Anniverseries: Sonic Youth - Goo

An era-defining piece of work, still pouring fuel on the fire of youthful revolt 30 years after its release.
Posted: 26 June 2020 Words: Miles Ellingham

Yeah, I remember Goo. We were out on the freeway with Candy – Max was trussed up in the back – I remember leaning over and pulling a Benson Hedges out of the glove compartment, lighting it and asking, “what’s this hip new music on the radio”. “It’s Goo,” screamed Candy over the wind as the boot flew open and dead Max came barrelling out behind us, ending up a thick red stain on the horizon. I’m taking liberties with all this – that’s not how I remember Goo, but it’s how I’d imagine remembering it, and I think that’s important.  

In reality, I came across Sonic Youth’s canonical ne plus ultra when I was sixteen.  A friend gave me the album for my birthday, along with a personalised pen-knife and one of those gas-mask bong things – it was all very exciting. I remember associating Raymond Pettibon’s famous cartoon for the very first time. I’d seen it before of course; it was everywhere – on prints outside Camden Market Stables, emblazoned on girls’ tank-tops – but now it had a sound of its own.  I remember hearing Goo and relating, almost spiritually, to the angst of it, the humour, the mocking, camp crisis of each concurrent track.  

For better or worse, my angst is all gone now, dissipated, but though I’ve disassociated from the skunk-addled apprehension of teenagehood, Goo remains a beautiful album: one with lyrical flair, musical depth and perfectly encapsulating the grunge mentality of the US during those final, noisy years before the turn of the millennium. 

Sonic Youth sound like everyone and no one; their music matches the conceptual twists and turns of New York predecessors like The Velvet Underground, whilst their enormous back-catalogue pits a transatlantic equivalence between them and Mark E Smith’s The Fall. Goo is their most approachable work, spilling over the success of Daydream Nation (1988), released two years previous.  

Though Goo did a lot to crystallise the group’s position in the annals of American counterculture, it also proceeded a long and storied career – stretching all the way back to 1977, when a young Thurston Moore started a band with his roommates before being joined by fellow bandmate and future wife, Kim Gordon, as well as pedal enthusiast Lee Ranaldo.


Moore, Ranaldo and Gordon have maintained the same playful, punk attitude for a long time. An attitude most famously defined by critic Robert Christgau who christened it ‘Pigfuck’ to match fellow No Wave inheritors, Big Black and Pussy Galore. Moore responded to Christgau’s harsh categorisation by changing the 1983 single ‘Kill Yr Idols’ to ‘I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick’ … though critic and artist eventually reconciled. 

Sonic Youth are a musical rendering of the shit-pipe at the mouth of the sea, north of Mason-Dixon, catching, condensing and spilling out America’s best runoff. Their influences ebb from countercultures everywhere: from Neil Young to the Manson Family to Philip K Dick, John Cage and Bridgette Fontaine.  All these things are caught and re-purposed into a kind of goo, supremely catchy and supremely immersive. 

Goo harbours every facet of the Sonic Youth image in a tight, razor-wire bundle. They had just, to everyone’s surprise, signed with the mainstream label, Geffen/MCA, who introduced producers Nick Sansano and Ron Saint Germain – Sansano was a veteran of America’s East Coast hip-hop explosion, while Germain was fresh out of working with Bad Brains. This marriage of hip-hop and Hardcore know-how is part of what makes the album’s sound so intriguing, what makes it stand out from other proto-grunge records of the time. Sansano even managed to bring Public Enemy’s Chuck D into the studio for a featuring role on ‘Kool Thing’.

A staple of the work is the presence of Gordon’s soon-to-be Riotgrrrl gender politics, mused in unapologetic tongue in cheek mode.  ‘Kool Think’ has her discussing the future of ‘us girls’ with Chuck D as Moore’s Stooges-esque licks race past the listener.  “Hey Kool Thing,” whispers Gordon sultrily, “I just wanna know what you’re gonna do for me / Are you gonna liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression?” “Yee… Word up!” replies Chuck, characteristically.  

It all comes together for Goo, an album that squirms with the bright white light of youthful rebellion. Its opening track, ‘Dirty Boots’, is about as fun to listen to as pushing cigarettes through the fibre filling of a tattered mattress, or burning down the memory of a juvenile law centre – that is to say very fun indeed. Don’t mistake me here, however; the fuzzed edge of the album is by no means confined to teenage angst; it’s not a naive piece of work, far from it – many of the tracks are tender, delicate even. ‘Disappear’, for instance, has a distinct sense of pining, as the staunch middle-finger of the preceding song, ‘My Friend Goo’ and ‘Mary-Christ’, begins to falter, replaced by two arms outstretched, in search of something.  

Even the angst serves as a conduit for a wider critique of American society, one controlled by greedy corporations, endless war and consumerism. The political messaging that bases itself at the heart of grunge may be blunt but it’s there nonetheless – a notion that’s far too readily overlooked. And Sonic Youth were ur-grunge, taking a nascent Nirvana on tour to open for them.

And let’s not knock angst, which is surely integral to the development and cultivation of reasonable character. It teaches us to question the world around us, to push against previously rigid pillars of conception. Sure, as you get older, you begin to find a balance, to iron out the kinks in your approach, develop a nuanced worldview. But without the initial push, the glee of rebellion, this process could never occur, and that’s where Sonic Youth’s Goo comes in – and long may it continue to do so. 

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