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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Sonic Youth Geetars

Sometimes you’ve just got to laugh. If I was Fender’s Head of Marketing, and I wanted to go really out there with my artist endorsements (“New For 2009! G.E. Smith Guitar!”) who would I choose to get that valuable Lawyer-That-Was-A-Huge-Alt-Rock-Fan dollar (I’m looking at you, Searsy)? J Mascis? Nah, already done. Butthole Surfers? Too bizarre. Sonic Youth? But don’t they stick knitting needles into the strings, tune them all to A# and generally abuse the goddamn life out of their poor Jazzmasters and Mustangs?

Well, yeah, but in their dotage they’ve become quite willing to endorse themselves in all sorts of “fun” ways1. And if you’re a lawyer or banker who spent their formative years blasting out “Sister” from their dorm room2, then a funky messed up Jazzmaster might just scratch the itch that a Road-Worn Telecaster 3 or a *gasp* PRS just can’t scratch?

And you know, they are quite nice-looking guitars:

Lee's Guitar

Lee's Guitar

Thurston's Guitar

Thurston's Guitar

Although they look a hell of a lot like the Electrajets (not a bad thing, I’d quite like one of these babies), what with that stripped down Jazzmaster/Jag vibe:

Dan Grosh's Lovely Electrajet

Dan Grosh's Lovely Electrajet

The band do really seem to have been involved in the design of these, which is nice. Different pickups, switches removed, just a volume knob – ok, so it’s hardly a Matt Bellamy Manson special but better than some of the lazy-assed endorsements out there. But surely the whole point of Sonic Youth is that they took the cheapest half-decent guitars they could find and modded the hell out of them themselves, to make them unique? So isn’t selling a massed-produced guitar that was meant to be different to everything else out there somewhat hypocritical?

A Proper Sonic Youth Guitar

A Proper Sonic Youth Guitar

In any case, I can of course be persuaded to change my mind on delivery of a nice new shiny Classic Player Jazzmaster so I can fulfil my Robin Guthrie/Tom Verlaine/J Mascis fantasies. Delivery to Loft and Lost Mansions, 7, London. Ta.

Anyway, in honour of this astonishing moment in guitar-endorsement history, here’s a few tracks of Sonic Youth abusing guitars, one from their most recent (and not at all bad) “The Eternal” LP, and one from the classic “Sister” LP.

MP3: Malibu Gas Station by Sonic Youth

(this MP3 has been removed as Sonic Youth’s record company apparently object to people posting an MP3 from their new album whilst advertising their nice new expensive guitars)

MP3: White Kross by Sonic Youth

Buy Sonic Youth’s “The Eternal” (CD/MP3)

Buy Sonic Youth’s “Sister” (MP3)

1 Now isn’t the time for the sell-out arguments. Another time, maybe.

2 Believe me, such people do exist.

3 Is it just me or is the whole “Road Worn” concept one of the stupidest things ever? Why not just buy a nice new Tele and bash the hell out of it yourself? Or hey, why not go to your local guitar shop and buy a genuine second-hand guitar, which will have more life and character than anything Fender will sell you for about $500 over the market, as well as supporting your local guitar shop, who quite frankly can probably do with the income?

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