Don't let me enter my zone / I'm definitely in my zone
29 April 2009
Mark Fisher on the abominable tribute compilation Brand Neu! in this month's issue of The Wire (303):
Foals, Holy Fuck and LCD Soundsystem [. . .] only establish that there is no 'today' for rock. They are secondhand vampires, skulking round graves that were robbed long before any of them picked up a plectrum or clicked on a drum machine. . . . Sonic Youth, Primal Scream and Oasis all played their part in making this kind of retro-necro acceptable. As the most ostensibly credible of the bunch, Sonic Youth should arguably bear the most blame (indeed, if one were to locate the point at which rock modernism lapsed into curatorial postmodern pastiche, you could do worse than cite something like Bad Moon Rising.)
The elision of Sonic Youth with Primal Scream and Oasis is both boldly counter-intuitive and funny – though coming from Mark, undoubtedly no joke. It's unfair of course. I don't want to enumerate all the ways in which Sonic Youth are not Primal Scream or Oasis. But put it this way: if Bobby Gillespie's ultimate and explicit aspiration is to be some kind of golem made out of assorted body parts from Jagger/Richards, and Noel Gallagher's is to be the same but using the corpse of Lennon/Noddy Holder, you'd have to say Thurston Moore, if anything, aspires to being Patti Smith, which is at least more forward-thinking - not to mention transgendered.
I think Mark's accusation has some traction, but the time and topos aren't quite accurate. If Sonic Youth are guilty of postmodern curatorial pastiche, it's not from '85 onwards with 'rock' history as their palette, it's over the last decade, and the palette is their own back catalogue. The trajectory from the debut EP to Confusion is Sex, Bad Moon Rising, Evol, Sister and Daydream Nation is astonishingly inventive. From that point on the boundaries of their sound are largely fixed, and from Goo to A Thousand Leaves, they're essentially combining and recombining previously-deployed moves into technically 'new' but very familiar shapes. All these albums have high points which match the late 80s output, but also plenty of rote filler, Youth-by-numbers. At this stage in their careers (2009), they are afflicted by a kind of irrelevance which any band of their age and standing can hardly transcend – like The Fall, the unconscious operations of the PR machine sees every album willed into a return to form, only to be retrospectively nailed as mediocre by the time of the next album's review cycle. Sonic Youth in 2009 seems to be more of a side-project for its members than the nominal side-projects, a costume into which all four climb when it's time to pay the bills. (I think as well – and this is perhaps another post – that Thurston Moore has a definite idea about song-writing as a mode - one that declares allegiance to the impulse, and a fidelity to the instant, informed by improv and automatic writing, and as such, would probably disavow any concept of 'progress' or development, or duty to anything other than sounding like Sonic Youth has always sounded.)
But what I really want to talk about is this idea that from Bad Moon Rising on, Sonic Youth might be 'curatorial postmodern pastiche' . . . Presumably Mark has the referential/reverential aspect of the band in mind here. Because they certainly don't sound like nostalgic pastiche at that stage. In fact they sound extraordinarily new. BMR is the point at which their tunings, atonal and droning, blossom into dazzling synaesthetic iridescences. They sound, literally, uncanny – with strings tuned to the same note but fractionally apart, they create their own doubles, an unheimlich shadow sound, like a transparent overlay just out of position. Playing Stoogoid riffery in a harmonic template borrowed from free jazz and serialism, one that smashes the overdetermined limits of the pentatonic, they make discord sensual in previously unheard ways. Alex Ross may take issue with this, but I think BMR is the point where Sonic Youth in effect reconnect discord with the body, restoring to it a libidinal force which you hear in The Rites of Spring, but which the cold geometries of Schoenberg and Webern subsequently evacuated.
As for the re(v/f)erential fandom. It's too easy to cite 'Kill Yr Idols' (released shortly before BMR) as a reproof to Mark's accusation. So I won't – not least because it can probably be counter-cited as a subconscious act of projection, read against the grain so that Thurston Moore is lambasting not his hidebound retro peers but himself.
I'd guess that Mark would point to the band's fascination with pop culture and its operations, rules, secret dynamics as evidence for pomo pap churn: Bad Moon Rising is a title borrowed from Creedence Clearwater Revival; 'Death Valley '69' dwells on the Manson Family mythology; by EVOL the following year there's 'Starpower' and its meditations on Joan Jett, 'Expressway to Yr Skull' (also titled as 'Madonna, Sean and Me' or 'The Crucifixion of Sean Penn') and the disposable kitsch of the Kim Fowley cover, 'Bubblegum'. The Ciccone Youth side project repeats the deadpan Madonna adoration with 'Into the Groove(y)'.
