Thirty years ago this week, experimental noise-punk visionaries Sonic Youth changed the underground rock world with their 1988 avant-rock masterpiece, Daydream Nation. The sprawling double-LP remains a howling beacon of holy noise straddling the crossroads of the avant garde, noise-rock, cyberpunk, and psychedelia.
Daydream Nation was Sonic Youth’s avant-rock manifesto, setting in stone the band’s modus operandi of riding the borderline between the accessible and esoteric, not just within the space of an album, but within single songs, doing so with such hypnotizing grace that we should think of them as missionaries of noise converting many unsuspecting, vanilla listeners into devout noise enthusiasts. It’s a skill they’ve honed following their invaluable work on the dreams-meet-reality of Sister the previous year, and one that would carry on through to their next venture, the pop-culture-themed Goo. Daydream Nation was the next logical rung on the ladder, it lifted Sonic Youth to a legendary status that would only snowball from then on, although none of their 10 LPs that followed were able sustain this exalted state of grace over the course of an entire album.
Sonic Youth’s prime mover was Thurston Moore (guitar, vocals) who had dropped out of Western Connecticut State University in the late ‘70s to join the no-wave/post-punk scene in New York which is where he met bassist and future wife Kim Gordon. Having come of age in Los Angeles, Gordon had moved to NYC after graduating from art school. Thurston and Kim met at the final gig of The Coachmen — Thurston’s band at the time — and almost instantly became the It Couple of the New York underground rock scene. In 1981, they formed Sonic Youth with guitarist Lee Ranaldo, a fellow habitue of the downtown art/rock scene. Moore met Ranaldo while working together on downtown avant-rock avatar Glenn Branca’s Lesson No. 1 together. Branca, who passed away earlier this year, was responsible for facilitating the germination of many a New York noiseling. Early on, Sonic Youth employed a revolving cast of drummers before the SY drum stool was permanently occupied by Steve Shelley, formerly of Michigan hardcore band The Crucifucks (arguably the greatest band name in the history of Michigan hardcore).
Early on, Sonic Youth combined the innovative abuse of their instruments — often sticking all sorts of foreign objects into their guitars, from drumsticks to forks to power tools — with the bizarre alternate tunings that were a staple of their guitar voicings. Confusion Is Sex was Sonic Youth’s 1983 debut. It is the most true to their New York No Wave roots of any record in their discography, and was met with radically mixed reviews, ranging from Blender’s one-star rating to Spin’s 8/10. Their 1985 sophomore album, Bad Moon Rising, was an enormous leap toward accessibility, with more pleasing tones, higher fidelity, and a broader sonic palate. Its release followed a long period of near-weekly performances in New York, until they decided to start a new chapter by replacing their gear and changing their tunings, forcing themselves to write new material. Their experimental guitar and noise techniques, however, were not sacrificed to this newfound musical maturity.
On the contrary, the width and depth of Sonic Youth’s noisescapes only expanded over time. Evol (1986), which would be released just a year later, was no exception. While maintaining such momentum of growth, the band showcased a tremendous enhancement of songwriting on this latest endeavor, and critics took note of this. A deft balance between loud and soft, with post-rock elements beginning to shine through a noisy punk core, Evol was the beginning of the elbow at the logarithmic curve that represents Sonic Youth’s growing prestige in the ‘80s. That elbow would be bent further by their next LP, Sister, in ‘87, which drew lyrical inspiration from the life and works of of sci-fi legend, Philip K. Dick, the album’s title referencing his twin sister who died at birth. Sonically, the record was a step toward pop for the band, which, considering where they were coming from, placed them in the realm of proper alternative rock. Nevertheless, Sister still featured some of their boldest and most abrasive songs yet. Its sci-fi allusions foreshadowed themes that were to come in their next album, Daydream Nation, which turned thirty years old last Thursday.
It all started in the summer of ‘88, in a basement studio called Greene St. Recordings in the sweltering grungies of SoHo, where Sonic Youth was hard at work laying down their fifth full-length studio album with producer Nick Sansano (Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and Run DMC). Daydream Nation was Sonic Youth’s first “big-budget” record, with a $30,000 price tag that surpassed the cost of any of their prior records five times over. Sansano’s guidance combined with the luxury of time — the band spent 30 days in the studio — allowed Sonic Youth to nurture drawn-out jams and gloriously clangorous drones into cohesive songs with stellar hooks while continuing to develop their idiosyncratic brand of experimentalism, this time in the high production-value setting of a pro studio. The results are fairly face-melting.
“Teen Age Riot” features Moore’s catchy riffs and poppy vocal melodies rubbing up against the band’s gritty instrumentation, which stir up images of a stormy surf-town where the kids run the shit, no adults in sight. Open-garage bands blare on every block, and the country is on the brink of a punk-rock revolution. “It takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed right now,” Moore sings.
“The Sprawl” is one of the handful of cyberpunk sci-fi allusions on Daydream Nation. The title is a direct reference to science fiction writer William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy about a not-too-distant dystopian future where technology has surpassed humanity’s control. In the series, The Sprawl is a supermassive urban landscape stretching across the U.S.’s east coast. The song has a very on-the-move rhythm fitting for the motor-vehicle-dependent nature of urban sprawls.
“Total Trash” revisits the radio-friendly vibes of “Teen Age Riot.” Moore leads the gang through that rich, melodic riffage we’ve been salivating over. It’s another one of those perfect alt-rock grooves that Sonic Youth deliver so flawlessly, those unstoppable underground earworms that threaten the ubiquitous kingdom of pop. That is until they break into a belligerent noise jam as the guitar hook mutates into a dissonant, whining animal. This goes on for three minutes, Steve Shelley’s drumming evolving into swinging beatdowns, and the rest of the band reacting accordingly. Then, the noise jam subsides for two more stanzas, like nothing had changed.
“Providence”: A lonely, reverb-drenched walkman cassette recording of Thurston Moore improvising on his mother’s piano guides this track as it unfolds into a dark daydream of a sound collage. What’s that lovely, god-awful rumbling in the background? It’s an abused amplifier suffocating in the heat of its own tubes. On top of that, an answering machine plays Mike Watt (bassist of Minutemen, Firehose, Ciccone Youth, and more) calling from Providence, Rhode Island, berating Thurston for misplacing some instrument cables and suggesting that smoking pot had taken a toll on his memory. It was such a simple arrangement of unconventional sounds, but created an atmosphere that has been central to the aesthetics of post-rock, dark ambient, and drone acts.
Daydream Nation is to alt-rock what Dune is to sci-fi: the urtext, a seminal masterpiece that let a thousand noisy flowers bloom. As the ‘90s rolled on through, Daydream Nation’s influence was palpable in the ascendancy of grunge and shoegaze. The record’s importance has been recognized by the Library of Congress, who inducted it into the National Registry in 2005. Daydream Nation’s essence rings out in much of the alt-rock that followed it over the course of the last 30 years. Pray the kids continue to find it and change music again. — KYLE WEINSTEIN