Thursday, April 26, 2007


[this ran in MOJO in March 2007]

An arctic January afternoon in New York’s East Village. MOJO is sitting in a handsome, wood-floored apartment staring at the thousands of alphabetised vinyl records and music and interior design books that occupy every available wallspace, awaiting the arrival of Bright Eyes’ frontman, poster-boy and sole permanent member, Conor Oberst. The flat belongs to Nate Krenkel, Bright Eyes’ former A&R man who, since 2003, has acted as Oberst’s manager, confidente and surrogate big brother. After a fifteen minute wait, the front door creaks open to reveal the slim figure of Oberst, struggling with an armful of brown paper sacks, his cellphone ringing off idly in his pocket to the customised trill of Willie Nelson’s Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.

“I knew we had a photo shoot today, so I went shopping,” he grins, emptying the contents of the bags – navy cardigans and sweaters, an off-white knit jersey, in keeping with his generally dressed-down style – onto a nearby table in Krenkel’s front room. In person, traces of stubble and the odd laughter-line temper the fresh-faced boyishness Oberst radiates in his most recent press shots. Dyed black hair, parted in the centre, hangs down to just above his shoulders, framing his arresting, and oft-commented-upon, lime-green eyes. He talks gently, moves slowly, a little awkwardly, his head and hands seemingly too large for his slight body, like he’s still in the middle of a growth spurt, in that awkward space between adolescence and adulthood. Fittingly, that’s also the position Oberst occupies in American music right now, the one-time teen pin-up of sensitive music fans besotted with his Salinger-esque tales of misadventure and regret, who, in recent years, has set about establishing himself as a perceptive and impassioned political song-writer.

He has toured alongside Springsteen and REM in support of the Democrat party, while 2005’s anti-Bush salvo, When The President Talks To God, saw him canonised by the press as “the next Dylan” (a status he bashfully acknowledges today as “flattering, but ridiculous”). However, despite being hailed as the saviour of American political songwriting, Conor Oberst says he is still able to a life of quiet anonymity in New York, roaming without fear of being recognised around his local neighbourhood, which also happens to be home to thousands of students from nearby New York University.

Or maybe Oberst has just adjusted to living his life in the public eye. After all, having performed onstage since he was twelve, and recording searing, disarmingly intimate albums since he was thirteen, twenty-seven year old Oberst has done much of his growing up in public. Since his breakthrough, with 2002’s *Lifted, the media have documented every step and mis-step, from a brief dalliance with Winona Ryder in 2003 to his occasional, infamous chemically-enhanced onstage performances.

While Oberst excuses himself and pops into Krenkel’s bedroom to pose for MOJO’s photoshoot, Krenkel slips a freshly-mastered CD of *Cassadaga, Bright Eyes’ new album, onto his stereo system, volume turned as loud as his no-doubt-wealthy neighbours will allow.

Oberst’s earlier recordings – and there are many – could often be messily emotional, wilful things, his voice breaking across songs that read like (and sometimes were) cathartic diary entries. *Cassadaga is a different beast. The album takes its name from a Floridian Spiritualist community Oberst visited last year where he received readings from the local Wiccans. The singer admits to an enduring curiosity with spirituality, born out of his regular thoughts upon mortality (which first surfaced in his songwriting with ‘Padraic My Prince’, describing the death-by-drowning of a fictional brother).

Pedal steel, violins and warm, buzzing guitars dominate, opener Four Winds recalling the bucolic bonhomie of The Band, and suggesting a new-found maturity in his sound. The lyrics essay love, religion, death in a most distinctive, contemplative voice, painting an America where ‘Genocide sleeps”. The bleak No One Would Riot For Less blackly posits that “War has no heart” while If The Brakeman Turns My Way articulates a disenchantment with drugs, a tale of “Cocaine souls” who “tried to listen to the river, but you wouldn’t shut your mouth”. On the closing Lime Tree, Oberst reaches for a lovelorn poetry akin to The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg at his drunken, remorseful best. The saturated emotions that made earlier records sound shrill to all but the faithful are restrained, resonant here; Cassadaga leaves the impression of Oberst assuredly leaving his awkward adolescence behind him.

“I’d like to think that I’ve gotten a little more nuanced,” Oberst agrees later, reclining on a vintage chaise-longue in Krenkel’s similarly book-lined bedroom. “When I first started, there was no audience, there were no expectations. When you’re 17 years old, it feels pretty good to scream into a tape recorder. That’s how it went, for a long time, until this gradual realisation that I don’t necessarily like how that sounds, just letting it all out. Maybe it would be better if it was a little more subtle, more refined.

“Cassadaga’s much more of a ‘complete idea’,” insists Oberst. He spent a year working on the album, recording in New York, Portland, Lincoln, Chicago and Los Angeles with Bright Eyes mainstays Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, and a slew of guest musicians. “And in-between those sessions, we got the chance to think about what we’d recorded, to try things a different way. We’d never had that luxury before.”

While he treasures the musician’s peripatetic lifestyle, New York has been his base of operations since 2003. “It’s a romantic place,” he smiles. “Your whole life, you’re reading about it in books, seeing it in movies, hearing it in the records made here. But I was more attracted by all the friends I had here, and how comfortable I felt in the neighbourhood. That first year, I couldn’t get enough of it, going out every night, seeing shows and partying, walking the streets and just feeling the pure energy of New York. It was refreshing to be in random contact with other humans all the time, where no one really cares what you’re about. It’s the total opposite of Omaha, where everywhere I turn there’s someone I grew up with, someone’s brother, or cousin, or whatever…”

Conor first visited New York when he was sixteen, on tour. “And I hated it,” he laughs. “It was too much, too full-on; I wasn’t ready for it. But then I spent some more time here, I hung out with Nate at his old apartment for a few months and thought, wow, this is where I wanna be.”

Though he’d travelled the world with Bright Eyes, until 2003 Oberst had only ever lived in Omaha, the urbane Nebraskan city whose vibrant music scene supported Conor’s many early endeavours. “I was at that point where I just felt, man, I have to leave my hometown. Enough was enough; I have to go do something for myself.”

Having formerly handled Oberst’s publishing, Krenkel assumed managerial responsibilities for Bright Eyes. Together, he and Oberst formed their Team Love record label, now home to Willy Mason, Tilly & The Wall, Minnesotan singer-songwriter David Dondero and former Shudder To Think frontman Craig Wedren. Soon, Oberst found an apartment of his own, nearby. He’s reluctant, however, to describe himself as a New Yorker – a certain restlessness persists. “I still really like it here, but I’ve realised in the last year or so, I’m not one of those people who wants to be a ‘New Yorker’ for life. Sometimes, I really need space.

“I have a sort of ‘grass is always greener’ mentality,” he smiles. “The most peaceful place for me is in-between cities: you’ve got your friends, you’ve got your band, and you’re out there, suspended from the world. It’s an escape. Being a musician, being able to spend a year isolated, recording music, and then spend the next year travelling the world, playing it for people, is really good for my well-being.”

Conor Oberst’s political awakening came with the American Presidential Election of 2000, which saw George W. Bush awarded a keenly-contested presidency over his Democrat opponent, outgoing Vice President Al Gore.

“When I was a teenager, politics weren’t even within my realm of reality,” Oberst remembers, “But in 2000, I remember reading some of his statements and thinking ‘Wow, I hope this young Bush doesn’t get in!’ We were touring in Europe when the election happened; I was just in absolute shock when he ‘won’. And then 9/11 accelerated everything.”

