I’ve gotten back into music lately. It all started with this article. ALTERNATIVE ROCK. FORCED EXPOSURE IS GOOD FOR YOU: Overlooked and misunderstood, postpunk gets its due. By: Pasteur, Eric. Library Journal, 5/15/2008, Vol. 133 Issue 9, p38-42. This article prompted me to read Our Band Could be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad and Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds. I also got Rhino’s four CD set, Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the '80s Underground, and a series of three individual CDs called The Postpunk Chronicles, also from Rhino. It has also spurred me on to hook up my turntable to a computer to figure out how to burn my 300 or so albums to Compact Disc. I should do a post on that.
Both book’s titles appropriately come from song lyrics. Our Band Could Be Your Life looks at one band at a time. Rip it Up and Start Again organizes by regions (Manchester, Leeds, Ohio, New York) and music styles. Some of the bands I had never heard of, some I had heard of but never heard, and some I am a big fan of. I wish these kinds of books came with a CD so I could hear some of the music being discussed as it’s being discussed. What I did was look them up on YouTube. (An entire side discussion: why are these songs available as bandwidth-hogging videos, but not as just music? Some “videos” are nothing more than a photograph of the album cover to look at while the song plays.)
The one thing that bothered me about both these books is the “my music is the purest and best” syndrome. I remember reading once about Kurt Cobain getting all depressed seeing a heavy metal kid wearing a Nirvana t-shirt. Lots of people get all upset when they find out their favorite musician likes something not in his particular subset. Rip it Up tells of Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) DJing a music show while still in the Sex Pistols where he showed a wide range of tastes. Punks got up in arms about it, calling Rotten a traitor.
Personally, I don’t get that mindset. I’m a music omnivore.
I enjoy almost all types of music. My favorites include all variations of the blues, 1950s Rock & Roll, 1960s psychedelic and 1980s alternative with a healthy dose of classic rock.
I missed out on much of the early 1980s indie music that is discussed in these two books. I was into heavy metal (with a little new wave) until 1985. Then a friend introduced me to REM, and that sent me in a whole new direction. (thanks Gibson!)
Many of the bands I like aren’t included or talked about much: The Call, the Rainmakers, Hoodoo Gurus, the Smithereens, Lone Justice, R.E.M., The Choir, the Del Fuegos, Violent Femmes, etc. And there is very little discussion of others that were pretty popular by the standards of “college rock”: Camper Van Beethoven, the Pixies, the Smiths, They Might Be Giants, the Psychedelic Furs (best name ever), etc. Perhaps this is because both books tend to concentrate on late 1970s to early 1980s, while I was really into this music in the late 1980s. Also, both tend to be concerned with independent labels more than major labels, so R.E.M. gets ignored because they got popular too fast.
There may be some dividing line between “Alternative” and “New Wave,” but I’m not sure what it is. I’m sure there is some distinction in the mind of the purist listener Once again, some use independent label vs. major label as a standard. Some bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark or New Order I always considered New Wave, but these books consider them Postpunk.
Our Band Could be Your Life gets a bit repetitive due to the format of covering each band individually. Every band goes on tour with a lousy van that breaks down. Each band has no money. They all have to decide if they want to go with a major label or stay indie. Azerrad focuses on hardcore.
For the most part, I don’t like the band as much after reading about them. Especially the Twin-Cities twin bands, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü.
Reynolds lets his politics get in the way about four times. Live Aid “fit all too neatly within the shared worldview of Thatcher and Reagan…who promoted private philanthropy over government intervention.” The horror! The very idea that you should decide on your own who to give to (or whether to give at all) instead of the infallible, omniscient, government taking your money and distributing it for you. And he blames Thatcher for unemployment. Really, where did all those “no future” punks come from?
The Left of the Dial CD set is fantastic. I don’t like every band (Throbbing Gristle, great name, lousy sound), but there are several great songs on here. In particular Lone Justice, the Smithereens, Concrete Blonde, the Church, Love and Rockets, Julian Cope, and the Hoodoo Gurus are all standouts. "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus is a fantastic song that I had never heard.
There are a few "religious" songs. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with "Mercy Seat" (Ultra Vivid Scene also had a song with that name). The Meat Puppets have "Lake of Fire" which was covered by Nirvana on MTV Unplugged. "Stigmata" by Ministry, and probably a few others I'm missing. And am I allowed to love a band called The Jesus and Mary Chain?
The Raincoats “Fairytale in a Supermarket” reminds me of the Clash “Lost in a Supermarket.” Speaking of the Clash, they aren’t included on any of these disks or books. Are they punk and not postpunk? I would say they are postpunk, but here’s the problem of drawing your lines to sharply.
I also find it interesting that most of my evaluations of a band have stood the test of time. I didn’t care for the Smiths or PiL in the 1980s, and listening to them again, I still don’t like them.
The Postpunk Chronicles series has some overlap with Left of the Dial (in fact one disk has that name), but many of the bands have different songs, which is good if you are looking for an education on this style of music. I hadn’t heard Mission of Burma, but hearing two of their songs, I’d say they’re pretty good.
Our Band Could be Your Life: Black Flag -- The Minutemen -- Mission of Burma -- Minor Threat -- Hüsker Dü -- The Replacements -- Sonic Youth -- Butthole Surfers -- Big Black -- Dinosaur Jr -- Fugazi -- Mudhoney -- Beat Happening.
Rip It Up and Start Again: I: Postpunk -- Public image belongs to me: / John Lydon and PiL -- Autonomy in the U.K. : DIY and the British independent-label movement -- Tribal revival: the pop group and the Slits -- Militant entertainment: Gang of Four: the Mekons, and the Leeds Scene -- Uncontrollable urge: the Industrial Grotesquerie of Pere Ubu and Devo -- Living for the future: Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League, and the Sheffield Scene -- Just step sideways: The Fall, Joy Division, and the Manchester Scene -- Industrial devolution: throbbing Gristle's music from the Death Factory -- Contort yourself: No Wave New York -- Art attack: Talking Heads, Wire, and Mission of Burma -- Messthetics: The London Vanguard -- Freak scene: Cabaret Noir and Theater of cruelty in Postpunk San Francisco -- Careering: PiL and Postpunk's Peak and Fall -- II: New pop and new rock -- Ghost dance: 2-tone and the Ska Resurrection -- Sex gang children: Malcolm McLaren, the Pied Piper of Pantomime Pop -- Mutant Disco and Punk Funk: Crosstown Traffic in early eighties New York (and beyond) -- Fun 'n' frenzy: Postcard Records and the Sound of Young Scotland -- Electric dreams: Synthpop -- Play to win: the pioneers of new pop -- New gold dream 81-82-83-84: New Pop's Peak, the Second British Invasion of America, and the Rise of MTV -- Dark things and Glory Boys: the return of Rock with Goth and the New Psychedelia -- Raiding the twentieth century: ZTT, the Art of Noise, and Frankie goes to Hollywood.
Book Review, Our Band Could Be Your Life, Rip It Up And Start Again, Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the 80s Underground, Postpunk Chronicles