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.
This one took me a while to get through and occasionally led to existential crises in the nature of, "WHY AM I READING A 50 PAGE CHAPTER ABOUT THE BUTTHOLE SURFERS WHEN THERE ARE PEOPLE FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST?"
There are certainly places where this book delves into "More information than I could possibly need about people I really don't care about." But overall, this is a fascinating reading experience, and I think just about any level of information a reader goes in with (as long as they have some interest) they will find some new information and insight.
I found the structure of the book particularly effective, because it's divided into chapters that cover the story arcs of the individual bands. While there are certainly common themes in the story of any band, particularly within the fairly narrow slice of genre that Azerrad is covering here, he manages to find an interesting angle for just about every chapter. The bands that were made up of lifelong friends versus the ones that couldn't stand each other (or the ones that started as the first and ended up as the second), the bands that were dedicated to promoting a way of life or a political movement versus the ones that wanted to get rich versus the ones that just cared about making music, the artists who viewed what they did as a job versus the ones who were determined to sabotage their own success. Every story feels a little different, and it's the insight into the individual personalities and group dynamics that made me keep reading.
A real bonus to this book is the rise of YouTube and Netflix Instant, which means a lot of opportunity to find footage of just about everything Azerrad is describing, plus (since this book was published 10 years ago) the mandatory 'whatever happened to that guy?' googling.
Recommended, basically, if you like stories about bands and/or you're a rock music nerd who'd like to be a bigger one. NOT particularly recommended if an excess of white boy pain is going to bring your enjoyment to a halt. At the very least be prepared to roll your eyes at some of these people's behavior, but overall I think the author puts it in a fair perspective.
as a kid i assumed punk & hardcore was right-wing; from the safe confines of long island it seemed the nose-ringed mohawked shirtless skinheads were all about death and destruction and i naturally figured they'd be so inclined to support the party which always seemed so gleeful about dropping bombs and sticking it to the poor -- yeah, dead wrong about the punks and a bit of a caricature regarding the grand ol' party. must admit i was kinda disappointed when i discovered most punks were practically socialists. it all felt a bit wimpy and let's-get-alongsy for such an aggressive music.
a thing I kinda loathe about punk and hardcore is that it all just smacks of such good taste and I know it's ironic b/c punk and hardcore were created as a supposed affront to good taste but, y'know, everyone into 'good' music digs black flag & the clash but, I suppose, duchamp is an old master and the fauvists ended up in the museums. that's just how it goes. it's as stupid to deliberately swim against stream as it is to deliberately swim with the stream (but, it is more fun). and, of course, rock&pop is all about the theatrics: goth, punk, glam, country, psychedelia, etc, all have their aesthetic, and it enriches the experience -- if one has a problem with the 'cool' aspect of rock&pop, one basically has a problem with all of rock&pop. but i'm a born contrarian. and punk now reminds me of seeing the kinks at the wiltern and watching thousands of people repeating the chorus, 'I'm not like everybody else!' -- ray davies had to've appreciated that irony.
this book is pretty great, by the way. highly recommended. whether or not you're familiar with the bands discussed, azerrad sucks you right into the life of the music. here's who the book's about:
black flag the minutemen mission of burma minor threat hüsker dü replacements sonic youth butthole surfers big black dinosaur jr. fugazi mudhoney beat happening
some random stuff: Henry rollins mostly sucks, all macho and spoken-wordish and always very very very good tastish - he ain't half the man that morrissey is (even though 'tv party' makes me happy). i was never into buttonhole surfers (my spellcheck changed the name of the band. made me smile, so i'm gonna leave it) but have gotten into them since reading this book - they're great! i just can't get past ian mckaye's voice. i've never heard a single song by mission to burma or beat happening.
my 10 favorite punk albums (pretty specific taste here):
1. ramones - ramones 2. ramones - rocket to russia 3. stooges - fun house 4. buzzcocks - singles going steady 5. bad brains - bad brains 6. dead kennedys - fresh fruit for rotting vegetables 7. stooges - raw power 8. ramones - leave home 9. ramones - road to ruin 10. OFF! - first four EPs
This is such a GUY book. The band histories are filled with the drama and backbiting you would expect from teenage girls, but are posited as Very Important Cultural Happenings. I guess that is the book's strength, and its entire reason for existing: documenting a whole bunch of assholes and taking them seriously, even at their most hapless and idiotic. I mean, he manages to write a deathly serious chapter on Black Flag, whereas I just giggle at the thought of Henry Rollins circa '81, standing on stage in his teeny little black shorts and screaming at people.
Let's see - it's all very journalistic. The writer isn't a character and he doesn't talk about his own memories or involvement. So, it's interesting that he's trying to do something a bit more documentary-like rather than a personal history. And he keeps pretty neutral for most of it, but then squanders whatever currency he has built up as an objective observer on weird little jabs at specific bands (you don't like The Cure or Ministry, I GET IT.)
There are points when the fanboyism is a little too obvious. Explaining away Ian Mackaye's and Henry Rollins early, weird race things as "misunderstandings" wastes a good chance to actually talk about what they meant. And he gives way too much slack to Steve Albini.
Hmmm. I guess this book is good at being the book that it is, and most of my annoyance and disappointment that it is not the book that it is not.
I missed the entire “Indie Revolution” as I spent the late 80’s – early 90’s first as a psychically fragile (nearly suicidal) drifter-type (though I worked sporadically) living in Baltimore without a music collection, then as a wash-up living back in my parents’ basement in small town Delaware, and finally as a practitioner of Zen and social isolate living in Denver who listened to little more than classical music. This book helped me immeasurably in catching up with the past I missed while it was happening. I don’t care finding out what was uber-hip 20 years ago via a book published 10 years ago. I don’t care not being as cool as everyone thinks I am. This was one of the best books on music I have ever read.
A list of my experiences with every band featured in the book:
Black Flag – The only band in the book I was aware of and listened to (however involuntarily) as their music was coming out and happening. I like Black Flag but I had to endure far too many fraternity parties while hearing it, and as it was “my” fraternity and I lived in the fraternity house I had nowhere to escape. Much of my college career was spent feeling this beer and punk induced claustrophobia. A guy I knew from the fraternity listened to Black Flag exclusively. He had large dark eyebrows and was quite imposing. Sometimes I would ride with him places and he would blast Black Flag and drink beer from cans while driving. On a simple half hour excursion he could consume almost a six pack. I remember looking through the tape collection in his car – nothing but Black Flag and Mozart. It was his dad’s car. His dad listened to nothing but Mozart. I don't really care to hear much Black Flag again, and I can't stand Henry Rollins these days.
The Minutemen – I was introduced to them through a local station here in Philly – WKDU out of Drexel University – about ten years ago, which was the beginning of my punk rebirth, when I began listening to it as actual music, rather than just a party and/or anger catalyst. I was immediately smitten and sensed an immediate kinship, largely through a connection made between their music and the classic rock I listened to almost exclusively growing up. They remain a favorite.
Mission of Burma – I had heard of them before reading this book but had never listened to them. I picked up Vs. before finishing the chapter on them. Excellent album. Powerful.
Minor Threat – I’m sure I heard them during my claustrophobic frat party years, but I have no memory, even after listening to a few of their tunes while reading their chapter. Good stuff, but probably not something that will mean all that much to me now; though Ian MacKaye’s approach to conducting his life is inspiring and jives with some of my own philosophies, though I’m far from straight-edged.
Husker Du – I picked up New Day Rising a few years ago and it quickly became a favorite. The combination of raw power and intelligence immediately appealed to me. A very large enveloping sound. I’ll more than likely check out more of their albums.
The Replacements – Another band that has far too many associations with my claustrophobic frat party years. Even more so than Black Flag. I have Let It Be and think it’s good, but I still have a hard time hearing it with fresh non-beer-soaked ears and socially paranoid mind. I doubt I’ll explore them beyond the one album in my possession.
Sonic Youth – For some reason I always got them confused with Soft Machine and so thought they had been around since at least the early ‘70’s. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I listened to them with any kind of rounded awareness, when I picked up Daydream Nation, and proceeded to listen to it nonstop for a month or more. I can’t imagine ever getting tired of it. It is easily a favorite album of mine, but I still have not listened to any of their other albums, though I did see Lee Renaldo live once improvising to a Stan Brakhage film (a film which Brakhage by the way intentionally made as a silent film).
Butthole Surfers – I somehow got turned on to them in the late ‘80’s and they immediately struck a chord. They were probably my favorite band for a year or so while I was living a down-and-out existence after graduating from college. At the time I thought it was possible to live completely from one’s primal body. I saw no barriers between my digestive system and the world at large. The Buttholes fit perfectly into this intuitive approach to a rather dangerous and fraught way of living. I still like them and think Gibby Haynes can be hilarious.
Big Black – I probably heard them also during my claustrophobic frat party years but I have no tangible recollection, and I have not even been able to sample them on Spotify as they do not appear to be participating in it. From the descriptions in the book I think I would like them, though I probably wouldn’t listen to them that often. Steve Albini reminds me of Robert Crumb in the level of his intelligent disgust with almost all things.
Dinosaur Jr. – Didn’t listen to them until I put my wife’s two albums of theirs she had on our iPod. My only thought was that Pavement got a lot from them, but I didn’t think much more about them. After reading this I am intrigued by J Mascis, though I’m not sure I want to put much effort into getting inside his head. I will probably pick up You’re Living All Over Me, which I think I’ll like.
Fugazi – I don’t recall ever hearing a Fugazi tune, though I’m sure I have on WKDU. They interest me much more than Minor Threat. I plan on picking up one of their albums after reading this book. Sounds like they could offer the kind of thorny jumpy intelligence I often crave.
