Thurston Moore moved to New York in late 1976, a time when groups like the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie were still regulars at CBGB and the music scene was crackling with creativity and innovation. The future Sonic Youth guitarist was just 18, but music was already at the center of his life and he saw shows as often as possible, learning new lessons from every gig he caught and every new 45 he picked up at record stores.
His new triple-CD set Spirit Counsel draws inspiration from the music he absorbed during this time period. As he prepares for a world tour in support of the release that will take him across America in December, he phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about five key songs that influenced him when he first moved to New York and began composing his own music.
Patti Smith, “Godspeed”
By 1976, I was well into what Patti Smith was doing in New York. I thought Horses was a masterpiece, Radio Ethiopia was great, but by and large, the Patti Smith Band was like a rocking bar band with this amazing poet as a lead singer. They were central to all that was deemed punk rock in the CBGB’s scene in New York. The Patti Smith Group became more well-known outside of the CGBG world when they had a hit with “Because the Night,” which Patti wrote with Bruce Springsteen. It’s a pretty straight-ahead Patti Smith–Bruce Springsteen composition. But the flip side was called “Godspeed,” a song she co-wrote with Ivan Kral, her bassist.
That song really floored me because it was so unlike most of their material. It was less straight-ahead and fist-in-the-air kind of Patti Smith style, and it seemed almost improvised. It’s a very heavy song, very evocative, very strange, and very spiritual. It sounds like it was done in the middle of the night with the lights off. It’s not a very verse/chorus/verse/chorus song, and hearing it was very formative to me because of that approach.
In a way, it’s some of her most impassioned delivery on a microphone, but it was relegated to a B side and it didn’t appear on Easter. I always held it very dear. It’s always been this amazing song to me. Most people don’t know about it.
Minor Threat, “In My Eyes”
Minor Threat were one of the central hardcore bands out of early-1980s Washington, D.C. I really got into that whole genre of music coming out of the city that was calling itself D.C. hardcore because they sort of agreed to all fly the same flag and I really like music that all sounds the same. There’s always this complaint, “I don’t like country music. It all sounds the same. I don’t like reggae music. It all sounds the same.” I actually like both those genres of music because they sound the same. I like the idea that there’s this communal sort of agreement on what the motifs are. It’s this shared language that goes on within the genre. I always found that very exciting.
The DC hardcore scene was the first time I saw a generation of people get into music that was younger than me. When I was in New York I was the 18-year-old amidst all these twentysomethings. I was always the young guy. And then all of a sudden there was a new generation younger than me and it was these hardcore kids. At that point, I felt punk rock was passé because Sid Vicious had died and we were onto Public Image Ltd and Gang of Four and the Raincoats and going forward with No Wave music like Bush Tetras and Lydia Lunch.
But these kids in D.C. really embraced aspects of ground-zero punk rock, like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. They created their own scene and music around it. They got rid of a lot of the trappings around it, like getting fucked up and being irresponsible. Minor Threat — lead by Ian MacKaye — was all about responsibility to their own scene of young people and not going out and being stupid. The whole concept of being straight edge was, “OK, we don’t drink. We don’t smoke. We don’t sleaze around women.” That was kind of amazingly cool thing for 16-year-old kids to say to each other.
I used to see all these hardcore bands come up to New York and play at CBGB on hardcore nights and Minor Threat was probably the best hardcore band that ever was. Their second seven-inch was a song called “In My Eyes.” It was kind of the most progressive hardcore song up to that moment in 1981. It’s a song that was using vocabulary of D.C. hardcore and pushing it into a further direction.
The lyrics are taking to task a youth culture that believes in the lies of the capitalist society that they’re going up against. They go, “You tell me that nothing matters/You’re just fucking scared/You tell me that I’m better/You just hate yourself/You tell me that you like her/You just wish you did/You tell me that I make no difference/At least I’m fuckin’ trying/What the fuck have you done?/It’s in my eyes, it’s in my eyes/And it doesn’t look that way to me.”
It’s a heated argument between two people about how we perceive each other in the heat of battle with one being sober and conscious and alert and the other one not. It’s disdain for drug use and drug culture, which was also given to youth culture by adult culture. Minor Threat were such an important band since they offered an alternate to punk-rock youth culture. There’s also a certain rage in the vocal delivery that is just undeniable. Ian MacKaye is singing the song because of his passion for his culture. When they played live in New York in those days, it was just such a throwdown. It was unbelievable.
Bush Tetras, “Too Many Creeps”
Bush Tetras were a bit of a post–No Wave band that came directly out of the No Wave music scene in New York. They were punk and No Wave, but more on the edges and the margins and more intense and more anti-arty or whatever. No Wave was really exemplified by Lydia Lunch and her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, James Chance and his band the Contortions. These were the big No Wave bands of the time and they were amazing.
As we got into the 1980s, a lot of these bands were so anti-music that they were comprised of people that never picked up instruments before they started their bands. They still created this kind of noise that was incredibly wonderful. I think as soon as they learned any aspect of rock and roll or how to boogie, they weren’t No Wave anymore. They were something else. That was the end of the No Wave scene. As soon as anyone learned to play their instrument it wasn’t No Wave anymore.
