Iggy Pop and The Stooges, The Ramones, Blondie, Nirvana and Johnny Cash. America has obviously produced some great independent voices over the years. We take a look at some of the less obvious, but highly influential American artists who have championed musical independence.
David Bowie is famously quoted as saying: "I could never get over the fact that The Pixies formed, worked and separated without America taking them to its heart or even recognising their existence for the most part". Early Pixies albums such as 1998's 'Surfer Rosa' (produced by Steve Albini) and 1989's 'Doolittle' have created a huge legacy over the last three decades. The Pixies were less punk influenced than many of their mid-80's US peers and influenced many of the alternative rock bands that followed having pretty much set out the parameters for the genre. Signed by British indie label 4AD, the band initially enjoyed more success in Europe than their native America.
Holding a similar gravitas to The Pixies, David Bowie is also quoted as stating: "Pixies and Sonic Youth were so important to the eighties". Sonic Youth formed around founders Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon in early '80s New York. Embracing the DIY punk ethic and unconventional methods, the band were active from the early '80s before the more mainstream alternative movement that swept America in the early '90s got hold. When it did, the band already had five albums on independent labels, including SST Records (founded by Black Flag's Greg Ginn).
Probably best known as the band that gave the world the constructive anger of Henry Rollins, despite the fact that he joined the band five years after their initial formation in 1976 by principal songwriter Greg Ginn. Black Flag, are perhaps, the epitome of the American hardcore scene. Their antiauthoritarian stance saw them spray paint their logo around Los Angeles much to the annoyance of the LAPD, who had already taken issue with the destructive reputation of the band's audiences. Gregg Gin created his own label, SST Records, to release Black Flag's music, but the label ended up putting out early releases by Descendents, Soundgarden and other notable American artists.
Dinosaur Jr. were active from 1984 to 1997, reforming in 2005 to produce a further four albums to date. Led by J Mascis the band were another that took the DIY ethic of punk and hardcore and made it their own. With an eclectic mix of influences, less punk, more Neil Young, the results that Dinosaur Jr. produced had a very indie flavour. Although they had some recognition in New York, supporting Sonic Youth among other gigs, their big break came about in Britain when their single 'Freakscene' topped the UK Indie charts in 1988. The early nineties saw Dinosaur Jr. get a major deal with Geffen for their album 'Green Mind' and big tours with Nirvana among their support bands. They remain one of the most highly acclaimed and influential alternative rock bands of all time.
Formed in 1983, by founder member Buzz Osbourne, The Melvins are often credited as being one of the most instrumental bands in preparing the ground for what became referred to as the grunge scene. Aside from anything else they lent their drummer to Nirvana to fill in on a demo before introducing Kurt Cobain to Dave Grohl. With a style that was neither fully hardcore or heavy metal, The Melvins released five albums through indie labels before signing to Atlantic when the success of Nirvana's 'Nevermind' changed the nature of the American music market dramatically. The Melvins' first album on Atlantic was 'Houdini' in 1993 which was co-produced by Kurt Cobain.
The Flaming Lips
In recent years The Flaming Lips have become a widely loved band whose festival antics across the globe seem to win them a bigger and bigger following. The current age of the Flaming Lips' creativity stretches back to around 1999 when their album 'The Soft Bulletin' broke them into the mainstream but the band actually formed long before this in 1983, enjoying a cult following in the late '80s and early '90s with their unique experimental approach and rejection of conventional rock band behaviour. The success of songs such as 'She Don't Use Jelly' indicated the direction the band were moving in in the early 1990s. More recent unconventional Lips projects have included covering The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers album in its entirety with contributions from Miley Cyrus and Moby, and similarly covering Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon' with Henry Rollins.
The bulk of Pavement's time as a band took place between 1989 and 1999. Pavement avoided big record labels throughout the period, sticking to independents for all of their albums and EPs. With a lo-fi indie approach to their earlier releases, Pavement's musical style was often compared to one of the UK's most consistently independent bands, The Fall.
Despite the complications of numerous business deals that came in later years, Def Jam was founded by Rick Rubin in his college dorm room, primarily to release records from his own punk band. Def Jam's big success came when the independent ideals of the label provided Public Enemy with the perfect habitat to create albums such as 1988's 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'. The band's politically conscious lyrics, integration of other musical genres and Terminator X's innovative use of scratching all earned them critical acclaim and a huge following. The band are regarded as the heralds of what became known as The Golden Age of Hip Hop. Chuck D also lent his rhyming skills to Sonic Youth's 'Kool Thing' (see above).
Bringing things up to date a little, combining elements of hip hop, US hardcore punk and industrial, Death Grips formed in 2010, in Sacramento, California. The band were dropped by the label, Epic, after they deliberately leaked their sophomore album following a dispute with the label over its release date. Flouting conventional band behaviour, Death Grips announced their disbandment in 2014 but confusingly continued to put out material, stating in 2015 that they had never split up. The band announced their sixth album in 2017 with a 22-minute track on YouTube. High profile fans of Death Grips, again, included David Bowie who was reportedly influenced by them during the making of 'Blackstar'.
Staying in the present, another band who have fused hardcore, hip hop and industrial. Ho99o9's debut LP 'United States of Horror' was released in 2017. The duo, who originate in New Jersey, have drawn comparisons to Black Flag, Death Grips and many of the bands mentioned above. In their startling artist persona, Ho99o9 utilise very visual and cinematic methods in the presentation of their music, drawing on the horror movie aesthetic to add an extra visceral dimension of shock and awe for modern audiences.
For further listening check out some of the bands we couldn't fit in in the list above. Minor Threat, Shellac, Bad Religion, Minutemen, Redd Kross, Off!, Hüsker Dü, Misfits, Wavves, Rollins Band and The Breeders.