The Legacy of Sonic Youth

How the band reached beyond music to define a scene

Michael Azerrad

A group portrait of Sonic Youth, (L–R) Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, and Kim Gordon, posing backstage at Paradiso on May 11, 1986, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty Images

Breaking down the barriers like Sonic Youth,” sang Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow on 1991’s “Gimme Indie Rock.” “They got what they wanted / Maybe I can get what I want too.” Barlow’s song, a fan’s-eye view of the indie rock scene of the time, is laced with slacker irony, but thirty years later, his lines about Sonic Youth still ring true. As Sonic Life, the acutely self-conscious, if frustratingly un-introspective, new memoir by the band’s singer-guitarist, Thurston Moore, makes clear, Sonic Youth almost always did get what it wanted. The band went from being a pillar of the early-’80s downtown Manhattan underground to signing with a major label and then back to making avant-garde records for small audiences without missing a beat, and in the process came to embody for many musicians and music fans an aspirational ideal of creative freedom—and, by extension, freedom in general.

Sonic Youth’s status as a band other bands looked up to began with its music. Amid the mid-’80s wave of roots rockers and REM-influenced “jangly” guitar bands, Sonic Youth was emphatically neither of those things: their music radically foregrounded and magnified rock’s foreboding dissonances and savage rhythms, minimizing elements such as melody, conventional Tin Pan Alley song structure, and well-worn rock chord changes. It was still the prototypical rock lineup—two guitars, bass, and drums—but the band was pushing the envelope, making something that wasn’t quite rock music but immediately adjacent to it. “The most genuine exploratory aspect of Sonic Youth, I felt,” writes Moore, “was in how a rock song could function outside traditional rock structure, even as it borrowed rock’s established language.”

Sonic Youth’s hyperawareness of music history and of how their music both fit into and broke from that history was surely what led an employee of the powerhouse Southern California indie label SST (with which the band was hoping to sign) to infamously dismiss them with the pronouncement “Record collectors shouldn’t be in bands.” But they proved him wrong. They were record collectors, sure, but more to the point, they were empowered music fans: they knew what they liked and what they wanted to hear, and they had the drive and creativity to actualize their ideas. Punk gave them the green light to dispense with elitist preconceptions about technique, while the band’s unique guitar tunings embodied the notion that you didn’t have to play by the rules—or, at least, that you could creatively modify the rules to suit your aims.

Funnily enough, SST signed Sonic Youth anyway, and after three early records that channeled the rattling, buzzing, banging din of their downtown New York environs into powerful but inchoate music, the band began a career-making three-album run. EVOL (1986) and Sister (1987) gravitated toward more conventional song forms and melodies, conjuring a clangorous urban psychedelia. Daydream Nation (1988), an archetypal ambitious double album that is widely considered a masterpiece, featured the indie anthem “Teen Age Riot” and is now in the 2005 National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

Securing Sonic Youth’s blessing was a priceless benediction in a community that prized credibility above all else.

Not many bands were directly influenced by Sonic Youth in a musical sense—the band’s sound was too idiosyncratic to copy—but many were inspired to reject traditional ideas of what songs had to sound like. And if the band could rethink something as staid as rock music had become, what received notions about other things could people rethink? Consciously or not, that appealed to people of a certain independent mindset.

But as Moore’s memoir makes clear, it wasn’t just the music that made Sonic Youth influential. Some of the band’s authority came from the fact that they were so closely identified with the early-’80s New York art scene at a time when Manhattan held a downright hegemonic dominion over contemporary art. As the children of academics, Moore and singer-bassist Kim Gordon spoke with an air of authority about all kinds of art; both Gordon and singer-guitarist Lee Ranaldo had been art majors, and Gordon even did some writing for Artforum. “We’d come out of a New York art context—though sideways—and merged with the rock scene,” Gordon wrote in her 2015 memoir, Girl in a Band. Accordingly, Moore’s book is dense with references to leading downtown artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tony Oursler, Jim Jarmusch, Christian Marclay, David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Barbara Ess, and Kenny Scharf. Sonic Youth was the type of band that would name a song—“Brave Men Run (in My Family)”—after an Edward Ruscha painting; their album covers featured work by an astonishing stable of art stars, including Gerhard Richter, Mike Kelley, Richard Prince, Jeff Wall, and Raymond Pettibon, all of whom were their friends. It was powerful cobranding.

That curatorial streak runs deep and long in the Sonic Youth story. Early on, Moore dreamed that Sonic Youth and their downtown compadres Swans and Lydia Lunch would be more than just bands; they would “forge a world of our own . . . a movement energized by its own visions; an intellectual forum for art, literature, music and cinema.” In fact, he first made his mark on the downtown scene not by playing in a band, but by curating 1981’s nine-day Noise Fest, featuring avant-noise musicians at the downtown art gallery White Columns. Moore eventually became such a tastemaker that English music entrepreneur Paul Smith launched a record label, Blast First, that was populated almost entirely by bands that Moore recommended, helping to sway the influential UK music weeklies away from effete English new wave music and toward the gnarly darkness of American bands such as Big Black, Butthole Surfers, and . . . Sonic Youth.

Sonic Youth’s outspoken endorsements, even obsessions, compelled their fans to investigate sci-fi novelists Philip K. Dick and William Gibson and to reconsider pop musicians such as the Carpenters and Madonna. And Moore’s evangelistic curatorial streak lives on: the seventy-one chapter titles of Sonic Life allude to a wide array of esoteric musicians: early punks, contemporaries, avant-gardists, and so on.

