Underground Newsgroup Year-End Summary

A rare surviving example of my contributions to the Underground Newsgroup, which I founded in January 1988 to share information about local music scenes, and the general state of “underground music,” as I liked to call it back then. Members were contributing reports from music scenes all over the globe, including Sau Paulo, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Tokyo and Moscow. It was cool. After a four-year hiatus from writing after I graduated from college, the web was underway. Sadly, the advantages of the web, including the opportunity to cheaply publish a webzine like Fast ‘n’ Bulbous, was a tradeoff. With more people involved, commerce eclipsed discussion, effectively killing newsgroups discussions. Any potentially interesting threads are drowned out with people polluting the newsgroups by trying to sell shit. While some decent newsgroups still exist, they don’t have the same popularity as they did in the late eighties/early nineties.

Hey ho and Happy New Year. The Underground discussion group is almost three years old. In May I will be shat into the real world from the protective womb of my college. Afterwards, I hope that somebody will be willing to take my place in hosting this group. I’d hate to see it flop and squirm like a dying squid.

In some ways, 1990 was a predictable, dismal year. Yet there is also cause for hope, as the handful of great bands seem to hint at a rumbling volcano of good things to come. Small independent labels are having more and more trouble keeping afloat as records disappear from stores and the corporate entertainment industry farms more and more bands from their rosters. For some bands, this is just fine. They can quit their day jobs and tour. But no matter how much freedom the majors supposedly give them, the fact is that the majority of my personal favorites this year and last have gotten worse. The luxury of spending more time on their music doesn’t seem to be helping bands like the Pixies, Eleventh Dream Day, The Replacements, Soul Asylum, Sonic Youth, the list goes on.

The trendy sound in rock right now is the metal/funk/70s art rock/ butt rock crossover initiated by Soundgarden, Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Living Colour, all on major labels. They are at least an improvement from The Cult. The best they have inspired is Primus, the worst, Faith No More (who’ve actually been around longer than you’d want to know). I recently interviewed a minneapolis band called Bone Club. They will be releasing an album in March, and it is very much in this style. I like it okay, but suspect there will be many more bands to rehash this style, and I will get very sick of it, just as I got sick of the “Sub Pop sound.” Besides the classic collection of Mudhoney singles, half of Nirvana’s album, Afghan Whigs’ intense soul-meets-Joy Division sound, and a couple Soundgarden cuts, there’s only so much retro-grunge one can stomach.

Hip-hop is expanding as quickly as ever, snaking into the plumage of European industrial/dance (Meat Beat Manifesto), and stealing longer, more musical passages (Vanilla Ice, De La Soul, etc.) So far it has avoided the inevitable boring repetition. Yet the hardest hitting music comes from the artists with the powerful words — Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. But if they expect too much from their politicized music, they might be disappointed. The way rap is heard by most people who don’t see the artists in a live context, is influenced by the totally commodified, de-politicized media of MTV and dance clubs. In the process of consumption, hip-hop can be decontextualized such that what makes the songs hits is the surface sounds rather than sociological realities of innercity life. White-majority consumer culture may only hear the “collapsing effect” — that sense of sonic rupture, seizure and vertico that rap and hip-hop embody, the uneven surfaces and jagged textures. Basically it sounds cool, and the politics go right over most people’s heads.

Corporate label weasels and underground rave promoters alike realized this, and 1990 became the year of the return to “disco.” By appropriating rap techniques in scratching and sampling, rehashing the stale Euro-candy-coated-pop-slop-drivel, actually coming up with some catchy hooks and melodies, and plunking tons of money into a huge mass marketing campaign, people are spending tons of money once again on inflated cover charges to get into exclusive clubs. Ironically, this is partly thanks to some of the underground raves held in fields in England and abandoned warehouses in the U.S. It’s the biggest dance-craze since the seventies. I like dancing, and have no major problem with the clubs that don’t absolutely bend you over and rape you with cover charges. I have no problem with the kids draining their spinal fluid via Ecstasy either — certainly makes for good people watching. But I’ll be gawd damned if I’m gonna ever like that fucking mind-numbing four-four beat of house. Blargh! House is like an infectious disease that I fear will dumb down the rest of pop music. For god sake’s what happened to the funk? To rhythmic experimentation? Has everyone already forgotten all the break-beat innovations of hip-hop?

