From anniversary re-creations by the band to its inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Registry, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation has been rightly defined as one of the landmarks of Eighties indie rock, and possibly its last galvanizing moment before so much of that scene collapsed. The band still played a few of the album’s songs onstage right up until its 2011 breakup, which followed the separation of founding couple Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. But what we’ve never heard, outside of bootlegs, is the sound of Sonic Youth wailing on those songs right after the album was released in the fall of 1988. Three decades later, we finally get that chance with Live in Moscow April 12-13, 1989.
In one of the most surreal moments in a career dotted with them, Sonic Youth played a handful of shows in the Soviet Union in April 1989, on the heels of a European tour. Not quite on the big-theater scale of previous visits to that country by Billy Joel and Elton John, the Sonic Youth shows took place in what were basically basements and rec rooms, sometimes monitored by KGB agents and attended by Russian kids who’d heard bootlegs of Daydream Nation circulating around the country. The promoter of the band’s Moscow shows, which took place at a hotel, recently discovered tapes of both their sets, which have been combined into one album now available on streaming sites. (Only 300 physical vinyl copies were pressed.)
Even with its split recording dates, Live in Moscow still sounds like a concentrated show — and a pretty galvanizing memento of an important moment in the band’s career. Most of it is given over to nearly all of Daydream Nation, which took up a large chunk of the band’s set at the time, and the arrangements aren’t radically different from those on the album: Rivet-gun guitar still opens “Teenage Riot,” and the medley of “Hyperstation,” “The Wonder,” and “Eliminator Jr.” remains the most radical and complicated 15-plus straight minutes of indie guitar rock of its time.
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But by then, Sonic Youth had been playing these songs onstage for months, and the performances bristle with lived-in confidence; they’re clearly comfortable pushing each song a little further beyond what it was on record. “’Cross the Breeze” and “Kissability” sound especially emboldened, and Gordon’s curdle-the-milk screams turn “Eliminator Jr.” into a horror-film soundtrack.
Also heard are the band’s between-song wisecracks, which take on a newly perverse twist in this context — it’s possible that many in the audience didn’t understand English that well. So Lee Ranaldo introduces “Eric’s Trip” as “LSD in ’63,” and Moore announces “Silver Rocket” with “This song is about me personally sending a bomb.” Then again, given that gay sex was punishable by up to five years in prison in the Soviet Union at the time, it took some degree of guts for Moore to introduce “Teenage Riot” by saying, “This song is called ‘Homosexuals Are Real, and Homosexuals Are Free, and Something Tells Me That You Don’t Agree.’ ” (No one cheers afterward, maybe out of fear.) For another bit of period flavor — the band’s emerging, sardonic nods to pop culture — snippets of the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” float between a couple of the tracks.
Daydream Nation is itself now something of a period piece, a reminder of that paradigm-shift moment when white indie rock truly seemed to be dismantling the rock that preceded it, and all-new, thrilling musical frontiers awaited. Rock would never again sound so insubordinate and unbound. Live in Moscow feels like an end-of-the-era moment of its own; by the end of that year, Sonic Youth had moved on to a major label and would begin a different and even more challenging period in the soon-to-be alt-rock big leagues of the Nineties. Yet the underlying theme of Daydream Nation — a crumbling society in which the new normal would not be something to welcome — has never seemed more relevant than it does in 2020. Live in Moscow feels like a town crier yelling into the void, warning us what was coming when only a few people were listening.