Music

My Indie Is Not a Centerfold, Nor Is It Indie

Joseph Fisher
Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon posing with her Urban Outfitters look.

What has come to be known as indie music cannot be recorded and released in places where people are absolutely independent. We need to start thinking -- really, seriously thinking -- about how something that is supposed to be inherently independent can be so dependent on so much else.

The P.O.V Lounge sits atop the W Washington, DC. A member of Starwood's W Hotel brand, this location has recently hosted performances by the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Dom, the latter of which emerged from a burgeoning partnership between Stereogum and the W chain.

The view from DC's P.O.V Lounge is unparalleled. It offers guests a near-panoramic gaze of the National Mall and Downtown DC. The rough edges of Rosslyn, VA's many high-rise office buildings are readily visible on the western skyline, which makes for a gorgeous photo opportunity during sunset, when the glassy facades of those buildings reflect the pink and orange hues of the horizon. Moreover, the P.O.V Lounge allows patrons rare peeks into the White House grounds -- peeks that are intimate despite the city block that separates the hotel from the home of the President.

To gain access to the Lounge at the most desirable time of day -- dusk -- patrons generally have to place their names on a waiting list prior to their visits. On some occasions, that small annoyance can be bypassed, but there's no guarantee, so it's always better to plan ahead. Upon arrival, guests will usually be asked to wait behind a velvet rope in the W's endlessly swanky lobby, as vaguely techno music is pumped through the hotel's internal speakers. Once the headwaiter grants admittance, refurbished old model elevators, relics from the hotel's days as the Hotel Washington, usher guests up to the Lounge where they will be greeted by numerous gorgeous waitresses in various kinds of low-cut, tight-fitting black dresses. Indeed, every single waitress at the P.O.V Lounge could be a swimsuit model.

For the uninitiated, the views -- of DC, of the wait staff -- will no doubt be breathtaking. And that is to say nothing about the cost of the Terrace's mixed drinks ($15 a piece). P.O.V patrons might also be surprised to catch glimpses of local celebrities, some of whom have proven themselves to be truly horrible people.

Just a decade ago, this setting -- a posh hotel -- would seem a preposterous location to host any kind of independent (or "indie", as we nonspecifically call it) music performance. However, as the networked inertia of the noughties took hold, indie music insinuated itself into, like, everything -- car commercials, movie soundtracks, iPod commercials, The O.C., the Grammys, the soundsystem at Ann Taylor Loft (no exaggeration), etc. In that light, I suppose, it made a certain amount of sense to see a music blog that calls itself the "leading online community for independent and alternative news" pairing with a major hotel chain for a performance series. After all, it's not like people who purchase independent music and own a bunch of Mac products and watch the Grammys and are plugged into the W Happenings feed are short on disposable income. Why not go for broke?

Still, the linkage between indie music, entitled athletes, and gorgeous waitresses who might be swimsuit models seems a bit far-fetched, right?

Wrong.

Williamsburg, you have a problem.

Since the news about Brent DiCrescenzo's latest thoughtform experiment broke, I have been wondering whether or not I should take it on. Like so many in my pasty white middle class male demographic, I've been schooled in the gospel of punk rock with all of its endorsements of jamming econo and all of its chastisements against selling out. And like all interminable sermons, I've always found that particular gospel to be hackneyed, unimaginative, anachronistic, and entirely ill-equipped to address the realities of recording and releasing music anywhere ever in the history of the industrialized world. All of which is to say, I probably should have foregone this post and just gone to the P.O.V Terrace for a drink. Independently, though, I can't afford to do that. I teach American literature and composition for a living. Trust me, you can't jam more econo than that.

What finally pushed me over the edge -- see, it's a good thing I wasn't up on that terrace -- was the recollection that there is this little known indie band out there. The name of the band is Sonic Youth. Perhaps you've heard of this band. Sonic Youth once wrote a song called "Swimsuit Issue". Sonic Youth's feminist guitarist, Kim Gordon, sang the words to that song. In it, she laments the sexism inherent in a culture that continuously empowers men over women. "Don't touch my breast," she growls at one point.


And yet despite the enormous cache that this humble band has in all indie circles, here we are, pondering why indie music has teamed up with a major corporate sports publication that annually displays pictures of swimsuit models who might once have worked as waitresses at fancy hotels where their breasts could have been forcibly fondled by asshole professional athletes.

Nice job, Indie Music. And Indie Media.

Already, I can hear thousands of knuckles cracking as PopMatters's many readers prepare to respond (angrily?) in the comments section. Just hold on for a second, though. Let's stop to think about this for a minute. Really, what's to be done about this endless spiral of corrupted music hypocrisy?