Thankfully not everyone. Some decent artists, (some better than others) have blurred the lines between industrial, pop, hip-hop and disco, like Nine Inch Nails, Tone Roses, Die Warzau, Nitzer Ebb, Black Box, Thrill Kill Kult, Technotronic, Deee-Lite, MC 900 Foot Jesus, Happy Mondays, Beats International, Soup Dragons, Tackhead, Severed Heads, Revolting Cocks, etc. While some of the music gets pretty tacky in its ironic use of 60s psychedelia, I’m not against all of it. I’ve been known to shake my flatuating buttocks to the House Nation Under A Groove danceteria at 7th St. Entry (attached to First Avenue) with aluminum foiled, neon-spray-painted walls. But I am unimpressed by 95% of the dance music. Dance rhythms are extremely boring and repetitive to me when I’m doing anything besides dancing, and sometimes even when I am. Most of the lyrics, when there are any, are not a little stupid. I think Meat Beat Manifesto, a Wax Trax band, is the best of ‘em. They had a great stage show last summer with dancers in lizard suits.

I’ve been getting into a little metal lately. There’s a subculture that concentrated in both south Florida and Sweden, that calls itself a variety of things — speedmetal, deathmetal, grindcore, thrash. I prefer grindcore. I’ve been enjoying some albums that came out in 1989 by Carcass, a band that plays especially crunchy metal with vivid lyrics about eating dead human corpses; Godflesh, Prong, Death, Sepultura, Bolt Thrower (among the heaviest, with very apocalyptic lyrics), Entombed and Terrorizer (a very political speedmetal band). Metal has become much more interesting in the last few years. It has appropriated a few industrial sounds as well as hardcore and punk. Some of the best musicians around can be found in these bands. Nothing too earthshaking has come out in 1990 that I know of, other than Slayer. This doesn’t worry me, as there’s only so much grindcore one needs in their collection.

In the lapse in new music, I’ve turned to reissues. Tons of great punk, hardcore, ska and avant-garde is being reissued on CD. Some of the better ones this year have been Captain Beefheart’s Shiny Beast, three Stiff Little Fingers albums, The Ruts Peel Sessions (I’m still waiting for the Peel Sessions of The Birthday Party), The dils, Gang Of Four A Brief History, Richard Hell & the Voidoids Blank Generation, The Feelies Crazy Rhythms, The Damned Machine Gun Etiquette andThe Black Album, Adolescents and Bad Brains Rock For Light. The stuff just keeps coming, and I keep playing them on Uncle Fester’s Bucket O’ Nasties.

It’s not surprising, then, that Fugazi, Bad Brains and Babes In Toyland are in my Lucky 13. They aren’t doing anything particularly new, but the music is more moving and exciting than anything else I’ve heard lately. Fugazi was the best show I saw in 1990. Guitars remain my noise of choice, and a couple Amphetamine reptile bands are doing it better than ever. Helmet, Lubricated Goat and Vertigo have elevated beyond the sometimes amusing, but mostly tiresome, shallow pseudo-angry drudgery of most Amphetamine Reptile bands with humor and surprising melodies amidst the clatter. Helmet plays with the tightest, most precise heaviness I’ve heard in a while. Sloppy is out. I’ve heard too much shitty playing — gimme a band with superhuman musicianship and surprising arrangements any day, (short of King Crimson). Jesus Lizard gets the award for originality. Perhaps I’m overrating Run Westy Run, but they are so good live, and I was so happy to see something that blew away the rest of the shit that came out in the Twin Cities this year. My thing with the Breeders has to do with my frustration with asshole Black Francis not letting Kim Deal contribute more in the Pixies. I saw them in concert, and they were underwhelming compared to their Tazmanian Devil/whirling dervish show in ’87. Francis was a cold lump of lard. I hope Deal quits. Pod almost slows down to a stop halfway through, but by then the lack of energy doesn’t shake me out of my blissful trance induced by Deal’s vocals. A surprise masterpiece. Flaming Lips’ much-anticipated album cemented their status as the golden-hearted post-psychedelic band that every band wants to tour with, and everyone wants to see. Uncle Tupelo found a perfect balance between rustic country/folk and garage punk fury. Buffalo Tom got a big break on MTV’s 120 minutes, with an interview, live footage, and a video. The wonders of RCA. Their melodic, wimpier-than Dinosaur (produced by J. Mascis) songs actually sound fresh. It’s the singer who pushes them into greatness, methinks. I recommend last year’s Paddock of Love by Lubricated Goat to anyone who likes Psychedelicatessan.

