If it weren’t for the artsy, postpunk noise band Sonic Youth, which accompanies R.E.M. at The Gorge on Sunday, the musical climate of the ‘90s might not have turned out the way it has.
In 1991, grunge rock, alternative rock, punk rock - whatever you want to call it rock - vaulted into the mainstream with a cathartic, angstreleasing Nirvana song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
With that one song, “alternative” music became big business.
In 1994, the big business continued its prowl on pop music with Green Day’s third album, “Dookie,” which has sold 6 million copies.
Though Nirvana, Green Day and a host of other bands contributed to changing the face of rock, the New York noise quartet Sonic Youth made it all possible.
True, Sonic Youth isn’t a household name. In fact, the group’s entire catalog hasn’t sold nearly as many copies as Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” though a band’s contributions shouldn’t be weighed on the number of units it has sold.
But the the band - bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon, guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore, guitarist Lee Renaldo and drummer Steve Shelley - changed the way many bands approach music.
In the early and mid-‘80s, Sonic Youth, along with bands like Big Black and Pussy Galore, was throttling the underground with its sonically abusive and artfully dissonant music. The four noisemakers were innovators, probing musical grounds that had never been explored. Continually defying all conventions of rock, Sonic Youth often delved into punk rock, noise and free-form jazz.
Many of its early recordings, such as “Sister,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Daydream Nation” and “Evol,” conceptual masterpieces indeed, are still considered well ahead of their time, so much so that Sonic Youth’s major label, DGC, has been reissuing these recordings over the past 18 months.
By signing to a major label in 1990, the group made discordant rock available to the mainstream. And if the band hadn’t signed, Nirvana might never have become a fixture of 1990s rock.
Kurt Cobain, whose music was greatly affected by Sonic Youth, often said one reason Nirvana signed to DGC was because Sonic Youth enjoyed the total artistic freedom DGC gave it.
“I believe history will look back on Sonic Youth as a band that was as important musically as the Rolling Stones were in their day and time,” Gary Gersh, president of Capitol Records and the man who inked contracts for Sonic Youth and Nirvana, told the L.A. Times.
Even with all the positive feedback for its recent recordings, 1990’s “Goo,” 1992’s “Dirty” and last year’s “Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” Sonic Youth has managed to steer clear of the spotlight, partly of its own volition and partly due to the dissonance of its music.
Since it began, the Lollapalooza tour - the annual modern rock festival - has invited Sonic Youth to join the caravan, which would expose the band to hundreds of thousands of people. Every year however, the group has turned down the opportunity.
“We always replied, ‘No, we have no interest,”’ Moore told the New York Times. “It’s such a tacky thing, and something that benefits Perry Farrell (founder and front man of Porno for Pyros). But this year, we knew Lollapalooza was talking about having Pavement and Beck and Jesus Lizard on the bill. So we said, ‘If you can commit to having those three acts on the main stage, we’ll do it.”’ So, this year Sonic Youth will headline the Lollapalooza tour, which opens July 4 at The Gorge. By also being in the R.E.M. national tour, Sonic Youth is making itself very accessible to mainstream audiences.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: R.E.M./Sonic Youth Location and time: The Gorge, Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: Sold out