In early 2001, Oberst formed Desaparecidos, with local Omaha musicians. A punk-rock group who took their name from the political dissidents who were murdered by the government during Argentina’s Dirty War, they recorded a venomous and angry album, *Read Music/Speak Spanish, with lyrics that were, Oberst says, “Anti-consumerism, anti-commercialism, and – if you want to define it as that – anti-American.”

The group had just finished recording their album when the attacks of September 11th happened. “I had this sick feeling in my stomach,” remembers Oberst. “I felt, Can we release this record now? It was a fragile time, everybody was freaked out. I was too. But the most American thing you can do is to speak your mind. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, these are the things I love about democracy, about America. What better time to put that out? It got a mixed reaction. Some people said, ‘Stupid middle class white kid, what do you have to complain about?’” he sniffs. “But I’ve gotten that ‘critique’ forever, it’s not such a big deal.”

As the build-up to war progressed, Oberst became a self-confessed ‘news-junkie’, poring over the daily papers and watching hours of cable news broadcasts. Politics bled into the lyrics of 2002’s Lifted, and the two albums he released simultaneously in early 2005, the yearning, acoustic-based I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (featuring Emmylou Harris’s unmistakeable harmonies on three tracks), and its dark, electronic twin, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, an album Conor described as “dealing with the fear of death, and trying to move past that.” A vegan, he voiced his support for PETA, and boycotted the Clear Channel network of music venues in protest of their corporate policies. And in October 2004, at Michael Stipe’s personal request, he toured America alongside REM and Bruce Springsteen for the Vote For Change Tour, a decidedly-partisan, anti-Bush voter registration drive.

“That whole experience was real empowering; participating in the political system, representing my beliefs in the public forum,” he remembers. “I’ve been so lucky to get to meet and play with REM, and Springsteen, and Neil Young. They’re all musical idols, but the way they conduct their business, the way they are as human beings, is inspiring. It gives me hope – I could last that long, and maybe never be that great musically, but be that intelligent, that compassionate.

“And then, the election.” He sighs darkly. “I was convinced Bush couldn’t win. I was sure of it. And when it happened… Total devastation. It was probably the worst I’ve ever felt. We straight away went to Europe for a press trip, and I was so down about it, so frightened. I couldn’t see how we could even survive another four years under that maniac.”

On a stormy ferry trip from Ireland to the UK, Oberst channelled these emotions into a new song. The sulphurously rancorous ‘When The President Talks To God’ was debuted that night, November 17th 2004, at London’s ULU, where lyrics like “When the president talks to God / Does he ask to rape our women’s rights / And send poor farm kids off to die?” tapped into a growing antagonism toward the ‘War On Terror’. The song was rush-recorded and released as a free mp3 download on iTunes, and Oberst performed the song on national US television in May 2005, on the Tonight with Jay Leno show.

“When I played it that night in London,” he remembers, “I didn’t even really know the lyrics, I was reading them off a sheet of paper. That night marked a change: I’m not gonna just sit here and get depressed. I’m gonna get louder.”

Oberst’s political awakening doesn’t mean he’s above making a drunken fool of himself and getting into trouble. No, if a man ever truly learns from his mistakes, Conor has gleaned plenty of painful wisdom from the last few years. He shifts uncomfortably in the chaise-longue as he recalls his misadventures at the Glastonbury festival in 2005, when, while headlining Sunday night on the inaugural John Peel stage, he drunkenly muttered in front of thousands of woozy festival-goers that “John Peel was a cokehead; I suppose that's why I like him, we have a lot in common.”

“I regret it,” he sighs, sincerely. “It’s the exact opposite of how I really feel. There’s a record store in Omaha called the Antiquarium, and the guy who runs it, Dave Sink, had a buddy in England tape the John Peel radio shows for him, and send them over. He’d play them in the store, and we’d all hang out there and listen to them.

“I was just out-of-my-mind,” he frowns, fidgeting like a naughty little boy in the headmaster’s office. “We were winding down towards the end of a year on the road, partying. We’d just flown in from Europe, and it had been raining for days, and everyone at the festival had just given up. We didn’t have any English money, we literally had to beg to buy some beer. We got real drunk, and I’d taken a lot of mushrooms. I basically didn’t have an idea what I was saying, I was just randomly spewing words. I’ve always had a bad habit of defaming whatever people find sacred, when I’m in a certain mood. I don’t really mean it, it’s just this terrible little demon side of me.”

He says that when Bright Eyes take to the road again, later this year, they will be “A little smarter, not kill ourselves. Getting ‘fucked up’ is such a part of rock’n’roll, because it becomes all you can do. When people say, ‘I’m gonna party like a rock’n’roll star!’, they don’t understand that rock’n’roll stars get fucked up because they’re far away from home, dealing with peoples’ expectations of them, and sick half the time. It might look romantic from the outside, but it really isn’t. It’s an occupational hazard, a negative side-effect of what we do. You just have to grow up and deal with it better, watch out for yourself and your friends, try and keep everyone healthy in both body and mind. We’re learning along the way.”

With maturity often comes a bitter exchange, of innocence for wisdom. You’ll find that wisdom scattered across Oberst’s lyrics, sharing lessons learned, detailing his failings and foul-ups, trying to make a sense of it all – even the things you can’t make sense of. It’s his way of surviving.

“There’s a certain clarity I get from songwriting,” he explains. “If I’m depressed about something I try express that in a form that’s positive and soothing, like a song. It actually does make me feel at peace with whatever I’ve been struggling with.

“Is it still fun?” he asks, rhetorically, of his career. “Not all of it, but it’s more fun than not. I think I have less fun in general, now. Sadly, I think that’s just part of growing up. When you’re young, your world’s not yet formed – everything’s possible, nothing’s been decided. Then, reality sets in. A lot of the things I found exciting at first have worn off, a little. The obvious things: girls, drugs. Even performing, a little. It just has to be that way, I guess.”

In the intervening hour or so since the interview began, the moon has risen, the New York skyline turning with wintery speed from pale aquamarine, to deep blue, and finally black. Oberst sits silhouetted against the window, his green eyes glinting in the gloom. Save for light from the front room leaking in from under the door, the room is entirely dark. By way of a closing question, I ask Oberst if the “fear of death” which inspired *Digital Ash For A Digital Urn has eased at all.

“Um… I guess, no. It’s been a shitty week,” he sighs, sadly. “A girl who played in the band with us passed away this last weekend.”

Clearing his throat, he begins to talk, about the girl, and the pain of her death, his words trying to make some sense of it all. Open and unguarded, he speaks with the same sensitivity, the same fearless honesty that makes Bright Eyes’ music so compelling, so deeply affecting, and sometimes so hard to take.

“She was the most amazingly brilliant, beautiful girl, and she was just 24 years old,” he continues. “So perfect, so irreplaceable… It’s so tragic. When you lose someone... That’s the most unfair thing about life. That it changes. I want to understand this, and accept this, but I can’t. I can’t really process it all properly right now.”

Boyish in the half-light, he’s visibly struggling with the loss, peace eluding him for now. As we gather our things and make our way for the elevator, Conor is quiet, still lost somewhere in his thoughts, searching towards something.

(c) Stevie Chick

Where To Start With... Nirvana

[from Kerrang!, 2007]

DAVE GROHL recently said, “People think Nirvana travelled with a black cloud following us, and it’s absolutely not true.” Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide threatens to overshadow his group’s brief blaze of glory, but they remain a crucial flashpoint in rock history. Fusing metal, punk, and pop with a deft underground sensibility and multi-platinum success, Nirvana became uneasy celebrities with 1991’s ‘Nevermind’ – the album that ‘broke’ grunge to America. Wilting in the limelight, Cobain was an awkward anti-rockstar, railing against rock’s sexism and homophobia, at his new ‘jock’ fanbase (the sort of kids who bullied him at school) and, ultimately, himself – a man just too-sensitive to handle the pressure. But it was that very sensitivity that connected so profoundly with Nirvana’s fans. Today, Kurt’s haunted blue eyes stare out from countless tee-shirts, worn by kids too young to remember Cobain as anything other than a Pretty Rockstar Corpse. But the fierce intelligence and passion of Nirvana’s music hasn’t dimmed in the years since, and none of their multitudinous followers ever spliced acrid emotion and brutal melody so brilliantly.



