on September 5, 2001
I like this book a great deal; Azerrad writes well, for the most part, and neatly (perhaps too neatly) encapsulates some of the most important bands of the last 20 years, from Black Flag to (*gak*) Beat Happening. The book is loaded with interesting tidbits, stories, vignettes, and so forth. There are some great lines throughout, and it seems nearly every chapter has somebody offended by Public Image Ltd., in one way or another, which'll probably have John Lydon coughing up his tea and biscuits if he bothers to read it.
I am unsure whether Azerrad's doing indie rock revisionism in this work, however. The stories fall within the same narrative confines -- quirky, disenfranchised would-be rockers XYZ run into each other in an amusing fashion; decide to form a band; against all odds, they produce considerable sonic (and, of course, punk rock) excellence until they either implode or join a major label. They all seem to follow this basic arc, which seems a trifle tidy to me.
I came in on the earlier, punkier side of things (Black Flag, the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat), and I feel like Azerrad is weaving a tapestry linking those important bands to grunge and "alternative," creating a seamless web of musical innovation and negation culminating in Cobain's primal sonic scream. Not like the later bands aren't important, of course, but I think they were very different from each other, while Azerrad tries to paint them all with the same punk rock paintbrush -- it comes out more in the later chapters, where his comments are the equivalent of "how punk rock is THAT?" or "You can't get much more punk rock than that." Sure you can, Michael.
That seems an important thing for folks to do these days; punk retains credibility, beauty, purity, and power, all these years later, so scenesters seek to identify with it, rather than come up with a new idea. Maybe there are no new ideas, anymore: clean guitars vs. fuzzy guitars; loud vs. quiet; fast vs. slow; long songs vs. short songs, etc. Whatever the case, everybody seems either punk or hip-hop nowadays. That said, I like how Azerrad dealt with each band, gave them their own chapter, although I think some deserved longer chapters than others, in my opinion. And the lack of a follow-up section in each chapter, sort of a "where are they now" seems lacking to me.
If you haven't heard (or heard of) the bands he's referring to, then please go out and start listening to them!!! You'll never be the same, and it'll certainly help you appreciate what he's talking about more, and give you an inkling of how great these bands were. The omission of the Bad Brains is truly surprising to me.
All in all, this book is worth your time.
on August 13, 2001
The 1980s are being turned to chum, diced into simple nostalgia bites, so that the decade is best remembered now for a few MTV synth pop hits, maybe a Springsteen/Cougar Americana song, hair metal and the Rolling Stones' "Steel Wheels" tour. What is always lost in the VH-1 retrospectives is the remarkable American indie underground movement that began in roughly 1979 (the first Black Flag EP), peaked in the mid 1980s and had its last gasp in 1991 (when Nevermind, a record that could not have existed without the indie movement, hit #1).
So it is a blessing that we have at last a fine, relatively unbiased and intelligent history of Husker Du, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Beat Happening, the Buttholes, Dino Jr. -- bands that were the equivalent to the Beatles and Stones to me, and whose influence inspired whatever life there was to be found in 1990s pop music.
It's not a perfect book. For one, everyone will have gripes about which bands did and didn't deserve chapter-length studies (the most obvious oversight -- the Meat Puppets, and I'd go to bat for Camper Van Beethoven as well), and did we really need two separate chapters on Ian MacKaye's bands? Once a band signs to a major label its story effectively ends for Azerrad, which is fine when you're covering Dinosaur Jr., for example, but which also means that the Replacements' Tim -- one of their finest records -- isn't even mentioned. An influence of MacKaye's rather hysterical obsession with "purity", perhaps.
Azerrad's writing on the whole is fine, though he occasionally litters his prose with a gruesome slang phrase, like "all about" (viz. "it was all about purity"), and I would have enjoyed a discography and a more detailed notes section, as fresh interviews done for this book are often stitched next to fanzine interviews from 1983, with scant notice.
