Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's like the last 20 years of my life didn't happen

So first, watch this trailer for Rick Fuller's forthcoming documentary on First Avenue.

First off, a disclaimer: not to REMOTELY discredit what is obviously an excellent documentary that I have not seen yet. I know Rick Fuller is a great filmmaker, he's telling this from his point of view, and I'm sure it's going to be interesting, well-shot, well-edited and full of lots of great footage if you're a fan of that era or the various styles of music covered therein. And obviously there are lots of people IN the documentary and in the scene in general who are passionate about this music, and not to remotely discredit their passion.

It's just -- well, this.

Fauna, whom I wrote about yesterday, used to do a song called "Who Killed Flannel Rock?" The answer to the question is that nobody killed flannel rock. It keeps rising, zombie-like, from the grave every time anybody sits down in an editing suite or puts pen to paper to talk about First Avenue and what it "means" to "people." I have no problem with this on the surface: it's obvious to anybody who listens to music that punk rock and its offspring are an important thread in the development of rock music (duh) and that Minneapolis and First Avenue played an interesting and important part of that development (double-duh).

My problem is the notion that punk (and it's close buddy, alt-country) were the only things happening in that time.

Listen to Steve's voice over: He talks about how Jayhawks fans would sometimes listen to the Gear Daddies, and sometimes Gear Daddies fans would listen to the Jayhawks, and then there were Rifle Sport fans and whatever and whatever -- other punk rock bands I don't even know, really -- and then that's it, closed circle. Certainly everybody around at the time listened to some form of punk rock music because that's what the press wrote about lots and that's who the First Ave management loved and coddled and nurtured from the git-go, right?

Well, no.

I've never been a punk rock guy. I remember in college when I worked at WMMR (before there was a radio K) and the punk rock guys would sit in the room next to the control room and mouth the word "F-A-G" at me whenever I played Echo and the Bunnymen or whatever instead of the Descendants or Minor Threat. They hated me. They hated me so much, in fact, they actually formed a legit University group called the "I Hate Jon Hunt Fan Group" at the University of Minnesota because when I wrote for the Minnesota Daily, I ragged on punk music in my articles and columns just to piss them off.

You know why I did that? Because, to me at the time, punk rock was no kind of underground. They always set themselves up as this vital counterculture but to me, they seemed like a bunch of loudmouthed bullies who hated fags or people who looked like fags, and that sure wasn't discounted by the people I worked with. In other words: they were the popular kids within the counterculture. I'm sure, now that I'm older and wiser, that's absolutely untrue, or at least partially untrue, and I'm pretty sure I was unfair to punk at the time, just like they were unfair to me.

But I will say this: punk, in Minneapolis, is still no kind of underground, and this documentary proves it, because while trumpeting how Important! That! Stuff! Was! it completely ignores the existence of another scene that was happening parallel to punk that, I think, is ultimately just as important as an evolutionary thread and contains a lot of people you know if you're following local music. Did it have the sheer numbers? Packed Mainroom once a month? Maybe it didn't. But in terms of influence, it's a thread that started sometime in the mid-80s and continues unabated to this day, meaning that it self-perpetuated, meaning that as an influence it was probably just as important as punk rock.

I don't even know where it started, really, so I can't even quite exactly trace the history of it. I know that when I came into it, in about '89 or '90, it was already in an early full flower. I know that as a college kid madly in love with post-punk / psych groups like the Bunnymen or the Church and 60s psychedelic and garage records, it spoke directly to me in a way that punk never did. I know that groups like the 27 Various and the Blue Up! and the Funseekers and Something Fierce and the Sedgwicks and Fauna and the Hang-Ups weren't hung up on LOUDFASTRULES like the local punks were and actually gave a shit about things like melody and songwriting. I know that they looked cool and a little freaky and like maybe they bathed once in a while. I know that in retrospect, despite the retro trappings they wrapped themselves in, they were actually way more forward-looking than Soul Asylum were.

And I also know that, as an influence, that thread continues completely unabated to this day. A lot of the people who jumped into that scene during that time are still around, still doing stuff, still vital, not just reforming once every five years for a big mainroom show so everybody can pat themselves on the back about how cool they were back in the day but are actually still making new, forward-thinking records. It's not a closed circle, a "back when" thing, but a still-evolving, still alive thing, which is far more than I can say about flannel rock, which is the proverbial dead horse that's been flogged and flayed until its carcass is rotting and bleeding.

