Sonic Youth, (I Got A) Catholic Block (1987)

SonicYouthSister

Artist: Sonic Youth
Title: (I Got A) Catholic Block
Description: track, Sister
Label: SST/Blast First
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

You have to love the honesty of a song played on guitars that begins with the familiar b-zzzzzt of jack plugs going into amplifier sockets. Crackling like synapses, it forges a short, sharp overture of electrical gain. It means business (“I let it go to work”). And it means not to deceive.

Hey, who wasn’t a bit frightened of Sonic Youth when you first heard or saw them? I don’t mind admitting it. Noo Yoik extreme-noise-terrorists who favoured sunglasses after dark and sleeve art scratched out as if by a caged animal, they seemed the very height of Warholian post-punk nihilism, plugged in by the time I encountered them and ready to play with your entrails. And they were called that – an amalgam of tributes to Patti Smith and Jamaican sound systems. I first picked up on them via the traditional extrasensory pincer movement of the NME and John Peel, whose Radio 1 shows in the mid-80s I was taping whenever it was practical to sit with my finger hovering over the pause button on my tape recorder after dark. That’s how Catholic Block got its hooks into me.

Sister, then, was my first Sonic Youth album. It was Sonic Youth’s fourth, and pertinently their second for SST, the label that hosted their transmogrification from “No Wave” to hummable alt-rock. It was not until they sold their spiky, PVC souls at the crossroads of corporate America and signed to David Geffen’s decoy boutique DGC that they started to shift units in time for the grunge revolution. Overground, they made as much noise as they had done underground. That remains their academic/instinctive genius. But back in 1987, Sister, my first Sonic Youth album, was very much a private pleasure. It did not chart in any territory in the world, as far as I know, although the 60,000 copies I’ve read that it sold represented what wankers now call an uptick. (Actually, be proud, British record buyers, as we were the first to catapult the band into a non-indie chart when Sister’s follow-up the epic double Daydream Nation rocketed to number 99 in the UK. Made it! Fans! Autographs later!)

As we have established, it starts with woodpecker electro-stutter as preparations are made – a sound evocative to anyone who’s ever been in any kind of electric rock band – the lead instruments then abused with a tremolo arm by either Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo in woozy style. But this primeval interference is given form by Steve Shelley’s pat-a-cake drums – and a hi-hat like an aerosol – while Kim Gordon’s muscular bass, as if in explicit imitation of Sonic Youth’s imminent trajectory from din to dinner party, ushers in harmony from discord, truth emerges from error, faith emerges from doubt, and hope from despair. There is no conventional chorus; the lyric actually begins with Moore’s helpful refrain (“I got a Catholic block/Inside my head”), and drinks from it repeatedly.

Join me, won’t you, in my 22-year-old head, alone in a one-person London flat far above the world, absorbed by Peel’s latest late-night curriculum of outfits called the Folk Devils, Rose of Avalanche, Gun Club, Barmy Army, McCarthy and the Butthole Surfers. The unfamiliar sound of (I Got A) Catholic Block cuts through like a siren call. I knew not what a catholic block was, or might be – I had little knowledge of Catholicism beyond the crosses on the wall of a family I visited as a child in Blackpool – and was pretty sure I didn’t have whatever Moore, Ranaldo, Gordon and Shelley claimed to have, but the way in which they said it, with its “blood orange red”, got its narcotic hooks into me, and just became a song I had to own, at a time when ownership meant parting company with cash and putting a thing in a bag.

Peel played this revelatory track and the more serviceably melodic opener Schizophrenia (“little sister came over”) from Sister that night, and I subsequently put my money where my mind was and paid cash for the long-player. Even its sleeve promised something illicit and dangerous, with its treated photographic scraps of found public-domain images and scrawls, oddly asexual and sexual at the same time, and mossy green and felt-tip gold. At the end of that year both non-singles were voted into the ’87 Festive Fifty. I was apparently not alone in my adoration. How profound that feeling was.

A postscript: I bought Daydream Nation on trust, followed by smash hits Goo and Dirty via the Geffen mailing list at the NME.

Another postscript: I played Catholic Block on 6 Music at some point in the noughties, and my producer had to mask its single swearword, fuck (“Do you like to fuck?”), by reversing it in the radio style, a distortion which I rather liked. I met Sonic Youth in 2002 when I interviewed them about Murray Street for 6 Music, minus Gordon but plus Jim O’Rourke, and he and Ranaldo spoke about their firsthand experience of the cancer dust of 9/11. They were not frightening, after all.

