Thurston Moore said in 2006 that "it was my intention that the first chord of our first record be and E chord." In 1981, Sonic Youth had yet to become the multi-tuning masters they are today. In fact, all of the first EP, Sonic Youth, was in standard tuning.
Underground reggae was popular during the early 80's. New York was becoming a mecca of avant garde music and art and Sonic Youth was smack in the middle. An early hip-hop-reggae infused music called Go-Go was quite popular at the start of 1980. Thurston says that "Kim used to play along to funk records to learn bass. In our Eldridge St. apartment she would play the first Black Uhuru record and play along." Drummer Richard Edsen was in several Go-Go based bands and liked playing fast noisy disco beats. This is how the basis of the first few Sonic Youth songs were formed.
"Its just a song about living on 13th Street" says Thurston. "It was known for its heroin trade, I would only go out during the day time and rarely at night." The two minute drum splash rings in some guitar noise from Lee Renaldo and kicks in with a fast beat back by Kim's bass. Thurston and Lee bang on their guitars with drums sticks and screw drivers (or anything that sounded cool). The builds like a volcano only to explode in a final avant garde noise finish.
"Burning Spear" first known performance was in july 1981 at the infamous Noisefest and has been in rotation in the live set for the last 25 years. It was rarely played from '87-'94 but managed to make several long lived comebacks, especially during the 2000 NYC Ghosts and Flowers tour, often being announced as "this is the first song we ever wrote!"
This video is from 11-08-1985. pretty cool stuff!!