Sonic Youth Versus the Soviet Union
The crux of Sonic Youth, both in music and personal affect, was contingent upon being forward-thinking enough to break rules that didn’t even exist yet. Moscow was a different beast.
When the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, then writing for Creem, was asked by a local journalist what he felt the future of the genre held, his response arrived with just as little hesitation as it did modesty: “It’s being taken over by the Germans and the machines,” he said. This was 1975, a pivotal new contemporary zeitgeist that began to lug pop music up from the distorted blues of acts like Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, and into the forward-thinking, prototypical time travel of David Bowie and Elton John. Both foreign music, and foreign ideas, were not nearly as welcomed into American culture as they would evolve to be several decades later.
“As is well known, it was the Germans who invented methamphetamine, which of all accessible tools has brought human beings within the closest twitch of machinehood,” Bangs continued, “and without methamphetamine we would never have had such high plasma marks of the counterculture as Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl,’ Blue Cheer, Cream and Creem, as well as all of the fine performances in Andy Warhol movies not inspired by heroin. So it can easily be seen that it was in reality the Germans who were responsible for Blonde on Blonde and On the Road; the Reich never died, it was just reincarnated in American archetypes ground out by holloweyed jerkyfingered mannikins locked into their typewriters and guitars like rhinoceroses copulating.”
“This sound was a churning alien of weird toolbox-borne amplifier feedback, ostensibly sentient string barrages, and sinister threats untranslatable from a heap of technological idiosyncrasies.”
Although Bangs was talking about Kraftwerk, a visionary German rock quartet that was, at the time, gradually etching its robotic influence into a U.S rock movement that swore against its ethos, the same radical concepts could have been applied to the soon-emergent makeup of Sonic Youth: Sonic Youth was never as inherently contrary to the fabric as Kraftwerk were – championing a domestic indie rock scene was a tiny bit easier than shipping German techno across the Atlantic to American rock diehards – but still, their future-focused outlook presented a natural point of conflict with surroundings that innovated more haphazardly than intentionally. From the onset, Sonic Youth seemed to operate not out of propriety, but juxtaposition. A popular dated image of frontman-slash-guitarist Thurston Moore, for instance, pictures him hammering away at his Fender Jazzmaster with a set of drumsticks during a performance of ‘The Burning Spear,’ the opening track of the group’s 1982 eponymous debut EP. It was not an onstage gimmick – beyond this, the in-studio recording process of ‘Burning Spear’ also consisted of an electric drill being operated through a wah-wah pedal, and a second drumstick being stuffed between the pickguard and strings of Moore’s guitar as a homemade muting agent. (Correction, Mr. Bangs: the Reich never died, it was just reincarnated in American archetypes ground out by holloweyed jerkyfingered mannikins locked into their typewriters and guitars ** and electric drills and drumsticks ** like rhinoceroses copulating.)
It’s a seemingly out-of-place approach that only makes some strange form of sense when considered alongside its nucleus. Sonic Youth emerged from the squalid streets of a New York downtown riddled with underground culture and underground crime, equally rough-cut and dynamic. When Thurston Moore moved into an apartment there in early 1977, he formed a short-lived faction alongside a slew of roommates called ‘Coachmen’; and, when that group broke up, he formed another one alongside the bass player – Kim Gordon – of a separate band he had begun jamming with. The new group shifted back and forth between a series of monikers including ale Bonding, Red Milk, and the Arcadians, before settling on Sonic Youth. “As soon as Thurston came up with the name Sonic Youth,” Gordon would recall later on, “a certain sound that was more of what we wanted to do came about.”
This sound was a churning alien of weird toolbox-borne amplifier feedback, ostensibly sentient string barrages, and sinister threats untranslatable from a heap of technological idiosyncrasies. And it quickly caught fire among the expansive melting pot of upstart bands that populated their milieu. The movement became New York’s first iteration of noise rock, a genre that aggregated personalities just as brash as the instruments they performed behind. Sonic Youth was no bystander in the earning of noise rock’s hard-edged reputation: when Robert Christgau, a critic belonging to the now-defunct New York newspaper The Village Voice, responded to outcries that he was ignoring noise rock acts by saying that he wasn’t obligated to support them in the first place, Moore retaliated by renaming the Sonic Youth song “Kill Yr Idols” to “I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick.” (Moore and Christgau would eventually work out their differences.)
