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Alternative Histories: Two New Books on Music

May 10, 2012

Richard King How Soon Is Now?: The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975–2005 (Faber, 2012)

Mark Yarm Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge (Faber, 2011)

Two monumental music history tomes from Faber. Everyone Loves Our Town collates interviews with hundreds of musicians, writers, producers and hangers-on associated with the history of grunge music, the 1990s Seattle-born movement which brought Soundgarden, L7, Nirvana, Mudhoney and dozens of other bands to prominence worldwide. In their own words, the luminaries of the movement describe its formation, its leap to worldwide prominence, and the gradual disintegration of the scene as — a progression which How Soon Is Now shows us is almost inevitable — the cutting edge loses territory to watered-down copycat bands, the mainstream imposed certain tropes on an ‘alternative’ movement in order to appropriate these signifiers (those flannel checked shirts!), and the inevitable point of no return when the bands themselves dissolve in interpersonal acrimony (Dinosuar Jr.), ill-health, or tragedy (Nirvana, most obviously, but several other cases too).

In How Soon Is Now?, Richard King sets out purports to tell the history of so-called ‘indie’ music, mostly from a British perspective but of course bringing in several of the bands mentioned in Everyone Loves Our Town, with particular emphasis on the huge knock-on effect caused by Nirvana’s mainstream success with Nevermind, the point at which the traditional ‘independent’ and ‘mainstream’ distinction lost much of its meaning, as the big labels sought to cash in on the unexpectedly vast popularity of these ‘alternative’ acts. While Mark Yarm’s book is an oral history with no overt authorial contribution, King’s strikes a more uneven tone, pausing to praise or pillory several of the records mentioned — Nevermind is treated cursorily, but he inserts an authorial “rightly” when describing Loveless‘s  reception as “an extraordinary and groundbreaking achievement”. Everyone has their favourites — I’m not going to disagree with that assessment of Loveless — but why slip in that personal view while remaining aloof from giving an opinion on, say, Definitely Maybe? Likewise, some bands’ formation or history is covered (this is important with regards to 4AD chief Ivo Watts-Russell’s beyond-professional involvement with the Cocteau Twins, for instance; less so when it comes to The Smiths, whose formation and early years must surely have been covered extensively elsewhere) while others, and I think this is appropriate for a book which can’t really give page-space to every band’s history, just sort of… turn up. Interested readers can find out all they care to about Nirvana’s formation from Everyone Loves Our Town, for instance.

It would be impossible, however, for any editorialising to detract from, or indeed improve upon, the chapter on Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, whose shenanigans under their own names and a variety of recording names, most famously the KLF, make every other band mentioned in this book look po-faced and underachieving. (Though it hangs over their chapter, we don’t even get to the bit where Cauty and Drummond make good their promise to burn a million pounds in cash in front of a live audience.) While other chapters describe more vital, resonant or disastrous episodes in the thirty-year history of indie music (somewhat arbitrarily truncated at 2005’s success for Arctic Monkeys), none is quite as entertaining as this one.

As always, one reads a book like How Soon Is Now? with one  eye on the omissions, or what one would have liked the book to be. I was saddened that there’s only the briefest mention of Royal Trux, whose misadventures with major-label fame (they were signed up by Virgin in the mid-1990s in what seemed that label’s attempt to replicate the major-gains-indie-credibility success Geffen had earlier enjoyed by signing Sonic Youth) are pretty instructive: the Trux made Thank You, perhaps their most accessible record, for Virgin, but the uncompromising follow-up Sweet Sixteen (which sounds like music made by two people who have melted the Rolling Stones down to a bituminous tar and then smoked them) put an end to the whole relationship, whereupon Trux slunk back to their original home, the US indie/alternative giant Drag City (which, oddly, isn’t mentioned, even in conjunction with Domino Records which seemed, at the latter’s outset, very much like the UK arm of the former). Likewise, the lack of any mention whatsoever of Belle & Sebastian’s Jeepster Records label, which took a lot of its cues from the 1980s Glasgow label Postcard and seemed at times almost a co-operative involving the band’s fans, seems odd. Readers lamenting this oversight are directed to Scott Plagenhoef’s book on their Tigermilk LP for the 33 1/3 series of books on individual records (Mike McGonigal’s book-length essay on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is another valuable entry in that series).

Other omissions are more problematic. I hadn’t been aware that M/A/R/R/S’s ‘Pump Up the Volume’ had been made by members of two indie groups, Colourbox and A.R. Kane (whose Sixty-Nine album I disinterred from the place it’d lain undisturbed in my record collection after my two attempts to listen to it upon purchase 15 years ago), which casts an interesting perspective on all concerned. When I mentioned this to the Monkey, he surprised me by telling me the song was the work of DJs CJ Mackintosh and Dave Dorrell. King and the Monkey are both right, but King’s book entirely skips the salient fact that all the samples on (the UK version of) the single were put together by Mackintosh and Dorrell — and after all, no-one has ever listened to ‘Pump Up the Volume’ for the beat track and sampled guitar noise. Since ‘Pump Up’ is, as well as a deathlessly exciting track quarter of a century after it first hit No.1, one of the earliest examples of indie music crossing over with dance/DJ/hip-hop culture, this makes King look a bit — to use a topical phrase — wilfully blind.

