While Reaganomics and MTV dominated the popular consumer culture of the 80s, a musical revolution was happening in basements all across America that was led by ambitious (or bored) young men and women who wanted to create meaning for their lives in a country that felt more like Springsteen’s Nebraska than Jackson’s Thriller.
And just like how the Velvet Underground transformed the lives of the small group that initially bought their records, the 80s American underground would be heard by few but would influence musicians and journalists all across the country by challenging the notion of musical success, and it would prove to a generation that you could actually do it yourself.
In Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 (Little Brown, 2002), Michael Azerrad chronicles thirteen different American bands during the 80s and how each band, in their own way, helped shape the underground music that would later be classified as alternative and indie.
Some of these bands you already know (Sonic Youth, The Replacements), while others might be new to you (Big Black, Mission of Burma), but Azerrad takes equal care of retelling each band’s history of humble beginnings, slow success (if they had any), and often-ugly endings. These are not glamorous stories of sex, drugs, and rock & roll but instead are tales of bootstrapped tours, internal fighting, and often heartbreaking tragedy. And lots of drugs.
According to Azerrad, the underground began in California in 1978 with Black Flag’s SST Records and ended in 1991 when Nevermind blew up MTV. In between those thirteen years saw the rise and fall of most of these bands that we now call alternative, though back then there was no official title for this scattered network of devoted bands, labels, and fanzines (the original music blogs) that provided role models for younger bands to go their own way.
Each band brought something new to the scene. Hardcore bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat gave kids, who were jaded by the failure of the counterculture, a sound and a energy that was pure and (for a while) free of bullshit. The Replacements gave countless sloppy drunks the hope that they could write music as good as the Beatles. Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth proved that noise could be beautiful. Minutemen made it ok to write punk songs inspired by Ulysses. And so on.
What’s fascinating about these bands is that, while they all had similar upbringings, they all believed in very different ideologies of DIY. Some bands, like Black Flag, were out to rise above and destroy the mainstream machines that were hurting young bands from achieving success (not that you wanted to be in the mainstream with those bloodsuckers). Other bands, like Hüsker Dü, wanted mainstream success, but they also wanted to create their own system and network to play by their own rules. Sometimes it wasn’t even about the system or achieving great success. Often these bands, almost all of them in the beginning, just wanted to write music that made sense to them and their audience (one of my favorite lines comes from Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye: “I don’t know enough about the world to really sing about it. But I knew enough about my world to sing about it.”). Regardless of the music’s intent, all these bands shared the same network and often helped each other in a true sense of community.
You’ll enjoy re-reading the mishaps of your favorite bands, but if you don’t know any of these bands then consider this your official textbook in American Indie 101.
But this book isn’t so much about these bands as it is a story of being young and in love with music in the 80s, when a band from your small home town could make it big and that you finally had something to root for and claim for yourself. You’ll also realize that these now legendary groups were started by normal people just like you or I, people who were just trying to do their own thing with what they had. As Mike Watt famously wrote in his history lesson, our band could be your life. If they could do it, so could you.
Take these stories with a grain of salt though; Azerrad tends to let his bias get in the way (there’s a decent amount of backhanded praise towards the Replacements, and apparently everything Sonic Youth and Steve Albini did was brilliant and ahead of its time). It also seems that Azerrad picked these thirteen bands because they all somehow knew and worked with each other, so every story has the same people showing up which becomes repetitive.
But bias aside, you won’t find a better book about this era and is as compelling and heartbreaking as the finest forms of fiction. If you want to learn about the American underground back when “indie” actually meant “independent”, then this is your book.
Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber