Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Class of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Where Are They Now?

This month marks the tenth anniversary of Michael Azerrad's landmark musical historiography Our Band Could Be Your Life: Dispatches From the 80s Underground. As a nascent punk rock fan in the early '00s, few music books have played as necessary a role in the development of my own critical style, and of the bands profiled in the book, all thirteen have become obsessions of mine at one point or another (to say nothing of the bands Azerrad mentions in passing, like Meat Puppets, Bad Brains, Saccharine Trust, 7 Seconds, etc.). In retrospect, Azerrad's lucidly geographic long-view of the 80s indie revolution reads even better when compared with the catty, scene-obsessed amateur culture-bashing that often passes for music criticism today. Rather than base his criticism on a set of generalized, reductive assumptions (hipsters do this! Black people do that!) and meaningless sub-genres, Azerrad writes solely of the music and the extraordinary people involved in creating it. Azerrad thankfully doesn't romanticize this period of music (he is not blind, for instance, to Greg Ginn and SST's shady business practices), but he is respectful of and highly specific about what he likes, and why. His passage on the power of Hüsker Dü's "Eight Miles High," for example, is a gloriously snark-free, brilliantly-considered burst of pure music criticism, which perceptively describes the song's dynamic contrasts, its relationship to the Byrds original, and the invigorating effect of Bob Mould's primal screams.

This is a book's whose 10th anniversary I would normally celebrate, regardless of its popularity. But OBCBYL has been important in the lives of many music fans, as well as many aspiring critics and musicians. On May 22, a handful of those musicians will pay extended tribute to Azerrad by covering some of the bands profiled in the book. The bill includes Rockaliser favorites like Wye Oak playing Dinosaur Jr., Dan Deacon doing Butthole Surfers, and Ted Leo performing Minor Threat, among others. Tickets to the show were sold out roughly twenty minutes after they went on sale, but I managed to get a pair, and I look forward to seeing many of my favorite current bands covering old favorites that, in many cases, I never had a chance to see live.

It's also a testament to Azerrad's precision and research acumen that he chose the bands that he did--each of them, in their own way, has continued to influence succeeding generations of indie and alternative rock. For each of these bands, much has changed in the ten years since the book was published. Azerrad probably did not foresee the Second Coming of the Pixies and the subsequent reunion fever that claimed nearly every 80s indie band that didn't call itself the Smiths. Some of the bands in Azerrad's book reunited; some refused to get back together; others stuck together throughout, and still others embarked on second careers due to the popularity of this book. If it can still be said, for the umpteenth time, that of the few people that bought the Velvet Underground's first album, nearly all of them formed a band, then Azerrad's book is similarly influential, not only in the eventual formation of new bands, but in the reformation of existing bands. I can't think of any other music book that had such an effect. For your curious perusal, I thought I'd break down what has happened to the OBCBYL class since 2001, in preparation for the concert as well as some more OBCBYL-themed material that I plan to publish throughout this month. The bands fall into five basic categories.

The Let's-Stay-Togethers

Sonic Youth
It was probably during the 90s that someone casually labeled Sonic Youth the "Grateful Dead of alternative rock," and indeed, of all the bands profiled in Our Band Could Be Your Life, the Youth have proven to be the most solid and reliable, still continuing to make resolutely weird major label rock years after the grunge wave they inadvertently rode on peaked. Azerrad's Sonic Youth chapters ends in 1988 with Daydream Nation (their subsequent album Goo is disqualified from discussion because the book's MO is only profiling bands up to the point they sign with majors), and by the time the book came out, they had six additional albums to their credit, the most recent being the career nadir NYC Ghost and Flowers. Sonic Youth's output since 2001 has become tighter, more focused, and closer in spirit to their 80s repertoire than the jammy avant-garde tributes that preceded it. Could Azerrad have ever predicted that Sonic Youth would move back to an indie label after so many years with Geffen (Matador, yes, but an indie label nonetheless)? Their 2009 release, The Eternal, was mixed by OBCBYL VIP Steve Albini, and it was more raw and uncompromising, with a harder drum sound, than anything they had produced in years. Of all the bands on this list, Sonic Youth has stuck through the bad times and continued to produce quality music that lives up to their initial 80s promise. Long live Da Youf!

