New York's Sonic Youth and Los Angeles' Savage Republic are revitilising American rock music with their hard-core attitudes and screaming guitars. Biba Kopf reports on the coast-to-coast cacophony as rampant discords clash by night. This article originally appeared in The Wire 58 (December 1988).
1: SONIC YOUTH: lost in the o-tone
Some 40 years after electrification, the guitar is still the sound of the city. Like a junkyard compressor, it compounds great reverberating chords and discords from the city night's cacophony of casualties and pleasures. But it hasn't got from then to now without a few power failures along the way. At times the sound of the electric guitar has hung like a pall of tear gas. Recall how the pyrotechnic heatscale antics of rock/fusion players bored us all to tears. Clearly, something had to be done to restore the crackle of electricity to city music.
For a few brief exhilarating moments, British punk regenerated that crackle by stripping music down to base rhythms. Yet because it didn't structure any genuine differences at its core, social friction could only generate enough energy to raise the punk Icarus so high before it was left treading air. It's all very well claiming physics and aerodynamics are for the birds. A little knowledge of either would have taken the music higher.
If changes in American guitar music have been less showy, their internal effects are frequently more profound, because they evade the social and concentrate their energies on the thing they can more immediately alter: the music itself. Of all the American groups on the popular fringe to emerge in the 80s, New York's Sonic Youth have gone farthest to illuminate the city night again with the kind of electric, electrifying guitar music the metropolis, in all its squalor and glory, demands.
There's a song on the new Sonic Youth LP Daydream Nation that summarises just how well they read the tear-streaked and neon-stained city night directly into music. Called "The Wonder" it opens a loose trilogy that begins by accepting and celebrating the city's polymorphous perversity and ends in a preppy murder.
"It was originally called 'The Town and City'", mumbles Thurston Moore, the guitar player who sings it, during a fragmented five-way conversation including Kim Gordon (bass, vocals), Lee Ranaldo (guitar, vocals) and Steve Shelley (drums). "But Kerouac had already used the title. The way we use it, the phrase the wonder comes from [psychological thriller] writer James Ellroy, who uses it to express his wonderment for Los Angeles, which, for better and worse, inspires him to keep going, to get out of bed every day."
Sonic Youth realise the wonder of it all in a sleaze of ringing guitars that fall this and that side of melody, while they constantly switch back on each other. Every so often they collide, sending up sparks of overtones that combine and combust, showering the street with magnesium brightness. The song (and LP as a whole) marks a new departure for Sonic Youth. That is, their conscious effort to control the technique that makes them one of the most exciting, if erratic, live groups in the world.
Live, Sonic Youth's excitement is generated by the hectic activity in the music's overtone layer and the destructive things they're prepared to do unto their guitars to restore their capacity to ravage the listener with all manner of sensual reverberations.
The overtone - o-tone - activity is the result of guitarists Ranaldo and Moore atomising the song's harmony, each one subsequently attacking a severely restricted area of the scale while playinig tag with the melody and all the while striking up o-tones that pattern and cluster in ever more unpredictable combinations. Once upon a time I'd interpreted Sonic Youth's excitement according to the level of noise they created. Rather, it is its opposite, the harmonic overload, that is responsible for its immense erotic pleasures, even as the final result is not that dissimilar in effect from that caused by the friction of noise.
All this pleasure pushed to its limits can have catastrophic consequences. The song "Eliminator Jnr" that closes Sonic Youth's city trilogy is based on the Robert Chambers preppy murder case, in which the defence claimed the victim died accidentally during a rough sex session. "Eliminator Jnr" attempts to rewrite reality.
"It sets up a wholly alternative reality," deadpans Thurston. "If he took her to a rock concert by ZZ Top this would never have happened. Rock'n'roll is the true saviour!"
Sonic Youth presently stand their guitars at the intersection of the city's most vibrant musics. Everything - hardcore, speed core, artcore, hip hop - passes through here, either informing or being informed by Sonic Youth's insatiable urge to explore all the guitar's sonic possibilities. From guitar composers Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca (with whom Moore and Ranaldo once worked) they expanded their understanding of the guitar's harmonic capacities. But where those composers' academic leanings snuffed the instrument's electric spark, Sonic Youth constructively deployed their discoveries to shatter rock's limited harmonic range.
"Because of our experience with Chatham and Branca we got a good idea what could work musically," says Lee, reclaiming the territory from NY's rarefied conservatoires. "Obviously, it's an influence on how we work. But on the first LP Confusion is Sex we were still using model tuning and people think of that as the noisiest. Not until later did we start thinking, ugh, this tuning sounds horrible but it sounds fine in this context."
Unlike those celebrated schools of NY avantists clustering round John Zorn and Bill Laswell, Sonic Youth do not descend on genres like slumming vultures (cf Zorn's current obsession with hardcore). Rather, they rise up out of the gutter with the trash their songs trawl for inspiration. The gaseous energy given off by the decaying garbage intermingles and explodes, melding together those most disparate of elements, where the best Zorn can hope for is an ugly graft of ill-fitting parts (which, of course, creates its own kind of fascination).
In the end their obsession with the city's trash, the very tendency that makes Sonic Youth look juvenile to the outsiders, protects them from the more conceited sillinesses of NY's higher circle of composers. Long may they go on singing titles like "Teenage Riot" for ever!
"I guess it's kinda odd us singing "Teenage Riot" at 30," drawls Thurston. "Then, we are called Sonic Youth and that's kinda odd too. But we handle it pretty well."