(GEFFEN, 1991)

POLISHING COBAIN’S fertile melodicism to a gleaming napalm shine, this was a subversive treat. A blast of high-impact pop played with punk fury and metallic precision, Novoselic’s colossal bass, Grohl’s pulverising drums and Cobain’s howl offsetting the strychnine-sweet harmonies. Almost every track could have been released as a single; those that were, are among rock’s very greatest tunes.



(GEFFEN, 1994)

WITH STEVE Albini at the controls, Cobain drew upon the raw angst wrought by their newfound fame. Moments of blood-stained beauty (‘All Apologies’) nestle alongside acrid sludge (‘Milk It’) and self-lacerating pop (‘Heart Shaped Box’), angst, art and autobiography blurring into an uncompromising, uncomfortable mess. The sound of a breakdown, captured in unflinching verite style.



(SUB POP, 1989)

RECORDED FOR $606, Nirvana’s debut portrayed a band in thrall to friends The Melvins’ stunning sludge-core sound, tempering the uncut grunge with Kurt’s budding knack for pop songwriting. Scuzzier and heavier than what came after, ‘Bleach’ thrums with downtuned menace and ennui and Cobain’s acidic lyrics, but ‘About A Girl’ points to a more palatable future.



(GEFFEN, 1992)

WITH ‘NEVERMIND’ still selling and no follow-up on the horizon, Geffen released this stopgap compilation of out-takes and rarities. A mixed bag of ugly grunge and brash pop, it acquainted new fans to Nirvana’s more self-indulgent side, but also featured bona-fide classics ‘Sliver’ and ‘Aneurysm’. Also includes covers of songs by Kurt’s beloved Vaselines, Glaswegian indie-tykes who probably still live off royalty payments from this album.



(GEFFEN, 1994)

WORTH BUYING for Bowie cover ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ alone, and the Meat Puppets covers (featuring the Puppets themselves) are great, as is the blood-curdling take on Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. Otherwise, Unplugged presents lesser versions of Nirvana classics for Coldplay-loving yuppies who couldn’t see past ‘Nevermind’’s metallic noise and truly appreciate Cobain’s genius. Their loss.



THEIR DEBUT 7”, a limited pressing of 1000 on Seattle label Sub Pop: a metallic cover of Shocking Blue’s bubblegum curio that’s heavy, and heavily ‘pop’.

FIND IT: ‘Bleach’, 1990


MORE BEATLES than Black Sabbath, Kurt’s gathers the courage to record an acoustic ditty, discovering a hitherto-hidden gift for bittersweet melody.

FIND IT: ‘Bleach’, 1990


HEAVY SLUDGE riffage in extremis, over which Kurt snarls, “You’re in high school again,” like that were the worst fate imaginable. “And no recess!”

FIND IT: ‘Bleach’, 1990


KURT’S WHITE-TRASH roots show on this Melvins-esque stomp, the lyric dissecting grim, alcoholic realities of life in a trailer park. The sense of alienation is palpable.

FIND IT: ‘Bleach’, 1990


KURT’S SINGALONG howl of “Gramma take me home!” touches on childhood terror of abandonment. The fusion of melody and distortion coined the Nevermind blueprint.

FIND IT: ‘Incesticide’, 1992


MORE ALIENATION, as Kurt – a most feminised rocker – sings of a girl smothered by her parents’ unrealistic expectations, to a nagging, harmony-drenched crunch.

FIND IT: ‘Incesticide’, 1992


THE SONG that sold a million plaid shirts – a razor-sharp riff, intriguing lyrics and a chord change stolen from Boston swiftly make Nirvana the biggest band in the world.

FIND IT: ‘Nevermind’, 1991


‘TEEN SPIRIT’’S B-Side is a squalling, nightmarish anthem, a spidery riff drawing tighter as Kurt screams “She keeps it pumping straight to my heart,” dark drug references abounding.

FIND IT: ‘With The Lights Out’, 2004


WITH A loping bassline half-inched from Killing Joke, ‘CAYA’ was hypnotic, heavy on ‘radio friendly sheen’ – the sound of Nirvana stealthily seducing the mainstream.

FIND IT: ‘Nevermind’, 1991


NAMED FOR an anti-depressant, ‘Lithium’’s tale of loneliness and disaffection chimed along to their sweetest tune yet, riding hard on that crucial quiet/loud dynamic.

FIND IT: ‘Nevermind’, 1991


PROVING THEY could still bare their fangs, this was one of ‘Nevermind’’s three balls-out hardcore thrashes, a chaotic, revving, vaguely pro-feminist anthem.

FIND IT: ‘Nevermind’, 1991


COVERING PORTLAND punks The Wipers’ gloomy alienation anthem for BBC’s John Peel, Kurt nods in respect to hero Greg Sage and unleashes a killer barb-wire guitar solo.

FIND IT: ‘With The Lights Out’, 2004


HIDDEN AT the end of AIDS charity compilation No Alternative, this keening blast of melancholic pop mused subtly on patriarchal society via a doomed-love song.

FIND IT: ‘With The Lights Out’, 2004


BITING THE hand that feeds, a snarling, cynical Kurt counts the profits and costs of stardom and notes, “Teenage angst has paid off well”. He doesn’t sound happy about it.

FIND IT: ‘In Utero’, 1993


FREUD WOULD have had a field day with this lyric and its references to wombs, and suffocation, and love (the emotion), and Love (Courtney).

FIND IT: ‘In Utero’, 1993


MORE FREUDIAN angst, as Kurt howls of parasites, shit and suicide, over a chilling chainsaw-massacre riff. ‘In Utero’ at its brilliantly-bleak best.

FIND IT: ‘In Utero’, 1993


DEBUTED AT Reading ’92 and dedicated to Kurt’s newborn daughter, this achingly beautiful statement of confusion and resignation closed ‘In Utero’ on an uneasy calm.

FIND IT: ‘In Utero’, 1993


KURT SINGS Bowie’s haunting song of winning the world but losing your soul like it was his own, closing out with a glorious, sad, eloquent guitar solo.

FIND IT: ‘Unplugged In New York’, 1995


CLOSING THEIR landmark unplugged session, Kurt’s take on bluesman Leadbelly’s murder ballad is so wracked and from-the-heart it’ll leave you with an unshakeable chill.

FIND IT: ‘Unplugged In New York’, 1995


FRAGILE AND wracked, Kurt’s ‘last song’ is a happy-sad acoustic strum clouded by child-like confusion and yearning, an odd, affecting, unforgettable and magic thing.

