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- Sonic Youth
- Black Flag
- The Replacements
- Husker Du
- Minor Threat
- Mission of Burma
- Butthole Surfers
- Big Black
- Beat Happening
- Dinosaur Jr.
Table of Contents
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On September 24, 1991, an album called Nevermind by a band called Nirvana came out, went gold in a matter of weeks, bumped Michael Jackson off the number one spot on the Billboard album charts soon afterward, and prompted music journalist Gina Arnold to proclaim, "We won." But who was "we"? And why were "we" so different from "them"?
"We" was a sprawling cooperative of fanzines, underground and college radio stations, local cable access shows, mom-and-pop record stores, independent distributors and record labels, tip sheets, nightclubs and alternative venues, booking agents, bands, and fans that had been thriving for more than a decade before the mainstream took notice.
Beneath the radar of the corporate behemoths, these enterprising, frankly entrepreneurial people had built an effective shadow distribution, communications, and promotion network—a cultural underground railroad. "In an age of big entertainment conglomerates/big management/big media, touring the lowest-rent rock clubs of America in an Econoline is the equivalent of fighting a ground war strategy in an age of strategic nuclear forces," wrote Joe Carducci in Rock and the Pop Narcotic. And Nirvana, ground war strategy and all, had miraculously emerged as the victor.
Ten years before Nevermind, Sonic Youth formed, the Minutemen and the Replacements released their first albums, Hüsker Dü released their first single, Henry Rollins joined Black Flag, Mission of Burma and Minor Threat both released their first EPs, and R.E.M. released their epochal "Radio Free Europe"/"Sitting Still" debut single on tiny Hib-Tone Records. And Ronald Reagan, the figurehead for so much of the discontent in America's underground culture, began his first term as president. The year 1981 was truly seminal for modern American underground rock. But it would be years before anyone realized what had been planted.
This book is by no means a complete history of the American indie movement from 1981–1991. It pays particular attention to the SST, Dischord, Touch & Go, and Sub Pop record labels, but those are far from the only labels that made the revolution happen. There was also Slash, Taang!, Frontier, Posh Boy, Coyote, Alternative Tentacles, Dangerhouse, Bar/None, Pitch-a-Tent, Wax Trax, and countless others. It would have been impossible to write about all of them.
The same could be said for the house organs of the indie scene, the fanzines. Most of them started as photocopied rants by people who were frustrated at the way the mainstream music magazines largely ignored this exciting new music. Some of them grew quite large and influential—including Flipside, Maximumrocknroll, and Forced Exposure—but there were literally hundreds of smaller zines that collectively framed the indie aesthetic.
And of course the American independent scene in the Eighties contained many, many bands, from those that made a mark on the national stage to bands that began obscure and stayed that way, sometimes by design. Many of the bands known only to a very few are personal favorites, but it was a matter of either excluding them or turning this book into an encyclopedia. My humblest apologies to those bands and their fans. There are plenty more books to be written about this subject; I invite you to write one of them.
Instead, this book profiles a series of bands who not only represented a musical innovation, a philosophy, a region or label, or contributed a noted character to the community, but illustrated a particular point in the evolution of the American indie scene in the Eighties, from aggressive pioneer days to a diverse scene struggling with its own success. And it's about giving credit where credit is overdue. These bands are legendary, but many folks don't know why. So merely telling the Minutemen story, or introducing readers to a band as great as Mission of Burma, or pointing out the profound debt the alternative rock boom of the Nineties owed to bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements would be rationale enough.
This book is devoted solely to bands who were on independent labels. So R.E.M., for instance, didn't make the cut, since the band's pre-Warner albums were recorded for I.R.S. Records, whose releases were manufactured and distributed by A&M (which in turn had a business relationship with RCA) and later, MCA. Correspondingly, the stories trail off when and if a band signed to a major label. Virtually every band did their best and most influential work during their indie years; and once they went to a major label, an important connection to the underground community was invariably lost.
Note also that the book concentrates on the bands' stories rather than their music. If you'd like to know more about the music, you should listen to it—as of this writing, virtually every record referred to in the book is still in print. And if you really need to read more about the music, check out some of the books listed in the bibliography, particularly the Trouser Press Record Guide, fourth edition, edited by my friend and distinguished colleague Ira Robbins.
