I just started reading Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, for a book club I’ve been invited to join. I can already tell it’s going to be an interesting read for a couple of reasons that are quite obvious to me—indie rock, particularly the type Azerrad highlights, is informed by the DIY ethic that drives me forward in my own life. Also, each of the 13 bands featured are favorites of mine, and I think Azerrad is spot on for highlighting their significance, as well as providing a good deal more detail on most than even I was privy to. The only one of the 13 that I’m a bit dubious on would be the Butthole Surfers, although I’m sure once I get to that chapter, I’ll come to appreciate what they were about in a way that I’m not, at present.
This is a book that puts late 70s/early 80s punk/hardcore into a particular historical context that’s often missing from rock criticism, and any other writing connected to rock and roll. Actually, one of the benefits of the book is that it fills in details about a key period in the evolution of early punk/hardcore, and how it reached its watershed moment in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Sprit,” when the entire indie/underground scene blew up and changed, almost overnight.
In light of Azerrad’s book, this Friday’s Shuffle Play Friday features tracks from some the 13 bands featured, as well as representing some of my favorite rock songs of all time.
Hüsker Dü-Ice Cold Ice/Warehouse Songs and Stories
Back in 1984, stranded in the center (or close to it) of the country, shipwrecked and looking for a new source of meaning, music became my new drug, replacing fundamentalist religion. At the time, Chicago’s WXRT hosted "The Big Beat," a hour-long indie rock show, every Friday night at 11:00. This became my gateway into a whole new world of underground music I knew little about.
Fast-forward to early 1987 (the year I’d move back to Maine, in August after four years in the post-industrial armpit of NW Indiana) and pre-internet, so there weren’t a wealth of places for someone living in Chesterton, Indiana to connect with indie music.
It was on ‘XRT where I first caught wind of Hüsker Dü and their loud, fast rock and roll. “Ice Cold Ice” was being played regularly. I drove up to Michigan City to pick up Warehouse Songs and Stories on cassette, after reading about it in the latest issue of Rolling Stone.
Black Flag-TV Party/Damaged
It’s hard to imagine the unbridled passion that Black Flag brought to their music in today’s corporate rock environment. The anger was real, with Henry Rollins working out his issues onstage each and every show, often on the heads of members of the audience that pissed him off.
Rollins wasn’t Black Flag’s first vocalist, but he was the one that moved the band forward and gave them their more serious focus that they become known by.
The band’s sound, characterized by Greg Ginn’s fractured, atonal playing style came to epitomize the hardcore punk sounds, since Black Flag were one of the first playing this kind of music in the U.S.
I picked up Damaged in a used vinyl shop. TV Party is a throwback to some of the goofier tunes that characterized the earlier years when Keith Morris (later of the Circle Jerks) was on vocals.
DOA-51st State/True (North) Strong and Free
I first saw DOA in Chicago, in 1986 on a bill with the Descendants, DC3 (former Black Flag member Dez Cadena’s band), and a fourth band that escapes me now, some 23 years later.
DOA, led by the irrepressible Joey “Shithead” Keithly are still going strong. Like Black Flag, DOA originated as a punk hardcore band, but later introduced a more melodic approach to their songs.
The band, which hails from Vancouver, BC, wear their Canadian hearts on their sleeves. This song captures the Canadian inferiority complex that comes from being America’s neighbor to the north, as well as the love/hate thing that is the reality when you live next door to someone that can potentially make your life hell if you piss them off.
At this stage of their career, think a Canadian Ramones, and you’ll be close.
The Minutemen-History Lesson-Part II/Double Nickels on the Dime
The title of Azerrad’s book comes from this song. DNOTD was released in 1984. I owned it on cassette, acquiring my copy back in the 90s. I still regularly listened in that format, but the cassette player in my old 1984 Pontiac chewed the tape up last w/e, so I’ve got to get it on CD, or vinyl, as this album is one I must own.
I never saw the Minutemen live, but I did see Mike Watt’s post MM band, Firehose back in the late-90s when they played the old Zootz nightclub, in Portland. I met Watt after the show, as he stood and shook hands with everyone that came, a holdover from the days of punk, when by-and-large, bands appreciated their fans, and there wasn’t the star/fan divide common with most entertainment/sports, today.
X-Johnny Hit and Run Pauline/Los Angeles
I don’t know why Azerrad leaves X out of his book, as they warrant a chapter, in my opinion, as they are one of the seminal bands in the early days of American punk. They also have had a tremendous influence on so many other bands that followed.
In 1986, X released The Unheard Music, a documentary chronicling the members of the band, and the Los Angeles punk scene. I heard it advertised on the aforementioned WXRT, Chicago's alternative rock station. It was playing at a theater on Fullerton, in the city, and I drove my 1968 Chevy Impala, with a dead cylinder, the requisite 45 miles from Chesterton, to catch the showing.
There were about 5 people in the theater, in a seedy end of the city, but it was worth the trip and gas to get there. Great rock movie and I was totally hooked on X and have been ever since.
The movie captures the seamy underside of Los Angeles, the one that Jim Morrison sang about in “LA Woman,” and the one I went searching for on my recent trip to the City of Angels.
Yet another album I once owned on cassette.