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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America, A Horse With No Name (1971)

AmericaHorseWithNN

Artist: America
Title: A Horse With No Name
Description: single; album track, America
Label: Warner Brothers
Release date: 1971; 1972
First heard: 1970s

There’s a strong imperative to enshrine this classic afternoon delight right now, because it’s been purloined and pillaged for use in a TV commercial for a make of car. It’s not a refusenik pose to say that I have no idea which make of car it’s advertising. Partly, I usually fast-forward through the ads; mostly, I don’t much care about makes of car. In any case, it’s something to do with a driver singing along to A Horse With No Name by America in his car, which is stuck in traffic, but he doesn’t care. I think we are supposed to divine that he doesn’t care because he’s in this particular vehicle. But surely it’s because he’s listening to A Horse With No Name, a song that can only soothe the savage breast.

My appreciation of the song is sincere, although I sense that some people consider it a bit of a joke. Written by Harrogate-born Dewey Bunnell, I’ve discovered that the other two members of the band – which famously comprised the sons of American fathers and British mothers united by the USAF base at Ruislip – didn’t much like it either, which is presumably why it was initially left off their debut LP. I have certainly made quips about Bunnell’s lyric, to whit: if I’d been through the desert on a horse with no name, one thing I’d definitely have done is name it. On paper, a line like, “There were plants and birds and rocks and things,” is lazy in the extreme – no matter what Bunnell was or wasn’t smoking – but perhaps it accurately reflects the frazzled state of the horse rider’s mind. Suitably fried in the desert sun, you might well complain that “the heat was hot.” it’s not the meaning but the rhythm of the line “there ain’t no-one for to give you no pain” that makes it so memorable. It’s a song, for singing in traffic, not a university lecture.

In any case, the lyric evokes. I didn’t even think to examine it after those first, osmotic hearings. I was right there with him, on that unchristened nag, traversing the hot sand. And I was bereft when he had to let his steed go after nine days, thus facing almost certain death by dehydration and heat stroke, unless he could land him a bird with one of those rocks or things. Its innocence is what’s beautiful about this song, which sold a million, pushed the album to the Billboard heights, landed them a best new artist Grammy, and made America massive in the land of their fathers, with hit albums throughout the 70s over there and over here, even enjoying a commercial renaissance as a duo in the 80s. And then, in 2010, A Horse With No Name was used in a Season Three episode of Breaking Bad, providing its title, Caballo sin nombre.

It was already cool to me.

Sometimes, literal is just the ticket. That this song about a horse should be made motile by a clip-clopping beat is perfect. (Ray Cooper provides the on-the-nose percussion to augment session man Kim Haworth’s drums.) The texture is acoustic guitar and plenty of it, unhindered in Cliff-linked staff producer Ian Hamwell’s production by kitchen sink. I believe the first guitar we hear is the 12-string of Gerry Beckley.

It’s Crosby, Stills & Nash. It’s Neil Young. It’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. (Many apparently thought they were listening to a new Young track at the time.) It’s what the 60s sounded like when the 70s came calling. This verdant period, with the compass set to point West and Laurel Canyon a sort of Mecca, is often dismissed as the limp, malleable epicentre of “soft rock”, but rock – and things – can’t always be hard. The sound of three young men harmonising can be as lilting and elevating as birdsong. (All songbirds can sing; but not all young men can – it deserves a round of applause.)

Bunnell sings the lead although he resists being described as the lead singer, and as if to prove why, when fellow Americans Beckley and bassist Dan Peet (sadly no longer with us, as of 2011) throw their vocal weight behind him for the first course of la-la-las, and then the second chorus, the lift is palpable. It’s a sad song, whether taken literally – in which case, a man loses his horse, gets sunburnt and finds himself in the sea – or cosmically – whereby man is clearly adrift from nature and royally screwing up the planet, running its rivers dry and self-servingly wearing out God’s creatures and this ride is a retreat back to Eden. And the melancholy tone of metaphysical ennui is exquisitely described by these uncorrupted voices. And the somersaulting strings in the bridge are actually like rain. Clever, that.

America always felt they ground their own unique blend out of the West Coast harmonies of C, S, N & Y and the British Invasion nod/wink of the Beatles – having a pretty good biodiverse claim on the Transatlantic middle – but I grew up thinking they were simply Americans, from America, writing and recording in America (the album America was, of course, recorded in London and part-written in Puddletown, Dorset), and it was always fine by me. There’s nothing British about Ventura Highway with its sunshine and chewed grass and “alligator lizards”.

Sometimes, as in Hollywood movies, America wins.