3 Minute Wall
The Lost Generation...
It wasn't punk rock, although that's what a lot of people called it back then. Calling it punk rock made the movement easier to understand, easier for the PC police at Maximumrockandroll to manipulate, and easier for the major record labels to ignore. Punk rock is a mohawk and leather pants. Johnny Rotten is Vince Neil with fewer teeth. These people were re-writing the language of rock 'n' roll, channeling the spirit of Elvis Presley into the modern American city, the suburbs, the posh hills of Hollywood, or even the deserts of the Southwest. These bands came from all over, and no two worked the same voodoo.
A distinctly American voice began to be heard from the rock underground pretty soon after new wave punk came over from England. Bands like X and The Blasters operated within the punk framework, but developed an exciting music derived more from classic American rock 'n' roll than from anything pulled out of Sid Vicious's shorts. The Dead Kennedys gave British hardcore a distinctly Californian feel through the injection of increasingly higher doses of American surf music, as would Jodie Foster's Army. The Flesheaters developed an edgy, chaotic rock that was as grainy and disconcerting as the trashy slasher flicks that inspired it. San Francisco's Flipper took the Black Sabbath esthetic and put it under even heavier sedation to produce the sound of a junkie falling out of his chair in slow motion.
In the waning years of their tenure as America's most influential underground rock band, California's Black Flag abandoned hardcore for a free jazz take on heavy metal. The success of that approach could fluctuate between the sweltering heat of WHO'S GOT THE 10 1/2, and the self-indulgent, directionless, improvisation of THE PROCESS OF WEEDING OUT On a good day, the soaring, melodic improvisational mind of guitarist Gregg Ginn could weave high-frequency tunnels through the Flag's powerful bottom-heavy punk sludge much the way Ornette Coleman's sax used to slide around in the mud of Charlie Hayden's deep basslines in the original Ornette Coleman Trio. The album, IN MY HEAD was recorded on such a day, and is worth hearing.
Black Flag's SST labelmates the Minutemen pioneered a similarly avant-jazz take on punk, and were probably a huge influence on Ginn and Company. Starting life as a punk rock concept band, the trio vowed that all of their songs would last no longer than one minute. The Minutemen quickly outgrew all self-imposed limitations to fashion an outstanding sound that was both challenging and lyrical. Taking in the totality of American rock history, the Minutemen not only brought together influences as disparate as Captain Beefheart, Blue Oyster Cult, CCR, and Bob Dylan, but also proved themselves the equal of their heroes on DOUBLE NICKELS ON THE DIME, a great American rock album.
After guitarist and prime mover D. Boone was killed in an automobile accident in 1986, band mates Mike Wattand George Hurleysoldiered on as fIREHOSE. That band would release two albums on SST before signing to Warner Bros. in the 90's.
Also on SST were Arizona's Meat Puppets, a family band (two brothers and their cousin,) responsible for the most startling hybrid of country and rock ever committed to vinyl.
On their first recordings, the 7" IN A CAR and the MEAT PUPPETS EP, the band sounds like a primitive version of Buck Owens' Buckaroos speeding through the entire TROUT MASK REPLICA double album in less than 20 minutes. Amazing stuff, but only a warm up for the less frantic MEAT PUPPETS II, on which the Puppets become the first artists since Bill Monroe to use traditional country music to create something entirely new. The sound is in turns ferocious and gentle, modestly low-fi even as it is ambitious and expansive. Impossible to categorize, and almost everything pales in comparison to it.
It is no coincidence that so many of the above bands plied their trade on Black Flag's SST Records, one of the most far-reaching independent labels in the history of rock. The label's roster would, throughout the 80's, read like a who's who of envelope-pushing modern rock acts: Saccharine Trust, Opel, Dinosaur Jr., Sound Garden, the Screaming Trees, Angst, Zoogs Rift and His Amazing Shitheads, Leaving Trains, Sonic Youth and many others.
One band to come to SST, having already established a pedigree for their unique (at the time) mixture of reggae and punk, were the Bad Brains. They recorded two albums for the label, I AGAINST I and QUICKNESS, on which they seamlessly blended soul and metal into their reggae/hardcore stew without sounding like a punk band feigning depth with flourishes from other styles. Bad Brains embodied conviction, vision and skill.
Meanwhile, a Texas band called the Butthole Surfers would spend the mid-1980's touring in a succession of used vans and re-defining psychedelic music before becoming an indie rock novelty band late in the decade. Their greatest, and most influential, moment remains 1984's "PSYCHIC...POWERLESS...ANOTHER MAN'S SAC."
The Surfers mined the darker end of psychedelic expression, using weird, improvisational music, based only loosely on 60's antecedents, and shocking visuals to create the audio-visual equivalent of a bad trip. Similar buzzkilling was served up by fellow Texans Scratch Acid, as well as bands like Bomb (responsible for TO ELVIS IN HELL, one of the most disorienting and sinister albums ever,) the more rock-minded Alice Donut, and the utterly rock-deficit Killdozer.
Up in New York, Sonic Youth used exotic tunings and a loose-gripped approach to melody and song structures to construct off-kilter soundscapes that could be thunderous and ugly, or swelling and beautiful to those with unconventional sensibilities. Their earliest albums, those which proceed EVOL, are the most amorphous and least easy to pin down, drawing as they do on the pure sound/noise bliss of deep psychedelia. "EVOL," and the albums that follow it, show the progressive effects of rock music addiction, as the band became less and less a sound experiment and more of a noisy rock band. Their most balanced work is the double LP, "DAYDREAM NATION," on which the band retains their avant noise edge while picking up where the Byrds' "FIFTH DIMENSION" left off, in terms of exploring the infinite possibilities of multiple electric guitars in a free rock environment.
