Living with…Sonic Youth…for a week

1988: Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation and the critics say

“Alternating between tense, hypnotic instrumental passages and furious noise explosions, the music demonstrates a range of emotions and textures, and in many ways, it’s hard not to listen to the record as one long piece of shifting dynamics.”

Daydream Nation demonstrates the extent to which noise and self-conscious avant art can be incorporated into rock, and the results are nothing short of stunning.”

“This is a masterpiece of post-punk art rock.”

“Sonic Youth have had a long, brilliant career making trippy art punk, and this is their ultimate triumph.”

“Cripes, what a racket” no81bob, on first listen.

And you’ll have to excuse me after a week of the beautiful sound of Roy Orbison that I took some time to adjust to the world of Sonic Youth.  But I applied The Strokes law (see Living with…The Strokes…for a week).  Namely, if at first you don’t get it try and try again…and sure enough on the second listen….

I was back in the mid 80s in a dark and heaving pub in Ditchling Sussex. The air is thick with smoke, both acrid and sweet at the same time.  Everyone in The North Star is 18ish.  You can only hear each other if you lean so close and shout in their ear, and the band hasn’t started.  But everyone is crammed indoors as outside is cold and very wet.  And why would you leave the hubbub when all around are your friends and you can be passively high.

And then enter the band clambering on to the tiny stage in the corner.  Plugging in and unleashing a compulsory burst of feedback to announce their arrival.  I’m to one side, camera in hand to officially capture the gig in evocative black and white.  And for many black is the compulsory dress code of the evening.

“Hello, we’re Black October”  Their college friends roar in approval and then its half hour of guitar thrashing interspersed with poignant twiddling and gesturing.  Its all over far too quickly followed by a rush on the bar as the temperature inside has risen so much.  I remember walking back from Ditchling that night in the cold and very wet and leaving the car with my camera locked inside for the morning.

(Black October, North Star Ditchling sometime in the mid 80s)

The North Star is closed now, someone’s house like so many other village pubs.  I don’t know what happened to Black October – they released one 12″ single that I ordered from a record shop in Warwick after I moved to the Midlands so that they could claim a national audience.  I haven’t thought about them for 20 years, but it all came back on the second hearing of Teen Age Riot.

And so I bonded with Daydream Nation as a trip back to that post-punk age when so many bands were trying to connect back to that legacy, but at the same time trying to be that bit less angry and bit more intelligent.  Progressive punk?  Thrashing guitar but with poignant pauses in between? And I know that Sonic Youth have done so much more than that and Daydream Nation is greater than that, but that’s what came back for me.  My favourite tracks? Teen Age Riot (of course), Total Trash and Hey Joni.  But its immaterial, the whole album (even the bit recorded on a walkman in their front room) evokes that period.  I’m somewhere else now, but nice to go back.

Glee Watch: I knew something about the plotline was familiar this week and then I’m reminded in a blog that Cheesus rhyming with Jesus is one of the favourite stories in the excellent Swiss Watching by Diccon Bewes.  For an explanation of how the American scriptwriters nicked an essential element of their story from a bookshop in Bern read Miscommunication in Bern – or how how Swiss cheeses gave me some Glee