And before you answer that question, realize that a statement along the lines of, "Chill, bro" is an evasive non-argument.

If indie music is "just music," something designed for pure entertainment -- no more, no less -- then we really do not need all of those indie music blogs dissecting every single chord progression that has ever leaked onto the Internet.

On the other hand, if indie music is more than just entertainment -- if it represents something of cultural significance -- then we need to be having better discussions (on all of those music blogs) about what it actually is and about how we can make honest, accurate assessments about what it is accomplishing beyond the realm of entertainment.

We need to know what it means for the publications that cover this genre of music to be partnering with large hotel chains that, to cite one injustice, probably don't pay their custodial staffs enough for them to stay in the rooms that they clean after things like these W Happenings happen.

We need to know what it means for some of those publications' more famous writers to forge partnerships between indie music and an elongated history of corporate sexploitation.

We need to know what it means for indie bands to participate so willingly in that sexploitation.


Finally, we need to start thinking -- really, seriously thinking -- about how something that is supposed to be inherently independent can be so dependent on so much else.

As I was preparing to write this piece, I happened to be reading Christopher McDougall's paean to ultrarunning: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Believe me, if there is any activity out there that is truly independent, it is ultrarunning. Not many people have it in them to run hundreds of miles through the wilderness. Likewise, not many spectators have it in them to wait for hours in the wilderness to watch their friends and family for a mere second or two. Ultrarunners work and perform alone -- independently.

In Born to Run, McDougall discusses the reclusive Tarahumara people who live in Mexico's Copper Canyon. These people live a lifestyle that most would classify as primitive, often inhabiting highly concealed caves and huts in the most distant parts of the Canyon. Yet, for hundreds of years, the Tarahumara have been able to maintain a culture of nonviolence and relative equality. They are a cultured people -- McDougall comments repeatedly on the beauty of their clothing and music -- and, to date, they have maintained their status as the best ultrarunners in the entire world.

What is most significant is that the Tarahumara have done all of that entirely outside of capitalism. Their local economy is largely based on trust, and, as McDougall reiterates throughout the book, they run without the benefit of corporate sponsorship and, most strikingly, running shoes. The Tarahumara run solely for themselves. They do everything by themselves and for themselves. They are, in every sense of the term, punk rock runners who have "spent their time perfecting the art of invisibility."

Now, contrast the location of that culture with the one described uncritically by legions of Western "independent" musicians who believe themselves heirs to the throne of punk. For example, take LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy talking to Pitchfork in July 2010 about his band's imminent breakup: "It's all just gotten bigger than I planned or wanted. Not that I'm against it but I don't want to get bigger. What's the goal now -- get fucking huge? I don't want to be a famous person. It's fucking great where we are. I get on an airplane and nobody has any idea who I am. I just want to do other stuff."

Let's try to overlook the trappings of American entitlement -- the wealth to fly (to places like Japan), the cache to book Madison Square Garden -- to consider the context of this statement. This disingenuous public shunning of fame was made on the grounds of a popular music festival to a reporter for a fairly large publication that dedicated an egregious amount of energy to reviewing every single song this guy's band ever wrote. Yeah, James, you're really roughing it out there. To be fair, though, the countless victory laps that LCD Soundsystem ran in 2011 do make you kind of an ultrarunner. Pitchfork even described your farewell show as a "marathon".

Given that indie is now aligned with Sports Illustrated, this digression into the realm of running really isn't a digression at all. Nevertheless, let me reiterate: the Tarahumara strike me as a people who are truly independent. Their culture is steeped in the kind of rugged individualist ideology that indie music ceaselessly champions, even though I doubt that the next generation of DiY chillwave musicians will retreat to Copper Canyon to record their music. Doing such a thing would, of course, be impossible. What has come to be known as indie music cannot be recorded and released in places where people are absolutely independent. The town of Urique, Mexico, for example, only received phone service in 2002. Imagine that. Just a decade ago, and that tiny town didn't have access to the Internet. RLY. The inhabitants of Urique missed out on the wonder of You Forgot It in People when the rest of us would be celebrating the "subversiveness" of Broken Social Scene.

Once more, "Chill, bro" is an evasive non-argument.

Let me be clear: I like indie music -- a lot. I probably listen to more indie music than I do any other genre of music. Grimes is, IMHO, the most exciting musician out there right now.

However, I can't in good conscious call that stuff "indie" anymore. I actually don't know if I ever really could call it "indie". I did so, ironically enough, because that's what everyone else called it. I won't do that any longer, though. My point of view has changed, and if I have to stand alone on this one, that's fine. After all, that's what independence is all about.

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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