Roughly 10 years I’d gone to see Sonic Youth play in concert with my older sister at Brixton Academy in South London. I was 20(?) and my sister was 30(?) and had never heard SY. The support band was The Liars, who’d just released their debut album, which was an art-punk mesh of noise and feedback in the style of SY’s early albums, perhaps a bit of Lou Reed’s infamous metal box solo album (which I’ve never heard but was reputed to be 90 minutes of feedback and thus unlistenable), or some early Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums.
My sister, who is not an artist or punk and seems to only enjoy catchy songs no longer than 4 minutes had not exactly enjoyed the show. In fact, seeing the Liars play, was maybe the terrifying, disturbing gig I’ve ever seen.
I just remember seeing the lead singer Angus casually walk to the microphone stage and start ‘singing’ a single off-key note in a high-pitch falsetto, followed by what appeared to be a bunch of musicians that could not play their instruments and totally fucking deranged. This is probably the closest to seeing the real The Velvet Underground play in concert at one of Warhol’s shows from the 1960s I will ever get, basically just a bunch insane lunatics making really loud distressing noise, but one could argue was the beginning of the New York postmodern/performance art scene fusing with avant-garde punk rock; nothing would be the same ever again.
It is often said about Velvet Underground, as it is about the Black Francis/Kim Deal alternative rock band The Pixies, that despite their obscurity and commercial failure, everyone who’d ever seen or heard VU recognised their genius and would go onto have a successful musical career. To an extent this is true of SY and The Liars, who weirdly seemed to have been influenced by each other in an odd progress of artschool punkrock, ambient guitar feedback, retro style and youth culture. Somewhat ironically, both SY appeared in the late seventies and early eighties, whilst VU emerged from the beatnic/counter-culture era of the sixties, and yet would come to define the retro, artschool, hipster cool before it was ever fashionable.
Just before Liars started to play, I heard my sister mutter something like ‘Oh God no….’
In the row behind I’d heard people vocalising their disapproval, booing and shouting ‘Shit, get off!’, but this was quickly drowned out by brutal explosion of guitar feedback
It was right then that I knew I was onto a winner.
Afterwards SY played their set, but which it’s share of feedback, strobe lighting and choreographed moves seemed far more sanitised as they’d played classic hits like ‘Kool Thing’ and ‘Teenage Riot’. This is what the audience paid to see, and they got it. They were on tour following the release of their new album Murray Street that year; the standout track being ‘Karen Revisited’, a sombre melodic seven minute song ending in a crash of twisted feedback, a believe there were less than eight songs of the whole record, and very much seemed to repeat their signature mix of feedback distortion and melodic ambience.
This was probably the most nightmarish gig my sister had ever been to, however, I was so shocked and impressed by the Liars I’d immediately went and bought their album the very next day, but was slightly disappointed that the songs sounded more catchy and melodic compared to the incredible noise and feedback of their live performance. I’d still liked it, and thought they were more edgy and uncompromising in contrast to bands like The Walkmen, The Strokes, Interpol, The Shins, and The Stills, which had formed the New Wave revival that had emerged in early 2000, somewhat following on the shirttails of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
This more recent single sounds weirdly more serene and friendlier compared to their earlier records, and reminded slightly of VU’s track ‘Sunday Morning’.
A probable review of gig appeared in the Guardian in 2004, and possibly the most surprising comment is that it suggested Kim Gordan was older than 50 at the time. Although I was aware that she several years older than Thurston Moore, her dancing and performance, as that of the rest of the band was athletic, as was the rest of the band, Moore himself even looked surprisingly muscular compared with the photos of him looking gangly and dorkish on their album sleeves:
Here’s a rarish John Peel recording from Sonic Youth playing The Brixton Academy (Electric Ballroom?) in 1992: