The Pitchfork 500 Alt Rock 101 Part 1 – Sonic Youth to Meat Puppets

The next two Pitchfork articles feature the flowering of US Alt-Rock; these are the bands that your favourite bands love. From early ’90’s staples like The Pixies and Nirvana, to more recent bands like The Hold Steady and even the likes of Fleet Foxes, they were hugely influenced by the next six bands. I’ve split this article in two, so that you don’t have a 2,000 word behemoth to trawl through1.

Sonic Youth – Death Valley ‘69
Hüsker Dü – Pink Turns to Blue
Meat Puppets – Plateau

Of the next six bands, I only own records by three of them, and had hardly heard any songs by the rest. Which, funnily enough, was one of the reasons why I started off doing this whole Pitchfork 500 thing. I remember looking through the list, and when I got to this bit, thought “Hey, I don’t know any Replacements or Minutemen songs but I’ve always wanted to, so this is my chance”. And whilst both REM and Sonic Youth’s later records (Out Of Time/Automatic For The People and Sister/Daydream Nation respectively) were staples of my teenage years, I didn’t know much about their earlier songs, making it doubly worthwhile.

Would it be a disappointing experience, discovering that these bands really aren’t all that? Hell no. Would I wish I’d bought the likes of “Let It Be” and “Zen Arcade” 25 years ago? Hell yes.

First off are Sonic Youth. I’ve not heard “Death Valley ‘69” in years. I mean, years and years and years. From one of their earliest records, it’s got that whole chaotic Sonic Youth vibe but doesn’t quite have the pop sharpness of later classics like “White Kross” or the evergreen “Teenage Riot”. Noisy, yes, groundbreaking, to a point, but do I like it more than their later stuff? Nope, sorry.

Hüsker Dü (love the umlauts) were one of the most influential rock bands of the ’80’s. Taking hardcore punk and adding a huge slab of melody, they turned it into something approaching a angst-ridden version of power-pop. Whilst I loved Sugar and some of Bob Mould’s solo stuff, I never got any of the Hüsker Dü back catalogue. I guess it’s all about worrying that the record I get will be the wrong one and I’ll end up disappointed. Yeah, it’s daft.

This is one of those tunes I didn’t know and it’s been stuck in my head for the last few weeks. One of Grant Hart’s songs, it’s a swirling maelstrom of a song about a drug overdose, and has a nauseous, nightmarish feel to it. It’s also hopelessly catchy in a way that hardcore hadn’t been before. If anything it’s got as much “Don’t Fear The Reaper” as it does “Minor Threat”. Which was exactly what the band intended, having never wanted to be put in a straightjacket and told what to play. That bloodymindedness would end up tearing the band apart acrimoniously. That, and the huge amount of drugs they were all doing.

Meat Puppets came to most people’s attention thanks to Nirvana playing three of their songs in MTV’s Unplugged. Yeah, I know some of you hipsters had heard of them before, but the rest of us hadn’t, so ner. Anyway, anyone buying their “Classic Puppets” compilation expecting some lonesome country-rock might have got a right shock for the first few songs. I certainly did. But then “Plateau” comes along, with its weird country-acid-punk, and Kurt Cobain’s love for the band suddenly starts to make sense. It really doesn’t sound like anything else, except maybe Gun Club, and is quite marvellous.

The song has a woozy, half-awake quality, like one of those dreams you have that when you drift back into conciousness, you’re not quite sure if you actually experienced it in real life, or whether it was just a bit of your imagination going bonkers again. It also sounds better than the Nirvana cover, funnily enough. And I just love the beautifully restrained guitar solo – a lesser band would have gone haywire at that point, but Curt Kirkwood, with his hardcore punk background, understood exactly how much noise you need to make the maximum impact.

Sadly, Meat Puppet’s obstreperousness took them to recording entire albums with the singing out of key, and despite the fame brought to them by that Unplugged show, they ended up breaking up. That, and the huge amount of drugs they were all doing.

Don’t do drugs, mmmkay? 2

Three down, three to go. Next time it’s The Replacements, The Minutemen, and REM.

1 And I haven’t written the second half yet. Ahem.

2 Please see the below video for more information on the subject. Any implication that I may agree with Mr Hicks is purely coincidental, and stating this would make you a liar and a communist.

MP3: Pink Turns To Blue by Husker Du

MP3: Plateau by The Meat Puppets

Buy “Death Valley ’69” (MP3)

Buy Husker Du’s “Zen Arcade” (MP3)

Buy “Classic Puppets” (MP3)

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