In hindsight, the last few years of the 80’s were a strange time in Sonic Youth’s evolution. The band had long enjoyed critical success and just sold over 60,000 copies of Sister. They had also just contentiously left SST over the label’s now notorious accounting practices. Not long into the 90’s, they would release Goo on Geffen Records, but 1988’s classic Daydream Nation came out on Enigma, a sort of mini-major that enjoyed distribution through Capitol. So while the band didn’t have the cache to start their run of Letterman performances quite yet, they still found a way to sneak into NBC’s late-night programming via Night Music, a show that managed to broadcast performances by visionaries such as Lou Reed and John Cale, The Pixies, Sun Ra, and countless others out to a national audience over the course of its two year run.
It’s no surprise that the band chose to play “Silver Rocket” on the program. Nation‘s lead single “Teenage Riot” is damn near seven minutes long, and “Rocket” is about as close to a pop moment as you’ll find on the album. That doesn’t stop SY from absolutely tearing through the song live, though, including over a minute of earsplitting feedback smack dab in the middle (check the bend of the neck on Moore’s guitar around the 1:50 mark. It’s about as good an advertisement for Fender’s durability as the company could ask for). Again, this was all happening on national television.
The weirdness wasn’t quite over yet, as Gordon, Moore, Ranaldo, and Shelley would return later on to close out the show with an eviscerating take on “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with a little bit of help from the Indigo Girls (who appeared earlier on the same episode), host David Sanborn, and the house band. There are multiple WTF moments here, though my favorite might be “manager” Don Fleming battling Sanborn for mic time before giving up and spiking his flute to the ground like he had just scored in the Super Bowl. A keytar makes multiple appearances. Steve Shelley spends the entire three minutes grinning ear to ear, and it’s hard not to understand why.