2: SAVAGE REPUBLIC: blood on the tracks
"I used to be a stamp collector," recalls Bruce Licher, one of Savage Republic's two surviving founders, "and one of the things that fascinated me was the way when a new regime took over a country they would cross out the old regime on its stamps and overprint the new one."
Stamps are collectors' first window on the world. Their various shapes, sizes and colours open them up to the glorious diversity of existence outside their backyard, each revealing something of its country of origin. The postage stamps Bruce Licher now produces for Savage Republic mark the most absolute declaration of sovereign intentions yet undertaken by a group of musicians. They depict a lone arm raising the Savage Republic banner. Encoded in the banner's bold stark design are the base elements of a singular, blood-simple music. Four red stripes and a solitary palm overlaid with crescent moon and star inside an antique industrial cog signal the scimitar fanaticism of a newly blooded state, forging its future out of little more than revolutionary fervour and the obsolete technology it inherited
Just as a hand letterpress printer is Licher's tool for obtaining the banner's direct, almost sinister qualities, so Savage Republic deploy pawnshop amps and guitars and beaten junkyard metals to overprint the sound of rock guitar with its original raw primitivsm, enforcing the new regime's fundamentalist principles though the imposition of minor scale modalities.
"We had these old elelctric guitars and distortion boxes and used them in a very crude way," remembers Bruce. "And it was the same with the hand letterpress stuff. There's both a slickness and a crudeness to these old technologies, depending how you manipulate them."
If at first sight Savage Republic is as hostile and as impenetrable as their Islamic-influenced imagery, Licher's stamps provide the key to its unravelling. Philately gets you everywhere.
For seven years Savage Republic's existence was America's best kept secret. Then, no superpower likes to concede the presence of an autonomous state within its borders. Founded in an orgy of bloodletting guitar violence and bludgeoning basses at UCLA, it has so far released three LPs, a live double, a mini-LP and two singles through its own Independent Project Records and Printing Press. Up until last year they were only available here on import. In 1987, however, they raised their profile by licensing the records to Fundamental. They also undertook their first European tour, coming back a year later to make their belated British debut as a five-piece built around founding members Bruce Licher and Philip Drucker aka Jackson Del Ray. Along with Greg Gunke and Thom Fuhrmann, they play a monotuned (to the B string) 12-string guitar, conventionally tuned guitar, treble-fuzzed bass, untreated bass and metal percussion in various combinations, the whole directed by new 21-year-old drummer Bradley Laner's martial rhythms and drop-of-a-beat predilection for improvisation.
Live or on record, their music is defined by simple tolling guitar figures, each single-mindedly pursuing its own path across the emptiness, one note, one foot at a time. Theirs could be a soundtrack for Mao's Long March, a lunatic act of faith of such heroic proportions it galvanises the revolutionary fervour of the landmass and peoples it traverses.
Each marcher is locked in his own thoughts en route to the ever-receding horizon. and just when it seems likely they'll never get there, their respective paths cross to produce a tremendous morricone-d chord that lifts them over the last rise and sends them running down the slope to victory.
Savage Republic's marching music is a fabulous feat of endurance, variously stoic, trancelike and elating. Their titles tell all: "Mobilisation", "March Or Die", "Exodus", "Procession", "Trudge", "Trek", "Siege", "Assembly", "Year of Exile"... If rock is usually cars and guitars, Savage Republic are deserters from the cause. They are the music's first dromomaniacs - compulsive walkers. Walk, don't run, and then Insha'Allah, Godspeed. Their largely instrumental long marches bring out the best in Savage Republic; obduracy, in a word.
"I think it works better when we keep it simple, best when we realise our limitations," posits Greg Grunke. "We can't play solos like Eddie Van Halen. That each of us has the ability to play very simple stuff has lead to an ensemble way of playing. We work together a combination of simple patterns, rhythm and melody kinda intertwined so you can't say which element is more or less important."
But it's not all foot-in-mao disease. Elsewhere, Savage Republic evoke the nomad's land where the city fizzles out in the desert scrub ("Spice Fields"). Then there's the Islam imagery and Middle Eastern musical motifs, which their American audiences find so unsettling in light of the hostage crisis.
"We work with a lot of minor scales, minor modes," explains Thom Fuhrmann. "Depending on the rhythmic emphasis it could sound Arabic, Irish folksy or Greek. There are certain elements common to all. We just like to compound drones, repetitions and interlocking patterns into a greater whole."
If their great strength is their evocative, enduring instrumentals, which at first suspend time and then choreograph it in a manner contemporary composers like latterday Reich can only snooze about, they have also written some fine songs which dramatise the peculiar malaise corroding the American spirit. A favourite is the unforgettable hardcore slogan "You have come to teach but we have come to eat" from the first LP Tragic Figures. But others aspire to something higher, something approaching hardboiled poetry, like Philip Drucker's "Film Noir". Its lyric brilliantly diagnoses the loneliness of those conscripted to professions of violence: "When danger calls I have to answer/I walk the streets like a human cancer/There's a side of me I hope you never see..."
"It was about the social requirements of living in LA and the US," grins Drucker, who also works in the intermittently excellent ethnic forgers 17 Pygmies. "About the people left out in the cold by an American detective attitude. In Europe detectives deduce the answer. In the States the guy goes in and beats it out of you. The lyric tries to get down that attitude. I should have dedicated it to Mickey Spillane. You have to understand that I think he's a total moron, a racist, sexist pig. He's also the seventh most popular author in America."
When you look at America from that angle, Savage Republic's desire for absolute autonomy makes even more sense. Furled in their own flag, minting their own stamps, wrapped in sovereignty's trappings, Savage Republic bring a whole new meaning to the word independent. They're the first American group ever to cede from the Union