The John Robb Tapes - Lee Ranaldo

Sonic Youth guitarist tells John Robb how the broken and hellish streets of New York in the early Eighties helped create the band’s groundbreaking sound

Lee Ranaldo was the mystery glue in Sonic Youth.

Born in 1956 in Glen Cove in New York State, the current silver fox was the George Harrison of the groundbreaking New York band whose own creativity found a focus and spotlight with the breakup of the alpha group and a chance to tell his own fascinating story.

Sonic Youth was the detuned guitar mothership whose stealthy journey on the tightrope between the wonk underground and the mainstream helped to inspire a generation of noisenik bands.

In this interview, Lee Ranaldo details growing up in small town America and living The Beatles’ brilliant story in real time with his father bringing home the fab fours’ early indie releases when Lee was just 8-years- old, before the band signed to Capitol records and stormed the world.

His eyes light up as he talks about the thrill of watching that Beatles journey in real time; a journey signposted by the buzz of their innovation and the sheer energy of ideas that the world's biggest band generated as they rampaged through the decade and owned the Sixties.

Like so many teenagers growing up in that tumultuous decade, the Beatles opened doors for him; doors of perception and passion which left him fired to create.

By the end of the decade, Lee was digging the Grateful Dead and the hippie weird that was pushing the then boundaries before he relocated 50 miles from his hometown and into New York.

At the time, the big Bad Apple was a seething broken city as depicted in the film, Taxi Driver, and its holes were filled with maverick musicians pushing the boundaries. The fresh-out-of-University guitar player was learning just what a guitar could do in the bands of the likes of Glenn Branca whose own guitar adventures were reshaping the possibilities of the instrument.                                 

It was in this world of deconstructed guitars creating whole new sounds and vistas that Ranaldo’s craft was wrought. There were no boundaries; guitars were ripped apart and reconstructed in chiming and enthralling pieces of sound.

In the early Eighties, he ended up in the New York no wave scene of post everything creativity and found himself jamming with the proto Sonic Youth in the dungeon-like cellar of Swan’s frontman Michael Gira’s famous flat in the middle of the then war zone of the Lower East Side.

In that broken time, the vistas of New York were closer to Beirut than the modern moneyed city. Then,  it was burned out houses and a shiver of broken veined streets but this tense claustrophobic claustrofuck  backdrop, which would have been hell live in, somehow fed into the music and helped to create the tension and art thrill of Sonic Youth with Lee Ranaldo's guitar perfectly chiming and creating textures crucial to the band’s groundbreaking sound.

The group helped to define the frontline of guitar creativity for decades until alt rock’s golden couple (and part of the core of the band), Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore split, taking the group with them.

Despite this four decades’ stint on the creative frontline and his much feted status, the guitar player never rests on his laurels but is constantly moving forward with his batch of current post Sonic Youth releases that still explore the guitar and its tonal possibilities - a complex and shape shifting art form which, in this interview, he explains in a down to earth and highly engaging manner.

Listen to The John Robb Tapes featuring Lee Ranaldo on Lush Player.

John Robb films In Conversations for Lush’s Gorilla channel, fronts his acclaimed post punk band The Membranes and is also a music writer who wrote many groundbreaking features the late Sounds music paper

'The John Robb Tapes' is a podcast series which unearths the incredible archive of old interviews that music journalist John Robb has amassed over the years. Listen on the Lush Player here.

It was in this world of deconstructed guitars creating whole new sounds and vistas that Ranaldo’s craft was wrought

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