Friday, January 06, 2012

Goodbye, 20th century 2010


You know that quiet period, that lull between Christmas and New Year? Nope, me neither. It's New Year's Eve Eve, and yet those generous folks at ATP are still playing Santa, delivering a belated Christmas present in the form of the finest band on the planet.

First, though, a nice little stocking-filler. Tomorrow night, London will be even more fortunate, getting Shellac and Factory Floor too. (Hmm, that or Jools' Annual Hootenanny - the agony of choice, eh, Londoners?) Those of us in Manchester will just have to make do with the other support act, The Pop Group. The cheeky so-and-sos - pop is just about the only thing they aren't. Clanging, bitter, misanthropic post-punk (appropriate given they're on Joy Division's home turf) - yes. Fierce Gang Of Four funk - yes. Echoey dub - yes. Even a bit of free jazz. But not pop. Cowell would cack himself.

Not for nothing did Nick Cave declare them and their classic single 'We Are All Prostitutes' (pull some punches, why don't you?) to be "violent, paranoid music for violent, paranoid times". The times in question were the very early 80s, but, let's face it, not much has changed and their politically charged racket sounds both strikingly contemporary and necessary. Credit to ATP for, as ever, being unable to resist the temptation to assist in the resurrection/rehabilitation of a cult band.

"It's been a long time", says Kim Gordon, in that customary too-cool-for-school drawl which is by now as familiar and reassuring as the enormous rack of individually and uniquely tuned guitars stage left. She's bedazzling in gold, stealing attention from three of her bandmates: Lee Ranaldo, who later appears to be pioneering the use of a guitar as a power drill; Steve Shelley, still baby-faced and keeping everything ticking along smartly; and Mark Ibold, a man whose grin betrays the knowledge that he can die happy, having been a member of not one but two iconic rock bands.

But even Gordon can't avert our eyes from her husband. With his check shirt and shaggy hair (where does he get it cut?!), Thurston Moore is the Peter Pan of rock, playfully swinging his guitar lead like a lassoo to coax out bleeps of feedback and indulging in vigorous amp frottage as if possessed with the lusty loins of a horny teenager. "What's everyone doing tomorrow?", he asks, teasing those of us who would kill to be doing this again, a couple of hundred miles away in the capital, but can't.

Sonic Youth may no longer be sonic youth (Gordon's now 57 and even the youngest members, Shelley and Ibold, are pushing the half-century), but they're definitely radical adults intent on licking it godhead-style. The quintet's most recent album, 2009's The Eternal, may find them at their most accessible (perhaps perversely as soon as they've left a major label for Matador), but it's also great to hear them taking delight in sonically revisiting the late 80s when they were last on independents. Sod synths and shoulder pads - this is an 80s revival I CAN get with. The material seriously impressed at the MBV-curated ATP Nightmare Before Christmas a year ago, and tonight the trio of 'Poisoned Arrow', 'Anti-Orgasm' and 'Antenna' (the latter of which Moore dedicates to the late Ari Up) is superb.

There are oldies, too, of course - songs greeted like old friends about which I've learned much more from David Browne's excellent portrait of the band, Goodbye 20th Century. Evol opener 'Tom Violence', for instance, which I take huge pleasure in witnessing live for the first time, was named as a pun on Television's Tom Verlaine, while Gordon's spoken-word lyrics from Daydream Nation classic 'The Sprawl' - "Are you for sale? / Fuck you / Does fuck you sound simple enough?" - are direct transcriptions of exchanges between prostitutes and punters overheard arguing beneath the window of her and Moore's New York apartment. What emerges most strongly from Browne's book, perhaps, is Sonic Youth's ability to absorb, reflect and refract both mainstream and underground culture in a way that is (and has been for so many) inspirational rather than merely parasitic.

'Death Valley '69', which closes the second encore, inevitably steals the show - those two gargantuan chords battering down on our heads like the meaty fists of a vengeful giant. But very welcome indeed is the apparent rediscovery of Sister, some 23 years since its release, and both 'Stereo Sanctity' and 'White Cross' are wonderful. '(I've Got A) Catholic Block' is fantastic too - at the third attempt, the band having fucked it up twice. Turns out they're human after all.

Set-list: 'No Way' / 'Sacred Trickster' / 'Calming The Snake' / 'Tom Violence' / 'Walkin' Blue' / 'Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)' / 'Poisoned Arrow' / 'Anti-Orgasm' / 'Antenna' / '(I've Got A) Catholic Block' / 'Stereo Sanctity' / 'What We Know' / 'Massage The History' // 'The Sprawl' / 'Cross The Breeze' // 'White Cross' / 'Death Valley '69'


skif said...

Sonic Youth are one of those iconic groups that have never grabbed me. I always assume the fault is with me rather than the band though.

Leon made me a compilation tape of their gear in about 14 BC, which I didn't much care for, and I've never gone back to them since.

I reckon I need an actual full LP. If so, where should I start?

Preferably one I can get for a fiver in Fopp!

Ben said...

As a man of fine taste, I'm horrified at this!

Where to start - well, that's a big question. My starting point was Dirty (1992), and that's probably the most accessible album - second one on the major label, on the cusp of the grunge wave. The Eternal (2009) would actually be a good place to start too, to be honest, for accessibility. If you're looking for something slightly more experimental, then Daydream Nation (1988) is peerless (though the recording quality isn't great - a bit tinny).

In truth, for every one of their albums you'd be able to find a fan who'd swear it's their best. The very early stuff (Confusion Is Sex/Kill Your Idols) plus the turn-of-the-century albums (A Thousand Leaves and NYC Ghosts & Flowers) are probably best saved for later, though.

Ben said...

(I meant to imply that you're the man of fine taste, by the way...)

skif said...

I can only apologise, flogging myself raw whilst doing so.

Although I'm sure we all have our blindspots.

I could name a few others, but you may never speak to me again! ;-)

Ben said...

Don't worry - all will be forgiven if you see the light as regards Sonic Youth! ;)

skif said...

Well, I can't promise anything. As a lot of my blindspots reside in US alt. rock, they have a mountain to climb.

Financially, I could use being into fewer bands rather than more. :-)