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September 22, 2015

Book Notes - Daniel Makagon "Underground: The Subterranean Culture of Punk House Shows"

Underground: The Subterranean Culture of Punk House Shows

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Daniel Makagon's Underground is an exhaustively researched exploration of punk's DIY ethos.

Slug Magazine wrote of the book:

"With his rugged, detailed, uncensored journalistic approach, Daniel Makagon has trekked across the underbelly of the United States, documenting its various subversive music scenes...Adding historical insight with the salad days of the 1980s, to the year that punk broke in 1991, leading to alternative music dominating the mainstream airwaves for the first half of the decade and what DIY aficionados are still doing today to keep their scene(s) alive."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Daniel Makagon's Book Notes music playlist for his book Underground: The Subterranean Culture of Punk House Shows:


I discovered punk rock as a 9-year-old kid growing up in Southern California. At the time I was energized by the loud, fast music and perhaps a bit excited by the access to media loaded with profanity. I mean, what 9-year-old isn't thrilled to hear Lee Ving's banter on The Decline of the Western Civilization record: "Let‘s see a little motion up here. This ain't no fuckin' country club." Because I was so young, I didn't fully understand the cultural politics that were central to punk's development in the US: Bands putting out their own records rather than working with corporate labels, fans booking shows in a variety of community centers, people creating media and making photographs to document their scenes. As I aged, I developed a more complex sense of how the sounds and the politics of punk converged. I learned about the ways that punks hoped to foster social and cultural changes. And I soon felt part of a scene that attempted to enact alternative ways of being together that ran counter to mainstream norms where status, income, beauty, and possessions define a person.

This alternative culture, which can be grounded in respect and compassion, might seem antithetical to the sound of punk. But punk as a genre of music is made up of varied sounds that are matched by a range of approaches to being punk. I've tried to share some of this spectrum in the mix that follows. Because Underground is a book about do-it-yourself (DIY) punk touring in the USA and DIY punk music spaces, the music selection I present here is less about mood (i.e., songs that reflect what I felt as I wrote the book). Instead, the mix features some of the bands I interviewed or wrote about in the book as well as bands that played especially meaningful shows in Chicago during the time I was researching and writing Underground. Some of these bands are still together, most are not. One of the key issues I discuss in the book is the interesting tension between punk's rich history and its ephemeral qualities. Punk seems to run in 2-3 year cycles, where bands form and break up, DIY spaces are started and come undone, fanzines are created and fade away. Luckily new people step in to do their part to help local scenes and national touring networks thrive by starting the next band or opening a new show space.


Cold Lovers, "Mouth"

I moved to Chicago in 2005. Shortly after that I started attending house shows. Basically, punks figured out that one of the best ways to avoid dealing with age limits in bars and clubs, high door prices, and people outside the scene taking a financial cut was just to do shows themselves. One of the easiest ways to do this is to have a show in one's basement (especially in the Midwest and on the East Coast) or in one's living room. The rent is already covered, so the space is free and the people who live in the house decide how the show will run. Of course, punks don't hold a monopoly on these types of music experiences, since a range of bands, DJs, and vocalists perform music in houses. But those experiences tend to be one-off parties, whereas punk houses function as recurring venues (a phrase most punks don't like to use). I begin the book with a description of the last Cold Lovers show, which happened in the basement of a long-running punk house in Chicago. The experience of this show featured a lot of the same routines that one would encounter at any house, but also offered some unique twists (most notably the use of a fog machine and lighting via an old TV playing images of some Yanni-like musician). This Cold Lovers song is longer than most punk songs, but I especially like the way it links current punk to some of the heavier alternative rock bands of the early 1990s that appeared on labels like Amphetamine Reptile.


