Music: Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth

Gone Native

Long-lasting farewell from New York underground was the result of this record. Not because of betrayed ideals but in consequence of the penetrating power of Sonic Youth's 1988 work. In a period of pop cultural rebuilding they hit a nerve and set down the yardstick on a melange of noise, pop, experiment and avant-garde. With a transgressive approach of both conservation and subversion one breathtaking peak of electric guitar music was formed around the couple of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. 25 years after it is time to re-listen.

by Kilian

going nowhere? – a brief prologue on late 80s tenor 

Different from usual let's frankly begin this excursion into pop culture materialistically, that is with the social realities: In the last post-war decade world politics deal with unsettled relations of power and ideology, violence is flaming up in many parts of the world, certainties become unsure. And the United States are, of course, in the thick of it. After eight years the First Persian Gulf War in which the U.S. massively supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq against the Islamic Republic of Iran ends with a UN ceasefire involving heavy losses on both sides. At the same time U.S. intelligence and military interfere in Latin American political struggles to put down leftist governments and anti-American movements in countries such as Grenada, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama. 

Domestically, Republican Ronald Reagan, president-in-office since 1981, asserts a neoliberal agenda which deregulates financial and other markets, lowers taxes, cuts social welfare benefits and pushes back labor unions. Under his administration the income gap between the nation's wealthiest 10% and the rest becomes wider than with any president in the previous decades while the lower 50%'s income flatlines – a tendency still distinct today. Poverty once more gains ground, especially in the big cities. In some areas the number of the jobless, homeless and those living under the breadline increases alarmingly. The slums teem with criminality, drug traffic and littering and whole districts become messy cesspools – with the proud and brawny New York City leading the way. In November 1988 George Bush senior is elected president. Although his administration deradicalises Reagan's measures his attempts remain the same at root.

Outside the Cold War continues. Warsaw Pact and NATO are highly armed opposing each other, a vast number of nuclear warheads and intercontinental missiles are still ready for World War III. But after more than forty years of world wide confrontation between the two super powers the tide is turning. For quite some time the Soviet communist block is on a trajectory towards an economic breakdown and thus a disaster is looming for the second most powerful world empire. As we know this finally results in the end of the West's long-time arch enemy that leaves behind a scene of devastation which has to face a new and confusing clash of interests in the former Soviet realm.

In the midst of these conditions the 80s mainly yield a depressing mood that is pop-culturally either compensated with the petering out of 70s glam kitsch or endured with help of new forms of expression. And of course pop culture thereby reflects to the point – whether intentionally or not – what's going on. Punk more and more becomes useless since the overall apocalypse for which its ethos should prepare doesn't happen and the personal apocalypses inspired by it are not half of the rebellion against the parental bourgeois milieu they started as. Contemporary life seems to be more confusing than nihilistic, so punk finally breaks. What is left? There is no wave to tackle new wave. Whereas new wave appears to be much too arty and optimistic to many artists no wave regains the sombre and fatalistic tone of post-punk. In parts this leads to experimental drafts that connect with germinal alternative rock. Albeit the latter is musically conservative in instrumentation and structure its lyrics often grasp the latest and most relevant topics of modern life. Besides the grunge wave begins with a bit of punk's desperation and a bit of alternative rock's ambitions, but altogether and in long terms it is not overly fruitful. Much more important may be the first stirrings of 90s and 2000s indie rock for which Sonic Youth should be eminently important. With Daydream Nation we are in the year of 1988 and finally get to the gist of the matter. However this needs another prologue.

Sonic starts

Since Thurston Moore had moved from his New England home town of Bethel in Connecticut to New York City at the age of 19 he played in various bands. In the late 1970s he had jam sessions with musician and actress Stanton Miranda. It was her who put him in touch with Kim Gordon, a mid-twenties yet uncommitted artist who had finished art school in Los Angeles and brought some of her band experience to New York where she was attracted by the city's dawning no wave scene. Moore and Gordon became a couple and officially formed their band in 1981 under the name Sonic Youth. They met guitarist Lee Ranaldo playing at Manhattan's alternative art White Columns Gallery and found their steady drummer Steve Shelley a couple of years later. 

