Sonic Youth – Sister Audio Cassette (UK (1987)

You get a perfect sense of what sort of album this is going to be from the fact that the labels are stuck on the wrong sides of the tape. Side 2’s label is on Side 1, and vice versa. I’ve often wondered whether this was deliberate, given Sonic Youth’s approach, but even if not, it’s entirely in keeping with with the chaotic and contradictory attitude of the music.

Sonic Youth - Sister Audio Cassette (UK 1987)

In the 1980s, Sonic Youth were one of the groups who took punk rock on what I felt was its natural course. Very quickly after the birth of punk in the UK, the anarchic and often gratingly discordant music either morphed into a repetitive and meaningless caricature of itself, or was fused with more listener-friendly musical styles to create a kind of ‘street cred’ pop.

In England, bands such as The Fall developed punk rock in keeping with its original parameters – no rules, something new and different with each release, a deliberately alternative approach, and all efforts channelled into creativity rather than self-indulgent muso pyrotechnics. But by the end of the ‘70s, to the wider public, punk rock was no longer a rejection of the status quo. It was a status quo. All those caricature bands who looked exactly the same, and basically played the same two minute track over and again, but with (vaguely) different words – they were “punk”. The bands who were still observing the original punk ethos, rejecting convention and taking punk on its natural course, had been re-categorised.

But make no mistake, groups such as The Fall in the UK, and Sonic Youth in America, were the true descendants of that experimental early punk period from the mid ‘70s, when it wasn’t about copying or jumping onto bandwagons – it was about acknowledging that everyone was bored with bandwagons, and actually jumping off them.

To me, this album epitomises what punk would have been in 1987, had the media fully grasped what it was originally all about and recognised its rightful progression. By this time of course, the likes of Sonic Youth were categorised as ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’ bands. The word ‘indie’ was an abbreviation of ‘independent’, referring to the small, low budget, independent record labels which had sprung up in the wake of punk. And this album fits in perfectly with that. Around the world, Sonic Youth’s Sister appeared on different labels, but here in the UK it was on Patti Smith’s Blast First label. This is the original release, with paper labels – as I mentioned, stuck back to front. The labels have crumpled slightly and lifted away from the plastic in places. The cassette formulation is chrome.

Musically, Sister is fascinating and highly unusual. If you’re looking for melodic pop songs, I doubt you’ll be greatly fulfilled. But if you’re looking for something on the cusp of music and abstract sound, with powerful combinations of tone and empathically-chosen noise, you’ll be in your element. I particularly love the way lots of different guitar sounds are combined, and I love the sounds themselves. It sounds chaotic and often quite industrial because of the unconventional chords, tunings and techniques, but there’s nothing haphazard about it. Guitarist Thurston Moore would use old offset countour Fender guitars such as the Jazzmaster, and really warp and distort their output. Some of the effects he produces are amazing, and its refreshing to hear someone using overdriven electric guitars without any semblance of cliché.

I feel that Sister by Sonic Youth can be seen as a stepping stone between punk and grunge, and on that basis alone it has great importance. But it’s much more than that. It certainly can’t be described as easy listening. But for me, it’s a hell of a lot easier to listen to than an episode of the X Factor. The tape itself is pretty cool too. I don’t imagine there are that many of these around, and if that business with the labels was an error, it’s probably quite a unique artefact.