• Rock 'n' Roll Unabomber
Top college rock records

Notes From The Underground

written by: on February 8, 2011

Rock 'n' Roll Unabomber logoOn Friday January 14, at New York City’s Highland Ballroom, Camper Van Beethoven reunited once again. That next night, ending a 12 year hiatus, Archers Of Loaf did the same at the Cat’s Cradle in Carboro, North Carolina. Separated by 24 hours and 700 miles, both events drew water from the same well. Like the came-down-from-the-mountain grey-bearded frontmen of both groups, much of the audience was comprised of rock ‘n’ roll’s forgotten tribe, my brethren. Now only a few years away from receiving our AARP cards in the mail, we were born in that nameless void between the Baby Boom and Generation X, coming of age at the most desolate crossroad in pop music history; that post-Pistols, pre-Nirvana era when those of us adverse to the prevalent faddist repugnance were forced to fend for ourselves in the American underground. Our numbers were few, but our allegiance was strong. Sequestered on the periphery of the mainstream, our music was allowed to thrive uninhibited and unnoticed. “College Rock”, as it was then commonly called, germinated in the shade of independent labels, make-shift venues, shoddy fanzines, and campus radio. For fourteen extraordinary years everything was just peachy. And then the money showed up.

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Johnny Rotten asked the audience of San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on January 14th 1978. Dropping his microphone, he walked off the stage and the Sex Pistols were no more. For fans of the band it was as if we had caught a ride to our first party with that delinquent kid that all of our parents hated only to be ditched there, buzzed and without any idea how to get home. Admittedly, other first-wave punk bands did continue on for several years to come, but the momentum was gone. The siege was over and the keep’s walls stood unmarked but for the blood of the vanquished. Salvaging what they could from the wreckage, America’s youngens embraced U.K. punk’s unabashed amateurism and D.I.Y. initiative and, as they had done a generation before with garage rock, created a wild mutation. At first the ball was picked up where the Pistols had left it by already existent West Coast punk acts. Although the bands who initially held forth at New York’s CBGBs are commonly, and debatably, credited with firing the first salvo of punk rock, it was the U.K. variant that they spawned that directly influenced these acts.

In the face of mounting resistance from the prevalent holders of authority, both familial and political, bands and their fans behaved like fellow arsonists joining forces to thwart the bucket-brigade. Being surprisingly well organized for would-be anarchists, they pooled their talents and resources to book gigs, post flyers, print fanzines and start record labels. Among the earliest musicians to take matters into his own hands was a lanky electronics geek who used his Solid State Transistors mail order business to issue the first releases of his band, Panic. His label’s name would be abbreviated to SST and it would go on to host some of the greatest bands of the coming decade, spreading underground music throughout the hinterland and serving as the archetype for every independent label that followed. His band would change its name to Black Flag and they would fuck around and invent Hardcore.

No other variation of music, before or since, has demanded so little of its practitioners than hardcore punk. Devoid of artifice, oblivious to fashion, and indifferent to talent it swept like wildfire across the fruited plain, flaring up anywhere the disaffected decided to make a little noise. Eventually infiltrated by meat-headed interlopers, the mosh-pit overpowered the message and hardcore lapsed into a sadistic jock sausage-fest. In response to the knuckle-dragging malevolence growing in the hardcore scene a number of L.A. musicians took their cues from the puritanical pacifism of the 60s. The Paisley Underground was a coalition of cross-pollenating bands besotted with the psychedelic and folk-rock stylings of the previous generation of Los Angelenos. Critics derisively labeled their music “Jangle Pop” owing to the unfashionably light sound of their guitars. Their aesthetic, however, proved stealthily pervasive, surfacing in similar incarnations in the U.K., New Zealand and most fruitfully in Athens Georgia as R.E.M., the critically fawned upon banner bearers for the Southern jangle pop scene became the underground’s first crossover superstars.

First championed by the clarion call of college radio, R.E.M. was among the earliest of ‘80s groups to benefit from a level of fealty that university students had, in previous decades, reserved for Kerouac, Dylan and frisbee. Wooed by campus activity boards and college-town bars, and subsidized by the misuse of student loans by their fans, a multitude of bands flourished free from the stifling demands of the mainstream music industry. Like the shipwrecked children in “Lord Of The Flies”, these musical castaways surrendered to their isolation, developed their own social order and went a little feral. They created art for art’s sake, never desiring or striving for stardom or acceptance.

With scenes-a-poppin’ in every city, hamlet and holler of the country the galling disinterest of the major media and corporate music magazines prompted like-minded members of the proletariat to take action. Creating fanzines to deliver missives to the masses, several of these amateur publishers found merely writing about the music that they loved wasn’t enough. Following in the hallowed footsteps of “Who Put The Bomp” fanzine founder Greg Shaw, they took the next ambitiously illogical step and started their own record labels. This progression from zealot waxing evangelical to business minded mogul repeated itself in L.A. with Bob Biggs’ Slash Records, in Chicago, where the Touch and Go label reigned supreme and most successfully in Seattle Washington where Bruce Pavitt’s Subterranean Pop ‘zine became Sub Pop Records.

Most music obsessives who soldiered on through the underground years remember where they were the first time they heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I was frozen in my tracks at work staring at the radio as if some repressive law of nature had just been violated. The song’s riff may have been partially lifted from Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” and its hushed verse / hollered chorus dynamics weren’t new to Pixies fans, but taken as a whole it was a revelatory moment in time. This wasn’t one of the more easily digestible Replacements or R.E.M. songs that commercial radio deigned to dabbled in, this was defiance and rage incarnate, delivered with mush-mouthed eloquence and reckless abandon. It was instantly apparent that something was happening, that there was a shift in the paradigm, a glitch in the matrix. After more than a decade of toiling in the dark like the Morlocks from “The Time Machine” we had finally stepped out into the light, and oddly, as I looked around me I realized that all of the Eloi were bobbing their heads in time.

With the success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” college rock was rechristened “Alternative” and everything from Fiona Apple to Korn would be filed in the same folder. The major label carpet baggers descended on hapless scenes wherever they might be found, shrink wrapping and bar-coding everything within their reach. After five years of corporate bastardization “alternative rock” limped to its ignominious end when Metallica headlined Lollapalooza and Creed went multi-platinum.