Their first and self-titled EP was released in 1982 followed by the destructive, noisy and yet eagerly ambitious full-length album Confusion is Sex in 1983. In response to the 80s' disillusioning inner and outer State of the Union Bad Moon Rising (1985) then explored America's viscid mental hinterlands. Clustering sounds emulsify and form a persistent texture of ghostly and frigid atmosphere. At that point Sonic Youth definitely manage to arouse their new sound through well-elaborated guitar tunings, a more complex song writing and better recording techniques. But it still took the band a further two albums to be keyed to Daydream Nation. In 1986 EVOL was released with experimental material that came closer and closer to a presciently innovative pop sound until the vigorous Sister followed one year later. By now the band's songs had gained a catchy pop structure which changed their no-wave-face to a more convoluted but clear-sighted avant-pop and experimental tone.

Sonic Youth were kept an underground experience for a long time. It was not until the mid 80s as the band got media attention. The New York press remained indifferent towards the city's no wave scene in years. However the late 80s brought them their first New York Times article and music journalists were keen-eared from now on. Before Sonic Youth had changed their label several times. After contracts with various indie houses they signed with record company Universal's rock branch Geffen. The major deal was offered after Daydream Nation proved to be a considerable commercial success. Vocals were portioned out among frontman Thurston Moore, bassist Kim Gordon and guitarist Lee Ranaldo. All members learned to handle more than one instrument so that everyone would contribute a widespread arsenal of sounds and textures both live and in the studio.

Song writing benefited from long and much-praised jams and a routine of Moore offering a harmonic structure with which the band then could experiment. Nonetheless most of the songs had already been strongly outlined when their fifth studio album was recorded in the summer of 1988 within thirty days at Greene St. Recording in SoHo, Manhattan. The location was chosen because of its short distance from the band's apartments and of the fact that many influential hip hop albums of the 80s (and then in the 90s as well) had been recorded there, e.g. by Run D.M.C., Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Beastie Boys. With a full length of 70 minutes it became the band's longest album. The twelve songs were released on four vinyl sides as a double album with tracks ranging from 2:41 to 14 minutes.

topography of the animated mind

A detuned guitar prefaces the opening Teen Age Riot, analogously phase shifted and equipped with patching drum bites. Wooden sticks click subdued eighth notes on a drum's rim until a soft beat emerges. Kim Gordon disperses the segments of an introductory phrase that concentrates in an echo: spirit desire / we will fall. The intro silently fades as it had begun to make way for a new, pushing riff that sets free the stated rebellion. A cascade of guitars and drums crescendos, then verse and chorus start. The uproar is fun, a juvenile adventure as it takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed. Jocular and boozy nights never seem to end, lights are turned on: we're off the streets now / and back on the road / on the riot trail.

Riding the Silver Rocket a distorted guitar exalts in a thrilling punk manner. This naturally ends up in crying noise until the main riff is resurrected. Thereafter the song is finished, straightforward and hard-edged, with not more than three and a half minutes one of the shortest in the repertoire. Widely unrelated with that but not less impelling, even agitated and a lot more uneasy The Sprawl weaves a net of claustrophobic timbre. While Kim Gordon's first line (to the extent that I wear skirts and cheap nylon slips I've gone native) yet boils down to ironic wit the rest must be misleading. The fallacy lies in its discomfort. Her voice is both aggressive and anxious shouting I wanted to know the exact dimension of hell / does this sound simple? And we aren't left in the dark much longer where all this originates as the chorus ambushes: come on down to the store / you can buy some more and more and more and more. Along these lines the last stanza makes the chased and urged soul comprehensible: I grew up in a shotgun row / sliding down the hill / out front were the big machines / steel and rusty now I guess / outback was the river / and that big sign down the road / that's where it all started. Musically, this puts a subsequent seesawing instrumental part of more than four minutes in motion.

