Dirty. Sonic Youth.
1992, DGC. Producer: Butch Vig and Sonic Youth
IN A NUTSHELL – Crazy, noisy, punky rock that sounds orchestral, powerful and catchy – even if not everyone in the band can actually sing or play their instruments properly. The sound is the thing, and this record has sounds galore.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It had a little more diversity, and if some of the really lousy songs had been left off.
When I was a freshman in high school I played trombone in the marching band. I’ve written about this before, but to recap: the trombone players rode on the same bus as the drummers, who were nearly to a person obsessed with Neil Peart, the drummer from Rush. This meant I heard a lot of Rush, and the music took hold and I became a fan.
My oldest sister had, by this time, moved out of the house, and I noticed that she’d left behind an old milk carton crate, a forgotten must-have from the album era, highly prized and often-stolen from convenience stores and dairies because they were seemingly designed by record companies to be the perfect size to store a few dozen albums. In fact, some states outlawed these crates’ use for containing anything other than milk, such was the burden that crazed album enthusiasts placed on the dairy industry in their attempts to hold all that rock!
But anyway, I found my sister’s old crate of albums, and somewhere in that red, Turkey Hill-labeled, high-density polyethylene treasure chest I noticed a particular album by a particular Canadian band …
It was a live album, Exit … Stage Left, and it was a veritable Greatest Hits package, with live versions1 of the biggest and best songs from the band’s late 70s/early 80s heyday.
I played it regularly on my family’s old record player in our musty, unfinished basement, but I soon found this situation very limiting. I needed to listen to the music in places besides my dank basement. I wanted to play it on my mini-“boom box,” so I could take it with me. I’m sure if I had asked the good folks at Mercury Records, the record label selling Exit … Stage Left, what I could do about this problem of mine, they’d have happily told me, “Don’t worry! We sell cassette tapes of all your favorite Mercury artists! Just head on down to your favorite record store and pick one up for $7.99! That’s a buck less than vinyl!”
For you youngsters, this all took place in the early 80s, well before the dawn of digital music. It’s common nowadays to think that Napster and Limewire and other such services were the beginnings of music theft. But these sites merely made it easy. In the analog days of the 70s and 80s, if you wanted to steal music you turned to cassettes.
Analog record-to-cassette “borrowing” is to digital music “file sharing” what an intricately planned heist is to online credit card theft. Both are crimes, but one takes planning, resourcefulness and creativity, while the other simply requires a modem. A criminal who pulls off a bank heist, while surely a crook, can be viewed with some healthy admiration. Okay, sure, I wouldn’t want my kids to grow up to be one, but I can review everything that went into scoring a heist and think, “wow, that person really worked their butt off to get that dough!”
However, an online thief is simply a lazy turd.
And as much as I’ve been guilty of both music-related crimes (allegedly), I think it holds true that digital music theft (while now thoroughly ingrained in modern culture) is for lazy turds.
In the case of the planning and execution of the crime of stealing music analog-style, the first thing you needed was a cassette recorder. In the early 70s, cassette tape recorders became a bit of a fad.
They were handheld, with a cool microphone that you could thrust in front of a friend or parent to play investigative reporter, a Presidential Current Events-inspired pastime for kids in the Watergate era2. However, as The Brady Bunch superbly demonstrated, a misused tape recorder had the power to hurt others, as well.
And there was no greater misuse of a handheld cassette recorder than that of trying to record music. I recall dangling that microphone in front of a radio playing a favorite song, or placing it on the floor in front of the stereo console, then listening back to the tape and thinking, “This sucks.” The product was fuzzy-sounding, monaural, and immune to modification by playback controls such as treble and bass. Plus if you happened to cough or speak during the recording process, your tape was ruined.
These recordings sucked so bad that it soon became clear to electronics manufacturers that the public demanded – copyright law be damned – that their pirated music sound as good as possible. And the average listener didn’t have the dough to spend, or time to waste, on hooking up high-falutin’ reel-to-reel contraptions to the family stereo. So the stereo manufacturers started building cassette recorders right into the console itself, where it could perform its recording magic within its electronic guts.
This meant a music thief could simply drop a blank cassette tape into the console, place a record on the platen, and press record – a simplification that inched the practitioner closer to the Lazy Turd status of thieves.
Except for one thing: The Blank Cassette Tape itself!
