1982 had given punks a couple of years to realize that things were going to be rough for awhile. Jocks were starting to collect en masse in the slam pits of the cities, the prevailing trend was for once protest leaders to become prominent businessmen, and the major labels were no longer signing bands like Television, X, or The Clash. The rise of the Walkman made music even more accessible on an intimate level though, and like the early record players, the ability to record sound was as intrinsic as playing it back. Like with all new technology, underground artists adapted. This meant young music fans still buzzing from the manic punk thrills of P. Smith and Richard Hell could start doing idiosyncratic homemade music on their own, and more importantly, like the fanzines which wrote about them, could put the tunes out of basements and garages of their own group houses. In the Pacific Northwest, and especially in Washington state capital Olympia, this became a raging concern among the students of Evergreen and their friends and the freaks who floated through town.
Love Rock Revolution (Sasquatch Books) is one of the more important books about Pac NW music, narrated by Mark Baumgarten, a veteran critic for the Village Voice and other major markets and who actually lives in Seattle and is an editor at City Arts Magazine. Like expert journalists tend to do, he found a topic he loved — the cassette-dominated indie scene of the early college rock years — and through himself into documenting the weird highs and lows of its formation. Focusing primarily on K Records, which was closely aligned with Op Magazine from the time period (which only covered underground artists), the stories of Calvin Johnson, Beat Happening, Bikini Kill, and many others have never gotten such detailed treatment in and off them (thrift store shopping, party noise-making, fanzine-scrawling, festival-flocking, fitful tour building) selves.
With often hilarious tales of early Japanese recordings, explorations of how the first all ages shows and scrappy seven inch singles and tapes were first made and distributed, Love Rock Revolution wisely focuses on a specific tribe of scene-makers who started in a complete din of mainstream acceptance. There was no other way for Calvin’s bands and those of his friends’ to perform other than just for their friends, and as a taunt to those who controlled the media at the time. They all could have been suffocated by the lack of support from anyone not in the scene, but this book shrewdly shows the exciting, dangerous times when being different could give you trouble but also a voice. Highly recommended, and am really hoping there will be sequels.
A couple of years back, Stereogum editor Brandon Stosuy wrote a superb oral history about USBM (United States Black Metal) for one of the The Believer’s Music Issues, and it helped me understand some bands I’d already been enjoying (Wolves in the Throne Room, formed in 2003 in Olympia) and filled me in on the actually quite diverse backgrounds and aesthetics of an extreme but still highly nuanced genre of very hard music. I’ll never be a huge fan of music so consistently abrasive, but have come to appreciate the textures and some of the ideologies it represents, and the fact that it has nothing to do with commercial compromises. Even if it sounds like the top of your cranium being sawn off, that sort of effect takes an artful approach to do it right, even if you don’t it anywhere near the hangover you’re nursing.
Black Dog Publishing has reprinted that original series of interviews with a Viking ship’s hull-load of around-the-world BM-inspired artwork, grisly and alienating album covers, chilly Nordic cover shots of black make-up smeared faces, and even more chats with the music’s creators and spokesmen. Black Metal: Beyond The Darkness has new essays by many articulate and thoughtful European scribes that have been capturing the movements and extolling its essences for years, making this a truly necessary document for anyone into the mysterious, often very morbid genre (and its various incestuous twins and cousins). Topics include Apocalyptic Humanism, Black Metal in American Writing, and the “pure fucking armageddon” of fanzine Conservative Shithead Journal. Of particular fascination to me is its extrapolation of ties to Fine Art, such as the artists who make up an important of Matthew Barney’s humungous and disturbing five-part Cremaster Cycle. The background on that alone make this paradoxically beautiful, edifying coffee table book worth buying for anyone who longs to attend the U.K.-based academic Black Metal summits which seem so intellectually tantalizing.
Punk Rock: An Oral History is written by John Robb, who did a ‘77-contemporaneous fanzine and was in The Membranes, one of those organically-spawned short-lived punk bands that grew like mushrooms beneath the bedsits of every block in the U.K. alongside the Pistols and The Clash. His eventual professional music journalism skills allowed him to make good on the access he’d had from the inside of that thriving, bleeding, obfuscated early underground music scene. Hence something as seemingly recursive as yet another oral history on punk rock can reveal a good load of new tall tales and real anecdotes once-prominent punters and yobs have been lobbing back and forth at the weary and curious in pubs for several decades now.
This particular fat bastard volume (over 500 pages) is ace when bollocks-deep in the travails of proto-Oi! groups and the emergence of key players like Chrissie Hynde (who wrote for the NME before putting together one of the best bands on earth), accessing the hard-won wisdom of survivors like Glen Matlock (who left the Sex Pistols after crafting their tunes), and horrifying the hell out of me with how desperate The Stranglers were for any sort of place in the music scene (these rats of sublime sewer rock once played “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” at bar mitzvahs). Currently fronting Goldblade, Robb allows his mates to talk shit freely and be extraordinarily self-deprecative about it, which gives this anthology of many genuinely talented voices to glint like a switchblade in the moonlight. Not essential, but sweetly unique and deep.