From The Beatles to The Beach Boys: Sonic Youth’s 5 best cover songs
Sonic Youth, a band that gave a lot to the alternative pop-rock music scene, are undoubted pioneers of the no wave sound we recognise today after emerging from the experimental scene that was bursting out of New York City.
As pioneers of the underground musical landscape in the early eighties, Sonic Youth emerged through the years as one of the most influential and beloved alternative rock bands on the planet. Together, they unintentionally set the pace for a new musical genre, a genre that has been the inspiration for many bands such as Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Beck, Sigur Rós, Weezer, Deerhunter and countless others. They created a sound, a benchmark, that defines the band — no wave.
“Sonic Youth was a collective. There’s something fantastic about the idea of making music is a social activity,” guitarist Lee Ranaldo once commented. “Sonic Youth was not a singer-songwriter band. It was an electric collective,” he added. “And, whatever else people’s perceptions of Sonic Youth were, it was always about putting together a time-based composition – and that is exactly what songwriting is, in its classic form.”
Bassist Kim Gordon, reflecting on her time in the band, detailed how the creative vision of the group was a considered one: “I’m not saying Sonic Youth was a conceptual-art project for me, but in a way, it was an extension of Warhol,” she said. “Instead of making criticism about popular culture, as a lot of artists do, I worked within it to do something.”
The band had a willingness to bend and reshape itself, allowing for all members to fully express their own approach to a new musical landscape: “Each member does whatever they want with the song and it totally changes it from whatever idea I hear around it,” Thurston Moore said. “It turns it into a Sonic Youth song and completely away from it being a solo song.”
While the band always had a vision of how their own music wanted to sound, they have also been willing to indulge on their contemporaries, often paying homage to influential acts with a series of different cover versions. Here, we look at 5 of the best.
Sonic Youth’s 5 best covers:
The Beach Boys – ‘I Know There’s An Answer’
Sonic Youth are one of the most innovative bands of modern rock. Formed as the full-frontal attack of New York’s no wave movement, the band quickly became the disgruntled voice of a disenfranchised generation. The inspirational band can’t quite match up to The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson though.
The group are responsible for launching a plethora of alternative rock acts and their ability to inspire and influence cannot be underestimated. The band formed in 1981 in the depths of New York’s art world and were soon bringing their innovative sound to the masses with Daydream Nation and Goo in the late eighties.
So by the time De Milo records came a-knocking, asking the band to take part in a tribute album to The Beach Boys’ mercurial leader Brian Wilson, Sonic Youth would be the biggest name on the card. The album was called Smiles, Vibes & Harmony: A Tribute to Brian Wilson released as a 1990 tribute album devoted to the compositions of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys.
Sonic Youth were given the unenviable task of covering Wilson’s Pet Sounds composition ‘I Know There’s An Answer’ as part of the tribute record. Arguably one of his finest creations.
Featuring cover versions mostly by alternative rock artists. The cover artwork was based on the work created for the Beach Boys’ Smile album. Instead of the ‘Smile Shop’, it depicts The Radiant Radish, a health food store that Wilson operated during the early 1970s. When you have this much thought put into a tribute record you know that it will be good. And it doesn’t stop there, like Wilson, Sonic Youth was very meticulous about the song’s creation and their recording of it.
Thurston Moore said of the cover, “We wanted to do the original lyrics to it. We wanted to do it as ‘Hang On To Your Ego.’ But someone discouraged us from doing that. At that time if something wasn’t released and copyrighted, there was a question as to whether you could cover it.”
Guitarist Lee Ranaldo also had some insight on the song: “We had some help from Don [Fleming] and J. [Mascis] on that one,” he said. “We were all listening to Pet Sounds at the time and passing around [the Beach Boys’ biography] Heroes and Villains. I ended up singing that song by default because no one else could sing it.”
“Thurston tried and even Don tried,” continued Ranaldo. “Then it was like – alright, you try. I played the one main bass harmonica part on this little cheesy corncob harmonica. It was fun listening to the Beach Boys and pulling apart their arrangement and figuring out how we could do it.”
The Stooges – ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’
We don’t need to give you the long story of why we love Sonic Youth. Especially considering that all we really need to do is to show this 1989 cover of The Stooges’ underbelly anthem ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’.
A band’s TV debut is not normally one to be forgotten. Whether you’re Nirvana or Joy Division and beyond, the first time you step in front of those cameras the reality of fame suddenly gets a little bit closer. Sonic Youth’s debut TV appearance would be no different.
The no wave group would make their debut on saxophonist David Sanborn’s late-night music show called Night Music. The show had a very short run from 1988-1990 but still had some incredible acts take on performances in the show such as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Miles Davis, The Pixies, Sun Ra, and so many more.
Sonic Youth would make their debut on the show with a special performance of their Daydream Nation song ‘Silver Rocket’ which came complete with a mid-song artistic freakout. However, as part of Sanborn’s initial vision for Night Music, the group would also need to perform a cover with the rest of the guests on the show.
Sanborn recalled in a 2013 interview, “The idea was to get musicians from different genres on the show, have them perform something individually — preferably something more obscure or unexpected rather than their latest hit — and then have a moment toward the end where everyone would kind of get together and do something collectively.”
As the credits were primed and ready to go, Sonic Youth joined the stage accompanied by Sandborn, members of The Indigo Girls, the Night Music band, and Daniel Lanois for a special performance of The Stooges’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’.