You couldn’t just drop any old tape into the console. The blank cassette had to be chosen carefully. The first consideration was the length of the tape, measured by time. 3
The cassette tape manufacturers provided options in 30 minute increments, from 30 up to 120. The tapes were called “C-30,” or “C-60,” etc, depending on their length, but for most album recording projects, 90 minutes was perfect. This provided the thief with two 45-minute sides to load up with music.4
For a double album, like Exit … Stage Left, one 90-minute cassette would hold the entire 77-minute record, but it wasn’t perfect. There would be about 4 minutes of blank space at the end of each side of the cassette, meaning that on playback I’d have to fast-forward at the end of album sides 2 and 4 before flipping the cassette to hear the next side. This fast-forwarding was stressful on the physical tape, and helped to degrade the sound on the cassette quite quickly.
I wrote earlier that this process never really felt like “stealing,” but everyone knew it was. The cool 80s New Wave band Bow Wow Wow (of “I Want Candy” fame) actually recorded a paean to album theft by cassette called “C30 C60 C90 Go!.” It was the world’s first cassette single, and included a blank Side Two so folks could record their own “B” track. The big record companies weren’t amused.
Another consideration in theft planning was blank cassette quality. There are certain products one can buy whose quality is generally independent of the manufacturer. Store-brand plastic utensils, or yellow mustard, or spiral-bound notebooks will most likely be indistinguishable in performance from their more expensive, name-brand counterparts. Cassettes, however, did NOT fall into this category. Buy a set of 5 Ames-brand 90-minute cassettes for the price of one Maxell tape, and you’ll find yourself with about 30 total minutes of decent-sounding music. The rest will hiss and fade and sound not much better than that product from the dangling microphone5.
But back to my quest to get live Rush onto my boom box. I bought some 90 minute blank cassettes6 and planned my heist for a weeknight when I didn’t have band practice or much homework. Our stereo was in the basement, so that my dad could listen to his Big Band albums and whistle along while he tied fishing lures or built muzzle-loader rifles down there. I went downstairs and got to work. I popped in a cassette, played the records (loudly, so I could enjoy them) and pressed the “Record” button. Seventy-seven minutes later, the deed was done.
I finished the job by meticulously writing song titles on the blank cover provided with the cassettes, and by gently placing cassette stickers (also provided) on both sides of my cassette. And there it was: the music from a vinyl album was ready to be played on my mini boom box. I climbed the stairs satisfied.
When I opened the basement door my dad was seated at the kitchen table, near the top of the stairs.
“I don’t know what you call that crap,” he said, “but it sure isn’t music.”
“It isn’t music,” he said. I am still confused by his words.
Knowing my dad, and how indirect he always was with his communications, I think what he meant to say was: “I’m angry because I wanted to go downstairs and tie fishing lures, but you were blaring music down there so I felt uncomfortable, and I don’t feel like a father should have to ask a son to turn off music – I feel like my son should know not to play loud music when I want to be in the same room – so now I’ve just been sitting and stewing up here, and eating 4 apples and hunks of Muenster cheese, and the more I hear that guy screaming on that record, the more it makes me think I’m a failure for not going down and telling you to turn it off, and not getting you interested in tying flies, and not teaching you to like good music in the first place, but I don’ t know how to express all that bullshit so I’ll just claim it isn’t music instead of addressing what I really feel, which is hereditary-based depression manifested by indecision and self-doubt.”
Instead he said “It Isn’t Music.” It still doesn’t make any sense.
Because what IS music in the first place? I’ve spent too much time already blabbing about stealing music to delve very deeply into this question, but I do have a few thoughts.
Clearly, music is sound organized in such a way so as to be pleasing to hear. But “pleasing” is only pleasing because you’ve been conditioned to find it so. Consider that there are a billion people in the world who recognize this as some of the most pleasing music ever produced. And there are 2 billion people who instantly recognize this as pleasing7, too. Even more astounding, there are billions of people on Earth who DO NOT recognize THIS as pleasing!!! Furthermore, consider all the billions of Homo sapiens who have ever lived on Earth, and those still living today, come to think of it, and think if “pleasing” would be the word they’d use to describe this! Clearly, music doesn’t have to be pleasing to a listener to be considered music.
My dad was wrong: that crap he heard WAS music, and he knew it was music. It just wasn’t pleasing to him.
I hear stuff all the time that makes me wonder, “who in their right mind would ever find this pleasing?8” In particular, I’m thinking about “avant garde” type stuff, by artists who I admittedly have never allowed myself to explore too deeply. The Sun Ra Arkestra, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, or Captain Beefheart.
I have a low tolerance for such noisy and, to my ears, nonsensical stuff. However, as with all art, I have a respect for the artists performing it. I like the people who do the weird stuff9, even if I don’t appreciate their art.
. I think of them as modern day PT Barnums, daring critics to admit their stuff is bullshit and thus risk being seen as not intellectual or sophisticated enough to “get it,” and in the process shining a light on the ridiculousness that is Arts Criticism in the first place.
