I don’t get Sonic Youth, although I’ve seen them twice in concert (1999 and 2009). Both times, they were the headliners, which made sense in box office terms, but since Sleater-Kinney was also on the bill for one of those shows, I didn’t buy it on an artistic level. Both concerts, though, featured very enthusiastic crowds, so my opinion was in the minority.
Because I don’t get them, I have little to say. I can name a few I like (“Sugar Kane” and “Kool Thing” come to mind), and I recognize others when I hear them. But this is mostly a space-filling post, because I needed something for Music Friday.
The most interesting thing about Sonic Youth, to me, is their interaction with Robert Christgau. The “Dean of American Rock Critics” didn’t think much of their early work … from 1982-5, he parceled out grades of C, C+, B-, B, D. The band noticed … the title track to their EP, "Kill Yr. Idols”, began “I don’t know why you wanna impress Christgau”. Christgau’s review noted that he “wasn't flattered to hear my name pronounced right” (a reference to a live Lou Reed album where Reed ranted about the critic, prompting Christgau to end his review of the album, “I thank Lou for pronouncing my name right”). A later release of the song “Kill Yr. Idols” was retitled “I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick” … Christgau placed this version on his list of the best singles of the year, calling it “I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick (And Now It Don't Work No More)”.
But then something happened. There is probably someone out there who has figured this out, but that person is not me, so I’ll just take a guess and say there has never been an act in music history that went from getting a D from Robert Christgau to getting an A+. The next three grades he gave out after the D for Death Valley ‘69 were B+, A-, A. That was 1987, and since then, Christgau has given at least an A- to eleven different Sonic Youth releases, topped by the A+ he gave to A Thousand Leaves in 1998. And they haven’t slid much in his estimation … their last album, 2009’s The Eternal, received an A-.
So there you go, a bit of history that most of you probably already knew.
“Teen Age Riot” is my favorite Sonic Youth song, and I doubt I’m alone. As Stewart Mason notes at the All Music site, “Teen Age Riot” was “the first honest-to-goodness pop song of Sonic Youth's by then six-year-old career. It was an enormous college radio hit.” I’ve never bothered to figure out what they are singing … the sound and the title are enough for me.
Here’s a video of them playing it live: