his “debut record," 1980's ‘Lesson No. 1.’ Sonic Youth formed around this time and began incorporating Branca’s non-standard guitar tunings, a hallmark of the band’s sound to this day.
What do Madonna, Charles Manson, Sean Penn, Karen Carpenter and Ronald Reagan have in common? All have been referenced in -- or been the subject of -- songs by Sonic Youth, a band whose deeply rooted avant-garde tendencies belie its ongoing fascination with mainstream American popular culture. Manson (‘Death Valley ‘69’), Penn (‘The Crucifixion of Sean Penn’) and Carpenter (‘Tunic (Song for Karen)’) were each featured in a SY song, while Reagan got the better part of an album. (‘Bad Moon Rising,’ besides being an obvious Creedence Clearwater Revival reference, was said to mock the president’s “Morning In America” tagline.) But Sonic Youth’s Madonna fixation was so great that she was honored with an entire SY side project called Ciccone Youth, after Madonna’s original surname. This group's 1987 effort ‘The Whitey Album’ was more inspired by pop culture than pop music. An oft-forgotten minor curiosity (or classic ode to irony and cliché, take your pick) full of off-beat rapping over outdated sequencers and cheesy drum machines, ‘Whitey’ features covers of Madge’s ‘Burning Up’ and ‘Into the Groove.' The latter, renamed ‘Into the Groove(y),' finds Thurston Moore singing off key over samples of the original. Earnest homage or cruel in-joke: Does it really matter?