Of course it could just be that I’m not intellectual or sophisticated enough to “get it.” Or maybe my tastes just differ from the people that like that stuff.
A band that fell into this category of musical PT Barnum for me was New York City’s Too-Cool-For-You Sonic Youth. I first started hearing their name in college, in the late 80s. I heard they were punk, loud, noisy … As a prog-rock and Beatles snob at the time, they sounded exactly like the type of band I’d hate.
I recall in the Fall of 1989 seeing part of an episode of a great old TV show of the era, the late Sunday night NBC program Night Music, hosted by David Sanborn, in which eclectic musical acts played live. The episode featured, among others, The Indigo Girls and Sonic Youth. I don’t know why I watched, but it was most likely to see The Indigo Girls, whose song “Closer to Fine” was currently being played on rock radio. I remember seeing this performance by Sonic Youth and thoroughly hating them.
“That’s not music,” I’m sure I thought.10
About six months later I’d become friends with one of the biggest music taste influencers of my life, punk rocker Eric V. His band mate at the time, Don, had performed on that episode of Night Music, banging on the keyboards with Sonic Youth. Eric and I shared a house and worked together and got to be very good friends. I never got him to share my enthusiasm for Van Halen or Yes or Rush, but he opened my ears to many, many acts I grew to love: The New York Dolls, Nirvana, The Plimsouls, Stiff Little Fingers…
He initially failed to get me interested in Sonic Youth. I’d seen too much of them on TV the year before to be swayed. But they had a new record out, he said, called Goo, and he was sure there was some stuff in there I’d enjoy. He played me the songs “Dirty Boots,” and “Kool Thing,” and I went out and bought the CD. A couple years later Dirty hit the stores, and I bought it the first week it came out.
Sonic Youth are an unusual band in that the guitarists, Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore, don’t tune their guitars. Well – they’re tuned, but rarely in a traditional fashion. And they don’t always play chords or notes, per se, with those alternate tunings. They are just as likely to bang them against the ground or smash them together, or rub tools against their strings, or simply shake them in front of an amp and let the feedback howl and wail. Or they may wedge a few items among the strings, then play some chords that way. Frankly, I don’t know what the hell they do to get the sounds they get. What I do know is that when Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore was asked to be part of The Backbeat Band in 1993 – a band comprised of alt-rock 90s stars hired to record a soundtrack of versions of early Beatles (non-Lennon/McCartney) hits, like “Twist and Shout” and “Money” for the film Backbeat – Moore claimed he couldn’t remember the last time he played traditional chords on a traditionally-tuned guitar.
All that craziness can cause outrage among some music fans. The brother of frequent 100FaveAlbums character and long-time friend of mine Dr. Dave and some friends saw Sonic Youth open for Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 1991, and returned from the show with palpable fury in their voices, hatred in their eyes and a sense of accomplishment in their demeanor at having booed the band off the stage after a few songs’ worth of tool-gouging, amp smashing ridiculousness.
I’ve never seen the band live, and I don’t know what I’d think of them live, but I do know that when I hear what they produce on record, much of it sounds soaring, symphonic and powerful, with great melodies and some of the best rock drumming I’ve heard. All these characteristics are on display on Dirty.
The album opens with “100%.”
This is a great song both to open the album, and to introduce a listener to the sound that is Sonic Youth. It’s a catchy, poppy song in which the noisiness is mostly relegated to the background. (Except for the first 15 seconds of the song!) Those 15 seconds end with Steve Shelley’s drums bringing order to the chaos, a role he expertly fills throughout the album. The Sonic Youth noise can sound disorganized, but when the band puts breaks into a song – for example, at 0:50 and again at 1:53 – it demonstrates there is a scheme to what’s happening, and also helps reorient the listener’s brain to it. And Shelley continues to provide the order. Kim Gordon’s bass also is key in Sonic Youth’s musical plan by keeping the noise tied to a backbeat. But I wouldn’t enjoy all that noise if the melody wasn’t catchy, and what I love about this record is that most of the melodies are. Thurston Moore sings this song, about the band’s deceased roadie Joe Cole, who was killed in an armed robbery. The band also salutes Cole on the cool-sounding, stream-of-consciousness groove of “JC“.
Sonic Youth melodies can come from the vocals or from the instruments – even through all that background tumult! A good example is my favorite song on Dirty, “Sugar Kane.”
