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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My Bloody Valentine, Soon (1990)

MBVGlider

Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Title: Soon
Description: EP track, Glider; album track, Loveless
Label: Creation
Release date: 1990; 1991
First heard: 1990

In the 1970s, Queen would guarantee by way of a recurring sleeve note that “no synthesisers were used” in the making of their records. I always read this as a snotty form of dinosaurial purism. But Kevin Shields, the big brain and dextrous fingers of My Bloody Valentine, might have revived the very same badge of honour in the 1980s and 90s. For he, too, was proud to have created his band’s distinct sound using guitars, played live. Except with a spot of glissando.

My Bloody Valentine were just two Irishmen and two English women who walked into a bar and made some noise, and yet they were legend. The story of the band’s diffident second album Loveless is a fable well told, the hard facts of its recording as distorted as the sounds heard within it. How much it actually cost – beyond the band’s future patronage at Creation – becomes less relevant with every passing year. As with Brian May’s, time cannot wither My Bloody Valentine’s sound, because it emerged from places unidentified between the plectrum and the magnetic tape that enshrined it, and as such has never faded from vitality and relevance.

If Loveless reminds us of that awkward transition from the 80s into the 90s – and it was recorded as one decade metamorphosed into the other – it is little more than bald historical statute: that is when we first heard it. But if Soon encapsulates its era with that nod to what we used to call “indie-dance” – MBV’s own fuzzy mutation of the shuffle beat, buried deep in the miasma – there endeth its bondage to fashion.

I interviewed the whole band on the eve of release of Loveless for an NME cover story in their manager’s front room in Streatham. As a devotee of their squall since Isn’t Anything I was proud to do so, even if the on-paper results were tongue-tied and sensation-free. (It was just around the corner from where I lived at the time, which was handy.) This is a band whose music speaks for itself; at least, it speaks with more clarity than the mere mortals who make it. But let us lose ourselves in these seven minutes of mystery and see what comes out in the wash.

“The vaguest music ever to get into the charts,” according to a lecture given by Professor Brian Eno at the New York Museum Of Modern Art in 1990, Soon is the track most like and yet most unlike My Bloody Valentine at that particular equinox, a band whose kind of magic seemed unbottleable then.

You should listen to Soon in the context of Loveless. (It was previously chucked out on the Glider EP in April 1990 to appease a panicked Alan McGee as far as I can tell, while its parents shuttled like refugees between 18 studios around London until the autumn of 1991). It begins with the end: the dying, eddying embers of previous track What You Want.

Like everything My Bloody Valentine did from one end of Loveless to the other (and Soon lies at the other end), it sounds as if it were hewn from interference insomnia and something gaseous. “That” drum pattern, unlike its equivalent on a record by, say, the Mock Turtles or the Milltown Brothers, seems to work against the rest of the song rather than with it. It emerges from a near-militaristic snare doodle that may in fact have been affected by drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig using sticks on a skin and then sampled and looped into the mix by Shield. (Ó Cíosóig only plays live on two tracks, which is two more than bassist Deb Googe and guitarist Bilinda Butcher.)

I won’t tie myself up in knots locating each instrument in this sonic equivalent of one of those pantomimic equations scrawled madly across a huge blackboard in films about genius. If in doubt, it’s a guitar, treated at the point of purchase using the tremelo arm of fable, then treated again a bit afterwards using some supernatural combination of pre-amp equalisers, whatever they may be. But the real treat is for our ears. To understand precisely how Shields did it would be to let light in upon magic. And there’s light here in abundance: bright, blinding, infinite, and liable to leave an imprint.

It’s not an unconventional song. It has a beat, an intro, singing, riffs. In the first sequence, a spellbinding repeat pattern throbs with ecstasy and wine, and we’re in good, happy company. And then, at 44 seconds, where there was harmony, Shields brings the first note of discord. Out of this comes Bilinda Butcher’s indistinct, woozy dream-state vocal – her lovely singing voice always a fourth “instrument” in Shields’ vision – and a narcotic state of grace is achieved. Verse? Chorus? Both and neither. Do not let the funky beat confuse you. This is a night at the opera.

I almost chose To Here Knows When as the ultimate My Bloody Valentine track – this album’s fourth: in essence the sound of an analgesic working on a headache for five minutes and 31 beautiful seconds – or the dolphin call of I Only Said, which never fails to alleviate symptoms of angst with its afternoon’s delights. In many ways, you could argue for the 49-minute entirety of Loveless as My Bloody Valentine’s greatest song. But Soon puts a tin hat on the record, unafraid of shape and form, a battler after mainstream acceptance. Shields and MBV always operated outside the tent, pitching in, and never bestrode the world like Queen. Too vaporous to handle. Too shrouded in mystery. Too much. Too Jung. But their place in history is now assured. The comeback and the third album in 2013 proved that they can still do whatever it is that they did.

Soon fades for about 20 seconds. But instead of knobs being turned, it is the sound of an idea being dissembled. It will rock you.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, Never Understand (1985)

jesus & mary chain never understand

Artist: The Jesus & Mary Chain
Title: Never Understand
Description: single; album track, Psychocandy
Label: Blanco Y Negro
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

Scene: 3rd Floor lift lobby, Ralph West Halls of Residence, Battersea, London
Date: February, 1985

A 20-year-old art student bursts from his cell in what is a great big tower block full of art students in South London, overlooking the park. A haystack of backcombed hair atop his head, he sports a selfconsciously de-sleeved t-shirt, roomy dungarees and kung fu pumps without socks. Kicking the wooden wedge under his door to prop it open, a declarative skreeeee of amp feedback at full volume follows him from the Hitachi stack into the “communal area” by the lifts, where he flings himself down onto an armchair. And waits.

Never Understand, the just-released second single by music press sensations the Jesus & Mary Chain blasts forth from what might ordinarily be a “study bedroom” were the block not full of art students. (The art student had erroneously first read the East Kilbride band’s name as Jesus & The Mary Chain, when their violent early gigs were reported in the NME and the buzz coalesced into legend.) From the squall, a grumbling bassline, then a crackling guitar riff and rudimentary drum signature emerge, and an oddly sweet but half-hidden voice makes recognisable words amid the interference. It is – to borrow an ugly phrase from a quarter of a century into the future – his latest jam.

Nodding his hair, he revels in the racket, adoring the way the song’s conventional beauty is deliberately obscured under layers of extraneous din. Too young to have heard punk in its purest, pre-commoditised form at its most of creation, he feels blessedly connected to this music at the ground floor. Even though the band have already had an indie number one, it had passed the art student by, and Never Understand was his initiation. Its three minutes were even more intoxicating than the music-press descriptions hinted at, with their references to the Beach Boys. When was the last time an indie guitar band had done an Elvis “uh-huh-hur” and meant it?

The art student had bought the 12″ without ever having heard a note of the band (a common strategy for the NME disciple in the post-listening booth, pre-internet darklands); he knew. That pure red sleeve bearing just the band’s name? The torn-porn collage on the back? The b-side, Suck? The fact that he guessed it wasn’t even a longer version than the cheaper 7″ and boasted no extra track, but he wanted the 12″ anyway: a bigger piece of plastic and a bigger cardboard wrapper for his collection; a bigger declaration of unconditional love.

Within weeks, the fabled North London Poly “riot” would cement the Mary Chain’s reputation and confirm that he had backed a winner. But more immediate affirmation was afoot.

Lost in the fuzz, the art student’s heart leaps when it happens, mid-song. Another art student, one without a haystack of hair and with socks, wanders into the communal area and says, earnestly and helpfully: “I think there’s something wrong with your stylus.”

Victory.