Expressway to Yr Skull

Expressway to Yr Skull

Indie rock, once the soundtrack of the 1980s and early '90s, is largely gone, but it had a rich history.


In the beginning, punk rock was meant to change the world. The songs were nasty, brutish and short, but the ambitions were extravagant. While the Sex Pistols attempted to foment nihilism in the UK, the Clash hoped that youth culture might become a kind of international socialist club. Even in America, the Ramones sought to take their mock-bubblegum to the masses. "We developed a small following of weirdos," Tommy Ramone boasted to Rolling Stone in 1976. "Then we got the intellectuals. Now the kids are coming."

Of course, it didn't turn out that way. The Sex Pistols ended up bringing more anarchy upon themselves than upon anyone else; a dream of world domination turned into the tawdry spectacle of Sid Vicious's death and a tedious blur of lawsuits. As for the Ramones, their bid for fame never proceeded beyond the intellectuals, if it ever got that far. Punk rock failed to win mass approval; it couldn't even win mass disapproval. By 1980, major record companies disdained the music, preferring the slicker stylings of the new wave.

As a result, American postpunk bands of the 1980s had chastened ambitions. Cut off from commercial radio, they assembled a creaky network of small-time record stores and clubs, mimeographed fanzines and independent record labels. The roundheads among them proposed an alternative community of leather-jacketed, vegetarian rebels, at odds with both corporate culture and adulthood, purified of poseurs and the halfhearted. The cavaliers affected a certain degree of listlessness and indifference to the larger world, retreating to a private arcadia where they could create beautiful washes of noise. Together, they scorned the mass popularity that was now beyond their reach.

By the middle of the decade, the indie rock ethos had taken shape. Bands like Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and the Minutemen were putting out ambitious records on barely solvent independent labels such as SST and Twin/Tone, and major corporations warily began to pay attention. Then, in 1991, Nirvana released Nevermind, a record that never won over the indie cognoscenti but didn't sound much like anything else on commercial radio at the time. The guitars were abrasive; the rhythms awkward and lurching; the singer sounded as if he had a cough. But the tunes were solid enough, even Beatlesesque, and the drums well-miked. Nevermind sold 10 million copies. Nirvana, it appeared, had made the world safe for punk rock. Indie purists begged to differ: They sniffed that Nirvana had merely made punk rock safe for the world.

Michael Azerrad's exhaustively researched book is a portrait of the world before Nirvana, a vanished age when "indie" referred to music, not film. Profiling thirteen bands, he adapts the techniques of celebrity biography to his sometimes celebrated subjects: Minneapolis's shambling and drunken Replacements and Washington's puritanical Minor Threat; Chicago's thudding Big Black and Amherst's folk-influenced Dinosaur Jr, among others. As critics have noted, Azerrad does not tell the only possible story about underground music in the 1980s. All his groups were influenced by punk, dominated by men and attuned to the more abrasive sounds of the electric guitar. There is little room in his pantheon for the bright-eyed ingenuous pop of North Carolina's dB's or the synth-draped and irresistible melodies of San Francisco's Game Theory. Nor does his range extend to the more esoteric clatterings and avant-folk experiments of bands like the Sun City Girls.

Still, Azerrad has gotten across the basic ingredients of the indie rock formula, which typically combined passion and rage with a certain amount of self-doubt and self-deprecation. Here is the voice of the Replacements' Paul Westerberg explaining that a song was written "twenty minutes after we recorded it" or of Mission of Burma's Roger Miller boasting that his record Vs. is "one of the fifteen hundred greatest rock & roll albums of all time." This formula attracted a diverse coalition of aging record collectors, curious college students, lonely teenagers and combat-booted thugs. Indie rock offered adrenaline and fury to the punk rockers, ringing overtones and textured noise to the art majors, and colored vinyl and limited-edition pressings to the obscurantists.