Mudhoney – I had never previously listened to them, but I checked out a few of their songs while reading their chapter. I like their raw rock out approach, but I’m not too intrigued and doubt I’ll explore them further than an occasional listen on Spotify or Youtube.
Beat Happening – Being a long-time Jonathan Richman fan I immediately linked the two when I started reading their chapter. A few pages in Richman was mentioned as an inspiration for Calvin Johnson, so I thought maybe I have always been cooler than I thought. I will definitely be listening to a lot of Beat Happening in the near future.
As consumers/listeners of music, there is a collective tendency to assume that the individuals behind classic records transcend the monotony and challenge of everyday life due to the impressive standing of their artistic legacy. It's not too often, especially now in 2022, that Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney are thought of in any terms beyond their mythological caricatures. In certain circles of music, namely the indie/punk scene, the same stands for many of the names discussed and interviewed in Azerrad's work, Our Band Could Be Your Life.
J Mascis, Lou Barlow, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, and so forth seemingly exist in the collective indie consciousness as deified artists whose impact on music looms over the fact that they are, first and foremost, human beings prone to imperfection.
This humanization of mythology is what makes Azerrad's book so engaging and worthwhile to any fans of the source material. He effectively removes the veil that has been drawn between the listener and the record, and provides a distinctively personal view into the minds behind the burgeoning indie scene of the early to mid-80's. We glimpse the toil of the working band: the challenges of touring, writing, and coexisting with bandmates in an often uncomfortably close and vulnerable context.
And Azerrad frames this material in concise writing that comes across as appreciative, but seldom reverent, maintaining the challenging goal any legitimate journalist or historian marks as paramount: objectivity (the "Sonic Youth chapter," however, may lean a little too far into veneration). For this reason, I suggest Our Band Could Be Your Life to anyone who has ever picked up a Minor Threat or Dinosaur Jr. record and found a piece of themselves in the process. For those individuals, such as myself, this book is a must.
While not available in our catalog, please visit www.lacrossecounty.org to access additional electronic resources in Hoopla or Libby. Happy reading!
ok i eat this shit up. this book took me a while to get through but mostly because i had to stop frequently to listen to entire albums. it genuinely bums me out sometimes that there is so much more good music in the world than i can realistically absorb & appreciate the way i want to because, alas, i am not a big omniscient sponge
This is right up there with "Please Kill Me" and "The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones" as one of those foundational rocknroll books with a "You Are There" feeling throughout. Basically, if you were under the impression that punk died when Mick Jones got kicked out of The Clash and wasn't revived until Nirvana released Nevermind, do yourself a favor and read this book. Yes, there are a few omissions (okay, just one that kind of sticks out in my mind. Meat Puppets. They're mentioned several times, but don't merit their own chapter) but overall this is a great way to learn about a lot of bands you don't know, or learn more about bands you thought you knew all about. The way the book is constructed forms a roughly chronological timeline, with bands and labels dovetailing neatly into each others' stories. I like Azerrad's decision to omit some of the bigger bands, like REM and The Pixies, and to end each chapter when the band either broke up or signed to a major label. Also, it's really inspiring, even to an old fogey like me. If I had read this book when I was 18, I probably would have started my own record label. But, thankfully, I read it as a nearing-middle-ager who already tried that whole "get in the van!" thing, so I just came home from work and put on some Dinosaur Jr and Minutemen albums instead. But if I knew an 18-year-old who had aspirations of being in a band, or starting their own label, or what have you, this is the book I'd put in their clammy little hands. Go forth, youngsters, and scream your little hearts out!
I have read the chapters on Black Flag and The Minutemen and am loving this book. It revived so many old feelings and memories, and I didn't know it was possible to love Mike Watt any more than I already did, but I find myself even more enamored of The Minutemen. Next I think I'll skip to the Husker Du chapter--should be interesting in light of Bob Mould's recent 'coming-out' memoir.
I just finished the book and absolutely adored it. I think Azerrad does a brilliant job of tracing the geography of local cultural movements--in this case specifically a type of music loosely called 'punk'. I really enjoyed the sense of *place* embedded in each chapter. I also found an eerie parallel to my own life's arc during the late '80s through the early '90s--the book starts with Black Flag, a decidedly Southern California band, and ends in Seattle with the explosion and implosion of SubPop and its bands. As a kid growing up in Southern California I was very aware of Black Flag's influence and I loved the Minutemen and later fIREHOSE. As the music industry shifted its attention to the growing scene in the Pacific Northwest, traced nicely in this book, I found myself in Seattle in the early '90s, a sort-of ground-zero of the co-opting of the 'punk' and 'alternative' music scene.
I'm going to be candid here...wait, when am I not? This book is really only for the hard-core music fans. The ones that want to know everything about it. From the formation and inspiration of the music to the gritty work ethics so many musicians and bands take to make it.
What I love best about this one this is that this book is purely about true indie bands. These were the bands that didn't want to sign with major-labels bc they felt it would sacrifice their integrity and the integrity of the music.
