What do you remember of music from the 1980s? Spandau Ballet
? Sisters of Mercy
? These days it's received wisdom that no good music came out of the decade of Reagan
and The Breakfast Club
, but that sells a whole lot of musicians short. One section of 1980s music to which the myth definitely did not apply was the underground
rock scene in the US.
In Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (2001), journalist Michael Azerrad tells the story of '80s alternative rock through thirteen of its most notorious, creative and influential bands - controversial, pioneering punk group Black Flag, art-rock icons Sonic Youth, socially active communalists Fugazi, and many others. In doing so, he not only tells some fascinating stories, but ties them together to give the reader a sense of how the bleakness of the 1980s - poverty, Reaganomics, U2 - inspired a disparate collection of independent thinkers to create their own musical scene.
The thrust of Azerrad's book is the idea that what all these bands have in common - and some of them were musically very different - is a pioneering spirit and a contempt for the monoliths of mainstream American rock, that kept them in a closely-bonded underground where expression and creativity were valued over looks and commerciality. In their music, their lyrics, their actions and their attitudes, these bands broke the rules by creating their own system independent of the mainstream: independent record labels made the bands literally "indie", and both the bands and their audiences chose to exist outside the mainstream, to them creatively bankrupt. From this attitude comes the title of the book: "our band could be your life" sang the Minutemen, inventors of the term "jamming econo", in the autobiographical "History Lesson - Part II".
Azerrad's book begins and ends with a reference to Nevermind, the album that broke Nirvana into the big time and marked the end of the American indie underground's golden age. Nirvana is not one of Azerrad's featured bands; rather, he tells the story of indie rock up until it became so big it couldn't help but explode onto the mainstream, as it did with Nevermind. Many of the bands in the book were a direct influence on Kurt Cobain, which reinforces the image Azerrad creates of a creative underground scene which was just as important as the mainstream rock of the time.
The first band to be featured is L.A.'s Black Flag. Loud, rude, loud, pissed-off and loud, Black Flag defined hardcore punk with such essential releases as Damaged and Nervous Breakdown. Importantly, Azerrad goes beyond the details of the music to reveal the politics of the band's ever-changing lineup - intensely committed and hard-working, they blazed a trail throughout the country, creating the foundations of an alternative rock scene almost single-handedly. Eventually, however, the clashing personalities of the intense Greg Ginn, the ferocious Henry Rollins and the dynamic Chuck Dukowski tore the band into an acrimonious (and musically unproductive) death. Black Flag's dynamism and independent spirit (they released their records on Ginn's own hugely important SST label) provides the backdrop for the rest of the stories told in the book.
Azerrad goes on to tell us about twelve more independent bands, each of them in some way either crucial to the underground scene, representative of its ideals, or just great. Azerrad's promise to only feature bands on independent labels rules out some obvious choices, such as R.E.M. (who nevertheless appear throughout the book); and for the bands in the book who did later sign to a major label (such as Hüsker Dü and the Replacements), the chapters tail off rather abruptly at that point, with only a cursory mention of the records they subsequently released.
Every rock group with any sort of a following has some readable biographies out there, but Azerrad's writing is better than most. Apart from the fact that he's a particularly fluent and educated writer by the standards of rock journalism, he is good at painting a clear and lively picture of the bands in the book: it's obvious that he is not only passionate about the music, but understands its formation and its context.
Some of the chapters don't quite maintain their readability to the end - there's only so much, in my opinion, you can write about a relatively un-controversial and un-intellectual band like Mudhoney, and by the end of the chapter on Big Black you just want to punch Steve Albini in the face. But there are some great stories as well. Although all the bands can be bracketed within the genre of "alternative rock", there is a good variation in style - Beat Happening, who close the book, could hardly be more different from Black Flag (there is a great moment where Calvin Johnson gets the better of Henry Rollins), while the personalities vary wildly, from the urban sophistication of Sonic Youth, the drug-addled insanity of the Butthole Surfers, through the social awareness of Fugazi to the cynicism of Big Black and the old-fashioned heartbreaking rock of the Replacements. Each chapter reveals a new larger-than-life personality, be it Henry Rollins, D. Boon, Calvin Johnson, or one of many others.
Because Azerrad tells the stories of the people as well as their music, with a close look at the characters and a proper appreciation of context, the book has plenty to offer the long-time fan as well as those who know nothing about these bands. As well as being motivated to check out some of the bands I barely knew about (Beat Happening, Fugazi), I found it just as enjoyable to read about the bands I was already into and to find out more (for example that Paul Westerberg, ace songwriter that he is, is also an asshole). Because Azerrad devotes each chapter to a single group, rather than merging the whole scene into a single narrative, the book is a snapshot rather than a definitive history of the '80s underground. Everyone will have their own band who they feel should have been included - I'd particularly like to have seen the Descendents get their own chapter, and I can imagine similar cases being made for hardcore pioneers like the Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys. Nevertheless, these three and several other key bands (Public Image Ltd., R.E.M., Television) do make appearances throughout the book; and as the author points out, if you feel a band deserves to have their story told, you can always do it yourself - just like these bands did.
Those crazy bands:
Black Flag, the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, Mudhoney, Beat Happening