The crux of Sonic Youth, both in music and personal affect, was contingent upon being forward-thinking enough to break rules that didn’t even exist yet. When Thurston Moore whipped out an electric screwdriver to – in a very serious, non-joking way – churn out chunky guitar riffs in front of perplexed audiences, it wasn’t unbelievable because he was doing it incorrectly; it was unbelievable because no one had done it before. When lead singles commenced with minutes upon minutes of what often sounded like a junkyard of abandoned, indistinct, screaming instrumental sections, one didn’t listen to it because it was good; one listened to it because it was challenging. And – of course – when a lack of coverage from the local paper resulted in direct, public, profane attacks of prominent journalists, rather than serious group sit-downs about “our creative future,” it wasn’t daring because Sonic Youth knew the consequences; it was daring because Sonic Youth didn’t know the consequences – they didn’t exist yet.
“The same exact decade that Sonic Youth was racing with conventional rock & roll to see who could predict the future the fastest, the United States of America was racing the Soviet Union for the verbatim global equivalent.“
At the same time that such a movement gained traction, breaking rules – especially ones that had not yet been realized – was a gospel that America, too, was now beginning to realize for its own creed. Sonic Youth’s critical peak is represented by Daydream Nation, the 1988 record of theirs that epitomized a height of the musical niche they had spent the previous decade diligently carving out. The same exact decade that Sonic Youth was racing with conventional rock & roll to see who could predict the future the fastest, the United States of America was racing the Soviet Union for the verbatim global equivalent. It was an era defined by the grueling final rounds of the Cold War, a punchless tooth-and-nail battle that saw each superpower scramble to generate grand innovations solely for flexing purposes: suddenly, there was a government-affiliate outer space exploration program. A proliferation of previously fictitious nuclear weaponry. A silent knowledge that, at any given moment, both you and the rest of the world were going to the same textbook section as the dinosaurs.
But, buried deep down at the very root of all the hoopla, was the very thing that made Lester Bangs sell Kraftwerk as a low-key source of methamphetamine dependency: it wasn’t lone innovations at war; just as much, if not more, it was the ideas. This had not changed since David Bowie and Elton John’s 1975. The late stages of the Cold War represented a radioactive boiling point that saw each country increasingly both demonized, and obscured, by the other. (In one anecdote my fourth grade teacher – a black man from urban New York – once told us in class, upon receiving a photograph of him, his Soviet elementary school pen pal wrote back: “Where’s your gun and your cowboy hat?”). As pleasant as the Soviet Union may have been to someone who lived there, it was the most despicable war-torn wasteland on the other side of the lens. And vice versa. With communism and capitalism on the waters, invisible U.S-Soviet borders were functionally closed off, blockaded from all ideas capable of threatening what already existed at home.
So, just like the weapons of mass destruction, the music learned to fester in isolation on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Kraftwerk, though from Germany and not the U.S.S.R, spent the 1970s pioneering an alien approach to soundmaking – the synthesizer – that wouldn’t make its way into the U.S until those aforementioned ideological borders were further torn down: Bangs’1975 interview with the group comes off less like a conversation and more like an interrogation, questionable musical practices being the charge, with convicts shaken down for whatever expertise could potentially prove useful for American intelligence. “Now the tapes have stopped rolling and the computers have been packed up until the next gig,” Bangs wrote, briefly prefacing the reportage that would follow, “and the Werk’s two percussionists, Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos, who play wired pads about the size of Ouija boards have been dispatched to their separate rooms, barred from the interview because their English is not so hot.” Look up the Ouija board-sized wired pads in question, and you will find that they look a lot like MPCs, the all-in-one percussion instruments used by modern-day producers to make trap music. This was 1975.
