INDIE HARD: Big Black’s set was a reminder that Albini and company created the blueprint for Trent Reznor’s downward spirals
So what would prompt a person to fly to Chicago for a long weekend only to stand around at a music festival whose headliners were on the level of the unpronounceable !!!, the Steve Albini/Bob Weston noise machine Shellac, and Arizona Giant Sand mates Calexico? This wasn’t, after all, Lollapalooza. But to my mild surprise, it was a sold-out event in a fenced-in, two-stage area that held close to 7000. So I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the cheap airfares two weekends ago, when the indie label Touch and Go teamed up with the Chicago club the Hideout to celebrate the former’s 25th anniversary and the latter’s 10th with a block party featuring a diverse cross-section of the indie underground, along with a couple of notable reunions (Scratch Acid, Big Black, the Monorchid, and probably a couple of other bands I wasn’t aware had broken up). In fact, along with running into a few friends from Boston (Black Helicopter were there, and not to play), I met a sizable number of people from the West Coast as well as rock fans who’d driven to Chicago for the weekend from cities all over the Midwest. This is the new indie underground — a loose and often disparate mass of thousands who are much better connected by the Internet blogosphere than their compatriots were 25 years ago, when left-of-the-dial college stations, used-record stores, and fanzines were the only way to get the word out about the new and noteworthy.
I know: I was around for that. And I remember how long it always seemed to take to find out about exciting new developments if you didn’t have a network of well-connected friends in Chicago, Minneapolis, Athens, Seattle, wherever. That’s why, in those formative years of what has become a thriving Amerindie underground, all punk (or post-punk, really) was local. And every city seemed to have its sound, along with at least one indie label to support the bands who were propagating that sound. Chicago did have Wax Trax, the “industrial” label of Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, with its Anglocentric worldview. But it was Touch and Go that would come to define first something uniquely Chicago about American punk rock and then, increasingly, like most successful indie labels, an entire world of music from the international rock (not pop) underground.
If the story has a hero, it’s Corey Rusk, the former hardcore kid from the Ohio band the Necros who took the reins at Touch and Go and to this day seems to set the tone for everything the label does. It rained on Sunday, the last day of Touch and Go’s big shindig, and the Monorchid were in the middle of an eagerly awaited reunion that in spite of a steady downpour had drawn thousands of paying customers to the front of the stage. The bass amp had gone out; tech types were scratching their heads trying to suss the problem. And then a hooded figure came running through the rain, down the VIP causeway that connected the two stages, with a replacement amp covered in plastic: none other than Rusk himself. (He also stuck around to watch one of his newer bands, Enon, do their quirky, art-damaged take on neo new wave à la a less frenetic Brainiac, the Touch and Go band Enon guitarist/singer John Schmersal was in before frontman Tim Taylor was killed in a 1997 car accident.)
The Monorchid were able to continue their blistering set of classic, loud, fast, inspired hardcore, the sort of stuff that was the bread and butter of DC bands in the early ’80s. And for those of us who’d never had a chance to see the band — who broke up just as they were getting off the ground with their sophomore disc, Who Put Out the Fire?, in ’98 —it was a treat. But the Monorchid’s slam-bang punk rock isn’t what I think of when Touch and Go come to mind. No, the Touch and Go that caught my ear back in the ’80s was a haven for bands who scared the hell out of me. We’re talking Big Black and their scabrous yet surgically precise Songs About Fucking, the Butthole Surfers and their twisted Locust Abortion Technician, and the Scratch Acid/Jesus Lizard axis, which revolved around the tortured vocals of David Yow and wave after wave of serrated Birthday Party guitars supported by a rhythm section who sounded as if they were kicking the shit out of someone. It’s the label that fostered Steve Albini through Big Black to Rapeman and finally Shellac.
There was something truly threatening about a Big Black show. Most punk rock made sense; you could trace its roots and lineage back to something familiar and safe. But Big Black defied attempts to break through their hard outer shell. Where the hell was this stuff coming from? No wonder Chicagoan Liz Phair counted herself as an exile from a place she called “Guyville” on her debut album. There weren’t a lot of women involved in those seminal Touch and Go bands. And you didn’t want to take your girlfriend to see the Butthole Surfers or Big Black.