Anyway, one of the first bands that came out of the scene was this band Bush Tetras. Former Contortions guitarist Pat Place started the band with singer Cynthia Sley, bassist Laura Kennedy and drummer Dee Pop. Their first 7-inch was called “Too Many Creeps.” It’s incredible because they were picking up cues with what was happening London at the time with Public Image Ltd and Gang of Four when music had this sort of cool, slightly dub-inflected rhythm. It’s being mixed with the rhythms of New York music that year from punk rock and the fractured jazz and early hip hop, jazz vibes and salsa vibes. That kind of rhythm is coming into the music that at one point was really atonal and just noise. The Bush Tetras had this badass groove in their songs and Cynthia Sley’s vocals sounded like a bored, New York tenement dweller.
“Too Many Creeps” is about these girls having to walk around lower Manhattan and deal with the creep scene of these guys giving them suggestive comments and whatnot. The song was so influential and popular in the Manhattan club scene in the early 1980s that you couldn’t not love it. Also, they were the best live band going in 1980. I remember watching them at a gig in Danceteria and thinking, “Oh my God. This is one of the greatest rock and roll things I’ve ever seen in my life.” They were a very important band.
Glenn Branca, “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar”
I’m choosing this because of this record that I’m putting out in September called Spirit Counsel. It’s a triple-CD box and a lot of the music on it is in homage to the time I spent working with Glenn Branca as a young guitar player. I have chosen the first thing he released under his own name. It’s a 12-inch called “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar.” It was recorded right before I started playing with him. Lee Ranaldo was already playing with him, but he’s not on this record. I joined around 1980.
This 12-inch came out in 1980 on a label called 99 Records. It was this record store on 99 MacDougal Street that was our hangout at the time. It was run by this British woman named Gina Franklyn who came over from London and was part of the Sex Pistols scene and Kings Road scene where Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood had their Sex shop. She came to America in 1979 with her partner Ed Bahlman and she sold her punk clothing in the store and he started a record label in the store selling records that he imported from London. That’s where he started selling the coolest records in the world.
The first record he put out was “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar.” He subsequently puts out “Too Many Creeps” and Liquid Liquid which becomes a huge record since Grandmaster Flash sampled their song “Cavern” for their first big smash, “White Lines.” He also put out the first record by ESG. They were these sisters from the South Bronx in a minimalist funk group. So 99 Records is super important place.
Anyway, the Glenn Branca 12-inch was different from anything else he put out because Glenn was such an iconoclast and stood alone from the scene in a way. What I loved about that record was that it basically wanted to take aspects of rock & roll and punk rock and give them equal value to what he loved about music from 20th century composition, like works by Steve Reich and La Monte Young. He was also responding to the darkness he was hearing in Joy Division. This was right when they released “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
This song is an instrumental guitar piece, a very simplistic figure of two notes descending back and forth, back and forth. I had already begun seeing Glenn play around downtown New York, and it was a really epiphanic experience because there were certain things I was really thinking about wanting to do with electric guitar. It wasn’t until I heard Glenn’s group under his own name that I had sort of heard what I was thinking about. I realized he was playing with guitars where he was changing the tunings and that really is what informed a lot of what happened in South Youth, the idea of making music away from traditional tuning structures.
“Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar,” for me, was exactly what I wanted to hear from electric-guitar compositional music. There were no vocals. It was just this piece that was sort of trying to sort of give distinction to an instrument and a sound that was considered to be a bit in the gutter. He was kind of keeping it in the gutter, but also bringing it into a higher esteem, giving it this other dignity. I really was super inspired by that.
It’s a very informative period for me and a very informative music for me. It’s the period I focused on when putting together the pieces of music for this triple CD I’m putting out.
Tapper Zukie, “Man Ah Warrior”
By the late 1970s, I was really, really into reggae music. I really connected with it because it was this music that was political and rebellious and really associated with a lot what I loved about punk rock music. It was completely integral to what I was hearing in Public Image Ltd and the Slits and the Raincoats and all this music coming out of England. It was really integral to a lot of what I was hearing coming out of downtown Manhattan too. Reggae was its own culture. It had its own standards of living and systems of faith.
I was just really into it for how the music conducted itself. It was really minimal and and distant and repetitive and it was all about conjuring these sort of spiritual images in it. It was anti-police and anti-authority for the most part, pro-spiritually. I liked a lot of reggae music and I liked the fact that Bob Marley became a sensation and I was really, really immersed and enthralled by so much of it.
One of the most enlightened recordings I ever heard was this recording “Mah ah Warrior” by Tapper Zukie. It was recorded and released in Jamaica in 1973, but I would never have known that until it got reissued on a label called Mer run by Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye. They only did a couple of things on it, which was Patti Smith’s seven-inch and they did a seven-inch by the No Wave band Mars, which was essential, and then they did this album by Tapper Zukie and then that was the end of Mer. It didn’t really last.
I bought the record because it was on Mer. And then when I played it, it was this really incredible experience because it was reggae music, but really super stripped. It was just basically the clack of a guitar pick on the strings in rhythm and this intonation by Taper Zukie himself. He’s cooler than cool, but he felt cool because he’s standing in a Kingston Trenchtown ghetto with a spliff in one hand and a microphone in another. He looked fearless. It’s a DJ style that I had never heard anybody beat.
It’s a really raw record. When people talk to me about reggae I always say, “You have to hear this record,” and it blows their minds. Patti Smith called it “music of the most high,” and you can take that as you will.