Shortly before Sonic Youth’s Dirty was released 23 years ago this week, their record label printed up T-shirts declaring it the “Sonic Summer” of 1992. That’s how confident Geffen was that the so-called “godfathers of grunge” were about to follow in the footsteps of Nirvana’s game-changing Nevermind. After all, Nirvana had just opened for Sonic Youth, as seen in Dave Markey’s awesome tour documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke. And Sonic Youth was overdue for a breakthrough, having cemented their indie-darling status with masterpieces like Daydream Nation and blipped on the pop-cultural radar with “Kool Thing.” After a solid decade of reinventing rock with ethereal, eccentrically tuned guitars and howling drumstick-on-strings mayhem, who deserved it more: Stone Temple Pilots?
Needless to say, Dirty never took off in that way, and it’s not the coolest Sonic Youth album to like: its relatively big-budget production at the hands of Nevermind‘s Butch Vig and Andy Wallace makes it come off a little clean, despite its name. But if you came of age at that time when punk was breaking, so to speak, and your musical canon expanded based on whatever Kurt Cobain recommended in the pages of Metal Hammer that week, then you’ll remember the exact moment you bought Dirty on cassette, put the ol’ Walkman headphones on, and broke into goosebumps as “Theresa’s Sound-World” built to a hair-raising squall of sound.
Here are 23 fun facts about the album, culled from books about Sonic Youth, which are cited at the end.
1. At the time it was recorded, Kim and Thurston were humble Soho loft dwellers.
They lived at 292 Lafayette Street, just below Houston (before that, they were at 84 Eldridge Street). In a 1992 interview, Thurston stressed that major label life hadn’t changed the band much. “We are in the same apartment that we’ve been since 1981,” he said. “We don’t hang out with Neil Young [whom they had toured with the year before].” They finally sold the place in 2012.
2. “Theresa’s Sound-World” was recorded at a very dark time.
Literally. The band did “innumerable” takes and finally nailed it after producer Butch Vig turned all the studio lights off. While recording, the band grew bored of Vig’s multiple retakes, and ended up eschewing them on their next album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, which was more influenced by the lo-fi aesthetic of their Dirty tour openers, Pavement and Sebadoh. Lee put it this way: “Against our better judgment we said, ‘We’ll go along with this and see what happens. We did it our way for ten years. Let’s try it their way.’ We went along with it to see where it led us, and it didn’t ultimately lead us anywhere that was interesting.”
3. The lyrics of “Nic Fit” are silly for a reason.
The cover of The Untouchables’ “Nic Fit” was recorded during the band’s 8-track rehearsal sessions in Hoboken, in late 1991, rather than at The Magic Shop studios, along with the rest of the album, in early 1992. Thurston’s vocals (“Sonic tooth, sonic truth”) were on-the-spot filler meant to be replaced with the original lyrics at some point, but everyone liked the rawness of the take, so they went with it. Thurston “maintains to this day, that one of his great disappointments in life is having released this song without the proper lyrics,” his colleague Byron Coley wrote.
Here’s the Untouchables version.
4. With “Swimsuit Issue,” the band was trolling its own label.
Kim spoke about the song during her appearance at Strand: “Shortly after we signed there was a scandal at Geffen where some executive was accused of sexually harassing his secretary so I decided to write a song about it. It kind of used the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated as like a metaphor: that could be on his wall or something.”
5. Four of the songs are about people who died tragically.
Kim wrote “JC” and Thurston wrote “100%” about Joe Cole, their friend who, in December of 1991, was shot in the head by robbers while he and Henry Rollins were outside of their Venice Beach, California home. “Chapel Hill” refers to the unsolved murder, in February of 1991, of radical North Carolina bookseller Bob Sheldon. “Sugar Kane” was titled after Marilyn Monroe’s character in “Some Like It Hot.”
6. “Drunken Butterfly” was originally titled “Barracuda.”
Because it was in the vein of Heart; lyrics like “tell it like it is” and “even it up” are Heart titles and “Drunken Butterfly” is a nod to “Dog & Butterfly.”
7. After recording, Lee Ranaldo’s self-described “George Harrison syndrome” came to a head.
It happened when the band had to trim the album down from 19 songs and Thurston, Kim and Steve wanted to drop a Ranaldo song, “Genetic,” that, per Kim, “had a different vibe from all the other songs we worked on together” (Lee was going through a separation and Thurston objected to “the band being set up for him to voice those issues in”). The resulting tension made for “the most tempestuous era we had in our career,” per Thurston. The song eventually became a B-side for “100%”.
8. There’s a secret to telling who’s playing which guitar part.
The album is mixed with Lee’s guitar in the left channel and Thurston’s on the right. But, just to complicate things, this was also the first album where Kim traded her bass for a six-string on certain numbers.
9. The album cover isn’t as cute as it seems.
The photo of a crocheted animal is from a series of photos by Kim Gordon’s longtime friend Mike Kelley. According to Thurston, the band also wanted to use his photo of performance artist Bob Flanagan (of Sick) and a friend naked and defiling the stuffed animals. But the photo proved “so weird and rude to record-company squares” that it was relegated to the CD’s tray card and, after the initial pressing, discontinued entirely.
10. The band portraits on the back are by Richard Kern.
You know the guy.
