The Rock & Roll Globe talks exclusively with Lee Ranaldo, Bob Bert and producer Martin Bisi about Sonic Youth’s early masterpiece
When I was in college, if I went back home to my mom’s house in suburban Cleveland on Halloween, I would put my stereo speakers in the bedroom window that faced the sidewalk to the front door and crank Bad Moon Rising. So when the little kiddies walked by, this spooky-ass music would scare the shit out of them.
In 1985, had you been following Sonic Youth’s oozing rise from the alleys of the Lower East Side scene, this album was the first proof that the original fearsome foursome could turn their clangy caterwaul into something like songs. But to some seven year-old looking for free candy, it must’ve sounded like my bedroom window was a portal to the third layer of Hades.
Hell, even to me it sounded like a creepy, murky remnant of industrial post-punk’s factory churn clanks, the beaten-down zombie of hardcore punk’s desperate pleas, with frayed-wing angels of capitalism and Catholicism’s waning carcasses hovering over it all, a harbinger of dark, scorched horizons.
Yet below the surface scare, the original punk scene the members all sprung from juts out just enough to enliven, albeit in sudden, shocking pings and bashes. The album’s “hit,” “Death Valley ’69,” survives as a trenchant example of how to take punk’s basic Stooges infusion down future pot-holed roads.
VIDEO: Sonic Youth “Death Valley ’69”
As Bad Moon Rising snakes along, Bob Bert’s tumbling drumming keeps everything always on edge. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo were in that sweet sophomore spot of nearly perfecting their serrated and pecking manner, sort of the New York Dolls as doomed grave diggers in and old EC comic (“Justice is Might,” “Brave Men Run,” “Halloween”). Co-moaners, Kim Gordon (bass) and Moore engage echoes as far back as the lower Manhattan beatnik scene throughout. As on “Ghost Bitch,” a perfect summation of the gauzily recalled ‘60s gore flicks / early ‘80s St. Marks squalor mash that was Sonic Youth’s sound and vision right then, before they became complete off-campus scene stars upon the arrival of EVOL (SST, 1986)
The lovely, lilting instrumental, “Intro,” that opens the record announces new intentions, but most of Bad Moon Rising still stammers around in a shadowy, litter- strewn landscape of suspicious urban alleys and ancient graveyards and farms (“Satan is Boring,” “Society is a Hole”) the likes of which still stand strong amongst the outer edges of NYC’s more famed enticements.
There’s a distancing about this album, compared to the band’s earlier sporadic slabs. Not only are they leaning into more structure, but like the front cover’s burning scarecrow – with a skyline in the distance – the band was moving on in its career, as it was apparent their somewhat insular LES milieu (Pussy Galore, White Zombie, the Cinema of Transgression movement) was attracting attention from locales and college stations nowhere near a subway stairwell. And their sound was going to continue to burn on its trek across the Hudson.
We checked in with Bob Bert, Lee Ranaldo and engineer Martin Bisi about the making of Sonic Youth’s boo-inducing breakthrough.
What was the basic recording session set-up like for Bad Moon Rising? And how long did it take to make it?
Bob Bert: The basic recording session was all of us in a large room at BC Studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn. I remember the mixing board being in the same room, which with my limited time in recording studios at the time didn’t know was unusual.
Lee Ranaldo: Martin Bisi’s studio setup was pretty peculiar at that time – unique, you might say – in that the mixing desk was in the same room with the musicians. Which meant it was not a normally controlled environment where Martin could listen on his speakers while we were making our racket. But it was cool and homey, and at that time, certainly the best, most professional studio Sonic Youth had ever been in. We all set up in the same room, drums, guitars, amps, and just blasted out the songs. My memory is that we did very little in the way of overdubs on this album – some, but we were pretty conscious of having to work quickly. I think we had 10 or 12 days to do all the recording and mixing.
Martin Bisi: At that time, I did most of the recording in my one large space, where the board and tape machine are, so no separation between me, the recording gear, and the players. It was 2-inch tape actually. The production was a process of discovery. There were a lot of overdubs, and the mixing was relatively involved, with each song being treated differently. One could say the mixing was experimental. I remember it taking around two weeks, with days being on the long side.
VIDEO: Sound and Chaos–The Story of BC Studio trailer
I moved here to NYC in 2004, and lived near a slow-moving Gowanus gentrification. Give me a sense of what that part of town was like in 1985.
MB: It was clearly dangerous. The area was a thoroughfare for gangs, so you always had to look ahead and behind for a few blocks. Other than that it was fairly desolate. There were artists in the same building as the studio, but relatively few, maybe five or six, whereas now there’re 80. I believe there was only one band in the area, The Shirts, who were CBGB’s regulars.
How many guitars were used in the making? And how many were broken?
LR: Hmm, I don’t think we had “spare” guitars to break at that time, ha ha. We were not at the point of having a million different tunings either. We probably had seven or eight guitars, and the Ovation bass that Kim played back then – recently seen at the great Rock’n’Roll exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s still ours, but has been on long-time loan to the Rock Hall, along with the zither I played on “Inhuman.”