I'd love to try to trace things chronologically and thoroughly at some point to show how these bands sprung up, influenced the next generation, died out, reformed, evolved, joined up with the next generation, moved ahead, moved on. From the perspective of someone vaguely within the scene, it seemed to come in multiple waves. I'll try to draw up a loose outline, here, just so you can see what I mean. And please note: I will forget bands. Okay? Do not take offense if I momentarily forgot your band because, as you'll see, there are a lot of them.

PROTO-WAVE: This is the wave I know the least about, because it was a little before my time. I was still listening to Howard Jones and trying to make my hair go into a Flock of Seagulls poof. The only band I really know much about is The Dig, and I'm pretty sure there was an early version of the Blue Up! back then too, right? Someone needs to help me fill in the blanks for this stuff, 'cause I wasn't there.

FIRST WAVE: '86-ish through about '91 or '92, maybe '93 at the outset. This was bands like the 27 Various, the Funseekers, the Blue Up?, the Sedgwicks, and I know there were a bunch of others. This was where I started going to local shows, so again, there were tons more and I'd love to have someone fill in the gap.

SECOND WAVE: '92-ish through maybe '95-ish. This was where I jumped on. Bands included the later 27 Various, the Blue Up?, Colfax Abbey, Shapeshifter, Deep Shag, Polara, Fauna, Hovercraft/Shapeshifter, Green Machine, Overblue, the Romulans, and what my friend calls the "Elfin Magic Set" such as the Hang-Ups, Autumn Leaves, Dearly, Jim Ruiz etc. Lots of bands on the Prospective/Clean labels and then lots of bands associated with Minty Fresh.

THIRD WAVE: '96-ish through maybe '02-ish. Polara (still), Lunar 9, February, Myriad, the Makeshift, Landing Gear, Passage, Faux Jean, Ousia, Idle Hands, the Meg, 12 Rods, Bec Smith, Basement Apartment, I guess you could count Semisonic though they're kind of in a space of their own -- lots of others I'm forgetting. Astronaut wife probably represents the last burst of popularity of this particular scene, including as it did lots of people from these other bands -- the first scene "supergroup."

FOURTH WAVE: '03-ish through now. The Susstones bands like Two Harbors, Polara, Blue Sky Blackout (yes, that's us), Mercurial Rage, the Mood Swings, plus the still-very-vital Idle Hands, the Melismatics, the newly-regenerated Fauna, BNLX, StrangeLights, First Communion Afterparty, Sun In The Satellite, etc.

I know I'm forgetting a lot of bands, but that's still a pretty impressive list of groups, and that's more than 20 years worth of amazing music, and a long chain of influence that has continued unabated. So why do people keep forgetting about them? Why, whenever people write about First Avenue and the local scene, does this pop / psych / dream / whatever chain of groups constantly get forgotten about? I think there's several reasons.

1. The winners write the history. There were a few bands out of this group who flirted with national success -- Polara, certainly, Semisonic, definitely, plus groups like Shatterproof, Jim Ruiz, the Hang-Ups and others who came damn close -- but of course none of them got to where the Replacements and Husker Du and Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks and the Gear Daddies did, and so those groups and their friends and the people who worked with them and hung out with them and wrote about them -- i.e. the flannel rock set -- got to write the history, and I think a lotta those bands were so insular and close-circled they didn't even know that the pop scene kids existed. And if they did, they didn't much like 'em. I remember the look Tommy Stinson gave me when Shatterproof played Edge-Fest. Let's just say he didn't look happy we were there.

Of course, this is talking about sheer numbers popularity which isn't often a measure of a band's or scene's importance, see also: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND.

2. The music press likes to suckle at the teat of punk. It's so true, and has always been thus. If you read the content of this here blog, you know I'm agin' it for a lot of reasons. It's not always true -- I'd say one of the heights of this scene's popularity was when Simon-Peter Groebner or Danny Sigelman were writing about it and trumpeting the bands on Radio K. But it's mostly true.

3. For some reason, punk was far more documented than this scene. Which is odd, as there are so many media-geeks in our scene, but I don't think anybody ever filmed any of my old bands in action -- there's zero Deep Shag footage, zero Lunar 9 footage, zero Medication footage, almost no Shatterproof footage. I'm guessing I'm not alone, either, and I really have no idea why. I mean, I'd love it if there was a video out there of some packed-house Various/Shapeshifter/Deep Shag show from the early 90s or a Makeshift/Myriad/Lunar 9 show at Sursumcorda or something from the late 90s -- but that shit doesn't exist.

