Common wisdom holds that the style of music we currently call “indie rock” was born in the late ’80’s—the screaming child of alternative and college rock, struggling to life around the same time the first inklings of grunge began emanating from the Pacific Northwest. It crystallized into an ethos-driven scene in the ’90s, helmed by bands like Pavement and Yo La Tengo, and eventually solidified into a commercial genre in the early ’00’s with the massive success of ’70s revivalists like Interpol and the Strokes. But long before the term “indie rock” came into common use, a generation of bands from the early ’80s built a bridge between alternative rock and post-punk—only to have their pioneering efforts forgotten in the decades that followed.
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Brooklyn label Captured Tracks aims to rectify that oversight with Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987, a new compilation featuring unknown bands hailing from smaller cities and suburbs around the U.S. who, at the dawn of the Reagan years, decided that while punk was cool and post-punk was super cool, so were Syd Barrett, the Velvet Underground, Big Star, and especially R.E.M. Informed by decidedly non-mainstream influences and supported by a network of college radio stations and self-published fanzines, these groups took the DIY mentality of punk and melded it with jangly melodicism of the 1960’s, creating a distinctly American version of a sound that would be canonized in its British, Australian, and Kiwi incarnations, but would take a back seat to hardcore and other more aggressive genres stateside.
“There’s no collector’s market for [this music],” says Captured Tracks founder Mike Sniper. “I would notice that records by the Clean were exorbitantly priced because the demand is so high, but these records were pressed in much lower amounts than those, and were basically clogging up [used] bins. I was like, ‘Why?’ I don’t understand why someone who will pay a lot of money for the Go-Betweens is going to pass on the White Sisters. I didn’t think about turning it into a compilation until way later, but that was the justification.”
The band names that appear on the back of Strum & Thrum won’t ring any bells for most listeners; but the music itself—catchy and clean-ish, verse-chorus-verse rock music made with a classic two-guitars-drum-and-bass set up—doesn’t stand totally out of time. It shares DNA with early ’80s American post-punk bands like the dBs, the Feelies, and of course, R.E.M., who nearly every band on the compilation names as an inspiration. It will also be familiar to fans of indie music from the UK during that era: jangly, highly melodic, amateurish but not unambitious, punk in spirit if not in sound. But while the British enjoyed a healthy scene organized under the umbrella of niche indie labels, “in the US, you had a complete disconnect,” says Sniper. “There was no Postcard, no Sarah, no Creation. None of those things existed here. You had labels for punk and hardcore and even industrial music like Wax Trax and Touch and Go and SST. This music never got that. It was basically like Homestead or DB Records, but other than that, you’re screwed.”
“Unlike hardcore, which was able to establish a national scene because of constant touring, this music was so regional,” he continues. “Most of these records didn’t really make it past their local record stores. There was no term for somebody who was into this kind of music other than ‘college rock.’ And this does not sound exactly like Sarah Records or like Postcard. There might be a little bit more Byrds influence than you’re comfortable with if you’re purely into British music, but there’s a whole thing to discover here.”
Strum & Thrum is the first in a planned series of compilations from Captured Tracks called Excavations, which will shine a light on overlooked musical movements from the 1970’s through the ’90s. The compilation comes with a comprehensive booklet that includes an introductory essay by Sniper and an oral history of the scene featuring interviews with band members that attempts to contextualize their contributions in the larger history of indie rock. It also features plenty of period photos—band members dressed in punk’s flannel and ripped denim uniform, but playing Rickenbackers and Danelectros. “That’s why, for the cover art, I picked a photo where you can tell that it’s a hardcore club and you see the Flipper logo,” says Sniper. “You can see that this band is playing at the same venue that those bands played at, and that they’re just as DIY. It sounds that way too—the ramshackle-ness of all of it.”
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“I love the fact that this compilation is what I call the second-tier bands,” says Pat Thomas, who drummed in Absolute Grey, a band from Rochester, New York once described by CMJ as “Jefferson Airplane meets R.E.M.” “The approach is really cool, because most labels would be like, ‘Okay, we’ll have these second division bands, but we’re going to put five super famous bands on here so we can sell the damn thing.’ Mike Sniper took a risk, and I applaud him artistically for that.”