FIND IT: ‘With The Lights Out’, 2004



“THEY’RE THE first band I truly loved and felt connected to on a personal level; they were anything but the pretentious cliched rock-stars of the time. The music wasn't complicated, it was raw, loud, honest and heavy as fuck. Kurt's voice was both vulnerable, melodic and chaotic but with none of the macho bullshit that's way too prevalent in a lot of metal. We'd just played a show in Southampton when we found out he’d died; it didn't seem real, like a bad joke no-one wanted to believe. I had a hard time dealing with it when we got off that tour and got home to Downpatrick. It honestly felt like losing a relative – it was surreal mourning someone I didn't personally know. As much as Kurt didn't want to be a role-model or spokes-person for anyone, Nirvana were a big deal in a lot of kids’ lives, and his death had a profound effect on us. There's not been a band since that have had such a following or made such an impact. I prefer to remember Nirvana for that exciting period when there were kids everywhere trying to emulate them and starting bands, not caring that they couldn't play a note. Half the bands that are playing today wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Nirvana. They changed the face of music completely and put heavy guitar bands onto mainstream radio. Metal owes them for making people wake up from up their hair-metal arses and rethink their lives! At the end of the day does anything sounds as great as when Teen Spirit comes on the PA at a club? Go take a history lesson in rock and get all their albums.”

(c) Stevie Chick 2007

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Great Grandad, Nan, the late 60s (?)

great old picture from my nan

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Where To Start With... Husker Du

KRIST NOVOSELIC once said Nirvana’s blend of pop, punk and metal was “nothing new, Husker Du did it before us.” A trio from Minneapolis, featuring singer/guitarist Bob Mould, singing drummer Grant Hart and moustachioed bassist Greg Norton, Husker Du started out the fastest punks on the block, mellowing their pace but not their intensity for a faultless run of albums on the influential SST label. Perfecting a marriage of melodic thrash and emotionally complex lyrics, they were one of the first hardcore bands to ‘cross over’ to a Major Label, releasing two fine albums with Warner Bros, before tensions between Hart and Mould – hardcore’s own Lennon & McCartney – tore the band apart in 1988 (the suicide of manager David Savoy, and Hart’s escalating heroin addiction, were key factors). Mould would later enjoy success with his grunge-pop trio Sugar, and as a solo artist with an interest in electronica, while Hart formed the ill-fated Nova Mob, and intermittently pursues a solo career. Norton, meanwhile, is now a chef running a successful restaurant in Minnesota.



“I always read interviews to find out what my favourites bands’ influences are, and Husker Du were always a name I’d heard being thrown around in circles. They influenced a lot of the groups I loved when I first got into them, like Jawbreaker – that post-punk sound, verging on aggressive, but balanced it with great melodies and complex parts. It’s almost ‘thinking man’s punk’; it wasn’t just abrasive, it was very cathartic, as well as being very passionate. I took a chance on ‘Candy Apple Grey’ in a record store one day – it was nice and cheap! That’s their first album for a major label. It took me a while to ‘get it’ – because I’d been into Bob Mould’s band Sugar before, and they were a lot more melodic than Husker Du. It took a while to adjust to that fiery sound. Then I got ‘New Day Rising’, which is my favourite – I have a New Day Rising tee-shirt which I tracked down in Boston when we toured there.

“I think Bob Mould was my favourite Du songwriter – I was such a huge fan of Sugar, and his method of songwriting – capturing the sense of a moment, making you feel like you were actually there, to make you feel as angry or as down as he was feeling. Husker Du made me realise that there’s more to punk rock than just sheeny-shiny production and uber-wicked backing vocals. Don’t get me wrong – I love Bad Religion to death, but it was nice to get an alternative to that.”



(SST, 1984)

RECORDED IN 40 hours, this ambitious double-album chronicled a homeless punk kid’s descent into madness, leaving his broken home for the refuge of the streets, and its junkies and hookers. Encompassing nosebleed hardcore, acoustic strum, psychedelic pop and 15 minute jazz-mantra improvs, this dark, psychologically-scarred album won the mostly-overlooked hardcore genre a new respect in the mainstream.



(SST, 1985)

FIRST OF two pop albums they released in 1985, ‘New Day Rising’ captures a band on fire and perfecting their sound, sunshine melodies gleaming behind the scouring guitars and serrated vocals. The Beatles-esque ‘Books About UFOs’ and the whimsical ‘Celebrated Summer’ were highlights, mature songcraft signalling the group’s move away from hardcore’s tunnel-vision, coining a template Nirvana would ride to success.



THEIR FINAL album was another double, twenty crushed diamonds of punk-pop poetry drawn from the roaring guitars and heart-attack drums. They never sounded more melodic, more accessible, but the darker lyrical content spoke the truth: the band were already done, Hart’s psychotic, groove-driven closer ‘You Can Live At Home Now’ a fierce farewell note to Husker Du.



(New Alliance, 1981)

17 SONGS in 26 minutes, this live set rushed past at fierce velocity, a whirlwind of napalm-spitting fretboard runs. The gonzoid thrash of ‘Bricklayer’ – 2 verses, 2 choruses and a guitar solo in 53 seconds – is a highlight, but this molten mess of frantic riffage is best experienced as a whole, remaining one of the most extreme statements of the hardcore genre.



(New Alliance, 1982)

WHERE EARLY Huskers’ hardcore flared furiously on Land Speed Record, it sputtered in the studio. Warners’ later CD reissue adds awesome early single ‘In A Free Land’ and the anthemic ‘Do You Remember?’ (the title translating their band name, taken from a Swedish boardgame), but the album itself is frustratingly limp, save for the angsty power-pop of the title track.



OLD SKOOL guitar heroics abound in this melodic, hard-riffing rant, evidence of Husker Du’s short-lived period as politicised punks.

FIND IT: ‘Everything Falls Apart & More’, 1993


OF ALL Land Speed Record’s lightning-strike whirlwinds, Big Sky punched hardest, its riffs like fighter-jets screeching into the ground.

FIND IT: ‘Land Speed Record’, 1981


THERAPY? COVERED this EP’s rape/murder fantasy ‘Diane’, but the chiming pop melodies and whip-smart lyrics made this the highlight.

FIND IT: ‘Metal Circus’, 1983


BITTER FAREWELL-letter to abusive parents, set to heart-broken acoustic strum. Huskers’ growing maturity and ambition inspired the hardcore community.

FIND IT: ‘Zen Arcade’, 1984


SIDE TWO of ‘Zen Arcade’ was a furious, unbroken rush of bloodthirsty thrash, ‘Pride’ the most venomous, Mould’s self-lacerating vocal shredding the speakers.

FIND IT: ‘Zen Arcade’, 1984


‘ZEN ARCADE’’s nameless hero discovers his junkie girlfriend’s corpse, to the tear-stained strains of Grant Hart’s psyche-pop lament. A career highlight.

FIND IT: ‘Zen Arcade’, 1984


THE PUNK kid explains his secret life to his parents, perhaps a veiled reference to Mould’s own (then-secret) homosexuality.

FIND IT: ‘Zen Arcade’, 1984


DOUSING THE Byrds’ psychedelic classic in kerosene, this 7” almost buckled under the weight of Mould’s gut-wrenching howls and lacerating fretboard runs.

FIND IT: ‘Eight Miles High’, 1984


A LUMP-IN-THROAT farewell to adolescence, Mould’s startlingly mature, poignant lyric is well matched by the sort of melodicism Get Up Kids would later explore.

FIND IT: ‘New Day Rising’, 1985


FRACTURED, ODDBALL, this brooding hurricane of anguish posited Mould as his generation’s insightful bard of dysfunction and disaffection.

FIND IT: ‘New Day Rising’, 1985


HART’S BUDDY Holly-esque croon perfectly matches the giddy pianos and frazzled guitars on this light-hearted love song – perfect Summer mixtape music.

FIND IT: ‘New Day Rising’, 1985


MOULD CALLS the emperor out as naked in this phosphorent jangle-driven thrash, mid-period Du’s apotheosis.

FIND IT: ‘Flip Your Wig’, 1985


HART’S UNFLINCHING analysis of the aftermath of a broken relationship evidenced the maturity and intensity of Warners-era Du.