Butthole Surfers
The Butthole Surfers, on the other hand, have only remained together nominally, finding unexpected success in 1996 with their conventional modern rock hit "Pepper" and again ten years later when "Who Was In My Room Last Night?" became a featured track in Guitar Hero 2. Since 2001, the Surfers haven't released anything new, other than a compilation of outtakes called Humpty Dumpty LSD (which I recommend) and a re-release of the first couple EPs on Alternative Tentacles. The Surfers still tour today with semi-original members Gibby Haynes, Paul Leary and King Coffey (as well as returning bassist Jeff Pinkus), and while I haven't had the opportunity to seen them live, I've heard from friends that their shows are as crazy and disgusting as ever. There's no indication we'll see new Buttholes material anytime soon--Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary seem to be focusing on side projects and art for the most part, and unlike many of their peers, they have a major 90s hit to fill their coffers. Nevertheless, their best work is still from the 80s; since 2001, that fact has not changed.

Another band that made it through the 90s, although you probably didn't notice. Mudhoney made the switch to the majors in 1992, prior to the release of their album Piece of Cake; they have since continued to produce albums quietly and unassumingly on Reprise Records for a dwindling audience of grunge enthusiasts. It's a shame, because a lot of Mudhoney's major label stuff is pretty good, and not even that grungy in certain cases (one trend I note from Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge onward is that they jettison the modern rock sounds of Nirvana in favor of more psychedelic, Nuggets-type stuff). The last time I remember people paying attention to Mudhoney was when they played Superfuzz Bigmuff (plus early singles?) in its entirety for the 2010 All Tomorrow's Parties festival. The albums Since We've Become Translucent (2002), Under a Billion Suns (2006) and The Lucky Ones (2008), were all released by Mudhoney's former label (in this case Sub Pop), but if it wasn't Superfuzz Bigmuff, no one seemed to care. Would the fanfare have been more pronounced if Mudhoney had split for a while, and then announced a reunion? Azerrad claims that nothing Mudhoney did subsequently was ever as powerful as "Touch Me I'm Sick." I don't entirely agree, but nothing Mudhoney has released since that pronouncement has come close, for sure.

The Reunionists

Mission Of Burma
Of all the bands mentioned in OBCBYL, Burma probably benefited most directly from their inclusion in the book, and they managed to parlay a brief-yet-influential 80s run into one of those great and rare rock reunions where the new stuff is as good, even better, than the original hits. Burma was poised to become a breakthrough Boston band (years before the Pixies) when epic-loud guitarist Roger Miller contracted a painful form of tinnitus that made playing live difficult. No longer able to build layers of feedback onstage, Miller and the rest of the band decided to break it off amicably in 1983. A full two decades later, the band got back together (Miller's tinnitus had either improved or become more manageable), and started touring and working on new material. Eventually, they signed to Matador. Burma's original tape manipulator, the enigmatic Martin Swope, wasn't around for the reunion, so he was replaced with Shellac veteran Bob Weston. Their first reunion album, 2004's OnOffOn, was just as explosive and vital as Vs., and 2006's release The Obliterati was even better. Burma had sacrificed none of the viciousness and propulsive forward momentum of their classic punk tunes, and the new songs were always a familiar Burma mixture of catchy and discordant. Their most recent release, 2009's The Sound, the Speed, the Light, is somewhat of a drop-off, but I saw them in D.C. when they were touring that album, and "1, 2, 3..Party!!" is a sight to behold live. Of all the bands located in the OBCBYL aegis, Mission Of Burma has arguably produced the most great music in the last ten years, and that is saying a lot, especially given our next entry...

