photo manipulation & text by nacrowe
like any major cultural movement that has an impact, the shorthand history of the ALTERNATIVE ROCK scene is largely confined to the shortlist of bands that made money for corporate labels and sustained commercial appeal on the radio and the attention of the national press (i.e. SEATTLE bands like NIRVANA, SOUNDGARDEN, PEARL JAM, ALICE IN CHAINS or soundalike groups like SMASHING PUMPKINS and STONE TEMPLE PILOTS). what the recent documentary UNDERGROUND INC: THE RISE & FALL OF ALTERNATIVE ROCK (THIRD FACE, 2019) attempts to do is expand that limited narrative to include a diverse set of bands of the era who have had an immeasurable impact on the INDIE, ALTERNATIVE and POST HARDCORE scenes that followed in the new millennium despite their lack of widespread commercial appeal and industry promotion. these impactful bands include the likes of FUGAZI, SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE, MY LIFE WITH THE THRILL KILL KULT, DRIVE LIKE JEHU, QUICKSAND, ROCKET FROM THE CRYPT, HELMET, COP SHOOT COP, JAWBOX, THE JESUS LIZARD, COURSE OF EMPIRE, FUDGE TUNNEL, BRAD, JETS TO BRAZIL, HANDSOME, TEXAS IS THE REASON, GIRLS AGAINST BOYS, MINISTRY, ONLY LIVING WITNESS, SURGERY, BIG BLACK, FAILURE, CORROSION OF CONFORMITY, DOWNSET, FISHBONE and SUGARTOOTH among countless others.
some of these bands had died-in-wool DIY INDIE/HARDCORE ethos that carried them throughout their existence (like FUGAZI, SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE, BIG BLACK and JETS TO BRAZIL), but the vast majority of these bands found themselves subject to traditional pressures that come with the responsibilities that comes with a bigger budget, which includes pressures that derive from outsized AMBITION, PUBLISHING SPLITS, DRUGS, lack of RADIO/TOUR SUPPORT and CREATIVE CONTROL. it really goes to show that the major label system as configured in the 1990s was brutal and laid waste to once-promising acts that could not say no to the allure of wider distribution and recording / promotional budgets. the FAUSTIAN bargain seemed to be at the expense of control once your commercial appeal wained.
obviously some of these independent bands are well-known (FUGAZI, THE JESUS LIZARD, QUICKSAND, JETS TO BRAZIL, SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE, JAWBOX) given their influence on later bands ranging from AT THE DRIVE-IN, THURSDAY, SAVES THE DAY, THRICE, POISON THE WELL, TAKING BACK SUNDAY and (my favorite) GLASSJAW. but just as interesting are the ones that i had never heard of before like COURSE OF EMPIRE, HANDSOME, SURGERY and SUGARTOOTH or one's ive only learned about recently (like COP SHOOT COP) through fellow DJs at MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC. for most of the second half of the 1990s i was overseas in AFRICA so i didnt come of age going to independent HARDCORE and INDIE shows. i was never a part of that community, so for me this documentary is fascinating in that it presents an amended list of influential yet largely unknown bands (by followers of the mainstream press like me) that mattered during that decade and influenced musicians within the creative set that followed. having listened to some of these bands now for a period, im ashamed and a little stunned that i had no idea some of these bands even existed, but then again why would i? the whole point of this documentary is that they werent promoted or supported well by the major label system.
its too bad some of these groups couldnt be like the MELVINS and reclaim their identity by going back and kicking ass on an indie label after being let go or shelved by a major. i can only imagine once you had a taste of a certain standard of recording and touring experience it is difficult to go back. it is hard to think of bands that successfully navigated that indie-to-major-back-to-indie terrain outside of bands like CLUTCH, DINOSAUR JR, SONIC YOUTH and the aforementioned MELVINS. of course with the advent of the internet this whole conversation is a mute point. its an interesting CULTURAL ANACHRONISM since now everyone is essentially working as if they are on an indie.
i cannot advocate any more forcefully how much of a revelation UNDERGROUND INC: THE RISE & FALL OF ALTERNATIVE ROCK was for me. i consider it required viewing for anyone interested in not only ALTERNATIVE ROCK, but especially the greater story of INDIE ROCK and HARDCORE and all its attendant offspring like POST HARDCORE and METALCORE. well worth rewatching and further future investigation as it set me on a path of discovery and appreciation.