Spin Alternative Record Guide
By Sarah Vowell
Somewhere in Ireland tonight, the Undertones are eating oatmeal for dinner. Meanwhile, Green Day are millionaires," seethed a friend a few months back. We'd met in 1986, a year when the Undertones, a funny Irish punk band whose brand of snotty charm has been chewed up by the Green Day cash cow, were sandwiched between R.E.M. and Otis Redding on college radio, Seattle signified only the quirky popsters Young Fresh Fellows, and I spent a lot of time waiting around for two Robert Smith look-alikes to blow-dry their hair into architectural monuments the size of the Eiffel Tower.
As a genre, rock 'n' roll is still younger than my mother, but one of rock's most appealing qualities has always been its cycles of action and reaction, which are so lickety-split that even a postpunk pup like me can wax historical with an entirely straight face. Heard "Blister in the Sun" one too many times? Remember that Replacements fan's apartment with one refrigerator for food and another just for cheap beer? Ever fantasize about the fiery death of Natalie Merchant, preferably at the capable hands of Joan Jett? Then you're ready to 'fess up and join Alternatives Anonymous: "Hello, my name is Stoley, and I have, like, used the A word roughly 14,000 times."
There's no turning back. For better (punk's democratic ethic gets broadcast to the masses) or worse (can you say Ticketmaster?) a little record called Nevermind changed everything. The ambitious Spin Alternative Record Guide (subtitled "The Essential Artists and Albums of Punk, New Wave, Indie Rock, and Hip Hop") sets out to map the post-Nirvana universe, inhabited by ancestors like the evil genius Lou Reed and descendants like the brain-dead poseurs Stone Temple Pilots. The book's Darwinian approach is redeemed by the inclusion of my (and Eddie Vedder's) favorite band: Seattle's fun-lovin' garage rock heroes the Fastbacks, who for 16 years have plugged away for little glory and less money to hash out some of the most honest, free-spirited artworks of the postwar era.
Editors Eric Weisbard and Craig Marks--along with a slew of contributors like Brit Simon Reynolds, the Village Voice's Ann Powers, and the hilarious Rob Sheffield--have compiled an easy-to-use canon, rating records on a one-to-ten scale and including top-ten lists from luminaries like Joey Ramone (whose roster includes his own It's Alive). And through in-depth coverage of world music, they've painted a portrait of the alternative nation as a group of multi-culti sophisticates who have spent more time grooving to third world dissidents than lamenting Evan Dando's haircut.
The alphabetically arranged guide begins with ABBA (even Sid Vicious was a fan) and ends with John Zorn (described as "altoist, composer, theoretician, and record collector," and that's the fun part), which should tip you off to its eccentric selections--and its pretensions. Poised between the entries for German industrial noisemakers Einsturzende Neubauten and the indie band Embarrassment sits Neil Strauss's competent overview of electronic music and musique concrete, which marks our first stop on the time machine: 1913. In that year, futurist composer Luigi Russolo wrote the original "Roll Over Beethoven," the manifesto called "The Art of Noise." Strauss points out that Russolo insisted "that classical composers were no longer meaningful and that people derived 'much greater pleasure from combining the noises of street cars, internal combustion engines, automobiles, and busy crowds.'" Which doesn't explain ABBA but speaks volumes about Neubaten's toothache appeal.
The editors' New York zip code tilts the tome toward the avant-garde, leading to these problems: (1) overuse of the onomatopoeic word "skronk" and (2) an almost complete disregard for the hicks who made this country great. In other words, why Ornette Coleman and not Johnny Cash? If we're assessing influence, wouldn't surveying George Jones's staggering career make as much sense as thinking through the oeuvre of Estonian Arvo Part? Younger hayseeds like Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks get the shaft here too. And we're forced to read about Dutch creeps Bettie Serveert while lovable Okies the Flaming Lips are criminally omitted.
But the cold northeasterly wind blowing from Spin's Manhattan headquarters is blocked by the provincial warmth of two writers: my friend, Minneapolis's Terri Sutton, and the underappreciated Bay Area crit Gina Arnold. Arnold's back-to-back analyses of Faith No More and Marianne Faithfull find her equally at home with male metal and feminine wiles. Sutton's essay on Swiss punkers Liliput is one refreshing sneeze: "For these women, punk offered a chance not just to crank up volume and speed but to make rock music using different tools--their femaleness being only the most obvious. If there were no rules, there was no sense sticking by guitar wank--and women had less cause to be loyal than anyone."
In fact, the guide is at its best when it addresses what the back cover terms "the secret history of women in punk," or as Sutton calls it, "rude female freedom." Grazing the same pastures as our fave golden calves the Buzzcocks, Mekons, Sex Pistols, and Nirvana are X-Ray Spex, the Slits, Patti Smith, Hole, and PJ Harvey, who stick up for everyone who enjoys being a girl. Still, James Hannaham reminds the ovarian crowd not to get too uppity, because for every Raincoats there's a Shonen Knife, "Hello Kitty-loving innocents who dig the Buzzcocks but think that 'What Do I Get?' refers to shopping at a toy store."
Speaking of shopping, the idealist in me wants to see this project as a history of sorts, while the realist devil on my shoulder knows that it's only a buyer's guide, reducing, on one level, the shouts that changed my life into objects of acquisition. Gina Arnold, citing Simon Frith, writes that "the question for rock musicians isn't how to live without capitalism, but how to live within it." Once, after a Nirvana show I caught outside of Dublin, I walked in a procession of Irish teenagers chanting a raucous a cappella "Smells Like Teen Spirit" all the way back to town. But their rowdy solidarity, translated into pounds exchanged for dollars, lines David Geffen's bulging pockets to this day. How many times have you sat on some boho record geek's couch listening to his (and it's usually a boy) rants against yuppie materialism while he pushes play on a $25 import? We'll not resolve these quandaries anytime soon. But here's Eric Weisbard's hint, and I'm with him all the way: "The Fastbacks offer the answer for a song."