Dinosaur Jr.
Did Dinosaur Jr. ever break up? In theory, they pressed on through the 90s, even as the band became J. Mascis plus a series of interchangeable bassists and drummers. Dino chafed more than most grunge holdovers during their major label years, and while songs like "Start Choppin'" became minor MTV hits, the albums Where You Been, Hand It Over and Without a Sound signified a lack of engagement and an overreliance on filler that had never been characteristic of Dino during their 80s heyday. Mascis' former bandmates, Lou Barlow and Murph, had left long earlier on unfriendly terms, and Azerrad credits Mascis' dictatorial tendencies and blithely unfriendly attitude as proof that the original three would probably not be found working together, especially since Lou Barlow had already found another successful band with Sebadoh. And yet, somehow, the original power trio managed to return, in 2007's Beyond, and it was like everything from Green Mind forward had never happened. Mascis' hummable wah solos were once again at the front of the mix, and the combined distorted might of Murph and Lou Barlow added to that timeless melange of melody and aggression that critics had assumed no longer existed in the 21st century. I don't see any evidence to suggest that the band gets along together better (I noticed during their live act that they barely interact with each other, still), but their internal musical dynamic was as fresh as ever. Their next album, 2010's Farm, cemented the band's status as the most powerful power trio in America. Lou Barlow still moonlights with Sebadoh and gets at least a couple vocal showcases on each new Dino album; Mascis just recently released his first solo album; Murph just looks happy to be back, most of the time.

The One-Off Reunionists

Hüsker Dü
Bob Mould and Grant Hart had grown to hate each other long before Hüsker Dü broke up in 1987; Azerrad suggests that a split was inevitable from the day that Mould started to marginalize Hart's songwriting aspirations. Whatever the case, Hart still talks in interviews about Mould's alleged mistreatment, and Mould has never been shy about stating his indifference to Hart's point of view. It's hard to think of two guys in a band that have ever hated each other more, and this is especially apparent on Warehouse: Songs and Stories, where a number of Mould and Hart songs basically amount to inter-band sniping. Meanwhile, the poor mustachioed non-songwriting bassist, Greg Norton, started to drift from the band and bass playing entirely. A Hüsker Dü reunion has been clamored for since the 80s, although it seemed about as likely as the Clash getting back together--Mould and Hart, to their credit, have stuck to their guns and refused to trot out Hüsker nostalgia in the manner of a reunited Pixies or Stooges. They made one exception, though, in 2004, at a cancer benefit for Soul Asylum's bassist Karl Mueller. Shocking everyone at the show, Mould and Hart went onstage (sans Norton) with their guitars, and played two songs that expressly communicated how unlikely this was to ever happen again: "Never Talking To You Again" and "Hardly Getting Over It." That was it for Hüsker, although Mould and Hart continue to make solo albums, and Greg Norton has had a notable second career as a fancy chef.

The Replacements
Like Dinosaur Jr., the Replacements started as a guitar-bass-drums combo and ended as a solo act, as original members were jettisoned and the band's indisputable hard rock flavor led way to the more placid singer-songwriter style of a maturing Paul Westerberg. The Replacements' story arc over the course of OBCBYL is a particularly interesting one, as at first they are described as a barely competent group that then became a legendary live act, which then lost much of its vitality upon moving to a major label, ending up as more of an AOR act than the punk band they originally set out to be. With Westerberg still doing his solo thing and lead guitarist Bob Stinson long-dead, no one was particularly clamoring for a Replacements reunion. But people got it, sort of, in the most unlikely of circumstances--on the soundtrack for the wacky computer-animated bear movie Open Season. Westerberg, Tommy Stinson (who had spent his post-Replacements years playing bass for Guns N' Roses, let's not ever forget) and Chris Mars reunited to perform a couple songs on the soundtrack, although Mars stuck to backing vocals as opposed to drums. That dynamic continued into the recording of two new Replacements songs for the Rhino retrospective Who Do You Think I Was? Neither of them hark back to classic Replacements, and a reunion without Bob Stinson isn't really a reunion at all, but at least Tommy Stinson has become more accepting of Westerberg's delicate acoustic side. Many Replacements fans still lag behind in their appreciation.

