This is probably long overdue but again I don’t go all Mark’s absolutist way. I don’t really think much about Sonic Youth much these days and it’s been a LOOOOOONG time since I hopped off their wagon (but then again I stuck doggedly with them all the way to Goodbye 20th Century which at least qualifies me for a bronze service medal)…
…but the Neil Young de leurs jours thing won’t work either and the reason is all to do with this baggage trap of not forgetting the past or at the least rate not keeping it in its clean but secluded bottom drawer – OK, “Death Valley ‘69” was in truth pretty hokey from (anti-)conception and between you and us I never listened to anything on BMR except that but as a spring of coiled up (not to be confused with Coil upped) argument for life (how could Lydia’s barks be confused/with anything else?) 1985 needed “DV69” more than vice versa and it needed to be SEEN to exist in a one-star* Five Star** world.
*I’m quite content at how well this piece has held up over the last five plus years; don’t necessarily agree with it all now but I still wouldn’t throw it out of anyone’s window.
**Bigging up Five Star in BLITZ in 1988 of all years – was this the point where Paul M lost his oars? And also the original/inherent tragedy of unquestioning/entrapping P*pt*m*sm?
Anyway my feelings about SY remain indispensably confused. But I do think that the time when they mattered and were seen to matter has to be that ’86-8 period, just at the point before archiving tipped over and tied us in abominable bounds to the past, including last week (hi Gil!), when yes this was essentially avant-nerd collectorism but then the essence vaporised. How this happened is thusly:
1986 – the year of nascent/dying world loudness; the end of the old (but workable) disorder and the start of an ineluctably despite all our best instincts attractive brutalist futurism of M25s, Big Bangs, canaried wharfs, ignorant icebergs. All ‘86’s best music sounded best on the motorway; the Kraftwerkian post-romance of clangs upon metal, the doorstop shoulder mobile of immediacy and EVOL worked its fabric of not-quite-nothing into the year’s burning tarmac exceptionally well since it was loud and broody but couldn’t be nailed down. A skull-aimed expressway living to tell an uncanny epilogue.****
1987 – the triumph of a shinier, more colourful, more exuberant loudness, and Sister is still SY’s peak because unlike anywhere else outside this period they manage to FORGET themselves and rock as effusively as Big Black or LL. This is the point where they unlearn all this bloody history – yes I know they do “Hotwire My Heart” but they transcend the dusty murk of the printed list autist in the gloomy used backroom forests. Forget? Well, perhaps OVERCOME their BETTER SELVES and rock as unthinkingly and happily as they ever managed. Sister is where SY agree with the present and don’t have to improv*** their way out of a self-constructionist maze. And it’s on Sister that they connect most deeply with libidinisation and (via Kim, one of several non-missing links between Suzi Quatro and Debbie Googe) begin to grasp the idea of noise feminisation.
***speaking of which, improv - not so much accessing the unconscious but a LANGUAGE evolved by musicians who know that the old language won’t help them express what they’re trying to reach and grasp and it is about co-dependence and cruciality of process over result (hi Ben!) i.e. an attempt to build a new, happily interdependent society.*****
*****and isn’t Derek B the key model for “forgetting” the past? When DB played he wasn’t accessing anybody’s (un)consciousness but telling us a story, the current part of it, using a language which (see also Ayler, Ornette etc. etc. but why are we even still having this argument in 2009 since we KNOW that none of them came out of thin air?) developed out of a near quarter-century of flyshit reading in dance bands, pit orchestras, an apprenticeship which involved Eric Morecambe, Diana Ross, Hughie Green and Gracie Fields (AND Count Basie!) – i.e. Derek KNEW his past and wanted to escape it; speak to T Oxley or anyone else still around and they’ll all say the same thing; why the hell would anyone want to go back to the old way when this new way works just fine?******
******and doesn’t THIS get STRAIGHT to the gut of the matter – SY do the Carpenters but Richard Carpenter actually wanted to be Zappa and yes if you listen to the Carpenters properly it DOES come through but then the Carpenters didn’t have this record collector baggage behind them, even though they devoted half of their biggest album to a medley of oldies centred around a song calling for the oldies to come back – well, yes, but Karen’s tremble on “Yesterday Once More” tells you inherently that that past ain’t never gonna come back…
…and likewise SY may have supported Neil Young but NY exceeds SY because…well, why because? Not just because SY could never do a Harvest Moon to match their multiple Arc Welds (because they’ve not LIVED the life) but because – well, because as with all those other sixties troops who’ve kept marching on – Walker, Cale, Cohen, Dylan – NOBODY TOLD THEM TO STOP PUSHING THE ENVELOPE and since they invented the bloody thing to begin with they persist with the pushing, unburdened by any history, especially the ones with which they grew up and don’t get hagiographised to the post-’63 point of nullification.*******.
