Before 1988 independent rock was undoubtedly flourishing across the states, in part thanks to label networks established in the early days of the post-punk era and the “college rock” movement of bands such as R.E.M and Yo La Tengo who rose through the ranks of airplay from the widespread network of college radio stations. From the Californian hardcore of Black Flag, to the weirdo punk of the Meat Puppets and the Butthole Surfers, there was certainly no shortage of innovation occurring. What the scene lacked, however, was a bold and consummate breakthrough record that could successfully propel an outsider perspective into the mainstream American consciousness.
The challenge, it seemed, was translating the music’s uncompromising mentality in a way that conceded little to major label conservatism – as Thurston Moore proposed: “A new aesthetic of youth culture, wherein anger and distaste, attributes associated with punk energy, were coolly replaced by head-in-the-clouds outer limits brilliance.” With Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth would masterfully solve this riddle, and, in turn, usher in a whole new era of American rock music.
Sonic Youth had long been a quotational band pulling influences from and drawing reference to a broad array of musicians and styles, but on Daydream Nation this skill was drawn into sharp focus as the band offered their ironic and sincere takes on popular culture. The LP’s double length connected it to the bygone era of the ‘70s (Ranaldo a noted Deadhead), whilst the oblique symbols on each side referenced Led Zeppelin’s 1971 album IV. Joni Mitchell is alluded to on a Ranaldo fronted song, although submerged in surrealist lyrics that express anxieties about the past, present and future. But this mode of presentation was subverted by the band’s sonically destructive style, in which serrated textures and explosive dynamism suffocated any potential for personality-cult posturing.
The band’s re-tuned writing process seemed concurrent with this idea. Resisting the urge to impose ideas on one another, in the lead-up to Daydream Nation’s recording Sonic Youth often germinated song ideas through extended instrumental practice sessions, in which long, winding compositions would gradually take shape. This was in part an effort to translate the band’s sprawling live performances into the album format.
The recording process, overseen by hiphop producer Nick Sansano, would prove to be the most expensive of the band’s career thus far, with fees reaching up to $1,000 dollars per day – Moore referred to it as “our first non-ecomo record.” But it also marked an increased sense of ambition, coupled with the pressures and deadlines typically associated with a major label deal.
Daydream Nation was a near perfect synthesis of both the band’s most strikingly direct and most fascinatingly complex material. Sonic Youth seemed able to sustain a level of energy and intensity that many groups found unreachable. Opener “Teenage Riot” (originally entitled “J. Mascis For President”) is a stellar example of the former – a bold rallying cry encased in left-field pop that features some of the most infectious lyrics of Moore’s career. Its devotional sentiment, and accompanying video, featuring a gallery of indie rock heroes such as Iggy Pop, confirmed the band’s eagerness to unite both their idols and their friends around a cross-generational musical campaign.
Elsewhere the band continued to test their musical and thematic horizons, referencing a plethora of influences, from the Gerhard Richter album cover to lyrics borrowed from Andy Warhol films and Denis Johnson books. One major inspiration was the author William Gibson, whose Sprawl Trilogy, sparked by the book Neuromancer, arguably kick-started the cyber-punk movement of the 1980s and beyond. “The Sprawl” takes it’s title from the fictional mega-city which stretches from Boston to Atlanta, translating this abstract influence into a wave of rising intensity and intricately tangled guitar riffs which seem to stretch and squeeze time.
But the radical essence of Sonic Youth is perhaps most perfectly distilled in Daydream Nation’s closing three-part statement, A,B,Z. Featuring some of the most frenzied vocal and instrumental performances on the album, it captures the band’s un-matched ability to seamlessly connect a series of themes and musical motifs into one cohesive and exhilarating journey. Moore and Ranaldo’s guitars become power-tools, slicing and grinding through walls of sound, no more instruments than tools of deadly destruction. By the time Gordon’s furious takedown of “Preppy Murderer” Robert Chambers comes hurtling to a close on ‘Z) Eliminator Jr.’ the impact is jarringly sharp – as if the floor has finally given way beneath their berserker energy.
Sonic Youth’s uncompromising mentality helped kick down doors previously closed to the grittier side of their music, helping to create a sense of faith in its commercial viability. Without the groundwork laid by Daydream Nation, it’s hard to imagine the Pixies, Mudhoney, Soundgarden or The Smashing Pumpkins enjoying the same level of critical and commercial attention.
This is perhaps most explicit in the meteoric rise of Nirvana, a Washington State-born band who would release their debut album, Bleach, just a few months later in 1989. As the band’s press officer confirmed “our idea of the ‘Top 10’ was being as big as Sonic Youth.” Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo, and Shelley had become the contemporary barometer of rock n’ roll greatness.
The creative sources from which the band translated went well beyond mere musical heritage, exposing whole new avenues of film, literature and art to a new generation of nerdy fans willing to dive deep below the grimy surface.
But Daydream Nation undoubtedly remains the band’s finest moment – a sonic rendering of teenage passion that demanded attention from its elders and set the blueprint for years to come. And for all its grand cultural and critical achievements, the fundamental concept at its core remains timelessly simple: rock n’ roll is pure sensory exhilaration.
The album is available to buy here.