Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Sonic Youth are an experimental rock group formed in 1981. Initially inspired by the noise experimentation of Glenn Branca—with whom most of the band have performed—as well as the heavy garage rock-acid-rock of The Stooges, they were known for using a variety of unorthodox guitar tunings, and for applying screwdrivers or other preparations to guitars to alter the instruments' timbre.
Current and Former Members
The band currently consists of:
- Kim Gordon (bass guitar, guitar, vocals)
- Thurston Moore (guitar, vocals),
- Lee Ranaldo (guitar, synthesizer, vocals),
- Steve Shelley (drums)
- Jim O'Rourke (guitar, bass guitar, synthesizer, laptop)
Former personnel include Richard Edson (drums 1981-1982), Bob Bert (drums 1982-1986), Jim Sclavunos (drums 1982-1983) and Ann DeMarinis (keyboards 1981-1982) Edson left the band to appear in movies such as Platoon and Stranger Than Paradise. Bert was later involved in No Wave descendants Pussy Galore and Boss Hogg , among others. Jim Sclavunos is currently involved in The Bad Seeds with Nick Cave, in addition to his own band The Vanity Set .
Supposedly their name mocks the preponderance of bands with the name 'youth' in the title in NYC in the early 1980s. Another version for their name origin is that it is a combination of the names of Fred 'Sonic' Smith of the band MC5 and the reggae artist Big Youth. They were associated with the "No Wave" art/music scene in New York City, but have outlasted most associated bands. Drummer Steve Shelley played drums for the hardcore band the Crucifucks before joining Sonic Youth.
Besides Branca, Patti Smith, and the Stooges, another early influence was hardcore music of the early 1980s. Moore and Gordon, especially, were impressed by the intensity of the musicians involved, and their ability to organize nationwide. "It was great," said Moore, "the whole thing with slam dancing and stage diving, that was far more exciting than pogoing and spitting... I thought hardcore was very musical and very radical" (Julia and Gonzalo 51).
Sonic Youth began in extremes. Their first album--greatly indebted to Branca--plays very austere and reserved, consciously arty and layered, while their next two important projects, Confusion is Sex and Kill Yr Idols, are hyper-aggressive aggregates of swirling noise. A very vocal camp maintains that Confusion is Sex in particular has never been equalled by the band; nevertheless, SY would not make records like Sonic Youth or Confusion ever again.
Sonic Youth have gradually incorporated more conventional elements of pop music into their work, while still maintaining an experimental quality. Bad Moon Rising, released in 1984, was Sonic Youth's stab at making a continuous concept album, with almost no breaks between the songs most of which told stories of violence and insanity and sounded accordingly with walls of feedback and crazy beats; still, songs such as "I Love Her All the Time" and "Brave Men Run" boasted a relatively more mainstream structure and harmonies. On EVOL (1986) Steve Shelley became the permanent drummer; it was also the first one to feature a song written and sung by Lee Ranaldo. On that album the listener can hear the band beginning to craft songs that could be almost considered pop, such as "Star Power" and "Expressway to Yr. Skull" from the raw stuff of psychedelic feedback and distortion. On the Sister LP (1987) Sonic Youth went on with combining punk-pop song structures with uncompomising experimentalism; it remains one of the most loved albums by the fans and the band itself and some songs from it, such as "Schizophrenia" and "Kotton Krown" were played live long after its release. But it was the double LP Daydream Nation (1988), that exceeded all expectation and earned SY unanimous crossover critical acclaim and a new record deal with a major label, Geffen Records. On Daydream Nation they had perfected their style, becoming virtuosic sculptors of guitar noise. The album became an instant indie classic; it included some of the bands' best known songs, such as "Teen Age Riot" and "Candle".
Managing to stay afloat in the cut-throat music industry financially while maintaining some sense of self and dignity, Sonic Youth have proved highly influential on underground rock music. They were particularly important in the growth of grunge: their 1991 tour with the then-unknown Nirvana being captured in the film 1991: The Year Punk Broke. 1990 saw the release of Goo (DGC, which featured the single "Kool Thing" on which Chuck D from rap group Public Enemy guested. "Kool Thing" became THE song that most casual music fans associate with the band. The record, while not on the same level as the previous three, is still very solid and is much more accessable than their previous work. Excellent tracks include "Mote" "Disappearer" "Cinderella's Big Score" and "Dirty Boots." In 1992, the band released Dirty (DGC, which fell further from the mark than Goo had. Dirty is a solid record that is just a few songs too long. "On the Strip" "100%" and "Drunk Butterfly" are standouts. The band's next few records just kinda sucked (for SY - for any other band they would have been great records). Their influence as tastemakers continued with their discovery of avant skateboard video director Spike Jonze who they recruited for the video for "100%" and with the revival of Macaulay Culkin via a video for "Sunday" directed by the very young Harmony Korine.
In the meantime, members of the band diversified their talents. Kim Gordon collaborated in Free Kitten, and started an MTV-adored fashion label X-Girl, based in L.A. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore have played with many experimental/noise musicians, including William Hooker, Nels Cline, Tom Surgal , Alan Licht , Don Dietrich, Christian Marclay and Mission of Burma, among others. Steve Shelley has been involved in running the Smells Like Records record labels, as well as playing in backing bands for Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Two Dollar Guitar .
