Go on. Give me a definition of underground music. I bet every person sufficiently interested to read this article has a definition they’re just aching to unleash. I bet they’re comprehensive, and lovingly worded. A couple of them probably reference Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. I also bet they’re all completely different, and all correct – to a given value of correctness. This is because the underground, or ‘indie’ or ‘alternative’ or whatever else you want to call it, has become impossible to define. What I’ll look at here is why. How did we define it in the past, and what has happened to it in the present?
The Sixties marked the beginning of underground music in a sense approximate to the one in which we use the term. It existed before, but differently. It consisted of a series of unassailable and deeply nerdy scenes, most notably the puritan Folk genre from which Dylan found it so hard to break. During the Sixties, Rock n’ Roll, Beat, Soul and all the rest drew upon each other to create the bloated duumvirate of ‘Pop’ and ‘Rock’ which many still refer to today. As they did so, they made room for an underground which interacted in a meaningful way with the mainstream.
This was unlike its equivalents in later decades. During the subsequent thirty or so years, ‘alternative’ music would come to be a driving force, a breeding ground for new-fangled ideas which fed straight into the slower bulk of the system – the moody nursing home attendant to Rock’s Alzheimer’s-ridden grandfather. In the Sixties, Pop and Rock were too young for this. The two worlds respected one another; Bob Dylan once described Smokey Robinson as ‘America’s greatest living poet’. Both fields contained artists with a pioneer mentality, people willing to create the rules as they went along. Pet Sounds, Revolver and Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ were more groundbreaking than the great experimental works of later decades. The same man who said that ‘avant garde is French for shit’ wrote Strawberry Fields Forever.
The underground consisted of artists who found themselves left out of the conventional thrust. Some of them were too dangerous: crazies like Syd Barrett or Captain Beefheart (who locked his band in a bungalow for a year in order to create magnum opus Trout Mask Replica). Others, primarily the bands of the American Garage Rock scene like The Remains, made music which was too raw, too local. The underground of the Sixties was really one of the early Seventies. Bands whose influence was overshadowed by the vibrant sounds coming out of the mainstream were picked up instead by those who missed out on the Summer of Love. In the US, Protopunk and later the Punk of early-Seventies New York sprang from these as gradually they were unearthed.
And so the seeds were sown for Indie’s golden age: 1976-1999. In the UK certain prophetic youths – among them John Lydon and some weirdo called Steven Morrissey – were listening, and playing, and, come 1976, dramatically uprising. Suddenly, along came The Sex Pistols and everything changed. OK, so punk became a pro-capitalist sham, and yes, their music sounds awful now, and they weren’t even the first to release a UK punk single (Anarchy in the UK was pipped to the post by The Damned’s New Rose), but that doesn’t matter. Malcolm Mclaren’s genius was to realise the substance of style. He knew that underground music is about ideas. Those ideas may be anti-image, or pro-substance, or even anti-ideas, but they are still absorbed before the music, which will often be upstaged later by someone else who’s got the ideas and reckons they can use them. The final pieces were put in place by Morrissey and The Smiths. They brought to the underground an intellectualism which was at once radical and retrospective. What’s more, they wanted the music world not to collapse, or to ignore them, but to change around them. They made the underground self-conscious. As Morrissey told Melody Maker in 1983: ‘you cannot trivialise The Smiths, and you cannot trivialise anything we do’. They set in place a convection current, in which ideas would rise from the bottom to the top and back again.
Without anyone but the most pretentious noticing, popular music has changed unrecognizably. A major player in this is Hip Hop, a form rooted in some of the indiest scenes ever, and now ruling the musical roost. White people eventually realised that this was a fun prospect, and so Lady Gaga, Goldfrapp, Mr Hudson, artists who appeal to the masses, take their pointers from above and below at once. In reaction, guitar-based indie has become retrograde, while underground dance either seeks only to break into the mainstream or becomes swamped in a mess of jargon designed to isolate all but the most hardcore. The MP3 revolution completes the picture. With streaming and downloading, the significance of the record as an object, of release date, even of genre is eroded, leading to a new pattern of influences impossible to properly trace. Soon enough we’ll be back where we started in the Forties and Fifties, with a variety of unconnected musical ideas which either obsessively isolate themselves or carelessly fuse with together. Genre hasn’t quite vanished, but it no longer makes sense to talk about ‘underground’ and ‘overground’ as opposing terms; there is only what is listened to and what is not. This won’t usher in a new ideal era of musical purity and freedom, but neither does it signal the end of the world as we know it. What it means is that you need to stop talking about how you saw Florence and the Machine in 2006 and she was, like, so much better. We all know it’s a lie anyway.