Saturday, July 11, 2009

Deleted Scenes From The American Indie Underground

While probably the best book ever written--the only other tome of such vast cultural import is the Bible, which sadly includes no anecdotes about SST Records--Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life is not without its omissions. A partial list:

The Entire Paisley Underground Scene--Probably the most glaring one. Azerrad was clearly attuned to a lot of what was going on in L.A., as the chapter about Black Flag (the book's first and longest) proves. But the Paisley Underground gets the short end of the stick. The scene, part of a transatlantic psychedelic resurgence, was strong throughout the 80's, in spite of its stupid name. It included, most notably, The Dream Syndicate, as well as the less-known but strongly Rockaliser-endorsed bands like The Rain Parade and Three O'Clock. They made some sweet jams, yet Azerrad's book never mentions the scene, and his only reference two the latter bands is a major put-down:

At the time, there was a slew of American bands--the Three O'Clock, the Bangles, Rain Parade et. al.--who were copping superficial aspects of the Byrds and other trippy Sixties bands but weren't actually psychedelic at all. This disgusted Hart, Mould and Norton just as much as the conformity of the avowedly nonconformist harcore scene did.*
And while the next point he makes--that Husker Du's cover of "Eight Miles High" is fucking sick ("one of the most powerful pieces of rock music ever recorded"; a 7-inch of the track with a live version of "Masochism World" as a b-side is among my most treasured possessions)--I don't get the enmity he feels towards the Paisley scene. I suggest he dust off a copy of Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, a disc that would prove influential on the slowcore bands of the 90's.

I think the reason Azerrad omitted the Paisley scene from his re-telling of the 80's underground is twofold. First off, as far as I can tell, the man isn't a fan of traditionally psychedelic music (though I'd lay down money he likes Television). His book actually contains zero mentions of Robyn Hitchcock or the Soft Boys. Zero mentions! In a 522-page book about the 80's underground!

But his main beef with the Paisley Underground bands--and I'm just guessing here--would seem to be the generally apolitical stance of the scene. Mudhoney certain lose points for not being into the political aspect of indie. And that's fair--I sure wish The National or Iron and Wine seemed like they were a part of something larger than a 70's AOR rehash--but, damn Azerrad, Sixteen Tambourines is a really good album!

More hardcore--Yeah, yeah, there are chapters about Black Flag and Minor Threat, and like half the OBCBYL bands (at least) started out playing hardcore. But, as hardcore punk was the basis for everything OBCBYL chronicles, a Bad Brains chapter seems like it would've been a cool addition. I'd happily read a 7 Seconds chapter, which could provide a nice a counter-argument to the frequent assertions that doctrinaire hardcore is evil.

Meat Puppets--He mentions the band 16 times, and these guys are indie lifers (well, for the most part). They might make kid's fruit juice commerical songs these days, but the band really was exhaustingly good in their prime. Plus, they come from a region of indie America we don't read about in OBCBYL.

R.E.M., Pixies--I mean, I know why they weren't included, but still.

The Violent Femmes, Galaxie 500--Yup, there are others. Feel free to suggest your own, or provide OBCBYL exegesis in the comments. I should note that M.A. does offer his "humblest apologies to those [omitted] bands and their fans. There are plenty more books to be written about this subect; I invite you to write one of them." It's perhaps the best sentiment ever, further proof that Michael Azerrad is a sweet dude (as is this). Can't wait for the Bob Mould autobiography.

*Interestingly, while Azerrad sees Husker Du's music as something genuinely new, the afterword to Simon Reynold's Rip It Up And Start Again identifies the band's sound as part of a broad and regressive backward-looking trend that began in the 1980's and is, to my ears, really strong today


  1. Hell yeah--OBCBYL was basically my Bible as well through a lot of high school, and I don't think there's a single piece of music mentioned in that book that I didn't listen to extensively at some point (which explains my near encyclopedic knowledge of early Butthole Surfers, despite the fact that Azerrad doesn't seem to like any of it). The only thing I like more than that book is discussing its various omissions. So here's what I think:

    -You're right that the Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, and Three O'Clock are all wonderful (as are Green On Red and the Chesterfield Kings), and your probably right on the money when you say that their lack of any identifiable anti-establishment ethos didn't help. I'd broaden that a bit: I just wouldn't think that Steve Wynn's story even merits a chapter, as far as I know, and reading about a bunch of good-natured bands that were sort of successful and mostly picked up by major labels doesn't seem too interesting. However, you are right that Azerrad is oddly harsh where he is otherwise quite even-handed: why does nu-psychedelia have to be filtered through hardcore? Also interesting to cross-reference would be the Three O'Clock and the Bangles, who both worked in Prince's studio, and I seem to remember Azerrad mentions Prince hitting Replacements and Husker Du shows.

