Sonic Youth’s Goo 30th anniversary: a cross-pollination of indie and the world of pop

As Sonic Youth’s major label debut turns 30 we explore how Goo has left an indelible mark on modern day culture.

Tiptoeing into the realm of pop culture, the artwork to Sonic Youth‘s 1990 album, Goo, has featured prominently in the shop windows of hip clothing outlets for at least the last fifteen years. Sonic Youth, joining the likes of AC/DC, Ramones, Iron Maiden and The Rolling Stones in a united front for not only hipsters to parade around in band chic, but also trend-setting aficionados, many of whom probably haven’t heard a note of any of these artists put together.

For many reasons, Raymond Pettibon‘s illustration has arguably being one of the most iconic album artworks of the past thirty years.

We’ll elaborate more on that shortly.

Sonic Youth are among a handful of artists who possess a body of work that constantly has you changing opinions. Top fives. Favourite albums. They alternate about as many times as you have hot dinners.

Personally, Goo did occupy the “favourite Sonic Youth record” summit for quite some time. Almost to the point that it’s probably my least listened to Sonic Youth album these days.


Well, perhaps it hasn’t aged as well as Goo‘s follow-up, Dirty, which by contrast seems a little bit more attuned to these times. Other albums have probably aged better, too, most notably EVOL which has always hovered towards the aforementioned summit. There are countless others, too, of course.

From the no-wave Glenn Branca-inspired noise terrorism of Bad Moon Rising, to the utterly outlandish NYC Ghost & Flowers, in between, Goo was yet another album that contained its own idiosyncrasies.

That was the greatest feat of Sonic Youth. Every single album of theirs was so different. With Goo, it was Sonic Youth flirting with pop stardom but exposing their subversive world of alternative tunings and ear-splitting noise to a new landscape that seemed willing to accept such oddities.

There’s an irony that Goo was produced prior to the award winning documentary, The Year Punk Broke. Given the attitudes Sonic Youth demonstrated by signing to a major label prior to Goo‘s release and their approach to hold firm on their artistic principles, one could argue that this actually redefined the ethos of punk. A cynic could very well call it hypocrisy, but perhaps that’s an argument for another day.

Throughout the documentary, singer/guitarist, Thurston Moore, talks about destroying the corporate machine. Maybe there was a train of thought that it was better to cause destruction by being placed inside that very machine?

Either way, to a large extent both Goo and The Year Punk Broke demonstrated that Sonic Youth played by exclusive rules.

In the spring of 1989 and on the back of their career-defining album, Daydream Nation, the major labels began to stir and with reshuffles and introductions of new faces into the Sonic Youth sphere, it would result in perhaps the most tumultuous time in the band’s history in the year ahead.

Signing to Geffen Records – or, more accurately, its sibling company, DGCGeffen‘s A&R man, Gary Gersh, enlisted lawyers, Jim Grant and Roger Cramer, as the band’s official managers. It was the first taste Sonic Youth had of major label bureaucracy and it wouldn’t be the last during the process.

From the band’s Hoboken rehearsal space, Sonic Youth had demoed many of the songs that would eventually appear on Goo, including Mildred Pierce and Tunic (Song for Karen). Unlike the process of Daydream Nation, the songs for Goo were mapped out extensively, including lyrics which were almost done before the band had entered the studio.

With Sonic Youth‘s new record contract, there was no stipulation that their label were required to hear the demos before entering the recording studio. An unusual facet in those days for major labels. It was Sonic Youth‘s attempt to maintain their creative freedom and by and large it worked.

Gersh and others at Geffen threw around names of producers with Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel) being a candidate early on. However, it was settled that Nicholas Sansano would continue with the band, having produced Daydream Nation at his base at New York’s Green Street Recording studio.

With the demos to boots, the band and Sansano entered Sorcerer Sound – a studio located in downtown New York , equipped with two 24-track consoles, enabling the band to hone in on their desires for instrumental pile-ones, seismic feedback and endless overdubs.

Sansano and the band were joined by Don Fleming and Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis who both helped shape the earlier demos.

Whilst credited on Goo as ‘sub-production’, Mascis had a hand behind the drums, convincing Steve Shelley to upgrade his drum kit with additional percussion, which included the maracas which would feature prominently on Dirty Boots.