Inevitably, Azerrad's group portraits have a certain sameness to them. Small audiences and amateur musicianship are frequent points of pride. Boston's artistically advanced Mission of Burma played a record-release party to seven people; Olympia's artistically primitive Beat Happening topped that by performing before an audience of one. Mike Watt of the Minutemen recalls that when the band was first forming, "We thought tightness of the strings was a personal thing–like, 'I like my strings loose.' We didn't know it had to do with pitch." In the archetypal story, a group of emotionally combustible individuals transgresses the limits of speed, or volume, or taste, alienating most of the people it comes into contact with but winning a small and devoted following. It goes on to tour the country in a defective van, experiencing numerous indignities along the way such as being hassled by bouncers, spat on by fans and subjected to generic brands of soda. Eventually, the band signs with a very small, very cool record label that it will one day sue for nonpayment of royalties. Soon enough, its members must face the challenges of maturity: ridding themselves of old friends, making grudging concessions to the craft of songwriting, turning twenty. Wilting under all the pressure, they begin to hate one another, even as they also begin to attract the love of larger audiences. A major record company makes them a decent offer, and they release a couple of records that sound much like their older records, but with more expensive bass lines. Failing to get on regular rotation on MTV, they are dropped by their label and go on to become record producers or else go back to school.

Fortunately, there was more to it than that. The other story Azerrad tells is of a gradual liberation from the binding aesthetics of hardcore punk. Hardcore combined a rigid set of musical imperatives (loud, fast, no syncopation) with an equally rigid aversion to rules and authority. It was an unstable compound, to say the least, and in his early chapters, Azerrad details the physical violence and ideological controversies that swirled around hardcore bands like LA's Black Flag and DC's Minor Threat. At early Black Flag shows, anyone with long hair was vulnerable to being identified as a hippie and beaten up. The band members did not protest, but they did begin to grow their hair longer and play their songs slower.

In DC, the imposing bald scalp of Ian MacKaye, Minor Threat's singer, cast a long shadow on the local scene. (Azerrad reveals that MacKaye would have preferred to spike his hair, but it was too curly.) Minor Threat's music was furiously propulsive, and its lyrics were accusatory and aggressive. Horrified by the sight of Georgetown students on their weekend binges, MacKaye loathed drinking and drugs. "I don't even think about speed/That's something I just don't need," he yelped. Religion and romance were also targets of his wrath. (Typical verse: "Was she really worth it? She cost you your life/You'll never leave her side/She's gonna be your wife.")

In the song "Out of Step," MacKaye distilled the basic principals of the "straight edge" code: "Don't smoke/Don't drink/Don't fuck/At least I can fucking think." Straight edge, he explained, was about "controlling things and not letting them control you." But MacKaye's bandmates were not thrilled with such rigidities. Theological debates ensued over whether the proscription of alcohol and sex meant that you could not have any alcohol or sex, or simply that you could not have very much of them. MacKaye back-pedaled somewhat, explaining that he was against "conquestal sex," not sex itself. But there was more trouble to come. Azerrad reports that when drummer Jeff Nelson was typing up the words of "Out of Step" for a lyric sheet, he "insisted on inserting the first-person singular before each line to make clear that it was a statement about MacKaye himself, not an imperative." MacKaye reluctantly agreed to a compromise: The word "I" could appear in parentheses. But he made this concession only after he had rushed upstairs and "kicked a hole in Nelson's door." Other crises followed. MacKaye's bandmates started to like U2. MacKaye didn't like U2. Minor Threat broke up.

The U2 schism was the first of many that would divide the punk rock community. Sooner or later, every element of the "loud fast rules" credo was put into doubt. Indie rock had to sound different, but almost any difference would do. After all, there are many ways not to get onto the radio. The lyrics could be crudely offensive or cryptic and obscure, misanthropic or dreamy, stupid or smart. Guitars were expected to sound raw and unprocessed; but apart from that, they might sound like clanging metal, or like scratched wire, or like monastery bells.

As the 1980s proceeded, the music developed both agrarian and industrial heresies. The Minutemen played variations on jazz and funk, and covered Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Green River." Hüsker Dü added wisps of folk melody and acoustic guitar to the squalling noise. The Replacements pretended to be a mediocre bar band, trying out any genre of music they could hope to mess up. J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr exchanged the punk rock vocalist's bark for a languid drawl, and added impressive guitar solos to the mix. Influenced by minimalist classical music, Sonic Youth experimented with unorthodox tunings and sought to reinvent the electric guitar. Big Black employed a drum machine.

At first, the tempos were always fast. The Minutemen found that when they performed in large halls, the "echo was longer than the tunes." Black Flag explained that they needed to fit as many songs as they could into a twenty-minute set before the cops arrived. Hüsker Dü claimed to have set a "land speed record." But by the middle of the decade, Hüsker Dü was filling out an album side with a trippy instrumental and Sonic Youth was notating the length of their hypnotically droning "Expressway to Yr Skull" with an infinity sign.

