Authors: Roni Sarig
THE SECRET HISTORY OF ROCK
THE MOST INFLUENTIAL BANDS
YOU’VE NEVER HEARD
An imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications / New York
In bringing this book from a vague idea, to a huge pile of research materials, to a written and edited reality, many people have gladly given their help. I would like to thank those without whom I could not have made it through:
First, to my closest advisor, earliest editor, greatest supporter, and primary inspiration, my wife Danielle. And to all my family and friends for their support, particularly those with music business rolodexes: Tommy and Sabrina.
Thanks as well to my editors Bob Nirkind and Sylvia Warren, to my agent Sheree Bykofsky, and to my research assistants Jason Schepers, Chris Toenes, John Cline, and David Rosen. Also, to the nearby friends who provided advice and information, and helped track down albums, stories, and people: David Menconi, Tim Ross, Ben Goldberg, Joe and Elizabeth Kahn, Farnum Brown, and the music library at WXDU.
I am indebted to all the artists who, without anything to promote except the music they loved, enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed. Thanks especially to those who went out of their way to contact me and continued to make themselves accessible in whatever way they could: King Coffey, Jim O’Rourke, and Kate Shellenbach.
And of course, thanks to the many publicists, managers, label heads, and journalists who provided material and assistance. Particularly, those who went beyond the call of duty – Michael Shore, Carol Cooper, Bill Adler, Neil & Lucas Cooper – as well as those who did their jobs promptly and happily: Kathy Keely, Deborah Orr, Darcy Mayers, Sabrina Kaleta, Alison Tarnofsky, Mike Wolf, Beth Jacobson, Taylor Mayo, Bill Bentley, Steve Cohen, Bettina & Howard (at Thrill Jockey), Brian Bumbery, Renee Lehman, Karen Weissen, Andy Schwartz, Helen Urriola, Scott Giampino, Michelle Roche, Jennifer Schmidt, Tommy McKay, M. C. Kostek, Sarah Feldman, Marc Fenton, Cathy Williams, Glenn Dicker, Jason Consoli, Carl Munzel, Kurt (at Atavistic), Matt Hanks, Vicky Wheeler, Josh Mills, Julie Butterfield, Hallie (at K), Susan Darnell, Shawn Rogers, Tami Blevins, Colleen Mollony, John Troutman, Drew Miller, Jennifer Fisher, Heather (at Fire), Curtis (at Taang), Terri Hinte, Aaron (at SST), Josh Kirby, Heidi Robinson, Jen Boddy, Paula Sartorius, Carrie Svingen, Erica Freed, Susan Silver, Tony Margherita, Stacey Slater, Tracy Miller, Malik Bellamy, Claudia Gonson, Kevin O’Neil, Howard Weuffing, Jeff Hart, Jeff Tartikoff, Gene Booth, Jason (at Epitaph), Perry Serpa, Sandy Tanaka, Ali (at Cleopatra), Anne Pryor, Sandy Sawotka, and anyone else who helped out.
