By our Beat Music correspondent, Philip Womack.
I do not remember how, exactly, it was that I stumbled upon the American post-punk band, Sonic Youth. It was in the days before the internet, in 1995, before the rise of irritating computer programs that tell you what you may like (so softly imperious, that ‘may’); when I was in my first year at Lancing, a titanic, windy, cathedral-like place that dominated the landscape of the south coast, rising into the sky like a Gormenghastian Tower of Flints.
My musical education, up till then, had consisted of three strands: the classical (I was a piano player, and my parents listened to Radio 3 and Classic FM); the French (my father, having worked abroad, had a taste for Gallic singers of the 1960s and 70s); and long-haired rock. My tiny prep school had three tapes (yes, they were cassettes) available for the use of its pupils: Queen, Bon Jovi and Nirvana. These were played, seemingly all the time, everywhere: from Art room to indoor football. For a while we went around in plaid shirts and jeans, thinking that we were American grungers. The effect was not successful.
When I arrived at Lancing one of the first questions that older boys would ask (apart from ‘what football team do you support’ – something which I was equally unable to answer) was ‘what music do you like?’ I didn’t really know – I liked everything from Bach to Blur. The older boys in my dormitory preferred listening to straightforward pop music: but I knew I wanted more than ‘Gangsters Paradise’ and the chart-pillaging normality of ‘Now That’s What I Call Music! 32’.
So I became an avid reader of the New Musical Express, which was rather luxuriously delivered to my door every Wednesday morning. I would spend the afternoon immersed in its prose – which I then admired enormously – and would dream about being in a band, being in London, being free. I must have come across a reference to Sonic Youth in one of their reviews or features. They were always spoken of reverently: musical explorers, uncompromising in their vision, secret yet accessible. The next time I went to a record shop in Brighton, I came back home clutching one of their CDs as if it were a sacrament.
It was Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994). I remember going up to my room at home with the sense of something immanent. My bedroom was small, book-lined and covered in posters, a temple to other worlds for which I yearned. I put on the CD, nervously, and waited. At first, I must admit, I was disappointed. There were no obvious hooks; nothing of the jauntiness of my other favourite band, Elastica. I put it away – yet with the feeling that it was I who was at fault. On a trip to London I found Dirty (1992). This time, my fingers trembled as I put the CD into its little spinning box. There was always a tiny pause when it went on, as the machine whirred into life: sometimes it would stick, and time would be wasted polishing CDs fruitlessly. So I held my breath as it sputtered into the first track: and then sat down on my bed, entranced. The moment I put it on I knew that I had found my band. Dirty is a record that hurtles from snarling, spitting guitars, through mountainous, jagged noise, to beatific calm and whimsy. So began a torrid, passionate love affair which has lasted for fifteen years, and continues still strong.
Other bands I grow tired of, sometimes even after one or two listens. But Sonic Youth never disappoint. I even grew to love their less successful albums, Jet Set and Washing Machine. The reason was their total difference to anything else I had ever come across: here were a bunch of well-educated New Yorkers influenced by William Burroughs and the Sex Pistols, politically motivated and musically aware; there was I, learning about gerunds and reading Virginia Woolf. Yet somehow I found a congruity between the band and my other influences: there is a song on Dirty called ‘Theresa’s Sound World’ that soars into shimmering, knife-like melodies which I would listen to over and over again. The people in Sonic Youth songs seemed to be wild and brave and passionate; they loved and sang and danced like the people in the novels I read, like the classics I was translating. The lead singer, sempiternally boyish Thurston Moore, became a divine figure in my personal mythology, his intelligent, mumbly vocals, gravelly and faint, giving the band a touch of genius. His wife, Kim Gordon, beautiful, yelping and loopy, managed somehow to be at once harsh and soft: when she would whisper ‘you’re going to be free – just for a while’, it somehow encapsulated everything that I thought or knew about life so far.
Sonic Youth continued to be the background to my school years: ‘Hoarfrost’ I would listen to whilst revising Virgil, Plato, Homer and Petronius, its gentle, sliding lyricism a counterpoint to the burning sun and the blazing vocabularies. I remember being devasated when the band’s van was stolen, with all their specially tuned guitars; but when their next offering arrived, in 2000, my final year at school, the two songs ‘Never Mind (What Was it Anyway)’ and ‘Renegade Princess’ would roll out of my speakers nightly. Occasionally people would nod as they came into my room and say ‘that’s good’; but I would simply nod too. I never sought to introduce anyone else to Sonic Youth. Somehow I didn’t want to.
And now, those gods of the guitar continue to provide layered, wise, melodic albums. Their most recent, the appropriately-titled The Eternal (2009) continues to experiment and explore, to challenge and confront. Their music reached across the vast expanse of the Atlantic, from underground clubs full of punks to my dormitory room. It hooked me, and it has me still. Long may Sonic Youth continue.
Philip Womack is the author of The Other Book and The Liberators
'The Other Book' by Philip Womack was published by Bloomsbury in 2008