In the last couple of weeks I have been playing some old cassette albums. Most of them only last for a couple of minutes, or half a song, before being put away for another twenty years of sonic deterioration. Will I feel the need to listen to L7 again in the next decade? Probably not. Will I ever want to listen to Back to the Planet again? Almost certainly not. However, when I pressed play on ‘100%’, the opening track from Sonic Youth’s album ‘diRty’, I was hit by exactly the same feeling as I was when I listened to it the first time in 1992. It was new. It was fresh. It defied expectation. And it feels like it still does. The album hasn’t been out of the tape player since.
It opens, you see, with a guitar string being struck really hard and then something (a screwdriver? a fist? the wall?) raises its pitch several octaves. After this there’s a low squalling sound, like something revving up, then the drumsticks click four times and the song begins. And it how it begins. Over a repetitive chord, screeches and harmonics that sound they were made by sheets of metal being grated together twist out of the speakers. And it is all bewildering, and enthralling, and captivating. And entirely in keeping with the subject matter of the song: grief and confusion. The form and structure of the song are not unplanned, or chaotic, but they utilise all the methods available to a bunch of musicians to create sound (perhaps you might call it ‘noise’, but that’s a value judgment, isn’t it?) to produce meaning. Using all the methods available, them…
Not long ago I was in a record shop – a real one – and they put on ‘100%’. it cleared the shop – people left grumbling about the noise: teenagers left… complaining… about the noise. The only other time I have seen the same effect is when a shop I use to know would put on ‘Kind of Blue’ in order to flush out people it didn’t want. We are a very long way from the world in which Dadaists caused riots with their readings, but it is marked how people get very hot under the collar when they don’t have their expectations matched.
So as long as people recognise what you produce as what they want, it will sell – insofar as music does anymore. “I want music that is like this” – or – “Music is this”. Or, you can produce what you recognise as music, or poetry or art. And you can hope that someone with clout… anyone with clout… feels the same. But that’s another story. You might (you really might) be on the same side as a cassette album that still has the capacity to surprise you 26 years after you bought it, when even the technology that plays it is obsolete.