Big Black
Long before Steve Albini was primarily known as a cred-bestowing "mixer" (he rejects the mantle of producer) for the Pixies and Nirvana, he was fronting the dark, stentorian industrial group Big Black, the band least likely to ever make it to the majors. Albini broke the band up in 1987 to head off their increasing popularity, and his subsequent bands Rapeman and Shellac have borrowed a lot of Big Black's punishing rhythms and analog production technology. There was no real reason for Big Black to reunite, but they did, in 2006, for Touch & Go's 25th Anniversary Show, paying tribute to the label along with the likes of Pinback and Scratch Acid. Supposedly, they did "Cables," "Dead Billy," "Pigeon Kill," and "Racer-X." That looks to be the last we'll see of Big Black, at least until Touch & Go's 50th rolls around; Albini is still doing his thing with Shellac, which is similar enough, Santiago Durango is now a public defender and Jeff Pezzatti still plays with Naked Raygun. Albini has made it clear that a reunion tour will never, ever happen, and I would be surprised if he said anything else on the subject.

The Permanently Defunct

Minor Threat
Ian MacKaye's first band certainly did their thing in the 80s, and they remain one of the two or three most important hardcore bands ever. But they broke up for a reason: MacKaye had become sick of violent, macho hardcore culture, and he wanted to make music that pressed the limits of hardcore, whereas the rest of his band remained more or less committed to churning out similar music. Thus was born Fugazi, an entirely different type of band that replaced Minor Threat as MacKaye's primary group. It is, I guess, entirely possible that Minor Threat could reunite: if Johnny Rotten can split his time between Sex Pistols and PiL reunions, and Lou Barlow can switch instruments between Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh tours, then certainly it's not unheard of for a musician to embark on reunion tours for multiple bands. This will never happen, though, not in a million years. MacKaye is more likely to be abducted by aliens than willingly participate in such a transparent money-grab. Minor Threat is a set story that ends in 1983; Azerrad was wise to continue that story with his Fugazi chapter. If you have the Complete Discography and really, really want something else to listen to, I can't recommend much besides the first demo tape that was released in 2003.

The Minutemen
D. Boon's fatal car crash in 1985 effectively ended one of the most productive and resourceful groups in rock history, making the prospect of a reunited Minutemen sans-singer/guitarist about as likely as a Nirvana or Jimi Hendrix Experience reunion. Mike Watt and George Hurley continued to work together a lot in the aftermath of Boon's death--the band fIREHOSE, which featured Boon superfan Ed Crawford taking over guitar and vocals, is the closest one will probably find to Minutemen-sounding music, and of course there's plenty of great additional Mike Watt stuff as well (when he isn't moonlighting with the Stooges). Watt and Hurley also occasionally perform as "The Secondmen," paying tribute to Boon as a guitar-less two-piece rhythm section. No one knows what might have happened to the Minutemen if Boon had stayed alive, but everyone agrees that the band ceased to exist the moment he died. Anything else would disrespect his legacy.

Black Flag
Black Flag had been through several line-up changes prior to the band's breakup in 1986, with guitarist Greg Ginn the only steady member throughout. They had left a legacy of oppressive, emotionally-bare hardcore, the intensity of which could never have been maintained indefinitely, especially after years of constant touring and poverty that were beginning to take a physical toll on the band's members. Strangely, I've never heard if anyone in Black Flag was ever interested in reuniting; Henry Rollins is a major public figure, for sure, but he had largely left music behind in order to focus on his acting and public speaking, and he was never asked to to play along when Ginn and Dez Cadena got back together to play a few Black Flag cuts in 2003. Since Ginn was, again, the only constant, one could argue that any show featuring Ginn playing Black Flag songs counts, but without Rollins the prospects of a full-fledged tour seem unlikely. Ginn still plays music professionally; there's no need to bring along his former bandmates as well. The story of Black Flag will remain closed indefinitely, in part because of Rollins' lack of interest but also because it was never particularly clear who and who wouldn't take part in such a reunion.

