Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991by Michael Azerrad
This is the never-before-told story of the musical revolution that happened right under the nose of the Reagan Eighties--when a small but sprawling network of bands, labels, fanzines, radio stations, and other subversives reenergized American rock with punk rock's do-it-yourself credo and created music that was deeply personal, often brilliant, always challenging, and immensely influential. This sweeping chronicle of music, politics, drugs, fear, loathing, and faith has been recognized as an indie rock classic in its own right.
Among the bands profiled: Mission of Burma, Butthole Surfers, The Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Big Black, Hüsker Dü, Fugazi, Minor Threat, Mudhoney, The Replacements, Beat Happening, and Dinosaur Jr.
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Read an Excerpt
FLIPSIDE INTERVIEWER: DO YOU MAKE A PROFIT?
GREG GINN: WE TRY TO EAT.
It's not surprising that the indie movement largely started in Southern California -- after all, it had the infrastructure: Slash and Flipside fanzines started in 1977, and indie labels like Frontier and Posh Boy and Dangerhouse started soon afterward. KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer played the region's punk music on his show; listeners could buy what they heard thanks to various area distributors and record shops and see the bands at places like the Masque, the Starwood, the Whisky, the Fleetwood, and various impromptu venues. And there were great bands like the Germs, Fear, the Dickies, the Dils, X, and countless others. No other region in the country had quite as good a setup.
But by 1979 the original punk scene had almost completely died out. Hipsters had moved on to arty post-punk bands like the Fall, Gang of Four, and Joy Division. They were replaced by a bunch of toughs coming in from outlying suburbs who were only beginning to discover punk's speed, power, and aggression. They didn't care that punk rock was already being dismissed as a spent force, kid bands playing at being the Ramones a few years too late. Dispensing with all pretension, these kids boiled the music down to its essence, then revved up the tempos to the speed of a pencil impatiently tapping on a school desk, and called the result "hardcore." As writer Barney Hoskyns put it, this new music was "younger, faster and angrier, full of the pent-up rage of dysfunctional Orange County adolescents who'd had enough of living in a bland Republican paradise."
Fairly quickly, hardcore spread around the country and coalesced into a small but robust community. Just as "hip-hop" was an umbrella term for the music, art, fashion, and dance of a then nascent urban subculture, so was "hardcore." Hardcore artwork was all stark, cartoonish imagery, rough-hewn photocopied collage, and violently scrawled lettering; fashion was basically typical suburban attire but ripped and dingy, topped with militarily short haircuts; the preferred mode of terpsichorean expression was a new thing called slam dancing, in which participants simply bashed into one another like human bumper cars.
Hardcore punk drew a line in the sand between older avant-rock fans and a new bunch of kids who were coming up. On one side were those who considered the music (and its fans) loud, ugly, and incoherent; to the folks on the other side, hardcore was the only music that mattered. A rare generational divide in rock music had arisen. And that's when exciting things happen.
Black Flag was more than just the flagship band of the Southern California hardcore scene. It was more than even the flagship band of American hardcore itself. They were required listening for anyone who was interested in underground music. And by virtue of their relentless touring, the band did more than any other to blaze a trail through America that all kinds of bands could follow. Not only did they establish punk rock beachheads in literally every corner of the country; they inspired countless other bands to form and start doing it for themselves. The band's selfless work ethic was a model for the decade ahead, overcoming indifference, lack of venues, poverty, even police harassment.
Black Flag was among the first bands to suggest that if you didn't like "the system," you should simply create one of your own. And indeed, Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn also founded and ran Black Flag's label, SST Records. Ginn took his label from a cash-strapped, cop-hassled storefront operation to easily the most influential and popular underground indie of the Eighties, releasing classics by the likes of Bad Brains, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, and many more.
SST and Black Flag in particular hit a deep and molten vein in American culture. Their fans were just as disaffected from the mainstream as the bands were. "Black Flag, like a lot of these bands, were playing for the people who maybe felt jilted by things or left out by things," says the band's fourth lead singer, Henry Rollins. "When you say, 'Be all you can be,' I know you're not talking to me, motherfucker. I know I'm not joining the navy and I know your laws don't mean shit to me because the hypocrisy that welds them all together, I cannot abide. There's a lot of people with a lot of fury in this country -- America is seething at all times. It's like a Gaza Strip that's three thousand miles long."
