New Year, New Indulgence – the Solo Discography of Thurston Moore Part One

Posted: January 5, 2015 in New Music and New Discoveries

And a happy New Year to one and all! Totally self-indulgent desire to rampage through my own record collection and use the blog as an excuse to think about some of it in more detail; I’d like to dissect the discography of Thurston Moore.

My first Sonic Youth release was an SST greatest hits in 1998 called “Screaming Fields of Sonic Love” (still an awesome title.) A copy of the “Dirty Boots” EP followed and I was hooked forever more; an open statement of allegiance – I agree with the critical hype and think Sonic Youth are the most significant rock band of the last thirty years bar none. My engagement with their work became a full scale fetish which led me into collecting solo material by each band member. Alas, the sheer scale became so gargantuan (and so pricey) I had to halt the forward motion – despite retaining great affection for Steve Shelley’s Two Dollar Guitar outfit, for Lee Ranaldo’s solo works (“Dirty Windows” and “Amarillo Ramp” being key recommendations), for Kim Gordon’s work as Harry Crews in 1989 or Free Kitten on and off ever since. I persisted with Thurston’s work in a far more devoted fashion and this is a ramble through his non-Sonic Youth outings which I’ll refer to, as convenient shorthand, as his solo career.

Combining a variety of online sources (and still feeling fairly positive my list is incomplete), I count 127 non-Sonic Youth releases by Thurston Moore either under his own name, with various co-credited collaborators, or under band guises. Very few of those releases are singles and I refuse to count single track contributions to compilations either; it’s an immense body of work allowing one to track the development of his style and approach across those years. You’ll see on the table below – and accepting that I may be missing or misdating a few releases given how much Thurston has blurted out into the world – that there’s a definite trend in Thurston’s release schedule. Prior to 2006, the most he puts out in a single year is six releases in 1995, six in 1997 and six in 2000. Those years emphasise a trend, however, as in 1995 four of those releases are briefer seven inch single tracks, in 1997 only one is, by 2000 none of them are. I’m stretching some by including the “Cindy” and “Ono Soul” singles of 1995 as full Thurston releases but in that first decade and a half of his career the paucity of non-Sonic Youth releases is very clear. Of course, by that I mean his release rate is comparable to a typical musician.

Increasingly after 1995 Thurston’s releases are made up of LP length live recordings and LP length studio compositions. A related but distinct trend, however, is his increasing devotion to creating documentation of those events. While the nature of his releases started to change from 1995, the release schedule only truly explodes in 2006. There’s definitely pent-up activity at first; he released nothing in 2005, an exceptional year, then the dam busts wide open. There are nine Thurston Moore releases in 2006 – he’s at ten in 2007 – by 2008 he hits a peak of twelve. Then suddenly there’s a dip encompassing 2009-2011. Without prying a knife around in the details it’s fair to say that much was going on in Thurston’s personal life and therefore his professional life given the crossover between the two. The result is clear in his release schedule; just two in 2009, the lowest tally since 1993-1994. That steps up rapidly to Thurston’s ‘new normal’ with five releases in 2010, seven in 2011 – a breath drawn in 2012 with only four – then back to a maniacal peak of twelve in 2013, eight in 2014 and 2015 already promises a planned split single on the Fuzz Club label and a further live collaboration with John Moloney. That’s an incredible rate of activity; Thurston has released 70 recordings in just eight years – in the rock domain the only peers I can think of are Psychic TV’s attempt to release a record of their semi-improvisational concert ‘happenings’ every month or the manic live releases of someone like Yellow Swans.

Where did it all start?

Quietly is the inappropriate and amusing answer. Thurston is very honest that he arrived in his first band, the Coachmen, essentially unable to play a note of guitar – the 1988 release “Failure to Thrive” collected early demos on friend Mike Watt’s label New Alliance but isn’t much of a guide to his ensuing path in music. The only other visible evidence of Thurston’s pre-1982 endeavours consist of a 50 second rip called “The Fucking Youth of Today” released in 1981 on an LP for a magazine called ‘Just Another Asshole’ (run by Glenn Branca and Barbara Ess), March 1982’s first Sonic Youth EP on Branca’s label, plus Sonic Youth’s first ever performance in June 1981 at an event Thurston curated called ‘Noise Fest’:
(Sonic Youth’s First Performance)