Final thanks go to the subjects of this book, who have not been thanked enough for daring to be original.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Theater of Eternal Music (the Dream Syndicate): LaMonte Young, Tony Conrad, John Cale
2 INTERNATIONAL POP UNDERGROUND
Van Dyke Parks
Young Marble Giants
3 PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS AND GARAGE ROCK
Roky Erickson / 13
4 ABSURDISTS AND ECCENTRICS
Red Krayola / Mayo Thompson
5 NAIVE ROCK
Jonathan Richman / The Modern Lovers
6 FRAYED ROOTS
8 SOUND SCULPTORS
Lee “Scratch” Perry
9 ORIGINAL RAPPERS
10 NEW YORK ROCKERS
Television / Richard Hell & the Voidoids
11 MINIMALIST FUNK
12 THE POST-INDUSTRIAL WASTELAND
The Birthday Party
13 BRITISH POST-PUNK
Public Image Limited
Gang of Four
14 RIOT MOMS AND OTHER ANGRY WOMEN
15 AMERICAN HARDCORE
16 AVANT PUNK USA
Mission of Burma
When I read a flyer on the wall at a record store, or in the weekly classifieds, and it says something like “Looking for a bassist. Our influences are Megadeth, Nena, Bram Tchaikovsky, and Sting,” I’m overcome with a strange combination of dread and embarrassment. No doubt this brand of “influence peddling” is practical – God forbid you should have a calypso guitarist show up for your death metal auditions – but it somehow seems shameful that any person or group would be willing to limit and define themselves that way. And yet I have composed an entire book in which I’ve asked dozens of contemporary recording artists to go forever on record with comments about their influences. Truthfully, it’s not as perverse as it sounds. To explain the evolution of The Secret History as a concept, and then as a working process, I offer the following:
Nirvana may be heroes to some, but they came around at a time when I was just a little too old to connect with the band’s angst and still too young to have grown nostalgic for my lost teen spirit. However, by laying in my path a more convincing rock sound than any I’d heard in the previous decade, Nirvana forced me to re-evaluate the conclusion I had only recently reached, that rock music was dead. That’s not to say that in the years before Nirvana’s rise to national attention – say, 1987 through 1991 – rock didn’t have its moments, both in the underground (Sonic Youth) and mainstream (Guns N’ Roses). But as I began thinking critically about popular music, it became a matter of great distress that, in a rock culture which derived power and liberation by confounding, even attacking, its elders (as in, “hope I die before I get old”) the musical heroes of my peers were more likely to be our parents’ age than our own. Absurd as it seems, the great rock figures of the late ‘80s – at least for the suburban white kids around me – were Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Who, and of course, the Grateful Dead. With nothing else in rock capturing my attention, but unwilling to accept the widely held notion that the enormously popular radio format known as “classic rock” was better than any current music, by 1991 I had simply given up on rock as a spent, exhausted form.
The culprits, in my mind, were the baby boomers who seemed to control the media with a form of cultural fascism, the radio programmers and entertainment marketers who were selling my generation the idea that the ‘60s had been the pinnacle of youth culture, that our own youth culture could never be as important or as exciting as it was back then. And for the most part it seemed we were happily buying it.
With the arrival of Nirvana (and on a smaller scale, bands like Sonic Youth) on the national scene, boomer hegemony began to break. Simply the enthusiasm with which the band was received seemed to revive rock. But more importantly, for the first time in ages a group that was neither a classic rock holdover nor a younger band steeped in that tradition was the focus of attention in rock. Nirvana’s success paved the way for the mainstream breakthroughs of other punk-based groups like Green Day and heightened listeners’ awareness of all underground music, as “alternative rock” became a hot marketing tool/pseudo-genre.
If it was not already clear from their sound that these bands were not defined by classic rock, Sonic Youth and Nirvana made a point of name – dropping the groups that had inspired them. Soon, little-known names like Half Japanese, Glenn Branca, Wire, and Can began popping up regularly in the pages of major magazines. With bands like Pavement and Stereolab, obscurity was at the very heart of the music, and identifying the references became something of a sport. Most young music fans in the ‘90s had not heard (or even heard of) the bands their favorite groups were citing, not just because many of these groups had disappeared before the fans had come of age as listeners, but because they had never made it onto classic rock radio. But as new bands have been inspired by Nirvana, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth (and Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, Beastie Boys, and Butthole Surfers) to search out these forgotten groups, their influence has spread. They’ve been edited out of rock history, but their spirits are very much alive in current rock. To a large extent, it is modern/alternative/you-name-it rock’s integration of these obscure elements that distinguishes the best of ‘90s popular music from previous decades and enables current bands to fashion their own generational identity.
In commerce as in war, history is written by the winners. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that it’s the big sellers – the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, the Police, Talking Heads, U2, R.E.M. – who have found their way into the annals of popular culture. And in most cases, because popular groups reach the most ears, they truly deserve to be deemed historically significant. But it’s also crucial to note that people inspired enough by music to make their own are usually the same people most motivated to dig beneath the surface in their own listening habits and absorb the influence of lesser-known groups. As Brian Eno once said of the Velvet Underground: They didn’t sell many records, but everybody who bought one went out and formed a band.
