In 1991, Nirvana's Nevermind was released to glowing reviews and plenty of mainstream radio play, jumping to the number one spot on Billboard's album list. After a great Pixies show at the House of Blues in Boston a few weeks ago, I got thinking about how influential the Pixies were to bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, and The Strokes - but who influenced them? The best I could come up with was some vague references to 70s-era punk, but I knew there must be more to it. To fill in the gaps, I picked up a copy of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad.
Now that I've been schooled in what it truly means to be "indie," my eyes are opened to the true revolutionaries of the musical sound I enjoy today. If not for a decade's worth of indie bands experimenting with sound, capturing what airplay they could from college radio, and laying other necessary infrastructure, it's a safe bet that Nirvana would not have existed - let alone incited the 90s alternative scene. Azerrad often quotes David Bowie:
"It's not who does it first, it's who does it second."
Our Band Could Be Your Life is about who did it first.
The DIY Revolution: Jamming Econo
Azerrad profiles thirteen bands who lived the punk rock "DIY" ethos without necessarily being "punk rock," musically speaking. They created their own labels, booked their own gigs, pressed their own records, all while inventing a sound that would go mainstream in the 90s, long after most of these bands had faded.
"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 do. 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.'"
This was the stuff of revolution. Black Flag, Mission of Burma, Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, Minor Threat, Butthole Surfers: no clubs - even the bastions of 70s punk, like CBGBs - were great fits for the sounds emanating from their instruments. Without a ready-built network of places to play, these indie bands played anywhere and supported each other, helping other up-and-comers get on bills. Clearly unwanted by big labels and largely unreviewed by music press, they even created their own record labels and fanzines. If it came from the mainstream music scene, they didn't need it.
"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."
Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous
Unlike other music biographies that tend toward some of the more glamorous aspects of the business, Azerrad doesn't shy away from the gory details. These bands lived hand-to-mouth, slept in filthy apartments or practice spaces, and could barely afford gas money to get to their gigs. Peppered among each band's history are descriptions of their wild, often pirate-like lifestyles. As the Minutemen put it, "This ain't no picnic."
The Butthole Surfers lived in particularly abject poverty:
"Now almost penniless, the band practically starved between gigs...They were eventually reduced to scavenging for cans and bottles so they could turn them in for the nickel deposit...One day some prankster ran up and kicked all of the bottles out of Haynes's bag. 'Gibby and the rest of us were on our knees, scurrying to collect the bottles again,' says Coffey. 'And so I looked in Gibby's eyes, and he was about to cry. It was just so pitiful - this big, strong guy like Gibby being reduced to tears because here he was on the streets of New York, groveling for bottles. But good god, we needed those bottles.'"
Read It Already
After finishing this book, I realize I missed my calling: I should have been a college student in the 80s, staring at my dorm room ceiling with Sonic Youth and Mission of Burma blaring from my stereo. I plan to make up for missed time this summer and recommend you do, too.
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