Independent" has several definitions, but the one this book uses is the crucial question of whether a label distributes its records through one of the corporate music behemoths—in the period in question they were the so-called Big Six: Capitol, CBS, MCA, PolyGram, RCA, and WEA—which allows them entrée to vastly more stores than the smaller, independent distributors. All kinds of advantages stem from this distinction, from access to commercial radio to the ability to attract name artists. Indie labels had to develop obscure artists on a grassroots level, essentially functioning with one or more arms tied behind their back.
American independent labels are nothing new: legendary labels like Motown, Stax, Chess, Sun, and Atlantic were all once independent, but by the mid-Seventies, most of the key ones had been swallowed up by the majors. A lot of rock indie records of that time were one-offs like the 1974 "Hey Joe"/"Piss Factory" single on Mer Records, recorded by a visionary New Jersey woman named Patti Smith and paid for by her photographer friend Robert Mapplethorpe.
But taking their cue from pioneering English indie punk labels like Stiff and Chiswick, more and more people realized that calling up a pressing plant and getting their own record manufactured wasn't the mysterious, exclusive privilege of the giant record companies on the coasts. A door was opened and a small trickle of people stepped through it. Independent record labels began springing up all around the United States in the late Seventies in order to document punk rock and its offshoots.
It all started simply because there were great bands that would never be signed to major labels. In true capitalist tradition, entrepreneurs recognized a need, however small, and catered to it. Suddenly there were indie labels all over the map: 99 in New York; Black Vinyl in Zion, Illinois; Frontier in Los Angeles; Twin/Tone in Minneapolis; dB in Atlanta; and on and on.
But doing an end run around the Powers That Be will always have an inherent ideological spin. A lot of forward thinkers had seen how the major labels had devoured the first generation of British punks, particularly the Sex Pistols, and resolved to retain control of their own destiny. As writer Mike O'Flaherty has pointed out, early British post-punk labels such as Rough Trade were "part of the tide of political radicalism that swept Britain in 1978–79…. Political radicalism was built into the post-punk model, and its implications would reverberate through American indie in the political big sleep of the Reagan years like a half-remembered promise."
To begin with, the key principle of American indie rock wasn't a circumscribed musical style; it was the punk ethos of DIY, or do-it-yourself. The equation was simple: If punk was rebellious and DIY was rebellious, then doing it yourself was punk. "Punk was about more than just starting a band," former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt once said, "it was about starting a label, it was about touring, it was about taking control. It was like songwriting; you just do it. You want a record, you pay the pressing plant. That's what it was all about."
The breakthrough realization that you didn't have to be a blow-dried guitar god to be a valid rock musician ran deep; it was liberating on many levels, especially from what many perceived as the selfishness, greed, and arrogance of Reagan's America. The indie underground made a modest way of life not just attractive but a downright moral imperative.
At first, though, a pragmatic stance was a necessity more than a statement. "It wasn't a PR move, it was the best we could do at the time," says former Hüsker Dü singer-guitarist Bob Mould. "It was real simple: When you're a fish going downstream and all you see is sharks at every tributary and you see this one spot where another fish got through, you go that way. You're not sure what that fish looked like, but you know it didn't get eaten, so you just go that way. And one thing leads to another and people follow you and that's how it goes."
"People realized there was a way to do it in a very underground, low-key way that still counted and was still important," says Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo. "People got this idea that ultimately what mattered was the quality of what you were doing and how much importance you gave to it, regardless of how widespread it became or how many records it sold."
This realization turned the fate of the innovator—typically a constant uphill battle through obscurity, poverty, and frustration—upside down. In the microcosm of the independent label world, innovators could flourish, enjoy respect and admiration for their work, and actually be applauded and even rewarded for sticking with their vision. Lowering your sights was raising your sights.
In some ways, artists like the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Dylan were precursors to DIY—while their careers were extensively stage-managed, they did demand and receive unprecedented amounts of control over their music, a radical development at the time. In their wake, musicians asserted their right to create without outside meddling, and how strongly they did so became key to their credibility. This concept loomed large in the Eighties indie scene.
In fact, the Sixties legacy had a lot to do with underground rock in the Eighties. Asked in 1980 what the L.A. punk scene was like, KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer replied, "It's like living in the Sixties again." Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore once said of punk, "It was like a nihilist hippie movement, that's all it was." Virtually every artist in this book acknowledges the influence of the Sixties musical counterculture.
And no wonder—the earliest citizens of the indie nation had grown up on bands like the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, groups that fostered the now nearly antiquated idea that rock & roll was an intrinsic part of a young person's soul, an engine of social change and not just a consumer commodity. "That decade was one where people felt enormously committed and enormously identified with music and culture, where people felt like it wasn't just a background, it was your life," says Fugazi's Guy Picciotto. "It was part of the fiber of what you did."