Back in America, the state of the War became a catalyst for what would soon turn into a haphazard cultural incubator, in which our very own musical artillery was nurtured to an individuality rivaling that of its enemy overseas. Of course, yet – right in line with the war’s very nature – no amount of buildup could negate the fact that no bomb of enemy origin had actually been sent to either side.
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“This song is about me personally sending a bomb,” Moore announced to a crowd of Soviet onlookers, right before bursting into ‘Teen Age Riot.’
It’s a moment that, along with the legion of similarly surreal interactions it came packaged with, spent three decades locked away from all human ears that weren’t there to hear it firsthand. In April of 1989, Sonic Youth played a small string of concerts in Moscow basements as part of that year’s European tour – sometimes monitored by KGB agents, and at all times host to a small population of Russian youth who had illicitly gotten their hands on bootleg copies of Daydream Nation. Released in 2020, Live in Moscow (April 1989) takes a chainsaw to a time capsule long left to collect dust in the crevices of rock iconography, a living testament to the fact that maybe, after all, a U.S bomb was dropped on the Soviet Union between the years of 1947 and 1991.
But maybe the ideological borders were too high up for anyone to notice. Speaking with Vulture about career superlatives in 2020, Moore recalled feeling taken aback by the cold reception he received from Russian audiences over the two shows documented on the record. “Nobody had ever heard of us, let alone heard us,” he said. “We would play in front of audiences that were basically Russian families who were coming out for a night’s entertainment. It was like no PA to speak of, just a couple of beat-up guitar amps that we would have to sing through. We were really out of our element. People just watched us in curiosity and wonder. There was hardly any response. (…) It was just confusion by these Russian families sitting there.”
Much like Lester Bangs’ generation seemed to gawk at something as retrospectively fundamental as the synthesizer, after decades of ostracization, America’s beloved noise rock scene was the Soviet Union’s mindfuck. The result is a jarring image to visualize: picture shaggy-haired American rock stars – the same shaggy faces that graced high-profile magazine covers, played legendary late-night raves, and built an entire nationwide subgenre from the ground up – returning home from a lackluster show of bored Russian families to individual plates of hotel goulash. “It’s a memory I’ll never forget — not just the gigs, but just the entire experience of being in the Soviet Union as this kind of sort of poor art-rock band,” Moore added in the Vulture interview. “The food was inedible. It was really an experience and education, seeing these real failed aspects of what should have been progressive socialism but wasn’t progressive.”
Everything about Live in Moscow feels fake. Before one even gets to open any of the 300 vinyl pressings that were made for the record, they are confronted with the image of – once again – four shaggy-haired American rock stars, posing in sunglasses and short-sleeved t-shirts in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the heart of the very city that proved too frigid for German troops at World War II’s conclusion.
“One day you may be playing the Soviet Union. The next day it may be falling apart.”
And yet, in a somewhat eerie sense, the surreality is the exact same when the concert fades into earshot. The first time I listened to Live in Moscow, I was on an early-morning road trip to upstate New York, sitting in the backseat with my sister, who we had been dropping off to a summer pre-college program. I was already scared of the silence I would be returning home to. But the silence of the audience felt more tangible. It sounded a lot like the kind of jumpscare-ridden performance that you would see in a rock and roll-themed episode of The Haunting Hour: the band, soaked in sweat and delight, finishes playing a crazy show, only for deathly quiet to greet them in place of applause. The camera pans out, and there is a sea of staring apparitions.
Sometimes fear was the driving force behind those eerie silences. In one memorable example, Moore introduces ‘Teen Age Riot’ with the screamed monologue “This song is called ‘Homosexuals Are Real, and Homosexuals Are Free, and Something Tells Me That You Don’t Agree.’ I am a homosexual, and this song is called ‘Teen Age Riot!’” The audience (if there is one) is ghastly silent. Behind that audience, there is probably a group of KGB agents. And behind those KGB agents, there is definitely a Soviet law declaring that homosexual intercourse is punishable by up to five years in prison.