Sonic Youth, "Expressway to yr Skull"

The bands in the 1990s were making music and touring in a radically different context than current punk bands. In 1991 Nirvana released Nevermind, which radically transformed the mainstream and alternative music landscapes. People who were booking DIY punk shows in small towns and large cities were experiencing unequalled crowd sizes. Nirvana's success, which was followed by other bands that started in the underground (Green Day, Offspring, Zack from Rage Against the Machine sang in a hardcore band called Inside Out) created a feeding frenzy among corporate record labels looking for the next Nirvana and they sought those bands in the underground. Perhaps the title of David Markey's documentary, 1991: The Year Punk Broke, best captures how alternative music had become mainstream. As some bands sought fame and fortune, goals that rarely came to fruition, others moved further underground, helping form a DIY touring network that continues today. I include a Sonic Youth song here because the band was held up in the 1990s and early 2000s as a model for trying to balance artistic freedom while taking advantage of corporate resources. I don't think such a balance is possible. Instead, the more important aspect of Sonic Youth's relative to fame was their repeated use of that fame to promote smaller bands that people should hear. They remain one of my favorite bands and represent a more avant-garde sound on the punk spectrum.


Jawbreaker, "Tour Song"

I was a music director and a DJ at KXLU in Los Angeles when I was in college. The first radio show I did was from 2AM-6AM on Saturday night-Sunday morning, and the first request I received was to play a Jawbreaker song. At the time they had only released a 7" single but a few months later their first album came out and the LA scene was buzzing about that record. They were a band that merited praise for making great records, doing DIY in a way that reflected a focus on punk community, and developing a sound that expanded what people would identify as pop punk. They had a rawer, more gruff sound than many of the well-known pop punk bands and weren't as heavy as the hardcore bands, but seemed to find an audience in both circles. This specific song is shared here because of its focus on the experience of playing live and the struggles of DIY touring.


Policy of 3, "Nine Years Old"

Policy of 3 released their first record shortly after Jawbreaker had put out and toured on Bivouac (the album containing "Tour Song") but the alternative music landscape had already started to shift. Punk bands committed to DIY were looking to play shows outside the standard bar/club touring circuit. The band was grouped with an emerging "emotive hardcore" scene. Emotive hardcore was a phrase that reflected both a sound and a scene. The bands that were linked under that banner represented a spectrum from super short and fast "screamo" to longer and more melodic punk sounds. In addition to being a fan of their music, I include a Policy of 3 track here because the band also represents an approach to doing DIY that was very much grounded in connecting larger political issues (gender equality, creating safe spaces for queer punks) with the spatial experience of everyday life. Members of the band helped form a show promotion collective in Philadelphia. Thus, they were booking touring bands, meeting people from other places, and then those new friends would book Policy of 3 in other cities or towns. This is one of the ways that the DIY touring network came together in a more organized fashion starting in the early 1990s.


Multiple Truths, "Someone Has Won"

One of the things that I really love about punk is the spectrum of sounds that fall under a DIY punk umbrella. Multiple Truths has never really been an active touring band because band members live in different cities, but when they released this record in 2013 it was one of the best I heard that year. They played a house show in Chicago shortly after the release and it was similarly one of the best I saw that year (and 2013 was a really great year for shows in Chicago). Mariam, the singer in this band, was one of the coordinators at Maximum Rocknroll (one of the longest running punk fanzines in the world and kind of a go-to source for domestic and international punk). It's no coincidence that during her time as coordinator Chicago gained a lot more international attention for the excellent bands that have formed here and become a more important location for DIY touring bands.


Parasol MA. "Firecracker"

Parasol MA were the first band I interviewed after I decided to write Underground. There were two really important points they highlighted during that interview. First, most people think about live music in the context of mainstream norms (light shows, big stages, groupies) but the fact that punk bands play house shows was a source of attraction for members of Parasol MA, not a reason for shame. Second, it is important that members of DIY scenes understand that punk has historically been a site of connection for people who don't seem to fit into mainstream culture. Thus, it is crucial that punks work hard to create safe show spaces for people who are finding their way into punk. If Multiple Truths exists on one end of a sonic spectrum (loud, heavy, a bit more metallic sounding) then Parasol MA exists on the other end of the spectrum (blending punk politics with sounds that are more indie pop flavored).


