Strange to think that a format should have been so exciting, but when Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation emerged in 1988, among the intriguing things about it was that it was a double album.
With the double albums that me and my friends played at the time – this would have been Electric Ladyland, The Song Remains The Same, if I’m honest Focus 3 – part of their mystique derived from the fact they were from another era.
Daydream Nation, though, was just as weird, and it was happening in our own time. A record that was dense and alien, it seemed to have all the qualities we had come to love in rock music – noise, songs, great guitar playing – but it had assembled these constituent parts in a different order to devise a wholly new machine. It wouldn’t have been far from The Wedding Present, or the Primitives on our playlists, but it seemed to form a continuum with this other, more psychedelic, and experimental time.
At the Roundhouse last night, as Sonic Youth re-assembled as a four-piece to play the album through, there was a hint of some of that psychedelia. Not, it has to be said from the support band – power electronics duo Sutcliffe Jugend – who seem to belong in the same murky world of white noise, PO Boxes and organizations of like-minded people that may be familiar to Whitehouse fans.
But, as Sonic Youth played, a moderately psychedelic lightshow bubbled and pulsed, gently accentuating the mood while the band revisited – at times, brilliantly – this great music.
With no great pomp, to huge applause, the band came on stage bathed in purple light, and wordlessly began the beatific intro to “Teenage Riot”. As the set progressed, it was hard not to note the vigour and the faithfulness of the performance, but also to note how reminiscent it was of meeting someone who you’re good friends with, but who you haven’t seen for a while – the band seemed on cordial terms with the material, but some of the spontaneity of their relationship with it seemed to have gone.
Perhaps it was inevitable, given the time that has passed. Elsewhere, however, the band seemed virtually unchanged: Thurston Moore’s gangling enthusiasm and just-washed hair seem to grant him an eternal youth, Lee Ranaldo seems hale, grey and august, and Steve Shelley rises to the hectic challenges of the material. Designer clothing and fine hairstyling, meanwhile, mean Kim Gordon now resembles Carmela Soprano.
What the show demonstrated, though – as noted by John Mulvey in his review of the reissued Daydream Nation in the current Uncut – is that this is music would still sound revolutionary if it had come out this year. Though it’s surely familiar to most people here, the music played by Sonic Youth tonight simply doesn’t sound like anyone else. Some of the band’s influences (particularly John Fahey, Indian Ragas, and krautrock) have maybe been more widely heard in the last 20 years, but this doesn’t in any way diminish the band’s originality.
All of which makes it sound like an intellectual exercise, rather than a thrilling rock album, and an often great gig. Last night, Thurston provided some exemplary rocking out, bothering his guitar with a drumstick, while the interplay between his and Lee Ranaldo’s guitar was as transcendent as it appeared (misleadingly) entirely haphazard.
Not that the band seemed entirely convinced. “That’s enough of our old shit!” Thurston declared at the end of the set, on which note the band launched into songs from their new album Rather Ripped.
This still being the anti-nostalgia band who instructed us to “Kill Yr Idols” – they immediately looked a great deal more comfortable.
Words: JOHN ROBINSON