    -Meat Puppets are probably the biggest contender that's missing; Azerrad has basically admitted as much, and I think his main reason for excising them was he was afraid of affording disproportionate space toward SST.

    -There are some that also say that there's too much hardcore here, but I would definitely place Bad Brains here even if their timeline doesn't necessarily sync with the rest. Since Azerrad basically admits that hardcore comes down to Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Black Flag, this seems obvious. Their foray into reggae and homophobia need to be written about at length, anyway.

    -Speaking of hardcore, while 7 Seconds would probably make for good reading, I think I could make a better case for Flipper, who stood out from the pack by making two really good albums (at least as much good music as Big Black) and two epochal singles ("Sex Bomb" and "Ha Ha Ha"). I have no doubt this would make for gripping reading, not only because of Will Shatter's life story, but because Flipper occupies a niche untouched in Azerrad's history of hardcore, which is the rise of slower hardcore artists. Also, if you watch "American Hardcore" you might notice that Flipper seem like the only band out of the bunch that one imagines might be pleasant to hang around.

    -One can make a more legitimate case for R.E.M. than the Pixies, but let's be honest, there's been plenty of ink spilled about both elsewhere.

    -Two more suggestions: Angry Samoans, a very funny and interesting early example of LA punk morphing into hardcore (like X, the Germs) whose album "Back From Samoa" is one of my favorite hardcore albums period. Also the epochal and wonderful Game Theory, kind of the missing link between the Paisley Underground stuff and the early power pop of the dB's and Let's Active. I swear to God if you haven't heard "Lolita Nation" you really need to--R.E.M. was biting song titles from it and it's seriously in my top ten favorites, ever, just a monumental piece of music.

    Hell, why not include the dB's, while we're at it? And Circle Jerks? And...

  2. I don't know how to convey that this is one of the subjects that I am the most passionate about in the world.

  3. your comments provide an excellent corollary to the post--the boringness of steve wynn's life was not a factor i'd considered. i wouldn't really quibble with anything you write. i thought about including flipper, but i don't know much about their music and "ha ha ha" honestly frightens me.

  4. Here's some meme material: suppose Azerrad decides to embark on OBCBYL 2, which would be the same format (13 bands) plus the same rules, maybe varied a little bit to make the time-frame more inclusive: they obviously have to have started on indie labels, of course, and they must have produced a substantial amount of great music on an indie label before jumping to the majors (so no Nirvana). Also, R.E.M. is still not allowed. Here would be my picks:

    -Meat Puppets
    -Bad Brains
    -Galaxie 500
    -Violent Femmes (not a huge fan, but to date the entire midwest is represented by two bands in Minneapolis, and Wisconsin needs some love).
    -Dream Syndicate (although in order to make it more interesting we could broaden it to include what the Paisley scene was like and where it came from).
    -Saccharine Trust
    -The dB's (mainly interesting I would imagine because of their reputation for great songwriting coupled with terrible stage presence, a kind of anti-Butthole Surfers)
    -The Gun Club (Jeffrey Lee Pierce would be a fascinating case study)
    -Circle Jerks
    -Scratch Acid
    -The Descendents

    It depends how much hardcore you want since "American Hardcore" covered a lot of this same material.

  5. Your list seems about right. Still, to write about 26 underground artists from the 80's and not include Daniel Johnston seems like a crime, even if he isn't himself a band. A Melvins chapter could make for interesting reading. You might call an OBCBYL sequel profiling those two artists "Music That Kurt Cobain Loved, Vol. 2"

    Maybe...Camper Van Beethoven? Yo La Tengo? Half-Japanese/Jad Fair? A Dream Syndicate chapter could profile the L.A. scene the way the Beat Happening one packs in a lot of stuff about Olympia.

    A U.K.-centered companion to OBCBYL could make for interesting reading (or meme inspiration) as well, although 1981-1991 doesn't make the same sense in a British context

  6. Were the Wipers not in that book? That is weird.

    The Leaving Trains and Giant Sand might be nice additions, as both are revolving lineup bands fronted by interesting dudes.

    I've often wondered what a 90s indie rock OBCBYL might look like, and it would probably lean even more heavily toward Matador than the original does toward SST. Damn those faultless indie labels.

  7. Oh, also, I don't remember Azerrad's anti-Paisley stance, but his dislike of all major label jumps by indie artists is annoying and causes him to ignore or disparage some really good albums.