Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation – exploring 30 years of a landmark achievement


Sonic Youth (Credit:Artists Facebook page)

Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation is now 30 years old and with Getintothis hosting a Q & A screening of Lance Bangs Sonic Youth film at FACT, Getintothis’ Luke Halls explores a timeless record.

Boundary-pushers. Innovators. Pioneers. So much can be said about Sonic Youth, arguably one of the most influential music groups of the last 40 years.

Anyone invested in post-punk, avant-garde or, at a wider level, alternative rock will have come across Sonic Youth in some shape or form. From 1983 through to 2009 the group released a staggering 16 studio albums, all of which have had a direct impact on the way guitar music has been approached ever since.

The initial heartthrob for so many can be boiled down to a handful of overarching elements. Whether Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s insatiable obsession with pushing the limits of the electric guitar, Kim Gordon’s raw, wall-shattering vocals or Steve Shelley’s masterful percussive work, the band’s every facet set the musical landscape aflame in the 1980s.

For a band with such weight, importance and authority, October 2018 marked a particular milestone for both Sonic Youth and musical history. Daydream Nation, the group’s magnum opus, turned 30 years old.

In reflection of this anniversary, it’s somewhat whimsical to see photographs of the band today. With the exception of Shelley, the rest of Sonic Youth are now into their 60s. Visually, however, it seems as if neither Moore nor Gordon have aged a day over 40.

The same case very much applies to Daydream Nation. Even today, on the cusp of entering the 2020s, the album has an ageless, omnipresent character to it, a refusal to be ignored in the ever-expanding chronology of musical history.

Now a lot can be said for the enduring lifespan of many of the last century’s albums. Whether it’s The BeatlesRevolver, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn or Michael Jackson’s Thriller, there is indeed a certain breed of albums that have stood the test of time.

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It takes a lot, however, to shape the course of an entire genre, even movement, for decades to come. Daydream Nation is very much one of those albums, continuing to generate a ground-shaking impact that still pulses through the bloodlines of guitar music today.

Any music historian will tell you that stateside alternative music had its true blossoming in the 1980s. From Minneapolis, home to The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, all the way down to California, birthplace of Black Flag, the approach taken to guitar music was aggressively changing in response to the rise of its electronic counterpart.

As synth-first tunes took the world by storm, a vacuum was left for a new wave of guitar bands to fill. Bridging the contemporary with the popular was a growing challenge as the guitar was losing its authority in the world of pop.

However, one east coast city would act as a breeding ground to the next generation of acts destined to fill the void.

The city was New York, the epicentre of this musical phenomenon and playground to Blondie, Ramones, Television, Talking Heads and, of course, Sonic Youth. The list goes on and on.

Towards the end of the 80s, Sonic Youth had more than developed into a force to reckon with, especially amongst their fellow contemporaries. It was within the confines of Green Street Studios during the summer of 1988, though, that the band would begin to enter their collective prime.

Between July and August, the group bore down on the production of their fifth studio album. Engineered by Nick Sansano (who had also worked on the production of Public Enemy’s Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos), Daydream Nation took three weeks to come to life.

Daydream Nation

From the outset, the way the album was later packaged and presented tells tales itself.

Gerhard Richter’s Kertz adorns the front cover, a portal into the band’s most ambitious project of the decade. For vinyl consumers, the album opens up to actually reveal two LPs, with each LP side featuring a cryptic symbol that represents one of the four band members.

For the eagle-eyed, they’re also something of an Easter egg, a call back to (or parody of?) Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, which features four runes on its cover.

In another throwback to the past, a once-working title for Daydream Nation was Tonight’s The Day; a reference to Neil Young‘s Tonight’s The Night – another similarly groundbreaking and unique record and one that Sonic Youth lyically touched upon in the track Candle.

For the time, the double album release was slowly disappearing in the wake of the CD, increasingly associated with the 70s rock titans of yesteryear (think The Who, Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull).

For Sonic Youth, though, the choice of the format (on one level) falls far from that lineage. There was a sense of the tide turning back to an extent.

Along with Husker Du’s Zen Arcade and The Minutemen’s Double NIckels On The Dime- both double albums as well– Daydream Nation firmly rejects the naive and arguably hypocritical scorched-earth stance of punk, and forged a new path forward. Double albums and longer more improvised tracks could be innovative and avoided the cul-de sacs and dead ends of both prog and punk.

It’s said that Sonic Youth wrote Daydream Nation through lengthy jam sessions taking cues from their developing live sets.

Over its lifetime, the band won fans with enormous improvised interludes and walls of noise, crushing and fragmenting tracks then picking up the pieces and gluing them back together. This was not punk. They’d moved on from that.

This is where the other New York, the other side to Blondie, Ramones and the rest lay. This is where and when Sonic Youth directly evoked the sounds and principles of post-bop jazz; late-era John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra et al.

