Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo shares cover of John Lennon song ‘Isolation’
(Credit: Mute Records)

Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo

Lee Ranaldo, known for his elaborate and innovative guitar work with the New York City art-punk band Sonic Youth, was in many ways considered the ‘George Harrison’ of the group. Some people might find this comparison less than endearing, but that would depend on your feelings towards George Harrison’s role in The Beatles. It is not so uncommon for there to be a third player in a band, typically a guitar player, who is overshadowed by two other band members who are on the forefront, writing the songs and therefore receiving much of the spotlight. Lee Ranaldo, like George Harrison, is a complete integral individual, who takes his craft very seriously and furthermore is humbled by the lack of attention received compared to his bandmates, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. This humility tends to nurture a sincerity and genuine approach to one’s craft.

The limelight does have a tendency to get to people’s heads, and in truth, it can be detrimental to the creative process. Early on, Ranaldo sought to develop a solo name for himself, creating songs that are equally informed by guitar provocations that made up the signature sound of Sonic Youth; he is also a published poet, incorporating spoken word into his compositions. Ranaldo made his first solo record while still in Sonic Youth, in 1987, From Here to Infinity. The following year he would begin work on his second record, Scriptures of the Golden Eternity, named after a book by Jack Kerouac, who is Ranaldo’s favourite writer. 

During the early stages of Sonic Youth, the band played at Noise Fest in 1981, where Thurston Moore first saw Lee Ranaldo performing as a member of Glenn Branca’s electric guitar ensemble. Moore would comment on the group, stating: “The most ferocious guitar band that I had ever seen in my life.” Thurston Moore also quipped about the significance of the event within the grand scheme of musical history, adding: “It was a watermark event because it took place at a time when the no-wave was gone and nobody knew each other.” 

While any significant semblance of a cohesive and organised music scene that Sonic Youth was, at one point disappeared, the band would come out of these ashes as a group on the forefront of new territorial exploration – there really was no one like them by the mid-80s. While new wave embraced some disco elements – like Blondie and Talking Heads did – no-wave was a direct statement against this and, really, it was against all kinds of music but using the same emotional mechanics of post-punk and new-wave.

Both Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, the two guitar players of Sonic Youth, are considered two of the greatest experimental rock guitar players. In an interview, Ranaldo stated in a conversation about the band’s earlier days: “When we were starting, we were mining this certain kind of trend that was going on, and we were bringing these really weird experimental sounds.”

Ranaldo continues: “We were working with all these open tunings on our guitars and stuff – it didn’t sound like anything else, especially in our early days we sound like nobody else. We approached our music like nobody else, and people were pretty shocked and surprised by it at first.”

It wasn’t just the originality of the experimental nature that set Sonic Youth apart from everyone else at the time. The lack of presence of the internet played a significant role. Prior to the internet, the world was a very big place, and information on new bands travelled at a slower pace. As a consequence, the market was not nearly as saturated yet. 

The Sonic Youth songs were mostly written together as a band. Lyrics were provided by specific members who then would, usually, undertake vocal duties. Ranaldo didn’t provide lyrics until their 1986 album, Evol, for the song, ‘In The Kingdom #19.’ 

Here, we delve into Lee Ranaldo’s six definitive songs that map out his distinctive style as a guitar player, with Sonic Youth and throughout his solo work.

Lee Ronaldo’s six definitive songs:

‘In the Kingdom #19’ – Evol (1986)

The song showcases Lee Ranaldo’s poetic sense of lyricism which is heavily inspired by Beat literature, specifically Jack Kerouac. The song tells the story of a motorcyclist who hits an animal, crashes and lays dying on the highway. Another man in a car shows up and, instead of helping the man lying on the road, he picks up the animal walks off into the woods. Around 55 seconds into the song, Thurston Moore threw firecrackers at Lee when they were recording the track. 

Evol, Sonic Youth’s third effort, marks the band’s significant departure from their no-wave approach, to more pop sensibilities. While the album didn’t do very well commercially at the time, retrospectively, critics have noted that the album is one of their most important albums within the development of the band.