FIND IT: ‘Candy Apple Grey’, 1986


MOULD’S SUICIDAL confession is breath-taking in its honesty and darkness; accompanied by brittle acoustic, he sounds bereft.

FIND IT: ‘Candy Apple Grey’, 1986


FEW PUNK bands would dare record such sombre musings upon mortality; Husker Du had the balls, and the skill to make it darkly electrifying.

FIND IT: ‘Candy Apple Grey’, 1986


A NEON psyche-pop riff accelerated Mould’s account of a friend living too fast – Hart, perhaps – into a savage grunge-pop classic.

FIND IT: ‘Warehouse: Songs & Stories’, 1987


HART AFFECTS a rockabilly holler for his haywire country-punk response, a perversely-upbeat admission of emotional deterioration.

FIND IT: ‘Warehouse: Songs & Stories’, 1987


MOODY PROTO-EMO scores Mould’s philosophical admission of defeat – or, at least, acceptance that his future lies elsewhere.

FIND IT: ‘Warehouse: Songs & Stories’, 1987


CRUNCHING METALLIC riffage and multi-tracked harmonies glimpse at the direction Mould’s post-Du group Sugar will take.

FIND IT: ‘Warehouse: Songs & Stories’, 1987


RECORDED ON their final tour, Hart’s optimistic ‘Flip Your Wig’ anthem is recast as anguished last-ditch attempt as reconciliation.

FIND IT: ‘The Living End’, 1993

(c) Stevie Chick 2006

Where To Start With… Screaming Trees

They formed in the rural wastelands of Ellensburg, WA. Van and Gary Lee Connor were man-mountain brothers playing in a covers band; Mark Lanegan was a local wild-boy always in trouble with the cops, driving trucks for the Connor family’s repo business. When Lanegan took the microphone Screaming Trees were born, touring the US and recording albums of psychedelic proto-grunge for SST Records, penned mostly by drug-abstaining Gary Lee (Lanegan had been selling drugs for some years by this point). They signed to Epic at the start of the 90s, their Lanegan-penned ‘Sweet Oblivion’ - a set of anguished country and blues-influenced classic rock - the most potent and profound album of the Grunge explosion. But deserved success never arrived for this fractious band, and the tempestuous, Josh Homme-aided tour for the majestic ‘Dust’ was their last. Lanegan fought his addictions, pursued an acclaimed solo career and joined QOTSA as a floating member; following a farewell set opening the Seattle Experience Music Project in June 2000, Screaming Trees finally withered.


Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters

Sometime during the first few months of living with Kurt, we went up to Seattle to visit Mark Lanegan and his friend Dylan Carson [of the drone-core band Earth], who shared a house. We went out drinking that night and we got back about 3am, and they put me on this pullout couch in the living room, where I passed out. I remember waking up, and there was Mark, sitting in a chair at the end of the bed. I looked up at him, and he said, who the fuck are you? I said, Im Dave, Kurts new drummer. We sat there talking for a while, and that was the genesis of our relationship. [laughs]

I remember listening to his solo album, The Winding Sheet, over and over again, when I was living in Olympia. It was Winter, when the sun wouldnt come up until 8am, and would go down by 2 or 3pm - it was like a rainy Scandinavia, it was fucking depressing. And that album was the perfect soundtrack for that season.

Mark is one of the most gifted and tortured artists youll ever hear. I have nothing but respect for that guy. I remember Nirvana playing Roskilde festival in Denmark with the Screaming Trees, 1992. In the middle of their set Lanegan freaked out, picked up a monitor and threw it into the pit and beat up three or four security guards. We had to hide him in the dressing room. But you dont wanna mess with that dude. Give him a microphone, let him sing, then get the fuck out of his way.


‘Sweet Oblivion’

(Epic, 1992)

DEEP STEWED angst filtered through soaring riffage, ‘Sweet Oblivion’ showcased Lanegan’s burnished vocals and Gary Lee’s howling, poignant solos. ‘Dollar Bill’, a brilliantly-wretched farewell ballad, became their signature tune, while the disarmingly-pop ‘Nearly Lost You’ features on the soundtrack to ‘grunge’ rom-com Singles. But it’s the pulverisingly bleak, heroic ‘No One Knows’ that kills hardest, Lanegan audibly wracked with guilt and regret.



(Epic, 1996)

AFTER SCRAPPING two albums’ worth of material recorded after ‘Sweet Oblivion’, the Trees hooked up with legendary producer George Drakoulias (Aerosmith, Black Crowes) for this psychedelic epic, Drakoulias honing the cinematic breadth of the Trees’ classic riffage. Strings, tabla, sitars - all were enlisted for this grand, finely-detailed canvas, and Lanegan was never in finer voice. Still, the mainstream remained unmoved, and subsequent drug- and violence-fuelled touring finally killed the band.


‘Anthology: SST Years 1985-1989’

(SST, 1991)

LATER DISOWNED by Lanegan, the Trees recorded three albums and an EP for legendary hardcore label SST during the 1980s, tentative tracks that spanned garage-rock, psychedelia, and the classic-grunge that later won them fame. ‘Anthology’ compiles choice moments from these impossible-to-find albums, at times amateurish and awkward, but more often grandiose and glorious in the Trees tradition. ‘Grey Diamond Desert’ is worth entrance fee alone.


‘Whiskey For The Holy Ghost’

(Sub Pop, 1993)

LANEGAN’S SOLO career began in 1989 with an aborted EP of Leadbelly covers accompanied by Nirvana’s Kris and Kurdt; a version of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ from that session made the cut for his solo debut, ‘The Winding Sheet’. This follow-up is Lanegan’s favourite, compiled from various aborted sessions over 4 years, a darker and deeper vein of blues than Screaming Trees ever mined. The thunderous ‘Boracho’ is the highlight.


‘Uncle Anaesthesia’

(Epic, 1991)

FROM ITS grotesque sleeve to the weedy production job from Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell (Don Fleming would prove on ‘Sweet Oblivion’ to be the Trees’ perfect match), everything about the Trees’ major-label debut is a misfire. Even the songs, caught between their psychedelic past and their classic-grunge future, never quite inspire. Its failure temporarily split the forever-feuding band, and inspired Lanegan to finally take the reins.


Cold Rain

A STROLL across the Northwestern landscape during a thunderstorm-abetted acid trip, soaking up addled magic, this whimsical, rough-hewn stomp captures early Trees at their naive best.

FIND IT: ‘Even If And Especially When’, 1987

In The Forest

BRUTAL STACCATO guitar slashes open this vicious garage-rock throw-down, pondering the primal Law of the Jungle. “This animal’s wild, he roams where he wants,” warns Lanegan.

FIND IT: ‘Even If And Especially When’, 1987

Girl Behind The Mask

A GHOSTLY, shimmering ballad, the earliest indication of where Lanegan’s muse would later wander. His baritone rings like Seattle’s answer to Nick Cave, swaggering and mysterious.

FIND IT: ‘Even If And Especially When’, 1987

Grey Diamond Desert

LANEGAN’S WEARY vocal hovers wisely over echoing sand-dune guitars and reverb-drenched pianos. Stunningly evocative and bravely experimental, it’s the best of their work for SST, and maybe their career.

FIND IT: ‘Invisible Lantern’, 1988

End Of The Universe

THIS WONDERFULLY ludicrous epic of bubblegum psychedelia delivers Armageddon with a whip crack riff of planet-levelling proportions. Lanegan sounds almost grateful for obliteration.

FIND IT: ‘Buzz Factory’, 1989

I’ve Seen You Before

THEIR EARLY psychedelic experiments redrawn with a new confidence, this sliver from their sole release on Sub Pop is a trip of karmic guitar, death-rattle tambourine, and Lanegan’s stoned, immaculate vocal.