For me there's no sense that that's all there is – secondhand, end-of-history, arms-length sifting through pop-junk detritus, the position of the aesthete ever ready to cry 'but I don't really mean it', believing that the glib smirking mask of nihilist irony can be passed off as the silver laugh of wisdom. As a title, Bad Moon Rising alludes to the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, but without depending on it for content – anymore than do Joy Division with the Ballard-borrowed 'The Atrocity Exhibition'. The point is not to tick a box for discerning record collectors or critics, nor to demonstrate good meta-aesthetic judgement by suggesting that perhaps, like all revolutions, the Year Zero of American hardcore has ultimately impoverished itself (by ruling out as untouchable any music predating firstwave punk, or indeed the first Bad Brains record). Instead it uses John Fogerty's title as a conduit through which to signpost and channel a version of American gothic, a means to reimagine, rewrite and make strange the surface environment of American life, unafraid of referencing pulp forms like horror and SF to tell a psychic truth glossed over by the smooth sedations of mass media, built over by the glossy tiles and sparkling water of the mall, the pulverizing singularity of the freeway. 'Ghost Bitch' -- which it's hard to foresee Primal Scream or Oasis covering any time soon -- is an uncanny revenant voicing, a spectral banshee wail which, like Stephen King's Indian-burial-ground devices, stages an encounter between massacred (Native American) and massacring (colonist). 'I'm Insane', 'Society is a Hole', 'Justice is Might'; these are postcards from the urban apocalypse of the Lower Eastside, a zone abandoned by local government and police alike.
Which brings me to David Peace... (whom Mark is certainly a fan of). Peace presents the Red Riding quartet as a kind of psychopathology of place -- not so much psychogeography as geographic psychosis, articulated through pulp modernism. The books map a site-specific horror, an internalized sickness unique to the books' Yorkshire setting. For Peace, Peter Sutcliffe is, could only be, the Yorkshire Ripper.
Mid-80s Sonic Youth does something very similar, but for California. They tend to be labelled as an archetypally 'New York' band, but from BMR through to Sister ('PCH' = Pacific Coast Highway, 'Hotwire My Heart' is a cover of a Bay Area punk band, Crime; 'Schizophrenia' and 'Stereo Sanctity' both reference Philip K. Dick), the West Coast exerts a weird fascination for them, as a terminal place, a utopia turned dystopia, spatially, temporally, psychically, culturally the End of the West, in which hippie eloi are feasted upon by Manson Family morlocks, and Laurel Canyon acoustic bliss-out is defaced by the return of the repressed (punk) and the unmasking of its own sexual logic (read Atomized and watch the documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip in which Kim Fowley, svengali of The Runaways, features and reveals himself as a shameless sexual predator). 'Death Valley '69' is the obvious example of this kind of oneiric horror manifesting itself, but it's present too in 'Expressway to Yr Skull' - in which The Beach Boys are evoked lyrically ('We're going to kill the California girls...') before being detourned, reimagined as a death-drive sex-cult ('...We're going to fire the exploding load in the milkmaid maidenhead'), over an oceanic roll of a rhythm, which explodes into an orgiastic apocalypse before once more subsiding into waves of bass and underwater guitar. There are material connections too: the 'Halloween' 12" was recorded in Venice Beach, the band recorded a soundtrack for the film Made in America in LA in 1986, and from 86-87 were signed to Long Beach label SST, with Mike Watt (from San Pedro) making a cameo on EVOL and forming part of Ciccone Youth.
Ballard could perhaps be brought in here, to discuss the car-crash in 'In the Kingdom #19', as well as LA as a terminal site and the psychosexual dynamics of celebrity iconography – but I think he's more relevant to the persistent charge that's hung around Sonic Youth for not being junkie fuck-ups. Isn't it the case (not thinking of Mark here) that a wider critical subtext exists in which Sonic Youth are considered somehow inauthentic, for making weird, out-there music while not being weird or out-there in person? It seems like a lot of music writers assume that the biography betrays the music, that there's an obligation to live up to the sublime savagery of the music and be suicidally chemically dependent. Again, not ascribing this position to Mark, but there's an implication that because they aren't complete headcases, they don't mean it, man . . . And must therefore be idle dilettantes. But this is as absurd as objecting to Ballard's quiet domestic set-up in Shepperton; like Ballard, Sonic Youth are following the Flaubertian injunction to be serious and bourgeois in life, in order to be violently radical in your art.