But these are minor criticisms -- this is a long-needed, wonderful book that hopefully in time will inspire others. How about a volume 2? The Meat Puppets, the Dead Kennedys, CVB, the Misfits, Human Switchboard, Bad Brains, the Mekons, even REM..
on May 20, 2005
I imagine writing this book was sort of like being on the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee. If you are not too familiar with college basketball, sorry about the analogy. First, you've got the no-brainer choices for the book who are like champions from the big conferences: Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Husker Du. They got the "automatic bids" if you will. Then there's the mid-majors who certainly deserve to be here like the Minutemen, Mudhoney, Butthole Surfers, and the Replacements. Then there's the ones you are not so sure about like Beat Happening. I don't mean to pick on them really. I guess I can appreciate Beat Happening, I'm a little baffled by their inclusion into this exclusive indie club.
Finally, there's the "snubs" or the bands that were left out for whatever reason:
Meat Puppets-I guess having a 3rd SST band would have been too much Greg Ginn worship.
Misfits-Penalized for having 'Walk Among Us' on Ruby Records (distributed by a major) maybe?
Dead Kennedys-The Bay Area punk scene in general was pretty much overlooked by Azerrad.
Pylon-I just figure the legendary Athens GA music scene should have been represented and REM and B52s are way too major for this book. Anyway, I would have picked Pylon before Beat Happening.
But anyway, it was a great book to read and I always find it amazing when someone takes the time to write a whole book on something like 80s indie music. I must admit, growing up mostly in Alabama during the 80s, I didn't hear about a lot of these bands until after they were long gone or had gone major. To hear the stories of their formative years is fun and endearing. I commend Azerrad for his reverence for the underground movement and for not turning this book into an encyclopedia.
on July 4, 2003
Michael Azerrad's one of the best contemporary rock authors, and the work he did on the Nirvana book "Come as You Are" speaks for itself. He was able to tell a story that was devoid of opinions and let the facts speak for themselves, even if proof came out after the book's publishing that suggested that some of the pieces were exaggerated. Still, when it was announced that he was writing a book about the American indie underground of the 1980s, I was ecstatic. Finally, someone qualified was going to talk about an era of music that's sadly overlooked by most people. But upon reading this book, I was pretty dismayed to discover how half-baked "Our Band Could be Your Life" was.
Azerrad only interviewed about half of the people involved in these selected bands. For people he obviously didn't talk to, like Steve Albini, he instead pastes together quotes taken from 1980s fanzine interviews and places them in the book like they were actual recollections. He does cite these sources in the back of the book, but it's still a little bit dishonest. He doesn't even interview Calvin Johnson for the Beat Happening section. Why even bother include them then? Calvin was the Beat Happening as far as I'm concerned. With the Butthole Surfers, there's only accounts from King Coffey and some scant Paul Leary quotes that I suspect were also lifted. Both are integral members, but not interviewing Gibby Haynes is inexcusable. No Gibby, no Surfers. And there are other important people you'd like to hear from who aren't here like Black Flag's Chuck Dukowski and the Minutemen's George Hurley, among others.
I'm shocked with how Azerrad fills the book up with his opinions and half-truths. Unlike in "Come as You Are," Azerrad paints stories in his own light and adds ridiculous lines that will leave you frustrated with his lack of professionalism. Who can take him seriously after reading this description on Big Black: "While it may not have been a direct swipe at a nation obsessed with a show like 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,' it sure was a [fecal product] in its silver punchbowl." (Ouch.) He uses hearsay in describing people in the bands who he didn't interview, which gives him absolutely no grounds to talk about such unfounded information. Azerrad takes Henry Rollins, who was kind enough to talk to him, and paints him as the destroyer of Black Flag, which is highly subject to debate but something I'd strongly disagree with. Azerrad also tends to think of all post-"Damaged" Black Flag albums as being mediocre, ignoring the fact that they were bold underground rock records that tried to do something more interesting than common hardcore. Azerrad's facts are sometimes inaccurate, such as when he says Rollins started recording just a few weeks later after Black Flag's breakup in a band that "just happened to include" the rhythm section of Greg Ginn's side project Gone. Henry didn't recruit them until two years after Black Flag's breakup for his second solo album, long after Ginn dissolved the original Gone.
