Rock music increasingly resembles a heritage zone. Famous bands reform for lucrative tours, classic albums are remastered and reissued in handsome new packaging. The past has never looked or sounded better.
Even experimental rockers are getting in on the act. The venerable noiseniks Sonic Youth are currently touring their landmark 1988 album Daydream Nation, a labyrinthine double LP that comes across almost 20 years later as the closing chapter in the New York art-rock tradition kick-started by The Velvet Underground.
It is a crucial album in the history of alternative music, but why revisit it today? Sonic Youth’s four members, no longer youthful but now professorial-looking fiftysomethings, kept their counsel at the Roundhouse, saying nothing as they played the album in its 70-minute entirety.
If this was an exercise in nostalgia, then they were determined not to make it look pleasurable. Experimental bands shouldn’t do nostalgia. They only relaxed in the encore when they went “back to the 21st century”, as one of them put it, to play songs from a recent album.
They opened the set with Daydream Nation’s exhilarating first track “Teen Age Riot”. A characteristic blend of punchy punk riffs and wailing dissonant breakdowns, it ended with the band’s guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo waving and waggling their instruments in the air to produce feedback.
The ensuing gouts of noise owed a debt to free-jazz improvisation, yet there was nothing improvised about them: the seeming chaos sounded identical to that on the recorded version of the song. As accurate and lifeless as a carbon copy, it left me with a feeling of misgiving.
But Daydream Nation is a subtle album, and it soon began to exert its power. With singing duties shared between Moore, Ranaldo and the bass-player Kim Gordon (Moore’s wife), the songs conjured a shifting variety of moods.
“Eric’s Trip” was a nerve-jangling take on acid rock. “Trilogy” concluded with a brutally ironic parody of ZZ Top-style hard rock. “The Sprawl”, true to its name, was loose and reflective, mazy guitars winding in and out of focus.
Driven by Steve Shelley’s supple drumming and Gordon’s bass-playing, the songs had a strong rhythmic platform. It was the ideal setting for Moore and Ranaldo, who coaxed a remarkable set of sounds from their guitars: slashing notes, tense riffs, slabs of white noise. There was a sense that they were working at the limits of what a guitar can do.
The range of notes that can be forced from an electric guitar is a crucial feature of Daydream Nation. Sonic Youth created the album using deliberately detuned guitars, as if to estrange us from the instrument’s familiarity. It was the sound of rock and roll gone haywire.
In 1988 when Daydream Nation came out, alternative rock was on the up. Grunge was on the verge of going mainstream. But its release also coincided with the emergence of dance culture in the UK and the growing pre-eminence of rap music in the US. New musical technologies and techniques were threatening to make the guitar obsolete as an instrument for sonic adventure.
Sonic Youth were fully aware of their experimental lineage on Daydream Nation. The Velvet Underground’s feedback-laden songs were an influence, as were the sinuous guitar melodies of Television and Glenn Branca’s droning compositions.
Yet they were also conscious that the guitar was in danger of artistic exhaustion, as shown by the way the songs on Daydream Nation oscillate between turbo-charged riffs and total collapse.
No art-rock album has had the same impact since. Hearing it brought to life two decades later reinforced its status as an end-of- an-era artefact. It makes sense to treat it as a heritage work.