His participation – under strict structural guidance – in the early guitar symphonies of Glenn Branca are the true commencement of Thurston’s music. The early Branca releases on which Thurston features consist of a 1982 release of the musical accompaniment to a dance performance called ‘Bad Smells’, two live guitar symphonies released in 1983 and recorded in July 1981 and January 1983 respectively (Symphony 1 and 3), then a further May 1982 performance emerging a decade later on Atavistic as Symphony 2 (God I love this label!) Glenn Branca’s website suggests (as of September 2, 2014) that there’s going to finally be an MP3 release of Symphony 4 “Physics” which has always been a blatant gap in his recorded repertoire. I believe that it was during the European touring of no.4 in 1983 that the Sonic Youth crew and Branca parted company. Sonic Youth basically piggybacked their own first European tour onto his symphony tour – something he was apparently none too happy about. The cut-off point between the two bands is pretty blatant; January 1983 Lee Ranaldo and Thurston are both part of Symphony 3, February 1983 Sonic Youth release their first proper album “Confusion is Sex” – the line is drawn and Branca is history.

(Glenn Branca Symphony No.2 Excerpt from YouTube)

The Lydia Lunch collaborations commence during this same period with the November 1982 recording for the “In Limbo” EP (1984) on which Thurston is credited for composing the music on four efforts. While it’s rare that Thurston composes music for others outside of SY, the release doesn’t tell us much about his capabilities as a band leader and Thurston sticks to bass guitar throughout. The songs all stay true to Lydia’s then dominant gothic vibe – how ‘composed’ the songs are is a matter of debate, they’re looser than his work for Sonic Youth but by no means ad-libbed jams (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hp-vYVF0z3I). With no intention for this to sound like criticism his playing very much sounds like a man learning an instrument – he provides a solid, stable bedding for the other musicians to romp around on. It’s akin to his early Sonic Youth playing where the sound n’ fury was a case of volume masking poor equipment and limited technique – of course, the restrictions of that early work became a leitmotif of the band’s work, I’m a genuine believer that the best art is usually a result of artists reacting to limitations with imagination where easy answers, cash solutions, bought answers usually produces lazy, rote results.

(Lydia Lunch performing with Thurston in 2013)

It’s nearly two years before Lydia lends her high profile (and distinctive talent) to the July 1984 recording of Death Valley ’69; Sonic Youth’s first hit and first real classic. Thurston is later able to repay her profile-raising support in the 1987-1989 period when Sonic Youth have risen to the top of the underground. In May 1987 Thurston records one song with Lydia and Clint Ruin (a JG Thirwell pseudonym), “The Crumb”, which emerges on a 1988 single and a later 1989 CD compilation. Around that same time (or perhaps on the same occasion) he adds contributions to two songs on Lydia’s “Honeymoon in Red.” “The Crumb” shows how far Thurston has come – aspects of it are close to the chaotic experimentation of the Ciccone Youth project (1986-1988) or of Sonic Youth’s Master Dik EP (1987) with drums foregrounded, unusual cuts and shifts between sections, Moore’s vocals deliberately dramatized, plus studio effects provided by Clint Ruin. The song shows Thurston’s openness to playing with sound, a willingness to be used as raw material. It’s also the first time, on a non-SY release, in a non-live setting that he’s really given himself over to something approaching noise as opposed to well-structured songs. The two songs on “Honeymoon in Red” are “So Your Heart” – another trio with Lydia and Clint Ruin – and “Three Kings” where, in both cases his work was added during remixing of Lydia’s 1982 recordings with the Birthday Party. “So Your Heart” is a beautiful phantom tune, echoing guitar, no drums or rhythm marking time, a mist hanging behind the voice. Meanwhile on “Three Kings” Thurston’s “sonic holocaust guitar” (as credited) doesn’t cut in until around the two-and-a-half minute mark. While “The Crumb” said more about SY’s then side-project entertainments, it’s here on “Three Kings” that it’s absolutely visible that Thurston’s own musical voice has solidified – he sounds like ‘him’. Firstly, the expert whipping of feedback and effects from the guitar is unmistakable, secondly there’s an inkling of what would become SY’s ever-more-prevalent working method in which a song would consist of the solid rhythm section, a strong lead guitar line to the fore, then one guitar designated to provide effects and emphases often lower in the mix.