Greg Ginn never really liked rock music as a kid. "I considered it kind of stupid," he says. "I considered it just trying to interject some kind of legitimacy into making three-minute pop commercials, basically." Ginn didn't even own any records until he was eighteen and received David Ackles's 1972 art-folk masterpiece American Gothic as a premium for subscribing to a local public radio station. The record opened a new world for Ginn; a year later he began playing acoustic guitar as a "tension release" after studying economics all day at UCLA.
Ginn had spent his early childhood with his parents and four brothers and sisters in a small farming community outside Bakersfield, California. His father earned a meager schoolteacher's salary, so Ginn got used to cramped surroundings and living on limited means. "I never had new clothes," says Ginn. "My dad would go to Salvation Army, Goodwill, and he would consider those expensive thrift stores -- 'Salvation Army, that's expensive!' He would find the cheaper places."
In 1962, when Ginn was eight, the family moved to Hermosa Beach, California, in the solidly white middle-class South Bay area a couple of dozen miles south of Los Angeles. Hermosa Beach had been a beatnik mecca in the Fifties, but by the time Ginn got there, it was a haven for surfers (and inspired Jan & Dean's 1963 classic "Surf City").
But while his peers were into hanging ten, Ginn disdained the conformity and materialism of surfing; a very tall, very quiet kid, he preferred to write poetry and do ham radio. A generation later he would have been a computer nerd. At the age of twelve, he published an amateur radio fanzine called The Novice and founded Solid State Tuners (SST), a mailorder business selling modified World War II surplus radio equipment; it became a small but thriving business that Ginn ran well into his twenties.
After learning to play an acoustic, Ginn picked up an electric guitar and began writing aggressive, vaguely blues-based songs, but only for himself. "I was never the stereotypical teenager," Ginn said, "sitting in his room and dreaming of becoming a rock star, so I just played what I liked and thought was good." Ginn's music had nothing to do with the musical climate of the mid-Seventies, especially in Hermosa Beach, where everybody seemed to be into the British pomp-rock band Genesis. "The general perception was that rock was technical and clean and 'We can't do it like we did it in the Sixties,' " he said. "I wished it was more like the Sixties!"
It's no wonder Ginn got excited when he began reading in the Village Voice about a new music called "punk rock" that was coming out of New York clubs like Max's Kansas City and CBGB. Even before he heard a note, he was sure punk was what he was looking for. "I looked at punk rock as a break in the conformity that was going on," says Ginn. "There wasn't a specific sound in early punk rock and there wasn't a specific look or anything like that -- it seemed to be a place where anybody could go who didn't fit into the conventional rock mode."
Ginn sent away for the classic "Little Johnny Jewel" single by the New York band Television on tiny Ork Records. The music was powerful, brilliant, and it had nothing to do with Genesis or the slick corporate rock that dominated the music industry in the mid-Seventies; this music was organic in the way it was played, recorded, and, just as important, how it was popularized. It was hardly "three-minute pop commercials."
Ginn was hooked.
By then Ginn had developed extraordinarily wide-ranging musical tastes. He dug Motown, disco, country artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, and adored all kinds of jazz, from big band to early fusion; in the Seventies he was a regular at Hermosa Beach's fabled jazz club the Lighthouse, where he witnessed legends like Yusef Lateef and Mose Allison. But besides his beloved B.B. King, there was only one group that Ginn adored more than any other. "The Grateful Dead -- if there's one favorite band I have, it's probably that," says Ginn. "I saw them maybe seventy-five times."
But because Ginn was only a novice guitarist, none of those influences came through in his playing; he was simply making music to work off energy and frustration, and as generations of beginners before him had discovered, the quickest shortcut to a cool guitar sound was nasty, brutish distortion. Then, when he saw the Ramones play, Ginn "got a speed rush," he said, "and decided to turn it up a notch." The next logical step was to form a band.
In late '76 a mutual friend introduced Ginn to a hard-partying loudmouth named Keith Morris; the two hit it off and decided to start a band. Morris wanted to play drums, but Ginn was convinced Morris should sing. Morris protested that he didn't write lyrics and, besides, he was no Freddie Mercury. But punk had showed Ginn you didn't need gold-plated tonsils to rock, and Morris eventually agreed. They drafted a few of Morris's friends -- "scruffy beach rat types who were more interested in getting laid and finding drugs than really playing," Morris said.and began rehearsing in Ginn's tiny house by the beach. In honor of their hectic tempos, they called the band Panic.