The Neverending Hiatus-ists

Beat Happening
Beat Happening never properly broke up; they just stopped making albums after 1992 and stopped recording songs after "Angel Gone" in 2000. But I don't know whether I can say that they continued to exist through the 90s; as usual, Beat Happening's story (as with its music) doesn't really fit in with its contemporaries. Two comps of B-Sides and rarities came out in 2003, and that appears to be the end of the story so far. Calvin Johnson has released a few solo albums (unheard by me), and seems to have plenty of other side projects besides. I know even less about what's happened with Bret Lunsford and Heather Lewis. They could still be practicing together, for all we know, but musical togetherness was never a major part of Beat Happening's charm anyway. Perhaps Johnson and co. have progressed to the point where it would be impossible to reproduce the amateur, lo-fi instrumental qualities that once arrested so many Beat Happening fans; if so, this would be one case where a band breaks up because they have gotten too good at their instruments. For any band other than Beat Happening, this wouldn't make sense.

Ian MacKaye recently played fast and loose with the hopes of Fugazi fans worldwide by saying in an interview that he hopes for an eventual reunion, but it won't be in the immediate future. The main hindering factor apparently is bassist Joe Lally, who has relocated to Rome, making regular practice in Washington, D.C. difficult. We can still hope, though, for the band that left us on an incomplete but exemplary note with 2001's The Argument, to devise some sort of follow-up. On the other hand, all four members of Fugazi have remained busy since, so it's not like we've had no music to show for it. MacKaye has produced records with his wife as the Evens, Guy Picciotto has played with and produced a number of notable acts like Blonde Redhead, Joe Lally worked with John Frusciante in a band called Ataxia, and Brendan Canty had a stint as Bob Mould's drummer for a while. But I think I speak for all Fugazi fans when I say "Joe Lally, go back to D.C." It is time for another Fugazi record, if only because the number of popular, respected bands who refuse to play 18+ shows and sell their tracks to commercials has dwindled to about zero.

Again, expect a bit more about this book, and the show on the 22nd, in the next few weeks. Until then, you can stream my radio show from last week, featuring famous covers recorded by the OBCBYL class, and make sure to check out tonight's show at 8 PM ET, when I will play a bunch of new stuff from the bands performing on the 22nd.

EDIT: As promised, here's a link to last Sunday's radio show, which you can stream or download.


  1. Awesome post, obviously a subject I love as well.

    Sonic Youth seem to be trying to make people forget about their major label years these days. When I saw them in 2009, they only played stuff from "The Eternal" and their pre-Geffen albums. Which is a little sad, I think, since they put out some incredible stuff during their major label years too. The move to Matador made a lot of sense, since (as you point out) it's a really big indie, but it also reunites them with Gerard Cosloy, who they worked with in the Homestead days.

    I don't agree about the Mats "reunion" songs--the ones on the best of aren't acoustic numbers. They sound sort of like something that might've been left of "Please To Meet Me." They're definitely passable, imo, though the mp3s I have sound super compressed. I wasn't aware that those "Open Season" songs had Mars and Tommy Stinson, "Love You In The Fall" was pretty good.

    Tommy Stinson, for what it's worth, is playing a show here in May. No idea what he would actually play at that.

    re: Dinosaur, I think they still hate each other, but I read somewhere that Lou Barlow regrets ripping on J so hard during his interviews w/ Azerrad.

    Calvin Johnson has said that Beat Happening still practice sometimes, I think. His post-B.H. stuff is pretty erratic.

  2. I would love to see Azerrad do a revised and expanded OBCBYL. A book about the major label years of these groups (for those that had them) would also be fascinating.

  3. Tommy has had a pretty good post Replacements career (G'N'R not withstanding), both with his bands Bash and Pop (who I saw live in '92) and Perfect, but also with his solo stuff too - very rock-n-roll, and very reminscent of the 'mats. I'm looking forward to his show at First Ave.

    I know both him and Paul worked on some material post "Don't You Know Who I Think I Was", with Soul Asylum drummer Michael Bland, but it has never seen the light of day.

  4. will there be a review of the show coming up?