Tales From The Underground

Check Your Heroes' Credentials With 'The Secret History Of Rock.'

By Fred Mills

EVERYBODY LOVES AN underdog, and nowhere is that maxim applied with more obsessive gusto than in rock and roll.

Music Noted music critic Roni Sarig, a contributor to Spin, Rolling Stone and numerous alternative weeklies (including the one you're holding), clearly roots for underdogs. He even subtitles his new book "The Most Influential Bands You've Never Heard." And he's got a theory, too.

"In commerce as in war," writes Sarig, "history is written by the winners. So it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that it's the big sellers--the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, the Police, Talking Heads, U2, R.E.M.--who have found their way into the annals of popular culture...But it's also crucial to note that people inspired enough to make their own music are usually the same people most motivated to dig beneath the surface in their own listening habits and absorb the influence of lesser-known groups...There is a significant segment of rock history made up of groups that were little known in their time, but nevertheless have helped define in some measure the music we listen to today."

To support this theory, Sarig made a list of about 250 artists he felt wielded a nebulous-but-quantifiable combination of obscurity and influence (what pundits call "the Velvet Underground effect"; i.e., though a poor-selling group, everybody who did buy a Velvets-album formed a band); and who represented a broad enough cross-section of genres to ensure his theory's application in today's anything-goes musical climate.

He then polled some 120 critically acclaimed contemporary musicians, all of whom could be considered influential in their own right as we approach the end of the '90s, about those artists on his list: Who influenced you, and elaborate on what you learned from them, stylistically or philosophically. (Sarig: "Many of the commentators were able to elucidate their influences in very precise terms--even in some cases to an embarrassing degree, where it seemed they were deflating their own contributions. And a few seemed quite certain they were entirely original.") Those interviewed range from electronic auteurs like Aphex Twin, Moby and Alex Paterson of The Orb, to cutting-edge rockers such as Stereolab's Tim Gane, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Tortoise's John McEntire, to hip-hop provocateurs like DJ Spooky, Ice-T and Michael Franti of Spearhead.

Finally, after trimming his original list of 250 influential artists down to 80, Sarig composed brief histories for each and wove his respondents' testimonials into the text, oral-history style; each entry was rounded out with a consumer guide discography.

Rather than assemble his book alphabetically or chronologically, Sarig groups artists by rough genre demarcations. For example, "20th-Century Composers" includes Satie, Glass, Branca, Cage and Raymond Scott; "British Post-Punk" takes Swell Maps, Gang of Four, The Fall, Buzzcocks, Wire and P.I.L.; "Sound Sculptors" include King Tubby, Lee Perry, Brian Eno and Adrian Sherwood; "Psychotic Reactions And Garage Rock" lends itself to MC5, Stooges, Roky Erickson, Silver Apples and Syd Barrett. (Nice tip o' the backwards ball cap there to the late critic Lester Bangs.) Much of the information presented won't be new to seasoned underdog handicappers, and armchair quarterbacks will no doubt have much to say about the author's positioning of this or that artist.

For my part, I fear that the "Krautrock" chapter focuses too exclusively on Germany's experimental wing (Kraftwerk, Can, etc.) at the expense of psychedelia (Amon Duul II, Guru Guru); plus, I can't see wasting a couple of trees discussing schizophrenic Chia Pet Daniel Johnston's so-called "Naive Rock."

Sarig's real triumph, then, is to breathe necessary new life into the art of rock biography: By jettisoning the standard background/career format and instead focusing on what the artists mean to those who've followed in their footsteps, Sarig parts the curtains and makes us privy to a wealth of insights and, by implication, new contexts within which to appreciate our heroes.

Here's Soul Coughing's Mark De Gli Antoni on composer Erik Satie: "A big, big influence philosophically. The way Satie stuck a typewriter in the middle of Parade. Take a Soul Coughing song like 'Sugar Free Jazz': I was like, 'Why can't a seagull become a lead guitar?' (The sample) still sounds like a seagull, but if I place it where traditionally some other lead instrument would speak, will you for a moment stop thinking it's seagulls and accept it as the lead melodic element, in a traditional song way?"

Or Husker Du's Bob Mould trying to pin down what made avant-rockers Pere Ubu so compelling: "Their music sort of scared me the first time I heard it. It's really ominous and different. Pere Ubu seemed to really capture what it would be like to live in an industrial city. Their music was like industrial soundscapes...It wasn't punk rock, but it was really energetic."

And who would have dreamed that techno king Moby was a fan of roots-punks the Gun Club? But when he cites that band's Americanness ("showing how perverse and corrupt--and at the same time wonderful and emotional--mainstream American culture could be"), and when you realize that those are also themes central to all of Moby's work, another one of those hidden connections within this "secret history" is revealed.

Interestingly, another excellent book on cult artists, Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll, by former Option editor Richie Unterberger, recently appeared in bookstores. As Sarig himself points out, establishing criteria for such a volume depends to a great degree on the subjectivity wrought by subculture, region, nationality and what he calls "a lifelong series of chance encounters." No doubt some scribe is at this very minute plotting his own interpretation of rock and roll's checkered history. Which is, of course, as things should be. There are many more underdogs whose tales beg to be told.

Roni Sarig is music editor for Creative Loafing in Atlanta, Georgia. His book The Secret History Of Rock (Billboard Books, $19) is available from local booksellers. TW

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