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still re-inveting the wheel Sonic Youth and the Pop Group live in Manchester…

Sonic Youth and the Pop Group live review – by John Robb

Sonic Youth
The Pop Group
Manchester Academy One
review by John Robb

It’s a total trip.

Somewhere in the middle of this pulverising, pulsating gig that swings from the ecstatic to the exhausted from the noise freak out to bubblegum splendour we are lost in a maze of beautiful sound. Sonic Youth are controlling the electricity that leaks from their guitars, coaxing all kids of sounds and moods from the wood and wire and it’s a genius moment when you shut your eyes and trip out, a genuinely psychedelic suspension of time that captures a mood.

Sonic Youth have always been great at that kind of thing- breaking a song down into one of those long and strange middle sections and you just wait for the rumbling build up to the explosive climax.

They are also great at straight down the line bubblegum rock n roll, sorta like the Ramones if da Brudders were not so beautifully rigid, a bubblegum rock n roll if it was made on another planet where guitars were tuned in a opposite kind of way. In many ways this could be their true vocation- not so much the avante garde pioneers but a genuinely great party band for people who like weird and wonky parties.

In Sonic Youth world little changes. Thurston Moore is a 52 year old man trapped in lanky 20 year old’s body and Kim Gordon is also ageless. They are the sex couple of the noisenik fringe and they still ooze a highbrow NYC cool as the preside over their sprawling noise empire. Thurston still sings with that cool hipster sneer and Kim’s voice is pure sex. The stage set is simple, just bright piercing lights and the band dressed down apart from the effortless glam of Kim Gordon who looks perfect swinging her bass with a toxic cool.

A serious crowd greets the band and the mosh pit only explodes for the encores but there is a genuine feeling of awe in the room and a reverence for a band who have managed to remain at the cutting edge for decades, a tough trick on the fast burn out of rock n roll.

No-one plays a gig in that strange week between xmas and the new year but breaking the rules Sonic Youth rolled into Manchester on the way to a big New Year’s eve London show. It’s a perfect way to end the year still peering into the future.

Me and Sonic Youth go back a long way.

Way back to the mid eighties they soundtracked some of the madness of the time. All night parties and chemical imbalance were perfect for their detuned guitars and psychedelic hardcore freak on.The underground twitched to their epynomous first album,  Dutch squat rockers were the first to alert to this band in 1982 from New York who mistreated their guitars and were re-shaping rock. when ”ËœDeath Valley 69′ came out in 1984 they were discovered by the hipsters and have remained a fixture of cool since then.”ËœDeath Valley’, which ended their set tonight, is still a captivating classic. A dark and eerie piece of rock n roll that has everything that Sonic Youth do great. From that hooky little riff to the noise section to the ebb and flow dynamic and the off the wall lyrics about the Manson murders- its kooky and kool if you spell cool with a  K.

In the mid eighties they were music press staples and opened the door for the whole post hardcore freak show that appeared after them.There were the legendary shows in Manchester- like at the Boardwalk where astonished onlookers checked this band out that had 20 odd guitars piled up in a flight case- no-one had that many guitars in the UK-all the home grown bands were lucky to have one guitar between them!

Sonic Youth arrived to tour in a UK music scene that was getting freaked out to post post punk and there was some serious noise action going on. Their first tour round the already established UK noise circuit came courtesy of our address book and list of numbers and they swiftly became the yardstick band.They have changed little since then, like fellow travellers the Fall they have remained in the same place but honed their sound down to perfection.  Always the same but different is the saying coined by John Peel which works well for these fringe artists.

Tonight’s set is typical Sonic Youth, moments of pure genius and mind-blowing imagination followed by punk rock thrill and even occasional sections where they take the foot off the pedal.

”ËœPoison Arrow’ is throwaway, ”ËœTom Violence’ is raucous and thrilling, whilst ‘Catholic Block’ shows signs of the sometimes rust caused by flying in the day before for the gig with three attempts to get it going before taking off, ‘Stereo Sanctity’ flew but it’s the encore where they really cut loose with an intense dealing out of ”ËœThe Sprawl’, ”ËœCross The Breeze’, and then the searing, descending, riff genius of ”ËœWhite Cross’ and the evergreen spook of ”ËœDeath Valley ’69’ that brings the house down. Still joining the dots between the underground and the mainstream, from the experimental fringe to punk rock Sonic Youth are the band that make all the connections.

Support was from the legendary Pop Group who reformed earlier this year on a tide of post punk revival love. It’s odd and somehow fitting how these bands like the Pop Group- whose abrasive genius left them on the fringes decades ago and had to be content with being a big influence on the likes of Birthday Party, UK mid eighties noise and are the key band from the whole Bristol scene can re-emerge in the 21st century and make complete sense.

The Pop Group no longer sound like the freaked out noise guerrillas of yore whose debut album was one of the key records in my youth and actually now sound like, well, a pop group. Their sinuous, tough funk- that is so much part of the DNA of modern music has aged perfectly. The band fronted by the charismatic, twitching Mark Stewart keep it tight and disciplined, they still have the shrapnel punk funk chops and in Bruce Smith a brilliant drummer who holds the whole disparate chopping together.

They are so anti rock show that they throw away their anthem, ”ËœWe Are All Prostitutes’ as the set opener before everyone is ready but still find time to deal out”ËœThief of fire’, ”ËœForces Of Oppression’ and ”ËœWe Are Time’ sounding ridiculously better than they ever did.

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. I love sonic youth, possibly my fav band ever. Not sure Kims voice sounds like sex though. More like a homeless man gargaling a toaster. thats why I love em though. They somehow still manage to sound better than everyone else.

  2. Nice work John. I realise it’s something of a cliche, but when I first saw SY live, it was life-changing. I’d seen some great live turns up until November 1985, but the afternoon show at Ladbroke Grove (also my first trip to London) where The Membranes were supposed to support (!) was a genuine ear and eye-opener. I’ve seen SY many times since then and they never fail to at least impress, barring one terrible night of self-indulgence at Leeds T&C in 1992. It was great to hear Tom Violence last night, along with the selections from Sister, and though I only saw five or six songs of The Pop Group’s set, they were a blast too. Let’s hope both outfits come back soon. Best regards to you and all at LTW, and have a great 2011. A.M.

    • still pissed off we missed that gig…the useless van driver was too pissed/hungover to get us there…we were so primed to pay a great gig that day!

  3. wonderful review mr, totally forgot it was happening, gutted i missed it. the idea of Sonic Youth with The Pop Group supporting is one of those legends u think u must’ve dreamt… thanks to your words i can at least imagine how awesome it was :D x

  4. hey john robb, you shoulda came back and said hi! – viv albertine drove in from London and hung out – good times, glad you were there..tm

  5. Decent enough gig. Shame they only found the volume control half way through the first encore. Nice to hear Death Valley 69 at the end of the set.

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