There is a need in our society today to label things as “the best ever” or “the worst ever.” No longer is it good enough to merely be good, or interesting, or worth one’s time. For that reason what I’m about to say is something you should not take lightly, despite it's overuse. Michael Azerrad’s tales from the “American Indie Underground”, covering 13 highly influential punk and indie rock bands from the period of 1981 through 1991, is the best music-related book I have ever read. Don’t believe me? I submit as Exhibit A the fact that the 10th anniversary of this book spurred a live concert at Bowery Ballroom in 2011 with 14 contemporary artists (including Ted Leo, Titus Andronicus, tUnE-yArDs) covering the 13 from the book. It may have happened before, but I can’t think of another book that resulted in a musical celebration like that.
One common praise for the book is that Azerrad could have chosen any number of other bands to make his point about the glory decade of indie music, and that it’s how he told a story using what appears to be a somewhat randomly chosen 13 that further illustrates Azerrad’s brilliance. Of course Azerrad had to have a chapter on Sonic Youth – “the yardstick by which independence and hipness (the very equation is in no small part due to them) were measured” – but wouldn’t it have made more sense to replace Beat Happening with, say, the Pixies or the Meat Puppets? I think the answer is no; it is in choosing these 13 bands specifically that Azerrad took his first steps towards brilliance. Chronologically these bands make sense as they take us from the immediate post-punk era right up to Nirvana’s Nevermind, i.e. the event that changed indie forever. Geographically they are sufficiently diverse, covering both coasts, New England, D.C., Seattle/Olympia, Minneapolis, Texas and Chicago. In addition to using the breadth of the U.S. indie scene to paint a picture of everything that was going on at the same time (and how the various regional scenes both did and didn’t interact nationally), he made sure that certain regions were represented twice so as to note the distinctions within an small area – Hüsker Dü vs. the Replacements, Mission of Burma vs. (years later) Dinosaur Jr. The 13 bands chosen each have a distinct style and brought something to the table that the others did not, whether it was the Minutemen moving punk away from hard core, the Hüsker’s addition of melody to punk, Sonic Youth’s introduction of high art to the scene, or Dinosaur Jr’s return to guitar rock. The personalities involved were also crucial to the story, as many of the bands included leads who were as famous for what they contributed to indie music besides the music itself, if not more so. Steve Albini’s militant indie “principles” were more powerful than the music of Big Black, and his work as a producer trumped both; Ian MacKaye’s label (Dischord) and dogmatic devotion to “straight edge” were more influential than either Minor Threat or Fugazi; J. Mascis gave the world a slacker poster boy; and of course you have Sonic Youth, the band that made other bands meaningful by association. Then there are the labels – the thing that made indie music indie. Azerrad’s 13 bands span SST, Touch and Go, Twin/Tone, Sub Pop, Dischord, Merge, Ace of Hearts, K Records, and Blast First (UK), and he spends as much time discussing the impact of the labels (most of them founded by the bands themselves) as the bands. He also smartly moves on from each band when and if they make the leap to a major, so Mudhoney’s Reprise years and the Replacements years on Sire Records are given a brief mention and then discarded.
All of that is just to focus on the structure of and choice of material for the book; without Azerrad’s brilliant prose, 500+ pages on indie rock may not have flown by so easily. (Honestly, I wanted more.) The writer has a way of turning words on a page into picture and sound, so that the reader can experience the 1980s indie scene and truly know what it was like to witness any of these artists perform and evolve, even if he or she had never heard a single note from, for example, the Minutemen.Thus the chapter on Sonic Youth is artistically beautiful, like the band's music. Then, when writing about a band like the Butthole Surfers, Azerrad shifts from being poetic to crude and funny, to reflect the music (you can tell he really enjoyed writing that one). The chapter on MacKaye’s Fugazi is a bit self-righteous, the one on Albini and Big Black is condescending, and the one on the Replacements is accessible and inspiring. Towards the end, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, one can easily contrast Azerrad’s viewpoint on late-’80s indie bands Dinosaur Jr and Mudhoney – the former is a story about a band that but for its own self-destruction could have been Nirvana before Nirvana; the latter is a story about a band that had that opportunity present itself but was never talented enough to seize it. I could go on for another thousand words (and then probably two thousand more) writing about this book, and perhaps one day I will. The most important thing for anyone who’s considered reading it but hasn’t yet to keep in mind is not to be intimidated by the bands. You don’t need to know the music of all, or even most of them ahead of time. Azerrad will bring the bands to you.