The Wire

In Writing

The Wire 300: David Stubbs on Sonic Youth and the Blast First axis

February 2013

A previously unpublished essay by David Stubbs, on Paul Smith's Blast First label and Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's Sonic Youth.

As far as many people were concerned in the 80s, in the UK in particular, rock was a discredited medium. The phrase ‘rockist’ was coined as a pejorative means of referring to those who persisted with raucous, four-square guitar music and its attendant, clenched, Caucasian macho signifiers. Funk and soul were the new thing. Pop was the new thing. Synths were the new thing. Jingly-jangly indie was the new thing. Punk's job had not been to revitalise rock but to trigger its self-destruction. Let there be no more rock, let us move on, dispense with that hoary, discredited phallus, the rock guitar, and embrace diversity, postmodernity.

In America, these ideas never had so much traction. However, in the early 80s, American rock was beginning to feel awkward about itself, unsure where to go. At one end of the spectrum you had beyond-the-pale poodle-haired glam rock. At the other, you had the straight edge, neo-punk imperatives of hardcore, using serrated guitars to burrow inward to something somehow ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ but unsure as to what this would consist of. Rock felt strip-mined, no longer purposeful.

However, from around 1983, a cluster of American groups emerged and slowly began to haul themselves out of this quandary. Among them were Sonic Youth. The key to their subsequent progress was to regard rock not so much as a weapon of intent but as something to fixate upon, to mesmerise and be mesmerised by. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore spoke of the “reinvention of the guitar” and, taking their cues from the ever-active experimental and Improv scene, subjected their instruments to various treatments, determined to wreak from their wood, metal and string an expanded lexicon of sounds and possibilities.

Sonic Youth represented a shift in mood from the wide-eyed sense of wonder of the 60s, or the profoundly sceptical vigilance of the post-punk era. They talked a lot about media overload, an overwhelming inkling that pop culture was supersaturated. You sensed it in the wiped out, concussed tones of Kim Gordon's vocals. To re-embrace rock in the early 80s was not just to toil under the burden of a huge, dead weight of history and legacy but also to be faced with the blare of all kinds of competing and contemporary distractions in a hyper-developed media environment.

By 1988's Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth were a group at once enervated and intensified. They sang about a “Teenage Riot” but that this riot would have to take a subtler, more inward form than posited in punk. On “Eric's Trip” it was clear that the sheer glut of their own era had reduced drastically their field of vision by comparison with, say, The Who on “I Can See For Miles”: “I can't see anything at all/All I see is me.” Clearly, rock's previous mission to change the world was no longer tenable. The world had changed rock. And yet, for all this, they kicked major ass. They used the burden of rock's legacy to their advantage. They were absorbent, they were everything, from the Velvets to hardcore, from bubblegum to Baudrillard. They were a heavy meta-group, intent on finding out just how white a heat this music could be brought up to. If it couldn't change the world, it could at least evolve, the way jazz evolved.
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In 1985, Paul Smith had founded Blast First, a subsidiary label of Mute, in order to distribute Sonic Youth releases in the UK. The label took its name from a manifesto co-written at the beginning of the 20th century by the British Vorticist Wyndham Lewis, who spat cholerically about an England hemmed in by a dead body of grey water “to make us mild” sheltered from the “drastic winds” and with a climate prey to “sins and infections”. As it happened, the state of indie rock in the UK at that point was stagnant, mild and grey, as fostered on John Peel’s Radio 1 show and in the NME's C86 compilation. ‘Indie’ had become a byword for a deliberately austere, drizzly smallness, whimsical and inert. Blast First would be the vortex for trans-Atlantic energies set to change all of that.

For sure, such changes were afoot in the UK, with groups like The Jesus & Mary Chain, AR Kane and Loop all producing more expansive sounds. However, emerging as they did from the citadels and heartlands of rock'n'roll, Blast First's American roster carried added weight. As well as Sonic Youth there were Band Of Susans, whose “Hope Against Hope” was as close to Phill Niblock as rock in its sustained guitar flood. Then there was Steve Albini's Big Black, who on tracks like “Kerosone” opened the guitar sluices to maximum, an open, pyromaniacal assault which reduced previous assumptions about rock's limits to cinders. Or Butthole Surfers, who oscillated giddily between the ridiculous and the sublime, whose inflated, engorged, monstrous parodies of heavy rock were at once depraved and inspired, no more so than on “22, Going On 23”, from Locust Abortion Technician, built around samples of mooing cattle and desperate women on phone-in shows which redeems itself with a monumentally lachrymose guitar solo.

There were many who found all this ‘Dionysiac gratuitousness’ too rich. It pressed bad buttons. It was self-indulgent. It was excessive. It was pretentious. It wasn't ‘committed’. It was too big. It reached a notional high point around 1988, abetted by the likes of My Bloody Valentine. Over 20 years on, however, and mainstream pop/rock has timidly devolved, with every new ‘young’ group going through the jerky motions of a permanent 1978. But the compulsion to treat guitar rock not as a museum piece but as a thing-in-itself, to be moulded, tweaked, distorted, developed and expanded, all for the heaven and hell of it, has persisted, indeed may be stronger than ever, among a subterranean slew of groups including Sightings, SunO))), Wolf Eyes, Health, These Are Powers, to name but a handful. Here, deep down, is where rock truly and shamelessly lives and evolves nowadays.

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