But the indie community saw what had happened to the Sixties dream. And they knew they didn't have the demographic strength for such a cultural overthrow, nor did they want to replicate the baby boomers' egregious sellout. So they just made sure they weren't part of the problem and fought the good fight, knowing they'd never prevail. And that was very punk. "Understand that we're fighting a war we can't win!" wrote Black Flag's Greg Ginn in the band's epochal song "Police Story."
In the indie scene, labels cultivated distinct identities through their own unique aesthetics, which extended through many manifestations—music, album art, even catalog copy. The best labels inspired as much loyalty as bands, sometimes more, because the bands on the label could be expected not only to be good, but good in a certain way. It was very common to see someone wearing an SST T-shirt, but few wore T-shirts that read "Columbia Records."
All of this led up to 1984, a year that yielded a spate of bona fide classics: the Meat Puppets' Meat Puppets II, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, the Replacements' Let It Be, and Black Flag's lesser but no less influential My War. It was an annus mirabilis for indie, thrust into even deeper relief by the fact that at the time, acts like Kenny Loggins, Yes, Phil Collins, and Lionel Richie were ruling the mainstream charts. It was abundantly clear that the best rock music in the world was being made in this circumscribed little community.
And thanks to that plethora of great albums, the music was now being noticed by mainstream audiences, critics, and record labels. A couple of key bands defected to major labels and suddenly Pandora's box was opened. A few other key bands valiantly tried to preserve the autonomy of the scene, but they were only delaying the inevitable. As it had ten years before, the late Eighties music industry tried to lift itself out of a slump by taking a stab at punk rock. This time, however, it worked.
There are interesting parallels between indie rock and the folk movement of the early Sixties. Both hinged on purism and authenticity, as well as idealism about the power of music within culture and society; both were a reaction to shallow, complacent times and their correspondingly shallow, complacent entertainment; both had populist roots but were eventually commandeered by white middle-class college kids. But while folk music had an outspokenly ideological bent, indie rock's political message was often more implicit. In both cases, the music's own eventual popularity derailed its crucial authenticity: the folk movement came to a symbolic end with Bob Dylan's heretical electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; the indie movement was changed forever when Nevermind hit number one on the Billboard charts.
And both kinds of music came out of similar times. "The Eighties were a little like the Fifties—it was sort of a conservative era, money conscious, politically nasty, and Republican," says former Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott. "And usually that means there's going to be a good underground," he adds with a laugh. "There's something to get pissed off with communally." So it's no coincidence that the glory years of the American indie movement overlap so neatly with the Reagan-Bush era.
As usual, music was the first art from to register discontent. Underground rock protested not just with its sound but in the way it was recorded, marketed, and distributed. And since the music business is one of the most familiar manifestations of cultural power that American youth recognizes, in a larger sense rebelling against the major labels was a metaphor for rebelling against the system in general.
In D.C. kids rebelled against the bland, stifling atmosphere of official Washington, exacerbated by the conservative inhabitants of the White House; in Minneapolis it was the oppressive winters and the equally oppressive Scandinavian stoicism; in Seattle it was yuppies, rain, and that good ol' Scandinavian stoicism again; in Los Angeles it was inane California mellowness, the excruciating vapidity of suburbia, and the false glamour being propagated on soundstages all over town; in New York it was those darn yuppies and the overall difficulty of living in what was then America's hardest city; and throughout the country, anyone with the slightest bit of suss was disgruntled by the pervasive know-nothingism Ronald Reagan fobbed off as "Morning in America."
Radio was one key arena for this rebellion. Tightly controlled FM formats, mostly programmed by a small group of consulting firms, kept new music off the radio. College radio jumped into the breach, providing a valuable conduit. Now indie shows could be well promoted; records could be adequately showcased. The corporate exploitation of new wave had proved the majors could co-opt punk's musical style, but they couldn't coopt punk's infrastructure—the local underground scenes, labels, radio stations, fanzines, and stores. They, perhaps more so than in any particular musical style, are punk's most enduring legacy.