Each band has some kind of bizarre opinion attached that will leave fans of each band angered. Azerrad accuses the Butthole Surfers of betraying their roots by leaving Touch and Go for Rough Trade but doesn't similarly condemn Sonic Youth for suing SST and taking back their catalogue (where they later reissued it on DGC and left two of the LPs out of print... how indie!) or for Husker Du signing onto a major. He approaches each band differently, like he obviously has favorites. Worst of all is how he cuts off the story of each band around 1991, like all of them stopped being essential because they signed onto a major label. That's a very narrow-minded way to look at the overall scope of the scene, and if that's how he really felt ethically, then why did he stop with Fugazi after "Steady Diet of Nothing"? They've always been on Dischord, and they never signed to a major.
There's some truly incredible bands missing in here. Azerrad did say that there didn't wasn't enough room to include everyone and that it wasn't an encyclopedia, but there's just no rational excuse as to how you could leave out bands and people as significant as the Meat Puppets, Half Japanese, Jello Biafra, Scratch Acid, Daniel Johnston, the Melvins, the Flaming Lips, the Wipers, and the Pixies. Frankly, I'm more disappointed that Azerrad filled up the space with Minor Threat AND Fugazi. They're both legendary bands, but I'd think that Fugazi fits the scope of the book's topic a lot more than Minor Threat. Big Black's accounts are heavily relayed from Michael Gerald of Killdozer (who should've had his own chapter, really) and Mudhoney's chapter is more of an excuse to describe the beginnings of Sub Pop, Green River, and Soundgarden. Good information, but not the way to go about it.
The best advice I can give is that you should preview the book from a friend or at a store before you buy it. There is a lot of great information to be found in here, and few people have tried to cover the post-hardcore scene/proto-alternative rock scene like Azerrad. But it seems like he didn't do his homework. He suggests that those who don't like his book should go write their own, and I'm almost tempted to do so just out of spite. "Come as You Are" is still required reading, but I'm definitely not going to be seeking out any future Azerrad-penned works. If you want to read a comprehensive and brilliant book about indie/alternative rock, the best out there by far is Joe Carducci's "Rock and the Pop Narcotic." Carducci general managed SST Records exclusively during their peak years (1981-1986) and his knowledge on music of all types is staggering. Pick up his book instead. Much to my disappointment, this is a flawed account of underground music.
on December 11, 2004
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I read it as somebody to whom this particular music scene was inexpressably important. Before my crappy former ISP ate and digested my website (some of you may remember evol.org), and I subsequently developed other interests, I used to run a well known website about Sonic Youth and The Minutemen; and it has always been one of my dreams to publish a book about my favorite band: The Minutemen.
I still might do that!
This book was a lot of fun to read - I recommend it to anybody who is interested in this era. I give this book a strong five stars even though I agree with a lot of the criticisms that were outlined in the review dated July 4, 2003. But in spite of these problems I ask: where else are you going to find a book like this? It is unreal to expect the book to be a fat encyclopedia - punk rockers just don't have that type of attention span - although I admit sections on the Meat Puppets and the DKs would have been nice. Or X, for that matter. But then again there were sections on bands I had hardly ever heard of like Beat Happening - that was refreshing. And also - it is obvious Azerrad loves and respects these bands as much as I do - but that doesn't mean he has to completely put them on a pedestal.
Azerrad, it appears, sees 1984 as a pinnacle of punk/post punk music. Well, so do I. If you were listening to this music in 1984, or if you are just now discovering it - buy the book. You'll be glad you did.