What ensues is a classic performance from Sonic Youth with Kim Gordon doing her best Iggy Pop impression, adding a smattering of guttural growling on top of the brilliant rendition, to seal a wonderful TV debut. It’s a performance full of raw energy, of direct homage, and a series of crazed musicians clearly emboldened by the song.
The Beatles – ‘Within You Without You’
It wouldn’t be a list of greatest covers it didn’t feature The Beatles somewhere down the line.
‘Within You Without You’, originally released by the Fab Four in 1967 as part of their now-iconic concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was famously written by guitarist George Harrison as he began to flex his songwriting capabilities.
Feeling inspired by his visit to India 1966, Harrison has spent a prolonged period of time working with his mentor and sitar teacher Ravi Shankar. “‘Within You Without You’ was a song that I wrote based upon a piece of music of Ravi [Shankar]’s that he’d recorded for All-India Radio,” Harrison once commented. “It was a very long piece—maybe thirty or forty minutes… I wrote a mini version of it, using sounds similar to those I’d discovered on his piece.”
The song marked a change in style for both Harrison and The Beatles, even flipping up the way the group worked in the studio. “George has done a great Indian one,” his bandmate John Lennon once said. “We came along one night and he had about 400 Indian fellas playing there… it was a great swinging evening, as they say.”
Given the legacy that the track has built in the years that followed, numerous different artists have attempted to put their own spin on the material. While the likes of Oasis, Patti Smith, the Flaming Lips and more did the song justice, it is this Sonic Youth’s expansive rendition which remains its lasting tribute.
Recorded as part of 1988 multi-artist compilation album Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father, Sonic Youth joined the likes of The Wedding Present, Billy Bragg, The Fall and more by contributing to the record in a bid to raise money for the Childline charity, Thurston Moore and the rest of the band delivered what might be the greatest cover of all time.
The Fall – My New House
To make things clear, if there’s one man you never wanted to get on the wrong side of it was The Fall’s snarling, uncompromising and downright terrifying frontman, Mark E. Smith.
Smith’s cantankerous demeanour would regularly strike terror in the hearts and minds of most who would cross him, a fearless creative and one that was never shy to let his opinions known. “The standard of music these days is fucking terrible. Being poorly you have to watch shit like Jools Holland,” Smith told the Guardian in his final ever interview, proving his unrelenting stance on music to the very end. “A lot of it sounds like when I was 15 and I’d go round to a long-haired guy’s flat to score a joint and they’d always put on some fucking lousy Elton John LP. That sounds like Ed Sheeran to me, a duff singer-songwriter from the ’70s you find in charity shops.”
In fact, the unique nature of The Fall leader is comparable to nothing that has come before him. From their very first album released in 1979 and right up until Smith sadly passed away in 2018, The Fall influenced an uncountable amount of bands—a list of hugely successful groups of which Sonic Youth can consider themselves firmly a part of. However, not even that would stop the sharp tongue of Mark E. Smith. In a 2010 New York Times article, journalist Ben Ratliff recounted The Fall singer “once suggested that Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth should have his rock license revoked.”
However, given the style of Mr Smith, the fine line between insult and compliment has never been more blurred and, as many do already, there’s no doubt that a quote like that—from a man like him—will still bring a big smile to the face of Thurston Moore.
But back to the cover. In October of 1988, Sonic Youth stopped by John Peel’s immensely popular show on BBC Radio 1 during a time in which the band were preparing to release Daydream Nation, the band’s fifth studio album. In what marked a return visit to the Peel show, the band decided to use the session as an opportunity to pay tribute to The Fall and, most likely, arm themselves for what was certainly an incoming barrage of abuse from the song’s creator.
For our money though, this is eight minutes of brilliant carnage.
Madonna – ‘Into The Groove’
We had to include it, didn’t we?
Arguably Sonic Youth’s most well-known cover version, we have The Whitey Album and the band working under the moniker of Ciccone Youth with a little help from their friends Mike Watt and J Mascis.
After the sad death of bandmate and extremely close friend D. Boon, Watt was battling intense depression and couldn’t find a way out. Not sure in which direction he should turn, Watt would take some time out and visit Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore for a period of reflection. What he found at that time was creative guidance and the Ciccone Youth was born after being inspired to write music again. The result? The Whitey Album, 16 tracks of deeply experimental work which was closed with a bizarre and brilliant rendition of Madonna’s pop anthem ‘Into The Groove’.
“Madonna was actually in a couple of no-wave bands that nobody ever talks about,” Thurston Moore said on reflection. “She was in a band with these two twins, Dan and Josh Braun, who were the first members of Swans, Michael Gira’s band. Nobody really knows about that part of her history; she was in a pre-Swans no wave band! There’s all that interconnected history in New York with Madonna and the no wave scene.”
Adding: “Eventually she started making really amazing dance records. ‘Into the Groove; was brilliant to the point where I thought it would be a great song to cover through the prism of Sonic Youth. Instantly fabulous. We took her record and put it on one of the channels in the studio and we would fade it into [our version of] the song once in a while, not thinking about the legalities of such a move. We made a single with Mike Watt from Minutemen on a label called New Alliance, a sub-label of Black Flag’s SST Records [“Into the Groove(y)”]. We wanted to break down any kind of barrier that was being set up between the underground and the people who had graduated from it to the mainstream.
“We actually embraced Madonna’s joie de vivre, her celebrity. We did that record and everybody felt we were crazy, and some people lambasted us for giving her some kind of credibility in the underground. But she already had credibility, as far as I was concerned; she was already a part of the downtown scene. I don’t think she capitalised on it.”