Sonic Youth Album Covers

Sonic Youth & the Lost Art of Album Covers

I’ve been enjoying Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl in a Band. I really appreciate the transparency with which she shares her own inner-conflict around being a woman, particularly within a punk subculture; living among men and balancing her own self-respect in light of others’ perceptions. Obviously, behind-the-scenes tales from her time leading up to the formation of Sonic Youth, and the three decades the band spent together is extremely interesting as well.

One thing really striking is the way Kim talks about their album art. She describes the covers for each album with the same kind of significance as the music itself.

The symbiotic relationship of music to visual art is something I believe has been lost in the time since. In the late 90s, all visual accompaniment became almost totally commercial in popular music. Videos, album art (and eventually website design) became strictly marketing tools. In the years since, the nature by which we consume music has relegated the visual art to nearly inconsequential thumbnails at best. Essentially, the covers have even lost much of the marketing value they once had.

However, I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.

Right now is the time for musicians to once again reclaim the artistic value of their album art! Nowadays, we make our music choices based on automated api’s and social referrals. It doesn’t mean the art has lost all value, but rather it now has shifted from a “pick me up and purchase me” marketing tool, to an opportunity for musicians to once again have the freedom collaborate with amazing visual artists and say something in their work.

Here are a few of Kim’s thoughts on Sonic Youth album art, from her book Girl in a Band:

Bad Moon Rising, 1985

“Touring for the album, we played at the Contemporary Arts in London. Thurston had a cold, I remember, and was feverish. He did the show wearing his thick winter coat. Paul Smith had decorated the stage with carved jack-o-lanterns with lit candles inside, creating a spooky, ghostly atmosphere, and as the band played harder, the stage got hotter and Thurston began peeling off his clothes. He even kicked one of the pumpkins off the stage. It was a classic punk rock move, one that affected the Brits so much that when one of the maintenance guys found a syringe backstage, he assumed it belonged to one of us. It didn’t.”

Sonic Youth Bad Moon Rising.

EVOL, 1986

“The name EVOL came from an art video that my friend Tony Oursler made, while the cover was a film still created by filmmaker Richard Kern. Richard’s faux-horror films were dark, funny, and voyeuristic, typically shot from a height, with tongue-in-cheek gore.

Sonic Youth - EVOL

Sister, 1987

Sister‘s cover was a loose collage of images that each band member individually chose. In the downtown art world, appropriation was commonplace, which is why we felt this was an acceptable approach. By collecting those images, we believed we were creating something new out of them.”

Sonic Youth - Sister

Sister Uncensored

Sister Uncensored

“Among them was a Richard Avedon photo of a prepubescent girl and an image of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. When Avedon threatened to sue us, followed by Disney’s legal department, we responded by subsequently blacking out the offending images, a reminder forever that we’d been censored by people who had more money to spend on lawyers than we did.”

Goo, 1990
“At that point, in the mid-eighties, Ray [Pettibon] had no relationship to the art world, and had never had a gallery show. At the time he was known exclusively for his SST covers. Later that same year, I wrote an article for Artforum about Raymond’s work, as well as Mike Kelly’s and Tony Oursler’s—how the three of them eschewed the conceptual mantle of seventies formalism and mixed high and low culture.”

Sonic Youth Goo

“Gary Gersh, our A&R guy at Geffen, was disappointed when we chose a black-and-white Raymond Pettibon drawing for the cover of Goo. I’m sure he was hoping for a glamourous picture of the band, something very of the moment, with me front and center. We loved Ray’s zines and drawings… The black-and-white cover was based on the couple in Terrence Malick’s film Badlands.”

Dirty, 1992

“In 1990 my old friend Mike Kelley had a series called Arenas, where he would set down crocheted blankets on the floor, populated by used, thrift-store stuffed animals or dolls. Mike called them ‘Gifts of Guilt,’ referring to the fact that the many hours it takes to crochet something makes the person receiving it feel the heaviest possible obligation to cherish it, and they’re stricken with guilt if they get rid of it.”

Sonic Youth - Dirty

“For the cover of Dirty, we used one of Mike’s images, which he’d titled Ahh… Youth! Inside the leaflet was the rest of the photo series taken from that time. They were a perfect symbol of American culture, where newness replaces the old, messy, fragrant, real, humanized form of anything, lest we ever be reminded of dying.”

Washing Machine, 1995

“Feeling we had too much baggage now as a band, we wanted to change the name Sonic Youth to Washing Machine. People always like to discover something new, and we’d been around awhile, plus Washing Machine seemed like a good ‘indie rock’ name. Our record company naturally thought we were insane, so instead we used it for the title of the new album.

Sonic Youth - Washing Machine

“We had T-shirts printed before the record was done. Two adorable thirteen-year-old-boys wearing them came to one of our shows with their dad, and I took a picture of them, believing it would make a great album cover. Unfortunately, when the time came, we didn’t know their names, or where to reach them, so for legal reasons we had to cut off their heads!”

[Fun editorial note: Visible on the shirt on the left are signatures by Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw of the tour’s opening band, Come.]

—All quotes taken from Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band.

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