Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Keltner analysis of undiscussed Rock Hall Artists: Sonic Youth

The site A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago, discusses various artists' credentials for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

After finishing my analysis of the Rock Hall backlog, I always intended to analyse artists who have never been discussed by the Nominating Committee, but still might have credentials to justify induction. The aim of the process is to find out whether, on the basis of the Keltner list for a Hall of Fame, the Nominating Committee really is completely ignoring artists who have undeniable credentials to be in the Hall.

I do admit that there are some problems with the criteria, especially given known biases of the Nominating Committee and how they effect who is already in the Hall, but still I cannot see any better alternative.

I have already done two Keltner tests on undiscussed artists first eligible in 2008/2009, namely The Smiths (not worthy) and Slayer (worthy).

My next artist, first eligible in 2007/2008, is Sonic Youth. Acclaimed for their innovative guitar tunings and use of feedback, the band was one of the most prominent in the New York noise scene of the 1980s, along with the Swans. They switched through a number of independent labels in the 1980s, in the process producing albums like Bad Moon Rising, EVOL, Sister and Daydream Nation. By this time Sonic Youth had become perennial critical favourites and had been able to indulge in side projects, the first of which, Ciccone Youth, was a tribute to pop culture, which despite the band's highly experimental sound was an important part of their interests throughout their career, as reflected in their covering of some songs by Madonna.

In 1990 Sonic Youth switched to major label Geffen and released the album Goo, which hit the UK Top 40 and Billboard Top 100. Their following two albums, 1992's Dirty and 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, broke them first into the UK Top Ten and then the Billboard Top 40. Beginning with 1995's Washing Machine, they moved towards longer songs and experimented with a three-guitar sound, in the process losing popularity but regaining some critical credibility they lost with Dirty.

Sonic Youth have continued to record into the 2000s with their reputation intact, in the process releasing the SYR series of experimental albums in addition to their regular releases.

An evaluation of Sonic Youth's Rock Hall credentials based on the Keltner criteria, which actually come from the Baseball Hall of Fame follows.

1) Were Sonic Youth ever regarded as the best artist in rock music? (Did anybody, while Sonic Youth were active, ever seriously suggest Sonic Youth were the best artist in rock music?): In many ways, Sonic Youth were regarded during the era of Sister and Daydream Nation as the best rock artist, or as some equivalent to that. I have seen them described as at the very least, "the most important" band of their time by Joe S. Harrington, and as, along with The Fall, the best band of the 1980s by a defunct college radio website.

2) Were Sonic Youth ever the best artist in rock music in their genre?: They were often regarded as the best band in alternative rock, though some would argue for the Butthole Surfers or Hüsker Dü. In no wave and noise rock, some would argue for Swans, who never had the interest in pop culture.

3) Were Sonic Youth ever considered the best at their instruments?: No. The tunings and other features they developed with guitars were innovative, but they were never considered unusually skilled.

4) Did Sonic Youth have an impact on a number of other bands?: Certainly. Their unusual tunings have been widely copied by bands such as Pavement and Stereolab, and their early sound also had influence on post-rock groups like Slint. It has often been said that Sonic Youth destroyed the notion of a synth-based future for rock music.

5) Were Sonic Youth good enough that they could play regularly after passing their prime?: Undoubtedly. The band still performs today twenty-five years after it released its first album. More than that, the rate of output has lessened much less than is usual for musicians their age (Kim Gordon was born in 1953).

6) Are Sonic Youth the very best artist in history that is not in the Hall of Fame?: From their era, perhaps - but if one thinks of such acclaimed classics as Trout Mask Replica, Funhouse or Tago Mago, then one probably would have to give this a "no".