Now, for MOST people I know... they aren't fans of Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, etc. Most find these bands to just be making some sort of racket. But I can guarantee you with the way Azerrad writes the personal history of these bands, you're going to at least want to hear the music afterward. Why? Bc you can practically see and feel the blood, sweat, tears and feces that these bands put up with to hold on to everything they believed in for the music that meant so much to them and the world that they came from.
And you better believe I just used the word feces in a review. That... just... HAPPENED.
But, I digress... most won't be able to make it through the book so easily. It's not a fast-paced thriller hearing about having no food and living in a smelly, sweaty van with the only thing pushing you forward are the handful of loyal fans waiting for you at the next VFW hall. Only the very dedicated appreciate such stories, bc at one point they were one of those handful of dedicated fans.
Long story short? I'm freaking amazing. OR, the bands who gave it all to keep every last bit of control over what they loved the most without sacrificing it for easy $$ and fame are. To you it may be noise, to someone else it may be their reason to get up in the morning.
Un libro que analiza diferentes bandas cuyo denominador común fue ir a contracorriente de la industria y triunfar de diferentes maneras desde el underground y con pocos medios. Cada capítulo desgrana la historia de una de estas bandas y aunque no te gusté la música de algunos las anécdotas de como lograron el éxito te mantienen enganchado. El estilo de Azerrad combina la minuciosidad en los datos con la admiración a estos grupos y te sientes como si un verdadero fan te estuviese hablando de estos grupos. Los capítulos que mas me gustaron fueron los relativos a bandas que he seguido y cuya músoca me encanta como son: HÜSKER DÜ, THE REPLACEMENTS, SONIC YOUTH, , DINOSAUR JR, FUGAZI y MUDHONEY . Además en ellos aprendemos bastante sobro movimientos como el grunge o el hardcore.
Los capítulos sobre BLACK FLAG, MISSION OF BURMA, MINOR THREAT BUTTHOLE SURFERS y BIG BLACK también me gustaron porque relatan aspectos muy importantes sobre la filosofia straight edge, el punk en América y historias bizarras de grupos en gira odiferentes metodos de grabación la mar de curiosos.
Un libro super entretendio para cualquier fan de la música rock.
I loved this book. Azerad profiles bands like Black Flag, Minutemen, Mission of BUrma, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Big BLack, Minor Threat, The Replacements, Fugazi, BEat Happening, Mudhoney, and Dinosaur Jr. It's the royaly of 80s underground music in America.
There are bands that could have been incouded, namely the Pixies, but Azerad wanted to focus on bands that made a big splash in America. And while the Pixies were an American band, they were on 4AD, an English label. They began to hit big in the US in the early 90s, about when this book was winding down.
Readers may wonder why he ignored the southern US scene, primarily the Athens, GA scene. REM signed with Warner Brothers earlier in their career--and Azerad follows each band until they signed with a major label. Same goes for The B52s. But other bands, primarily Pylon, may not have achieved the same notoriety as their Athens counterparts, but they are just as important to the overall music scene.
Azerad focuses on the band and their scenes. He starts the book with bands and at a time when British/LA/New York punk was dying down and the US hardcore/DIY scene was beginning to develop. Profiling bands like Black Flag and The Minutement, Minor Threat, the authors shows the development of an underground national network--a network that was developed by the people in the bands and their fans. With each band profile, Azerad deonstrates how the network grew and what each band and their followers did to contriute.
In some cases, like Mudhoney, he focuses more on SubPop than he does on the band. And some bands, like Dinosaur Jr, may have some people scratching their heads trying to figure out whay they are included.
Overall, the book is a non-nostalgic look (although some readers may get nostalgic after reading it) at what was happeneing below the surface of American music.
I would've been totally shocked if I didn't love this book. With that said, I wound up enjoying it even more than I anticipated. The bands, record labels, and general era in the history of music described here are all favorites of mine. It's so cool seeing all these great college rock bands crossing paths, witnessing their internal drama, and seeing indie rock as we know it ascend to a place of prominence. It really conveys the vitality and joy of its title: as a proud fan of all these bands, I can attest they can be your life and your life will be all the better for it. One of the best books on music I've ever read and I'd recommend it to anyone who's ever enjoyed music on the left side of the dial.
An amusing motif of this book is being excited for your band to open for Public Image Ltd and being disappointed when, in true arrogant, wannabe-rock-star fashion, PiL skips your set. For example, when Minor Threat opened for PiL at the University of Maryland's Ritchie Coliseum in 1982, Ian MacKaye took it personally when John Lydon rode into campus in a limousine after Minor Threat reportedly "rocked fucking the house." Something like this allegedly happened to approximately half of the bands discussed in this book.
