Modern-Indie-College-Alternative Rock for Hipsters (MICAH for Short)

Here's your introduction to MICAH rock, my admittedly cheesy acronym for music that has, at one time or another, been defined as modern, indie, college, alternative, and hipster music.

That collective gasp when Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs snagged the Album of the Year prize at the 2011 Grammys was not just the sound of middle America murmuring “Who?” It was also the crestfallen sigh of the hipster nation, aghast that another of its warriors had succumbed to the dark side. It was yet another lost battle to keep underground music where it belonged – in the hands of teens and 20-somethings dedicated to sporting thrift shop apparel and ironic looks.

As a grizzled codger, I took a “seen it all before” attitude. I am, after all, twice the average hipster’s age with an unfathomable 44 fire-hazard-producing candles atop my last birthday cake. That cry of “I remember when that band belonged to us” was not invented by the latte-swilling generation. There have been decades of precedents, be it U2 taking over the world with their #1 hit “With Or Without You”, Green Day signing with a major label so that they could win over the masses with songs about masturbation and paranoia, or Nirvana dethroning Michael Jackson on the album chart.

The “sell out” tag was attached to all these bands prior to these incidents, but like Arcade Fire’s Grammy victory, these were defining moments when indie faves became mainstream darlings. Hipsters might lament that Arcade Fire lost their edge when they racked up Grammy nominations. Maybe it was when The Suburbs topped the album chart. It could go back to their sophomore effort, 2007’s Neon Bible, hitting #2. It might date to “Wake Up” becoming inescapable or when the band’s 2004 debut, Funeral, went gold.

Ever since rock 'n' roll became the music for the masses with Elvis’ hip swiveling broadcast to millions via The Ed Sullivan Show, there has been an alternative scene dedicated to, well, not the masses. The garage rock of the ‘50s gave way to beret-wearing beatniks celebrating Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground pet project in the ‘60s.

In the ‘70s, Malcolm McLaren’s SEX shop in Britain and Hilly Kristal’s CBGB club in New York gifted punk rock like the Sex Pistols and Ramones to disenfranchised youth with tastes for power chords and clothing decorated with safety pins. With their early brand of electronica, Kraftwerk spawned synth-loving new wave rockers who dressed fashionably and sported ozone-killing hairdos. Goth-rock innovators like Joy Division birthed a generation of brooding musicians and followers marked by jet-black hair drooping over pale faces and mascara-painted eyes.

It all gelled together just enough in the early ‘80s to spark under-the-radar radio stations devoted to representing the various underground scenes. A more all-encompassing banner became necessary. This left-of-center music which appeals to 20-somethings who dress funny has been saddled with a handful of monikers over the last 30 years, but I’ll call it “MICAH”. Huh? Who’s MICAH? No, not who, but what. “MICAH” is my admittedly cheesy acronym for music that has, at one time or another, been defined as modern, indie, college, alternative, and hipster music.

Because of its origins at under-the-radar college radio stations at the dawn of the ‘80s, this music first gathered under the “college rock” banner. Some of the genre’s earliest champions were U2, R.E.M., Duran Duran, INXS, Depeche Mode, and the Cure. In what became the MICAH music trend, these bands all forfeited their college-rock membership badges when they landed top-selling albums fueled by top ten hits. Fanatics who had supported these bands pre-MTV cried “sell out” and embraced the never-quite-prime-time rockers like the Replacements and Sonic Youth.

By the late ‘80s, the term “college rock” was overhauled to “modern rock”, presumably because its 20-something listener base were now struggling to pony up cash for rent and car payments instead of textbook fees and pizza deliveries. Groups like Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers found ways to turn Run-D.M.C’s remake of “Walk This Way” into an entire rap-rock genre. Like their predecessors, however, they were booted to the curb by their MICAH base when they fueled their efforts into top ten hits like “Epic” and “Under the Bridge”.

In the ‘90s, the music was rechristened “alternative rock” and helmed by punk rock revivalists like Green Day and flannel-wearing grunge rockers like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Once again, these were the flagship groups who quickly outgrew their underground aesthetic when they became “the music of a generation”.

Amusingly, another MICAH trend perpetrated itself during this era. Much as groups like the Jesus and Mary Chain or Echo & the Bunnymen had enjoyed far greater success in their native UK, ‘90s groups like Blur and Oasis led the Britpop movement overseas, but were just part of the collective alt-rock genre in the States. Apparently, it was acceptable to listen to bands who’d landed huge hits – as long as they hadn’t done so in North America.

Another reboot was necessary by the end of the century. This time the worshippers of non-mega-label music opted to stamp their favorite tuneage with the “indie rock” tag. Once again, bands like the White Stripes and the Strokes, which came out of a garage revivalist movement, quickly became too big for their britches.

In the 21st century, MICAH music has become the soundtrack for hipsters whose credibility lies in latching on to that to which the general public remains clueless. Ironically, the very collective comprised of those who make such effort to not be defined have, like their predecessors, pretty cleanly boxed themselves into a clique with their concerted efforts at their alternative looks, tastes, and lifestyles.

What’s a MICAH fan to do when the rest of the world is suddenly aware of what was supposed to stay underground? Emo proved a failed outlet for indie tastes as Pete Wentz hooked and unhooked with pop singer Ashlee Simpson as quickly as his group Fall Out Boy and fellow emo rockers Panic! At the Disco and My Chemical Romance went from underground to mainstream to falling out of favor. Similarly, dance-rock revival groups like Franz Ferdinand and the Killers were big before they’d ever been small.

In recent years, Mumford & Sons, the Fleet Foxes, the Black Keys, the National, Band of Horses, and the Hold Steady earned just enough media spotlight to leave hipsters wondering where to turn next. Thanks to the digital age, anyone and their mother can download anything ever recorded or YouTube anything ever filmed. Bands like Vampire Weekend practically had their MICAH membership cards revoked before they’d arrived in the mail.

Well, MICAH fans, rejoice. For every Arcade Fire or U2 or Green Day who makes it big, there will be a wake of also-rans. For every album that sells in the six-figure range, there will be other acts who struggle to sell, well, six albums. Every suburban garage holds possibilities for the next band that will go nowhere and every local club potentially houses the next audience-of-one performance by the latest not-up-and-coming band.

Oh, and there is one more possibility. Don’t gauge how much you should or shouldn’t like a band based on their sales on iTunes, their number of fans on Facebook, or the size of the venues they play. Don’t fret over who does or doesn’t have your band’s tunes spinning on their iPods. Don’t get alarmed when your band hits one million plays on YouTube or uses their song to hock product in TV commercials. Like the bands you like because… well, because you like them. Just a thought from a decidedly unhip fogie who’s probably old enough to be your father.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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