Ciccone Youth – The White(y) Album (1988)
It seems pretty much everyone was obsessed with Madonna in the late ’80s. Even Thurston Moore, who despite remembering her “sitting on Mike Gira’s lap at Danceteria [a NYC nightclub], hanging out and smoking cigarettes,” and dismissing her early performances as “corny,” was won over once “Into the Groove” was appearing on the airwaves.1 The other members of Sonic Youth were also on board, as was friend of the band Mike Watt. While working on EVOL, the band recorded a cover of “Into the Groove,” which was paired with Watt’s take on “Burning Up” for a single released by SST. Ciccone Youth was born.2
Ciccone, in case your Madge knowledge is deficient, happens to be Madonna’s last name.
“Into the Groovey” (as the Ciccone Youth cover is called) consists of the band playing over top the original, replacing Madonna’s vocals with that of Moore. Despite being something the band spent little time on, it became a modest hit in the United Kingdom. Bully for them. What’s more interesting in the context of a look at the band’s discography is that the single represents one of the first times the band experimented with sampling and the manner in which it allows for a collage-like approach to songwriting.
“Master=Dik,” originally released on a 12-inch single and later appended to Geffen’s reissue of Sister, next exhibited this sort of futzing around. Moore raps on it, although a bit facetiously; there’s also a lot of effects, including loops made from Kiss songs. While not attributed to the side project, Moore mentions “Ciccone” numerous times. Whether he’s referring to the band’s alter-ego or the pop artist probably doesn’t matter.
These brief flirtations with hip-hop and experimental noise turned into a full-fledged album around the same time the band was working on Daydream Nation; in fact, they wanted to release the two albums — calling the Ciccone Youth one The White(y) Album — simultaneously but the side project’s debut was ultimately put out after a delay of a few months.3 The focus on Madonna continued in their choice of a cover image: they used a black-and-white detail of the artist’s face showing her nose, lips and facial mole. They felt confident that Madonna would not object, since she’d given her okay to their use of her recording in “Into the Groovey” a few years earlier.4 They were right, she didn’t.
Given all this focus on Madonna, you might expect The White(y) Album to consist of numerous cover songs or tributes to the pop star. Instead, the only connections to her are those I’ve already mentioned: apart from their name and the cover image, both “Into the Groovey” and “Burning Up” appear on the album. While it does not seem Sonic Youth actually intended a Madonna tribute album at any point, what they did intend initially for The White(y) Album seems a little different than the end result.
Sonic Youth were not immune to the enthusiasm over the new electronic technologies becoming commonplace in the ’80s. “Into the Groovey” seems to have convinced them that their mucking about with sampling and drum programming might result in something akin to the white boy frat-rap being made popular by The Beastie Boys at the time.5 Unfortunately, they either lacked focus or time or… something. While Moore raps briefly on the forty second “Tuff Titty Rap,” the only track on The White(y) Album that fits what might have been their initial vision for the project is a hip-hop version of “Making the Nature Scene” from Confusion Is Sex. Oddly, for the most part, it works, though the band does not sound as if they’re taking the rewrite all that seriously.
In fact, “tongue-in-cheek” describes The White(y) Album as a whole. “Goofing around” would also work. Much of the album consists of instrumentals constructed in the collage-like manner of the aforementioned singles, but the results are less appealing; one imagines the band had a lot more fun making these tracks than it is to listen to them. Apart from the Madonna covers, the best inclusions are only of marginal interest. While another “cover,” essentially Kim Gordon singing karaoke to Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” amuses, its worth doesn’t extend far beyond the laugh one gets during one’s first listen… and it, apart from those aforementioned, is one of the tracks that has the most to offer.
While, in some ways, technology can be blamed for the existence of this album, it also, twenty-something years after its release, allows you to cherry pick a couple tracks from The White(y) Album without having to pay for the entire album. I had no iTunes or Amazon in the early ’90s when I first bought this album and discovered it contained little of what I’d come to expect from a Sonic Youth album. Sure, technically it’s not: it’s a Ciccone Youth album. Whomever you want to credit as responsible, it represents one of the few occasions that I’ll actually recommend you buy songs instead of an album. Pay attention because it won’t happen often.
1. Browne, David. Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth. Philadelphia: De Capo Press, 2008. 169.
3. Ibid., 186.
4. Ibid., 186-87.
5. Ibid., 186.