Our Band Could Be Your Life is the most absorbing book about music I have ever read. While it's not perfect, it's essential reading for anyone interested in independent music, be it of the era covered by this book (1981-1991) or today. Composed of about a dozen profiles of bands from across the country, it's long-form journalism at its best. Interesting tid bits (and occasionally scandalous details) abound, but more importantly the larger portraits of each of these bands feel close to definitive. Although all of the chapters are strong, I enjoyed the chapters on Black Flag, The Minutemen, Sonic Youth, The Replacements (although the omission of even a reference to Tim, a very close second to that group's best record, independent or not, was curious), Big Black, and Beat Happening the most.
Reading this book, I was struck on just how much the internet changed everything, a fact that is only briefly alluded to in the epilogue. The difficulty of learning about bands, let alone distributing music and planning tours was so much more complicated twenty five years ago, and it's hard not to have a vast amount of respect of the bands who blazed those trails. Indeed, this is a major theme of many of the profiles in the book -- the hard work and determination of these bands, often in the face of indifference.
I think anyone who is or was remotely interested in aggressive independent music (be it punk rock, hardcore, metal, etc) will be instantly transported back in time when the doctrinal approach of Black Flag or Minor Threat is discussed. I personally found the regimentation, the rules, and the (self-)righteousness of those groups vaguely embarrassing and foreign some 25 years later, but I can remember as a pointlessly (and hopefully mostly formerly) "angry" young male their undeniable appeal. There's something undeniably romantic and appealing about that the idea of the outsiders forming their own community against the repressiveness of corporate America and faceless corporate rock. All the same, some of the more cult of personality aspects of the leaders of some of these bands was as off-putting as it was intriguing. That era wasn't perfect, but it was much more interesting than what had come before it.
Where the reader falls on the spectrum of approval of how these bands approached major labels and the prospects of lucrative financial scenarios will doubtlessly influence greatly their feelings on the various bands, but what's most important to note is the very opportunity to consider such prospects (and then embrace them or pointedly raise a middle finger) was a product of the movement these groups started. That's another major theme here: the very idea of Nirvana was impossible without a bands like Black Flag, The Minutemen or Minor Threat.
Socially inept, unyielding personalities make up many of these groups, and even as the reader enjoys learning about their exploits some quarter century later, I for one am very happy to have not been stuck in a lemon of a van with no heat driving around the country while mind games and passive aggressiveness filled the hours between shows. One doesn't need to be a star on the level of Jim Morrison, it turns out, to be a major a-hole and prima donna. That quality, at least, transcends arena rock and crappy basement shows with a dozen people in attendance.
This is a fascinating read, a quick 500 pages, and an invaluable history lesson for people (like me) who take the availability of independent music and opportunities for independent bands for granted. Recommended.
It is hard to judge this book by 2017 standards. Back when this was first published in 2002, Wikipedia was hardly a thing, the MP3-revolution was still on the rise with Spotify et al nowhere to be seen, and the advent of the information age hadn't yet reached the insane levels of access to classic album reissues, band biographies and documentaries that are being generated today. Some of the bands in Michael Azerrad's tome truly had fallen by the wayside.
Things have changed, obviously. Discographies of each of these bands can be fired up within seconds; why bother letting your imagination run wild with romantic notions of what these bands sounded like when you can dive into their impossible-to-find first EP's on Spotify before even finishing the first page of the chapter? And it's also the incredible access to information nowadays that somewhat spoiled a few of the bands profiled. When you've recently read 500-odd pages on the Replacements, or finished not just one but two books on Sonic Youth, whatever Azerrad puts in his 40-ish pages on said bands hardly feel anything more than cliffnotes. It's also through this comparison that you realize that despite the obvious labor of love on display here, these are still just band profiles and histories that depend on the level of access, honesty and depth granted to Azerrad, also limited by the number of pages. In his book, The Replacements' Bob Stinson for example is just a clownish guitarist that got kicked out because of substance abuse issues; from Bob Mehr's Trouble Boys we know there was a lot more to that story. And if for example you bother to hint at an underlying darkness of Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson's character that belies his "Mr. Rogers"-like persona, why not at least flesh it out a bit more than throwing a few oneliners that basically call him "not really a nice guy" without providing any context?
Azerrad limits his chapters to just the indie label days of the bands profiled, which in most cases - if the band hadn't broken up by then - result in wrapping up years of major label era band history and their releases in just one big, messy final paragraph. While I can understand that he needed to limit himself for the sake of his narrative, it just wants you to look for a more extensive Hüsker Dü biography just so you can finish the rest of the story.
Despite the flaws mentioned above I still really got a kick out of this book though. It's a good excuse as any to finally delve into Beat Happening, Minor Threat, Butthole Surfers or even Black Flag beyond their debut, combining reading and listening in a very pleasant multimedia experience. Azerrad takes a small slice of indie history (omitting a few major players like Flipper, R.E.M. and Dead Kennedys, but on the whole touching upon most of the vital ones), and manages to tie them all neatly together - this is an impressive document providing a level of historical context for not just the bands but also the labels involved, one that sometimes borders on six-degrees-of-separation-levels of pointing out how small the scene truly was in those days. All of these bands seemed to have an SST boner that ends up in dissapointment; they all end up sleeping on greasy floors and sticky vans at some point, sometimes even scavenging for food in dumpsters; John Lydon was a dick to most of them; Gerard Cosloy somehow shows up in every chapter. Oh, and Steve Albini apparently just hates all of them.