*******and isn’t that new Dylan album damn great? Sounds like a Tom Waits newly escaped from Mexico City ; hard times call for burritos of drawled pleasure. Partly because he’s EARNED it (god forbid, not in the Alan Sugar non-sense) but because it enables me to draw a line stretching directly out from Self Portrait and New Morning and remind everyone that, um, other stars were flicking in his and hence our universe…
1988 – when everything starts to float, become abodied, the time of Isn’t Anything, 69, the Hannettised Bummed, when “rock” really exceeds itself (just as, in NY’s Eldorado, it could expand itself eternally) and so Daydream Nation is special to me in too many ways to enlist here but the enchanted disengagement you can hear beginning to happen when they cut the tonal dummy loose a third of the way into “Total Trash” and for the first and maybe last time in their time they stumble upon…something that hasn’t been done before and can’t be adequately ascribed to historical precedent - AMM yes, DB on Oxley’s “Stone Garden” yep and I’m not going to be naïve enough to think that Lee n’ Thurston don’t know their inexhaustible baptisms but somehow on DN they endeavour to make rock stand outside itself, the nagging Pincher Martin tooth now forming a full broadland, and yet try to stand on it and you’ll swim.
****but then there is 1989, and thus 1986 again just when you weren’t expecting it; the Ciccone Youth stuff is habitually written off as an expensive novelty but The Whitey Album is frequently my fave SY disc since it sees them actively engaging with the Pop Present. The corking clangs of “Into The Groove(y)” certainly fit into an M25ed up ’86 alongside Janet and Tackhead and Sputnik and Test Dept and Cameo and somehow by drawing upon the old AMM/Rowe/Cardew trope of improvising as loudly as possible to drown out “Good Vibrations” or “Lightning Strikes” – and what greater demonstration that AMM secretly LOVED pop? – and sketching through No Wave right through to ’86 (well, ’85 but then Sean and “Me”) Madge they confirm an argument I’d been having in my head for the best part of 15 years in terms of how none of this divisionism is provable and that intents and sonics can co-exist in symbiotic (but not parasitical) ways. And the rest of TWA is great, esp. Kim craving oblivion in the record booth (as though taking Robert Palmer at his words), ringing up J Mascis – a mess, and not a Statement (even though the don’t know who Neu! were = UNCOOL thing is mildly bothersome), and all the better and happier for it.
Then come the guest stars (but Chuck D n’ Kim on Goo, COME ON!), the awkward re-tetherings, the oddly reassuring chart stars phase (Bruno Brookes grimacing his way through “Bull In The Heather” at #24 in the Fun (Nineteen Ninety) Forty) and then…well, what? Shelves and shelves of mouldy basement records on the inner of Washing Machine (yes? AND? This is 1994, guys n’ gals, DJ Shadow’s in the outside lane signalling to overtake – yes I know but, you know, this was 1994…), the inevitable descent into Wiredom and Proper Renowned Boundary Breaking Musicians Status (though A Thousand Leaves was a mildly elevating late surge) and then Esteemed Curators Of Our Hallmark Legacy and things like Murray Street and Sonic Nurse and Sitting Up Straight (At The Back Of Jim O'Rourke's Bus) and however many other records they’ve put out this last decade demoted them in my priorities to Charlatans/Costello/solid 95th album status, finally throttled by the past they’d built up (for?) themselves and in some ways throttling the potential futures of others.