“I wanted deliverance, the loss of myself. The capacity to be inside [the] music,” writes Kim Gordon in her memoir, Girl in a Band. The Sonic Youth bassist and vocalist continues, “[it’s] the same power and sensation you feel when a wave takes you up and pushes you somewhere else.”
While Sonic Youth’s studio albums come close to capturing the purifying force of their musical brutality, it’s their live recordings that have always been the shining examples of the band’s transcendental ostentation, offering an experience where the audience feels those sweeping, tidal effects of total sonic annihilation.
Now listening nearly 40 years later, the artfully rendered chaos found on Walls Have Ears was the first time the band was captured achieving the deliverance Gordon writes about. It’s a shame Sonic Youth took so long to recognize its power, but thank god they finally did.
Both historic and vital to how one ought to listen to the double-LP, the story of Walls is as bitter, blurry, and vitriolic as the deafening recordings held in its grooves. In what was initially intended to be a carefully curated artistic representation of a burgeoning noise-rock outfit, the hopeful and ever-so presumptuous promoter Paul Smith culled together standout moments from Sonic Youth’s 1985 U.K. tour. Acting as the band’s self-appointed archivist, Smith took it upon himself to fashion together two records’ worth of tape. He gave it a title and a cover and quickly pressed two thousand limited edition copies for Rough Trade Records to distribute. In 1986, when he sent the band a small wad of cash and a few dozen records, the quartet was undoubtedly less than impressed.
Despite their pretense of stoic indifference, Sonic Youth were and still remain fiercely protective of their recordings and image. Smith’s stunt not only removed agency from the traditionalist DIY-ers, but Walls’ distribution also threw a wrench into the band’s carefully arranged release of EVOL, their most meticulously crafted album to date, and their SST debut.
Up until this point, Smith and Sonic Youth had maintained a fairly mutually beneficial relationship. He lobbied for them in the U.K. when they were primarily known for their long, drawn-out songs and using power tools to play their guitars. Smith booked them shows, passed their records onto the industry overseas, and essentially acted as their English diplomat. After Walls, newly minted member of the band Steve Shelley began asking the band why they trusted Smith with their career. A few years later, after the release of Daydream Nation, the band cut ties with Smith.
Despite the band’s neglect, Walls is undoubtedly electrifying. Unlike their first and, let’s be honest, irritatingly indulgent live recording, Sonic Death, Walls Have Ears presents Sonic Youth as resourceful, patient and secure in their esoteric songcraft. There is still a lot of grit and grime to the performance, but it’s not simply anarchy for the sake of anarchy; Sonic Youth are responsive to their desire to evolve.
Walls works with the consequences of abstraction and its effects on the listener, operating in the traditional guitar-rock framework just to blow the whole thing apart. This intentional disorientation is something they would later come to keenly define and capture beautifully on the SYR series, but in 1985, it was only accessible face-to-face with the band.
Composed primarily of material from Bad Moon Rising — which on its own represents the band’s dissatisfaction with the American spirit — Walls Have Ears similarly reflects the band’s alienation within the music industry in the mid-‘80s. Simply put, they were just too strange for commercial success, but they also knew they were far too talented to be stuck in small clubs for the rest of their career. So, with a whole lot of disquieting angst, they played fast, erratic and fucking loud. They played with the harsh determination of a troupe uncompromising in their intentions. Walls is the tape that captured that magic.
Walls can effectively be split into two distinct sides, with the most glaring difference being Shelley’s monstrous presence — or absence — behind the kit. On LP1, he beats down with a fist as heavy as Thor’s hammer on the freak-out jam “Kill Yr. Idols,” then switches to an almost tender, subdued touch on “Expressway to Yr. Skull.” In 1985, Shelley was just a young kid with an aversion to the spotlight who knew how to elevate and match the ethos of every Sonic Youth song; he quickly became their new secret weapon, forever altering the band’s trajectory.
LP2 highlights the final live appearance of drummer Bob Bert while Sonic Youth was in London opening for Nick Cave. Where Shelley provides the structure and pulsating heart of the songs in the first half, Bert clears the floor for an experimental and disorienting second half.
With Bert on drums, the stunning medley of “Speed JAMC” and “Ghost Bitch” is perhaps the best example on Walls of the band seeking deliverance through noise. A haunting baptism by undefined feedback and guitar smatterings of the former leads to Gordon shouting in the latter with the same mania and conviction as someone possessed by the devil. “I had no belief before / Until I had this dream last night / I still remember their savage cries / So serious in their right,” she screams over Bert’s rhythmic drumming.
While it was the best illustration of Sonic Youth’s live potency at the time, it is understandable why the band never wanted to reissue it until now. It doesn’t come close to capturing the energy of living or breathing in a performance when compared to the anthropological Live at Continental Club recorded just one year later. Similarly, there isn’t much on Walls that differs from Smart Bar, recorded that same year. A little down the road, once their live records started reaching higher fidelity, there was really no going back.
If anything, the release of Walls is a testament to how fans’ preferences and interpretations of art can be different and, in some cases, utterly antithetical to the artist’s intention. Almost any Sonic Youth forum or fan club for the past 37 years would list Walls Have Ears as the band’s best live album, but the quartet’s insistence on keeping it hidden speaks to their unrelenting and ridiculously outlandish artistic aspirations. They rightfully knew their capabilities far outshined anything heard on Walls Have Ears.
Sonic Youth outgrew and outpaced their sound quicker than anyone, even themselves, could keep up with. They were swept up in the power and sensation of the waves.