Sonic Youth, “Walls Have Ears”
By Jesse Locke · February 05, 2024 Merch for this release:
2 x Vinyl LP, Cassette, Vinyl, Compact Disc (CD)

Walls Have Ears is a notorious entry in the Sonic Youth catalog. Pulling together the highlights of three UK live shows from 1985, it captures the New York noise rock band in a ferocious primordial state, just months after their second album, Bad Moon Rising. Originally issued without the group’s consent by Paul Smith—the man overseeing their early European releases—this bootleg double LP became an internal source of tension, ultimately leading to Sonic Youth’s departure from his label Blast First after 1988’s Daydream Nation.

(RSVP for a Bandcamp listening party to hear Walls Have Ears with guests Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley —ed.)

Flash forward four decades later, and Walls Have Ears is now being officially reissued by the band’s label Goofin’ (Goo plus Geffen). Much like the 2022 re-release of Wire’s bootleg demo tape, Not About to Die, the sound quality is shabby at best, but it’s fascinating to hear these songs develop into their definitive studio versions. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley has recently taken up the herculean task of unearthing their vast archive of live recordings, and Walls Have Ears may be especially significant to him. Alongside including one of the final performances from his predecessor Bob Bert, it spotlights Shelley’s powerhouse takes on classics like “The Burning Spear” and an especially gnarly “Blood On Brighton Beach” (aka “Making the Nature Scene”).

Walls Have Ears proves just how confounding a Sonic Youth performance could be in this era, with destabilizing moments like the South Asian music filtering into “Expressway To Yr. Skull” or the entirety of “Speed JAMC,” a Jesus and Mary Chain recording played on fast-forward. Cheekier still is the band’s introduction by Claude Bessy (best known for his appearances in Penelope Spheeris’s punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization [1981]) sarcastically poking fun at Rough Trade Records for complaining about the Xeroxed image of a nude woman on the cover of Sonic Youth’s “Flower” 12-inch.

In the present day, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore has now turned to memoir writing, while bassist Kim Gordon celebrated her 70th birthday with a new trunk-rattling sound. The former power couple may never get the band back together, but thanks to a steady stream of soundboard recordings and releases like the rarities compilation In/Out/In, there’s no shortage of music that has yet to be rediscovered. Just listen to Walls Have Ears’s two versions of “Brothers James” to hear Gordon screaming at religious zealots like she truly believes in fire and brimstone, sounding every bit as intense as she did in 1985. If they keep highlights like that coming, we might not have to kill our idols after all.

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