Sonic Youth - Dirty

My favorite moment from Sonic Youth’s bazillion-year history comes just after the four-minute mark of “Sugar Kane,” the third single from Dirty. The band has just launched into one of its trademark guitar-squall freakouts, one that starts off relatively linear and soon descends into near chaos before sputtering out entirely. We hear a few seconds of buzzing nothingness, punctuated by a few chords that sound just like church bells. And then a new guitar line comes in, this one heart-stoppingly beautiful, hovering like a butterfly, bringing the song immediately into focus. It always reminded me a bit of my favorite moment from Led Zeppelin’s history: “Whole Lotta Love,” after the smacked-out dub-noise middle section, when the drums and then the total-war riff come roaring back in. But it’s also the complete opposite of that Zeppelin moment. It doesn’t bring violence. It brings beauty.

I can vividly remember the first time I heard that moment — 12 years old, watching this PBS show-for-teenagers thing that sometimes played music videos (really my only way of seeing music videos at home, since I didn’t have cable). That video, set at a Marc Jacobs fashion show and featuring the first-ever on-camera appearance of Chloë Sevigny (walking around short-haired and naked and already looking like a star), was pretty much the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Dirty was my first Sonic Youth album, the first album that the band released when I had any idea who they were. I got it from the BMG Music Club, one of my eight free CDs that I got before somehow worming out of my contract, on the strength of that video and hearing “100%” on the radio a couple of times. The perception of Dirty and Goo, then as now, is that they were the band’s pop moment, their big attempt to make good on their major-label contract. But other than the trashcan-punk tantrum “Nic Fit,” a cover of a semi-obscure early DC hardcore song, I didn’t have the musical vocabulary to make the tiniest bit of sense out of anything on Dirty. It was just weird as fuck, and it sounded so impossibly cool and grimy and glamorous that I spent long hours with it, trying to imagine the world it came from.

Of course, there’s a very good reason why Dirty ended up being my first Sonic Youth album. It’s the band’s big entry into the alterna-rock boom period, an era they helped usher in when they convinced Nirvana that it would be OK to sign with DGC. And the label had big expectations for the album. They recruited Butch Vig, fresh off of Nevermind, to record the thing, and they ended up making four different videos for songs from the album. In retrospect, all that hope was ridiculous; “Teenage Riot,” from three years before, is way more accessible than anything on Dirty.

Dirty never ended up as the crossover smash that the label was hoping for, but the very notion that they had a platinum hit on their hands here just illustrates how chaotic that moment was, how nobody had any idea where things would go after Nevermind. Because there was never any chance in hell that Dirty would be a Nevermind-level success, and that becomes abundantly clear just from skimming the album. First single and opener “100%” interrupts itself a couple of times so it can trip all over some squalid noise. “Youth Against Fascism” wishes hell upon Clarence Thomas and ropes in Ian MacKaye to play guitar; I’m pretty sure it’s the only time the symbolic DC punk hero ever had anything to do with a major-label release. There’s barely a chorus to be heard on the entire thing. Nevermind, for all its challenges to conventional rock wisdom, had big and clean and obvious hooks. Dirty just has weirdo magnetism.

But that weirdo magnetism was enough to convert a 12-year-old me, to the point where I got seriously pissed at my best friend three years later for daring to talk shit about the band’s Lollapalooza headlining set. (He thought it was boring and indulgent, and for most 15-year-old punks, it probably was. I thought he was being a total philistine.) After Dirty, I went back and filled in all the blanks, listening to all the band’s indie-era stuff and picking favorites. But nothing they did before resonated on the gut-level that Dirty did. Nothing spoke to me like Kim Gordon, all diffuse Brigitte Bardot cool, intoning blank condescending non-sequitur fury all over “Drunken Butterfly.” If I’d heard Sister or Bad Moon Rising for the first time at 12, maybe they would’ve hit me the same way. But thanks to the utterly strange context of that moment, Dirty ended up being my first brush with this particular version of the uncanny, and I’ll always love it.

Comments section! First brush with Sonic Youth? Favorite album from the band’s history? And how weird is it that this band ever ended up headlining a Lollapalooza tour over Hole and Beck and Cypress Hill and Elastica? Also, let’s watch some videos, and let’s all marvel at the Spike Jonze footage of an incredibly young pre-Mallrats pro skater Jason Lee in “100%.”

