45. Sonic Youth, 'Daydream Nation'
"How do you plan an accident? That's what we're all about," says Sonic Youth's guitarist Thurston Moore.
The trailblazing quartet has made its mark by exploring the rough edges that other bands smooth over, bolstering its experiments in sound with the raw power of a top-flight rock & roll band. Daydream Nation refined everything that made Sonic Youth the most powerful and innovative American guitar band of the Eighties and channeled it into a seventy-one-minute, double-album tour de force. The band's guitarists, Moore and Lee Ranaldo, harnessed an idiosyncratic vocabulary of overtones, harmonics, drones and feedback to create vast sounds and textures unlike anything else in rock.
Daydream Nation is very much of the place where it was created, articulating the chaos and violent energy of the band's New York City. "The structures of Daydream Nation were really worked on a lot," says bassist-vocalist Kim Gordon, and sure enough, beneath the music's teeming surface is a Byzantine barrage of spine-tingling riffs and dynamic peaks and valleys fueled by drummer Steve Shelley.
The band's lyrics tend toward a stream-of-collective-unconscious grab bag of underground culture, including erotica, grade-Z horror flicks and cyberpunk science fiction. "Hit the power/Psycho helmet's on/You've got to splice your halo/Take it to the moon," Moore sings in "Silver Rocket," as the song's raw punk thrust explodes in a shower of pure, exultant noise.
Although the largely self-produced Daydream Nation was recorded for a paltry $30,000, that was twice as much money as the band had spent on any of its five other albums. According to Gordon, the extra production bucks "gave power to the songs. It's like buying credibility."
"Providence," one of the album's most interesting tracks, is a quiet interlude for phone machine, piano and one abused amplifier. "It was a fan-cooled amplifier," Moore says, "and I had put something on the fan, so the tubes were suffocating and created this panicky rumble coming out of the speakers. So we recorded that and made it into a song." A friend of the band's, Mike Watt of the group Firehose, contributed a phone message from Providence, Rhode Island, scolding Moore for losing some guitar cables and insinuating that his short-term memory was shot. "It's about smoking pot," Moore explains.
Moore says the band originally wanted to call the album Bookbag and package it in a plaid schoolbook tote, an idea scrapped only because of its expense. Instead, the band opted for a simple painting of a candle by German artist Gerhard Richter. "We wanted to use something that was outwardly conservative looking, just because people wouldn't expect that," Gordon says. "The most radical things outwardly look very conservative."
Both Ranaldo and Moore are veterans of downtown noise maestro Glenn Branca's guitar orchestras. The massed guitars and colossal dissonances of those groups still figure in Sonic Youth's sound, although Moore doesn't quite see it that way: "I mean, he's into the harmonic series, we're into the TV series." Moore would rather compare his band to the early-Seventies New York grunge rockers in the Godz, whom rock critic Lester Bangs once lovingly described as "the most inept band I've ever heard." "We come straight out of them," Moore says. "If you can find The Third Testament, by the Godz, that's a great record."