In the original release of the vinyl LP Cross the Breeze introduces side two of four. Here again it is Kim Gordon's vocals wrapped in disturbing, restless and turbulent sound, concurrently uncertain and concrete. Unlike the female bassist in this song guitarist Lee Ranaldo's voice is an often underappreciated part of the band's appeal. With solid and warm certitude he manages to bring forward the vital impetus of Sonic Youth's energizing character: I can't see anything at all / all I see is me / that's clear enough / that's what's important / to see me // my eyes can focus / my brain is talking / it looks pretty good to me / my head's all straight / my girlfriend's beautiful / it looks pretty good to me. On that note the modern pop-epos of Eric's Trip, fifth song of the record, proves to be one of the album's highlights. Apart from Ranaldo's voice it is a pop-cultural reference which generates its crucial distinction. Some of the song's lines are inspired by musician and actor Eric Emerson, a 1960s and 70s member of Andy Warhol's art collective The Factory. He and his monologue – held under the influence of space drug LSD – appeared in Warhol's 1966 experimental film Chelsea Girls. With lyrics and sound (we tore down the world and put up four walls / I breathe in the myth / I'm over the city, fucking the future / I'm high and inside your kiss) the band relates to this work of three and a half hours of split screen sequences filmed at Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. There, Warhol staged several members of New York's contemporary art scene and employed music by befriended band The Velvet Underground. 22 Years later it is Sonic Youth, often considered the heir and successor of Velvet Underground, whose adaptation re-narrates a hallucinatory trip: I see with a glass eye / the pavement view / a shadow forming, across the fields rushing / through me to you. Not very different from the movie there is a hint of estranging self-aggrandizement (she thinks she's a goddess / she says she talks to the spirits / I wonder if she can talk to herself / if she can bear to hear it) as well as adventurous visual perception (hold these pages up to the light / see the jackknife inside of the dream). Be it Warhol or Sonic Youth, the maxim of New York's avant-garde is simple: we make up what we can't hear.

Far from this the album's sole piano appears on Providence. Thurston Moore recorded himself playing at his mother's house in Connecticut. The cassette record is superimposed by an answering machine tape from Thurston and Kim's home. Mike Watts, a befriended musician calls from the city of Providence in Rhode Island and asks about instrument cables Moore had bought the day before. Some amplifier's noise swooshes through the impressionist melody as the message's banality becomes an ornate collage of trivial action. After that a beautiful and clean guitar picking turns into a fine all-instruments arrangement in the album cover's eponymous and easygoing track Candle just to be followed by the earnest Rain King, a roaring stirrer of familiarly overdriven sound. Three minutes later the record ends with a 14-minutes Trilogy, a rousing connection of three unlike songs. In the beginning The Wonder roughens the ground so that Hyperstation can fill the opened space with a shivery incantation: all coming from female imagination / daydreaming days in a daydream nation / […] / it's an anthem in a vacuum on a hyperstation / daydreaming days in a daydream nation. Finally the wired and psyched up Eliminator Jr. does the rest to leave us with widely scattered and vibrant sentiments about this exceptional work.

daydreams in days of imagination

The album earned perfect scores and rare reviews and was included in many greatest-albums-of-...-lists. In 2005 it was admitted to the U.S. Library of Congress' National Record Registry, a sound archive of records considered important for life in the United States. It not only foreshadowed the style of the beginning 90s but also influenced indie rock of the decade to come - up to its extensions in the 2000s and 2010s.

With their manipulatively prepared guitars that from time to time are plied with drum sticks or violin bows and thus are perfectly suited for distorted noise parts Sonic Youth can doubtlessly be ranged among the grand acts of noise rock. But the band's rock straightness and its punk attitude towards aesthetic conventions equally originates alternative rock. Nonetheless they defiantly abide by the rules qua rich and upright colportages of the lo-fi standard given and at the same time overstep bounds with powerful and drifting guitars that sabotage the 70s new wave sound to the 80s no wave. As if this wasn't enough the album enriches experimental rock in a (for the most part) non-electronized manner. Ultimately the songs' pop structure – often employing the scheme verse-chorus-verse-bridge-solo/experimental – unites noise parts and largely unusual guitar tunings with pop elements to a more than rare timbre.

Sonic Youth's sound is a daydream of no wave, noise, alternative, experimental and avant-garde soundscapes in which a depressed country imploringly and unhesitatingly likes to put itself in. But the daydream merely is what it can be imagined as. Thus the album only provides the acoustic and lyric bites for whatever purpose possible. In 1988 it precisely was that nation of jaded, surfeited and disillusioned civilians who needed an outbreak from a boring and unpleasant reality. In whatever state, mood or condition the record might be re-listened it will be able to gain a completely different dream figure of what has already been known. It then would stir up the imagination in any conceivable direction. German artist Gerhard Richter provided Daydream Nation's album cover, a painting called Kerze (candle) from 1982. It depicts a candle in a realist, as if photographed and yet impressionist way. The gloaming light weighs heavy as a clear shape is silhouetted against a blurry surrounding. The candle is a dream, one version, the frontal imagination. We can find ourselves in such a dream at any time. And each time it blends with what we listeners carry with us in this pale and dim light. As it is a daydream, half asleep, half waking.

sources of pictures 

Daydream Nation album cover