Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad
Our Band Could Be Your Life is probably the most compelling book on music that I’ve read since Simon Reynolds’ Rip it Up and Start Again. Published in 2001, Michael Azerrad was the first to sing the praises of an era of music largely overlooked: the American independent scene from 1981-1991. Our Band Could Be Your Life documents thirteen bands in particular: Black Flag, The Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, Mudhoney and Beat Happening.
All of these bands met Azerrad’s definition of “indie” before they made it big (if and when they did). “Indie” is a term used so loosely today that it means little more than a charming, under-produced musical aesthetic, but Azerrad’s definition for “indie” in his prologue is far simpler: labels, or bands that were releasing on labels which had no affiliation whatsoever with the “corporate music behemoths,” or Big 6 record labels of the time. Perhaps even simpler, “indie” meant doing everything yourself with little or no budget.
The book tells thirteen different tales of do-it-yourself perseverance, or “jamming econo” as the Minutemen would say. The concept is awfully romantic in its own way. Some of these artists were able to not only write and perform their music, but book their own shows, carry their own equipment, create grassroots followings through word of mouth and fanzine write-ups, establish (inter)national tours and either pay to press their albums on their own labels or find some struggling outfit desperately willing to do it for them. Far less romantic was the harshness of their reality: government cheese poverty, beater touring vans, cat piss sleeping floors, detestable bandmates in close quarters, utter disdain from crowds of five, aggravated assault from crowds of fifty. In any event, to conceptualize this sort of achievement prior to the age of the internet is absolutely mindboggling. Nowadays, DIY means hooking a mic up to your computer, downloading recording software and creating a SoundCloud profile.
Though each band chapter could be read independently like short fiction, Azerrad does a wonderful job of weaving the chapters together with common characters, scenes and labels. Henry Rollins was childhood friends with Ian MacKaye who was in Fugazi with Guy Picciotto…and everybody knew Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore who was a veritable indie rock ambassador for both America and Europe. Ten short years saw the nascence (a favorite word of Azerrad’s) of the American punk, post-punk, hardcore, noise rock and twee pop movements. Little indie rock nuclei popped up all over the US: Southern California, D.C., Minneapolis, NYC, Chicago, Boston, Seattle. Not all of these bands toured with one another; however, the reader comes away feeling a nationwide independent camaraderie, not to mention the simultaneous movement across the Atlantic. This all culminates with Azerrad’s depiction of 1991’s International Pop Underground Convention which may he paints as the indie scene’s last big hurrah.
What’s really incredible is that nearly all of the bands mentioned produced the best music of their careers on the independent circuit. Most of those artists that made it to the big leagues, which some readers will undoubtedly deem “sellouts,” either folded shortly thereafter or let their craft take a backseat to commercialism (readers will notice that major record releases are hardly ever mentioned in the text regardless of merit). And that’s exactly why the prologue forecasts the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991 which marked both the birth of the successful commercial crossover and the death of independent legitimacy.
Our Band Could Be Your Life could be more comprehensive, but it would be encyclopedic and some of the chapters wander a bit as it is. Azerrad openly invites others to write on the subject, but until then, Our Band… will be as definitive as it gets. It also functions as a “gateway” book in that although it is limited to a baker’s dozen of bands, it mentions a slew of influences and contemporaries of the aforementioned artists for readers to discover or re-discover. Even the seasoned “indie” connoisseur should be able to come away with something new to them.
P.S. – Over a decade later, I wonder if Mr. Azerrad isn’t due for a sequel covering 1991-2001.
P.S.S. – For those of you who are lazy and won’t actually read the book but are interested in the music, I have outlined the choice works be each artist in the order of their mention. Enjoy!
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Black Flag (Hermosa Beach, CA)
Nervous Breakdown EP (1978)
The Minutemen (San Pedro, CA)
Paranoid Time EP (1980)
What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982)
Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat (1983)
Double Nickles on the Dime (1984)
Project: Mersh EP (1985)
3-Way Tie for Last (1985)
Mission of Burma (Boston, MA)
Signals, Calls and Marches EP (1981)
Minor Threat (Washington D.C.)
Minor Threat: The First 2 7” EP: Untitled and In My Eyes (1984: both originally 1981)
Out of Step (1984)
Hüsker Dü (Minneapolis, MN)
Metal Circus EP (1983)
Eight Miles High Single (1984)
Zen Arcade (1984)
New Day Rising (1985)
Flip Your Wig (1985)
The Replacements (Minneapolis, MN)
Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981)
Let it Be (1984)
Sonic Youth (New York, NY)
Kill Yr. Idols EP (1983)
Death Valley ’69 Single (1985)
Bad Moon Rising (1985)
Daydream Nation (1988)
Goo (1990) – Major Label Debut
Butthole Surfers (San Antonio, TX)
Brown Reason to Live EP (1983)
Psychic…Powerless…Another Man’s Sac (1985)
Rembrandt Pussyhorse (1986)
Locust Abortion Technician (1987)
Hairway to Steven (1988)
Big Black (Chicago, IL)
Bulldozer EP (1984)
Songs About Fucking (1987)
Dinosaur Jr (Amherst, MA)
You’re Living All Over Me (1987)
Fugazi (Washington D.C.)
Fugazi (Seven Songs) EP (1988)
Margin Walker EP (1989)
Steady Diet of Nothing (1991)
Mudhoney (Seattle, WA)
(first single) Touch Me I’m Sick / Sweet Thing Ain’t Sweet No More (1987)
Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)
Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (1991)
Beat Happening (Olympia, WA)
You Turn Me On (1992)