FIND IT: ‘Change Has Come’ EP, 1990


A BRIGHT spot amid the mire of ‘Uncle Anaethesia’, this elegant, eerie Calexican waltz indicates the influence Lanegan’s solo work would soon have over the later Trees output.

FIND IT: ‘Uncle Anaesthesia’, 1991

Shadow Of The Season

AN EXISTENTIAL blues written from the brink. Over a spidery Old Testament squall, Lanegan sounds impressively ancient, pondering options of “pain and misery” or “sweet oblivion”.

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

I Nearly Lost You

LANEGAN’S TALE of a relationship run adrift infests Gary Lee’s wah-wah riff with fear and paranoia for Screaming Trees’ lone MTV-approved almost-hit. Elemental and elegant rock.

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

Dollar Bill

“I DON’T want to hurt you,” rails Lanegan, over sombre and graceful guitar and strings, “But that’s all I seem to do.” Sometimes “Goodbye” is a harder word to say than “Sorry”, but you still gotta say it.

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

More Or Less

A MORDANT slog etched with regret, Gary Lee’s wailing solos ringing with poignant, bitter wisdom. “Just be glad that it’s all over”, sighs Lanegan, offering the coldest of comforts.

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

No One Knows

“WHAT HAVE I done wrong?” howls Lanegan, noble and wretched, as Gary Lee’s guitar screams a soaring, sad refrain. That voice again, desperate now: “Won’t somebody tell me, what have I done wrong?”

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

Julie Paradise

THIS CLIMACTIC murder blues is a pounding, desperate brawl of wounded wailing and lashing fluorescent guitars, sounding like the band trashed the studio in the process

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

Paperback Bible

FROM 1994 sessions for ‘Sweet Oblivion’’s abandoned follow-up, tying its redemptive message - “Mercy’s there to find” - to a buckling Zep riff. Colossal, and grimly hopeful.

FIND IT: ‘Ocean Of Confusion: Songs 1990-1996’

Caught Between/The Secret Kind

CAPTURED FOR a B-Side while touring ‘Sweet Oblivion’: the Screaming Trees live. It’s a searing, animalistic noise, Barrett Martin pummelling his kit to atoms on this chainsaw medley.

FIND IT: ‘Sworn And Broken’, 1996

Halo Of Ashes

THE OPENING rush of sitars announces the grandiose flair of Drakoulias-era Trees: crushing riffs couched in eerie harmonies, adding a mystical heft to their already-considerable weight.

FIND IT: ‘Dust’, 1996

Dying Days

AN ELEGY for all the dead rock-stars, this song of survival sharpened by a spitfire guitar solo from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready. “Ghost town used to be my city,” mourns Lanegan of Seattle.

FIND IT: ‘Dust’, 1996

Sworn And Broken

FRAGILE AND beautiful, this secular gospel of regret was one of Screaming Trees most sombre, subtle and austere songs, melting into a choir of celestial organs for its heart-breaking coda.

FIND IT: ‘Dust’, 1996

Make My Mind

“JUST WANNA leave this world behind,” croons Lanegan, on this chiming classic rock hymnal, caught between abandoning his sinful life for a better one, or for that which follows death.

FIND IT: ‘Dust’, 1996

Gospel Plow

THEIR FINAL gasp opens like an Eastern spiritual, and closes only after a monolithic, prehistoric riff has reduced their collective neuroses - life, death, love, drugs, God - to ashes and dust.

FIND IT: ‘Dust’, 1996

(c) Stevie Chick, 2006

Where To Start With... Fugazi

Former leader of Minor Threat Ian MacKayes second great group are perhaps punks most fiercely inventive and fiercely independent band. United by a desire for musical experimentation and a love of James Brown, MacKaye hooked up with drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally in 1987 to form a trio soon augmented by second singer Guy Picciotto (of emo progenitors Rites Of Spring). Taking their name from military slang meaning fucked-up situation, Fugazi mixed political stridency with skulking, funk-informed riffage, capping gig and record prices, shunning merchandising, and confronting hardcores ingrained culture of violence and bigotry.

Beyond their legendary integrity, Fugazi have restlessly challenged hard-cores creative frontiers, while Picciottos balletic flailings and MacKayes feral bark ensured Fugazi shows thrilled right up until their (hopefully temporary) hiatus, announced 2002. Any band who ever believed punk means more than some mainstream-approved pose owes plenty to Fugazi. Sample that spirit at the source



AS FAR as rock music goes, and certainly as far as pure rock music goes, there is no better band on planet earth than Washington DC’s Fugazi. And by ‘pure rock music, I mean the true essence of plugging an electric guitar into an amplifier and expressing something as honestly as you can, which is the true essence of Fugazi and their music. They have an impeccable drive for political action; for decades they’ve been playing benefit shows for worthy causes (every show in their hometown of DC has been a benefit show), and bringing important issues and positive political and social organisations to their audience’s attention.

“But even disregarding their political affiliations, they are the best live rock band around, full stop. Their complete absence of rock star pretensions (they always play under neutral coloured lights), the sense of entertainment, euphoria and also, importantly, the sense that you're all part of something together is what has made
them such a potent musical force since the 1980s. Having two of the most watchable frontmen in American music also hasn’t hurt.

“Their records have always pushed the boundaries of what people expected of them, In On The Killtaker and The Argument in particular. Brilliant performers, activists,
musicians, Fugazi mean everything to the people who know them. And for people who don't? Well, they don't know what they're missing.”


‘13 Songs’

(Dischord, 1990)

COMBINING THEIR first 2 EPs, Fugazi and Margin Walker. The former is a taut exercise in reggae-influenced, rhythmically-adventurous rock, where the fist-pumping riot rock (Waiting Room, covered by the Chillis) shares space with atmospheric and edgy vignettes like Glue Man and Burning. Margin Walker finessed that formula, with literally incendiary results on the Picciotto-fronted title track.


‘In On The Killtaker’

(Dischord, 1993)

WITH NIRVANA having dragged the underground overground, and Eddie Vedder name-checking them at every opportunity, Fugazi’s moment in the post-grunge spotlight saw them at their most focussed and purposeful. ‘Facet Squared’ opened like a Molotov, before tracks like ‘23 Beats Off’, ‘Public Witness Program’ and the scarifying ‘Walken Syndrome’ compiled another bleak vision of America eating itself alive.



(Dischord, 1990)

WHERE THEY tied their political leanings to the mast; Repeater was a fury-fuelled manifesto of independence, adrift in an ever-more corporate America. “You are not what you own!” they howled, on ‘Merchandise’. “I’m not playing with you!” they scorned, on ‘Blueprint’. Elsewhere, they dragged sharp eyes across a crumbling America, penning scorching accounts of poverty and violence ‘Greed’ and ‘Two Beats Off’ with unforgiving ire.


‘Red Medicine’

(Dischord, 1995)

BUILDING UPON the previous album’s darker, murkier passages, Red Medicine was drawn from loose and experimental rehearsal sessions, the band loosening their supposedly-rigid rock to encompass dubbed-out melodica instrumentals and askew lullabies. Of course, when the riffs did gel - ‘Target’, ‘Back To Base’ - Fugazi rocked with greater precision than any, but the rewardingly adventurous tone of this album indicated the weirder paths subsequent Fugazi LPs would follow.



(Dischord, 1999)

THERE ARE no bad Fugazi albums (their Quality Control was scrupulously tight), but this soundtrack to Gem Cohen’s 1999 documentary of the same name - compiled of murky instrumental rehearsal takes and studio experiments - is probably the least essential album in the catalogue (but worth checking out, especially if you love their later material). The documentary itself, compiled by Fugazi from footage spanning their entire career, is the most comprehensive document of the band’s essence, and essential viewing for any rock fan.


