A Musical Journey with Nicklas: Part 15 – Ciccone Youth – The Whitey Album – 1988
There had been a long running joke within Sonic Youth that they would one day record a song by song cover of the Beatles Eponymous White Album in its entirety, much the same way as Pussy Galore did with Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street for their debut in 1987. It has to be said that I find the idea of a Sonic Youth cover of the Beatles White Album somewhere around the mid-eighties very interesting and titillating, though I doubt it was ever under any serious consideration. What they did instead was to incorporate a snippet of Madonna’s single Into the Groove played through an amp as part of their live show in 1985 and played on top of it. This has been documented on for instance the official live bootleg Walls Have Ears. Eventually they actually recorded the song in studio, along with an early version of Tuff Titty Rap on the tail-end of the EVOL sessions in 1986. Both songs were then released on the flipside of Mike Watt’s demo version of Burning up, another Madonna song. With this, in context, most peculiar single the ball was in motion and rolling down the hill towards what would eventually become The Whitey Album Which would slowly become an inevitable result of the bands experimentation with “new” musical technology such as samplers and drum machines.
During the recording of their next album Sister they would continue to experiment with these types of ideas, which resulted in the flip side of the Master=Dik ep. Even though Master=Dik is not released as a Ciccone Youth record and even though a non-beatbox version of the title track made it onto the cd release of Sister as a bonus, it becomes more than obvious on the flipside of the record which kicks off with a cover of the Ramones Beat on the Brat before going into a weird playful and noisy collage of
interviews, sound clips and general whimsy that the ep has more to do with The Whitey album than with Sister or any other Sonic Youth album of the time. And that’s without taking into account that Thurston lays the groundwork for the Ciccone Youth mythos in the lyrics to the title track. Master=Dik is experimental indeed and you can clearly hear The Whitey Album as a concept beginning to take shape on this ep.
I have to admit that not only did it take me a while to find and acquire this album, it took me a bit longer than I’d like to admit to find out that it was even out there. In fact it wasn’t until the summer of 1992 when the band had their second minor hit, 100% from the album Dirty, playing on Mtv that I caught a glimpse of the video for Addicted to Love squeezedin between Dirty Boots and 100%. I was awestruck with the simplicity and the sheer brilliance of the video to their version of addicted to love which is really just Kim singing on top of a karaoke version of Robert Palmers original and for a while I actually thought it was either a new Sonic Youth single about to be released or a single I had somehow missed even though at the time I had most of the stuff they had officially put out plus a few bootlegs like the semi-official or rather post-facto approved double live lp. At the end of the video the label with name of the song and band came up, and I did raise an eyebrow … Ciccone Youth eeeh?
The next morning I was banging on the door to my local record dealer at 10 to 10. Well. No, I wasn’t actually banging on the door but I was pacing restlessly back and forth outside his shop, smoking one cigarette after the other trying to pass the time before he unlocked the door and opened for business.
When I asked him for the single he nodded in his usual pensive way that I had leared meant that there was something more and said there was an album too. Did I want to order it? DID I WANT TO ORDER IT? I can only assume he was having me on when he asked me if I wanted to order this mysterious Sonic Youth album that officially wasn’t even a Sonic Youth album. I replied with some sarcastic remark to the effect that “Do the pope wear a funny hat”. So he ordered the Into the Groove(y) single, the Whitey Promos ep and the album for me and I picked them up about a week later.
I don’t really know what I had expected. A regular cover album with Sonic Youth interpreting artists like Madonna that I personally couldn’t see the band having any kind of relations to? An ironic wink at Mtv and the prevailing commercialism of pop culture perhaps? I had certainly not expected all of what I got but what I got it was indeed a pleasant surprise.
It fades in with a clock-like rhythm that grows out of the vinyl-grooves with accompanied by smooth almost shadowy bursts of noise and Kim (I think) in the background singing I love you all the time.
