[The one and only Henry Rollins contributes a weekly column and far-reaching reportage to the music section of the LA Weekly. Look for your weekly Henry Rollins fix right here on West Coast Sound every Wednesday and make sure to tune in to Henry's KCRW radio show every Saturday evening, or online, or as a podcast, or however else you decided to listen to the most eclectic DJ on LA's airwaves.
This installment includes Henry's thoughts on the State of Undeground Music (protip: it's strong!). And come back Friday for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit KCRW.com and HenryRollins.com
The Underground Is Alive and Well
Somewhere in the mid-'80s, I noticed a change happening in the American music scene. Small bands from the clubs were getting airplay on college and other independent-minded stations. Certainly, in previous years, thanks to visionaries like Rodney Bingenheimer and his show on KROQ-FM here in L.A., bands in the margins were getting some well-deserved attention. But I noticed that it was picking up quite a bit of momentum. Things started to get interesting.
In the early '90s, as you know, some of these bands cracked it wide open; as a result, popular music in America has never been quite the same. The hair bands were suddenly delivering pizzas instead of ordering them, and a new crop of bands was selling tickets and moving units. Much to the delight of major labels, radio stations, venues and — no doubt — the formerly marginal bands themselves, they were getting quite the star treatment and some much-needed traction. These were great years and, as you can expect, many didn't survive them.
As the new century dawned, it occurred to me that the big labels and radio had yet again gotten stale, predictable and too high on their own fumes. It seemed less about the music and more about the presentation — the video, the look, the package. More was demanded of young bands on big labels: Move mass quantities or be dropped like a hot stone.
Many bands fell into obscurity because they were not able to make their music conform to these art-killing criteria. Zappa warned you of the threat of mediocrity in music. He was right, of course.
The almost karmic knee-to-the-groin came a few years ago in the form of iTunes, allowing the consumer to cherry-pick an album and let the band and label know what was wheat and what was chaff. More bands were dropped and employees let go as technology and the options it provided forced the bigwigs to make changes.
The larger highways of music providers went madly onward into bigger and more garish displays. Televised music award shows and those oddly popular talent-search programs swelled with popularity, at the same time being something you would never want to be caught dead at. While this collective atrocity lurched ever forward into absurdity and excess, the rest of us were given room to get some real work done. It's not like the lines were long — the herd had gone that-a-way at all speed. Hooray!
It was around this time that something very wonderful happened: More bands started doing it by themselves, for themselves. Small labels started sprouting up all over America in great profusion, and if one was sharp enough to look into the somewhat narrow yet deep fissures of the music world, he or she would be rewarded many times over by the plenitude of great music being made on cassettes, CDRs and locally pressed vinyl.
Labels and bands who had zero interest in fitting in, being on MTV, radio or any other normal delivery system started making some of the more refreshing, innovative and happening music in years.
Besides longtime standard-bearer labels like Dischord, Kill Rock Stars, TeePee, Ipecac, Southern Lord, Meteor City, Sublime Frequencies, Stones Throw, Teen Beat, etc., labor-of-love operations that make the aforementioned seem huge by comparison keep on rocking nonstop in the free world.
Some of my favorite free-to-freak-out-how-you-wanna labels, like American Tapes, Hanson, Gods of Tundra, AAA, UgExplode, Fusetron and others are putting out some serious brain-damaging and mind-blowing jams on cassette (often taped over mass-marketed ones), lathed vinyl and CDRs with art glued or spray-painted on top, in very small batches. Some of the sounds barely contained on these releases might not be everyone's kind of thang, but personally speaking, I have not been this excited about what's happening in music for a long time.
This is the new bebop, as one fan of these heroic and insanely energized labels remarked to me recently. I replied that these groups are doing what punk rock would have done had it not lost its nerve. I think we're both right.
Much of this noise is so challenging, so in-your-face and not trying to be your friend that I don't know if playing it on my humble radio show might not shed listeners more than it very well might already.
If you look at what's happening in the world right now, what's happening in America, one thing is for sure: Change is not coming. It is here and it's only going to get changier.
So many bands and labels are embodying the spirit of what the late Germs vocalist Darby Crash said in the song “Lexicon Devil”: “Let's give this established joke a shove.” Beyond that, it's these groups' and labels' blatant noninterest in the big show and its corporate confines that holds limitless interest to me. If at times some of the goings-on seem a little too precious for some, hey, I'll take that over the turgid and so easily self-satisfied alternative anytime.
The Underground is very alive, very well and most likely not holding the door open for you. That being said, you can open it yourself, and once you're in, as Bobby Byrd once said, “I know you got soul. If you didn't, you wouldn't be in here.”
Don't despair. Just turn up the volume.