There was precious little punk rock to emulate at the time, so the band picked up the aggressive sounds they heard in Black Sabbath, the Stooges, and the MC5, only faster. "Our statement was that we were going to be loud and abrasive," said Morris. "We were going to have fun and we weren't going to be like anything you've heard before. We might look like Deadheads -- at that point we had long hair, but the Ramones did, too -- but we meant business." They played parties to nearly universal disdain.
They soon moved their practices to Ginn's space at the Church, a dilapidated house of worship in Hermosa Beach that had been converted into workshops for artists but was in effect a hangout for runaways and misfits. They got kicked out for making too much noise and found a new rehearsal space in the spring of '77. They practiced every day, but since their bass player usually flaked out on rehearsals, Ginn had to carry much of the rhythm on his own and began developing a simple, heavily rhythmic style that never outpaced his limited technique.
A band called Wurm also practiced in the Church, and the two bands began playing parties together. Wurm's bassist, an intense, sharpwitted guy named Gary McDaniel, liked Panic's aggressive, cathartic approach and began sitting in with them. McDaniel and Ginn connected immediately. "He would always have a lot of theories on life, on this and that -- he was a thinking person," says Ginn. "He didn't want to fit into the regular society thing, but not the hippie thing, either."
Like Ginn, McDaniel, who went by the stage name Chuck Dukowski, was repulsed by mellow folkies like James Taylor and effete art-rockers. He was a student at UC Santa Barbara when he saw the Ramones. "I had never seen a band play so fast," he said. "Suddenly you could point to a band and say, 'If they can do it, why can't we?' "
For their first couple of years, Panic played exclusively at parties and youth centers around the South Bay because the Masque, the key L.A. punk club, refused to book them. "They said it wasn't cool to live in Hermosa Beach," Ginn claimed, which is a way of saying that the band's suburban T-shirt, sneakers, and jeans look flew in the face of the consumptive safety-pin and leather jacket pose of the Anglophilic L.A. punks. By necessity, Panic developed a knack for finding offbeat places to stage their explosive, anarchic performances, often sharing bills with Orange County punk bands, relatively affluent suburbanites who could afford things like renting halls and PA systems.
The party circuit had a very tangible effect on the band's music. "That's where we really developed the idea of playing as many songs in as little time as possible," says Ginn, "because it was always almost like clockwork -- you could play for twenty minutes before the police would show up. So we knew that we had a certain amount of time: don't make any noise until you start playing and then just go hard and long until they show up."
Their first proper show was at a Moose Lodge in nearby Redondo Beach. During the first set, Morris began swinging an American flag around, much to the displeasure of the assembled Moose. He was ejected from the building, but he donned a longhaired wig and sneaked back in to sing the second set. Eventually the band progressed to playing shows at the Fleetwood in Redondo Beach, where they built up such a substantial following that the Hollywood clubs couldn't ignore them anymore, effecting a sea change in L.A. punk.
Early on Ginn met a cheery fellow known as Spot, who wrote record reviews for a Hermosa Beach paper. Ginn would sometimes stop by the vegetarian restaurant where Spot worked and shoot the breeze about music. "He was a nerd," Spot recalls. "He was just an awkward nerd who was very opinionated. Couldn't imagine him ever being in a band." Later Spot became assistant engineer at local studio Media Art, which boasted cheap hourly rates and sixteen-track recording. When Ginn asked him to record his band, Spot agreed, figuring it would be a nice break from the usual watery pop-folk. "They only had six songs," Spot recalls. "They could play their entire set in ten minutes.
"They were just goons and geeks," he adds. "Definitely not the beautiful people."
In January '78 Panic recorded eight songs at Media Art, with Spot assistant engineering. But nobody wanted to touch the band's raging slab of aggro-punk except L.A.'s garage-pop revivalists Bomp Records, who had already released singles by L.A. punk bands like the Weirdos and the Zeros. But by late 1978 Bomp still hadn't formally agreed to release the record. So Ginn, figuring he had enough business expertise from SST Electronics and his UCLA economics studies, simply did it himself.
"I just looked in the phone book under record pressing plants and there was one there," says Ginn, "and so I just took it in to them and I knew about printing because I had always done catalogs and [The Novice] so we just did a sleeve that was folded in a plastic bag. And then got the singles made and put in there." Ginn got his younger brother, who went by the name Raymond Pettibon, to do the cover, an unsettling pen-and-ink illustration of a teacher keeping a student at bay with a chair, like a lion tamer.
