Our Other Band Could Be Your Life

Daniel Browne remembers a strange time in the early ’90s, when icons of ’80s underground music went mainstream, and spoke to the soul of the American teenager through the radio.

Sugar

“What the world needs now is a new kind of tension ‘cause the old one just bores me to death.” —David Lowery, “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now),” 1992

I was a teenager in the 1990s, so the recent paroxysm of ‘90s nostalgia makes sense to me. The forty-song “Deluxe Edition” of Nirvana’s Nevermind is a fixture on my iPod’s most played list. When I came across Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam documentary on PBS I was instantly engrossed. The 10-disc Achtung Baby reissue housed in a “magnetic puzzle tiled box” is excessive, I admit (it comes with your very own pair of the sunglasses worn by Bono’s alter ego, The Fly!), but the album itself remains a landmark of my youth. When the critic Simon Reynolds argues forcefully against the ‘90s revival, my head agrees with his basic thesis (that all this reveling in the past is a drag on creativity), but my heart clings to an age-old belief: that the culture of my youth really was better than the culture of today.

Reynolds suggests that ” an undercurrent to grunge retrospection is the music media’s and record industry’s own nostalgia for the heyday of the rock monoculture.” I can’t speak for the music media or the record industry, but this doesn’t ring true to me. When I look back on the ‘90s, what I miss isn’t the dominance of rock and roll over other forms of music. In fact, it’s the opposite: an eclecticism and adventurousness that flourished not only in rock, but in many genres at once. I’m all for the ascendance of hip-hop, but I pine for the days when oddballs like PM Dawn and Digable Planets could score hits alongside Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg. Back then, I was liable to mock glow stick-waving ravers and zoot-suited swing dancers, but nowadays I mourn the loss of a mainstream big enough for both of them (with room to spare for Jamiroquai’s fur hat).

To get a sense of what makes me yearn for the ‘90s, consider my two favorite bands of the era—Sugar and Cracker. These bands sound nothing like each other, but both made music smart enough for High Fidelity types yet accessible enough for MTV (think 120 Minutes, not Jersey Shore). They haven’t been elegized to the same degree as some of their contemporaries, in part, I suspect, because of a competing nostalgia for a different era of music altogether: the 1980s. For many music fans, Sugar and Cracker are afterthoughts; it’s the bands their leaders were in before—Husker Du and Camper Van Beethoven, respectively—that count. To me, though, the contrast between those earlier groups and the ones I grew up loving says a lot about what made the ‘90s special.

Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life is the classic chronicle of ‘80s indie rock, so classic that it was the subject of its own tenth anniversary tribute concert this past summer. As its title (taken from a Minutemen song) implies, the book recounts a time when cutting-edge rock was an underground phenomenon and the fans who supported it were as passionate and committed as the bands. For those who were there—or wish they were there—the scene was Eden, a haven for pure invention and furious self-expression, unencumbered by commercial considerations. Viewed through this lens, Bob Mould’s ‘80s hardcore trio Husker Du was one of the greatest bands all of time, while Sugar, Mould’s more radio-friendly ‘90s follow-up, was a compromise at best, a sell-out at worst. Same goes for David Lowery’s gang of California quirksters Camper Van Beethoven, which begat Cracker. Lowery summed up this attitude neatly in the Cracker jam “Get Off This”: “Everyone’s complainin’/’Are you truly deeply cynical ’cause boy you know I loved you so/When no one knew your name and you were pompous (Still are).”

What changed between the ‘80s and the ‘90s? The names of these bands offer a clue. The ‘80s: multi-syllabic, willfully obscure, jokey even. The ‘90s: streamlined, direct, clearly evocative of the music. Even the best of the ‘80s recordings sound thin, muffled. The ‘90s albums—made with major label money in the case of Cracker—sound slick, punchy. Cracker was even joined on its self-titled debut by ace session drummer Jim Keltner and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench. To adherents of the ‘80s indie ethic, this eagerness to please was sin enough. Great rock should be a test. Appreciation should require total devotion. “Getting it” is a badge of honor.