And a lot of our records are out of print, too -- the labels folded, or we got dumped from our major labels, and you just can't GET, say, a Hang-Ups retrospective, or "The Best Of Fauna." The 2nd Polara record, which I played two billion times, isn't on iTunes probably because Interscope doesn't see any reason for it to be. And it's not like reissue programs are imminent to allow people to rediscover this stuff or properly rank and rate it. And that's a god-damn shame.

4. The music press, and the scene in general, perpetually regenerates young and caters to the progressively younger folks. And if you combine numbers 1 through 3 with that fact, you get a music press and a music fandom who weren't aware of this stuff at all, and probably, thanks to #2, think it sucks anyway.

I have to disclaim right here: I am by no means saying that the punk/flannel scene wasnt important, okay? So before you blow up at me for not liking the Replacements enough, please understand: I love those bands. I really do. I was always a Husker Du guy over the 'Mats, mind, but no question I loved those bands lots. I would never denigrate the importance of that scene locally and nationally. Okay?

My point is just that there was other shit going on, and every few years the entire city has a bout of amnesia and it was like none of it happened at all and we (the people still in that scene) have to come along and remind them that yes, there is a pop scene in Minneapolis and yes, it's important and pretty popular and quite damn cool and you should probably, if you're a member of the local press, notice it and occasionally nod to it. And then two years later, you'll all forget about it again and the cycle will repeat itself. And I'll be here to remind you, promise.

NOTE: My friend Brian correctly points out that these documentaries/articles/whatever never, ever mention the electronic and dance music scenes either, which is even more ridiculous in a way, considering a) how many people WENT to dance music nights at First Ave, and b) I'm guessing that's how they made their money for a long time, moreso than flannel rock shows if you know what I mean. That's a topic for someone else's blog but let me just say: I totally hear ya, dance music scene, we're there too.


wwisely said...


It's great to hear you air a bit of less-covered history.

There was a lot of phenomenal music made that just wasn't dour enough to he subject of hagiography. The age of flannel was stricken with the affliction of sulleness and for some reason darkness appeals on a broader level than say, elements of joy or chaos or geniality––persisting to this day. The Wallets, The Delilahs, Greazy Meal come to mind quickly as non-flannel groups who did very well at the clubs and made adventurous and/or well-crafted recordings. But they seem not to garner a place in the pantheon of cool. That said, Fuller's documentary will likely have an aspects of the pop under-scene although many of the groups you mention specifically, perhaps not.

I worked as promotions director at First Ave. from 1988-94. I have to remind us that Steve McClellan & his partner Jack ran a business, and if there seemed to be a booking bias against pop, it would've been purely based on projected ticket sales. But if Steve wasn't a pop-head he definitely was a populist and he believed in giving gigs to bands who probably weren't going to pay off. Why else would you turn a broom closet into the 7th St. Entry except to breed new sounds. Good God, the nightly numbers breakdowns for those years when I had access, were pathetic. Most nights ran at a loss. There was no margin in the club business, even before the rise of competitors like The Fine Line, Glam Slam and ultimately ClearChannel. Ticketmaster was/is a big prohibiting force against indie concert promoters as well. My point is: the margins were terrible. On an average week during that era I’d be promoting 40+ acts across the two rooms. A few people at First Ave. took home so-so salaries and a lot of people got to see Sun Ra or Fela Kuti or Richard Thompson or Jellyfish in the mainroom. It was not a time without its peculiar justices. But on the local-music-scene level we can see how some might feel spurned by history.

But ever will it be the same. The groups that get all the press are rarely the most exciting musical endeavors. To wit, does anyone care to argue a case in favor of Radiohead. Jesus! talk about sullen.

My entree into the music scene came via Ed Ackerson and The Dig in a Golden Valley backyard 1985. So it was cockle-warmer to see you center your blog around that particular scene.

Willie Wisely

Beques said...