Comments (44)
  1. woozefa  |   Posted on Jul 20th, 2012 +5

    should’ve waited til it turned thirty. just sounds better.

  2. I have a very clear “first brush with Sonic Youth.” I was about to be in the backseat of my parent’s van for an hour+ long ride, and my mom said I could buy a new CD at some local store and I chose Daydream Nation based on having heard “Teenage Riot” a couple times, having seen SY on Beevis Butthead, and really really liking the album art. The entire album just felt impossibly cool as I listened to it on a shitty walkman over the course of the car ride. Probably still one of my favorites of all time (for any band).

    Dirty’s really great too though. I was born in 1991 so obviously wasn’t cognizant of the indie/alt musical landscape when Dirty came out but I’ve always gotten the impression that it turned a lot of early SY fans against the band for being too pop(?)/major label(?)/something like that. Is this actually true or just one of those narratives that get formed in retrospect?

    • If you were born in ’91 how were you watching Beavis and Butthead? Wasn’t that show on in like ’93?

      It sounds like you were listening to Sonic Youth by the time you were 8, I’d say that is pretty good. When I was 8 my favorite group was probably Tag Team.

      • So I just looked it up and today is the 19th anniversary of Whoomp! (There It Is). If there isn’t a 20th anniversary write up one year from today I’m gonna shit.

      • Oh haha, all the Beavis and Butthead and SY listening was way later than any of that stuff aired/came out. I used to watch a lot of Beavis and Butthead reruns with my older brother who had grown up with the show.

  3. First brush with SY was the Lollapalooza ep of “The Simpsons” in 1996. I thought Sonic Youth was a ripoff of my favorite band, Smashing Pumpkins (they both had a female bassist!) Little did I know SY preceded the Pumpkins by about a decade. So I got “Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star” from a used CD bin soon thereafter and fell in love with Thurston and Kim.

    “Dirty” is now my go-to SY record. That dissonant crunch! Yum!

    • I actually once had a weeks-long argument with some friends that “1979″ was, if not a SY rip-off, at least strongly influenced. Not sure why, in retrospect. I mean, I still sort of see it, but nearly as strongly as I did back then, anyway.

  4. This mirrors my introduction to Sonic Youth almost completely. I saw a picture of them in the BMG catalog, thought, “Holy crap do they look cool!” and ordered Goo and Dirty straight away. I was probably 12 or 13 at the time and had no idea what to really make of most of it, but Theresa’s Soundworld blew my head off and still does to this day. Absolutely love both of those albums. After absorbing them for a few months I started working backwards, having heard Teenage Riot somewhere. Looking back, it is interesting how over the course of a few years I started putting all the pieces of this band together. Today I would just breeze through the catalog over a weekend on the internet. I think it was more satisfying to let it progress organically. One of the all time best.

    • Ok, now this is just getting weird–seeing a cool picture of SY in one of those 90′s music catalogs was what prompted me to order my copy of “Experimental Jet Set.” I loved Kim’s expression on the cover of that album, and I remember wondering what exactly “art noise rock” would sound like. Who would’ve thought this predatory (yet easily exploited) marketing ploy would be responsible for so many first time exposures to such a great band?

  5. this album is my music ground zero. 100%, Sugar Kane, and Wish Fulfillment seem to be the apex of SY’s ability to combine noise and pop.

    • this article just kills it in so many ways; propers, Tom. you not only captured the album, but what it was like to be an indie music fan in the early 90s–scouring BMG…using PBS.

      recently my wife was asking me about how i knew so much about music as a kid and i struggled to explain how much work it was back then. you had to buy magazines. you had to be in record clubs. even then, there was no guarantee that you could get an album if you didn’t live in certain markets. now you can download a song or stream it with a click of the mouse. part of me wonders if that makes music more disposable now than back in the day. once i finally got Dirty, you couldn’t pry that album from my hands not just because it was so good but also the effort it took me just to get it.

  6. Sonic Youth is one band that I have seen in multiple types of venues and are utterly perfect in each setting. One was in fact a Dirty pre-release show where they played only the whole Dirty album and of course Kool Thing and Dirty Boots.