Indie rock bands also pushed volume to divergent extremes. Dinosaur Jr was so deafening in concert that the bass player and guitarist didn't know what their songs sounded like until they went into a recording studio. But countless bands would also follow the Velvet Underground down a littered garden path to quieter places, abandoning white noise for a kind of tired and hung-over folk music. Beat Happening played with a drum set made of yogurt cartons. In the 1990s, bands like Bedhead and Palace were creating a music that was as inaudible as it was immobile.

If indie rock lacked a uniform sound, it also lacked a uniform politics. Only the Minutemen conceived of their music in explicitly agitprop terms. They campaigned against US involvement in Central America and contended (inaccurately) that "Bob Dylan wrote propaganda songs." (According to Azerrad, many of their lyrics sound as though they "could have been written by an idealistic young intern at The Nation.") They also made somewhat strained analogies between musical independence and social exclusion. As Mike Watt put it, "When you talk about the people who are disenfranchised, and then you look at the guys who can't get into bands…. I mean, it's kind of close."

The political pillar of indie rock was Ian MacKaye's post-Minor Threat band Fugazi, which went on to great popularity while remaining staunchly outside the corporate world. Fugazi refused to charge ticket prices higher than $5 and refused to give interviews to slick, commercial magazines. It regularly performed benefits for homeless shelters and AIDS clinics, and made an unholy noise outside the South African embassy and the Supreme Court. But Fugazi is the least typical band in Azerrad's book. Most "indie" bands signed up with major corporations once they had the chance, and although their music often suffered, Azerrad doesn't really blame them. They knew that indie record labels could be just as unscrupulous as major labels, and that there was nothing ignoble in trying to reach a larger audience. In many cases, they also eschewed politics altogether. Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü was forthrightly skeptical about all the punk rock fans who signed their letters to fanzines with the words "anarchy and peace." "I don't think that many of them live what that means," said Mould. "I mean, they all live at home with their parents, they all value greatly their possessions, I'm sure."

Mould had a point. For the most part, indie rock had more to do with bohemian experimentation than political defiance. In the late 1970s a Los Angeles band called the Urinals recorded two miniature anthems: "I'm white and middle class" and "I'm a Bug." Somewhere between these two identities–of unprecedented comfort and security; of self-abnegation and a fear of "DDT in my breakfast"–indie rock took its strange shape.

Today, the spirit of 1985 is somewhat tattered. Fugazi continues to espouse musical and commercial abstinence while the Butthole Surfers still license LSD-fueled mayhem. But almost all the other bands in Azerrad's book have been dissolved. Certainly, the borders of the underground are ever harder to draw. SST records once issued a bumper sticker that read "Corporate Rock Sucks." Today, small labels sign distribution deals with their multinational peers, and punk bands yearn for snippets of their songs to be played on car commercials. The most original sounds are created by club DJs in Europe, and the terms of music appreciation are increasingly determined by a track's number of beats per minute. The most admired effort in recent years is The Magnetic Fields' Sixty-Nine Love Songs, a three-CD set that owes more to Rodgers and Hammerstein than to the Ramones. Its lyrics combine a sardonic world-weariness with an epigrammatic polish that few of Azerrad's bands could, or would want to, emulate.

Even so, bands like Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Scotland's Belle and Sebastian have made fine records that bear at least something in common with the best music of Azerrad's bands. The sounds are less brutal and intense, more reflective and even soothing. But the challenge to the slickness of the Billboard charts is as pointed as ever.

So too is the ambivalence about success. Ten years ago the critic Simon Reynolds contrasted the "narcissism" of mainstream performers with the more damaged self-image exhibited by the "white middle class" makers of alternative rock. "Pride and dignity has little resonance," he suggested, "when all your life you've been trained to be aspirational and competitive…. What does resonate is the fantasy of being unemployable, of being an unmotivated object rather than a purposeful subject." Azerrad's bands weren't quite as passive as all that. Suspicious of mainstream rock and the record corporations, they demanded success on their own terms. But averse to punk purism and characteristically uncertain about the future, they weren't entirely sure what those terms should be. "We're getting nowhere," Paul Westerberg sang with a shuffling gait, "quick as we know how."

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