Under the Influence: Thurston Moore

From the Blitzkrieg Bop of 70s New York to hardcore fury in the Hollywood hills, Sonic Youth's founder humbly presents “the five fucking greatest records in the world!”

Feature by Dave Kerr | 29 Apr 2015
  • Thurston Moore

It’s like Lou Reed said on Metal Machine Music, at the end of his liner notes he goes: “My week beats your year.” It’s such an antagonistic thing to say. My five records beat your thousand!

RAMONES – RAMONES (1976)

Punk rock is what radicalised me when I moved to New York at the age of 19. Certainly the first album that I can remember being a bit of a life-changer would be this one, which I bought when it came out in ’76. It was really special for me because it was right when my father was in the hospital – right before he died of a brain tumor. I remember making these trips with my mother to this hospital which was about 45 minutes away from where I lived, in Newhaven, Connecticut. At one point we were coming back and stopped at a record store along the way. I saw that record, which had just been released, and was very curious about it. So my mother bought it for me and we went home, where we had lots of family – aunts and uncles – visiting because of this crisis that was going on. It wasn’t the best of atmospheres, but I remember putting this record on and everybody kinda just got up and started dancing to it. It brought this sort of joy into the room and everybody started smiling and laughing. I’ll never forget that – it was a very strange thing. This record has a beautiful memory attached to it just because of that.

Even just the economic aesthetic of that record – it was recorded for very little money. The idea that the guitar was in one channel and the bass in another – it’s very spartan, focused and had no frills to it.  It had a certain strange avant-garde quality to it as well. The fact they all looked the way they looked, dressed the same, had the same last name. The minimalism in the lyrics – the fact that there was minimalism going on there at a time where minimalism had this allure of being very cool fascinated me on some level. This was probably the most important record for me of all time; I always say that first Ramones album could be all ten albums in one.

I certainly went to see them play a lot at CBGB. Then when I got my own thing going, they just kept on continuing and I became less interested in the Ramones but they were always holding a very true place in my heart. If somebody told me back then that by the time I’m in my 40s and now 50s, that each of the four original Ramones would have passed away, I would’ve thought ‘You’re crazy, these guys are immortal.’ But it’s come true, each of them is gone. How weird is that? What happened later on thought was that when Sonic Youth got to playing festivals – sometimes we would be on the same bill as the Ramones and you can see that on Dave Markey’s 1991: The Year Punk Broke movie. There’s a part where we’re playing with the Ramones. I always remember that moment really well, but we didn’t pal around with them or anything.

I saw Joey in New York a few times right before he died and at one point he was really kind of snotty toward me and then the second time he was really friendly. I remember being at some Butthole Surfers gig at this place called the Cat Club, standing in this tiny dressing room just hanging out with Gibby Haynes when Joey Ramone came back to say hi to the Butthole Surfers. As he was trying to get past me I made a joke and he didn’t quite understand what was going on. So Gibby was like ‘Don’t you know who this is? This is Thurston from Sonic Youth!’ And Joey just said something catty like ‘I don’t care!’ I was like ‘oh my god, Joey Ramone – my hero – just dissed me!’ I kinda swallowed it; by that point we were in our own world. Then years later I ran into him at some event in New York. We were hanging out in the street and he came up to me and was so friendly. I don’t imagine he even remembered that time with the Butthole Surfers. He was super friendly and then the Ramones made this video that was being shown on MTV where they had the names of all these bands that were streaming underneath them as they were playing and they put Sonic Youth on there. I was just completely honoured. 

I interviewed Johnny once – y’know, the republican right wing Johnny Ramone – and he had his ideas of what was right and wrong, which were kind of laughable. A lot of people loved him as a person – I could see him being very loveable – but a lot of people also had their problems with him because he aligned himself with this right wing thinking. The whole ‘All for one, one for all… defend America, the greatest country in the world, run by the greatest president of all time’ thing, and all this kind of bullshit. I can’t stand that stuff. But, y’know, incredible figure in rock’n’roll. You don’t have to love a person’s politics to love their art I guess. But it makes it difficult. I met Tommy when there was a tribute to the Ramones in New York, which we played at. It was a tribute to Johnny specifically.

To me, they exemplified a break from the past; I’ve always loved that story of The Ramones playing at The Roundhouse, with all the punk rockers like Joe Strummer, Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten climbing through the window to hang out and watch them – thinking they were going to see this really strung out junkie-rock band puking onstage or something. What they saw instead was this precision powerhouse – well rehearsed and super focused attack. Joe Strummer said that changed everything; that idea of discipline, of coming out and being so good because you rehearse so much and you’re so together. There’s no mess. That meant a lot. If one important thing came out of the Ramones being the forefathers of punk rock, it was that exchange.

JOHN COLTRANE – A LOVE SUPREME [1965]

I didn’t know jazz music growing up – my father was a classical music enthusiast. He played classical music and that’s the music we had around the house – it was that or the rock’n’roll that me and my brother would bring in. So jazz was something I was not familiar with – it was really obscure to me – and I knew that people like James Chance and the Contortions were referencing jazz. I knew that Tom Verlaine would talk about Albert Ayler’s records. That sounded curious to me; so I would see these records in the store and they’d look like they were from another planet, as far as what I was dealing with. The two people who turned me on to it were Byron Coley – a music journalist who I became friends with in the 80s, who was a big jazz listener and collector – and Kim, who listened to jazz growing up.

