An important new book chronicles the golden age of indie rock—the 1980s
Recently, MTV marked its own 20th birthday, in the typically over-the-top, nauseatingly self-congratulatory fashion for which the cable channel is famous. The Viacom-owned media entity, which functions as a pop-culture gatekeeper—let’s just call MTV/VH1 (and, now, BET) the TASS, Pravda and Izvestia of rock ’n’ roll, all rolled into one—put its official imprimatur on what will come to be known, eventually, as the accepted history of popular music. Video killed the radio star, and that’s that.
Unfortunately for us, MTV left the best stuff out.
“The cliché is that victors get to write the history—and I guess that MTV was the victor,” says journalist Michael Azerrad via phone from his Manhattan home.
Azerrad, whose 1993 book Come As You Are, an insightful account of the story of doomed band Nirvana, was a thoughtful exegesis in a field of quick-buck bios, has just written a new book that covers a now-overlooked rock history from the 1980s. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 contains accounts of 13 bands that revitalized popular music’s underground font of creativity—at a time when the official pop-culture history tells us we were listening to English clothes horses and Sunset Strip poodlehead metal bands.
Azerrad apologizes, turns down the volume on a compilation album of music by twisted French pop-culture icon Serge Gainsbourg, and continues. “I was watching one of those 10-part ‘rockumentaries’—you know, the histories of rock music on TV a while back—and I was waiting for it to get up to punk rock,” he says. “And it finally did, and it got around to Talking Heads. And then it just kinda jumpcuts to Bruce Springsteen talking about the perils of fame, and it segues to Nirvana. And I thought that perhaps I’d blacked out for about 10 minutes. Where was the ’80s? Wasn’t there a decade somewhere between the ’70s and the ’90s? Where’s Hüsker Dü? Where’s the Replacements and all these great bands? And I thought to myself, someone should do something about this.”
The timeframe Azerrad adopted for his book begins in the wake of the disco movement’s collapse, which nearly took the major-label establishment with it—leaving such earlier do-it-yourself pioneers as San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys out of the picture. Jello Biafra and company do receive a few tangential mentions, however, such as in Azerrad’s chapter on the Butthole Surfers, whose first record was released by the DKs’ label. “Alternative Tentacles was certainly influential, but I thought that, by the early ’80s, the Dead Kennedys’ best work was behind them,” Azerrad says dryly.
The story ends in September 1991, when Geffen Records released Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind. The landscape changed overnight; as Azerrad’s epilogue tells it, suddenly what formerly was considered rejection of mainstream values—acceptance of corporate hegemony, et cetera—was reduced to a fashion statement. All of a sudden, the big record companies stopped looking for a new Guns ‘N Roses and started looking for the next Nirvana. And too many bands, tired of sleeping on cold floors and living out of battered vans, were more than willing to cash in their indie-cred points for dreams of big money.
Perhaps it might be too difficult to rope together a sprawling history of all the bands from that time that felt alienated by the idea of grooming themselves to get signed by some major label. A really good writer might be able to develop a strong linear narrative that encompassed so many regional scenes, but pages filled with artificial constructs—“meanwhile, in Milwaukee, so-and-so recorded its first four-song EP”—to keep the story adhering to a chronological scaffold might make for a dreary reading experience. Even a region-by-region account would likely get tedious.
What Azerrad did, then, was divide his story into 13 chapters, each focusing on a different band. The resulting narrative flow gave him room to add other essential information without bogging down with tangents and minutiae.
“I didn’t try to be complete about it,” Azerrad says. “There’s no way you could be complete about a sprawling entity such as American indie rock in the ’80s. But I at least tried to pick off the foremost and most emblematic, inspiring, influential and representative bands that I possibly could. I originally wanted to keep it to 12 [laughs] but it went to 13. I just figured the smartest thing to do would be at least to document criminally undocumented bands—like Hüsker Dü, and the Minutemen, and Dinosaur Jr., who influenced so much of that alternative rock scene that sprang up in the ’90s. Because this is essentially the first book of its kind, it seemed sensible to pick off the superstars.”
Aside from such encyclopedic volumes as the Trouser Press Guides, which are edited by Azerrad’s pal Ira Robbins—bassist Azerrad and guitarist Robbins occasionally play in a New York trio called Utensil—he’s correct.
Beginning with Black Flag, which sprouted in the south-bay backyard of Los Angeles, Azerrad traces the story of 13 bands (although since Washington, D.C.,’s Minor Threat and Fugazi shared the same frontman, you could argue their chapters could be combined into one larger story). Black Flag’s SST label released or distributed records by the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., so its impact was commercial as well as artistic.
Azerrad wisely covered now-overlooked great bands like the San Pedro-based Minutemen (which became fIREHOSE after d. boon, whose term “jamming econo” referred to living well within means, died in a van wreck), Boston’s Mission of Burma and Chicago’s Big Black, in addition to future major-label acts like Mudhoney and others.
In many ways, Azerrad’s subject matter is interlocking in a six degrees of Kevin Bacon sort of way. Black Flag’s label released albums by Hüsker Dü, which sprang from the same underground Minneapolis scene as the Replacements, who often played completely drunk but were upstaged one night in New Jersey by an even more wasted Butthole Surfers, ad infinitum.
“A lot of the book was just outlining the creation myths of these legends,” Azerrad says.
Unfortunately, aside from Black Flag and the Minutemen, California really isn’t represented. Reno band 7Seconds, fronted by now-local club owner Kevin Seconds, gets mentioned once each in the chapters on Minor Threat and Fugazi. In the former, Azerrad dismisses the 7Seconds as “straight edge” acolytes of Minor Threat who forgot the part about thinking for themselves—which may or may not have been true then, but certainly isn’t true today.
Davis’ circa-’80s music scene gets even less mention; such bands as Thin White Rope, Game Theory and others might have received a measure of national acclaim in their day, but so did a lot of others. This isn’t really a criticism; from the vantage point of Azerrad’s New York, there were a lot of towns with vibrant music scenes.
Fortunately, he did pick up on Olympia, Washington, home of Evergreen State College and Calvin Johnson’s group, Beat Happening, and label, K Records. Johnson’s insistence on freshness and innocence over musical perfection hit home with a lot of young nonconformists—bicycle girls, vegan boys—who found the punk scene a bit too regimented and doctrinaire. Its echoes can still be found in the remnants of Sacramento’s loft scene.
“They had this great idea of local music,” Azerrad says, “music made by people in your community for people in your community. Instead of just taking this mass-produced corporate entertainment and being satisfied with this very generic approach, they were much more interested in something much more tailor made.”
It’s that sense of artistic integrity that Azerrad finds so intriguing in the likes of Beat Happening. “Even though these bands didn’t sell a lot of records, their influence is incredibly disproportionate,” he concludes. “It’s entirely appropriate to drag out that old cliché about the Velvet Underground—I think Brian Eno once said that precious few people actually bought that record when it came out, but they all started bands.”