Sonic Youth are the closest thing in rock to a nexus of realities: an imperishable punk rock institution with close ties to the fine art world, dissonant noisemakers who've appeared in animated form on The Simpsons, the scene-emperors who are the hub connecting Neil Young, Chl öe Sevigny, Chuck D, Sleater-Kinney and Mike Kelley. Anchored by three deeply unconventional singer-songwriters — Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo — they've cranked out a string of adventurous, dissonant records since 1982, constantly pushing forward into new territory. They were there for the Eighties punk revolution, the Nineties alternative-rock breakthrough and the 2000s musical diaspora, and they've long since become the godfathers of the underground. Not bad for a band that's never had a gold record or even a single in the Hot 100.
Moore, who'd grown up in Bethel, Connecticut, moved to Manhattan just in time to latch onto the tail end of the avant-garde no wave scene, playing guitar in a small-time band called the Coachmen. In 1980, he started playing music with his art-world-immersed bassist girlfriend Gordon; by 1981, their collaboration became the earliest version of Sonic Youth, whose lineup ended up including guitarist Lee Ranaldo (already a veteran of composer Glenn Branca's dissonant guitar orchestra) and drummer Richard Edson — one of a handful of drummers to pass through the band in their first five years.
Sonic Youth's earliest recordings, released on Branca's Neutral label, were brutally harsh and confrontational, built around grim squalls of feedback and thudding rhythms. Moore and Ranaldo became known for playing an array of customized guitars, tuned unconventionally and sometimes modified with objects jammed under their strings.The band's anti-pop, anti-pleasure stance gradually became an outsider's fascination with pop and pleasure, and with 1985's Bad Moon Rising, they started to incorporate torrential, Branca-style guitar textures into more traditional song structures.
By then, Sonic Youth had already become a big name in the American rock underground (their ferocious live shows didn't hurt), and in 1986, they solidified their enduring core lineup with the addition of drummer Steve Shelley, a Michigan native who'd previously been in a hardcore band called the Crucifucks. EVOL, Sister and the 1988 double-LP Daydream Nation kicked up as many tornados of noise as ever, but the group's songwriting was also progressively more engaged with pop modernity, rock history and fine art— and their other 1988 record, The Whitey Album, a collaboration with Minutemen bassist Mike Watt released under the name Ciccone Youth, was a twisted paean to Madonna.
In 1990, an underground rock band moving to a major label was a very big deal, and Sonic Youth's DGC debut, Goo (Number 96), was surprisingly uncompromising. (Well, almost uncompromising: the working title was Blowjob? ) It was a gigantic hit on the college-rock circuit; the opening band on part of the Goo tour was a little-known trio called Nirvana that Sonic Youth had been championing lately. By the time Nirvana broke through to the mainstream, Sonic Youth were in a perfect position to take advantage of the sudden demand for the sound they'd helped to invent. They started their own labels (Moore's Ecstatic Peace, Shelley's Smells Like Records, the whole band's Goofin'); they played with various side projects in the rock and improv worlds, most notably Gordon's group Free Kitten and Shelley's drumming in an early lineup of Cat Power; they seemed to confer cachet on everything they touched.
Cachet, though, isn't the same thing as cash. Dirty (Number 83, 1992) and Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (Number 34, 1994) failed to become Sonic Youth's mainstream breakouts, although they were exceptionally popular in the indie/college-rock subculture where the band had always thrived. There wasn't a tour for Jet Set— Moore and Gordon's daughter Coco was born shortly after its release, and while the group took a few months off, Moore released his first solo album, Psychic Hearts. Sonic Youth returned to headline the Lollapalooza tour in 1995, previewing the songs that would appear on Washing Machine (Number 58), but endured a nightly insult of seeing concertgoers leaving immediately after Hole's set. (As Shelley put it, "the lunkheads left and the people who cared about music were there.")
Still, the tour financed the creation of a Manhattan studio-workshop, Echo Canyon, where Sonic Youth could play and record at their leisure. 1998's A Thousand Leaves (Number 85) showcased the dreamier, more textured, less hooky material they'd been working up in their new space. By then, they'd launched another label, SYR, devoted to releasing a series of their extended instrumental jams and experimental recordings that wouldn't fit on their major-label albums. 1999's Goodbye 20th Century, for instance, was a double-CD set of the band's interpretations of contemporary avant-garde compositions by the likes of Yoko Ono, John Cage and Pauline Oliveros.
In mid-1999, a vanload of Sonic Youth's custom-altered, one-of-a-kind guitars was stolen at a Southern California tour stop; many of their songs were built around specific instruments, so it was a huge blow to the band. 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers, a difficult, subdued, beat poetry-inspired album, was produced by experimental musician Jim O'Rourke, who played bass on the following tour (Gordon having switched to guitar most of the time) and officially became a member in 2001.
Murray Street (2002, Number 126), named after the location of Sonic Youth's New York studio— just a few blocks from the World Trade Center— and Sonic Nurse (2004, Number 64) were very much studio products, built more around sounds than songcraft. O'Rourke left the band in 2005, and the subsequent Rather Ripped (2006, Number 71) ditched the jams and the tone-tweaking for relatively straightforward rock 'n' roll. 2006 was also marked by Sonic Youth closing down Echo Canyon, and bringing in a new bassist: Mark Ibold, formerly of Pavement, who'd also played in Free Kitten with Gordon.
In recent years, Sonic Youth have settled comfortably into their position as avant-garde long-haulers and elder statesmen. Moore, in particular, continues to play improv gigs and champion unknown bands, and released another solo album, Trees Outside the Academy, in 2007. Having concluded their major-label stint with an outtakes-and-B-sides compilation, 2006's The Destroyed Room, the band returned to full-time indiedom with 2009's assured, arty The Eternal, and were rewarded with their first-ever appearance in the Top Twenty.
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