The Swans latched onto the uglier, noise-psyche moves of Sonic Youth and turned them into mortar for the unremitting wall of bottom end they unleashed on records like COP and GREED, Heavy Metal in a most atypical, but accurate, use of the term, a Swans album strips rock music of just about everything except the roar, with basso profundo vocals droning on all damn day over the sound of fingernails clawing out the melody of "Iron Man" on a blackboard in slow motion.
The Swans' "world of inarticulate pain" changed dramatically with the arrival of female vocalist Jarboe, and the more varied approach of CHILDREN OF GOD, a bona fide masterwork. On many tracks, the band still bangs up a nihilistic storm, but the sound is more carefully structured and the arrangements more varied than before. Stretches of pounding noise are offset by long, gentle passages and eerie torchsongs, sung by Jarboe or intoned by leader Michael Gira. The Swans went on to explore the quieter aspects of their sound on further releases and through Gira and Jarboe's side project, Skin.
Perhaps the biggest initial impact of Sonic Youth and, especially, the Swans, was on the long and loathsome list of imitators they spawned during the mid-eighties' noise craze. Ritual Tension comes to mind as a particularly worthless Swans clone who recorded a terrible version of "Hotel California," near decade's end.
When Pussy Galore appeared on the scene, a lot of us interpreted their amateurish appropriation of the Rolling Stones' legacy as some kind of high art statement, a "commentary on rock cliché." In point of fact, the band just wasn't very good, but much of their ineptitude was calculated. For all the chaos and poor recording values, albums like SUGARSHITSHARP and "DIAL M..." were noisy, fun reminders that big time enthusiasm can compensate for two-bit technique, and that genius is often something you trip and fall over while you're rushing around trying to act like an idiot.
The fact that I have rambled on for over 1500 words without mentioning Big Black, REM, Embrace, the Replacements, Metallica, Half Japanese, Husker Du, Fugazi, Honor Role, the Feelies, Das Damen, Slayer, the Dicks, or any of the other blue million essential American bands of the era shows just how diverse a palette American rock drew from in those days, and just how many interesting bands were all operating at the same time. Such diversity is a miracle in any era, but it seems particularly heroic during the eighties, when so many American rock bands worked for small labels, which could often provide no more than regional distribution of records and minimal support for tours.
The major labels, those with the best distribution and most money to promote a band, wanted little or nothing to do with this music. British punk rock had been a commercial failure, and the pigeonholing of too many later, American bands as "punk rock" scared the majors away. The mainstream rock press, busy covering British bands, yuppie lifestyles, and liberal politics, provided practically no coverage of the new music, at least not the kind that would effectively combat the "hardcore" stereotype. (I am, of course, being unfair to SPIN, which had far more edge than any mainstream music mag of the day. -ed.) Besides, with Madonna and George Michael at the top of the charts, pop - not rock - was what the A&R men at the big labels were looking for. Even Van Halen, one of the major hard rock innovators of their era, had to adopt a keyboard-oriented pop sound ("Jump!") to score big-time radio play in those days.
A cadre of independent media sources sprang up throughout the era to promote the new rock in the face of big media neglect. Magazines like Maximumrockandroll, Profane Existence, Forced Exposure and Flipside, did an admirable job of promoting small label, even self-released, records by myriad post-punk bands. Maximumrockandroll was particularly effective in this, and must have turned thousands of readers on to bands they would otherwise have never heard of.
At the same time these fanzines nurtured the music, the most influential of them were also strangling it. While zines such as MRR promoted new American rock with an almost religious intensity, it was clear that they were often more concerned with the maintenance of a viable socio-political counterculture than with the proliferation rock for rock's sake. Too often, bands were judged not on the basis of their musical merits, but rather upon their symbolic political worth or status within the "scene." The choice of indie rock like Operation Ivy over major label rock like Motley Crue was presented as a moral choice rather than an issue of mere esthetics. Indie rock bands weren't just better bands, they were champions of vital progressive values, simply by virtue of their minor league status. Their arena rock rivals were harbingers of sexism, cultural hedgemony and greed simply by recording for Warner Brothers. When an indie band, such as Husker Du, was fortunate enough to actually get a major label contract, they quickly ran afoul of this "big labels are evil" mentality and lost the support of both the indie press and a chunk of the audience they had garnered through their underground cultural connections.
Had the majors made an effort to properly promote such a band to the mainstream audience, a significant influx of newer fans might compensate for the loss of old ones. Sadly, this was rarely the case. The majors didn't care about the music anyway, usually signing an underground band to capitalize on their existing popularity and steal sales away from the smaller companies, not to invest a bunch of money in promoting the band to a mainstream audience that, the labels had decided, wasn't interested anyway.
Thus, no matter the quality of their output, the size of their labels or the relative purity of their ideals, a generation of American rock bands languished, and a significant chunk of rock history was lost.
Note: This article was written almost eight years ago, for a now-defunct website called Threeminutereveries.com. Since this article first appeared, much has changed in the field of rock journalism, and in its attitude towards the Independent Rock Music of the 1980's. Nowadays, the mainstream music magazines that ignored Black Flag and others during their existance now eulogize them. Books such as "This Band Could Be Your Life" have elevated bands like the Minutemen and the Butthole Surfers into the ranks of the well-documented. Much has changed, to the point where some of the criticisms leveled in this article no longer apply. I submit this article, as antiquated as it may be in some aspect, as a tribute to those of us who were ahead of the curve.)