Ciccone Youth - The Whitey Album
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This is a good record but it’s also kind of scary…,” Mike Watt wrote about The Whitey Album. One of American punk’s great bassists happened to be a member of Ciccone Youth, and he still couldn’t explain their concepts or why they were even named in honor of Madonna Louise Ciccone.
Some mysteries are best left unsolved.
The Whitey Album still baffles, 17 years after its release. Sonic Youth gave few hints in interviews about why they concocted the 1988 record other than saying that it just happened. Whitey can either be accepted as a sublime moment of pop and hip-hop deconstruction or it can be dismissed as art-rockers with heads full of bad taste and pretension dicking around in the studio.
The music only had a brief mention in Watt’s liner notes for Geffen’s 1995 reissue of the album. He rambled in 5-inch paragraphs of 3-pt. type about his soul’s journey in the mid-80’s following the devastating death of fellow Minuteman D. Boon’s, his return to grace when he picked up the bass to play on Sonic Youth’s EVOL, and how Madonna oddly enticed him. By a fluke, Watt went home to San Pedro and cut a trucker-rawk cover of Maddy’s “Burning Up” on his four-track with Black Flag’s Greg Ginn on guitar. Sonic Youth then released the humble demo on a 7-inch along with the band’s tunes, “Tuff Titty Rap” and “Into the Groovey” under the peculiar moniker of “Ciccone Youth.” Watt’s demo was his lone contribution to the project, which was all Greek to him anyway. “Does one who sails a boat have the right to know where the winds come from?” he wrote. “Maybe that wind started out as breath, a gasp for life!” Fair enough. Sonic Youth went ahead and recorded Whitey before they began formulating their State-of-the-Union post-punk classic, Daydream Nation. The album was best remembered as a minor curiosity during its release; its title an inside joke centered around the aborted mission of the project: recreate the Beatles’ White Album.
Watt’s “Burning Up” was comfort music, but “Tuff Titty Rap” and “Into the Groovey” both embodied why I hated 90 percent of Whitey when I bought it 10 years ago. My 15-year-old self couldn’t quite understand what irony and cliché were. I mean, there was a minute-long track of silence for God’s sake. As I understood them, Sonic Youth was a skate-punk band (cf. their “100%” video) who made the electric guitar positively extraterrestrial to my ears. I didn’t even know that the “Youth” were in their thirties and forties by then. So when Whitey, with its mysterious, Xeroxed blowup of our lady Madonna came along, I regarded “Tuff Titty Rap” as an embarrassment (for the band and myself). Thurston Moore delivers rhymes that could make identity politicians and hip-hop segregationists weep. Over what seemed like a hip-hop rhythm preset on a Roland, he raps with a stereotypical white B-boy whine, “For the dudes! / Now weeee’ve been asked to part-ici-pate…” OK, I’ll spare you from the rest. “Into the Groovey,” their cover of the Material Girl’s hit was the flattest dance song I ever heard. The Flashdance beats plodded, the guitars muttered the basic melody, and Moore could barely keep himself awake on the karaoke mic. Samples of Madonna’s off-key serenade remind us that this is a “cover” from time to time. Intentional lameness was not high-art to me.
The rest of Whitey confused me, as it mostly had nothing to do with Madonna: hip-hop instrumentals that sounded like Vietnam War flick soundtracks, a track of two women yakking about Dinosaur Jr. while listening to Neu, and Kim Gordon’s deadpan karaoke cover of Robert Palmer’s yuppie-pop classic, “Addicted to Love.” I believe it was the first time that I heeded the wise rule, “Trust the art, never the artist.”
A decade later, it took one song to make me realize the brilliance sometimes found in Whitey. “Third Fig” begins with delicate sitar-like guitar notes crackling above a bare-boned beat akin to Radio-era LL Cool J. And yet, the tension picks up when the guitars hum a dour melody as if awakening to a life of spiritual poverty. Other hip-hop instrumentals, “Macbeth” and “Platoon II” are nearly just as haunting with their guitar drones that smear ink across the canvas and death-march beats. “Needle-gun” is just as engrossing with its ramshackle, pots-and-pans, street protest beats and an odd sample of a motorbike sputtering by. “March of the Ciccone Robots” is fine industrial-punk that is nearly on-par with Ministry.
I still do not know what Sonic Youth tried to convey to audiences with the music or their images. There is still little connection with Madonna, the spectacle of sexual liberation from Reagan’s City on the Hill (or did her image of materialism and narcissism still break bread with Reaganism?). When I opened the CD case for the first time in several years, I stared at the insert’s assembly of random photographs: a smiling interracial couple from the 60’s, a close-up of a doll’s breasts, a snapshot of a punk in her underwear lying underneath a wall covered with flyers for LA hardcore shows, Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis looking down from the camera.
However, the band deftly highlights the cartoonish absurdity of pop. On “Hi! Everybody,” Lee Ranaldo giddily announces, “We’ve put together some neat mixes and we hope you like them as much as we do!” over a forced sample of A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” He later recites a spoken word piece on letting one’s self pleasantly sink in life’s misfortunes, before a porno-funk riff is looped in with amateurish turntable scratching. The earlier mention of the two chatting women is from “Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu,” where Gordon and friend Suzanne Sasic talk with Neu’s “Negativland” on the stereo. Dino Jr.’s J.Mascis then makes a cameo by wanking on a metal guitar to a funk tune that could advertise Power-suits and Swatches. “Into the Groovey” is now a gas, where Moore punctuates with clear quotations “ye-ah” after droning, “You’ve got to prove your love to me.” As for “Tuff Titty Rap,” well, it’s hard to hear that one again after I erased it from the CD with an X-acto knife. No seriously, I now appreciate how it could anger so many hip-hop purists. Ultimately, The Whitey Album cannot be considered to be completely vandalistic toward pop. Sonic Youth seems to have an innocent sense of fun and awe with the pop they scrutinize, rather than taking the easy way out by desecrating it. Yet, the mysteries about why Whitey was created still remain.
On covering “Burning Up,” Watt wrote, “What I had done was taken my background in Blue Oyster Cult and married (well, to my sensibilities) to the only voice of the 80’s that could challenge the Animal House/White House hip smugness of them days. Like Humphrey Bogart or something, I couldn’t really understand what I did but I know that I was alive and feeling it.”
Watt once wrote Madonna’s name and slapped her picture on his bass for fIREHOSE’s audiences to puzzle over.
“Maybe one day someone might say: ‘Watt looked up to Madonna because he did,’” he concluded.
By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2005-08-09