There are a few bands I can play in my car with others riding along that make them want to kill me. It seems certain bands are destined to be enjoyed only by a select few and actively despised by the rest of the hearing-abled community. One of these bands, I’ve discovered, is Sonic Youth.
Now, Sonic Youth are critical darlings, yes, adored by legions of black horn-rimmed glasses-wearing thirty-somethings clad in Chuck Taylors, black leather wristbands, angular, asymmetrical haircuts (if they haven’t started balding), and vintage Gang of Four t-shirts. They love Kim Gordon’s breathy “singing”, Lee Ranaldo’s discordant (Sonic Youth fans use that word a lot) guitar noodlings and Thurston Moore’s smack habit. The only part of Sonic Youth’s oeuvre these guys don’t like are the here-and-there stabs at the mainstream SY have attempted, specifically the “Dirty” and “Goo” albums. Those have actual hooks and melodies, therefore, they are to be mocked with indie disdain.
(I must interrupt this essay to point out the very hot, young Mexican boy three tables away from me at the coffee shop checking me out while drawing on his sketchpad. Yes, I see you, yes, you are very hot, and yes, you are far too young. Back to business.)
Sonic Youth fans are nuts for the 12-minute long opuses filled with obtuse lyrical references to Satré, complete with piercing, feedback-laden guitar solos that eat up seven of those 12 minutes. The uneducated, unwashed masses call that “filler”. Sonic Youth fans know better. They described these songs as “Captain Beefheart”-ian, all while never actually having heard a Captain Beefheart album. Fuck, has ANYONE really ever heard a Captain Beefheart album? Don’t lie. You haven’t. Neither have I. We’re normal.
But I kid the Sonic Youth. I actually do like them, even the extended noodle-y stuff. It’s just that I can never play them while in the presence of another human being. It’s not two minutes into something like “The Diamond Sea” where they start screaming “THIS GUY CANNOT SING! WHAT IS HIS DEAL? IS THERE A FUCKING CHORUS? WHY HAS OUR LORD FORSAKEN ME? SWEET BABY JESUS, MAKE IT STOP” or some such.
(I must interrupt this essay to point out the two thirty year old-ish bears two tables away from me at the coffee shop checking me out while giggling. Yes, I see you, yes, I am bald, yes, you are both wearing “boat shoes” from the ‘80s. Back to business.)
Another, lesser known band that causes this same reaction is the late, great(?) Shudder to Think. Led by shave-your-head pioneer Craig Werden (he was rocking the razored skull as far back as 1993 – of course, it was due to chemo, but hey, he made it work), Shudder to Think started as an art-punk project, morphed into even more arty and formless “math rock” (don’t ask), then, in a final attempt to make some green, a power-pop band that still couldn’t resist arting it up a bit.
Shudder to Think’s sound – shit, I dunno. Here goes: Imagine a good, slow rock groove, aggressively sexual in nature, then one minute into the song, the tempo radically changes to a fast, loud, almost heavy metal release, then another minute into it, changes back to the slow groove, or perhaps, another new groove entirely. Then put Werden’s high, almost soprano vibrato vocals (think Jeff Buckley) over that, singing lyrics that make absolutely no sense.
Sounds great, huh? No? Mmkay.
Don’t feel left out. In the mid-90s, I was in the midst of a total Shudder to Think addiction, playing the “Pony Express Record” constantly. I was still in college, so I had a straight roommate at the time, as well as a serious relationship.
Both of these men have threatened my home and car stereos with violence if I ever played Shudder in front of them, and these were musically progressive people who quite enjoyed the alternative music so hot with the kids those days. The sticking point for most people who hear Shudder to Think is Werden’s vocals. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, totally polarizing.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I can also see and appreciate the homoerotic undercurrent some of the songs and images had, especially the little-seen video for “Hit Liquor”, which was a pastiche of that one French film about sailors and cannibalism that I can’t think of at the moment. You know the one! (EDIT: Fassbinder's adaptation of Jean Genet’s "QUERELLE OF THE BREST" - phew. Thanks, Google!) There was also a story (hopefully not apocryphal), about Shudder opening for the Smashing Pumpkins in front of an increasingly restless crowd of frat boys – when one yelled out “What’s Billy Corgan really like?”, Werden supposedly answered, “His cock tastes lemony.”
The first single off “Pony Express Record,” “X-French T-Shirt,” holds a special place in MTV history- at the time, MTV was still a musical force, able to break new music and generate big sales, especially if a band’s video was picked as a “Buzz Clip,” guaranteeing it several plays per day. Somehow, “X-French T-Shirt” got chosen for this honor – it went on to become the LOWEST SELLING RECORD ever to have a Buzz Clip on MTV. It’s tough to imagine what exec thought thousands of kids in Iowa would pump their fists to the anthemic “Hold back the road that goes / so that the others may do / that you let me in just to pour me down / their mouths” which closes the song. According to SoundScan, “Pony” has sold a total of 41,187 copies since its release in 1994.
“No Rm. 9, Kentucky” (yes, ARTY TITLE! ART!) is a excellent song where all the pretensions finally come together to work, all buildup and rests until a big, juicy, wet climax at the end. It also has intriguing lines like “By 3AM, the pill bottle top will have come undone.”
Stinging from this wholesale rejection and on the line for a hefty advance they got from Sony (someone there thought art rock was going to be the next big thing, post-grunge, apparently), Shudder took a few years off and returned with a new album, “50,000 B.C.”, packed with actual hooks and very few in-song tempo shifts. It was such a stab at mainstream success that one song, “Survival”, actually ended up sounding like Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.” Ick. Grand sales total for the sellout record? 11,884. Ouch. The band went on to do some soundtrack work, returning to their old sound (thankfully) before finally calling it quits at the end of the ‘90s.
I’ve traveled far and wide across this country, lived in several major cities, and have yet to find one other person who enjoys and appreciates Shudder to Think. But that’s okay – I think we all need something that’s our own little secret, something no one else understands or gets.
I tell myself, better Shudder to Think than a scat fetish.
Download “X-French T-Shirt”
, “No Rm. 9, Kentucky”