Maybe he’s been literally blinded, too, since if this was my book I’d be round to my publisher asking for the copy-editor’s head on a pike. On p.203, a bad decision is attributed to “the fact the Rob had been in the pub since 3 p.m.” (that’s an error: “the Rob” is not some indie-rock giant you’ve never heard of). Over the page, someone fails to take “a cursory look a [sic] the Factory finances”. On p.344, Alan McGhee declares “‘I want to a start dance label’.”  Apostrophes introduce themselves where they’re not wanted, and there’s a general attitude to punctuation that suggests the writer feared he’d be docked part of his advance for every comma he used. The index, too, is littered with irritating little errors: a Mazzy Star record is wrongly attributed to Galaxie 500 (when you look back at the reference, it’s a line describing “a purple patch of critical approval and strong sales as Galaxie 500’s Today and She Hangs Brightly, Mazzy Star’s debut, were both rapturously received” and therefore the index error is very obviously the work of sloppy reading). The entry on PJ Harvey suggests she’s mentioned on p.96, which she isn’t: Mick Harvey is, however, suggesting a strange parallel universe in which Polly and Mick are one and the same entity. Mick Harvey, incidentally, receives no index entry of his own. Fair’s fair, this is a big book, and it’s understandable that errors might creep in, but this has the feel of a rush-job that’s been skimmingly copy-edited by someone with no interest in or knowledge of the subject matter, which is galling as Faber is engaged in an ongoing project of overhauling its line of music books, putting out books angling to be definitive:  sloppinesses like this really hamstring a reference book. (I’m happy to offer my services to re-do the index for the paperback, if anyone’s interested.) And one shouldn’t lay all the blame at the door of the copy-editor, of course: Mr. King’s writing is often inelegant, as evidenced by the very first sentence of his book, which begins: “Today the word ‘indie’ has a myriad of meanings…” As any Britpop ‘Sleeperbloke’ would attest, you’re only as good as your front(wo)man.

Better by far is Everybody Loves Our Town. Foreword aside, author Mark Yarm absents himself from the text, letting the movers and shakers of grunge (is there a less grunge phrase than “movers or shakers”? Sorry) tell their own stories. Admission: I’m by no means a huge fan of grunge, owning records by all of about four of the bands mentioned. That notwithstanding, I found Yarm’s book fascinating, perhaps because a large number of the names who appear don’t have those tribalish nostalgic associations for me that, from King’s book, such figures as Alan McGee or Bill Drummond do. It’s not King’s fault that I’m more familiar with the characters in his book than in Yarm’s, but the way the grunge cast is allowed to present itself directly to the reader makes for a fresher, more engaging read. (The fact we don’t learn Yarm’s opinion of the records referred to is no bad thing either.)

What interested me was how moving I found the deaths in this book. The sad tale of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, of course, has been written and overwritten many times already; by contrast, the sorrow that surrounds the deaths of Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch, Mia Zapata from The Gits and Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone retains a rawness, in their respective bandmates’ telling, that hasn’t dimmed two decades on. Since (as an ingenue who’d never consciously heard a Mother Love Bone track, for instance) I’d followed the band’s formation, triumphs and tragedies in these interviews’ chronological order, her death came as a genuinely moving and saddening blow.

Inevitably, Courtney Love’s contributions are among those that stick in the mind (I shan’t spoil her version of what sort of music Cobain and co were playing before she set them straight, but it’s classic Courtney); other highlights include a somewhat unexpected appearance by fashion designer Marc Jacobs, defending fashion’s co-option of that grunge ‘outline’ for Perry Ellis,  andthe occasional irruption into the text of such seemingly antithetical-to-grunge acts as Lou Barlow, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, and, perhaps strangest of all, Heart. These sidesteps serve to anchor grunge in a wider context of ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’ music (Sebadoh, Sonic Youth, producer Steve Albini, and of course Nirvana all appear in How Soon is Now?), which could otherwise seem a sort of insular closed shop of North West-area bands, production personnel and venues.

The oral biography gets, as Yarm remarks at the outset, a bit of stick — by what rubric does he call himself the author of this book, as opposed to its editor or (even lower down the chain) compiler? Everyone Loves Our Town is an instant rebuttal of that criticism, though, and one of the most engrossing music books I’ve read. While I was immersed in one chapter, Mudhoney’s ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ came on Radio 6 and just for a moment I felt transported to the ferocious excitement of the scene Yarm describes. Weirdly, though I was (ahem) an indie kid throughout the nineties and early 200s,  How Soon Is Now?, though it fills in a lot of the backstory I didn’t pick up (Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR as the final Creation Records release, the rollercoastering rise, fall, rise again of Rough Trade as a shop, label and distributor), it didn’t inspire me quite as much as Yarm’s book to go and (re)listen to the records it describes.

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