AMEN - times, like a bazillion, my friend. No one is more qualified, creatively and by experience, to so righteously elucidate about something so true. It saddens me, as a forever barrette-wearing pop kid, that the Twin Cities is so permanently identified with Flannel/Uncle Pancakes when yes, YES, YES, the Elfin Magic Power was so much more pervasively GOOD, PROLIFIC, CREATIVE, INVENTIVE, FUN, and NEW, and continues to be. Tragic as it might seem to some, I preferred the IDIOTS stay in the Mainroom guzzling Leinie's to Soul Asylum, and just leave me and the bowl cuts to enjoy our Jim Ruiz, Hang Ups, Wahinis and Export A cigarettes in peace.

A fine, blustery invective dropping all kinds of science, Jon. Me and my barrette thank you.

Jon Hunt said...

Willie: Thanks for the awesome reply. I think there's a similar article to this one that could be written for several parallel scenes -- hell, how many awesome musicians came from Greazy Meal alone? -- my focus on the one was purely selfish; natch, that was *my scene*! 'Course, there was lots of crossover -- Deep Shag played with the Delilahs umpty-ump times, and of course, you know I was spinning "Raincan" when I was starting to write songs, and I have every Trip Shakespeare record as well, so that stuff definitely was a huge influence on the scene. There are grey, blurry lines 'round each scene, as it should be. It's good to get some perspective re: the money end of things, too.

Beques, thank you for using the term Uncle Pancakes, Keith would love you. And yes, the Elfin Magic Set still amuse!!

Jon Hunt said...

Oh, and "THE BOWL CUTS!" Ha!! I had me a wicked bowl cut myself if you'll recall.

mndandy said...

"Uncle Pancakes" is going to make me a very rich man someday, I just know it....

Nice post Jon. I agree 100% and would say the same thing- only in more vulgar terms, naturally! KP

Ellie said...

I volunteered briefly at WMMR in '88 or '89 and got reamed by the woman who was managing it because I didn't follow the set list and played a Madonna song. I told her it was a request and she said "No one who listens to WMMR would ever request, Madonna!'

Jon Hunt said...

Keith: I forgot the Cavegurls in the proto-wave and the Spectors in the 2nd wave, dammit!!

mndandy said...

Technically speaking the Funseekers would be in the proto-wave, Cavegurls following in the first.

mndandy said...

Technically speaking it would be Funseekers in the '84/'85 proto wave, Cavegurls following in the first wave around '87.

Beques said...

And the OWLS in the new wave, dammit!

belsum said...

It is definitely odd how they isn't much in the way of artifacts from that time, isn't it? I'm pretty sure the Chris Hill Scrapbook I kept of the era is the home of the only remaining press clippings, show notices, and set lists for Deep Shag, Lunar 9, and Medication. Good times.

Willie - excellent use of "hagiography", one of my recently acquired favorite new words.

Drew M said...

Thanks also for this piece, Jon.

I got to see Hayday @ the Riverview Theater in 2007. It's basically a compilation of full songs by a wide range of local bands (from 1985 to 1992, so that coincides with your "First Wave") who played the Mainroom (The full list of bands starts at 4:42 in the trailer).

While the trailer focuses on the more "famous" bands, as I remember the cut, every band on the list gets a complete song in the movie. The result was perhaps over-long, but Rick didn't cut a lesser-known band's song just because they had less success than the flannel-wearing ones.

I think the material in the movie was shaped more by the contents of the video archive that the club created (and the bands playing the Mainroom) than an agenda to memorialize one particular scene.

There are now many more different fractionalized scenes here than 20 years ago. Curious to know how much crossover there is.

Your most salient point (to me) is this one: "The music press, and the scene in general, perpetually regenerates young and caters to the progressively younger folks."

Mixing audiences has always been one of Steve McClellan's motivations, which he's continuing with the DEMO shows he curates. These days the job is also to mix young and old bands on the same bill -- I tried to book a couple newer bands if younger people on the BiL 3/17 gig for this year, but they were all going to SXSW!

Anyway, thanks for the piece, and here are a couple tangents:

* The Boiled In Lead song from Hayday is on YouTube here -- -- with Steve & Bill Batson on the intro.

* I've been playing with Renee Bracchi (drummer for The Blue Up?) in Felonious Bosch for a while now. New album getting close to done

* This CD compilation is perhaps closer to your "golden era" -- Let me know if you want a copy -- it was a school project but never saw the light of day.

* Also I was a fellow-traveller with the Various folks -- ran sound for them & even played a few shows on bass.

* Finally, it WAS great to hear the return of Fauna the other night.

Jon Hunt said...

Renee is an awesome drummer and I can't wait to hear the record!! I dig!