Coming up in 1991 are albums by Dinosaur Jr., Bad Brains, Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nomeansno, Slint, Public Enemy, The Jesus Lizard, My Bloody Valentine and Nirvana. With the newfound melodicism in their new single, “Sliver,” combined with Cobain’s powerful voice, I think Nirvana are primed to explode. Hopefully there will be some surprises too. I’ve heard interesting things on the grapevine about up-and-coming bands like Swervedriver, Smashing Pumpkins, Pavement and Mercury Rev. Somethin’ is festering…

Uncle Fester’s Lucky 13 Albums of 1990

  1. Fugazi * Repeater (Dischord)
  2. The Breeders * Pod (4AD)
  3. The Jesus Lizard * Head (Touch & Go)
  4. Helmet * Strap It On (Amphetemine Reptile)
  5. Buffalo Tom * Birdbrain (Beggars Banquet)
  6. Babes In Toyland * Spanking Machine (Twin/Tone)
  7. Bad Brains * The Youth Are Getting Restless (Caroline)
  8. The Flaming Lips * In A Priest Driven Ambulence (Restless)
  9. Afghan Whigs * Up In It (Sub Pop)
  10. Yo La Tengo * Fakebook (Bar/None)
  11. Public Enemy * Fear Of A Black Planet (Columbia)
  12. Uncle Tupelo * No Depression (Rockville)
  13. Lubricated Goat * Psychedelicatessen (Amphetamine Reptile)

Others Worth Hearing

Ministry * The Mind Is A Terrible Thing to Taste (Sire)
Peter Murphy * Deep (Beggars Banquet)
Pixies * Bossanova (Elektra)
Youssou N’Dour * Set (Virgin)
Cheb Mami * Let Me Rai (Virgin)
Tragic Mulatto * Chartreuse Toulouse (Alt. Tent.)
Dead C * Trapdoor Fucking Exit (Siltbreeze)
Godflesh * Streetcleaner (Earache)
Nice Strong Arm * Stress City (Homestead)
Gary Clail & On-U Sound System * End Of The Century Party (On- U Sound)
The Blue Aeroplanes * Swagger (Chrysalis)
The Jazz Butcher * Cult Of The Basement (Rough Trade)
KMFDM * Naive (Wax Trax!)
Run Westy Run * Green Cat Island (Twin/Tone)
Sinead O’Connor * I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Chrysalis)
Victims Family * White Bread Rules (Mordam)
The Gun Club * Pastoral Hide And Seek (Buddha)
Dwarves * Blood, Guts And Pussy (Sub Pop)
Teenage Fanclub * A Catholic Education (Matador)
Arsenal * Factory Smog Is A Sign Of Progress (Touch & Go)
Cop Shoot Cop * Consumer Revolt (Circuit)
Prong * Beg To Differ (Epic)
Sonic Youth * Goo (Geffen)
Jane’s Addiction * Ritual De La Habitual (WB)
Foetus Inc. * Sink (Wax Trax!)
Deee-Lite * World Clique (Elektra)
Pegboy * Three Chord Monte EP (Touch & Go)
Didjits * Hornet Pinata (Touch & Go)
Loop * A Gilded Eternity (RCA)
Soul Asylum * And The Horse They Rode In On (A&M)
Bad Religion * Against the Grain (Epitaph)
Gear Daddies * Billy’s Live Bait (Polygram)
L7 * Smell the Magic (Sub Pop)
Social Distortion (Epic)
Laughing Hyaenas * Life Of Crime (Touch & Go)
Fastbacks * Very, Very Powerful Motor (PopLlama Products)
Primus * Frizzle Fry (Caroline)
Cocteau Twins * Heaven Or Las Vegas (4AD)
Boss Hog * Cold Hands (Amphetamine Reptile)

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