What we have, then, are two histories of rock, one determined by what the mainstream public heard in the past and the other determined by what has had a recognizable impact on current music. Granted, the two are by no means mutually exclusive. No one would claim that the Beatles do not have a far greater impact on modern rock than an influential obscurity such as Silver Apples. Still, there is a significant segment of rock history made up of groups that were little known in their time (and perhaps even less known now), but nevertheless have helped define in some measure the music we listen to today. The tale of these bands essentially constitutes a secret history of rock.
My intention in writing The Secret History of Rock was to celebrate those groups, composers, and performers whose influence on modern music far outshines their commercial notoriety. To do this, I queried numerous current artists to elicit their opinions on the subject. My project was met with great enthusiasm by artists, many of whom were thrilled at the opportunity to pay tribute to their unsung heroes. As more and more artists expressed interest in participating, it became clear that their comments should be an integral part of the book. (To avoid confusion between my references to the current artists whom I interviewed and the past artists who are themselves influential, I will hereafter refer to the former as the “commentators” and the latter as the “subjects.”)
The first step was to define the parameters of what constitutes a “most influential band you’ve never heard.” I needed to provide the commentators with an idea of the kinds of subjects I planned to deal with in the book, in order to direct and limit the variety of responses I would get. But it was important that my own analysis not limit their responses, which would undermine my intentions in conducting a poll in the first place.
Establishing criteria proved difficult; what is perceived as obscure varies greatly depending on subculture, region, nationality, and a lifelong series of chance encounters. One seemingly obvious guideline – that none of the subjects could have any U.S. chart hits – proved to be of little help in narrowing the field. For one thing, thousands of bands meet this criterion. Even massively influential groups such as the Velvet Underground and the Sex Pistols – both of which I consider too well known to qualify for inclusion here – never had a hit. And in a few cases, such as with Kraftwerk and the Last Poets, having had one fluke hit more than 20 years ago did not seem to me a valid reason for disqualification.
In the end I formulated a list of approximately 250 bands, composers, and performers who seemed to represent the right combination of obscurity and influence, planning eventually to narrow it down to less than 100 (as it turns out, there are 80). Along with an explanation of my book project and a request for an interview, I sent this list to every current act I deemed in some way notable (more than 120 different artists in all).
The artists I contacted represent a cross section of musical styles (rock as well as hip-hop and dance music) and functions (e.g., drummers as well as songwriters). Although the commentators are from bands at many levels of popularity, I did concentrate on the most critically significant – and to a large extent, the best known-bands of the ‘90s. The point, after all, was to argue the influence of obscure underground acts of the past on popular groups of the ‘90s. However, I found it worthwhile to include some lesser-known commentators. For instance, I contacted guitarist Jim O’Rourke, who noted that he was probably more obscure than most artists on my list. O’Rourke, though, is highly regarded in certain segments of underground music, and since he’s still young and active, it seems likely that his influence will reach more and more young people as time goes on.
Between February and December of 1997, I interviewed approximately 80 commentators about their influences (some of the artists who declined to participate are nevertheless included through the use of previously published comments). In determining which subjects deserved to be included in The Secret History I looked first at the number of commentators who indicated the performer as an influence. Some artists often deemed influential (such as the Fuggs, Spacemen 3, and Television Personalities) were surprisingly cited by only one (or none) of the 80 commentators. On the other hand, the large number of responses for the Stooges, Captain Beefheart, or Brian Eno led me to reconsider just how obscure they really were (though in the end, no one was cut for getting too many votes). Artists not included on my initial list but later added at the suggestion of one or more of the commentators included This Heat, the Pop Group, United States of America, and Iannis Xenakis. A handful of these write-ins actually generated enough enthusiasm to make their way into the book, including ESG, Scott Walker, and Tony Conrad.