  7. Live sometime in 84 or 85, opening for D.O.A. They were amazingly lame. Little did we know, right? Favourite album actually is “Dirty”, although their best moment will forever and ever be the video for “DEath Valley 69″. It’s nuts, thanks to Richard Kern.

  8. I also first discovered them through Dirty, and probably because of the Nirvana connection. I went out and bought Sister and Daydream Nation, but it took me a while to get into those (particularly the latter).
    It’s pretty difficult to pick a favorite between Dirty, Sister and Daydream Nation, but Dirty would probably win out – nine times out of ten, the album I hear first by a band ends up being my favorite (see Green, REM). Plus I went to school in Chapel Hill and worked at the Cat’s Cradle, so Dirty has that going for it as well.

  9. My earliest Sonic Youth-related memory is seeing the “Bull in the Heather” video on Beavis and Butthead, which still contains one of my favorite exchanges: “Maybe she’s counting how many times she’s done it”/”Yeah! Counting rules!” I didn’t start being interested in Sonic Youth until digging “Sunday” from A Thousand Leaves – but as soon as I dug into their catalog, I enjoyed basically all of it (let’s pretend we don’t remember NYC Ghosts and Flowers). While I wouldn’t put Dirty in my top 5 Sonic Youth albums, I think it’s definitely their punchiest and most high energy album, for better or for worse. And to my mind, “JC” is one of their 10 best songs.

    • A second after reading “And to my mind, “JC” is one of their 10 best songs” I went to see which track that was and it was literally the one that had just started playing. that’s fate right there.

  10. Picked up Dirty through the Nirvana connection, too. I was almost the same age as the author when it came out. I remember seeing the video for “100%”, and being floored by this noise squall at the beginning.

    I slowly worked my way backwards. My first exposure to “Teenage Riot” was through Eddie Vedder’s radio thing that he did.

    I still have a huge soft spot for this album. “Wish Fulfillment” is just incredible.

  11. The first time I heard Sonic Youth was the track “In the Mind of the Bourgeois Reader” from Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star. It was on the soundtrack for some skateboarding video game (non-Tony Hawk) that I rented for Playstation back when i was in middle school. After being blown away by it’s incessant beat and freaking weirded-out guitars I turned to Kazaa to download a few more songs. A majority of these randomly chosen tracks, turned out to be from Dirty, so when I next went to Tower Records, I picked up the disc, ending my run of having bought three consecutive Smashing Pumpkins albums (and yes, the Simpsons episode was amazing).

    So began a streak of buying in order thereafter: Daydream, Sister, Goo, and Murray Street (their most recent at the time), probably over the course of half a year. Being a no-job 12 year old doesn’t leave you with a lot of spare cash to throw around so this was definitely something of a commitment. Sometime during the summer of this period, it was announced that SY would be playing a free show (with admission, which there is none for minors) at the Del Mar Racetrack in San Diego as part of their 4 O’Clock Fridays concert series. The show was incredible. I didn’t really expect them to play the extended noise sections of songs like, for example, Karen Revisited, but they certainly did and my dad who drove me and a few friends to the show ended up sitting far, far in the back. I can’t recall the whole setlist, but they definitely played Drunk Butterfly, which was pretty hilarious to see Kim spinning around in circles while waving her arms about.

    I’ve subsequently seen them 5 more times in a number of settings, and I concur with the commenter above who says they basically nail it every time. Unfortunately the lowlight of seeing them came during the tour where they were playing Daydream Nation in its entirety, but maybe I was just in a spot where the sound was off or too stoned or or something like that. =P

    Top 5 SY songs in no order:
    Rain On Tin
    The Wonder
    Hey Joni

    Favorite Overall Album:
    Sister (released the year of my birth, incidentally)

    Best Show:
    House of Blues San Diego, 2005. This was the only show where I’ve seen them do two encores, the second being Expressway to Yr Skull with Lee staying onstage for 10 minutes by himself doing very strange things to his guitar. Also, in general, the brief period of time with Jim O’Rourke in the band was just awesome to see live. It was a bummer to think I’d never see Rain on Tin or Stones or Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style again until it came to be, shit, I may never see anything from them again! This show also had Comets On Fire opening, playing the bulk of Blue Cathedral, which was incredible in its own right.