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Talking Heads, Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (1980)

TalkingHeadsRemaininLight

Artist: Talking Heads
Title: Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Description: album track, Remain In Light
Label: Sire
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1984

It was Stephen King who got me into Talking Heads. Well, my friend Paul Garner, who got me into Stephen King and Talking Heads at the same time. It was early 1984, the year I would complete my one-year Art Foundation course at Nene College, where Paul – a like-minded cinephiliac contemporary from school who’d left before sixth form – was well on the way to a Diploma at the same local seat of learning. Band and horror novelist, whose twisted Americana held like-minded allure to a provincial lad straining at the artistic leash and already besotted with Hollywood movies as disparate as On The Waterfront, Halloween and Apocalypse Now, came together as one. 

Paul, one step ahead of me, lent me Remain In Light (their fourth album) and Carrie (King’s first) and Night Shift (his first collection) at around the same time. I devoured all three and went for the set in both cases. This was quite a slog with King, already up to his eighth or ninth under his own name, but with great enthusiasm comes fast reading. All three previous Heads LPs, and the next, went onto cassette and when Little Creatures was released a year later, it was my first contemporaneous purchase. Likewise, with King, in paperback, Christine. (It was only in later years, postgraduate and with disposable income, that Paul and I began to buy them in hardback.) If you’ve ever been a teenager, you’ll recall that heady thrill of discovery and how it tore through everything like a cyclone.

Imagery and story linked CBGBs band and horror author, although a cosmic alignment suggested itself when, during my reading of The Dead Zone (an early favourite for both of us), Psycho Killer from Talking Heads ’77 gave up the line, “Can’t sleep, my bed’s on fire.” In the story, extra-sensorily perceptive Johnny Smith has a vision of being in a burning child’s bedroom. (It’s in the Cronenberg film, which we saw on video that year.) This was all meant to be.

David Byrne’s lyrics snared me in. “Look over there, a dry ice factory, good place to get some thinking done,” he explained, seemingly in some kind of panic (“I’m a little freaked out”), on Cities, from Fear Of Music, a restless road movie waiting to be adapted by David Lynch (Memphis is the “home of Elvis and the Ancient Greeks”, and when he smells “home cooking” it turns out to be “only the river”). But I think what made Talking Heads unique to me in a way that only mining David Bowie’s back catalogue for C90s had ever done before is that every single track had something to recommend it. Even the more spidery early stuff. Not a single song went by without some twang, or chord-change, or vocal quirk that made it different to everything else.

With a percussive mistake, an explosion of cymbal and a whipcrack toe-stubbing exclamation from Byrne, Born Under Punches opens Remain In Light in fidgety, wired, ants-in-pants style, although you’ll have to forgive me, I played Side Two of my first ever Talking Heads LP before Side One because it had the single Once In A Lifetime on it, which, a surprise UK hit, was my passport over the border. (It wasn’t until C4’s proto-Adam Curtis, cut-up documentary Once In A Lifetime aired later that year – coloquially known as Talking Heads Vs. Television – that I truly appreciated the “world music” aspect of Byrne’s appetite, including the sign and body language behind the famous Once In A Lifetime video.) Remain In Light has not a weak link, from the jerky pop to the more morose meditations on Side Two, but Born Under Punches is the one that really throws its weight around for me. (Crosseyed And Painless really picks up the twitchy baton, and The Great Curve is no slouch, but both feel relatively controlled in comparison.)

A chattering, Brian Eno-doctored mutant of guitars, squeals and beats speaks in musical tongues, while Byrne, a perspiring Norman Bates-like figure, affects a near-parody of the possessed funk vocalist (“I’m a tumbler … I’m so thin … Take a look at these hands … Some of you people just about missed it … Thank you! Thank you!”) With repeated phrases and half-phrases, coming back on each other in the round, the lyric, such as it is, behaves more like beat poetry. As with the dancing, there’s so much going on behind it. Who is “the Government man”? Why are the hands “passing inbetween us”? In what way was the tumbler “born under punches”?

Talking Heads pose way more questions than they answer, and so be it. This is collegiate new wave taken to vertiginous heights of theoretical tease. When even the hand jive has subtext, it’s little wonder the words have you reaching for books. And so it was that Talking Heads burrowed into my consciousness at the same time as Stephen King’s vivid tales of domestic equilibrium shattered by supernatural events.

When I thought I had it in me to write a novel, the first title I came up with was Born Under Punches. It looked superb in capital letters. But I checked it on Amazon and unfortunately someone had already nabbed it. Not that you should ever start with a title if you’re writing a novel. I fully intended to have a Government man in it, and a backstory about domestic violence (born under punches) and a subplot about hand signals. It would have been amazing.

I stopped buying Stephen King’s books when they came out at the end of the 90s, but I did see him read from Bag Of Bones onstage at the South Bank in ’98 and it was pretty cool. Never did see Talking Heads, although I went to CBGBs and it was pretty horrible.

Don’t even mention it!