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With the time afforded by a double album, Sonic Youth finally had the opportunity to bring an authentic distillation of their live experience to the record, sewing together both their capabilities as songwriters and performance artists.

Prior to the band’s infancy, Ranaldo and Moore had partaken in the dissonant guitar symphonies of New York-based composer Glenn Branca.

This in turn lead to their voyage into the world of alternate guitar tunings. It further fuelled their experimentation with sound, aggressive-sounding chords and melodies channelled through wailing attacks of distortion and overdrive.

Dissonance remains a core trait of Sonic Youth’s discography through and through. For a wider, more commercial audience, however keeping listeners engaged with these broken, unstable melodies was a whole other nut to crack. Daydream Nation marked the moment where the band would bridge the enormous cavity between accessibility and the avant-garde, a challenge yet properly overcome.

By placing their harsh-sounding music into the context of time-tested popular music structures, Sonic Youth masterfully interwove their writing ambitions into Daydream Nation. All the same contemporary chord work remained, but it was finally given the space to come into its own.

The album is also celebrated for its brooding lyricism. Informed by Ronald Reagan’s term as US President, it assumes an anti-capitalist stance.

Gordon explores the nuances of 80s feminism, examining the state of prostitution in New York (“Come on down to the store, you can buy some more and more and more and more”) and the treatment of women in the music industry.

Moore visualises an alternate reality where Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis is President and rock n’ roll reigns supreme, while Ranaldo delves into New York’s art history and offers surrealist imagery of dystopian futures.

Album opener Teen Age Riot instantly sets the tone, a patchwork of guitars jumping from gentle, clean chords to gritty rock n’ roll raucous.

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Swift successor Silver Rocket shows signs of the album’s gradual evolution: Ranaldo and Moore are animated by jolts of electricity, exhibiting a choppy, four-chord progression later interjected by an overwhelmingly angry middle break. You can perfectly visualise the distortion being cranked and guitars being thrashed, thrown around and abused within an inch of their lives – archetypal Sonic Youth.

The Sprawl and ‘Cross the Breeze see Gordon in her prime. On the latter, the songstress struggles with an ambiguous internal struggle (readings allude to it being religious, political or even drug-related).

Meanwhile, Shelley, Moore and Ranaldo powerfully build tension with broad musical dynamism. Musicality goes hand-in-hand with lyrical content in more aggressive moments: ‘Just too quick, now I think I’m gonna be sick, I wanna know should I stay or go?’

Thrashing through the dystopian (Eric’s Trip, Hey Joni) and the experimental (Providence), the album culminates in the 14 minute-long Trilogy; a post-rock flurry encapsulating everything the band set out to achieve on Daydream Nation.

A). The Wonder sees Moore and Ranaldo intertwine with dissonance as Moore recollects a danger-fraught New York City. B). Hyperstation appears as a slowly building drug-induced hallucination, leading way to album closer Z). Elminator, Jr., one of the record’s most tense moments. This final track examines Robert Chambers, the “Preppy Killer” – a murderer from NYC in the 1980s – closing up shop on a harrowing note.

How does the album thematically fit in today? There is a painstakingly obvious parallel between the album’s political context and waning public opinion of a certain Mr. Trump.

Musically, it’s already been made clear how much its tonality, expressionism and clever thinking paved the way for future releases.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s perfectly logical to suggest that Daydream Nation paved the way to Nirvana’s Nevermind, which in turn opened the alternative floodgates to the mainstream.

This resultant influx is largely credited to Cobain and co., but the reality, for those in the know, certainly lies further up the family tree. A relevant record for a turbulent time indeed: to Sonic Youth, we are infinitely indebted.

And while we still hear echoes of both Daydream Nation and Sonic Youth over and over again with new artists, a measure of their influence also worked backwards.

In an ironic twist, it’s unlikely that Neil Young would have recorded the Arc album, a record consisting only of live feedback, a 35 minute track, had he not had Sonic Youth support him on tour. Listening to every album that Young has recorded since and Sonic Youth‘s influence shines through, sometimes brightly, sometimes faintly, but it’s always there.

30 years later, and there’s still so much of Daydream Nation to pick apart, reflect upon and take meaning from.

On February 27 Liverpool’s  FACT will be screening exerpts from director Lance Bangs’ Sonic Youth concert film, Daydream Nation showing the band performing the titular double album in Glasgow on Aug 21-22, 2007.

Bangs blends HD footage shot in Glasgow with fragments of personal Super 8mm and 16mm from his archives of Sonic Youth over the decades. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with drummer Steve Shelley, Lance Bangs, music historian Steve Shepherd and will be hosted by Getintothis’ Rick Leach.

Also on the bill is Charles AtlasPut Blood In The Music, a 1989 documentary on the New York music scene which features Kim and co in the period following the recording of Daydream Nation.