7) Are most bands who have a comparable recording history and impact in the Hall of Fame?: Of the highly acclaimed punk, protopunk and alternative bands, the Velvet Underground, Sex Pistols, Ramones and Patti Smith are in the Hall, but the Stooges, the MC5, Captain Beefheart, Can, Neu!, Big Star, Television, Wire, Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen and Black Flag are not and mostly have not been discussed. However, none of those groups lasted as long as Sonic Youth have, and only Patti Smith sold more records, so that it is really tough to find artists properly comparable to Sonic Youth.

8) Is there any evidence to suggest that Sonic Youth were significantly better or worse than is suggested by its statistical records?: The fact that their back catalog continues to sell well even without remastering to improve resolution to 21st-century levels is a positive here, but like so many college radio bands there is a downside in how long it took them to be significant sellers after becoming well-known (and then they had to team up with Chuck D to get into the Billboard Top 100).

9) Are Sonic Youth the best artist in its genre that is eligible for the Hall of Fame?: It depends on what genre you define them as. In alternative rock, yes; in experimental rock they would be probably beaten by Can or Captain Beefheart; in noise rock, there are virtually no other artists yet eligible.

10) How many #1 singles/gold records did Sonic Youth have? Did Sonic Youth ever win a Grammy award? If not, how many times was Sonic Youth nominated?: This is the band's weak point. They had only one Top 40 single or album - Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star - and that was only in the Top 40 for a week. Sonic Youth were also never nominated for any Grammy.

11) How many Grammy-level songs/albums did Sonic Youth have? For how long of a period did Sonic Youth dominate the music scene? How many Rolling Stone covers did Sonic Youth appear on? Did most of the bands with this sort of impact go into the Hall of Fame?: Judging by the number of pictures shown here, Sonic Youth must have appeared on many Rolling Stone covers. Sonic Youth dominated the music scene for a decade, during which they became about the most successful underground band outside of the metal crowd. As Richie Unterberger says, very few underground acts can keep playing for this length of time at the top of the tree. However, for certain most artists with the sort of universal critical acclaim for so long a span as Sonic Youth had in the 1980s and 1990s are in the Hall of Fame.

12) If Sonic Youth were the best band at a concert, would it be likely that the concert would rock?: Sonic Youth's fame probably depends less on their live shows than most similar bands, and they never have had official live albums, so this does not entirely stand in their favour. The number of unofficial live bootlegs, however, does suggest Sonic Youth were a major concert force despite a lack of reports from people who have seen them live.

13) What impact did Sonic Youth have on rock history? Were they responsible for any stylistic changes? Did they introduce any new equipment? Did Sonic Youth change history in any way?: Certainly. Sonic Youth completely redefined what rock guitar could do completely. Once I read that a Sonic Youth song is easy to play once you know the tuning, but otherwise impossible. Their use of feedback was also a major innovation that paved the way for shoegazer and other genres in the late 1980s.

14) Did Sonic Youth uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?: The fact that they have been together with very few lineup changes, drug problems or known inter-band quarrels for so long suggests that Sonic Youth can certainly be held as having acceptable conduct.

Verdict: With definite positives on six criteria, potential positives on several others and negatives on only three, Sonic Youth are undoubtedly a worthwhile candidate if not so good as my previous study in Slayer. If you take the "Small Hall" line of Throwing Things (which I do at least to be consistent), Sonic Youth still appear to pass at least as many criteria as John Cougar Mellencamp who was accepted by Throwing Things. Thus I will give a verdict of induct.


Anonymous said...

What a thorough, reasoned assessment. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

What a thorough, reasoned assessment. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sonic Youth should not be in the rock and roll hall of fame. Garbage like that doesn't deserve to honor them.

These types of awards are for money-making. The rock and roll world is about drugs, sex, and money, never about avant-guard. The only way they could be inducted is if they have not been innovative enough.

Sonic Youth's music is closest to that of Glenn Branca, a NYC composer still active today. His music is even more original, and I find it equally beautiful. Don't hold your breath on Branca getting any market award. Sonic Youth has struggled to shine light on neglected avant guard Jazz and classical composers for decades, as John Lennon did once, long ago.