The remarkable thing is the audience was as much a part of the do-it-yourself conspiracy as the bands and the labels. Sure, the bands were taking a big chance by going with tiny, underpowered labels, and the labels constantly flirted with bankruptcy, but the biggest leap of faith might well have been by the audience. They were falling for bands who weren't on commercial radio and would never be on the cover of Rolling Stone. They had to overcome a lifetime of training in order to get to the point where they could feel like a scruffy, bibulous indie band from Minneapolis with an album called Let It Be was just as valid as the band that first used the title. What they realized was that the great band down the street was just as worthy as the superstar acts (and maybe even more worthy). And what's more, seeing the great indie bands play live didn't require $25 and a pair of binoculars. This was positively revolutionary.
The underground's musical diversity meant there was no stylistic bandwagon for the media to latch on to, so the record-buying public had to find things there on a band-by-band basis, rather than buying into a bunch of talk about a "new sound." This investigative aspect tended to attract a certain type of person—someone who would seek out the little radio stations to the left of the dial that didn't have such great reception, who would track down the little photocopied fanzine, who would walk past the sprawling chain record store with the lighted sign and go across town to the little mom-and-pop that stocked the new Camper van Beethoven record.
The American underground in the Eighties embraced the radical notion that maybe, just maybe, the stuff that was shoved in our faces by the all-pervasive mainstream media wasn't necessarily the best stuff. This independence of mind, the determination to see past surface flash and think for oneself, flew in the face of the burgeoning complacency, ignorance, and conformism that engulfed the nation like a spreading stain throughout the Eighties.
The indie movement was a reclamation of what rock was always about. Rock & roll hinged on a strong, personal connection to favorite bands, but that connection had been stretched to the limit by pop's lowest common denominator approach, not to mention things like impersonal stadium concerts and the unreality of MTV. Indie bands proved you didn't need those things to make a connection with an audience. In fact, you could make a better connection with your audience without them.
Corporate rock was about living large; indie was about living realistically and being proud of it. Indie bands didn't need million-dollar promotional budgets and multiple costume changes. All they needed was to believe in themselves and for a few other people to believe in them, too. You didn't need some big corporation to fund you, or even verify that you were any good. It was about viewing as a virtue what most saw as a limitation.
The Minutemen called it "jamming econo." And not only could you jam econo with your rock group—you could jam econo on your job, in your buying habits, in your whole way of living. You could take this particular approach to music and apply it to just about anything else you wanted to. You could be beholden only to yourself and the values and people you respected. You could take charge of your own existence. Or as the Minutemen put it in a song, "Our band could be your life."
FLIPSIDE INTERVIEWER: DO YOU MAKE A PROFIT?
GREG GINN: WE TRY TO EAT.
It's not surprising that the indie movement largely started in Southern California—after all, it had the infrastructure: Slash and Flipside fanzines started in 1977, and indie labels like Frontier and Posh Boy and Dangerhouse started soon afterward. KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer played the region's punk music on his show; listeners could buy what they heard thanks to various area distributors and record shops and see the bands at places like the Masque, the Starwood, the Whisky, the Fleetwood, and various impromptu venues. And there were great bands like the Germs, Fear, the Dickies, the Dils, X, and countless others. No other region in the country had quite as good a setup.
But by 1979 the original punk scene had almost completely died out. Hipsters had moved on to arty post-punk bands like the Fall, Gang of Four, and Joy Division. They were replaced by a bunch of toughs coming in from outlying suburbs who were only beginning to discover punk's speed, power, and aggression. They didn't care that punk rock was already being dismissed as a spent force, kid bands playing at being the Ramones a few years too late. Dispensing with all pretension, these kids boiled the music down to its essence, then revved up the tempos to the speed of a pencil impatiently tapping on a school desk, and called the result "hardcore." As writer Barney Hoskyns put it, this new music was "younger, faster and angrier, full of the pent-up rage of dysfunctional Orange County adolescents who'd had enough of living in a bland Republican paradise."
Fairly quickly, hardcore spread around the country and coalesced into a small but robust community. Just as "hip-hop" was an umbrella term for the music, art, fashion, and dance of a then nascent urban subculture, so was "hardcore." Hardcore artwork was all stark, cartoonish imagery, rough-hewn photocopied collage, and violently scrawled lettering; fashion was basically typical suburban attire but ripped and dingy, topped with militarily short haircuts; the preferred mode of terpsichorean expression was a new thing called slam dancing, in which participants simply bashed into one another like human bumper cars.
Hardcore punk drew a line in the sand between older avant-rock fans and a new bunch of kids who were coming up. On one side were those who considered the music (and its fans) loud, ugly, and incoherent; to the folks on the other side, hardcore was the only music that mattered. A rare generational divide in rock music had arisen. And that's when exciting things happen.