In his earliest days there are no surprises yet; it’s clear that Thurston’s milieu remains the New York No Wave set of which Sonic Youth are seen as inheritors and bearers of the legacy. It’s also very visible how central Sonic Youth is to his creative identity. Essentially his non-Sonic Youth endeavours for the entirety of the Eighties and on into the Nineties consists of 1981-1983’s Glenn Branca gigs, then the three releases with Lydia Lunch breaking evenly between the one effort in 1982 then the three songs of 1987. There’s one offcut performed with SY buddies as ‘Lucky Sperms’ but that’s it…So far undeviated. While Thurston’s SY identity is set by then, June 1988’s session with two-thirds of Borbetomagus is the first real indication of where he might be bound.

Sonic Youth’s reputation as quintessential noiseniks does them a sore disservice. It underrates their true talent which was the weaving and controlling of unconventional sounds to enhance songs that drew directly on standard pop and rock approaches; they were a deviation not a repudiation of rock music just as punk was a reforging not an extermination. In a way its quaint how unwelcoming the mainstream was given it’s now commonplace for pop and dance hits to consist of structured static and spitting wires. Borbetomagus, at their rawest, are far better claimants to the ‘lords of noise’ title than Sonic Yout were with two saxophones shrieking for all they’re worth and near drowning out the guitar. The “Barefoot in the Head” collaboration with Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich would be the next big step for Thurston’s solo efforts and actually his comrades are surprisingly restrained during this session. “All Doors Look Alike” seems to be about clearing cowards from the room before they really get going. It’s a really atmospheric record, controlled breathing turning the saxophones into a series of jabs, thrusts, underpinning tones. Thurston chips in a combination of rubbed jangling strings and thumped necks which can sometimes make him seem quite backward in terms of his experimental urges – he may sound like rock guitar God Thurston Moore, but he isn’t the man leading this ensemble or making its most telling connections. It’s actually really understandable; while a rock band might deviate from plan on stage, devolve into lengthy jams, record endless noodling, there’s usually a core of bass/drums, perhaps a time signature, almost always a place to come back to or someone ‘holding the line’ while the others thrash it out – plus while they might spin out for a while the bulk of what they do is defined song forms, structures they’re taught, practice, drill and learn by heart. This isn’t true of an improvisational unit. There’s a level of action and reaction when working in a collaboration of this nature – of making sound not for the heck of it but because it fits or works with or against other members of the unit. Similarly, the absence of conventional timing and rhythm means having to find new ways to provide momentum and progress within a song, a new way to create a logical beginning and end. Thurston can do the rock guitar stage moves and he’s become one of the most talented manipulators of a guitar in the world at that time…Here he’s attempting to learn an entirely new language.

For those completists among you (and anyone who can tell me what I’ve missed! Message me on NirvanaDarkSlivers@gmail.com – I’d welcome the updates!) here’s the complete table of 127 releases in the Thurston Moore solo discography.

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As a PS John Moloney very kindly got in touch and pointed out that I’m missing two releases he’s aware of (that further support the weight of his collaborative relationship with Thurston – as an aside I always feel weird using first name for people I’ve never been closer to than sharing space in the crowd as Byron Coley reads on a small stage, but calling people ‘Moore’ feels like being in that school again…) Firstly, The Peeper “Time Machine” from 2008 – http://www.discogs.com/Peeper-Time-Machine/release/1586898 and, secondly, a February 2012 outing for the Sunburned Hand of Man entitled “The Tingle of Casual Danger” – http://www.discogs.com/Sunburned-Hand-Of-The-Man-The-Tingle-Of-Casual-Danger/release/3700384

As a PPS Would you believe me if I said this just started as a way to take a break from working away on a Nirvana book? I Found My Friends is out in March so if anyone reading this would be willing to share the link with friends I’d be honoured and delighted:
https://nirvana-legacy.com/2015/01/09/new-nirvana-i-found-my-friends-210-musicians-170-bands-the-oral-history-of-nirvana-1987-1994/

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