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Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore on All Those ‘Goo’ Memes: ‘Nothing Is Sacred’

In a news photo circulated two weeks ago, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un took turns driving a Russian-made limo in Pyongyang, North Korea. The sight of two dictators tooling around was unsettling — but also ripe for a particular type of mockery. Soon after the photo appeared, a meme began making the rounds with that shot and, above it, the lettering “Sonic Youth LP” — the latest addition to the never-ending tradition of saluting, honoring, or parodying the cover of the now defunct band’s album Goo.

Released in 1990, Goo — Sonic Youth’s first record for Geffen Records’ DGC label, marking their entry into the major-label world — retained the band’s connection to underground culture in multiple ways. For the cover, artist Raymond Pettibon, a friend of the band, contributed a hand-drawn copy of an infamous photo from mid-Sixties England: a couple, Maureen Hindley and David Smith, on their way to testify in the trial of Hindley’s sister Myra and her lover, Ian Brady, accused of killing several children in what were called the “Moor Murders.”

“The whole ‘killed my parents and hit the road’ text of that particular Pettibon drawing is what I initially reacted to when choosing images for Goo,” Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore tells RS. “The audacious correlation of criminals hitting the road and a rock & roll band hitting the road seemed like an edgy gesture at the time, plus it had a bit of Beat literature Jack Kerouac in there with the whole On the Road motif.”

As Moore and others recall, the first Goo homage was likely Spoo, a 1991 single by Ohio indie band Prisonshake. Asked by their label to salute a familiar album cover for their own single, the band chose the barely year-old Goo. “We liked the simplicity of it, the black-and-white aspect, and the line underneath the title that ends to the right,” says Prisonshake’s Robert Griffin. “It was unforgettable.” Picking up on the way the Residents defaced the cover of Meet the Beatles for one of their own records, drummer and artist Scott Pickering turned Hindley and Smith into scary monsters.

Since then, parodies of Goo have made it the Gen X version of the much-saluted Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road artwork. In memes and on T-shirts, Smith and Hadley have been replaced by a crazy smorgasbord of different couples: Walter White and Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad; Snoop and Dr. Dre (“Chronic Youth”); Han Solo and Princess Leia; Bart Simpson and Milhouse Van Houten; Putin and Donald Trump (titled “Chronic Douche”); Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy (which at least ties in with the serial-killer connection of the original); Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny; even the Blues Brothers. A meme (with shirts) featuring Taylor Swift and a cat appeared in 2015. In 2018, Beyoncé was spotted wearing a shirt that mashed up Pettibon’s illustration and Jay-Z artwork.

“These memes take on a life of their own,” Pettibon tells RS. “I hesitate to analyze or make sense of it. Any attempt to do so would be futile and why do so anyway? It might break the spell? Interrupt the flow?”

For her contribution, Spanish artist Paula Garcia incorporated characters from Stranger Things. “I wanted to parody this cover because of how iconic it is,” Garcia says, “and because the resource of narrating in text a story on the cover itself gave me a chance to better stage certain scenes from a TV series.” Lewis also used an image of Steve Carell in sunglasses for a Goo/The Office mashup.

“It’s like a movie still or a comic book panel, and you can put these two characters in there,” says Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo of the trend. “It says a lot about Raymond and his artwork, which has this devilish undertone to it. I don’t even know how much Sonic Youth has to do with it at this point. People have just applied it to so many different situations. It’s like folk art now.”

The pairings aren’t always absurd or silly. Growing up in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, Nicole Aline Legault became a Sonic Youth fan in the Nineties. Unable to find any band merch in her small town, she made her own Goo shirts at the time. Cut to 2020, and Legault, by then a multimedia artist in Montreal, was grappling with pandemic isolation and issues of systemic racism in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. “I grew way more aware of my privilege,” she says. “That information was so in the forefront. It felt more heightened.”

Clockwise from Top Left: Courtesy of Prisonshake; paula garcia; nicole aline legault; paula garcia

In that moment, Legault was thinking of ways to honor the memories of Black medical worker Breonna Taylor and Oklahoma teenager Isaiah Lewis, both fatally shot by police. By coincidence, the 30th anniversary of Goo arrived that June. As Legault recalls, “I love that album and it just came together on a whim. Something just clicked.”

Out came her own Goo homage, with drawings of Taylor and Lewis subbing for Smith and Hindley, and the original text (“I stole my sister’s boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road”) replaced with “The police killed Breonna Taylor. The police killed Isaiah Lewis. It was all whirlwind, heat and flash. No justice no peace. No justice no peace. No justice no peace.” The image was so potent that Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon tweeted it out, and a company approached Legault about selling T-shirts with the illustration. (Legault agreed only if the labor was donated and if all proceeds went toward a GoFundMe in Taylor’s memory and to help pay for a headstone for Lewis.)

Reflecting on both Legault’s and the Putin/Kim Jong Un usages, Ranaldo says, “They can have this effect of being timely and political. They have a way of telling the news.”

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Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, who oversees the band’s archives, estimates that “hundreds and hundreds” of Goo parodies now exist — so many, in fact, that the band has considered collecting them all in a coffee table-style book.

But even 34 years after Goo, the members of Sonic Youth admit they’re somewhat mystified by the continuing tributes. “I don’t think either Raymond or Sonic Youth thought that the image would be replicated to the extent it has,” says Moore. “Seeing such demagogue clowns as Putin and Kim Jong Un enter into the stream makes me groan, as I’d rather not give any energy to those warmongers. But like anything in our punk rock universe, nothing is sacred.”

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