Although the world at large may not have recognized these jangly bands as belonging to a distinct scene (with the exception of Los Angeles’ short-lived Paisley Underground), the band members themselves felt connected to a larger movement. “There was obviously no internet back then, so all of these bands were trading cassettes and writing letters,” says Thomas. “There was this network that was very old school, a lot of fanzines. There was a sort of pen pal thing going on where you’d be trading tapes or your albums with some band 2,000 miles away. When the Rain Parade, who were more famous than us, came to town, and Absolute Grey opened for them, half of them wound up sleeping in my living room so they didn’t have to pay for a hotel. There was a lot of that going on.”
“We mostly lived in our own little bubble in the suburbs of Chicago,” says Ric Menck of the Reverbs and the Springfields, who later released two singles on Sarah Records, becoming the most concrete link between the jangle bands of the USA and the far more well-publicized indie pop scene in the UK. “Eventually I began reaching out to like-minded musicians, which is how I met people like Matthew Sweet and Mitch Easter. I really wanted those guys to like our stuff. I didn’t care what the general public thought. The thing I wanted most was to be written about in fanzines, and we were really happy when we found out low-watt college radio stations were playing our record.”
“College radio played a really important role, especially for the bands that wound up getting more popular,” agrees Thomas. “Even Absolute Grey got a letter from some tiny station in Ohio saying, ‘Hey we got your album and we love it.’”
Tampa, Florida, band A New Personality benefited from this informal DIY network when, unbeknownst to them, their first single somehow made their way into the hands of Sub Pop, then still a cassette-only label, leading to write-ups in fanzines and Trouser Press; people would send them xerox copies of the reviews in the mail. “It was weird for us to be out there because we never left Tampa,” says Brent Rademaker, who formed A New Personality as a teenager with his brother, Darren. “We might have played Miami or Orlando a few times, but we didn’t really think about other bands that were doing it. We were more influenced by English bands, but I could tell by listening to the bands on [Strum & Thrum] that a lot of them liked R.E.M.” The Rademakers initially wanted A New Personality to sound like Joy Division and Gang of Four, “although we couldn’t do it as good. When we heard Orange Juice, it was like, ‘Oh, you don’t have to sing in tune and the songs are really bass line driven, but also really jangly and kind of out of tune.’ Those bands were our heroes. We were kind of post-punk in real time.”
Many of the Strum & Thrum bands enjoyed English bands—Thomas names Echo & The Bunnymen as a major influence on Absolute Grey—but one sonic ingredient that is notably missing on Strum & Thrum is classic three-chord punk rock in the vein of the Undertones or Generation X. “There was another aesthetic coming from punk that we didn’t really relate to with the bands in America that became grunge later: A little heavier and a little more sloppy,” says Rademaker. “If you look at the pictures in the booklet of this compilation you’ll think, ‘Oh that band has to sound like a grunge band.’ But when you hear it, it doesn’t. There’s a bit of chorus on the bass, or there’s a lot of jangle.”
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What the jangle bands did take from punk was a self-starting attitude and an opposition to what they heard emanating from their television screens. “Mainstream music then was MTV,” says Thomas. “It was Madonna and Wham and Cyndi Lauper. This was the opposite of that. We all sort of felt very ‘anti-commercial music’ at the time, and it just sort of formed a kind of community that even extended to bands that didn’t necessarily sound jangly, like Hüsker Dü or the Minutemen. It all felt like part of a larger community.”
“All kinds of bands shared bills. My first band was a garage jangle band and played with Circle Jerks. That was completely normal. What we all had in common was the underground nature of it, the DIY thing,” remembers Lynn Blakey of D.C. group Holiday, who contribute a chiming guitar pop nugget wrapped in deftly intertwining female vocals called “Change” to Strum & Thrum. “There was a lot of support back then for just making art without permission from gatekeepers. A year after my first band, I was touring with Let’s Active, opening for R.E.M., which was great—but it completely spoiled me for what being a band meant for real.”
