The top ten underground US music scene reads you need to know
They say music is the universal language, but that doesn’t stop people from writing about it. From disco to punk to R&B (RIP), we count down ten books about the American underground music scenes of yore(/your parents).
OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE BY MICHAEL AZERRAD
The (great) title says a lot about Azerrad’s argument, which charts how punk rock’s influence seeped into American rock to create cult and underground giants like Black Flag, Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr., and Minor Threat. With band profiles as well as discussion of anti-establishment labels, zines, and radio stations, Azerrad examines the communities that formed around the loosely defined American ‘indie’ scene that paved the way for the drastically different one we know today.
NOISE: FICTION INSPIRED BY SONIC YOUTH
Pretty much what it sounds like. (Get it?!) Featuring stories by Eileen Myles, J. Robert Lennon, Mary Gaitskill, and Jess Walter, this collection is both a tribute to and a kind of collaboration with the iconic indie anti-heroes, who inspire tales of surrealism, subversion, exhilaration, and upheaval in their generation’s similarly risk-taking writers. Listen with “My Friend Goo” on repeat.
ENTERTAIN US! BY CRAIG SCHUFTAN
But all good undergrounds must come up for air, it seems. Entertain Us! follows “the rise and fall of alternative rock in the nineties,” drawing a cohesive, engaging narrative out of the commodification of youth culture that took place on both sides of the pond. Say it ain’t so! Read an excerpt here.
BEATBOX: A DRUM MACHINE OBSESSION BY JOE MANSFIELD
The subtitle doesn’t lie; Beatbox has the accuracy and meticulous detail of an obsession, and the pictures are drool-worthy for those of you more into non-written modes of expression. The text rewards readers, though, and while there’s emphasis on rap and hip hop producers and scenes, there are also interviews with father-of-house Marshall Jefferson and the revolutionary industrial designer Roger Linn.
THE DEATH OF RHYTHM AND BLUES BY NELSON GEORGE
George’s narrative accounts for the last fifty years of black music – and, in turn, the last fifty years of black culture – in a provocative collection of musician profiles and recent history. The prolific writer on African-American culture charts the decline of what he calls “race music” into the watery R&B of mainstream “crossover” and ends with a call to action for an African-American resistance to assimilation through more economic and political independence.
MO’ META BLUES BY QUESTLOVE
Musician memoirs can be hit or huge miss, but Questlove’s fluid, energetic mix of personal history, Roots’ history, cultural criticism, and celebrity gossip is definitely the former. Fast-paced yet in-depth, super-smart yet incredibly conversational, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in hip hop over the last three decades – but Questlove’s insights offer a lot more than historical anecdote.
WE OWE YOU NOTHING: PUNK PLANET: THE COLLECTED INTERVIEWS
The seminal punk magazine Punk Planet’s compilation of interviews focuses on the intersections of punk and activism and punk and philosophy, and it’s as various and unexpected as the magazine itself. With connections to art, politics, business, film, designers, and more, the collection will introduce the uninitiated to a range of music and thought that extends far past the degenerate caricature of ripped-clothes/wacky hair.
VIOLENCE GIRL: EAST LA RAGE TO HOLLYWOOD STAGE, A CHICANA PUNK STORY BY ALICIA BAG
From the general to the specific: Violence Girl is a memoir-in-fragments about early punk band The Bags’ lead singer’s life on the border between her family in an East LA barrio and the nascent Hollywood punk scene. Bag’s coming-of-age story is fraught with tensions between her patriarchal upbringing and transgressive feminist leanings, and it’s required reading for anyone interested in punk subcultures.
DISCO FILES 1973-1978: NEW YORK’S UNDERGROUND WEEK BY WEEK BY VINCE ALETTI
Aletti’s cult column in Record World magazine was one of (if not the) first to catch disco at the very beginning of its rise to way more than mainstream: equal parts memoir and documentary, Disco Files is the ultimate source on the subject, a chronicle of the clubs, DJs, and sounds of the early years of disco.
ROCK SHE WROTE: WOMEN WRITE ABOUT ROCK, POP, AND RAP, EDITED BY EVELYN MCDONNELL AND ANN POWERS
Out to prove that obsessive female fandom isn’t only the domain of One Direction – as well as to prove that that comparison is really problematic – this anthology is not only an attempt at a feminist alternative history – it’s a rich repository of music journalism from the 1960s to the 1990s that often has little to do with gender. Still, its highlights are the pieces that come right up against the issue: one critic’s struggle to come to terms with her love for Ice Cube’s misogynistic lyrics, for example, is a must-read that rings very true today.