    Good article, cheers.

  12. Your 15 year old friend is probably the only 15 year old I’ve ever heard of describing something as “indulgent”. Then again, KIDS THESE DAYS ‘n’ shit.

    First brush with Sonic Youth was hearing Sugar Kane in a punk documentary when I was in 9th grade about 5 years ago. That chorus riff was the on that got me. I picked up a copy of Dirty a few weeks later and it took me at least two years to really “get it”. Of course, it was a pretty big intellectual jump from The Ramones.

  13. Seriously, EVOL through Dirty is basically the best (or at least my favorite) 5 album run ever. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Teenage Riot, the second the guitar riff kicks in you know you’re listening to something special.

  14. My first brush with Sonic Youth was in 6th grade when were were assigned to make winter caps from construction paper. This one kid who had a cool older brother made the signature Sonic Youth knit cap with the tassle on top. Even though I was really into the whole alternative scene of that era, Sonic Youth was one band I didn’t effort listening to until my college years (I made up for a lot of what I missed over the past few decades during that time) when I fell into the right crowd of friends, and now they’re among one of my all-time favorite bands. My first show of theirs was a charity gig they did locally where Sebadoh reunited (without their drummer, and they played his part on a tape recorder,) and J. Mascis played solo and plugged. It was pre-Dinosaur Jr. reunion, so it was all leading up to something special in time.

    Pinning my favorite album of theirs is a toughie for a band who’s been around and evolved for decades. Of their ’80s work, it’s Sister, of the ’90s, it’s Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star and of the post-2000s, probably Murray Street (although “Incinerate” is their best song of all albums from that era.)

    And let’s forget Lollapalooza billings of the ’90s — How crazy is it in retrospect that the more recent Lollapalooza of 2004 was cancelled altogether due to low ticket sales when the lineup was Morrissey, Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey, Modest Mouse, Le Tigre, Broken Social Scene, The Walkmen, Sparta and the Killers. Granted this was before the whole indie bubble burst and most of these bands hadn’t yet grown to the level of popularity they’re at now, but this was one of humanity’s greatest missed opportunities. I still have my ticket for it and get bent out of shape over what could have been.

    • wow, i never knew about that – 2004, really? that strikes me as bizarre; i was big into modest mouse back then and i remember having to turn to craigslist because tickets to their eugene show sold out in a day.

      but on the same token, i also went to a sparta show back then where about 10 people were in attendance. first and only time i ever got into the 21+ section as a minor (i never had a fake ID). my friends and i were being such drunk assholes that sparta stopped mid-song and told us to stop being assholes. good times.

  15. Only a Sonic Youth dilettante so really in love with Teen Age Riot, but I have a very personal love of Sugar Kane, also 100%, though I know the video for that made Rollins lose his sh*t on 120 Minutes. Good times. Like a lot of their latter day stuff

  16. Pretty sure this was my first brush with Sonic Youth -

    My first album was Goo which I got when I joined Columbia House and got all them sweet free tapes. Dirty is easily in my top 3 SY albums but I might have to give the edge to Sonic Nurse. I’m still impressed with how good they were that far into their career and I think Stones might be their greatest song. If I get to pick a favorite from each decade it would be 80′s – Confusion is Sex, 90′s – Dirty, and Sonic Nurse. It’s sad that there will probably not be a favorite of the 2010′s.

  17. The 1st album I heard of theirs was Experimental Jet Set (bought from BMG!). It was cooler than anything else I had heard by a factor of about infinity. Changed my life. I guess for that reason, today it’s still my favorite album of theirs. Sonic Youth was my 2nd concert after the Ramones.

  18. This whole article just gets me excited and gives a sense of camaraderie with fellow fans. The fact that so many of us are spending our time essentially reliving/retelling the music that has influenced us through these comments is just cool. SY is so special to me because their music has continued to leave impressions on me from 7th grade until today. Few bands have the catalogue of SY and I feel privileged to have seen them live.

  19. My first brush with sonic youth came courtesy of a radio show called left of center… it was like the late night indie show on a commercial alternative station back in the day. I was 13 or 14. Goo had just come out and they played a bunch of songs from it and interviewed the band. I was hooked.