Boilerman, "Loss Leaders"

Many of the people I interviewed for Underground play in bands and book shows. In part, this dual role emerges because people in bands meet other punks who play in bands. Additionally, being able to organize a well-run local show can translate into an ability to deal with the logistics of a regional or national tour. But perhaps the most important reason is that bands that are just starting lack the relationships needed to secure local shows. Thus, if a new band wants to play, they need to do the show themselves. Boilerman is an excellent example of how that pattern takes shape. Members of the band booked shows at their parents' homes in the suburbs while in high school. When these guys graduated and moved to Chicago, they met more people, became part of a scene, and then started booking shows here. Another interesting feature of punk that Boilerman highlights (along with Multiple Truths and Parasol MA) is membership in multiple bands at one time. Punk bands don't seem to last very long but while they do last the members tend to play in two or three bands at any given time.


Born Against, "Riding with Mary"

In the early 1990s hardcore had become a source of concern among many punks in the US. Shows were violent. Scenes seemed to be overrun by people who transferred a stereotypical jock mentality from the basketball court to the show space. And a militant commitment to, and some would say bastardized version of, straight edge (a philosophy grounded in a quest for a clear mind—free from drugs and alcohol—for the purposes of political change) led to many punks feeling isolated within their scenes. One of the great things about DIY punk is that people will strive to make a change when they think some feature of their scene is broken. Born Against seemed symbolic of a re-focusing on the politics of punk and a commitment to DIY grounded in community connection. The music was heavy, harkening back to Damaged-era Black Flag, but the aggressive sounds were not considered an excuse for punks to pummel one another. This is a cover of the Los Angeles punk band X, but they've made the song their own.


S.H.I.T. "Feeding Time"

This Toronto band released one of the most exciting demo tapes in 2012. They reflect another style within the punk spectrum, pointing less to North American sounds and more to a combination of styles associated with the UK in the early 1980s (often referenced under a banner of UK82) and hardcore bands from Japan. Their show at a DIY space called Mousetrap in Chicago was amazing.


Germs, "What We Do Is Secret"

Because house shows are illegal in some cities, punks wrestle with the best ways to promote shows while making sure spaces can be protected against noise violations or pressure from landlords. Debates among punks about how to handle this tension have intensified in the past few years. Protecting against problems with public officials is in some sense an off-shoot of a lengthy history of heated conversations among punks (in person, through columns in zines like Maximum Rocknroll, and via message boards) about punk's exposure to people outside the scene. Many punks believe that what we do should be secret. Others (I include myself in this camp) think that punk offers a more egalitarian way of being in the world that other people should consider. Moreover, punk models a focus on making one's own culture rather than strictly consuming corporate products. So, the song title of this Germs song links with a central topic of discussion in the book, and the Germs are a foundational US punk band.


Negative Scanner, "Ivy League Asshole"

This post-punk band has been getting a lot of attention in Chicago lately (and hopefully beyond since their first album was recently released). They are a great example of a band that had been playing clubs because that's what bands think they should do. Negative Scanner was either spotted by someone involved with booking house shows or attended shows and finally asked to be added to bills. Now they consistently play house shows here. I also have a personal connection to the band in that the first time I saw them was also the first time I was able to convince my daughter to go to a house show with me. I had taken her to larger music venues and outdoor concerts to see a range of alternative music bands, but this was the first DIY punk show. Negative Scanner was one of her favorite bands that night, so I'm hoping there will be more family outings to punk shows in the future. The family that does punk together stays together, or something like that.


Daniel Makagon and Underground: The Subterranean Culture of Punk House Shows links:

the author's website
the book's Tumblr

Pop Dose review


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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