Bob, what was the drum set-up at that point for that album?
BB: A few years earlier I purchased my first real drum set at Robbie’s
Music on RTE 46 in New Jersey, where I made my dad take me as a kid to stare at the drum kits in the window. It was a thick mahogany dark
wood Tama concert kit with open ended rack toms. It was perfect for
Sonic Youth. I used the same bass drum and 18-inch floor tom for Pussy
Sometime in the 90’s when I was broke, and had purchased the kit I still use from Dee Pop of the Bush Tetras, I put the Tama kit on eBay, even advertising as being used on Bad Moon Rising and Pussy Galore albums. I had one bidder. So my good friend, Ryan Skeleton Boy, went on and fake bid against the dude ‘til I got the amount I wanted. I still have and use the same hardware and Ludwig Chrome snare drum used on Bad Moon Rising.
What I also still have is the black rain coat that I wear on the back
cover. I’m still waiting for the phone call from the Rock & Roll Hall Of
Fame for that one.
AUDIO: Sonic Youth “Brave Men Run (In My Family)”
Martin, I believe that was the first time you worked with Sonic Youth. How was it working with the band? Had you seen them live much at that point?
It was my first time working with them, and it was a total introduction. I hadn’t seen them live, but supposedly they had seen me at shows. They knew I “looked like an Indian,” so they knew I’d understand where they were coming from.
Was there any level of conscious thought that the songwriting was a
kind of leap on this album?
LR: I think we did feel like we were starting to come into our own thing with these songs. “Death Valley ’69” was kind of a catchy song. At that time we were structuring our live shows so that we’d play our whole set without a break, using cassettes or guitar noise to segue from one song to the next. So the entire concert was uninterrupted by applause and felt a bit more conceptual. We decided to try and achieve the same thing on the album—which took some work back in those pre-digital days in terms of getting the beginnings and endings of songs to cross-fade, etc. When it later got put on CD, we were able to achieve the entire album without a break, which was cool…
BB: As far as I’m concerned, I was part of the writing process for the
previous album, Confusion Is Sex, and if you listen to the Live Venlo 83 CD, you can hear that my approach was completely different
than Jim Sclavunos and more in the direction of my playing on Bad Moon Rising. Jim didn’t last long with Sonic Youth, and played maybe three shows. I was at two of them. I re-joined, and we first recorded the Kill Yr Idols EP with Wharton Tiers.
How was working with Martin Bisi?
BB: Great! He was and still is a cool engineer and awesome cat. We were like a new thing for him. He was already working with Material, Africa Bambata, and of course had his hand in Herbie Hancock”s ground breaking “Rock It!”
LR: It was great. He was super laid back, always drinking his Mate tea from the traditional Argentine cup with the metal straw, usually a headband over his long hair, looking like a cross between a South American Indian and a hippy freak. I don’t think he’d done too much rock music at that point, certainly not the kind we were making! So we were turning each other on to some new things. He was super easy to work with, which is why we went back to him for EVOL and other things after Bad Moon Rising. He was calling his place “Bisi Studio” at that time, but we changed it to “B.C.” (Before Christ) for our credits. I think he was a bit perplexed by that, but also got a kick out of it.
Where were the cover shots taken?
LR: I think they were taken in Long Island City. We asked our friend, the photographer/artist Jim Welling, to shoot it. I think Thurston carved the pumpkin and I donated the flannel shirt. My buddy Tommy De Jesu, who works in theatre tech, came along to lend a helping hand. We thought the idea of this image – a burning pumpkin head scarecrow, set not in a rural setting but with a backdrop of New York City buildings – would make a cool cover.
BB: I remember we got a car from somewhere, and had previously carved the pumpkin and got the scarecrow together. We originally wanted to put old hippy photos of us on the back cover, but got boo-hooed by the labels.
As dark and creepy as early Sonic Youth could be, to me, Bad Moon Rising seemed to be fully focused on like a Halloween-level spookiness. Weird question, but was there anything going on around the band that inspired that kind of bend towards a pretty dark album, you know, aside from impending Reagan-era apocalypse visions?
LR: It was definitely the period when we were starting to look beyond New York City for inspiration. We’d been to Europe a bit and around the USA. We’d also had the chance to hang around Los Angeles quite a bit, where Kim’s parents lived. And around this time we got kind of fascinated by the whole California rock/pop mythos and the Manson family story – hence “Death Valley ’69.” I remember we were reading Helter Skelter and Ed Sander’s The Family, and that book Heroes and Villains about the Beach Boys, who also crossed paths with the Manson family. We weren’t interested in glorifying Manson the way some rock’n’roll jokers did at this time or later, putting Charlie on tee shirts, etc. To us, that moment in time, when the idealistic utopian Woodstock hippy culture of the ‘60s got slammed up against these darker forces in the early ‘70s – Manson, Altamont, etc. – just seemed very symbolic and fertile for ideas.
