Henry Rollins said it best in his Black Flag tour diary: Get in the van! (Or was it William Blake with “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”.)
Surely, Rollins could not foresee the weight that exclamatory title would carry. Aside from the fact that Black Flag inspired thousands of pimply faced, downy mustached, hopelessly picked-on youths to pick up instruments and make their own noise, and to find a sense of adventure by getting in a beat up van and playing sweaty basement shows across the country. But also unwittingly started the punk and indie D.I.Y. (do it yourself) culture.
Before there was HGTV and the DIY Network, bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Sonic Youth were doing everything themselves, without any help from major labels. The aesthetic was simple: there’s nothing anyone can do for you that you can’t do for yourself. That means booking shows, setting up a tour, even recording. Greg Ginn, guitarist of Black Flag, created perhaps the first indie music label with SST Records.
Michael Azerrad’s brilliant book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, gives a brief history and inspiration of 11 special bands that encapsulate the new aesthetic. How Minor Threat’s Ian McKaye remembers gluing record art and inserts while guitarist Jeff Nelson xeroxed hundreds of flyers and CD art at Kinkos. Or J. Mascis graduating from playing drums in seminary Boston punk act Deep Wound to a grungier yet more melody inflected guitar in Dinosaur Jr. Mascis remembers not even trying to send a major label a demo for the grunge thing wouldn’t catch on for another ten years with the breakout of a little known rock outfit called Nirvana.
While Azerrad clearly focuses on the inception of the bands, life on the road, the trials of being broke and touring; the reader can’t help but contextualize the content. These groups were breaking the established norm and initiating a new model for all art. A whole culture of literary artists began making ‘zines in their bedrooms, pasting and stapling what they wanted to write, what they would want to read. Soon a new breed of visual artist emerged, branded the VCR filmmakers, directors like Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson started shooting on cheap, affordable equipment.
And lest we forget the labels. As much as the new DIY acts could do on their own, it didn’t hurt having other like minded individuals assisting in the effort. Jonathan Poneman, enjoying the lo-fi and immediate sound of these budding acts, thought he could distribute music with the best of them. And then he started Sub Pop records. When you think of an indie rock band in the 90’s, chances are they have a low degree of separation from Sub Pop. Eventually they became a business model for other indies.
Go ahead and give the Azerrad’s book a flip-through. It may prove to save your mundane, boring life.