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Dust Off Your Flannel

Does the looming '90s revival presage a Nirvana-style breakthrough?

"It makes you a lot stronger because you don't depend on public adoration," says Peter Prescott (Mission of Burma, Volcano Suns). "You sort of get used to the opposite, and you get used to the idea that nobody is paying attention, so you do whatever you want."

That's why so much of that music in the half-dozen years before Nirvana broke is so good. Buoyancy came from the foundation laid by early punk acts like Black Flag, X, Mission of Burma, Descendents, Dead Kennedys, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets and The Minutemen. An even larger, more eclectic batch of bands picked up the baton, and now, decades later, have returned to crowds far exceeding those they enjoyed when they broke up.

The first breeze of these trade winds was the Pixies' very successful 2004 reunion. Since then, many of their contemporaries also have returned — Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Superchunk, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Guided by Voices, fIREHOSE, Sebadoh, Afghan Whigs and Archers of Loaf.

Afghan Whigs reunited in 2011.
SUB POP RECORDS
Afghan Whigs reunited in 2011.

Undoubtedly part of it simply is the business of nostalgia.

"I think a lot of the punk rock nostalgia is valid. There were a broad range of successful new ideas. Maybe people were more broad-minded and less needful of the pigeonhole for their security. Audiences and bands were more willing to take a risk," says Grant Hart (Hüsker Dü, Nova Mob). "But, yeah, some of it just may be our midlife crises."

However, a good part of the allure is the music — or its absence. That's Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster's take. He's currently backing Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü, Sugar) on a tour supporting his most thoroughly rocking solo album in years, Silver Age.

"It's kind of a novel thing now, especially an older guy doing it. I think that's why Bob stopped doing it for a while. It was such a known quality in the late '90s," Wurster says. "It takes a while for that to come back around. [The last Superchunk album, 2010's Majesty Shredding] was our best-reviewed, maybe best-received record ever...the same thing with these Bob shows — they're incredibly well attended. It's amazing. I think it's just the right time for this stuff to be revisited and re-appreciated."

Like another generation's touchstones — The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Big Star — time's turned commercial indifference into critical genuflection and abiding adoration. Part of the appeal is the indelible sincerity and authenticity implicit in music made without ulterior motives. Though it's certainly possible for some commercial artists to still make great art, a scene usually withers beneath the intense media spotlight.

So, it's no coincidence that within a few years of Nirvana's breakthrough, underground rock started to falter. Quality suffered as cheap knock-off acts proliferated, diluting originality. Suddenly, people were thinking about music as a means to something and not an end in itself. To quote a Minor Threat song from a decade earlier — the core had gotten soft.

"When Nirvana happened, and the major labels were won over to create this thing called 'alternative,' people got lazy and thought, 'Oh, all these people can do this for us.' Then, when they pulled out, there was no coherency," says Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, Stooges), noting underground rock's fallow period during the late '90s and early Aughts. "There has to be some kind of fabric of the scene to give identity and people something to talk about."

Nowadays, rock bands have little reason to think about how many albums they might sell. It's all about touring and the DIY spirit that first ignited the underground scene. It was no big secret when Stephen Malkmus of Pavement sang, "You have to pay your dues before you pay the rent." That's de rigueur again.

"We've always kind of worked the same. We've been doing this for 19 years, and after the show, it's time to put the stuff in the van and switch to the front seat, then try to find a place to sleep. That's the way it works. That's what we do each night," says Lightning Bolt bassist Brian Gibson. "I opened for some Ratatat shows. So I've been in a club with a hot tub in back, but I didn't feel I was allowed to get in it. I just don't know any better."
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Certainly, a DIY approach has never been easier than it is now. There's no need for expensive studios or label backing. Not only is home recording quick, easy, cheap and often surprisingly good, but companies such as TuneCore will quickly distribute your music for you to all the online music services.

Some feel it's too easy, flooding the market with crappy, trend-biting neophytes that steal attention from more worthy bands and dilute the market. But mere dilettantes are quickly washed out by the fact that albums aren't really worth anything.

"It's easier than ever to make records with home studios, but going out and touring, and living with each other, playing to two people a night seven nights in a row? That's where the reality of what you're doing comes into play," Wurster says. "That's where you separate the boys and girls from the children."

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2 comments
deneyterrio
deneyterrio

I hope not, I had a great time in the 90s. Even though the current 80s revival is stronger then ever it's still the 8th or 9th time that horrible decade has reared it's ugly head since the 90s ended.

 

For those of us alive and informed during the 80s it was a really crappy decade. The economy was shit, music became a prefabbed commodity(thanks to disco) and fashion was awkward. The problem with nostalgia is that reality takes a backseat while fantasy stand front and center with legwarmers on. These 80s revivals have taken the substance out of the decade and replaced it unabashed romanticism. There shouldn't be anything wrong with that but I can see this happening to a 90s revival or 2. The industry will get a hold of it and strip it down to it's exterior with no recognition of the meat of the decade. The 90s didn't save the world but it certainly changed it. I think the 'fuck you' creativity that was fostered then was reminiscent of the 60s.

 

The 90s weren't about flannel at all. That era was about music and music only. It was the industry that tried to make it a style. The clothes were a necessity to the climate in Seattle and the north. As someone that lived up the road in Vancouver at the time I couldn't relate to the bright colors and cocaine of the 80s. My friends and I would hang out on the shore and play guitars tell the sun came up. What style your clothes were wasn't important, they provided a function and flannel was the cheapest. Plus everything was grey and brown and wet so these clothes let us blend into the city. The last thing any of us wanted was to look like a bunch of Skittles in those bright clothes. Let us trudge along in the grey and life deafening drizzle. It's how we liked it.

 

The current 80s revival replete with banks like Ariel Pink making records as if they were the bastard children of an OMD/Spandau Ballet mating is played out. The majority of music was horrible, utter trash. Thankfully bands are starting to shift but now every 3rd band sounds like Mumford and Sons. Guh.

 

The 80s were a coked up, neon clad stock broker that came to define the 'me' generation. It was excess upon excess. A horrible decade that we were lucky to get out of. I hope the 90s don't get the same nostalgia paint job the 80s got. Oh sure, I'd love to see Black Happy tour around with Roots Roundup but you won't be seeing my stage dive anymore :)

matthewc0le
matthewc0le

@HoustonPress anything would be better than dubstep

 
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