    My first Sonic Youth live experience came in 1992 at the academy in nyc. the breeders opened up. It was great. My favorite album is a tough call… the usual suspects are sister and daydream nation but some of the other albums creep in from time to time.

    Hope we get to see them again.

  20. My first brush with Sonic Youth greatness also started with Dirty,my favorite album of all time! Just started to get into the alternative scene,when I saw the video for 100% and Sugar Kane on 120 minutes. Went out and bought the cassette the very next day. It didn’t leave my tapedeck for weeks!! Have been hooked ever since.Theressa’s Sound World,Chapel Hill,the list goes on and on. Bought every album leading up to Dirty,over the next couple of weeks. I also saw them live for the first time on that lollapalooza tour,and just blew my mind!! While half the place left after Hole,many who stayed were blocking there ears!!! It was the most incredible live show I have ever seen!!! I have seen SY about 15 times since then,including there last U.S. show in Brooklyn,and they never disapoint!!

  21. My first brush with SY would have been around 1990 and seeing the videos for Dirty Boots and Kool Thing. I was a huge Public Enemy fan so seeing Chuck D with them was very cool. They also had a track on the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack which was a fave movie at the time.

    My first tape of their’s was Dirty. I’m pretty sure I would have seen the video for 100% on the MuchMusic (Canada’s MTV) alternative show the Wedge the night before as that was usually the routine back then, see the video one night and buy it the next day. My favourite recorded SY moment comes in the one-two punch of Shadow of a Doubt/Star Power on EVOL.

  22. First brush with sonic youth dates back to 1987 with the release of a skateboard video called wheels of fire, i remember hearing catholic block and white cross from the album sister on that video and soon after went and bought everything they had released at that point.

    My opinion for what its worth is that sonic youth releases seemed to go downhill after experimental jet set, can’t say i have enjoyed an album all the way through since. Sister still remains my favourite sonic youth album to date.

  23. Dirty was my first brush with SY. I just had enough time to also fall in love with Goo before seeing the Sonic Youth/Pavement double header at the Barrowlands in Glasgow. Dirty and Slanted and Enchanted in the same evening – bliss.

  24. Favorite album: Sister
    I remember watching The Year Punk Broke and seeing them go insane on stage playing “Schizophrenia” at Redding Festival or something. INCREDIBLE.

  25. This came out in college and I had a hard time adjusting to their major label status after having grown up with them in middle school and high school. I like this much better than I did when it came out.

  26. BMG! Those were the days. I literally built my music collection by signing up for BMG under several different pseudonyms to capitalize as many times as possible on the 12-for-1 deal.

  27. gotta agree with anyone who’s said schizophrenia from 1991:the year punk broke. absolutely classic.

  28. i worked in a new/used record store one summer when i was 18 or 19 (aka the best fucking job ever) so all i did was discover new music every day. one day i just decided, ‘ok it’s time to give SY a proper go’. i recognized the Dirty album cover but had never heard it. so my first conscious, deliberate encounter with SY was the ear-piercing guitar screech that starts 100%. then that fuzzed out bass riff, the one bar of lone drums and then HTF have I not gotten into these guys sooner?!

  29. Sonic Youth are one of my favorite bands ever. That being said, I can’t believe that someone gets to write about ths that thinks the song “Nic Fit” is ‘some semi-obscure DC hardcore song’. You should not be writing for a music blog if you do not understand the importance and impact of that band, and the DC scene. Have you even read the SY book? Have you seen ’1991: The year punk broke’? How do I not have a job blogging about music when I clearly know more than this writer. Disappointing. I’m gonna start my own…

  30. You need to do a “Worst To Best” Sonic Youth discography.

  31. My eighth-grade boyfriend was a Nirvana obsessive, so my initial exposure to SY (along with Bikini Kill, the Raincoats, etc.) was through him. I saw the Dirty-era videos on MTV despite my mom’s anti-MTV ordinance and bought Experimental Jet Set for a few bucks used. Couldn’t make any sense of it, even though I liked a few of the songs from Dirty. It took me another eight or so years to come back around to them in college when another friend chided me for having never heard Sister.

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