With Sonic Youth‘s avalanche of guitar overdubs which had always been a hallmark of their sound template, Sansano employed new techniques for Shelley‘s drums, too, recording a lot of the parts in isolation with hanging ambient microphones.

Both Shelley and Lee Ranaldo were apprehensive with so many outer forces joining the band in the studio. It was almost a case of too many chefs in the kitchen hovering over the broth.

So too, Sansano who not only had his work cut out with the addition of Mascis and Fleming chipping in with ideas, but he was stuck in the middle of band and management with a new level of bureaucracy which ominously clouded the whole process.

After Gersh flew over from L.A. and listened to what had been recorded, it was later decided that Sansano would leave the project.

Having begun the mixing process at Green Street Recording, Sansano was replaced by Bad Brains producer, Ron Saint Germain, who would add the final touches to Goo.

Sansano and Sonic Youth would not speak until years after the fact.

The whole rigmarole had cost five times the amount of Daydream Nation, exceeding $150,000. Easily the most expensive record Sonic Youth had cut at the time.

The ordeal so prolonged and stressful that it’s said that Kim Gordon broke down in tears after hearing the album’s final mix.

Prior to Goo‘s release, David Geffen sold his company to MCA, further muddying the waters and adding to Sonic Youth‘s collective anxiety of signing to a major with the natural fears of selling out.

To add further insult to injury, Cramer and Grant would eventually cut ties with the band prior to Goo‘s release and were replaced by John Silva, which, in hindsight, proved to be somewhat of a boon.

Silva was far more in sync with the band’s ethos having come from a similar background, sharing similar tastes and being more attuned to the band’s past.

Sonic Youth‘s attempt at cross-pollinating their past with the present provided a stroke of genius and perhaps it was their most prescient moment as a band.

It came in the way of Goo‘s artwork.

Based on the drawing of Joan Crawford by Raymond Pettibon (brother of SST founder and Black Flag‘s Gregg Ginn), his black and white sketch of two mods wearing sun-glasses was connected to Great Britain’s Moor Murders. The quote “I stole my sister’s boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road.”

Not only was Pettibon‘s artwork inspirational to Goo, but the song title, My Friend Goo, was a reference from Pettibon‘s short film, Sir Drone, while Scott and Jinx, another track from the album, were both characters of the same film.

Whilst signed to a major label, Sonic Youth projected Pettibon‘s world of art as a way of connecting their past to the present.

The label were cautious of the quote “we killed my parents and hit the road” but having kiboshed the band’s initial album title, (Blowjob?), Sonic Youth dug their heels in and in the end, Pettibon‘s illustration remained uncensored.

Sonic Youth had always come out of the gates hard with barnstorming openers and the rollicking Dirty Boots is no different, rivalling Daydream Nation‘s Teenage Riot.

Dirty Boots encompasses all the traits of the perfect alt-rock ditty, with catchy pop rhythms that slam into an almighty hailstorm of noise after the chorus.

Sonic Youth (photo credit: via artist’s Facebook page)

Despite the breezy pop leanings that are scattered throughout Goo, the songs were some of the darkest the band had written since Bad Moon Rising, in particularly Tunic (Song For Karen).

Sonically cloaked in an obscurity that can be found on lonely winding roads in the middle of nowhere, Gordon‘s spoken-word invective—written from the perspective of Karen Carpenter who had died from anorexia seven years prior—plays close alongside a sound akin to searing arrows.

Perhaps it was Gordon‘s most direct take on feminism up to that point and Carpenter proved to be a catalyst for it. It’s a swirling number delivered with a gale-force intensity.

Whilst evidently not afraid to tackle hard issues throughout Goo, Sonic Youth showcased their humorous side as well and Mary-Christ was the first of several moments.

Spearheaded by Moore‘s vocals, which were fed through megaphones—an idea that came together alongside Sansano—the warped vocals play well with the overriding guitar mess and Shelley‘s dense drum fills. The kind of song, in hindsight, that wouldn’t’ have looked out of place on Goo‘s follow-up, Dirty.

Mary-Christ fades out by Moore playing chords to Kool Thing, eventually bleeding into the track.

Kool Thing, featuring Chuck D who at the time was also in the Green Street studios recording Public Enemy‘s seminal album, Fear of Black Planet, was a track inspired by and interview Gordon conducted with LL Kool J for Spin magazine.

