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(Credit: Geffen)

The Cover Uncovered: The story behind Sonic Youth's landmark album 'Daydream Nation'

In terms of status within the dense annals of alternative rock history, you’d struggle to find an LP as hallowed and influential as Sonic Youth’s fifth outing, 1988’s Daydream Nation. Released by Enigma records, it is an arty, noise-rock double album — seventy glorious minutes of Sonic Youth showing the world why they were the foremost group in breaking down the barriers of musical possibility. Within its composition, they redefined alternative culture ad infinitum.

Daydream Nation is one of those rare moments in alternative rock that forced change. It formed a segment of the elaborate patchwork of influences that occupied Kurt Cobain’s head. In fact, the late Nirvana frontman listed it as one of his top 50 albums of all time. Nirvana were just one of the droves of bands influenced by Sonic Youth and Daydream Nation. This is ironic, as Nevermind is possibly the most influential alternative album ever, with Daydream Nation not far behind in influence. Sonic Youth and Nirvana were also great friends, but that is a story for another day. Regardless, it isn’t unreasonable to postulate that Daydream Nation was the album that forced the door open, and that Nevermind followed suit and blew it off its hinges.

The album was recorded between July and August 1988 at Green St. Recording in New York City. It was so effective that it earned the band a major label deal with Geffen, who would also put out Nevermind in 1991. It has since been considered one of the greatest albums of all time. Appropriately, in 2005, it was chosen by the Library of Congress to be conserved in the National Recording Registry.

The band spent several months fashioning frontman and guitarist Thurston Moore‘s ideas into full-length songs. Instead of stripping back the numbers as they had done in the past, the writing process resulted in extended jams, with some lasting over the half-hour mark. This change in style came after multiple friends of the band, including former Black Flag frontman, Henry Rollins, praised the lengthy improvisations the band played at shows but admitting that their records never truly captured the band’s true essence. Subsequently, Moore went on a prolific writing spree, which culminated in the basis of the double album.

Daydream Nation is also interesting as it was not recorded by or in a traditional alternative environment. The producer, Nick Sansano, was accustomed to working with hip-hop artists and prior to meeting the band, he knew very little about them but was acutely aware of their aggressive sound. Acting as a bridge between the two inherently similar genres, Sansano showed the group records he had previously worked on. These included Public Enemy’s ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’ and Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s ‘It Takes Two’. 

Sonic Youth embraced the sound of Sansano’s records and booked three weeks of time in Green Street, commencing in mid-July ’88. At this point, it is important to note what a groundbreaking decision it was to hire Sansano. Rock and rap had barely crossed paths in 1988. Run-DMC and Aerosmith released megahit mashup ‘Walk This Way’ in 1986, and Beastie Boys released debut album Licence to Ill that same year, which has since become a classic in the rap-rock genre. Together, these three details were key factors in the mainstream realising that seemingly disparate genres could be interwoven to great success. The marriage of rap and rock would go on to have era-defining effects from the ’90s onwards. Linkin Park’s 2000 debut, Hybrid Theory, anyone?

The band paid $1,000 per day of studio time which, during this period, was the most they had ever paid to record an album. Ultimately, it cost $30,000, with Moore later labelling it: “Our first non-econo record”. However, there is another reason why Daydream Nation is iconic; the album artwork. The enduring front cover is a painting by esteemed visual artist Gerhard Richter, titled, Kerze (Candle). Richter went on to sell the 1983 painting for $16.6 million in 2011, a hefty sum for a classic piece. The reverse image also features a similar Richter painting of a blurred candle from 1982.

The album’s title is taken from the lyric in the song ‘Hyperstation’, section B of the album’s closing piece ‘Trilogy’: “Daydreaming days in a daydream nation”. Before settling on Daydream Nation, the band also toyed with the title ‘Tonight’s the Day’, taken from track nine ‘Candle’: “Candle, tonight’s the day, candle”. In fact, this lyric makes a direct reference to Neil Young’s 1975 album Tonight’s the Night.

This would not be the end of Sonic Youth referencing iconic rockers. The four sides of the vinyl version and the CD inner tray contain four symbols representing each member of the band. Sound familiar? It cannot be said for sure if this was a homage or parody of the artwork of Led Zeppelin’s iconic 1971 album, Led Zeppelin IV, but it is equally as memorable. The symbols are infinity, female, uppercase omega, and a sketch of demon/angel holding drumsticks. What the latter says about drummer Steve Shelley we will let you form your own opinion on.

All in all, Daydream Nation is an undisputed classic, with an equally iconic artwork to boot. Both the songs and the album cover are cemented in pop culture history and carry on inspiring to this day. So why not jump back into this classic and enjoy it in all its pioneering glory.

Listen to the album opener, ‘Teenage Riot’, below.

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