Sonic Youth was formed in New York City in 1981 by guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo and bass guitarist Kim Gordon. The band signed to Glenn Branca's Neutral Records, releasing the Sonic Youth EP in March 1982. As Sonic Youth released a number of albums and EPs to increasing critical acclaim, including Confusion Is Sex and Kill Yr. Idols in 1983, several drummers joined and left the band. Bob Bert rejoined Sonic Youth after the Confusion Is Sex tour in mid-1983.
The New York press largely ignored Sonic Youth (as well as the noise rock scene in the city), until after a disastrous London debut in October 1983 that actually received rave reviews in British papers Sounds and NME. When they returned to New York, the queue at CBGB for the band's concerts went around the block.
By mid-1984, Sonic Youth were playing almost weekly in the city, but its members started to realize that there was little future in their musical approach; Moore later said, "it was getting to the point of overkill". They retreated to the rehearsal room, retuned their guitars and changed their equipment so that they were unable to play their old songs, and began writing new material.
Bad Moon Rising is Sonic Youth’s second studio album. It was released in March 1985 on record labels Blast First and Homestead. The album is loosely themed around the dark side of America, and included references to obsession and insanity, Charles Manson, heavy metal, Satanism, and early European settlers' encounters with Native Americans.
Released to strong reviews from the underground music press, Bad Moon Rising was the first Sonic Youth album to combine the band's experimental material with transitional pieces and segues. The album was preceded by the single "Death Valley '69", which did not chart in either the US or UK (the track was re-recorded for the album and released again as a single in June 1985). Sung by guitarist Thurston Moore and guest vocalist Lydia Lunch – then a fixture of the New York underground and a pioneer of the city’s no wave style of noise-as-rock.
Death Valley ’69 wallows in the seediness of all things Charles Manson with unclear motive and manic, musical overkill. Its perverse mix of taste (highbrow conceptual seriousness) and tastelessness (lowbrow scare-flick sensationalism) creates a tense art vs. trash dynamic that ultimately gives way under the sheer force of the music.
I was on the wrong track
We’re deep in the valley
Now deep in the gulley
And now in the canyon
Despite the song’s atonal attack and subversive spirit, its structure is fairly traditional – a long, taut, near-monotonal midsection bookended by a thrashy power chord chorus. Musically, it delivers the cathartic goods the rest of the album’s slow crescendo promises. Lyrically, it strings together artless quotes and phrases related to the Manson murders, evoking their frenzied horror through allusion and indirection.
Sonic Youth’s West Coast debut took place at the Gila Monster Jamboree, one of three shows Desolation Center put on in Southern California during the mid-‘80s.If you wanted to attend, you had to buy a ticket, sign a release form, and then make your way to a remote rock in the Mojave Desert. Run by Stuart Swezey of the great AMOK bookstore and press, Desolation Center specialized in setting up wild shows at nontraditional venues.
Previous Desolation Center events had included a boat cruise around San Pedro Harbor featuring the Minutemen, and a Mojave Desert show starring the coruscating German band Einstürzende Neubauten and high-gauge explosives. The Sunday-night bill pitted Sonic Youth against the Meat Puppets, Redd Kross, and Psi-Com. The generator and PA system were set up at Skull Rock, a knoll deep in the Mojave Desert, eight miles from Joshua Tree.
A map to a halfway point, Victorville, was provided with each ticket; exact directions to the festival site were given verbally from there. Despite a rash of free LSD and a late-night slot that forced Sonic Youth into the chilly desert air, the show was an unqualified success. Regardless of the prevailing hippie aesthetic (which the members of Sonic Youth found nothing if not anachronistic), Sonic Youth for the first time met their true contemporaries face-to-face: postpunk musicians who regarded rock and punk with equal doses of admiration and derision.