By 1990, Sonic Youth no longer belonged to the cool kids. Before Goo was released that June, they were a band you had to read about in music magazines, as none of the record shops in our area carried the SST catalog. Now signed to the newly established Geffen subsidiary DGC, they were no longer confined to the arty New York scene. Finding the beautiful sadness of Karen Carpenter’s story and inner peace in a whirlwind of guitar feedback, these nine tracks hit their uninitiated new fanbase with the force of a pipe bomb.
Sonic Youth’s sixth proper full-length remains arguably their most culturally (rather than critically) beloved album — whose iconic Raymond Pettibon cover may be surpassing Sgt. Pepper’s as the most parodied ever. As the Black Lives Matter movement fights for justice, it’s equally remarkable and revolting how relevant Goo’s subtext remains: outsiders, particularly women and people of color, uniting against “male, white corporate oppression.” It was an interview that concerned just that, between Kim Gordon and LL Cool J, in this publication back in 1989, that inspired Goo’s signature hit “Kool Thing,” which featured Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
For the first time since the band hung it up in 2011, SPIN spoke to all four members of Sonic Youth, as well as Pettibon himself, about how one of the koolest albums ever made was conceived, unforgettably packaged, and taken out on the road with Neil Young, who became consequently noisier himself as a result.
THE MAJOR LABEL
Steve Shelley: We met with a lot of labels after Daydream Nation; we were having a problem with the labels that we’d been on keeping up with us. It was hard to get paid for the records that you sold. Geffen was still small compared to the other majors. It was still technically an independent label run by David Geffen. That soon changed after we signed with them, the mergers with MCA and other labels, which was a little bit of a letdown. We met more people than just our A&R guy, Gary Gersh. But a big factor to us signing was this guy Mark Kates, who was in charge of college radio at the time. Mark was more familiar with Sonic Youth and our world than maybe even Gary was, and we related to Mark and we are still friends with him today. We all liked the buzz that they had with this rock band Guns N’ Roses at the time, and they seemed to be doing well.
Lee Ranaldo: It was the first record for the major label and we wanted it to be really good. We were getting five or 10 times the amount of money to make a record than we’ve ever spent before. How good can we make a record sound compared to Aerosmith, who spends that much money on every record? We did tons and tons of overdubs. And I remember thinking at one point ,if we had just taken the basic tracks we did as a group and added the vocals that we would have this record that would be even more powerful than what we ended up with. Maybe that’s a dream for someday to try a remix like that.
Shelley: To a degree, it felt like they were putting us in the college rock ghetto. But it turned out to be a good thing, because before you knew it there was Teenage Fanclub and Nirvana and Beck. So we had a little family on DGC.
Thurston Moore: I think we validated the DGC Geffen label for a lot of bands, certainly for Beck and Nirvana. If we weren’t on it, it would have been a different scene. The only reason we worked with Geffen was because of the fact that Mark Kates was working there and he came out of college radio. It was all about following the people who supported you. Nobody else would play our records, but they did. And a lot of them got work at major labels doing their radio divisions. Mark was a classic example of somebody coming out of college radio, who always heralded bands like us, all of a sudden he’s working at a major label and he wants bands that he likes to be represented on the label. And that’s the only reason we would sign to a label like that. If the A&R guy from Guns & Roses came to see us, we probably wouldn’t have been signed.