This is followed by just over a minute of silence. I can only assume that this is a wink at John Cage’s 3:44 which consists of 3 minutes and 44 seconds of silence. It is however a rather educated assumption because of Goodbye 20th century, a two disc collaborative homage to modern composers released in 1999 as Syr 4. And of course the fact that both Thurston and Lee played on the recording of Glenn Branca’s Symphony 1 (Tonal Plexus) place the band knee-deep in the modernist tradition. This also makes for a rather interesting link that can go a long way to explain my fascination with this band. This is not the first time silence was used in this sort of context. The same thing was done for instance on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Music #2 Life with the Lions.
After the silence there is G-Force which I’ve always felt is like a dub-sequel to Beauty Lies in the Eye from the Sister album with Kim elaborating on the theme maybe in some sort of response to the earlier song. I say maybe because I can neither confirm nor dismiss the feeling with facts. I’m only going by the feeling I get from the song which incidentally is then continued as an instrumental in Platoon II. In a parodical interview with the Ciccone Youth published in New Musical Express around the time they claim that this track had been commissioned by Oliver Stone for his sequel to Platoon. Further evidence to the parody of this interview which I think is a crucial part of the Ciccone Youth project lies in the derisive tone in which they refer to “Sonic Youth” and in the description of the album which makes it stand out as beyond listenable with the band insisting that they went out of their way to make the most risible album the world has ever heard.
Towards the end a small glimmer of seriousness does shine through when the interviewer asks if they aren’t in reality fleecing the public with The Whitey Album. To which King Poopy the Royal Tuff Titty (Thurston Moore) replies:
“Yeah, but so what? Those things you mentioned aren’t really jokes, they’re serious compositions. Heh-heh. I mean people used to think Cage was really a joke, and then they finally realised he was. So we’re here to sort of settle the score as far as analysing tone is concerned.
I mean do you know the fundamentals of a note. Can you analyse a tone? Cage did and that’s his claim to fame. He was like just 19 years old. How? Well, he just thought about it. I’m not quite sure what. But you have to know this if you’re
going to write about Ciccone Youth.”
The next song on the album, Macbeth was used for a short film made by Dave Markey as early as 1980 . It had originally been a silent film but in 1988 for its release on a video compilation called “Some Shit” Macbeth was added as the soundtrack. Even later this resulted in Dave Markey editing the film into a music video for Macbeth to be released on the Screaming Fields of Sonic Love DVD in the mid-90s. Macbeth is easily the best instrumental on The Whitey Album if not the best instrumental the band has produced in their career with the possible exception of the explosive live take of The Bedroom from the Dirty Boots Live ep. It is followed by
Steve reading Lee’s poem Me & Jill which then bursts into Hendrix/cosby, a funky jam based around a looped sample from a very rare Jimi Hendrix recording with Lightning Rod and Buddy Miles which wasn’t released until 1984. What this experimentation show is the playful laissez-faire attitude surrounding these recordings. Anything and everything went. Karaoke covers, Madonna covers, Kim having a chat about Dinosaur Jr with a chick called Suzanne who was doing the light for them at the time, Thurston rapping and well pretty much whatever popped into his head. In the end it is a rather peculiar album that grows into a beautifully weird listening experience quicker than would perhaps imagine.
For me; a large part of the glory of The Whitey Album is that it was consummated as an album in its own right. Most artists might have buried this type of material in the archives to be dug up by hardcore fans for posthumous complete session collections or portioned it out as flipsides of singles or bonus material on eps or remasters. Instead the Ciccone Youth comes alive to bring the world a healthy dose of frolicking beatbox experiments with lo-fi studio gear and sample improvisation.
The Ciccone Youth are:
[King Poopy] The Royal Tuff Titty – Thurston Moore
Fly Fly Away – Kim Gordon
The Sigh – Lee Ranaldo
SS Beat Control – Steve Shelley
Featuring: Mike Watt
The Whitey Album (full) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otvu9nqSlXg
Macbeth music video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyE6–wXKJ0
Addicted to Love music video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7TuWdHNsYY
NME interview 1988: http://www.oocities.org/sunsetstrip/6301/ciccone.html