‘Waiting Room’

Echoing with space, dominated by its swaggering, itchy bassline and Guy and Ian’s call and response vocals, this chunk of agit-funk announced Fugazi’s ass-shakin‘ revolutionary arrival.

FIND IT: ‘13 Songs’, 1990


Wherein MacKaye attacks explicit and implicit sexual oppression, preaching that true punk-rock enlightenment only comes with the rejection of society’s many prejudices.

FIND IT: ‘13 Songs’, 1990

3. Glue Man

Picciotto’s nightmarish vision of suburban drug addicts brilliantly applies primitive echo machines to the band’s own feedback-fringed cacophony: a chilling punky reggae death-party.

FIND IT: ‘13 Songs’, 1990

4. Repeater

A brilliantly odd pop song, blending a turbulent hardcore chorus with a chiming indie-rock chorus to celebrate those who make a living outside the mainstream, by any means necessary.

FIND IT: ‘Repeater’, 1990

5. Blueprint

“I’m not playing with you,” spits Guy Picciotto at the rotten, corrupt music industry, rightly proud that Fugazi - thanks to MacKaye’s righteous Dischord Records - will never have to ‘sell out’ to The Man.

FIND IT: ‘Repeater’, 1990

6. Song #1

“Song #1 is not a fuck-you! song!” yelled MacKaye, but this single was the group’s most accessible moment to date, a shout-along polemic that bade farewell to their early sound.

FIND IT: ‘Repeater’, 1990

7. Reclamation

Where the spooky chainsaw guitars get absolutely torn apart by the heaviest bassline punk-rock has ever heard. If you ever needed proof that Fugazi listen to a lot of reggae and dub…

FIND IT: ‘Steady Diet Of Nothing’, 1991

8. Dear Justice Letter

As guitars burn like newly-looted store-fronts, Picciotto reads the government a missive from an underclass denied National Health Insurance, whose “lungs are all leaking”.

FIND IT: ‘Steady Diet Of Nothing’, 1991

9. Facet Squared

Opening like a ticking time-bomb, this dragstrip punker includes MacKaye’s killer anti-patriot couplet “We draw lines and stand behind them / That’s why flags are such ugly things”.

FIND IT: ‘In On The Kill-Taker’, 1993

10. 23 Beats Off

Demonstrating their broadening musical palette, this oblique tale of a celebrity HIV sufferer ignites from glowing embers, into a scorching feedback drone-out. Stunning.

FIND IT: ‘In On The Kill-Taker’, 1993

11. Great Cop

Simple and brilliant, a devastatingly heavy return to hardcore roots on MacKaye’s edgy, hammering tale of inquisitive ‘friends’ who ask too many questions. A live favourite.

FIND IT: ‘In On The Kill-Taker’, 1993

12. Do You Like Me

The noisy piano opening announcing Red Medicine’s murky, subterranean sound, razored guitars suddenly lash in for this savage, scouring burst of Picciotto vitriol.

FIND IT: ‘Red Medicine’, 1995

13. Bed For The Scraping

For those double-tracked unspooling guitars… A real axe-hero favourite, as the choruses explode with Picciotto and MacKaye’s duelling high-register guitars, like licking flickers of flame.

FIND IT: ‘Red Medicine’, 1995

14. Target

Picciotto’s wry, snotty attack on punk rock’s new “grouching young millionaires” who’ve made him hate the sound of guitars. Ironically, this tune proves six-strings in the right hands always electrify.

FIND IT: ‘Red Medicine’, 1995

15. No Surprise

Sweeping, dubby walls of noise, countless false-endings, lilting hooks and Guy Picciotto’s sweetest vocal yet carved this perfect paranoid pop song.

FIND IT: ‘End Hits’, 1998

16. Five Corporations

Over a riff that sounds like dive-bombing fighter jets colliding, MacKaye fires spittle and rage at conglomerates choking the free world with their monopolies. Their angriest moment.

FIND IT: ‘End Hits’, 1998

17. Arpeggiator

Weird and wonderful instrumental, with MacKaye and Picciotto playing catch with a tricky little riff, like punk-rock’s answer to Deliverance’s ‘Duelling Banjos’. Prog-power!

FIND IT: ‘End Hits’, 1998

18. Ex-Spectator

A rattling, angular burst showcasing the drums of Jerry Busher, the long-time onstage percussionist who joined the band in the studio for the first time for this album.

FIND IT: ‘The Argument’, 2001

19. The Argument

A beautiful exercise in controlled dynamics, this slow-burning epic explodes with distorted guitars and scything strings, evidence that Fugazi never eased their intensity as they matured.

FIND IT: ‘The Argument’, 2001

20. Furniture

Their last single (for now) was a tune written during their first years, a return to the brutal slogan-and-riff sucker punches they built a revolution upon. The formula still thrills.

FIND IT: ‘Furniture EP’, 2001


Where To Start With... Sonic Youth

This'll be the first of a number of these 'Rough Guides' I've written for Kerrang! materialising on the Blog. You need to see them in the magazine, really, to appreciate how well they work - which is tribute to the great art team who work at the mag. Otherwise, they're fun to write, to try and play with the restrictions of the format, and to seduce Kerrang!'s youthful readership into the same music that perverted my music tastes when I was their age.

I'm currently working on a book about Sonic Youth, for publication later this year. More info as I get it.

Hailing from NYCs cerebral avant-garde scene, but pointedly obsessed with Pop Culture, Sonic Youth have spent the last quarter-century as rocks most influential mavericks. They pioneered the reinvention of the electric guitar (detuning it, attacking it with screwdrivers, and artfully playing feedback), covered Madonna and jammed with Iggy and Neil Young, and grunge would never had happened without them. Along the way, their fluorescent, discordant noise split rocks atom, redrawing the blueprint several times over and breaking every rule with subversive brilliance. Following Nirvanas Youth-abetted breakthrough, 1992s Dirty saw the group attempt a thrilling crossover of their own, selling pro-feminist anthems and atonal rocknroll to MTV, with impressive success. Subtly expanding rocks horizons and IQ level without ever losing touch with the kinetic thrill of overdriven, abused guitars, utterly committed to their exploration of all things Sonic, and ever-Youthful - fourteen albums later, theyre making the best and bravest music of their career.



I THINK I was around 15 when I first saw Sonic Youth. They were playing a matinee all ages show in Boston; I hadn’t really heard much of their music before, but
was making a transition of my musical interests and my identity, from metal to punk, and my friend Jim was super into them. It was a small club, it was loud as fuck, and I remember Thurston was wearing a racing driver’s jacket. I was completely blown away, in every way, and basically the next day scrounged up every tool in my moms house and got to work making noise with my guitar on my 4 track. Suddenly, noise wasn’t just noise, but the start of an entirely new vocabulary - soft noise, beautiful noise, drone-y noise, melodic noise, noise-y noise... Basically, they had flipped the notion of what is music, what is guitar playing, and what is a song for me, remaining an influence to this day.
“Before I moved to New York city, my friends who lived there would tell me about SY sightings there, like ‘I saw Thurston in Other Music!’ Well, what records did he buy?! ‘I saw Lee coming out of a hardware store!’ What crazy tool of sonic destruction did he get?! They were heroes, yet totally accessible, and normal - like me
and you. Now, living in New York, they continue to have a strong presence in every artistic area: Art shows, improvisational collaborations at small clubs, DJ nights, and obscure film house benefits, to name a few ,while still playing amazing shows, making great records, and being more clued in to new experimental music than any critic or magazine could hope to be - no offence!”


