Never heard anything by Sonic Youth?
They’re not exactly the biggest band in the world, rising as they did from the ashes of experimental New York art scenes, running for 30 years and then imploding in a haze of feedback and fractured relationships.
But on the other hand they’re one of the most influential guitar bands of all time, almost single handedley defining the phrase ‘alt.rock’ with some of the most exciting, off-kilter music the indie world has ever had the pleasure of listening to. So why haven’t you tracked them down yet? EH?
But where to start? The Yoof’s back catalogue is so vast and expansive it can be daunting to take that first step into the murky waters of their avant-rock brilliance. For every pop inflected semi-hit there’s a dozen obscure white noise vinyls, for every considered mid-tempo rock song a thunderous sub-minute grunge assault.
Thankfully, their 1990 album Goo turns 25 today, and it’s as good a place as any to start. The band’s first LP release on a major label, Goo marked a four year period of mainstream flirtation for the quartet. Regular play on MTV (including an edition of 120 Minutes hosted by Thurston Moore, featuring the most bizarre interview with a young Beck you’ll ever see), tours with (a then up-and-coming) Nirvana, and even a Kim Gordon fashion line went hand in hand with the slightly more melodic groove the band were easing themselves into after a string of discordant releases.
Here, we take a track by track look at the album that launched Sonic Youth into the wider consciousness. At least for a time anyway. The band actually released a video for each of the record’s tracks, so we’ll be including links to those too.
1. Dirty Boots
“A song about being on the road with a band with a van cutting the land.”
Opening with pleasant guitar overtones, ‘Dirty Boots’ was the song to introduce Goo to the world. Its opening guitar line dances across an unusual EGDGED tuning as Steve Shelley hammers a trademark motorik drumbeat, maraca in hand. It features one of the catchiest choruses in the Sonic Youth canon, with a backbeat that’s the closest thing SY have ever come to the baggy dancebeats of the Madchester scene, before exploding into a frivolous middle-8. It all ends with a wonky noise-outro, all whammy bar mutilation and squealing harmonics.
It’s also been suggested that U2, one of the biggest bands in the world, ripped off ‘Dirty Boots’ for their 2004 single ‘Vertigo’. You be the judge, but we think Bono and co owe rather a large debt.
2.Tunic (Song For Karen)
The warm embrace of the intro gives way to a crushing, two-note discordant guitar riff, before melting into the main body of ‘Tunic’, Goo’s track two. The Karen of the title is Karen Carpenter, singer and drummer of LA soft-rock duo the Carpenters, of whom Sonic Youth were big fans (their ‘most streamed’ track to date remains their cover of the Carpenters’ ‘Superstar’). Karen died in 1983 after a long battle with anorexia, and this song is sung from her perspective.
The track actually features Kim Gordon and Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis singing Carpenters songs. They’re buried deep in the mix within the instrumental midsection of the song, and you’ll have to strain to hear them, but they are there.
3. Mary- Christ
According to a 1990 live performance of this song, the most out and out punk track on Goo, Mary-Christ is written about a girl that Thurston Moore used to go ice skating with. This track thunders by on Steve Shelley’s powerful drumming, and features a middle noise-solo that would go on to become a trademark of the band in their slightly poppier years.
It all comes to a sludging close, and the outro features a sneak peak of the riff from the following track…
4. Kool Thing
Arguably the most well-known track off Goo (it even featured on 2007’s Guitar Hero 3), ‘Kool Thing’ is perhaps the most straightforward rock song across the 11 tracks.
Its working title during the demoing stage was ‘DV2’ in reference to the similarity in tuning it shared with ‘Death Valley ’69’ from Sonic Youth’s 1985 album Bad Moon Rising. The similarities don’t end their though; both were the ‘big’ singles of their respective LPs and both feature guest vocal performances. ‘Death Valley ’69’ features legendary no-waver Lydia Lunch while ‘Kool Thing’ features an improvised spoken word take from Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Originally, Kim Gordon envisaged LL Cool J in the same spot – the song references a number of the rapper’s works repeatedly and the video is styled after J’s ‘Going Back To Cali’ video.
