I am told that "indie rock" is a genre. It's a genre, even though it doesn't describe a sound; rather it describes what kind of record label you're on. Sometimes it even describes a lifestyle. The lifestyle should, I guess, impress me - but with bands I mostly just focus on their music. Some people will even tell you that "indie" equates "good," but if you ask me, judging any band by what kind of record label they are on is pretty dumb. Noble aesthetics don't always make for great art.
Michael Azerrad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life does a fine job of documenting the history of thirteen bands and the eighties indie rock movement they were a part of. The tales the musicians relate keep you turning the pages - most of the bands look back in amusement at how they scraped by, only to eventually sign to a major label or end up in obscurity. Importantly, Azerrad describes the sound of the music and doesn't just rely on the rock-crit crutch of quoting lyrics.
Azerrad commits his only major gaffe early, in the intro. When commenting on the year 1984, he writes: "It was abundantly clear that the best rock music in the world was being made in this circumscribed little community." This statement completely ignores the mainstream, which was having one of its best-ever years and was also producing the best rock music in the world; i.e. Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA, Prince's Purple Rain, Van Halen's 1984, and a flood of great songs on commercial radio.
But the goof comes early and you get four-hundred-plus pages of solid reading after it. Heroes emerge: The Minutemen - for being working-class heroes in the age of Reagan; the Replacements - for not giving a damn about anything except laying down great rock 'n' roll (no punk qualifiers needed); and Husker Du - for placing shiny, memorable melodies amidst all the hardcore noise.
The book ends up in the Pacific Northwest (natch), with chapters on Mudhoney and Beat Happening. Mudhoney comes off like champions - guzzling beer and aspiring to re-unify punk and metal into their mutual Nuggets origins. Beat Happening comes off as precious, retro, and kitschy; once again reminding you why certain indie rock fans make you suppress chuckles in public.
Azerrad's epilogue is as good of a summary of the post-Nevermind soundscape that you will read: "Punk had winnowed its heritage down to one single inbred white genre." In other words, the inbreeding caused white Joe College-types to refrain from rocking and they ended up sounding like wussies. (Hello, Ben Folds.) Meanwhile, the more proletarian (i.e. metal) of the Seattle bands hit the mainstream hard, causing upheaval. Thereby summarizing the very history of rock 'n' roll: You can be as clever as you like, but odds are the blue-collar will still have a better beat than the bourgeoisie.
[Back to Exiled #30] [Back to Exiled on Main Street] [Other Writing] [Poetry] [Contact Bill Tuomala]