The story of the bands profiled in this book will inspire even the most jaded music fan. Besides how important these bands were to the whole "alternative" music scene, their stories will make you believe that there are still bands that really care about their music, their fans, and real artistic integrity. I only wish there were other books that covered the era of American indie / college rock. At least this book does a great job with the topic. By the way, I heard Michael Azerrad being interviewed about this book. The interviewer asked him how he was able to get so many notoriously private people to open up and talk about their careers. His answer was that nobody ever bothered to ask.
on March 2, 2005
I read this book a long time ago and picked it up again this past week to read the Sonic Youth chapter. Azerrad is a fantastic writer and reporter and his depiction of the world in which the grandparents of indie rock lived and toiled is really fascinating at times. I like his mix of enthusiasm and fly on the wall presentation. I would rec. this book to anyone interested in the roots of indie rock: the bands, the labels, the scenes. . .
on December 10, 2001
This is a book you can hardly put down. The exhaustive research and straightforward style of Mr. Azerrad are exceptionally presented for anyone who lived and breathed the indie music scene of the 80's, or for others who would love to know what they missed. Nicely connects the dots as an American social, cultural and musical history of the time, deftly bridging the late 70's punk era with the early 90's grunge era. The chapter on the Butthole Surfers was one of the funniest things I've read; I was forced to put the book down and wipe tears from my eyes! By all means get your hands on this book and enjoy it.
on November 30, 2002
Along with Motely Crue's THE DIRT, Michael Azzerad's essay on The Butthole Surfers in this book may stand as the ultimate example of not being sure if what you're reading is another awe-inspiring tale of rock'n'roll excess or a tragic, comedic cautionary tale.
Unlike Motley Crue - who you have no doubt have had the finest Bolivian cocaine flown to them on private jets, with Gibby Haynes and company you're left wondering, "Where did these guys find the money for all this debauchery? Hell, when did they find time to practice?" Unlike Motley Crue's book, which glamorizes their careers and you get the feeling that they came out laughing in the end (because, let's face it, the music was always secondary to the money for them), Azzerrad's writing really allows you to feel what it was like to be trapped in a van for years on end, wondering what the hell you're doing with your life, but being so passionate about it that, to hell with the rent being due tomorrow, turn that guitar up NOW.
From the passionate professionalism and artistry of Gregg Ginn's Black Flag and Ian MacKaye's Minor Threat and Fugazi, to the excess of the Surfers and the Replacements, the could've and should've beens of the doomed Minutemen and Mission of Burma (where in both cases fate plays sad, cruel twists), these are some great stories of the undersung heroes of 80's indie rock.
But really this is Azzerrad paying tribute to some of the music that mattered to him as he was growing up and as a jouirnalist finding out the stories behind the authors of albums like Sonic Youth's Sister and Husker Du's Zen Arcade.
Are there disappointments? Sure. A section on The Meat Puppets would've been nice, Mudhoney's chapter seems more like an essay on the history of their label Sub Pop than the band, and The Replacements deserve an entire book to call their own. (And, a super-minor quibble, is the paperback's jacket design - BORING, especially in contrast to the very cool deisgn of the hardcover.)
But those Butthole Surfers..., were they crazy...
on November 25, 2002
To start off with, I am too young to have seen these bands in their prime, but this book is still extremely powerful to me. I got into punk and indie where this book stops. If anyone says that the 70's punk revolution was the last time that music mattered, this book will prove them dead wrong. These bands all matter(ed) just as much.
Azerrad never goes into hero worship and gives a truly fair and honest look at these bands indie days (it cuts off the times some of these bands spent on major labels, focusing on the D.I.Y. ethics that punk and indie hold so dear) and takes a totally un-biased stance.
He also focuses on some bands that still (unfortunately) are not that well known to people my age. Mission of Burma is a key example. They are such an amazing band that has been completely overlooked. Even if you don't like or know about the bands, you can't put this book down.
If you are young and wanting to get into some great punk/indie music, buy this book and use it as a shopping guide. Seriously.
Nirvana did a lot, but the revolution started long before (and was better, in my opinion). Now all we need is someone to shake things up again, but today's indie scene needs to get over how cool they think they are and lighten up and work for the common good instead of their own personal gain. People in their early to mid twenties, and even late teens need to read about the struggles that punks used to have to go through. They couldn't buy, for example, a Misfits t-shirt a 5 different stores in the mall, or even find good records.
This book really does profile the last time music mattered, and it wasn't just the great music. It was the national community.