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 13 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 true definition of “indie” before they made it big (if and when they did).
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.
“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 13 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 band mates in close quarters, utter disdain from crowds of five, and aggravated assault from crowds of fifty. In any event, to conceptualize this sort of achievement prior to the age of the Internet is absolutely mind boggling. 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 U.S.: 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 will make some readers will undoubtedly shout “sellout,” 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, his book will be as definitive as it gets.