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.