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Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991

by Michael Azerrad

Pub Date: July 31st, 2001
ISBN: 0-316-06379-7
Publisher: Little, Brown

A substantial, elegantly rendered assessment of the “indie rock” era, a modest and disheveled American musical underground that presaged its nemesis, the 1990s “alternative” explosion.

Music journalist Azerrad (Come as You Are, not reviewed, etc.) has an insider’s savvy in documenting this most insider-ish genre, 1980s-era indie: energetic, abrasive post-punk bands that barnstormed small US and European clubs, dependent on a low-budget network of labels and fanzines for survival. The author portrays a national movement composed of thriving regional scenes, with bands, small record shops, and college-radio programmers finding common ground outside the commercial realm. He focuses on the histories of 13 “emblematic bands of that incredible time” whose often hilarious stories indeed sum up the pre-alternative rock days of touring in vans and sleeping on floors. His accounts of the bands are ordered chronologically, providing a rough narrative of the rock underground’s collision with the mainstream. Early “hardcore” bands such as L.A.’s Black Flag treated the established order with contempt (resulting in their famed clashes with police), while out-there Texas rockers Butthole Surfers were embraced by punks for their compellingly weird, puerile antics. Significant bands like the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, and Big Black had their trajectories cut short, yet their innovations reverberated throughout the scene. Later in the ’80s, bands like Minneapolis power-pop trio Hüsker Dü and the perpetually intoxicated Replacements flirted with major labels and collegiate success, only to have their careers derailed by corporate meddling. Finally, the most survival-minded of the indie bands either approached the mainstream on their own terms (early Nirvana boosters Sonic Youth), or resolutely carved out their own uncompromised territory (Fugazi). Azerrad’s approach necessarily overlooks the countless little-known rock powerhouses that defined the movement’s grassroots, and he describes the indie labels’ and enthusiasts’ anti-corporate, self-sustaining ethos without really seeming to promote or approve of it.

A well-done, thoroughly detailed look at the stories behind the music that captures both the heart and the eccentricity of outsider rock’s golden age.