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.
Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley 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 were 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.”
SY guitarist Lee Ranaldo also had some insight on the song, via Sonic Youth, “We had some help from Don [Fleming] and J. [Mascis] on that one. 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.” Judging by the complexity of Wilson’s vocal melodies, we’re not surprised.
“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.”
It’s fair to say then that Sonic Youth were big fans of The Beach Boys and especially the genius Brian Wilson. But while it is easy to read that the best place to learn that fact is through this incredible cover of Wilson’s 1966 Pet Sounds composition ‘I Know There’s An Answer’.
Listen below to Sonic Youth’s 1990 cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘I Know There’s An Answer’.