This is the story of how a bunch of kids who appreciated the Beatles, the Stones, and the Stooges, but came of age after they left the scene. These kids became alienated with new mainstream bands like Aerosmith, the Eagles, and Genesis but then the Ramones put out a record and these kids found solace and a sense of identity in the music of the Clash, Television, and Talking Heads. They took these new ideas and formed great bands like the Minutemen, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, the Meat Puppets, Husker Dü. These bands would in turn inspire younger bands like Pavement, Sleater-Kinney, Superchunk, and Neutral Milk Hotel who would dominate college radio for much of the '90s. They also inspired this kinda white-trashy kid from Aberdeen, WA who borrowed their ideas and mixed it with a dose of late '70s cock-rock and an instinctive knack for pop song-craft and eventually put together an album that presented the previous decade's underground ideas in an accessible but not too dumbed-down manner, sold a bajillion copies, and made it briefly appear that the underground could make the mainstream adopt to their culture. 1964 -> 1977 -> 1991. Of course that kid from Aberdeen decided it was better to burn out three years later, and his main musical legacy appears to be with bands that never grasped the underground structure underlying those songs, and thought they could get by with growling vocals over power riffs. The legacy of punk's first "break" in 1977 dominated a significant facet of the musical culture for the next two decades and the aftershocks are still being felt. The legacy of 1991 were some of the worst rock bands of all time - Nickleback, 3 Doors Down, Limp Bizcuit.
Once you're gone you can never go back. Now even bad traditional rock music is almost completely absent from the Top 40 scene. Even on the indie scene, whatever that means, traditional guitars and percussion rock seems to play an increasing smaller, less-relevant and fragmented part. The Beatles -> Big Star -> The Replacements -> Pixies - > Nirvana -> Creed -> crickets and I'm not talking about Buddy Holley. So it goes. We'll always have Let It Be though (both of 'em). Same goes with Daydream Nation. And Double Nickels on the Dime, Zen Arcade, Signals, Calls and Marches, Repeater, You're Living All Over Me, Songs About Fucking, and quite a few others. Azerrad's book enhanced my appreciation for quite a few of these. It gave me an excuse to listen to others of them again, which is a service in itself. It didn't get me to start liking Black Flag, but it made me glad they existed.
Who knows? Maybe this very night there's some perpetually pissed off and sex-deprived teenaged kid living in the middle of nowhere who's about to stumble onto "I Wanna Be Your Dog" on Spotify for the first time, launching an inevitable chain of events leading to the next new thing. The king's long gone, but he's still not forgotten. Hey, hey, my, my...
I read the hardcopy of this book when it was released some twenty years ago. At that time, I was only scantly familiar with most of the acts and albums focused on by Azzerad. To be honest, with the exception of the Replacements, I haven't dug in much more over the past twenty years. When I read it twenty years ago, I was a "fan" of the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, and a few others here...but I was a fan of their major label work, as opposed to their indie releases. Guess what: I still am. Same with Fugazi. Back then: I liked them more than Minor Threat then, and I still do. Back then I was familiar the Minutemen's DOUBLE NICKELS and Mission of Burma's SIGNALS, CALLS, & MARCHES EP...and those are both still my "go-to" listening for those respective bands. I never really liked hardcore. I loved Mudhoney. Maybe it was a time, age, and place thing. I'm 47 now. A few of my older friends were into Minor Threat, Black Flag, and Bad Brains, while I was more into the bands that were influenced by those bands. All of that being said, my re-read (actually a listen this time, as I opted for the celebrity-read audiobook) was still fascinating, and in this day and age of music (even most indie rock...but true to character, not Big Black) I am able to immediate hear a name-checked song, album, touring partner, or just about anything else.
Azzerad doesn't lionize anyone in this book. To be fair: almost everyone mentioned in this book comes off like a jerk. Rollins, Ginn, MacKaye, Mould, Albini, Barlow, Mascis...pretty much everyone but the Minutemen, Grant Hart, and Bob Stinson sound like people I would hate. That's not the point of the book. The book serves to document a brief moment in time when musicians clung to a set of values and virtues that are almost laughable in 2022. Re-reading it is definitely a nostalgia trip for me, and I have no idea how it would read across generations, but I can easily say that one does not have to be a fan (or even familiar) with a great deal of the bands focused upon in the book to enjoy the read, if the reader is at all interested in the music industry, regional tribalism, and/or a notion of the (mostly male) teenage rebellion known as punk. I loved the re-read and will try it on again in my 60s I guess.
