Kim Gordon of the now-disbanded Sonic Youth knows how to make herself the focal point of a song. In her time with the band, she often fronted the most avant-garde, intense records in the discography, only adding to her growing image as an aloof, New York City cool girl. But an often-overshadowed element of her talent is her incredible ability to make a song her own with her basslines alone.
Despite this innate ability to rock a record, Gordon has constantly denied her role as a musician. Instead, she regards herself as a visual artist above all. “Playing bass was never my desire,” she once said. “It was a byproduct of wanting to make something exciting.”
Gordon, who didn’t even pick up an instrument until the age of 27, credited her initial desire to create to her many influences. She shared, “I was really inspired by The Slits and The Raincoats, and Siouxsie Sioux, Patti Smith. Then, there was The Runaways, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner – who is the ultimate performer – and Billie Holiday.” But despite the long list of frontwomen, Gordon soon began looking to bass players, which is when she found her niche.
In a 2015 interview, Gordon revealed about her bass influences, explaining: “There are certain bass sounds – early on, we were really into PiL, Jah Wobble, in the low bass sound,” she says. “And then Sid Vicious had some stuff going on that was interesting. Punk rock opened up this intervention in the culture, created this opening where there hadn’t really been one since the Sixties, I guess. So even though Sonic Youth started in the early Eighties, it was still this pervasive feeling of this energy and this idea about music that you didn’t have to be a musician to be in a band.”
But she soon proved herself to be a natural talent on the bass, whether she acknowledges it or not. Fellow bassist and old friend Mike Watt said that Gordon “paints with sound and emotion to make music — she doesn’t execute riffs or exhibit motifs. [Her musical essence] is not something you find in Bass Player magazine.”
Through Sonic Youth — and into her solo work when the band officially split in 2011 — Gordon continued to earn praise from fellow musicians for her innovative playing style. Although Gordon revealed she has since put down the bass, she will forever be remembered as a legend in the punk, experimental field. As a tribute, we’ve compiled Kim Gordon’s six best basslines, which are showcased below.
Kim Gordon’s six best basslines:
‘Death Valley ’69′ (1985)
Released on the album Bad Moon Rising, which loosely dealt with themes of America’s underbelly, ‘Death Valley ’69.’ Supposedly an “ode” to serial killer Charles Manson, Gordon gives another dimension to the song with her menacing bassline that bubbles underneath the chaos.
After the 1985 release of ‘Death Valley ’69,’ the song earned cult status for a number of reasons. Not only does the official Judith Barry-directed music video show the band in various states of bloody dismemberment, but the song also included vocal contributions from the great Lydia Lunch.
For us though, it is all about Gordon’s bass.
‘Silver Rocket’ (1988)
When ‘Silver Rocket’ was released, it gave the public the first real taste of a catchy chorus coming from the anarchist sound. Although Gordon’s bassline is sometimes overshadowed by the main screeching guitar detuned halfway through, Gordon keeps the song palatable with her steady rhythmic playing.
It’s easy to allow her bass lines to fall into the background but Gordon’s performances always offered something unique, building a foundation for the more unusual facets of the band to break forth.
Released as the second single from Sonic Youth’s 1988 album Daydream Nation, it has since been referenced by many as one of the greatest alternative songs of all time.
‘Dirty Boots’ (1990)
‘Dirty Boots’ was the third and final single from Sonic Youth’s 1990 album Goo and was independently released in 1991. On the record, the band sought to expand upon its trademark alternating guitar arrangements and layered sound,
Since then, Goo has been regarded as musically and artistically significant and one of alternative rock’s most important albums. Gordon’s archetypal drone drives the song as she steadies the ship and pushes forward with menace.
‘Kool Thing’ (1990)
Written in response to an awkward 1989 interview Gordon conducted with rapper LL Cool J, ‘Kool Thing’ is equally confrontational in the way she handles her sliding bass lines.
Appearing on Sonic Youth’s sixth studio album Goo, Gordon’s lyrics refer to several of the rapper’s works, including the single ‘I Can’t Live Without My Radio’ and the album Walking With a Panther. Gordon’s bass contributes to the catchiness while still maintaining their signature “garage rock” sound.
It’s a facet of Gordon’s style that is often overlooked. Though she herself wa snever much of a fan of her own work with the instrument, there is something entirely captivating about her performance.
‘Youth Against Fascism’ (1992)
‘Youth Against Fascism’ is one of a handful of overtly political songs on Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty. Music critic Mark Deming stated that the album was “Sonic Youth’s most overtly political album, railing against the abuses of the Reagan/Bush era.”
Along with Gordon’s rebellious bassline that matches the energy of the vocals, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi contributed additional guitar parts to create the band’s signature chaotic sound.
‘Sugar Kane’ (1992)
Also released on Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty as the third single, ‘Sugar Kane’ proved to be one of the band’s most vibrant songs. As with every song in the new MTV generation, it needed a video.
The promo clip saw the band perform in the midst of a fashion show that was laughably showcasing ‘grunge’ clothing. It was a referential point on the acceptance of the outsider genre within the mainstream and its inevitable commercialisation. But where could the band find the fashion chops needed to pull something like this off? Kim Gordon was luckily on hand to provide all the assistance they needed as she called on close friend Marc Jacobs to design the “grunge collection”. It’s a unique style that is perpetuated in the music too.
The tension between the frayed guitars and Gordon’s bass line play off of each other, even showcasing a bit of pop influence, that make the record one of the most memorable off of the album—and the band’s discography.