But it’s true that people we’d meet at this point in time thought that we were dark and somewhat evil, maybe junkies or whatever, based on our Death Valley song ,and the fact that we came from NYC and played this weird music. Which was never true at all. We always wanted to lead pretty normal, stable lifestyles by day so we could put all the weird avant-craziness into our music, rather than so many bands we saw around us at the time who lived radical lifestyles but played blues-rock!
BB: It’s funny, not really, but compared to today, I think we’ll take those
dark times! Society is more of a hole now than ever.
With the band getting busier, was there a sense that you were exiting the NYC “scene” at all?
LR: There wasn’t really much sense of that just yet, although I think our expectation was that it was coming. We still all had day jobs, no money, etc., but things were starting to change. Some people were hearing about us, gigs were coming in. In fact I think it was right around this time that we started giving up our day jobs, but we still had pretty much no “crew” besides a sound man, which we always thought was important, right from our earliest performances. There were no magazines covering the scene we were coming out of, except some small fanzines, and of course no internet to spread the word. So we did what had to be done – spent as much time as we could out on the road touring and blowing minds
BB: Things were starting to pick up, The last tour I did with Sonic Youth
was a tour of England opening for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds on their
very first tour. Rowland S. Howard was in the band, and they encored
with a few Birthday Party songs. A great experience. I was just reflecting with Mick Harvey about it when I was in Melbourne a few weeks ago.
Unless I missed it, there’s never been a special expanded edition of Bad Moon Rising, right? Is that because of the usual label/legal roadblocks?
BB: This is the only album that I play on that made it to a major label, DGC. (The 1986 Blast First CD version had four extra songs; and they were also on the later DGC reissue.) The bonus songs – “Satan Is Boring” was a sort of a structured improv piece that we’d been playing live; and “Flower” and “Halloween” were recorded earlier that year in L.A. at Radio Tokyo with Ethan James, who did some time in Blue Cheer. I know nothing about “Echo Canyon,” I believe it was a sample from Pink Floyd.
LR: The record was originally on Homestead, our first for the label that Gerard Cosloy was then helming. It was issued simultaneously on Blast First in England, who’s head honcho Paul Smith became our de facto manager in this period. He helped us out so much in this period. All plans we were making were done with his help and prodding. He treated us like important artists at a time when not many others saw it that way, and later helped us jump from Homestead to SST in the U.S. We left all this behind when we moved over to Geffen for Goo. Gerard was an early supporter who booked one of our earliest gigs in Boston when he was still in school up there, and he was enthusiastic about signing us to Homestead, but the label was small and didn’t have much clout at the time.
Bob’s recollection is true – our original back cover featured photos of all of us in our long-hair days, which we thought was cool, but Paul Smith was aghast and refused it, hence the very kind of tossed-off back cover we ended up with. It was a last minute fix after Paul nixed the hippy pix.
Any other interesting memory or story of making the record that
you could give us?
BB: It was a smooth experience. I remember a few of us, or maybe just me, getting too stoned before laying down the first attempt of “Death
Valley ‘69.” We thought it would be workable, but said fuck it and laid
it down again rock solid. Having Lydia Lunch – who I just finished a
tour with 35 years later – pop by and lay down her classic vocals in one
take was the icing on the Sonic Cake.
LR: The fact that Lydia was involved, and that we were becoming lifelong friends with her, was one of the coolest things at that time. When we all arrived in NYC, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and the bands she fronted once that one ended, were huge influences on us. We loved everything she did at that time. So having her work with us was super cool. I remember her coming to Mike Gira’s practice room way over in Alphabet City on the East Side to rehearse the song with us. It was amazing to us that we were working with her! Her input and lyrics certainly helped make “Death Valley ‘69” the song it became.
MB: I remember their personalities. I was impressed that Lee was pretty performative while doing guitar overdubs, how he stood and moved. I’d never seen anyone get into it like that in the studio. Bob was pretty quiet, but seemed very happy and even fascinated while watching the proceedings. I remember him smiling a lot from the couch. Kim was very quiet. She didn’t comment a lot during the sessions themselves.
Martin, what are your thoughts when pulling that record out and listening to it today?
MB: I feel the record was coming from a 1970’s recording style. Sonic Youth didn’t move into an ‘80’s production style ‘til the next record, EVOL. Bad Moon Rising has a more urban feeling than their later stuff, and other indie stuff I did at that time.
LR: You didn’t ask us about the album title. This was around the same time that Husker Du released New Day Rising. Their early records were amongst our favorites, and of course they were on SST, the label we revered. We wanted somehow to put our album in a sort of “relation” to theirs, plus – for a bunch of downtown avant noisicians, as later became apparent with our Madonna covers, etc. – we honestly loved the pop and rock music we grew up on! We weren’t going to throw away our Creedence records just because Talking Heads, Minor Threat or whoever came along. We were looking to tie those streams together – it was ALL music we loved. So we named our album after a Creedence song and with a nod to Husker Du. It was a funny idea to name our album after a very popular hit song, but we were always into confusing people about our motives.