‘Pipeline/Kill Time’ – Sister (1987)

The track features Sonic Youth’s typical fuzzy guitars and is written on the edge of chaos and is loose at the seams. “Stretch me to the point where I stop/Run 10 thousand miles and then think of me.” The song seems to be about themes of escapism and running away from life’s problems. Their fourth album, Sister, continues to move away from their all-out detour from the ‘no wave’ sound and into more of a pop sensibility. 

The words are delivered in the way that Ranaldo typically delivers his lyrics; they are spoken and non-aggressively yelled with a sense of forlornness yet an innocence that is pronounced. This creates an interesting juxtaposition of desperation yet a lightness that does not take itself too seriously. 

‘Eric’s Trip’ – Daydream Nation (1988)

This track penned by Lee Ranaldo is a top track from one of their best albums. Daydream Nation is an important album within the entire development of the indie rock genre, and the album played a significant role in influencing many bands to come. What separated Daydream Nation from their previous albums up to this point is that the songwriting process — Thurston Moore would lead the charge on this front — involved fleshing out the instrumental pieces by jamming on them in their practice sessions. Previously, the songwriting process yielded little explosions of expressions that came out in one burst. This is one of the reasons why the album took a lot longer than their previous efforts.

‘Eric’s Trip’ is about an LSD-fueled monologue performed by the musician and actor Eric Emerson, in Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls. In addition to his appearances in Andy Warhol films; in his short life, Eric Emerson played in the band, The Magic Tramps. 

With the exception of the experimental elements Sonic Youth were known for, Daydream Nation was a far cry from their previous albums….in a triumphant way. The album received favourable reviews; The Rolling Stone wrote that the album contained, “(a) broad harmonic palette, sharply honed songwriting skills and sheer exhilarating drive.”

‘Mote’ – Goo (1999)

Goo reflects Sonic Youth’s maturing songwriting: the themes of the songs are more complete and holistic as opposed to the fragmented writing inspired by beat literature on their previous albums. The songs on this album explore topics like pop culture and the role of women in society. The lyrics are written by Lee Ranaldo and are inspired by Sylvia Plath’s poem The Eye-Mote.

There was a lot of pressure on Sonic Youth during the making of Goo as their previous album, Daydream Nation, was their breakthrough and got them a major label deal. Nick Sansano produced the album, who did work on Daydream Nation too. He booked the band into Sorcerer Sound studios, which was equipped with two 24 track consoles — a necessary component for Lee Ranaldo who had a tendency to layer a lot of guitar tracks onto one another.

From Here To Infinity (1987)

The album is a collection of short noise instrumentals. This album is radically different from what Sonic Youth was doing at the time (Sonic Youth released Sister). As the band moved closer to more structured songs, Lee Ranaldo was releasing his pent up energy on this solo project. Despite the dissident nature of the record, the album did see some chart success: it reached number 20 on the British Indie charts and spent six weeks there.

The music is pure experimentation featuring noise and ambient sounds; there are no traditional pop structured songs nor are there any vocals. Ranaldo utilised extended tape loops, amplifier feedback and guitar stompbox effects. The vinyl editions featured the use of locked grooves, which, in effect, locks the record player’s needle in place in the vinyl’s groove.

‘Waiting on a Dream’ – Between The Times and Tides (2012)

Released on Matador Records, this album came later in Lee Ranaldo’s career — a fact that can be heard in the matureness of this particular song. ‘Waiting on a Dream’ is reminiscent of 1960s psychedelic garage pop mixed in with the same drive of a Sonic Youth song, but with a cleaner edge to it. There are less fuzz and more structure, and a clear beginning, middle and end. Lee Ronaldo stated that for these songs he pulled inspiration from the likes of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. 

The album was released on the tail end of Sonic Youth’s second and final break up and features a great line up musicians, including two drummers who played with him in Sonic Youth: Steve Shelley and Bob Bert. Others included in the line up were John Medeski on keyboards and Wilco Guitarist, Nels Cline.

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