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

Lee Ranaldo on how drug-taking and the Grateful Dead inspired Sonic Youth

The combination of Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo made Sonic Youth an unstoppable force, one who went on to redefine alternative rock music forever. The pioneering New Yorkers took their influences from unexpected corners from the people who inspired them in unconventional ways. One of those names were The Grateful Dead, a band who Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo was in awe of because of their unwavering attitude towards the music.

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. When you create your own distinct sound then influence comes from different quarters, which is why The Grateful Dead meant so much to Lee Ranaldo.

Hearing The Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 record would turn out to be a life-affirming moment for Sonic Youth guitarist Ranaldo. When he heard it as a teenager, something just instantly clicked within him. Europe ’72 is a live triple album which covered the Dead’s tour of Western Europe in April and May that year. The tour was so expensive and logistically complicated that The Grateful Dead’s record company made sure the entire tour was recorded, with highlights making it onto a live album which would recoup the costs for the tour. It then became one of their most commercially successful and critically acclaimed albums, as well as one of the definitive live albums.

Ranaldo, who was asked by Pitchfork to go through different times in his life and state what the most important record to him, referenced The Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 as a time when his 15-year-old self registered something new within music. “This is a strange time where I had a lot of influences but hadn’t really sorted out the strong ones,” he outlined. 

Europe ’72 was a super influential record full of fantastic songs and amazing experimental musicianship. I always valued both of those aspects in what Sonic Youth has done through the years — being able to get very abstract and very concrete within the same song,” Ranaldo noted on how he sees similarities between the two groups.

“This record was very important to me because it massaged both feelers. And it probably had a lot to do with drugs, and stretching teenage consciousness. The notion of drug-taking, at the time, was not all ‘party-hearty’, but rather indicative of a search for some kind of Technicolor beyond the black and white of daily life — a searching quality that led folks from that generation down many innovative roads (as well as the dead-ends of addiction),” Ranaldo honestly added.

Ranaldo’s reference on the concept drug-taking is an interesting one, especially as his view the topic is able to stretch consciousness rather than having an attitude of ‘party-hearty’, as he eloquently puts it. Sonic Youth was never a drug-heavy band which made them stick out like a sore thumb compared to their contemparies. Ranaldo, it’s safe to say, got his drug consumption largely out of his system before the band even begun and that made up for the majority of Sonic Youth’s relationship with drugs. What listening to The Grateful Dead did at that young age was open up new boundaries to Ranaldo, areas that he previously wasn’t aware existed and enticed him to this world of experimentation. The time he spent as an adolescent trying out with hallucinogenics turned Ranaldo on to a universe of colours, sounds and feelings that he wouldn’t have even known existed otherwise.

Even if a 15-year-old Lee Ranaldo was none the wiser at the time about how this record would go on to change his life, the spirit of The Grateful Dead would be stuck with him ever since. Sonic Youth and The Grateful Dead, on the surface, don’t share much in common but that pioneering, rule book breaking attitude towards music is one that Ranaldo picked up subconsciously as a teenager from Europe ’72.

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