The collaboration came about as Sonic Youth and Public Enemy were recording albums in the same studio. In an interview to (now defunct music mag) City Limits, Thurston Moore said: “Chuck was around, Kim asked him if he’d come in, do the song, say those lines –and he elaborated on it a bit, and grooved along.” Cool thing.
Named after the Sylvia Plath poem ‘The Eye-Mote’, this song sticks out on Goo for being two parts song to three parts noise-jam. It’s also the only song on the album fronted by the criminally overlooked Lee Ranaldo, consigned to one or two songs per album throughout SY history until 2009’s The Eternal saw an abundance of group harmonies enter the fray.
The often unnoticed songwriting brilliance of Ranaldo is on fine form on this album highlight, a brilliant blend of harmony and throttled guitar. This track is absolutely ferocious live, and the three-minute feedback outro is not to be taken lightly.
6. My Friend Goo
The closest thing to a two minute pop song you’ll get from SY, this track was written by Kim Gordon on guitar and is possibly the simplest composition on the record. The video was shot by Thurston Moore and features Kim and close friend of the band Joe Cole (whose death would go on to inspire future SY tracks 100% and JC) dancing and singing along to the song being played on a turntable.
Fun fact: Goo was a character in artist Raymond Pettibon’s film Sir Drone (the same artist who penned the album artwork for Goo, no less).
Goo’s second single rarely got a showing in the live setting, which is a shame, because it’s yet another highlight on a record full of ’em. The video features cross-dressing band members and silver, space-race suits as the track morphs from its downplayed beginnings into a hurricane of a middle-8.
As the band so often do on Goo (and on any number of their 16 studio albums), this track balances that fine line between indie-rock song and all out, guitar snapping barrage perfectly.
8. Mildred Pierce
Things get slightly weirder on ‘Mildred Pierce’, an instrumental (if you don’t include Thurston Moore’s pained closing screams as vocals) mid-album track that clocks in at just over two-minutes.
It builds gradually in discordant intensity, before crashing into a chaotic noise freak out that will catch headphone users unawares. Just be thankful the initial demo version that ran over eight minutes didn’t make the final cut.
9. Cinderella’s Big Score
Kim Gordon’s third and final front and centre performance on Goo comes in the form of ‘Cinderella’s Big Score’, a song filled with her trademark throaty delivery and an unnerving sense of rage bubbling just below the surface.
The video was shot by Dave Markey, a renowed concert documentarian and short filmaker of the time who would go on to create 1991: The Year Punk Broke, a film which follows Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Mudhoney et al on an 1991 festival tour across Europe. A must watch for fans.
10. Scooter + Jinx
Weird video. Weird song.
In an interview with Guitar Player in August of 1991, Thurston Moore explains just how he got those gutteral howling noises put to record: “For “Scooter and Jinx” I 10’ed everything on my amp. There’s no guitar, just amp sound, and at the end you can hear a pop where the amp blows up. We just ran it to tape, 24 tracks.”
The video is actually just the track set to a short film by underground photographer and filmmaker Richard Kern entitled Money Love. Scooter and Jinx were also characters in Raymond Pettibon’s Sir Drone.
11. Titanium Exposé
The album ends with ‘Titanium Exposé’, a chameleon of a track that builds slowly through screeching feedback, and rattles out of the gates at a hundred miles an hour, before dropping a few gears to a more leisurely pace.
It’s one of the more considered moments on Goo, showcasing Sonic Youth’s ability to pen a uniquely off-kilter pop song through a deliriously inventive structure. And of course, in true SY fashion it all finishes off with an almighty racket which seems to capture the studio sessions themselves coming to a turbulent end as wailing instruments check out one by one, the scratch of plectrum on string the final thing that the listener hears.