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the band began releasing a series of highly-experimental records on their own Hoboken, New Jersey-based label SYR. The music was mostly instrumental, and the album and track titles and even the liner notes and credits were in different languages: SYR1 was French, SYR2 Dutch, SYR3 Esperanto and SYR5 Japanese. SYR3 was the first to feature Jim O'Rourke, who went on to become an official band member. SYR4 was different -- it was subtitled "Goodbye, 20th Century" and featured works by avant-garde classical composers' such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich and Christian Wolff played by Sonic Youth along with several collaborators from the modern avant-garde music scene, such as William Winant, Wharton Tiers , Takehisa Kosugi and others.
The band had the tapes for their new record in their NYC studio, Murray Street, during the September 11, 2001 attacks. A jet engine reportedly smashed into the studio, destroying it. This next album would be titled Murray Street in memory of their destroyed studio. (the bit about the engine is probably an urban myth) The tapes for this record were actually in the ruined studio and survived the dust. Murray Street was the beginning of a return to form for SY, seemingly prompted by the addition of Jim O'Rourke to the lineup. Excellent cuts include as "Disconnection Notice" "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style" and "Karen Revisited" and "The Empty Page." The pop sensibility and brilliant, layered guitar work is back on this record, and it is the first SY record since "Goo" that stands up to a complete listening.
Their next and most recent album was 2004's Sonic Nurse, which garnered critical acclaim and is their best work post Daydream Nation. The guitars on this record are blistering, and Steve Shelley's drumming is the most intense it's been in years. "Pattern Recognition" a song named after the most recent William Gibson novel, finds SY once again using Gibson's work for inspiration, much as they did on the track "the Sprawl" from Daydream Nation. As the opening track on the record, SY clearly signals a return to the postmodern well. The band also showed their pop culture commentary and sense of humor with the track "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Conan Doyle Hand Cream", a faster-tempo song sung by Kim Gordon which spoofed the pop singer's life, including her short-lived relationship with rapper Eminem (on the album cover reference to "Mariah Carey" in the title was replaced by "Kim Gordon" because of copyright issues, which presented the issue in even more postmodern and ironic light). Sonic Nurse had decent sales due to performances on TV talk shows including Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The band was also slated to perform in 2004's Lollapalooza tour along with acts such as The Pixies and Flaming Lips, but the concert was cancelled due to lackluster ticket sales. When the band did tour later that year, he concerts were mindblowing. The band played extensively from their 80's catalog and the new songs fit perfectly beside the classics. One show in Detroit ended with a 30 minute noisefest freakout featuring members of Wolf Eyes, the opening act. SY played for more than two hours and burned the crowd to the ground. They had returned.
In 1994, journalist Alec Foege published a full-length biography of the band called Confusion is Next: The Sonic Youth Story. Sonic Youth's career is also chronicled in Our Band Could Be Your Life, a study of several important American underground rock groups by Michael Azerrad.
Moore and Gordon are married and have a daughter, Coco Gordon Moore.
Official full-length releases
- Sonic Youth (Neutral, 1982)
- Confusion Is Sex (Neutral, 1983)
- Sonic Death * (Ecstatic Peace, 1983)
- Bad Moon Rising (Homestead, 1985)
- EVOL (SST, 1986)
- Sister (SST, 1987)
- "The White(y) Album " (Enigma/Blast First, 1988, as Ciccone Youth,
with Suzanne Sasic, J Mascis and Mike Watt)
- Daydream Nation (Enigma/Blast First, 1988)
- Goo (DGC, 1990)
- Dirty (DGC, 1992)
- Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (DGC, 1994)
- Screaming Fields of Sonic Love (DGC, 1994)
- Washing Machine (DGC, 1995)
- Made in USA (Rhino, 1995)
- A Thousand Leaves (DGC, 1998)
- (SYR, 1999)
- NYC Ghosts & Flowers (DGC, 2000)
- Murray Street (DGC, 2002)
- Sonic Nurse (DGC, 2004)
* Reissued in 1988 by SST as Sonic Death -- Early Sonic 1981 - 1983
- Kill Yr Idols (Zensor, 1983)
- (SYR, 1997)
- (SYR, 1997)
- Silver Session (For Jason Knuth) (Sonic Knuth Records, 1998)
- (SYR, 1998)
Repackaged for CD by DGC with Confusion Is Sex in 1995
Official single releases
- 1985 - "Flower/Halloween"
- 1986 - "Flower/Satan is Boring"
- 1986 - "Halloween II"
- 1986 - "Into the Groove(y)" (as Ciccone Youth)
- 1986 - "Starpower"
- 1988 - "Teenage Riot"
- 1989 - "Candle"
- 1990 - "Kool Thing"
- 1990 - "Disappearer"
- 1992 - "100%"
- 1992 - "Youth Against Fascism"
- 1993 - "Sugar Kane"
- 1993 - "Whores Moaning - Oz '93 Tour Edition"
- 1996 - "Little Trouble Girl"
- Sonic Youth Teenage Riot.ogg of "Teenage Riot" from Daydream Nation
Julia, Ignacio and Jaime Gonzalo. Sonic Youth: I dreamed of noise. Barcelona: RUTA 66, 1994.
- New Music Box: American Contraband In The Third Person: July 2000 by Jason Gross
- Sonic Youth and Neil Young - Tales from 1991's Weld/ARC tour
- Sonic Youth @ MusicWiki
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