No Sonic Youth = No Nirvana

Part credit for this post goes to a gentleman called Brett Robinson over on the LiveNirvana forum (if you’re interested in Nirvana I genuinely recommend the site and the forum — I’ve used the site for years but only recently engaged with the forum and the intelligence and knowledge present is awe-inspiring.) A discussion was started a couple weeks back asking people to suggest “The Top Five Most Important Concerts to Nirvana’s History.” Brett pointed to the show in Hoboken, New Jersey on July 13, 1989 on the basis that it’s the night Sonic Youth saw first saw Nirvana play live. I agree wholeheartedly.

Melvins acted as the role model to a young Kurt Cobain trying to seek a social setting for present-day teen survival and also looking for a longer-term means of escape from that setting. Melvins served wonderfully for those first few years, yet having discovered the limitations of the indie scene as it stood in 1989-1990 — living on the breadline, unenviable touring conditions, limited studio time and budget — the band needed something new.

The example of major label moves had been set by many recent underground bands; Mother Love Bone, The Posies, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains among others. But the foremost band in the Eighties underground was always Sonic Youth. If Nirvana could be considered ambitious it’s in reaching past all their other compatriots to make comparisons to the band that had, at that point, become the biggest alternative act without crossing over or compromising with mainstream tastes. Having left Melvins behind already, with the buzz building, Sonic Youth became the next critical role model.

It’s intriguing how others have either taken up the chant or saw the comparison too. There’s the well known quotation from 1988 that “Nirvana could become…. better than the Melvins!” yet the comparisons changed:

Keith Cameron: “’people were saying, you know, one day, they might be as big as Sonic Youth.”

Dave Grohl in 2011 on Nevermind: “Holy shit! We’re going to be as big as Sonic Youth!”

Everett True in Nirvana: The True Story: “’Yeah, as big as Sonic Youth at least, or the Pixies…”

Anton Brookes: “our idea of the ‘Top 10’ was being as big as Sonic Youth or the Pixies…”

Krist Novoselic in 1992: “‘We wanted to do as good as Sonic Youth…”

A lot of these quotations are post-event comparisons but they coincide absolutely with the vision available in 1990 of what success for a band that wasn’t soaked in mainstream glitz meant.

Nirvana followed Sonic Youth onto Gold Mountain for a very clear reason as described in 2011 by Danny Goldberg, “John and I signed Sonic Youth, who were very good at picking opening bands…They chose Nirvana to open for them on a European tour, and I recall John coming back and saying that we should manage Nirvana. Then Thurston called me and told me how great they were. I really trusted Sonic Youth. We met with Nirvana, and they trusted us because they trusted Sonic Youth.” Just like Dale Crover’s presence had persuaded Jack Endino to open his doors to Nirvana in 1988, Sonic Youth got Nirvana their management company thanks to firstly, taking Nirvana with them for seven shows in August 1990 (at that point the largest shows Nirvana had been a part of), then personally asking for it to happen.

Precisely the same thing happens again with Kim Gordon apparently responsible for persuading Nirvana that DGC was the label they should go with. It’s like Sonic Youth had adopted Nirvana. A year later Sonic Youth again take Nirvana with them for a month of touring in August including their first substantial festival appearances at the Reading Festival, Monsters of Spex, Pukkelpop, Überschall 91 and Ein Abend in Wien.

Nirvana continue, even after fame, to mimic the Sonic Youth mode of behaviour whether deliberately or through some shared underground heritage. The sponsorship of other bands — whether The Raincoats, The Vaselines, Melvins — was something Sonic Youth had been doing for years, bringing up other acts as tour support or barracking the industry to get them releases. Also Cobain’s diversion into production (with Melvins in 1992 and 1993) had been prefigured by Lee Ranaldo’s work for Babes in Toyland and Kim Gordon’s work for Hole.

So, while not as fundamental to Nirvana’s sound as Melvins were in the early days, Sonic Youth had an equally strong influence on pushing Nirvana into the limelight, onto the major label stage, and providing an aim, something to emulate. Later, reading interviews where one or other member of Sonic Youth states things like “I think anybody who knew Kurt fantasizes about some conversation that they could have had with him that might have saved this person from such a tragedy…” it still has that feel of the elders watching over their kid brother.

Anyways, this is a scrap from the April 1994 edition of Metal Hammer magazine which I bought for the Kurt Cobain tribute. It was also the first time I had come into contact with Sonic Youth. This single purchase thus bid farewell to Kurt at the same time as introducing me to the band that became the single most important influence on my music-consuming tastes and directions. I’d like to confess at this point to having seventy-seven Sonic Youth (and related) releases…

Curse you Metal Hammer, April 1994 for your impact on my budgets!!


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