Monday, 3 January 2011

Expressway To Yr Skull

SONIC YOUTH / THE POP GROUP – Manchester Academy

And so for my final gig of the year, I’ve decided to head north and catch one of just two UK shows that Sonic Youth are playing. I’m starting to get concerned that the recent snow will prevent the New York noise merchants and their vast collection of guitars from getting here, but I needn’t have worried as they are clearly made of stronger stuff than us Brits. Even with NYC suffering its worst blizzard in 60 years, they manage to turn up on time with seemingly more equipment than ever. Certain UK public transport providers could learn a thing or two from these guys.

The show opens with recently reformed Bristol post-punks The Pop Group. 30 years ago, their abrasive punk with jazz tinges left them as true outsiders and I suspect this is the largest venue they’ve ever played. They have always been one of the least accessible bands in my collection, one that I’m always wary of lending to friends for fear of what it will do to their eardrums. Tonight, with their greying hair and smart white shirts, they look more like respectable middle-aged men or possibly professional jazz musicians than anarchist punks. A couple of the songs definitely feature virtuoso flourishes that might not have gone down too well in the seedy bars where they originally played. However, Mark Stewart is still a compelling frontman and behind the well-dressed exterior, they have retained all of the anger that made the band famous in their short-lived first incarnation.

When I first discovered The Pop Group, in my student days, I thought I was being rebellious just by listening to something so obviously unconventional. It was really just the sound that attracted me; I paid little attention to the lyrics or the philosophy behind them. It’s easy to say now that the band were very much of their time. They formed in an era when a Conservative government had just been elected and race riots were common in many of our big cities… so, not much different from today, really. With stories of corruption in government and big business never out of the news, songs such as “Forces of Oppression” and “We Are All Prostitutes” seem more relevant now than ever.

I can imagine how The Pop Group might have been an influence on Sonic Youth, who clearly have a lot of respect for them. They’ve been given an hour to play (quite a long time for a support act) but perhaps more surprisingly, they get an encore. They return to play “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”, possibly the one song that everyone has been waiting for. I’m not certain how long this reunion is intended to continue or if they have any plans for a new album, but I for one would be interested in some new songs as it would be good to hear their thoughts on the current state of the world.

I’ve seen Sonic Youth countless times over the last 20 years and, if I’m honest, I might not have headed all this way tonight if I hadn’t been curious to see The Pop Group. I know a few people who have said they can no longer be bothered with Sonic Youth shows, because they’ve seen them enough times already, and it can sometimes be a self-indulgent mess.

Tonight, I’m worried that this could turn into another of those shambolic nights, as it takes them a couple of songs to get into the swing. But by the time they get to “Tom Violence” (the third or fourth song, I’ve lost count by now) they are fully focussed and deliver one of the best sets I’ve seen them do in years. They play for almost two hours, completely ignoring the venue’s 11pm curfew, and never seem to slow down. This intensity, sometimes lacking in their live shows, is due in part to the presence of Pavement’s Mark Ibold, who has been added for the last couple of tours as a second bassist. This frees up Kim Gordon to handle vocals on more of the songs and also gives the band a fuller sound as Kim occasionally plays an extra guitar.

The band’s name seems more appropriate tonight than ever. It’s hard to believe we’re watching a group of people in their fifties. Kim in particular still looks amazing and displays a ridiculous amount of energy for someone who is 57. I will be grateful if I can jump around half as much when I am her age.

Steve Shelley is the youngest member, only by a couple of years, and his intense drumming for the whole of the set should be held up as an example to anyone wanting to learn the drums today. Lee Ranaldo is perhaps the only one who looks his age, coming across as quite dignified with his grey hair. But he is probably the least conventional in terms of music, providing many short bursts of improvised noise throughout the set.