Byron made me all these cassettes of classic jazz music – hundreds of hours – and then just by listening to these records at Kim’s parents’ house in Los Angeles in the 80s, the one record I was really drawn to was A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. That to me was what spirit music really was – the idea of wanting to make manifest the idea of what spirituality was in music or art. That was achieved in this recording. That was really affecting for me and it led me into this place where I did intensive research into jazz history… got so immersed in it I became like a complete freak about it and started collecting the recordings n a very big way and it sort of led to me into the avant-garde, obviously. It was really exciting and radical for me, to think about this music that has the same very personal value as punk rock did.

TAPPER ZUKIE – MAN AH WARRIOR [1978]

Three, I would say, is this record by reggae artist Tapper Zukie – it was on this label called Mer that was run by Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye for a little bit. I bought it only because it was on Patti’s label. I’d never known too much reggae music at that point. I listened to Bob Marley and whatever but was never a superfan. But this record made me a superfanatic about reggae; everything about it was awesome. The front cover is this Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of a black, bald head and it’s beautiful and Penny Reel – who used to write for NME and stuff in the 70s, back when the NME was actually a readable newspaper – wrote the liner notes.

I loved this record because it was so stark – it’s basically just a guitar making a kind of percussive clicking sound. Very simple notation. And this rasta vibration voice just intoning on top of it. Very stark and minimal; really a strange sounding record. I’d play it all the time over and over and it led me into investigating Jamaican reggae culture and how it went into ideas of otherworldliness, which I really liked. Man Ah Warrior was really important to me.

SUN RA ARKESTRA – STRANGE STRINGS [1967]

In a way this was a holy grail for people who collected Sun Ra records, of which I was one. Getting in to avant-garde jazz certainly led me into Sun Ra. Then when I started finding out about the fact that he’d recorded so many records on his own labels – like El Saturn and Thoth, I started picking them up while we were touring around the United States. Like, how could somebody make 200 records? I’d be in all these little record stores unearthing these Sun Ra records. In those days they were pennies per pound. Now they’re impossible to find and trade for high value on the interweb. I met a record collector in Atlanta, Georgia who had about 140 of ‘em. So I said ‘what can I do for you to get all these records from you?’ I didn’t have any money to buy them. He said ‘well, there’s things I’m looking for like some Sonic Youth collectibles and other things.’

So I gave him all these Sonic Youth test pressings that I had signed and then I had this one record that Steve Albini gave me of a Big Black record that was encased in metal. A very limited edition that Steve made for friends, and I had one. I really didn’t want to get rid of it because it was this big, heavy, great thing at the time. This collector says ‘if you throw that in I’ll give you all of these Sun Ra records.' I thought it was a fair trade. They’re both Chicago musicians… kinda makes sense. I loved this particular record though, Strange Strings was such a difficult Saturn record of Sun Ra’s to find. It’s treated really heavily with all this reverb and it’s definitely one of the more out there records that the Sun Ra Arkestra – the Astro-Infinity Arkestra – had issued. 

It had all these weird instruments on it. One of them was called the moon guitar, so suddenly I’m like ‘ I wanna play a moon guitar!’ There was only three songs on it. One of them was called Strings Strange and another one was called Strange Strings. I’m like who ware these guys? They’re so amazingly weird. It finally got reissued not too long ago on Atavistic which is this good reissue label from Chicago. It comes with this extra track called Door Squeak. There was no punk or avant-garde at that time, nothing else that had anything as cool as a tune called Door Squeak! Can you believe that? This 60s jazz troupe had a track called Door Squeak.

BLACK FLAG – DAMAGED [1981]

The record is Damaged, the band is Black Flag. For me, one of the greatest groups of all time. I was completely in love with ‘em when I first started getting into underground hardcore records in the 80s.Sonic Youth had already been around for a little bit, and I kind of felt like – coming out of punk rock and getting into no wave and post-punk – certainly we were post-punk. Then all of a sudden these bands were showing up that were younger than us and they were only referencing day one punk rock – stripping it down and making it more feral and primal. I was curious about It, so I remember buying the Circle Jerks first record, and the first Dischord 7 inches by Minor Threat and S.O.A., and then hearing about the singer from S.O.A. joining this group Black Flag, which I was aware of but I thought it might’ve just been some boneheaded thug punk stuff that I wasn’t interested in. But I was drawn towards it for different reasons – certainly the Raymond Pettibon drawing on the front of the Jealous Again 12 inch. I remember buying that and it sounded so nasty – the guitar sound was crude and wild and didn’t have this refined aesthetic that I was getting into with, say, Scritti Politti!

So it was this throwback, but it was a new kind of throwback. I kept going back to it and finding myself getting more and more into what the vocabulary of hardcore was until I became a convert. Black Flag’s Damaged was an essential text to it. It wasn’t the generic hardcore formula – it alluded to it but it was also blowing it out and going in different places. A very important record and a very important band because of how industrious they were in ignoring the typical industry standard of how you’re supposed to put a record out or tour. They created a new standard of activity. When Henry Rollins joined the band – listening to him sing on Damaged was curious, because it sounded really brutal; in a live context it was like blood spilling off the stage. Every time you’d see them, every night they’d come out, rip their skin open and flail themselves onstage. They would leave themselves and the audience wasted. 

Thurston Moore Band play Live At Leeds on 2 May, Live At Glasgow on 3 May and Liverpool Sound City on 23 May http://thurstonmoore.com