A tongue in cheek ironic reference to Kool J‘s cultural tastes (he hadn’t heard of The Stooges and loved Bon Jovi).

Chuck D‘s involvement was a spur of the moment decision which Sansano made happen, typifying that whimsical occurrences are often those which turn out the best, for Kool Thing is perhaps one of the most anthemic moments Sonic Youth committed to tape.

With its arcing guitar hooks and sprawling melodies, Kool Thing illuminates Gordon‘s world. No one was questioning white male corporate oppression so openly and whether it was viewed as ironic or not, it certainly provoked thought. Chuck D‘s ephemeral cameo adding a “word up” here and “fear, baby!” there being the icing on the cake.

Lee Ranaldo was always Sonic Youth‘s secret weapon. Perhaps the greatest secret weapon in any band’s arsenal of the last forty years.

Inspired by Sylvia Plath‘s The Eye Mote, Mote was yet another string to his bow; an alt-rock banger filled with layers of guitar to bone-shuddering effect, not to mention Ranaldo‘s abstract acid-trip-like lyricism which had become quite prolific (see EVOL’s In The Kingdom #19).

Where Moore‘s vocals glided alongside the music and Gordon found spaces within it, Randalo‘s voice always sliced across Sonic Youth‘s subversive clamours. It was a trio of voices attacking Sonic Youth‘s mountainous noise from different junctures.

The album’s title track is yet another shard of humour, with Gordon‘s playful bratty vocals and equally absurd lyrics almost succumbing to one her of catchiest bass lines written. Sonic Youth‘s version of bubblegum rock.

Like Dirty Boots, Disappearer oozes with zesty alt-rock fervour. It’s driving music and with Goo, Sonic Youth established a way of operating between the lines of alt-rock genius and the streamlined aesthetic of pop music.

From the eight minute demo which was shaved down to two minutes and twelve seconds, Mildred Pierce throws these notions out the window, however.

Inspired by the 1945 noir-film of the same name and starring Joan Crawford, whom Pettibon‘s illustration is based on, Mildred Pierce is screamo freak-out that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the esoteric recordings of the band’s SYR offshoot project.

Which leads into Cinderella’s Big Score. Perhaps Goo‘s best track.

With Gordon‘s snarling, venomous vocal, all five minutes and fifty-five seconds go a long way to encapsulate the essence of Goo. Those dynamic interchanges and splicing collages of sound interlocking and producing something euphoric. It’s the moment on Goo where the worlds of indie and pop amalgamate with Sonic Youth still firmly maintaining their blueprint of sound.

Clocking in at just over a minute, Scooter + Jinx is the sound of Moore‘s amplifier overheating and blowing up. Sansano caught this sinful racket on tape which leads into Titanium Exposed. A vocal to and fro between Gordon and Moore amid a backdrop of overdubbed noise which concludes the album.

Goo is Sonic Youth record that’s praised and beaten down all in the same breath. Many Sonic Youth fans hail it as their best while others treat it as a bastard child at best, a guilty pleasure at worst.

In fairness, there’s no question that Goo would occupy the top end of the Sonic Youth stratum. With hindsight or not, the band’s uncanny capacity to penetrate pop culture and not come off as some ungodly charlatan is enough evidence to suggest that Goo is far more than the mongrel adolescent some often reference it to be.

Despite the many reservations Sonic Youth had with Goo, including Gordon‘s post-production tears, many songs from it featured in the band’s live set until they called a halt in 2011. Kool Thing, My Friend Goo, Dirty Boots, Mote and Cinderella’s Big Score all regular inclusions throughout the years.

One could successfully argue that Goo was Sonic Youth‘s bravest artistic statement. With the apprehension of major label representation, they still managed to deliver an album that possessed an unbridled expansive sound, creating a world where pop, indie, psychedelia and avant-garde all occupied the same space.

In doing so, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Sonic Youth were one of the first bands to showcase that art and commerce could actually coexist.

Many bands have since picked at the carcass of these genres and have sighted Sonic Youth as their main inspiration. Many of these artists mere imitators and pretenders.

Goo was the gateway for not only the band to explore new avenues, it was a gateway for many of their younger listeners, too.

Listen on Spotify

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

15 replies on “Sonic Youth’s Goo 30th anniversary: a cross-pollination of indie and the world of pop”

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