What Sonic Youth most effectively curated, though, was the indie rock scene that they themselves inhabited. They had excellent, uncannily prescient taste, championing future stars such as Beck, Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, and Nirvana. In 1988, when they did a split single with a newly formed band from Seattle called Mudhoney, it validated not only Mudhoney but the entire nascent Seattle grunge scene, which exploded into the international consciousness shortly thereafter.

Sonic Youth hired newcomers and future auteurs such as Todd Haynes, Spike Jonze, and Sofia Coppola to direct (or, in Coppola’s case, appear in) their videos. Their attorney, Richard Grabel, not long out of law school, went on to become perhaps the foremost indie rock band lawyer, while their manager, John Silva, is today one of the most powerful in the music business. Drummer Steve Shelley eventually started his own record label, Smells Like Records, helping to introduce Cat Power and Blonde Redhead to the world and igniting a renaissance for ’60s singer-songwriter Lee Hazlewood. Securing Sonic Youth’s blessing was a priceless benediction in a community that prized credibility above all else; eventually, thanks to their clout, their endorsement would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Then there was their age. Except for Shelley (born 1962), the band members were born in the ’50s, a few years older than most of the American indie underground musicians, and Moore and Gordon were married, making them “parental figures of a sort,” Moore writes, adding that “our band had attained a kind of role model status among younger groups.” That was especially true of Gordon, who became a hero of the riot grrrl movement.

Their dogged artistic autonomy and relative indifference to commercial success had a lot to do with why Sonic Youth became the kind of band that celebs wanted to be seen with.

Sonic Youth might have been Lower East Side bohemians, but they also boasted a tireless work ethic: they toured relentlessly around the world, did tons of press and videos, and released 15 or 16 albums (depending on your count) and many EPs. And though they became a part of the conventional music industry when they signed with Geffen/DGC in 1990, they carefully avoided being consumed by the corporate ogre. In 1993, recording engineer and former Big Black leader Steve Albini published a notorious piece in The Baffler titled “The Problem with Music” that methodically outlined how major labels routinely screwed over many artists. Moore retorts that “the indie bands in these scenarios were depicted as though they had no agency, stupidly falling into the traps that major labels had set for them. We were not that band.”

Sonic Youth had devised a sustainable model—as Minutemen bassist Mike Watt once advised, “make sure the dream fits the tent”—and despite never coming anywhere near to a gold record, they were never a financial burden on Geffen/DGC, either. Instead, their records were essentially a flyer for their shows, which is where they made the bulk of their income. And their dogged artistic autonomy and relative indifference to commercial success had a lot to do with why Sonic Youth became the kind of band that celebs wanted to be seen with. Moore cites a March 1993 show at the Santa Monic Civic Auditorium, at which movie director Oliver Stone, INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence, and Kiss bassist Gene Simmons showed up backstage. (“Where’s all the chicks?” Simmons demanded.)

There was a fallow period in the mid-to-late ’90s as the alternative rock explosion passed them by. And yet this was when they came closest to becoming a household word, headlining Lollapalooza, appearing in the 1996 “Homerpalooza” episode of The Simpsons and playing a gleefully discordant version of the show’s theme song during the closing credits — like a lot of other people in the media, the show’s creator, Matt Groening, was a charter member of the indie rock nation that Sonic Youth had helped to create. (The band also appeared on a 2009 episode of Gossip Girl, and Moore, Gordon, and their eleven-year-old daughter, Coco, performed on a 2006 episode of Gilmore Girls.)

By then, Moore writes, “the ‘Youth’ in our name began to ring false for some.” But actually, the older they got, the more apt their name became: the “Youth” part was never about chronological age—Gordon was pushing thirty when the band started—but was rather about a way of being, the steadfast focus and unfiltered creativity that kids have when they are making art. That quality is all too often lost as we mature, but Sonic Youth held on to it, becoming more “experimental” (to use a dubious term for purposefully made art) as they aged, releasing a series of nine EPs and albums of instrumental noise and an album of their renditions of pieces by twentieth-century avant-garde composers—all on their own label, all recorded in their own studio. They’d created a paradigm, a playground, in which they could do whatever they wanted. And that earned them even more respect, both within and without the musical community—although not record sales.

Sonic Youth broke up in 2011. Moore says the band had run its course—most of the members were well into their fifties and had become parents—and aspects of their music that “had once felt exotic,” he writes, “were now part of a common musical vocabulary.” (Also, Moore left Gordon for another woman, something Gordon heartbreakingly begins her memoir with, but Moore says little about in his book.) Furthermore, “[T]he model of independence, self-governance, and defiance of mainstream standards of success that had defined us since 1981 had become commonplace. It was these new bands . . . that were the underground rock radicals now.” The thrill of rebellion was gone, just as the thrill of living in the drug-, crime-, and filth-riddled Lower East Side was long gone too.

But they were curatorial to the very end: in the press release for their final album, 2009’s The Eternal, Moore wrote that virtually every song alluded to a different artist, from twentieth-century minimalist painter Yves Klein to Beat poet Gregory Corso to early L.A. punks the Germs. The Eternal was the last of a strong three-album streak, a particular rager, and their highest-charting album ever. So Sonic Youth did yet another thing that we can all aspire to. Unlike so many other long-running bands, they followed the advice of their hero, Neil Young: it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

Michael Azerrad has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal and is the author of Our Band Could Be Your Life and the just-published The Amplified Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana.
Originally published:
November 8, 2023


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