I guess I'm getting old because my favorite parts of this book were those that concentrated not on the bands themselves and their stupid drunken adventures but on the subcultures surrounding them and the workings of the indie record labels that put their stuff out. The exception to that is the Fugazi chapter, which is great, and precisely because they were their own very specific subculture and also served as their own label and management. Those guys were amazing. (I still find it hard to enjoy their music for more than an hour or so at a stretch, but hey.) Other favorite chapters: Black Flag (good stuff about the punks and the cops in SoCal), the Minutemen (the only individual musicians who come out of this book looking like smart, interesting, fun, & friendly people who you might actually want to meet), Minor Threat (for the straight edge / all-ages show stuff), and Mudhoney (which is mostly about the Seattle scene and Sub Pop Records). Could definitely have done without the Dinosaur Jr chapter as they just seemed like a miserable bunch of people with no redeeming qualities. I did enjoy learning about Mission of Burma and Beat Happening as I really didn't know anything about them before.
Surprisingly disappointing collection of stories about bands I suddenly remembered I didn't care all that much about in the first place. I had read about all my favorites -- the Replacements, Husker Du, Minutemen -- while standing in the aisles of Barnes and Noble, so I had already hit the high points. After a couple of chapters, the stories kinda meld into one -- two weirdos meet in high school and start playing songs, then meet another goofball and go on tour; they aren't very good and the audience either reacts with complete apathy or violent disdain; then they sign with SST, but they don't sell a lot of records, they become hopelessly addicted to drugs and alcohol, and break up to the distress of no one; but their influence far outstrips their commercial success and they are legendary in retrospect. Repeat.
These 12 band profiles are a must-read, mainly if you’re into punk rock. My favorites are the more politically-minded bands like Fugazi and the Minutemen who embodied the inclusive, anti-corporate aesthetics of the genre. Less about sound than it is about a DIY ethos, underground American punk in the 80’s was a battle against the mainstream. Today, that battle has been long lost to corporate giants; it seems futile only in retrospect. Punk came in many forms: the Minutemen’s bite-sized political rants, the Replacements’ sentimentality, the Butthole Surfers’ aggressive experimentation, or Beat Happening’s naïve approach were all punk because that was their lifestyle. The bands in this book mostly lived in poverty; they didn’t eat much, slept anywhere, lugged their own gear, and drove their shitty vans across the country just to be able to play their tunes. These are almost always fast and loud and often great, even though some of the scenesters in this book might make you roll your eyes because of their chauvinistic behavior and their delusions of grandeur (see Steve Albini). Paradoxically, the punk scene slowly incorporated some of the toxic traits it initially rebelled against. D. Boon or Ian McKaye, though, are intelligent and enigmatic figures who promoted a valid, alternative way of life. The book recounts their bands’ histories carefully and lovingly. Listening to their music after reading this is a treat. Azzerad’s love for punk seeps into his writing and he pulls out more than enough anecdotes to make this a breezy read.
Really great and engaging read about the 13 bands profiled here. The sequencing of the chapters suggests an overarching narrative and pulls out different relationships -- both literal and figural -- between different groups.
Back in the day, I only listened to Black Flag's "Damaged," Minutemen's "Double Nickels on the Dime" (one of my favorite records of the moment, I'd never experienced anything like it before), and eventually got a few records by Sonic Youth. Of all the groups here, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü were the ones I enjoyed the most, and even then, I wasn't the kind of obsessive, "gotta-get-the-whole-discography" listener I would turn into. The 'Mats' "Let It Be" and "Tim," especially the latter, were solid listens for years for me. I had more records by Hüsker Dü than any of these others. "New Day Rising" was one of my favorite records during the "celebrated summer" of my college years, I was obsessed with all the weird noises on "Zen Arcade" for a good long while, "Candy Apple Grey" soundtracked my college relationship difficulties, and "Warehouse: Songs & Stories" was like noisy psych pop gold to me. That was the only album I ever gave away to a friend because I'd got it on CD, then immediately regretted it because the vinyl sounded so much better, and I had to hunt for another copy. I've always been creeped-out and grossed-out by Butthole Surfers, and now I know why more than ever! And I still despise Big Black and Steve Albini. Both of those bands are just unlistenable in my opinion. Other than Mission of Burma, who I'd never heard before despite seeing their albums around back in the day, I can't imagine going back and tracking down any of the rest, but I still enjoyed Azerrad's writings about all the bands here.
Anyway, this book invites this kind of personal reflection, but someone who hadn't found these bands during their teens and twenties will still enjoy his riveting, well-paced storytelling. He spends more time on anecdotes and bios than on song analysis. And he conveys well the difference in these bands' vibes. He's also good at regional and cultural place-setting. Great read!
Alternate title: 13 arguments that music in the 1980s wasn't all a vast wasteland.
This is a journalistic recounting of independent music during the 1980s (well, late 1970s to early 1990s) told as the story of thirteen different bands. It is really good, at times brilliant, though there are structural issues--tough ones, not ones I could even imagine solving--that ultimately keep the book from being as transcendent as the bands it chronicles.
