Sonic Youth are antecedents to a huge amount of the experimental output in rock today. Their much-adulated string of loud and mercurial albums between 1987’s Sister and 1998’s A Thousand Leaves gave generously to the medium of guitar music; they were all but cemented as your favourite bands’ favourite band (results may vary, but I doubt it). One such album, Goo, was such a substantial moment in noise, alt and beyond that anybody with the slightest interest in loudly played rock has at the very least been lectured on it by their weird mate (and I am prepared to out myself as that exact friend).
Being the first major label release of the outfit, who had a bit of a stance against contemporary music (by virtue of their connection to New York’s no-wave scene), there were built-in expectations from a tough crowd. How do you subvert anticipated subversion? Furthermore, how do you not just look like “sell outs” regardless? Daydream Nation, their previous outing in ’88, had showcased a new Sonic Youth, one that wasn’t all instrument abuse and anti-establishment rhetoric. This was a band keen to get out of their own way, to be unbound by any annotation or footnote.
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The elements poured into the crucible of Goo served as a draft; not just for the band’s creative direction under Geffen, but for the acts that would come later, Fender offsets in hand, wanting to make money and not feel shit about it. Proof, at long last, that the only difference between the underground and a fairly forceful stab at the mainstream is upmarket production values, because that’s the only noticeable difference presentation-wise from what the group had been up to since the aforementioned Sister.
‘Dirty Boots’ is an introduction to firepower. Considering Goo was to be a first exposure to Sonic Youth for more ears than ever before, you have to think Thurston Moore and co. were deliberately flashing the goods. It builds, wading in the viscous, until it wails, takes aim, and shoots. Licks of varying intensity add bricks to the wall they’ll spray-paint their name over. This is an establishing piece, and it’s a beast of a track for it.
Alternatively, ‘Tunic (Song for Karen)’ is handled with the care the topic requires and some; a rare muted display. The track, lead by iconic bassist and artistic powerhouse Kim Gordon, is sung from the perspective of Karen Carpenter, who’d tragically died seven years prior due to complications stemming from her lifelong fight with anorexia: “I feel like I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day / But I look in the mirror – I’m bigger in every way”.
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The punk speed of ‘Mary-Christ’ runs through ice skating rinks, “priestoids” and angels in skirts. I believe most bands at some point go through their “writing lyrics that sound syllabically pleasing, even if they don’t mean much” absurdist phase, and this could well be that. It’s a steady head-bopper at worst.
Sonic Youth’s biggest hit by a country mile, ‘Kool Thing’, features Chuck D of Public Enemy; questioning into a female planet; and for my money the best Steve Shelley drumming performance ever, thrashing between riffs. There’s a lot of winking going on, as Kim potshots herself, her politics, and the overt bravado of hip-hop, while insisting that her and the titular character (that’s DEFINITELY not LL Cool J) can “still be friends”. He probably still hasn’t listened to it.
The first three and a half minutes of ‘Mote’ find guitarist Lee Ranaldo singing the most morose melody line you’ve ever heard, in this warped Plath inspired number. His silky baritone crowns him “airless, a vacuum child”, and there’s quickly nowhere for him to escape to but comfy ol’ bedlam. There are four additional minutes of feedback screeches, waves of rolling drums notes, and guitar notes that bleep like life support machines. ‘Kool Thing’ might be the hit, but ‘Mote’ has brought me back here just as often.
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‘My Friend Goo’ I have never understood. It’s begins mocking late 80’s alternative trends; those too cool to do much of anything… with edge for edge’s sake. It pretty quickly (it’s only just over two minutes) devolves into repetition of a frankly embarrassing chorus that could’ve been written by a nine year old. Maybe it’s ‘ironic’ and there’s a piece of the puzzle I’m missing… but doing something ironically is still doing it, and this is a weak track.
Several planets away, the next three tracks are top tier for wholly different reasons. The first of these, ‘Disappearer’, is lost in the smog of cogitation, fascinated with the ways in which we are led through our lives. Got it? Great. I’m now going to talk about ‘Mildred Pierce’, which contains almost no words barring ‘Mildred Pierce’, and the shrieking of hell spawn. Little compares to hearing the steady instrumentation throw itself into the fire, seemingly out of nowhere, for the first time. It’s the only taste of the true chaos the band are glossing over.
Kim’s last solo offering on the album, ‘Cinderella’s Big Score’, is a song allegedly addressing her brother. There’s frustration at their estrangement – Kim feels she’s the only one attempting to work through things for the better.
She finally bites: “A cold is going to take you, and freeze away your tears / Come a little closer, honey, we can be so near”. ‘Scooter+Jinx’ is another reference (alongside title Goo) to friend and artist Raymond Pettibon’s movie Sir Drone. It’s a minute of rumbling guitars, the grotesque brother of the THX jingle… and we run straight into ‘Titanium Exposé’.
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The closer is my favourite Sonic Youth track of all-time. The hit rate of complex and ear-worming parts in this song is unbelievable, before you make it to any lyrics. The initial pitchy riff is untamed and reaching, and does nothing to lessen the blow of the first instance here of all out assault, where crashing symbols accent the punch of distortion. That first riff will return temporarily, slightly more confident, until the whole build bows out in lieu of something new altogether. The brunt of the song is much more tame; the verses are given a chance to stand in the free and clear. When the words are exhausted, however, that frankly malicious guitar will crawl back out for a two minute spell that sounds like the best damn car-chase scene that never was.
In my notes, I called my final section ‘Goo forever’ because the truth is, this album is as popular as it ever was. Pettibon’s cover art can still be seen draped on the bodies of rock fans in just about any amassing; ‘Kool Thing’ is still as kool; and there are always going to be those that move laterally from their contemporary loves to the influences that made them… and so many groups owe so much to the unfiltered oddity and willingness to distress in the name of art that Sonic Youth upheld.
I guess I’ve given the game away, but this more than holds up its end of the bargain in 2020. If you’re looking for unhinged, expressive and urgent, Goo might still be the last word.
Goo was first released on 26th June 1990.