It’s been noted that Nirvana’s epochal “Smells Like Teen Spirit” copped its soft-loud dynamic from The Pixies. What was new about “Teen Spirit” was Butch Vig’s glossy production, Dave Grohl’s thunder god drumming, Kurt Cobain’s knack for hummable melodies. Nirvana gave indie rockers permission to court the masses. Mould (a candidate to produce Nevermind before Vig was recruited) and Lowery weren’t the only ones who got the memo. Paul Westerberg’s solo debut following the break-up of The Replacements was the lightweight ditty, “Dyslexic Heart.” After leaving the pioneering trance rock outfit Galaxie 500, Dean Wareham formed the tighter, more song-oriented Luna.

I was too young in 1992, the year after the Year Punk Broke, to know the context, but I knew this alternative stuff was for me. Up till then, I’d been digging my parents’ music: Graceland, the Traveling Wilburys, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen. Classics I still enjoy, but at the time, I needed heroes I could call my own. My folks might have appreciated Cracker’s take on FM radio rock, but Lowery’s lyrics—dryly sardonic and casually absurd—were aimed right over graying heads at adolescent smart alecks like me.

As for Sugar, my parents could never embrace music so pummeling, no matter how tuneful. I distinctly remember borrowing the band’s first CD, Copper Blue, from an older boy at school, the kind of kid who mocks you because, at age fourteen, you haven’t committed the complete works of Charles Mingus to memory. I listened to it on the bus, cradling the Discman in my lap to keep it from skipping. I’d never heard—and haven’t heard since—a guitar sound like that. Like church bells struck by lightning. Like the Hope Diamond being ground to dust. Even the acoustic strumming rocked. Mould’s lyrics were more earnest than Lowery’s. Cracker may have had a song called “Teen Angst,” but Sugar delivered the real thing.

A devoted fan, I eventually collected all the albums by my idols’ earlier bands. Even now, though, twenty years removed from the first thrill of discovery, I prefer the more refined sound of the ‘90s. Husker Du and Camper Van Beethoven were important bands. They were a vanguard, and that meant a lot of futzing around in the pursuit of greatness. It meant woozy polkas, tape collages, and ten-minute guitar freak-outs inspired by free jazz. A decade later, Mould and Lowery were through futzing around, ready to take the best elements of their past work and buff them to a high sheen. The scruffy production and anything goes spirit of their‘80s output were charming and necessary, but if forced to choose—a situation all record nerds like to imagine for some reason—I’ll take the sugar, the music that get straight to the business of giving pleasure.

That’s hopelessly bourgeois, I’m sure, but I know at least one person who understands. On his invaluable (temporarily suspended) blog 300 Songs, David Lowery suggests that some bands are Revolutionaries and some are Domesticators, that Camper Van Beethoven was the former and Cracker the latter, and that being a Domesticator is something to be proud of. “The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, etc., etc. The great works of all these bands were built on the works of earlier and remarkably similar innovators. But there is nothing wrong with that.  The genius of these bands is not only did they make the innovations more powerful and sometimes palatable, they actually moved the audience and institutions towards their taste and sound,” Lowery writes.

This, in a nutshell, is what made the ‘90s, like the ‘60s, an ideal time to become a lifelong music lover. Nirvana streamlined and turbocharged the ‘80s underground sound. Trailblazers of the previous generation like Lowery and Mould followed suit. In the process, they won over a host of new fans, and those fans met them halfway, acquiring a taste for odd, abrasive sounds and subversive lyrics. After all, Nirvana may have smoothed The Pixies’ rough edges, but they still sounded more like The Pixies than Def Leppard. Suddenly, there was a market for artists who couldn’t have gotten within striking distance of the charts just a few years earlier. Doomy troubadour Nick Cave, whose former band The Birthday Party once put out an EP called Drunk on the Pope’s Blood, dueted with the ‘80s dance princess Kylie Minogue on “Where the Wild Roses Grow” and scored an international hit. Beck’s “Loser,” a ramshackle folk/hip-hop hybrid with a Dadaist sensibility, became a youth anthem. Grizzled veterans like Neil Young and Elvis Costello were inspired to step up their games. Back then, I took it for granted that all rock music—left, right, or middle of the dial—should strive to be both entertainment and art.