‘Daydream Nation’

(Blast First, 1989)

FINESSING THEIR detuned mayhem into something resembling Classic Rock, ‘Daydream Nation’ was a romantic, psychedelic vision of the violent magic of New York City. ‘Teenage Riot’’s ragged punk was an anti-hero ‘anthem’, while epics like ‘Cross The Breeze’ and ‘Trilogy’ were ambitious and often strangely beautiful. A perfect album, ‘Daydream Nation’ announced Sonic Youth’s triumphant ascension from the murky underground that birthed them.


‘Bad Moon Rising’

(Blast First, 1985)

ITS DISTURBING sleeve (a burning pumpkin-headed scarecrow) promised evil, and Bad Moon Rising delivered, with atonal crescendos, menacing drones of feedback, and the Lydia Lunch-fronted nightmare surf-punk of Death Valley 69. Elsewhere, Ghost Bitch glowered, while I Love Her All The Time was psychotic psychedelic brilliance. The CD version adds their dread-laden Halloween’, and profane feminist statement ‘Flower’. Their bad-trip best.


‘Murray Street’

(Geffen, 2002)

OTHER BANDS would’ve given up, had their arsenal of irreplaceable, modified guitars been stolen, as happened to Sonic Youth in 2000. But the setback inspired a renewed vigour within the band, the turbulent likes of ‘Rain On Tin’ and ‘Karen Revisited’ boasting brilliant rushes of avant-garde musicianship, and guest appearances from free-jazz saxophonists. ‘Murray Street’ was Sonic Youth’s most fearless - and also most accessible - album for years, an autumnal triumph.


‘Washing Machine’

(Geffen, 1995)

AS THE grunge bubble burst, Sonic Youth abandoned more conventional structures for ambient noise and improvisational experimentalism. The title track (where Kim Gordon’s street poetry is swallowed up by waves of tranquil white noise) and noise-laden Cobain lament ‘The Diamond Sea’ are standouts, but the group’s adventurous nature on this album delivered an hour’s worth of passionately inventive music. Egghead space-rock perfection.


‘Goodbye 20th Century’

(SYR, 1999)

A SINCERE tribute to their avant-garde roots, Sonic Youth collaborated with, and covered the works of, some of the greatest composers of the century. The result involved the destruction of a ‘treated’ piano (also included as CD-Rom footage), and puzzling versions of impenetrable pieces by John Cage and Yoko Ono. The concept and their ambition are to be applauded, but few are actually going to want to play this one twice. [This isn't actually true, but rather an attempt to justify suggesting that there's a Sonic Youth album you 'should' avoid, and betraying a desire not to frighten K!'s readership off from the joys of SY.]


‘Brother James’

Slashing detuned guitars and Kim Gordon’s inhuman howl collude over death-disco grooves for this blood-splattered rejection of religious dogma and guilt.

FIND IT: ‘Confusion Is Sex’, 1983

‘I Love Her All The Time’

Showcase for Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s instrumental abuse, a dippy love song exploding with drumstick-applied guitars and fierce screes - lunatic brilliance.

FIND IT: ‘Bad Moon Rising’, 1985

‘Death Valley 69’

No-Wave punk poet Lydia Lunch co-sang the Manson Murder lyric, as Thurston invoked surf-guitar godhead Dick Dale for the killer-bumblebee riffs. A Hallowe-en party classic.

FIND IT: ‘Bad Moon Rising’, 1985

‘Expressway To Your Skull’

Neil Young called this “the greatest guitar track of all time”, fitting tribute to the swooping symphony of atonal noise that drones throughout it’s epic climax.

FIND IT: ‘Evol’, 1986

‘In The Kingdom #19’

Ranaldo’s injurious car-wreck beat-poem is set to churning avant-noise, and the lit firecrackers Thurston threw at an unsuspecting Lee as he recorded the vocal.

FIND IT: ‘Evol’, 1985

‘Catholic Block’

Avowed lovers of pulpy Trash Culture, Sonic Youth knew Catholic Guilt only made the sin more delicious, as this psychotic, switchblade-wielding thrash declared.

FIND IT: ‘Sister’, 1986

‘Teenage Riot’

An irresistible, lazy melodic hook made this ragged, glorious rocker a perfect Summer alternahit. Written in salute to ragged, glorious (and lazy) Dinosaur Jr guitarist J Mascis.

FIND IT: ‘Daydream Nation’, 1988

‘Total Trash’

Brilliant, cacophonic slice of mischief, Sonic Youth dousing a dumb bubble-gum punk song with fearsome, dub-quaking noise, and dancing in the (audible) wreckage.

FIND IT: ‘Daydream Nation’, 1988

‘Tunic (Song For Karen)’

The Karen in question was the tragic anorexic singer/drummer with easy-listening legends The Carpenters. A sad, savage musing on stardom and it’s price.

FIND IT: ‘Goo’, 1990

‘Youth Against Fascism’

Featuring Ian MacKaye on guest guitar, this righteous salvo railed viciously against oppression, while expressing Thurston’s discomfort with the protest song as a format.

FIND IT: ‘Dirty’, 1992

‘Drunken Butterfly’

Shrieking vocals, guitars that sound like broken glass, walls of impenetrable noise, explosions of neon drone: this was how Sonic Youth played ‘pop’ music.

FIND IT: ‘Dirty’, 1992


Their big ‘hit’, a laconic slab of heavy riffage and revolutionary guitar squall, dedicated to recently-murdered Youth roadie (and Rollins’ buddy) Joe Cole.

FIND IT: ‘Dirty’, 1992

‘Bull In The Heather’

Sonic Youth were just as powerful coiled as unleashed, as this muted but brooding Kim Gordon groove attests. A slithering, sweet menace, from an underrated album.

FIND IT: ‘Experimental Jetset Trash & No-Star’, 1994

‘Washing Machine’

Embracing the looser approach of the album, Kim’s elliptic lyric toys with contrasting concepts of womanhood, before the song is swallowed by beautiful walls of white noise.

FIND IT: ‘Washing Machine’, 1995

‘Little Trouble Girl’

Kim Deal added girl-group harmonies to this beautiful, skewed song, about a mother/daughter relationship adrift on the choppy seas of adolescence.

FIND IT: ‘Washing Machine’, 1995

‘The Diamond Sea’

A powerful epic, its lyrics obliquely referencing Kurt (“The mirror’s gonna steal your soul”), over poignant, ear-scouring improvised feedback. A painful peak.

FIND IT: ‘Washing Machine’, 1995

‘Wildflower Soul’

Glorious moment from a difficult-to-love album, ‘Wildflower Soul’’s tender melodies gave way to some brain-splitting career-best skronkin’ from Moore and Ranaldo.

FIND IT: ‘A Thousand Leaves’, 1998

‘New York City Ghosts And Flowers’

Lee Ranaldo’s poetic lament for New York’s fading Bohemian under-culture, eradicated by Mayor Giuliani, barely contains its ire behind acrid, black-noise crescendos.

FIND IT: ‘New York City Ghosts And Flowers’, 2000

‘The Empty Page’

Referencing, perhaps, the fresh start signalled by the theft of their precious gear, this psychedelic howl of defiance opened an album recorded in the shadow of Ground Zero.

FIND IT: ‘Murray Street’, 2002

‘Kim Gordon And The Arthur Doyle Handcream’

Inspired by Mariah Carey’s recent career hiccups, this savage and hallucinatory attack on modern pop culture was Sonic Youth at their most satirical, and most sonically vicious.

FIND IT: ‘Sonic Nurse’, 2004

(c) Stevie Chick 2005