Friday, July 1, 2011

'80s Indie Crunch, Part One

Hello, all. As you can see, the blog's gotten a stripped-down, brighter, and hopefully easier-to-read redesign. I'm hoping this eradicates the eyestrain some of you closer to my age have been complaining about. Believe me, I get it: I never think of myself as being in my 40s, or any age, and hate thinking of myself as "old." But now and again, my body tells me otherwise....

My Facebook friends have seen me, the past few days, talking about music I call "'80s Indie Crunch," for lack of a better term. This got triggered by Bob Mould's excellent new memoir, as well as a re-read of co-author Michael Azzarad's now-classic '80s American underground rock chronicle, Our Band Could Be Your Life. It's shaped my listening the past few days, and made me realize this music was my roots as much as late '70s punk rock was, or oldies radio or '60s country music were.

The nostalgia for the '80s really frustrates me. What is celebrated is an experience that was not my own. I'm sorry, but Reagan-era politics, bad TV and movies, and MTV heroes like The Police, Def Leppard, and Depeche Mode did not speak to me, nor to a sizable amount of young Americans back then. What did was a wide-ranging set of sounds that was really the American post-punk reaction.

It could be hardcore, it could be stuff that sounded like the classic punk rock template, it could also just be noisy, spiky, abrasive pop music that didn't really fit anywhere. Point was this was not false glamor, it was gritty and real, and spoke to a generation of young Americans like me that did not fit, probably read more books than the average person, didn't feel beautiful or at peace with "morning in America." College radio and self-published fanzines spread the word on this music in pre-internet times, and you really had to search out these independently released records, maybe mail-ordering them. The bands toured on a shoestring in clapped-out vans, playing on pawn shop gear, sleeping on fans floors and eating whatever they could find, sometimes going days without being able to shower, often booking the tour itinerary on the fly, based on info other bands on the circuit handed down.

This was the mythic, independent, pioneer American spirit taught in history text books brought to life in the rock 'n' roll world. This was the dawn of indie rock, when that term did not mean a fear of loud guitar amps or abrasive sonics. This was when "hipster" didn't mean a clueless, "ironic" college student you wanted to beat up on principle.

It meant bands like Boston's Mission Of Burma, who some authoritative rock critics like Byron Coley feel were Husker Du before there was a Husker Du. (Bob Mould acknowledges Burma had an impact, and his later band Sugar even covered Burma's "That's When I Reach For My Revolver.") This whirling dervish of obtuse pop melodics, crushing volume and noise, and rhythmic thrust, Burma, like many bands I adore, never received their due until after they were gone, sacrificed to guitarist Roger Miller's worsening tinnitus. And like some seminal bands, Burma reformed in the past decade and played to larger and more adoring crowds than they enjoyed in their heyday. You can see why in this clip from their dawn, 1979, ripping into one of their best, "Peking Spring":

Then there was Big Black, the nasty mojo children of future recording studio genius Steve Albini, as controversial a figure as the American underground has seen. Big Black, Albini's introduction to the world at large, were gloriously explosive and dangerous: Sheet metal guitar tones, cement mixer bass, and the relentless hammering of Roland The Drum Machine (which was a big fuck-you to the then prevalent technopop and dance culture, as well as to naysayers who felt you couldn't rock with a drum machine). And to match the unrelentingly ugly sonic mood, Albini as a lyricist pulled back the rock that was American culture and scooped up the worms and bugs crawling underneath and rubbed them in your face: Racism? Check. Domestic violence? You bet. Small town boredom turned to petty destruction? Absolutely. An entire small midwestern town populated by pedophiles? Uh-huh. This was the sound of the Gang Of Four gone mean and nasty and direct....

Of course, the oft-cited band that paved that indie trail for the '80s hellspawn of punk rock was Black Flag. I stated last night, posting this same video at my Facebook wall, that Black Flag's Damaged LP really touched a nerve in me. They sounded to me like a louder, nervier Iggy And The Stooges with Captain Beefheart as musical director on one hand, and what I always had wanted heavy metal to sound like on the other. And guitarist/songwriter Greg Ginn's knack for clawing at his own nerve endings and turning his own neuroses inside out in a painful fashion offered a different take on punk rock angst, one only implicitly political and less preachy. This was emotional, committed, explosive, intense rock 'n' roll that still stands to this day. Here's the lineup that created Damaged, with a young Henry Rollins who had yet to see many gyms or tattoo artists....

This is just a handful of samples of the scree I'm talking about. More to come for sure - I never like spending longer than an hour working on these posts. Hopefully, this can create a dialogue on what we can still learn from this aesthetic, and the ethics and values it cherished and practiced. Be careful out there.

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