I didn’t realize how fleeting the moment would be, though the signs were there. Kurt Cobain seemed to instantly regret the pact he’d made with pop. In interviews, he was always quick to deride Nevermind’s manicured mix, and when it came time to record a follow-up, he enlisted ‘80s noise-meister (and Our Band Could Be Your Life protagonist) Steve Albini to ensure that listeners wouldn’t have it so easy next time. The first words on In Utero, delivered in a tubercular croak, are, “Teenage angst has paid off well and now I’m bored and old.” Pearl Jam followed a similar path, disowning the ingratiating gestures of its debut and walking away from MTV. It took a few solid years of bubble-grunge copycats like Bush and Silverchair and a few more of Backstreet and Diddy domination (when did everything get so shiny?) for me to take the hint: the mainstream had appropriated what it needed from the underground and lost interest in the rest.

Unlike me, Bob Mould seemed to see it all coming. He disbanded Sugar after only two albums and an EP. One of the highlights of his first post-Sugar solo album was the blistering “I Hate Alternative Rock.” Within a few years, he had shrugged off the style he helped create and done stints as a writer for pro wrestling and a house music DJ, pursuits that seemed more in synch with the glitzy, hedonistic culture of the 2000s. He’s now settled into a comfortable elder statesman role: releasing the occasional introspective singer-songwriter album, showing up for tribute concerts in his honor, writing a memoir with (who else?) Michael Azerrad. He’s even made a concession to ‘90s nostalgia, touring to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Copper Blue.

Cracker’s third album failed to produce any major hits to trump the radio staple “Low,” and by the time their fourth rolled around, Lowery could sing, “We were standing like the last rock band on the planet,” and mean it. Nonetheless, even as casual fans moved on to rap-rock and American Idol-approved emo, he remained perversely (or is that sarcastically?) optimistic. On 2006’s “Everybody Gets One for Free” he sings, “I know that our last record didn’t sell very well, but now we’re back on the block with our freedom rock.” As it happens, Cracker’s most recent album, 2009’s excellent Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey (produced by former Sugar bassist David Barbe), was their first to hit the Billboard 200 in more than a decade. They did it the new-millennium way: the single landed on a TV show.

Cracker’s modest revival could be taken as a sign that the tide is turning again. Idiosyncratic albums by independent-minded bands like Vampire Weekend, Spoon, and The Decemberists have all made it to the upper reaches of the charts in recent years. In reality, though, the music industry has eroded so drastically since the ‘90s that it takes far fewer units sold for an album to be considered a hit. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and even Cracker were everywhere in the ‘90s. Alongside Fiona Apple, Fatboy Slim, and The Pharcyde, they were threads in a single fabric, and like a tent at Lollapalooza , that fabric enfolded the entire community of music fans.

These days, there are plenty of tuned-in listeners who have never even heard of Spoon. Maybe they caught a fragment of a song while waiting in line at Starbucks or watching Gossip Girl, but it was just one more bit of sonic flotsam adrift in the endless commercial slipstream. As a fan of Kanye West, I’m well aware of the indie singer-songwriter Bon Iver’s contributions to his last album, yet as far as I know, I’ve never heard a Bon Iver song on the radio or seen a Bon Iver video on TV. I think what I’m meant to do is search for him on Spotify or YouTube. In my heart, though, I’m still a child of the ‘90s, hoping, if I just keep my ears open, the good stuff will find me.

Daniel Browne has contributed to The Oxford American, The Believer, and Mojo, among others. His fiction appeared most recently in Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial. You can visit him at daniel-browne.tumblr.com.