As little as two years after Sonic Youth performed in Moscow, the Soviet Union would collapse, the Berlin Wall would fall, and the hometown hammer-and-sickle would be lowered for the final time. Playing shows in the Soviet Union right before its collapse meant, unbeknownst to Sonic Youth at the time, leaving one of few final American footprints on the regime’s withering cultural soil; the sun would go dark before any seeds had a chance to grow, but having a chance to sow them was a right the entire United States of America had – unsuccessfully – spent its previous four decades trying to secure as national property. For a Soviet Union that saw Americans as trigger-fingered honky tonk cowboys with acoustic guitars, Sonic Youth’s exceptionally weird musical output was a wake-up call that came when night had long fallen, an outstretched arm reaching toward an enemy whose own arm had been severed in battle. And with all the things the audience’s silence could have represented over the stretch of Sonic Youth’s few Moscow performances – confusion, fear, annoyance, misunderstanding – it becomes clear by the final guitar screech that it’s not the music that holds the message: even more so, the quiet between the noise is the most profound instrument.
Live In Moscow additionally marked unofficial ends to both the heyday of Sonic Youth’s indie noise rock creation, and the band’s stint atop its hierarchy. By the end of 1989, Sonic Youth would go on to sign a deal with the more mainstream Geffen Records, indirectly inserting themselves into a much tougher uphill climb against the zeitgeist they once left behind. The move would yield mixed results. Nearly all of their major-label records, starting with 1990’s Goo, proved them increasingly worthy of the more unforgiving stage they now elected to grace, pushing them steadily along the conveyor belt from newcomers to icons. But as more success created more autonomy, Sonic Youth’s music moved further away from its loudly distorted beginnings, and closer to an experimentation that, at times, was forsaken by the very same niches that once furnished its ascent. “‘We wanted it to be less rock,” Gordon said of Dirty (1992) in David Browne’s Sonic Youth biography Goodbye 20th Century. “Dirty was pretty much the pinnacle of that. I guess we were really disappointed in the label that they didn’t get MTV to play the record. Or we just felt, ‘Well, we’re just not that sort of band anyway.’”
It’s a stringent risk-or-reward duality that comes guaranteed with the band’s once-in-a-generation approach: some days, you’re getting airplay on MTV; other days, you’re cursing out New York’s most prominent music journalist for deliberately ignoring your music. Some days, audience members have to be restrained from climbing atop the stage; other days, the few audience members present are staring at you in hopes that you will start making sense at some point. One day you may be playing the Soviet Union. The next day it may be falling apart.
The context of a set like Live in Moscow leaves one in an endless bath of what-ifs – each and every one of them stemming from the foundational what if those borders never existed? What would Russian music sound like if U.S acts like Sonic Youth had been able to perform there – on a regular basis, for that matter – and plant the seeds of revolution? What would American music sound like if the synthesizer had not been as much of a newly foreign object as it was in 1975, setting us ahead by at least one decade in the soundscape of our cultural timeline? “Live in Moscow feels like a town crier yelling into the void,” Rolling Stone’s David Browne wrote in a review last year, “warning us what was coming when only a few people were listening.” The concert came so late in an avoidable game that even the few people listening to the cheat code couldn’t have done anything to win: the doors to diffusion had been barred shut for so long, that foreign music was white noise.
…And some of that was because Sonic Youth was just weird as hell. Too weird to be fully understood both at home and abroad, regardless of any divides presented by ideological warfare. Being weird, yet, if anything, has peaks that far outlast being misconceived. It means that, whether people believe you or not, you can see the future.
At one point in his Creem interview with Kraftwerk, Bangs wondered aloud whether they would have liked to see technology make electrodes in the brain communicate directly with loudspeakers, amplifying every single thought for all who were interested in listening. When Hütter said that such a thing would be fantastic, Bangs agreed that it would be the ‘final solution to the music problem.’
“No, not the solution,” Hütter replied. “The next step.”