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Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth reissues long out-of-print bootleg, Walls Have Ears, and shares the earliest recording of "Expressway to Yr Skul".

Culled from three 1985 gigs in the UK during a transitional and transcendent time in the band’s story, Sonic Youth’s ‘Walls Have Ears’ appeared as a 2LP set in 1986, not just a live album but an artful tapestry full of live experimentation with songs, between-song tape segues, darkness, humor and audio verité on par with elements of side B of ‘Master Dik’ to come later. With a bit of complexity to the situation of the release itself. Deleted as quickly as it appeared, it’s now issued for the first time officially under the band’s auspices.

The ’85 shows were the second time the band appeared on British soil, picking up on a newfound high profile in the press after their 1983 London debut supporting SPK and Danielle Dax.

That particular gig, while admittedly a technically-challenged, volumatically room-clearing one for the band, nonetheless wowed music scribes in attendance. This anarchic set cast the New Yorkers in a bit of an exotic light, Brits now getting juiced to the mythos of the emerging guitar-slinging American independent underground; an art/punk band from NYC sporting casual attitudes and tees sporting Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Prince made some good copy on top of their bludgeoning stage appearance.

For Brits, Sonic Youth repped an all new avenue apart from the usual 4AD/Rough Trade/Some Bizarre hold on the scene, and were embraced. After a mostly dormant 1984, the band then established a new evolution within themselves via ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and found a home stateside on Homestead. In Britain, SY found its keyhole to the all-encompassing (even on an indie standpoint) music biz via Paul Smith, who was wowed by a cassette passed to him by Lydia Lunch. A promoter and label liaison who had forged many connections locally working for the likes of EMI and Cabaret Voltaire’s Doublevision label, Smith ultimately founded his own imprint Blast First to take on ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and evangelized the band with P.T. Barnum-esque gusto, eventually acting as a strong portal for UK footing for others of the American underground (Big Black, Butthole Surfers, Dinosaur Jr.). Blast First continued to act as an overseas diplomatic envoy for Sonic Youth through their SST years as well as issuing their classic 1988 Daydream Nation outside the USA. But true to Barnum, Smith’s injection into the band’s creative sphere as a sort of de facto manager type was somewhat in guerilla mode, and the Smith-produced ‘bootleg’ of their ’85 UK gigs surfaced much to everyone’s surprise, just before EVOL, their SST debut, was to be released. It turned out to be a marker of the group’s dissatisfaction that ultimately led to the band and Smith parting ways after Daydream.


In this 2LP set brimming with primitive classics like “The Burning Spear”, “I Love Her All The Time”, “Death Valley 69” and “I’m Insane” (uncredited on sleeve), segues and live guitar changes ooze together threaded by Madonna tapes and vocal loops off the board (somewhat a necessity for distraction until the band had a full fledged stage crew to prepare guitars). Claude Bessy (French punk raconteur who moved to LA for a period to cofound Slash Magazine and notoriously appeared in the Penelope Spheeris ‘Decline of Western Civilization’ documentary) humorously MC’s their intro to a October 30th ULU London gig with a lob at the indie label zeitgeist: vocally detailing how Rough Trade had come down on distributing the “Flower” 12” for sporting a xeroxed, nude female on the cover. The message was that music was reality, not manufactured subcultures, and Sonic Youth was there to present Britain with a healthy dose of it. The first two sides of ‘Walls’ are massive, cavernous, with newly-drafted drummer Steve Shelley in tow taking on past tunes and unveiling “Expressway To Yr Skull” in glorious form. They tear it up especially on one trash-fi excerpt of “Blood On Brighton Beach” (actually “Making the Nature Scene”) from a legendary outdoor gig November 8th where Moore, Gordon and Ranaldo’s guitars treble-blast dissonant shockwaves over the black-stoned beach of Quadrophenia fame.


The record’s second slab spotlights an April 1985 pre-Shelley gig supporting Nick Cave at London’s Hammersmith Palais and was one of the final appearances live of Bob Bert, again featuring some molten takes on “Brother James”, “Kill Yr Idols”, “Flower” (Iisted as “The Word (E.V.O.L.)”), “Ghost Bitch” and others. The emergence of the Jesus and Mary Chain in the world gave Brit scribes a lazy and easy parallel, addressed here with a wink with the inclusion of “Speed JAMC”, another offstage tape interlude playfully scrolling through one of that band’s songs at fast-forward. In six more years the continual evolution of Sonic Youth would find them darlings of The Reading Festival, on tour with Nirvana in tow and continuing to smash down walls, but this document remains an essential representation of some lean and mean years of the quartet’s throttling march out into the world.

Brian Turner

Photo credit to A.J. Barratt


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