11. They don’t call it “noise rock” for nothing.
The Dirty tour kicked off with a July 4 concert in Central Park, with Sun Ra opening. The show caused such a commotion that Fifth Avenue residents made noise complaints.
12. The Dirty tour was kind of a celebrity scene.
Among the bold-facers who caught shows were Oliver Stone, Michael Hutchence of INXS, a football player who was “clearly taken” with Kim without realizing that Thurston was her husband, and Keanu Reeves, who “looked starstruck around the band” (Kim, in turn, had a “huge crush on him,” she wrote in Girl in a Band).
13. Things got weird when Gene Simmons showed up backstage.
The Kiss bassist came to a backstage meet-and-greet in Los Angeles and surprised Lee by knowing who Babes in Toyland were. Lee wrote in his tour diary that Simmons ended up talking to Mike Watt: “Gene sort of listened with one ear, though, and kept wanting to know where all the groupies were, and how he could have been standing there for twenty minutes and not gotten laid yet… I tried to tell him about the nineteen-nineties, but I don’t think he grasped the concept.”
14. Sonic Youth’s manager brushed off a chance to open for U2.
When a U2 rep called their manager asking if they might want to open for the band, he threw out an absurd figure of $25,000 a night and said, “If you want to buy credibility, it’s gonna cost ya.”
15. The band wasn’t a big fan of Guns N’ Roses, either.
Nirvana wasn’t the only band that had beef with Axl et al. In San Francisco, Thurston introduced a song by thanking everyone for “not going to see Guns N’ Roses tonight,” and bemoaned “spoiled rock star narcissism.” Kim dedicated “Swimsuit Issue” to Axl. And the long-haired guy in the baseball cap in the “Dirty Boots” video was apparently based on Axl.
16. Germans didn’t really get the whole “Youth Against Fascism” thing.
Thurston named it that because he read the words in a German newspaper and liked the sound of them, and lyrics like “I believe Anita Hill” were meant to be “very playful and it was not meant to be anything but this kind of brash use of these sentences,” he said in an interview. “But man, when that record came out and we toured across Europe, that was all everybody wanted to talk about.” He eventually released a statement about “Youth Against Fascism” indicating that the lyrics “were penned by me and I take full responsibility for their tackiness and genius.”
17. Ian MacKaye added “extra guitar” to “Youth Against Fascism” while waiting for his dinner.
Punk legend Ian MacKaye never expected to contribute a guitar part to the song; he called Thurston after ordering food at Spring Street Natural and was convinced to come to the studio where they were recording, around the corner at 49 Crosby Street; there the band convinced him to lay down some guitar noise while he waited for his order. He said he was really nervous: “first off I don’t know what to play, I don’t know how to play because it was such a weird tuning, and my dinner is going to be ready in two minutes!”
18. Releasing the song as the album’s second single was a pretty bad idea.
The song wasn’t nearly as radio-friendly as the third single, “Sugar Kane,” but the label figured its references to Anita Hill etc. would get some attention during an election season. Geffen exec Mark Kates called it “one of the biggest professional mistakes of my life.”
19. Forget Kids, the “Sugar Kane” video was Chloe Sevigny’s first acting gig.
She was an intern at Sassy when Kim surprised her by calling to ask if she wanted to play (by Chloe’s recollection) “this grunge girl who’s discovered on the street and swept up in this high-fashion grunge world and becomes a model.” For the video’s ending, in which she rejects grunge exploitation, she had to be nude in front of members of two of her favorite bands, Sonic Youth and Pavement.
20. It’s also when Sonic Youth made friends with Marc Jacobs.
Kim Gordon remembers the “Sugar Kane” shoot a bit differently, writing that it was about a “girl disrobing at a catwalk fashion show” and the grunge element was just an incidental result of the fact that Marc Jacobs, an acquaintance of director Mark Egan, let them use his showroom as well as clothes from his latest collection. “It was pure coincidence that it was Marc’s ‘grunge’ collection,” she wrote in Girl in a Band. “I don’t think we even realized it at the time.”
21. Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze met on the set of the video for “100%.”
The Tamra Davis-directed video was the skateboard videographer’s first semi-professional shoot. “Kim was the one who fixed us up,” said Coppola. But “the fact that Keanu Reeves was also there – he lent Gordon a bass guitar for the shoot – nearly crushed the potential romance. Reeves also seemed attracted to Coppola, and the shy, easily intimidated Jonze retreated.” The video was also skater Jason Lee’s acting debut.
22. The band’s Letterman appearance was kind of amazing.
Their network tv debut was a chaotic rendition of “100%”, backed by Paul Schaffer and company. It ended with Letterman asking, “Are you alright, Paul?”
23. In Rolling Stone, Robert Palmer wrote that “Dirty is a great Sonic Youth disc, easily ranking with Daydream Nation and Sister (1987) among the band’s most unified and unforgettable recorded works.”
Which is true to this day.
1 from Sonic Life: The Story of Sonic Youth by Guido Chiesa and Catherine and Nicolas Ceresole
2, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 19, 21 from Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth by David Browne
8, 17, 22 from Psychic Confusion: The Sonic Youth Story by Steve Chick
20 from Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
9, 13, 16 from Sonic Youth Etc.: Sensational Fix, edited by Roland Groenenboom
3 from the liner notes to the deluxe edition of Dirty