The Toiling Of Idle Hands

I got InOutIn, the new compilation of old unreleased material by Sonic Youth.

What could be more irrelevant than talking about Sonic Youth in 2022? Let’s listen to the new album first. There are 5 tracks, from sessions between 2000 and 2010. Some of them have Jim O’Rourke in the credits. Some are described as just “recorded” and others are “recorded and mixed”, implying they were candidates for some kind of official release. “Social Static” was written for a film of the same name. None of these have clear lyrics though “In & Out” features barely-distinguishable vocals from Kim. The detailed sleeve notes helpfully say that “Out & In” is from the sessions for The Eternal though obviously it wasn’t taken further as it is based around “Eyeliner”, one of the extra tracks on Rather Ripped in 2006. These are mostly extended improvisations and as such not a typical Sonic Youth album… which ironically makes it the perfect record to be their final album, achieving a symmetry with the 5 tracks of the original Sonic Youth in 1982, which also had an untypical sound – in that case more angular Television-style punk guitar.

What could be more irrelevant than talking about Sonic Youth in 2022? Surely all the takes have been taken. They were latecomers to the No Wave scene, they were obscure and tuneless and didn’t rock like AC/DC, that they didn’t really inspire the grunge bands, that they were indulged as loss-makers whilst luring younger, more viable acts on to Geffen, that their fans are awful. We are so far on in history that we’ve done all the “Well, actually…” counter-takes as well: that they never took themselves so seriously, that that interview with Steven Wells was a big joke all round for everyone (if you read all the words you can see he actually liked a lot of their earlier sound), that NYC Ghosts And Flowers is good not bad, actually. With regard to that last point, I would just say that the problem I always had with that album is that includes a song unironically and sincerely about Princess Diana, called “Renegade Princess”. That evoked heckling when they introduced it at their gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The title track on that album is by Lee and is absolutely amazing, as I seem to rediscover about every 3 years when I bother to play it. The other problem with it when it came out is that it was “just another SY album” so no one was bothered. I bought it at the same time as The First Of The Microbe Hunters by Stereolab and All Hands On The Bad One by Sleater-Kinney, and those were both Just Another Album by those groups as well. It’s the only Sonic Youth album Kim Gordon doesn’t mention in Girl In A Band – maybe she also finds it quite forgettable.

I saw Kim out on the promotional tour for her book back in 2015. At Cecil Sharp House in Camden she answered questions, mostly about stories she’d already written down. Nobody asked about the breakup of her relationship with Thurston, and I don’t think that line would have been entertained anyway. Going over decisions in her career, she said she’d never wanted to be defined in a particular image as Siouxsie Sioux and other female performers were. She’d been fascinated by rock bands as a place where male bonding occurs, and was motivated to disrupt it as a “girl in a band”, but not playing to any accepted models. That must be why “Male Bonding” was apparently one of the early names for the group (along with “The Arcadians” and “Red Milk”). Three details mentioned that aren’t in the book: 1. The drug of choice for male rock performers in early 80s New York was called “Locker Room”, an amyl derivative. 2. In answer to the question of how Sonic Youth were so productive, making albums every year for a long stretch, she replied: “we weren’t weighed down with drug problems like other bands”. 3. The song “Sympathy For The Strawberry” is about a friend of hers who did have a drug problem. She admitted she didn’t do very well at a quiz in which she had to identify SY songs from 30-second excerpts.

They were never trying to be a conventional radio-friendly rock band but they were ready to use the materials of conventional rock, including the visual presentation in sleeve art and t-shirts and band photos. Wearing sunglasses indoors is a dated pose, but put in a sequence with other examples – the quiet beatnik styles of the first album cover, the shaved-head hardcore of the Sonic Death live album, the psychedelic colours of the mid 80s – it’s an art project curated with Kim’s eye for the details, while the boys make their big noise. It’s the group they really were, but it didn’t fit anyone else’s idea of a rock band, and comes across as a detached experiment. It’s ok to have groups centred around unmusical men, such as Morrissey or Mark E.Smith, as they can fit the archetype of the “brilliant writer”, especially when they make it clear that they are to be regarded as such. The usual anti-showbiz attitude of post-punk men can be easily lauded as the quite conventional and heroic Difficult Man “anti-hero”, like John Lennon or Lydon. But a band in which a female visual artist musters the male musicians around some images… that’s always been the problem. Sonic Youth aren’t “cool”, they were never meant to be, and the attempts to canonize them as godfathers of “alternative rock” never fit because they don’t have the right sort of rebel-figure amongst them to be the icon. They just did it better because they had more ideas and worked at them for many years when it was the most uncommercial thing to do. The albums from those years are unique and extraordinary.

Bad Moon Rising was made at a time when early R.E.M. and Husker Du were showing a way forward out of punk noise into melodic, 60s-influenced rock. It blends that idea into a mutating block of sound that might be a single night vision, as Zen Arcade is supposed to be. The cover shows a scarecrow out in a field, but we can also see the city blocks in the horizon. “Brave Men Run” takes its title from an Ed Ruscha painting. The facile punk poetry of “Society Is A Hole” splutters out into a sample of what seems to be a hardcore song playing on a radio, somewhere in the street. But then we seem to be in a broken wilderness, leading in to the rhythmic chase sequence of “I’m Insane”. All tracks merge, the only break occurs before the climax of the Manson Family reverie “Death Valley ‘69”, overloaded like a B-movie horror soundtrack. Of course the title comes from someone else’s song.

EVOL takes the Bad Moon Rising ingredients but puts them in a format more like a conventional pop-rock album: clear starts and ends to tracks, which don’t all sound the same, and some sense of verse-chorus structure… and then it all comes apart slowly over the second half, with the haunted-house sound effects of “Secret Girl” and the heaving claustrophobia of “Marilyn Moore”, the evaporation into minimalism in “Expressway To Yr Skull” (another second-hand title).

The attempted commercial breakthrough Dirty was of course a flop that didn’t sell anywhere near the same numbers as Nevermind, but for a few months some Cobain fans were tricked into buying an album that included the feminist groove of “Shoot”, the death-of-counterculture lament “Chapel Hill”, the haunted kids tale of “Crème Brulee”, and the superb “Wish Fulfillment” which really should have been a number one single and might have been if Pearl Jam had released it. Assuming those listeners didn’t give up during side 1 of the 4 available they could have heard some music that could have changed their lives, which is not implausible when we realise that albums like Kill Uncle allegedly did have that effect.

Yeah, Sonic Youth were good not bad actually, and it’s your own fault you can’t make sense of a group where it’s not all about an alpha male who is the genius guitar player and/or symbolist poet who’s also got a novel and an opera inside him, and maybe they break up because he fell out with the other guy. We could take the elements of those famous bands and their stories and rearrange them as something else. Yeah, maybe Kim wouldn’t have had as much impact as a visual artist if she’d never had the group, what of it.

What would be really smart is someone did a New Wave-style cover of the early song “Cosmopolitan Girl”, which apparently predates the group itself. Back in the days of Blank City and all those New York wannabes trying to find a career or just some way to work. Being poor isn’t cool and it wasn’t great money in the art scene. The picture at the top is from the liner notes of the CDs of their mid 80s albums; if you look hard enough you can see the title in amongst Lee Ranaldo’s beat poetry.

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