Black Flag was more than just the flagship band of the Southern California hardcore scene. It was more than even the flagship band of American hardcore itself. They were required listening for anyone who was interested in underground music. And by virtue of their relentless touring, the band did more than any other to blaze a trail through America that all kinds of bands could follow. Not only did they establish punk rock beachheads in literally every corner of the country; they inspired countless other bands to form and start doing it for themselves. The band's selfless work ethic was a model for the decade ahead, overcoming indifference, lack of venues, poverty, even police harassment.
Black Flag was among the first bands to suggest that if you didn't like "the system," you should simply create one of your own. And indeed, Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn also founded and ran Black Flag's label, SST Records. Ginn took his label from a cash-strapped, cop-hassled storefront operation to easily the most influential and popular underground indie of the Eighties, releasing classics by the likes of Bad Brains, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, and many more.
SST and Black Flag in particular hit a deep and molten vein in American culture. Their fans were just as disaffected from the mainstream as the bands were. "Black Flag, like a lot of these bands, were playing for the people who maybe felt jilted by things or left out by things," says the band's fourth lead singer, Henry Rollins. "When you say, 'Be all you can be,' I know you're not talking to me, motherfucker. I know I'm not joining the navy and I know your laws don't mean shit to me because the hypocrisy that welds them all together, I cannot abide. There's a lot of people with a lot of fury in this country—America is seething at all times. It's like a Gaza Strip that's three thousand miles long."
Greg Ginn never really liked rock music as a kid. "I considered it kind of stupid," he says. "I considered it just trying to interject some kind of legitimacy into making three-minute pop commercials, basically." Ginn didn't even own any records until he was eighteen and received David Ackles's 1972 art-folk masterpiece American Gothic as a premium for subscribing to a local public radio station. The record opened a new world for Ginn; a year later he began playing acoustic guitar as a "tension release" after studying economics all day at UCLA.
Ginn had spent his early childhood with his parents and four brothers and sisters in a small farming community outside Bakersfield, California. His father earned a meager schoolteacher's salary, so Ginn got used to cramped surroundings and living on limited means. "I never had new clothes," says Ginn. "My dad would go to Salvation Army, Goodwill, and he would consider those expensive thrift stores—'Salvation Army, that's expensive!' He would find the cheaper places."
In 1962, when Ginn was eight, the family moved to Hermosa Beach, California, in the solidly white middle-class South Bay area a couple of dozen miles south of Los Angeles. Hermosa Beach had been a beatnik mecca in the Fifties, but by the time Ginn got there, it was a haven for surfers (and inspired Jan & Dean's 1963 classic "Surf City").
But while his peers were into hanging ten, Ginn disdained the conformity and materialism of surfing; a very tall, very quiet kid, he preferred to write poetry and do ham radio. A generation later he would have been a computer nerd. At the age of twelve, he published an amateur radio fanzine called The Novice and founded Solid State Tuners (SST), a mail-order business selling modified World War II surplus radio equipment; it became a small but thriving business that Ginn ran well into his twenties.
After learning to play an acoustic, Ginn picked up an electric guitar and began writing aggressive, vaguely blues-based songs, but only for himself. "I was never the stereotypical teenager," Ginn said, "sitting in his room and dreaming of becoming a rock star, so I just played what I liked and thought was good." Ginn's music had nothing to do with the musical climate of the mid-Seventies, especially in Hermosa Beach, where everybody seemed to be into the British pomp-rock band Genesis. "The general perception was that rock was technical and clean and 'We can't do it like we did it in the Sixties,' " he said. "I wished it was more like the Sixties!"
It's no wonder Ginn got excited when he began reading in the Village Voice
- "Altogether rockin'...Azerrad's coup here is in getting most of the major players to talk...A scrapbook from the last time music mattered."—Patrick Beach, Austin American-Statesman
- "A timely reminder that Cobain and company were merely a key regiment in the motley alt-rock army...Our Band Could Be Your Life narrates, down to the homemade posters and tour van repairs, how these bands gradually built up an audience large enough to make record labels and critics take notice."—Benjamin Nugent, Time.com
- "In the decade Azerrad covers, indie America proved that world-class rock could be created outside corporate structures...Our Band Could Be Your Life passionately resurrects thirteen indie groups...Azerrad is adept at drawing out musicians' war stories -- and this bare-bones movement was full of them."—Eric Weisbard, New York Times Book Review
- On Sale
- Dec 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 528 pages
- Little, Brown and Company