Somewhere between 1989 and 1990, at the age of 12, my growing obsession with music blossomed. I was an outsider, socially and intellectually removed from my peers. I yearned for anything that would make me feel less alone. Owing a great deal to the music profiled in Thrasher Magazine and the tastes of older skaters who shared what they knew, I drifted into the arms of independent music. What I discovered spoke to my social proximity and emotional state. It put voice to who I was. Unselfconsciously, I entered the musical underground and never returned.
In those early days, I didn’t think about where records came from. I didn’t understand that there was an industry. I didn’t know that Pop music was engineered to elicit demand. I simply wasn’t interested in what the mainstream had to offer or the people that were part of it. I was lucky to have a couple of years in (what I felt to be) a secret world made for and by people like myself. Music that had somehow managed to free itself from the demands of capital and exist honestly. To speak for the rest of us. This bubble burst in December 1991 with stratospheric success of Nirvana’s Nevermind. I heard the band’s first album Bleach during the summer of 1990, while skating a friends half-pipe, and didn’t think much of it. This friend offered to tape it for me, I declined. A year and a half a later, I thought considerably less of its successor. Whatever your taste regarding Nirvana’s music, their origins should be always understood as part of the underground. They just weren’t my thing. Their signing to a major label and all that subsequently resulted was seen by me, even as it happened, as a great breach of trust.
1992 was a frustrating and confusing year. Suddenly every asshole dressed like me and was staking claim to a world I wanted to myself. I watched countless bands exit the underground searching for success on the sour bosom of the major label industry. I drew a line in the sand and turned down other avenues of musical exploration. It wasn’t like I had suddenly been ordained as “cool”. I had lost everything.
By the end of high school, I was a mess. Loss had sent me spinning. A rudderless ship, outside time. I grasped for fragments and pulled them together. Grateful Dead parking lots to satisfy by belief in a counterculture and my love for psychotropic drugs. An occasional Hardcore show to satiate my anger. Free Jazz for my intellect, and an unhealthy indulgence in Tom Waits for my melancholic nostalgia for the Beats. Isolated in rural NH and without access to a true underground, I had lost faith in the possibility of music uncorrupted by the lure of capital.
In 1996 I moved to Chicago to attend art school. At the time (as it continues to do), my love of Jazz ran deep. The city’s historical relationship to the music, and my love for the AACM, played a hand in my choosing to attend the Art Institute. When I arrived, I found a city overflowing with uncompromising underground music. An island oasis floating in the Mid-West. Even before my first nervous forays south to the Velvet Lounge, I was drawn north-west toward The Fireside Bowl, The Empty Bottle, and Lounge Ax and into an incredible world of new music.
The scene that congealed in Chicago, during my years in the city, is without category or genre. Every band and musician seamed to be possessed by a unique vision. It was radical and experimental. It had possibility. It was DIY, and had no interest in participating with major label industry. Having watched the travesties of the previous five years, it remained underground and independent. Proof is in the pudding. Almost none of the musicians from this scene, despite having gained a great deal of attention in the ensuing years, have ever signed with a major label. For a period, consumed by excitement, I turned my back on Jazz and dove in head first. I went to shows and rapidly devoured the catalogs of labels like Thrill Jockey, Drag City, Skin Graft, and returned to my old friend Touch and Go. I stretched myself into the weird world of influences that these musicians cited. I followed tangent after tangent, record after record into the unknown. When I came up for air years later, I found myself with a complex understanding of the history of recorded music. It was filled with incongruity, not the least of which was the unwitting hand of the major label industry.
Much to my surprise, despite my long history with independent music, when I look back at the albums that have had the strongest impact on me, many of them were made within the industry I loath. Most were commercial failures and had serious consequences for their creators. It’s an excepted truism that record executives know little about music, and less of public desire. The “Industry” cares only for profit, and will do anything to achieve this end. It throws shit at the wall to see what sticks. It trusts hacks and opportunists. It sometimes co-ops acts with credibility to offset the transparency of its financial ambitions. It has even gone as far as closing channels of distribution for independent labels in order to draw bands into its ranks. It is a desperate disgusting industry, whose self-perceived failures are often its greatest successes. All of these factors, and countless others, have helped many great records form under its wing. They undermine its desire for a single calculating formula for popular music. For this list, I have chosen a few such albums. The most radical of those that have meant a great deal to me. They are the result of chance and the hard fought artistic integrity of their creators. The fact that they were made and released within the major label industry defies logic and reason. They are some of the most important in my life and the dearest in my collection.
Tony Conrad With Faust - Outside The Dream Syndicate (1973)
This is easily one of my top ten albums of all time. It took me almost 15 years to find a copy I could afford. Conrad was a central member of the musical and film arms of Fluxus and is credited as one of the originators of Minimalist music. To this day, he continues to be an core member of NY’s avant-garde. Faust needs less introduction but deserve a great deal of credit in their own right for being one of the most radical spirits in German post-war music. Their career has spanned the better part of the last 40 years, continues to break ground without compromise, has opened territories for the countless bands following in their wake, and probably deserve credit for planting the seeds for both Noise and Industrial musics. This album is the result of a single meeting with Conrad at the instigation of the band’s manager. Released on Caroline, a division of Virgin, it was a complete financial flop and went quickly out of print. I’d be curious to know how many copies actually exist in the world.. it’s not many. Few records are as hypnotically engrossing. It is composed of two single sided pieces, both of which Conrad’s droning violin is central. On the first, The Side Of Man And Womankind, Conrad is joined only by drummer Zappi playing a rigorously metronomic 1/2 beat for a full 27 minutes. The second side’s The Side Of The Machine, finds Zappi’s rythm fractured by Jean-Hervé Péron’s Bass and Conrad’s drone supported by Rudolf Sosna’s guitar and keyboards. As a totality, the album is a marvel. Unlike anything I have ever heard. I have listened to it hundreds of times and find the the possibility of its tiring unfathomable.
The Walker Brothers – Nite Flights (1978)
Scott Walker is one of the most important figures in my life as a listener. While I was in Chicago, I consistently read glowing references to him by musicians I held in high regard. Overwhelmed with curiosity, I tracked down his first LP Scott. I can still remember the excitement I felt before putting it on… and the crushing disappointment of realizing I hated what was coming out of the speakers. Scott is an incredibly important album for me. As deserving of a place on this list, as any other. It was the first album I owned that truly challenged me and called who I was as a listener into question. I knew I was missing something. I forced myself through countless teeth grinding listening sessions. It took about six months for something to click. When it did everything came into focus and there was no returning. I’ve chosen Nite Flights for a number of reasons. Partially because it topped my want list for over a decade. Partially because of what it is musically, and partially because of how it came into being and what it did within Walker’s musical practice. To give you as brief a synopsis as I can…The Walker Brothers where a mid-1960’s American vocal group that found little ground in the American market… which frankly I can’t blame America for. The Walkers looked the part, but sounded like schmaltzy crooner throw backs to another era. The band moved to England early on and found a great deal of success. Their end came in 1967 when they took Jimi Hendrix on his first UK tour as a supporting act. Before the tour was over, Hendrix was headlining and the Walker Brothers were all but over. No explanation needed. Scott Walker went on to make four solo albums for Phillips, the first three of which charted surprisingly well. I’d make a strong argument that each of these is a strong contender for the origins of Post-Modern music (the first of which is Scott). They are incredibly ambitious, strange and uncategorizable. I’m shocked that they got made, and can’t really imagine who listened to them at the time. After the failure of his forth album, Scott receded from public view. By the mid 1970’s The Walker Brothers, presumable prompted by a need for money, staged a reunion. They recorded three albums for GTO during this period. The first two are completely dismissible. As the band entered the studio for the third and final obligation in their contract, they were told that the label was folding and though it would see through the release, the album would receive no support and be heard by few. Damned by circumstance, the label gave the band carte-blanche to do as they wished. The result was Nite Flights. There is no question that the construction and mood of the album was Scott’s baby. The vocal leadership of the album is divided into three sections, the strongest of which are his. It is a haunting journey into the dark mind of an obsessive genius, composed with meticulous care. It sounds like no other album from its decade. You can argue it’s a Pop record, Walker’s great foil, but a twisted aggressive version of it, inching slowly toward his outright experimental excursions realized in the 1990’s and 2000’s. It sways between full orchestration and heavy synth lines. Driving forward with force and twisted into form by Walker’s remarkable vocal control. I love it for what it is and for how it sounds. Walker clearly gave everything he had to it, and used everything at his disposal to get there. It feels like a last ditch effort and a suicide mission. Because of circumstance, this album gave him unprecedented freedom and brought him one step closer the the remarkable artist that so many of us cherish.
A.R. & Machines – Die Grüne Reise – The Green Journey (1971)
Die Grüne Reise is one of my favorite Krautrock albums of all time. It’s fucked up, mind bending, funny, radical and brilliantly orchestrated. A.R. & Machines was the solo project of Achim Reichel (The Rattles) and is exactly what it sounds to be. One man in a studio with some machines. A number of German musicians from this period pioneered the idea of the recording studio as an instrument, a conceptual territory that few have mastered. Reichel was clearly at the forefront of this idea. The studio with its contents is the “Machine”. The Green Journey is largely an instrumental record, only featuring sparse vocal interjections by its creator. It is distinctly metronomic Krautrock in the vain of Neu!, but it strays far into the field of experimentation. It is defined by Reichel’s radical use of echo and tape loops. Robert Fripp and John Martyn get the lion’s share of credit for pioneering the use of loops and delay, but only because most people don’t know this album. Reichel’s contemporary use of these effects, makes them both sound like timid children. There is nothing quite like The Green Journey. It’s closest equivalents are the Post-Rock assertions of Ariel/ Papa M and Don Caballero which came to be more than twenty years after its release. I can think of no contemporary equivalents. A beautiful compelling woven patchwork of guitar loops. Notable for its radicalism and its predictions of far flung futures without fully leaving its own time.
Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden (1988)
If ever there is a band to exemplify rebellion in the ranks of the major label industry, it’s Talk Talk. Sometime in the late 90’s I began to hear murmurings of high regard for the band’s final album Laughing Stock (1991). Not long after, I came across Spirit of Eden, mistook it for the album being spoken of, and picked it up. A happy mistake and considerably less frustrating than my hunt for its successor which took another five years to turn up a copy of. I love Spirit of Eden. It’s grossly neglected and has never received the attention it deserves for the ground it broke or what it achieves as an album. Talk Talk began their life as a fairly successful English Synth-Pop act. They had a number of international hits through the early 80’s and were a shining pride of EMI. Despite success, the band’s leader Mark Hollis was never satisfied and had ambitions far beyond the Pop realm. Their third album, The Colour Of Spring (1986), pushed into considerably more ambitious territory than the band’s previous two efforts, and as vindication quickly became their most successful release. As far as Pop records go, The Colour Of Spring is pretty incredible, particularly if you listen carefully to how it’s constructed. Like Scott Walker, Hollis had clearly begun to use the Pop idiom as a foil for more experimental ambitions. The full realization of which, blossom in Spirit of Eden. Much to EMI’s displeasure, the album took an entire year to complete at considerable expense, was far from the follow up they desired and ultimately led to a lawsuit and the end of the label’s working relationship with the band. It is a beautiful totality which resists being broken or heard from a Pop vantage point. Like many great works of music, its brilliance is found in what is absent as much as present. If Pop music ever had a Minimalist arm, this is it. Eden, though completely overshadowed by Laughing Stock, is one of the most dynamically sparse albums ever made. It is filled with shimmering silences and resonances. Each of its notes feels hard fought and perfectly placed. Hollis’ voice becomes its precious instrument reaching heights few have paralleled. The Colour Of Spring is one of the great achievements of the major label industry. It should be held high regard, recognized for what it is, and championed as retribution for what it cost the ambitious musicians at its helm.
Public Image Ltd. - The Flowers Of Romance (1981)
P.I.L. was one of the first bands I discovered when I was 12. I’ve been singing their praises ever since. The band doesn’t get the credit they deserve, largely because of their familiarity. John Lydon is the Joan Baez of Punk and Post Punk. He broke down countless barriers, pushed music forward and bore the weight of a social movement. He deflected and absorbed a great deal of negative attention so other members of his generation could continue their ambitions undisturbed. Like Baez, he is his movement’s greatest casualty. Most reduce him to an obnoxious agitator and clown, allowing the construct of his personality to get in the way of his achievement. The Flowers of Romance is remarkable on countless levels, not the least of which is its musical content. It was reportedly slated by record executives at Virgin as the least commercial album ever made. Any way you look at it, it’s a high water mark in experimental music. It sounds like the cacophony bleeding from behind the door to Hell. The album is largely a battling dichotomy between Lydon’s voice and rattling percussion. At points it introduces Musique-Concrete/ sound collage, an atonal articulation of full rock instrumentation, and the use of Ornette Coleman like squealing violin. It’s an incredible work of art that has traveled the better part of three decades with me and sounds as fresh today as when I discovered it. What I find astounding, is the fact that it charted, made the label money and landed the band on Top of the Pops. In so doing, it gives us a momentary view of what popular music might be like if audiences were trusted and given material of substance and quality.
Third Ear Band – Third Ear Band (1970)
In the short life of this site, this is the second Third Ear Band album I have written about. Let that tell you something. My love for the band’s small output runs deep and has recently been going through a renewal. The Third Ear Band was an anomaly in the major label industry, though not one without some small precedent. Anyone listening to their three releases for Harvest/ EMI, with a bit of distance, would wonder what the fuck the label was thinking by allowing them to see the light of day. Each is an articulation of Raga fueled chaos unlike anything of its era. At their peak, they sound like Free-Jazz players trying to force themselves over the din of Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh. It’s a wonderful ride! The answer for why these albums exist is, in all probability, the result of two conditions. The decade between 1965 and 1975, saw such radical innovation in the Pop idiom, that it was one of the few moments that record executives conceded to a lack of understanding of what drove demand. For a brief moment, the train almost got to drive itself. The Third Ear Band also received an unprecedented level of industry insider support for a band of their nature. They were musician’s musicians. In their initial three year recording life (they later reformed), they opened for the Rolling Stones, played The Isle of Wight Festival and scored Roman Polanski’s film Macbeth. This, the band’s second release, is arguably my favorite. It is thematically scored for the four elements- Air, Earth, Fire and Water which seems to have drawn a more careful control into their writing process. Each track feels as considered as it does free and improvised. As with all the band’s releases, it is a dislocating listen, outside of time and tangible reference.