Expanding my rock/indie music knowledge beyond my few niche obsessions
March 28, 2020 11:19 AM   Subscribe

I love music but I'd like a deeper understanding of broader rock music, indie, and underground trends and family trees. What books or resources should I consult?

I'm a big pretentious music fan. High Fidelity spoke to me from the first time I saw it. But my ADHD means that often my knowledge can be narrow, but deep. A tween/lifetime obsession with the Beatles means that I've consumed more Beatles biographies than pretty much anyone I know. I was super into the Sex Pistols as a teen so I could tell you plenty about the life of Sid Vicious, and I only listened to the Mountain Goats for several years in college, too. Tullycraft is my all time favorite modern band. But even when I've heard and love a musician, I tend not to understand how they interact with other contemporary acts in the same way I intuitive understand the bands I'm obsessive about. Often I have big obvious gaps in my knowledge--I didn't listen to any Harry Nilsson until Russian Doll despite the fact that he was self-destructive besties with John Lennon. What books or documentaries could I consult to expand my understanding of rock, indie, punk, and underground music since the 1950s? Oral histories and documentaries would be especially appreciated as they tend to crack through my lack of focus in a way other things don't. I read this oral history of early hip hop a few years ago and it really gave me a greater understanding of how early hip hop acts were part of a community (or existed outside it) in a way few other works have.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Simon Reynolds - Rip It Up and Start Again - look for the UK version, the American one is abridged

Michael Azerrad - Our Band Could Be Your Life

Not oral histories but these two are good places to start.
posted by Spacelegoman at 11:35 AM on March 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Those are both great suggestions. I would add Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me, an oral history of (New York) punk.

To take a different approach, Anthony DeCurtis's Lou Reed - A Life shows the links between various scenes through the prism of one major figure in a bunch of them.

If you have any interest, nostalgic or otherwise, in grunge, a good oral history is Mark Yarm, Everybody Loves Our Town.
posted by Beardman at 11:57 AM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part In Its Downfall, by Luke Haines of The Auteurs.

Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler and Krautrocksampler (possibly out of print, sadly?)

Both authors are eccentric British musicians with deep knowledge and strong opinions about some interesting little corners of the rock world, and have more good writing to explore if you enjoy these.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 12:13 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I can't recommend enough Tom Breihan's series for Stereogum running through every number one on the Billboard charts since 1958. Superb writing and gives a great sense of the context for every track. Some recent classic write-ups:
+ Rock With You
+ Stayin' Alive
+ Heart of Glass

Just dive in to that column at random. There's a lot of joy to be discovered.
posted by humuhumu at 12:51 PM on March 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

The Trouser Press Record Guides.
posted by sjswitzer at 12:53 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes is about New York City in the mid-1970s when the punk, disco, salsa, hip-hop, jazz and minimalism music scenes were all on fire.
posted by plastic_animals at 1:44 PM on March 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

You said family trees - have you seen Pete Frame's Rock Family Trees books? Sadly out of print but worth looking out for second hand - each page traces the history of a related group of bands and shows how the bands developed over time with musicians moving between them.

Chicken on a Unicycle has tons of material on San Francisco bands; their Lost Live Dead blog in particular has all sorts of interesting articles on events and venues.
posted by offog at 2:28 PM on March 28, 2020

Seconding Our Band Could Be Your Life.
posted by Leontine at 5:56 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you don't mind book written in an academic register, Wendy Fonarow's Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music digs into the thinking underlying indie/underground scenes in an interesting way.

Also, Carl Wilson's Let's Talk about Love: Journey to the End of Taste is a little 33 1/3 series book that is chock full of interesting insights. It digs into the concept of indie almost backwards by exploring from several angles why it mattered to him for so long that he disliked Celine Dion.

One other fascinating book is David Byrne's How Music Works.
posted by umbú at 7:35 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

No doubt rather dated now, but I found the Spin Alternative Record Guide really really good when I read it back in the late '90s.
posted by maupuia at 8:26 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Confusion Is Next : The Sonic Youth Story...by Alec Foege and Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana by Michael Azerrad.
posted by Fister Roboto at 10:58 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Richard King: How Soon is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005 (UK independent music)

Martin Aston: Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD (Very good but only about one record label)

I love Greil Marcus’ writing so I’d see if any of his books cover themes or periods that interest you.
posted by fabius at 9:47 AM on March 29, 2020

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