Many of the bands on Strum & Thrum contain female members: Notably the all-female group Salem 66, 28th Day with Barbara Manning, Donna Esposito with The Cyclones, and the Riff Doctors, to name a few. It’s something Sniper highlights as a defining aspect of the jangle scene, particularly in relation to hardcore. “We definitely made an effort to include as much female presence as possible, and the cool thing was we didn’t really even have to try because that’s something that’s always been a part of this scene. None of your stupid, big college rock bands were like that. They were all dudes. There’s more female presence in this scene than there is in hardcore,” he says.
“I had a lot of women friends in bands back then. There was a lot of camaraderie in that, but at the same time that’s not how we primarily thought about it,” says Blakey. “The one thing I remember was thinking, ‘Yeah, this is great that more women will be playing in bands and they should be,’ but it never really turned out that way. I’m surprised it’s taken so long to see more representation. Hardcore was so aggro; I liked a lot of the bands, but mostly it was just too macho for me.”
Fittingly for a scene so amorphous it never really had a definitive beginning or middle, it also never really had a definitive end—though Menck believes that it probably crested at some point in the late 1980’s—”probably when R.E.M. signed with Warner Brothers.” While bands on labels like K, Slumberland, and Teen Beat picked up on some of the threads left by these early jangle pop bands in the second half of the decade, they were outliers rather than direct descendants.
“I think it morphed into something rather than ended,” says Blakey. “I see a direct line between the jangle pop to roots and alternative country, etc. Maybe this music is like a recessive gene. A recessive genre! It has a connection to the future, but it’s hidden and not obvious.”
Sniper agrees, pointing out that “Yo La Tengo were releasing records during this period of time and so were Guided By Voices, but those records were not very well distributed which is why people consider their earliest records the ones from the early ‘90s. That’s when America got its indie rock. Really, Yo La Tengo and Guided By Voices are the conduits because, if you listen to their early records, they sound like these bands.”
Indeed, many of the members of groups on Strum & Thrum went on to play in significant indie rock groups once the genre had become more formalized in the 1990’s. Archer Prewitt of the Bangtails played in the jazz-influenced Chicago band the Sea and Cake; Menck formed Velvet Crush and put out records on Creation; Jon Ginoli of the Outnumbered went on to play in Pansy Division. After taking A New Personality as far as it could go within the confines of Florida, including a short tour with Duran Duran and an opening slot for Billy Idol, the Rademaker brothers left Tampa for California, where they would start Further—an indie rock group conceived as a “West Coast version of Sebadoh”—and later, Beachwood Sparks and the Tyde. “It seemed like such an unattainable goal to get on a label, but you find out it really isn’t—you just need to work a little harder and get out of your local scene,” says Rademaker. “All you needed to do was get in your car and go touring, like a band like R.E.M. did.”
Still, the question remains: With such traceable roots in so many aspects of American indie rock, why were these bands erased from the narrative in the first place? There are a few superficial reasons: Much of the music was never digitized; there was a noticeable lack of an Alan McGee-type figure to mythologize it in real time, and American rock music in the 1980’s continues to have a bad reputation. But the most straightforward explanation is the same single-word answer that changed everything in underground music: Nirvana.
“Before the word grunge or even Sub Pop was well known, I remember going to see a band like Pussy Galore or the Meat Puppets and going, ‘Wow, the jangly sound has moved on,’” says Thomas. “But I think this round of bands paved the way for the next round, which was just more…I guess the best word is ‘aggro.’ And, as you know, thanks to Nirvana, that aggro sound got much bigger than this jangly sound. It became much more marketable. Some people might claim that this stuff is too wimpy.”
Menck thinks that the music will new audiences regardless of its quirkiness. “People react positively to anything genuine, and all of the music on the comp is made with passion and integrity. Those are powerful ingredients,” he says. “Also, older music appeals to younger people who are searching for cool retro sounds that make sense in a modern context.”
Perhaps what Strum & Thrum proves most greatly is that fame—or the fickle tastes of crate-digging record nerds with deep pockets—is a poor yardstick for measuring cultural impact. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a modern band who would name Absolute Grey or Holiday as an influence over The Clean or The Go-Betweens, the foundation built by these groups was one on which so many other bands stood and continue to stand.
“Just doing it the way we did influenced the future,” says Blakey. “Having the guts to make music out of the mainstream in the heart of the Reagan years and birth of MTV opened a path to more creativity. Musically it matters because good songs always matter.”