A few months earlier they had discovered that another band already had the name Panic. Pettibon suggested "Black Flag" and designed a logo for the band, a stylized rippling flag made up of four vertical black rectangles. If a white flag means surrender, it was plain what a black flag meant; a black flag is also a recognized symbol for anarchy, not to mention the traditional emblem of pirates; it sounded a bit like their heroes Black Sabbath as well. Of course, the fact that Black Flag was also a popular insecticide didn't hurt either. "We were comfortable with all the implications of the name," says Ginn, "as well as it just sounded, you know, heavy."
In January '79 Ginn released the four-song Nervous Breakdown EP, SST Records catalog #001. It could well be their best recording; it was definitely the one by which everything after it would be measured. "It set the template -- this is what it is," Ginn said. "After that, people couldn't argue with me as to what Black Flag was or wasn't."
With music and lyrics by Ginn, the record is rude, scuzzy, and totally exhilarating. With his sardonic, Johnny Rottenesque delivery, Morris inflates the torment of teen angst into full-blown insanity: "I'm crazy and I'm hurt / Head on my shoulders goin' berserk," he whines on the title track; same for the desperate "Fix Me" ("Fix me, fix my head / Fix me please, I don't want to be dead").
Drummer Brian Migdol left the band and was replaced by Roberto Valverde, better known as Robo, who originally hailed from Colombia. "A real sweet guy and super enigmatic," recalls future Black Flag singer Henry Rollins. "He had a very shady past which he would not talk about." The rumor that made the rounds was that Valverde had been a soldier in the notoriously corrupt Colombian army.
In July '79 the band played an infamous show at a spring family outing at Manhattan Beach's Polliwog Park, having told town officials they were a regular rock band. It didn't take very long for the assembled moms and dads to figure differently. "People threw everything from insults to watermelons, beer cans, ice, and sandwiches at us," wrote Dukowski in the liner notes to the Everything Went Black compilation. "Parents emptied their ice chests so that their families could throw their lunches.... Afterwards I enjoyed a lunch of delicatessen sandwiches which I found still in their wrappers."
Copyright © 2001 by Michael Azerrad
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Simply outstanding! if you were into the indie rock scene in the 1980's, you will appreciate this book. Get the real stories and the genuine dirt on the foremost indie rock bands of this period. Growing up I didnt idolize sports heroes or politicians... my heroes were underground rock stars ( Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, Etc). This book really emphasizes the ' Can Do ' attitude that helped these bands spread a national following in the days when radio wouldnt play their music, and MTV had no time for them.Gee... not alot has really changed. Buy this book ( or steal it, or borrow from a library like i did)and give it to anyone you know who loved ( or still loves) the replacements, the minutmen, black flag, minor threat, Dinosaur jr., Fugazi, mudhoney, etc. they will thank you for it, provided that they can read. My only wish now is that the author will do an expose on the indie record labels themselves... he touches on this subject in the book quite a bit, but i want the full history of Subpop, dischord, etc. Their stories are as lo-fi and diverse as the bands they distributed ( or ripped off as the case may be).One thing about the book : the subject really is true to the title in that any of the bands that were underground, but happened to be on a major or non- indie label do not get coverage. An author could do an entire series of books just on the bands that didnt make the cut for those reasons.
One of the best music books I have ever read. The author's grasp of and love of the bands he writes about is evident. Their stories, influences, and what they accomplished is well researched and chronicled. If I could recommend one book on alt/indie bands of the 80s this would be it.
This book rules! hands down. it epitoimizes the D.I.Y. spirit of punk beginning with the American hardcore punk moment and showing where that spirit and thus, the music progressed; that the 'emotional hardcore', and indie rock bands were the true heir of the punk movement and the torchbearers of the D.I.Y. spirit. This book is very informative and will give you several new great bands to listen to, and give you a reason for listening to them, and definitely solidify or shape your ideology for the better. I highly recommend this book and believe that there is a lot to gain from reading this book.
If you are into punk/indy/alternative music at all you need to read this book. Well-written and even if you don't know all the bands well when you buy it, you will want to by the end. It motivated me to re-buy all the albums I sold years ago. If there are any young punk bands out there, you need to read this. It will inspire you in a scene that has gotten stale.
Very accurate and true to life. Brought me back to a very special time in rock history.