I’M PRETTY sure that Death Valley 69 was the first Sonic Youth record I ever bought, prompted by hearing it on John Peel’s radio show or reading about it in fanzines and the NME – the principal arbiters of my tastes in those days.
It was a lovely little package. Its front cover features a vintage Savage Pencil grotesque on a bright pink background, while the reverse has a photo of the band in the back of a candy-pink pick-up truck, in an airport, at night. I thought it was an impossibly glamorous scene.
In fact Thurston Moore’s look – a hooded top with khaki jacket over it, couture fans – exerted a strong influence on my own fashion choices for a good five years afterwards.
The EP came with an insert featuring the lyrics to the title track (rendered in blackmail letter-style Letraset by Sav), an interview entitled The Sound of Screwdrivers, production credits and a black and white photo of an open air gig in the Mojave desert.
It collected tracks from previous releases Sonic Youth, Confusion Is Sex, Bad Moon Rising and Kill Yr Idols, with just one new track, Satan Is Boring. It was all new to me.
I liked the big, angry guitars and dirty basslines. I liked the fact that they were doing this weird art-punk music in New York, that their attitudes and motives were often completely unfathomable, that after listening to Death Valley 69 a lot I still had more questions than answers.
Sonic Youth were every bit as intense as other US punk acts who’d been around for years, such as Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys, but they were much more subtle and nuanced and finessed, less straightforward, more opaque. They were right up my street.
“Sonic Youth: A band from New York City, a band who play their guitars with screwdrivers, a band with a female bassist, a band fixated with Charles Manson ..” I mused in my own fanzine, earnestly.
“Too many people are preoccupied with what Sonic Youth are, when they should be thinking about what they do.
“Try reading a live review of Sonic Youth without finding something along the lines of ‘what a strange way to play a guitar’. It doesn’t do them justice. It presents them as desperately avant-garde bohemians, toiling for their art in Greenwich Village, saying to themselves: What shall we shock the kids with next? I don’t think it’s like that at all.”
Greil Marcus, eat your heart out.
I was impressed enough with the title track to suggest covering it for the debut performance by my own art-punk/noise ensemble the Shreddies for a rock open competition at the Baths a year or so later. You weren’t supposed to play covers but we were reasonably confident of getting away with it.
For a start, I worked in the local record shop and I knew that nobody else had bought that record – at least not in Scunny. And secondly, we were so shoddy, ramshackle and under-rehearsed that even if anyone had heard Sonic Youth’s version of Death Valley 69, they wouldn’t have been able to recognise it from what we were playing anyway.
Our plan worked superbly. Guest judge Fast Eddie, as in the former Motorhead guitarist, said that we were the worst thing he’d ever heard.
I may well have flogged my copy of the Death Valley 69 EP to some record dealer guy who lived around the corner in LS6. Or I might have left it behind when I moved from Harehills to Armley, when I moved from Armley to Beeston, or indeed when I moved from Beeston to Chapeltown. It was a busy few months.
The point is, my copy of Death Valley 69 went west at some point between then and now and I don’t have a clue when or where or why or how, except that it was probably in Leeds.
You may not be that surprised to learn that I don’t even remember where I picked it up again – Really? Is this how it ends? – but it was probably Vinyl Exchange or King Bee, and I have a vague recollection of being pleasantly surprised by the relatively cheapo price tag. A fiver, maybe? I dunno, seriously. It’s been a long week at work. I didn’t get the original insert, either way.
Listening to it again for the first time in the best part of 25 years, I’m struck by how lovely and delicate I Dreamed A Dream is. It’s all about Moore and Renaldo’s gently dissonant, naggingly insistant guitars, Kim Gordon’s oddly unsettling, predatory bassline, her spoken vocal (“Fucking youth, working youth ..”) overlaying a folksy turn from Moore, with the drums skipping out of time. It’s like a lullaby for a serial killer.
Inhuman remains simply unhinged, betraying their punk rock roots and hardcore leanings, a clanging, distorted, throbbing mess. It seems like everything could tip over the edge at any moment. “I learned my lesson the hardest way .. But you don’t know me, You don’t know me ..” yells Moore.
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Brother James is where it all came together for me, perhaps even more than the EPs mighty title track, and it still packs a big punch today. It finds the band creating music which sounds like a swarm of enormous angry mechanical bees one moment, and like a load of big brass bells clanging into each other the next. And all this over a beat which owes more than a little to disco.
What can I tell you about Satan Is Boring? It’s a rather tedious aural collage, which shows what happens when you don’t have a producer in the control room prepared to tell the band that it’s five am in the fucking morning, we’ve run out of songs and we’ve got spare studio time but this shit is not cool.
I don’t imagine I’m going to be listening to Satan Is Boring anymore now than I did in the first place.
The EP’s title track finds Moore dueting with fierce New York performance artist Lydia Lunch. Everything is cranked up to the nth degree. Lunch screeches, Moore screams, it is mental.
It’s not the first or the last time that great art has come from enormous tragedy and suffering – read Anthem For Doomed Youth or the Red Riding Quartet, look at Saturn Devouring His Son or Guernica, listen to Nagasaki Nightmare or Shipbuilding – but it’s not often that such visceral horror is brought to life so convincingly.
Death Valley 69 finds Lunch and Moore getting inside the minds of the Family, the motley crew of hippies, addicts and runaways who surrounded Charles Manson and did his bidding, who murdered their victims with unspeakable violence and cruelty in an effort to provoke a race war after which everything – in Manson’s mind, at least – would be alright.
It’s not hard to imagine that, born 10 or 20 years later, Manson’s meagre musical talents and unfocussed anti-establishment leanings would’ve made him a punk rock hero. Charlie Manson was just Sid Vicious on different drugs.
In this reality, the one where Charles Manson is a punk rock hero, people have tattoos of cartoon Charlies leaning in a doorway, with a swastika on his forehead rather than his t-shirt. His version of My Way always gets a few old punks pogoing again at wedding receptions. Gary Oldman turns in a particularly sensitive portrayal in the biopic.
If only Charlie had been given a bit more adulation, if Brian Wilson had managed to work some kind of magic on his shitty demo tapes, if there was only some kind of talent, something worthwhile within Manson’s confused, deluded, amoral psyche, who knows, maybe he would just have made a few crappy solo records and then killed his girlfriend?
As it is, Death Valley 69 captures all the anger, confusion and fear of surrendering your will to a madman, the headlong pelt into who-knows-what? The feeling that events are spiralling out of control: “I didn’t wanna .. But she started to holler ..”
The hippies tried to create their own version of the American Dream, with free love, free sex, all the drugs you can handle – and a few more besides – but what they created instead was the Manson Family.
Still, it all makes for a thrilling ride. Spattered blood notwithstanding, those guitars are still big and angry, those basslines still as deliciously dirty. It’s dramatic, unsettling, absorbing, seductive. It’s a trip.
Meanwhile of course, Sonic Youth’s motives remain resolutely impenetrable.
I don’t think I’d want it any other way.
See also: 1987 Sonic Youth interview