In the late 1970s, American music companies were focused on popular hits and old dinosaurs, reluctant to plunge into new music, especially the developing hardcore (read: punk) scene. Azerrad doesn't really explain why, though there are hints that the companies were having financial troubles of some sorts. And so a bunch of do-it-yourself musicians filled the lacuna, making their own labels, writing zines, creating a concert circus. It reminded me of the way sclerotic movie studios were outmaneuvered by four-wallers in the 1970s. For the most part--there are major exceptions such as REM and U2--the mainstream labels ignored alternative music throughout the 1980s and continued to put out lots of crap (Billy Ocean, anyone?), until the early 1990s. In short, the story can also been seen as explaining how the more adventurous music of the 1970s gave birth to the 1990s alternative music scene, even though the bridge between the eras was mostly invisible during the intervening years.
The first couple of chapters, on Black Flag, The Minutemen, Mission of Burma, and Minor Threat, detail the struggles the bands had in creating their alternative music scene. At the time, these bands were strongly influenced by English punk and were part of the hardcore movement, Despite the frenzied exploits on stage--check out the picture of Black Flag in action on page 30--and even the sometimes copious amounts of alcohol and drugs--the bands were very professional. They practiced--in Black Flag's case, eight hours a day, six days a week--were parsimonious about he money they spent on tours, carefully produced their own records. There was a real diligence. And in the case of Black Flag and the Minutemen--both southern California bands, that musical scene being more elastic than others at the time--they built a widespread following. Others, like Boston's Mission of Burma, found local support--there was a lot of college radio in the town--but could not translate that to national acclaim becuase of the weak system--a system that Flag and Minutemen were creating, along with the record label with which they were associated, SST.
The book then starts to look at the way the hardcore scene reinvented many of the earlier musical tropes, bringing back in elements of 1960s and 1970s music, especially in the form of Husker Dü and the Replacements. As well, some elements of the scene developed a consciously arty aesthetic, as in the case of Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, and Big Black. The chapter on the Butthole Surfers is especially scarring, seeing just how hard the Texas band worked, just how poor they were (making dinners out of garbage while they were on tour) and just how badly drugs could effect the music-making. By this time, hardcore had diverged and become intertwined with college radio and was identified more generally as indie.
A third group of chapters finishes the dialectic, tracing how hardcore influenced those bands that would give birth to the 1990s alternative scene, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, and Mudhoney. Although some of these bands officially called themselves punk, they had expanded greatly from the initial hardcore movement, and were bringing back in elements of classic rock, which the original hardcore movement had reacted against. As well, there was often less animosity toward the major labels--as in the case of Pearl Jam. (The chapter on Mudhoney is more of a chapter on Seattle's grunge movement).
A final band-based chapter, on Beat Happening, points toward the conclusion. Beat Happening was one of the few bands to include a female member prominently. (Sonic Youth was obviously another.) And they influenced later nerd rock and twee rock, etc., etc. Their sound was poppy and fey--but that was punk rock in a scene that had itself become sclerotic, and narrow, based around male violence, male yelling, and male angst. Much of alternative rock of the 1990s, Azerrad acknowledges became white and heavily masculine, even as its 1970s's roots offered a more varied set of traditions upon which to draw.
For the most part, the book avoids the "Behind the Music" clichés. There are a few bands who went through the usual rise and fall, the fall attributable to too much success and too many drugs. But in other cases drugs worked through the bands differently, or they fell due to personality splits or even the scene's own limitations. This is excellent journalism. I was on the edge of some of this--although I resisted the whole Sub Pop thing, even as I lived in the Pacific Northwest in 1991. But I knew Hüsker Dü and The Replacements and Dinosaur Jr and liked them, and Azarrad does a good job of connecting my outsider perspective--and experience with the cruddy music of the 1980s--the the development of the music scene.
The only real quibble is structural. Azarrad does well at layering the various themes and developing his arguments, even as he focuses on individual bands--indeed, in retrospect, its masterful. But it also makes it hard to understand the era as a whole. There are too many repetitions, too many slidings back and forth in time, too many stray observations that would do better if the story were presented simply chronologically. At the same time, chronological arrangement would sacrifice the depth and intimacy Azarrad gives to each of the individual bands.
Each chapter read like a text book about the history of your favourite punk bands. I loved the chapters about the bands I love, the ones about bands I’m not a huge fan of felt very long. There were definitely moments of feeling like the fights and drama of self-righteous 20-somethings were glorified and made more important than they should have been? Maybe it’s just disappointing to learn the people you idolized as a teen were actually super petty? Anyways, it was still great to hear the history of these bands and how internal fighting impacted them and their careers. Loved how much of this book was direct quotes from interviews. Also really loved the inclusion of Sub Pop and K records history!
Probably about 3.5 stars-ish? Really engaging look at the scene + specific bands and the interviews really allow you to get a feel of the bands themselves + you can tell that this is something the author really cares about. As someone who is just learning about the scene it was really interesting/helpful to have the bands explained in this way.