Baumgarten – Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music

16 Aug

Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music by Mark Baumgarten (2012)

Some Velvet Sidewalk’s Al Larsen coined the term “love rock” in his music manifesto: “When Sonic Youth do ‘Kool Thing’ they are love rock.  Or when Beat Happening trade roles, singer to guitarist to drummer.  When Nation of Ulysses makes an absolute sincere mess or when the Melvinsplay, three people as one.  These people create music about the most important thing going: the transformation of society.  And each one suggests possibility…All ages shows in Grange Halls across the land. Engaging.  Enacting.  Ennobling…Let’s.  We.  Free.  Go, love rocker.”  Calvin Johnson, always pushing for change and action, added the word “revolution” on the end for a concert poster and it turned out to be an appropriate slogan for his label, K Records, and the burgeoning music movement in the Pacific Northwest.

Love Rock Revolution documents K Records’ lifespan from the early 1980s to date, impressively positing a wealth of information in just 250 pages.  The book also functions as a pseudo-biography of K Records’ founder and Beat Happening frontman Calvin Johnson who is certainly the most important indie rock figure of Olympia, WA and arguably one of the most influential and encouraging characters of the independent music scene in general.

The book is written in narrative form and Baumgarten’s voice welcomes the reader in without even the slightest air of condescension.  He has a distinct ability to tell a story and generally avoids the all too common temptation to over-write.  Of course Baumgarten is also afforded one of the most compelling and eccentric central characters in Calvin Johnson.  Johnson expressed his doubts to K Records’ story being of any interest.  Truth be told, it is interesting.

Love Rock outlines Johnson’s hard work, dedication, and incredible outreach to fans, zines and other labels and musicians.  He started a label with cassette tapes sold in select shops and ended up garnering world-wide attention.  This all culminates in one of the most important and yet relatively unheard of musical festivals of the past three decades: The International Pop Underground Convention.

From 45 singles to LPs, from America to Europe, K Records established an independent dynasty rivaled by only a handful of other American independent labels.  Baumgarten follows Johnson along with the unsung and very patient hero of hero of K, Candice Pederson.  Johnson and Pederson are almost solely responsible for the emergence of twee pop in America, the new punk vision (without the Henry Rollins-esque machismo) and the riot grrrl scene.  The story’s delivery is fresh and enhanced by interviews with some of K’s big-hitters.

That being said the book isn’t without its hangups.  The “brief history” blurbs at the end of the early chapters, though informative and contextual, can be a tad disruptive and read a little too Indie Rock 101; though a writer always has to consider a complete outsider picking up their book.  At times it seems as though Baumgarten has not even heard some of the bands that he is writing about and there are a handful of K artists from the mid-2000s (i.e. Mirah, Kimya Dawson and Saturday Looks Good to Me) that are completely glossed over.  There are also a few chronological errors and oversights, but Baumgarten admits in the book’s introduction, “I know I’ve captured only part of the story here, and I’m sure that I’ve gotten a few points wrong, but everything this book I believe to be true.”  Even though it’s a total contradiction barring pathology, he sounds sincere.

Love Rock Revolution‘s preferred audience is best described by an excerpt from one of Johnson’s promo posters for the International Pop Underground Convention:

Hangman hipsters, new modrockers, sidestreet walkers, scoot mounted dream girls, punks, teds, the instigators of the Love Rock Explosion, the editors of every angry grrrl zine, the plotters of youth rebellion in every form, the Midwestern librarians and Scottish ski instructors who live by night…No lackey’s to the corporate ogre allowed [to read this].”

In reality this book is a must-read for those fans of K or any Calvin Johnson project and a should-read for anyone who considers themselves to be an authority on the independent music scene.  There are indie rock giants like Ian MacKaye, Kathleen Hanna and Phil Elverum that float into the narrative as if they were the reader’s casual acquaintances and even the most in-tune fanatic will discover a few unfamiliar anecdotal nuggets.  At the very least Baumgarten’s Love Rock Revolution is the definitive book on Olympia, WA’s music scene.

Rating: ****

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