Pop/Rock » Alternative/Indie Rock » American Underground
At the dawn of the 1980s, as the first wave of punk bands began to play themselves out and the burgeoning alternative rock scene became increasingly dominated by British post-punk groups and polished new wave acts, a number of American bands began making new music that was a deliberate reaction to these developments. While weaned on punk, the American underground bands tended to favor a broader musical palate (hard rock, psychedelia, roots rock, folk-rock, and country-rock influences were the most common), though they continued to be dominated by electric guitars and a lyrical perspective that reached for intelligence without outward pretension. These bands also tended to favor independent labels and low-budget touring, as much out of necessity as any dominant philosophical tenant, since nearly all of them were ignored by major labels, forcing them to find other avenues to present their music. While they were progenitors of the hardcore punk scene, Black Flag were also the primary trailblazers of the American underground scene, in effect creating an indie touring network through several years of relentless roadwork; the band’s label, SST, was also a crucial influence, releasing records by the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr., and other key bands who pushed the outsider’s aggression of punk into new and provocative directions. The Midwest proved to be a potent breeding ground for the American underground, with Minneapolis’s boozy but heartfelt the Replacements and Chicago’s brutally loud Big Black and Naked Raygun winning sizable cult followings, while Sonic Youth and the Swans were the rulers of a dissonant East Coast enclave, Texas’s nomadic psych-noise merchants the Butthole Surfers were leaving a trail of terror across the country, and Boston’s Mission of Burma proved both powerfully influential and prescient during their short lifespan. In the mid-'80s, the initial commercial breakthrough of R.E.M. (who were tangential members of the scene despite their presence on the semi-major label I.R.S.) at once gave the American underground new visibility and put the first chinks into the armor of the close-knit community. By the early '90s, the hard work and relative success of several important American underground bands ultimately proved to be the movement’s undoing; many of the movement’s major acts were wooed away by major labels (where most failed to find sizable audiences in the United States, though some fared better in Europe), and with the breakthrough of Nirvana at the end of 1991, the underground began to splinter, for the most part dividing into alternative rock (for the more commercially accessible bands) and indie rock (for their less compromising counterparts).