“Sugar Kane” opens with an orchestral flourish, sounding like a disturbed symphony’s fanfare, then breaks into the four-note riff that drives the song. But those weirdly-tuned guitars make that riff sound full, and the extra embellishments by guitarists Moore and Lee Ranaldo stand out against them. It’s a very musical noise. Moore again carries vocal duties, singing about … well, I don’t know. Cocaine? Love?11 But when he gets to the chorus, at about 1:10, the guitar plays a repeated, noodley line that has always drawn me right into the song, and then the band exits the chorus (1:25) with two emphatic chords and a flanged exit back to the verse. After two verses, another common Sonic Youth tactic is employed – the noise/freakout interlude. These freakouts often sit where other bands would insert a guitar or piano solo. This one starts at about 2:32, with that disturbed fanfare from the beginning of the song. There is a bit of guitar soloing in there, and it all collapses around some church chime-like amplifier noise (3:20), and then softly plucked guitar lines (3:30) softly bring the band back to the melody. I find all this noise and fury and changing dynamics quite compelling and stirring. It’s very classical-music-sounding to me, which probably indicates how limited my knowledge of classical music is! Within that noise, sounds emerge that are big and important, like a symphony. I may not have any idea what notes the band is playing, or how I’d ever try to reproduce it on my own guitar, but it is a sound that connects with me. And if it does all that, it must be music, right?
Perhaps the most symphonic-sounding songs on the record is “Teresa’s Sound World.”
The song builds and releases (eg 1:37 to 2:37) throughout. The lyrics are again rather indecipherable. Yet all that cacophony somehow connects with me. And while it sounds like random noise, there’s nothing random about it. A photo of Ranaldo’s prepared amp used for “Teresa’s Sound World” shows that there is some method to the madness.
But not all Sonic Youth songs contain inscrutable lyrics. Another side of the band – befitting their punk rock roots – is their fierce, left-leaning, socially-conscious lyrics.12 Bassist Kim Gordon, wife (until recently) of Thurston Moore, frequently sings the political songs. My favorite Kim song on Dirty is “Shoot,” an abused woman’s perspective on domestic violence, and her dream of retribution.
The music behind the lyrics is menacing and creepy, and explodes into violence, particularly between 3:00 and 3:40. As always, Shelley holds it all together. Gordon isn’t exactly a singer – I guess she’s more of a vocalist. But I’ve stated many times that I’m comfortable with vocalists that aren’t talented singers. Her delivery in this song enhances the effect of the lyrics. Gordon also “sings” the feminist anti-objectification/harassment song “Swimsuit Issue.”
My favorite Gordon-vocal song on the record is “On the Strip.”
It’s a straight-ahead SY song, with good harmonies, and a great guitar hook behind the “Hold Tight” lyrics of the chorus. It also features a patented SY noise-break (2:46 – 4:27) that sounds as much like a plane crash as anything on a pop album since Pink Floyd included the sound of an actual plane crash on The Wall.
“Youth Against Fascism” is a political song sung by Moore, railing against the first Bush presidency and its first Iraq war.
It features Fugazi mastermind, Ian MacKaye, playing a scraping, keening, guitar line beneath the vocals. It’s a catchy song with a catchy vocal hook, “It’s the song I hate! It’s the song I hate.” In fact, even with all the noise, it may be the most “normal” sounding song on the record. Shelley lays down a great drum beat, one can hum along and shout the chorus … It’s so normal, you could imagine Fall Out Boy covering this song, which may mean it’s very bad, or very good. I’m not sure. But it’s definitely not something you’d typically hear about a Sonic Youth song.
Other tracks I must mention on this lengthy album – so long that it would just BARELY fit on a C60 cassette if I were back in my parents’ old basement stealing music – include “Chapel Hill,” the opening riff of which always makes me smile. Once again I have to call out Shelley’s drums, and the noise break around 2:20 in which he kicks up the tempo to a furious pace, then settles it all back down to a really cool ending. “Wish Fulfillment” was written and sung by guitarist Lee Ranaldo, and is one of the most emotional songs on the record. “Purr” has a great guitar riff and lots of energy, while “Drunken Butterfly” is a crazy-sounding song with lyrics pulled from old songs by the band Heart (?) and a cool video featuring puppets of the band.
But it doesn’t matter who else recognizes it. No one else will appreciate a song or album exactly the way you do. And that’s what makes music great! It is personal – you are the only one who gets to decide what your ears and brain perceive. Others will tell you The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson are great, and Nickleback and Taylor Swift are terrible. But you get to tell them they’re full of shit. And you are correct. Even if nobody else agrees.
You alone get to decide the music that’s worth stealing. (But support the artists – minimize your thievery, okay?)
Theresa’s Sound World
Orange Rolls, Angel’s Spit
Youth Against Fascism
On The Strip