I’m not really sure what I can say about Thurston Moore. I know I have often been accused of looking (and dressing) much younger than I am, but here we have a 52-year-old who could still pass as a 20-year-old student. He does not seem to have aged (or bought any new clothes!) since I first saw him live when I was a student. I would like to know what his secret is, as I am now determined to continue looking youthful until I’m at least as old as he is now. I guess that most people regard Thurston as the band’s figurehead, and he also offers a fair amount of improvised guitar abuse tonight, but from where I’m standing at least, it seems to be Lee who takes the lead in this.

The set, as is often the case with Sonic Youth shows, is centred around the latest album - by the end of the night, we’ve had ten of the twelve songs from “The Eternal”. I bought the vinyl version of this, with its bonus MP3s for early purchasers, but that was months ago and I’ve forgotten half of the tracks already. I needn’t have worried, as it all comes back to me as soon as each song starts up and I notice, for the first time in many cases, that there are actually a few potential SY classics on this album. “What We Know” sounds amazing, and could easily have been a dancefloor favourite if this record had been out when I was still DJing regularly. Dedicating “Antenna” (with its refrain of “radios play nothing when she's far away…”) to Ari Up is particularly touching, and will forever change what this song means to me.

Although this is largely about my re-acquaintance with “The Eternal”, it’s also satisfying to hear a few older songs. As well as the aforementioned “Tom Violence”, the main set features two songs (“Catholic Block” and “Stereo Sanctity”) from 1987’s “Sister”. This was the album that brought the band to my attention, and is still probably my favourite SY album today. It came out at a time when I couldn’t afford to buy records at the rate I do now and I mainly discovered new music via illicit tapes passed to me by a friend at school. “Sister”, along with JAMC’s “Psychocandy”, introduced me to the idea that noise and melody could be combined in the same song, and my tastes have never been the same since.

I imagine that many of the crowd (which mainly seems to consist of 30-something males) would probably choose “Daydream Nation” rather than “Sister” as their favourite album, if the constant shouts for “Teen Age Riot” and “Silver Rocket” are anything to go on. The band would perhaps not play anything that obvious, but they do meet us halfway by giving us “The Sprawl” and “’Cross The Breeze” for the first encore. This is the only time I’ve seen the audience erupt into anything resembling the front few rows of a traditional rock concert. Until this point, the band have been far more energetic than the crowd.

For the second encore, there is another “Sister” track (“White Cross”) before the thrilling chaos of “Death Valley ‘69” reminds us of their No Wave roots. This climaxes in a tremendous wall of noise, with Lee attacking his guitar strings using god-knows-what. By the end, his instrument is almost certainly in an unusable state so I don’t think anybody will be expecting another encore.

This was actually one of my favourite types of set, although I may not have admitted it before the show, where rather than playing the songs I want, they play a set I never would have chosen (such as the whole of the latest record) but it leads me to discover hidden joys in those songs. Often the best way to appreciate or rediscover a neglected album is to hear it played live. I had “The Eternal” on my iPod all the way back from Manchester and wondered why I didn’t listen to it more when it came out. OK, I expect you all know the answer to that – probably because of the huge number of other records I would have bought in the same week.

The main thing I have realised from this show is just how important Sonic Youth are but also how much I take them for granted. They have always been there, never really changing, and many of their albums were soundtracks to important moments in my life, bringing back memories if I play them now. Yet they would probably not be one of the first bands that spring to mind if asked to compile a list of my favourite acts. If I make one new year’s resolution, it should perhaps be that even while I continue to investigate new music, I should not neglect the old friends who helped to develop my tastes. I hope I can watch Sonic Youth play another set like this in another ten or twenty years.


Biluś said...

Thanks so much for the Pop Group vid - mesmerising and you're absolutely right about how their timing is just right, given the political situation - just like those grim thatcherite times of yore. The Pop Group themselves say they reformed because "There was a lot left undone,....we were so young and volatile....Let's face it, things are probably even more fucked now than they were in the early 80's.....and we are even more fucked off!" Dead right...

e.f. bartlam said...

Man I had to check the date when I read the title.

Two great ones though.