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Emerging From Under Rock

'This Ain't No Picnic,' featuring 20 bands, will be a test to see if alternative music can stay spirited yet marketable.

July 01, 1999|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back when the term "alternative rock" still meant something, living outside the hit-or-bust norms of the pop marketplace was no picnic.

This was a music of underdogs from the underground, created by bands that inherited punk rock's spirit of defying the established order, but who were less straitjacketed musically than punk purists.

The alternative rockers who defined the genre during the 1980s--among them Sonic Youth, Husker Du, the Replacements, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, the Mekons, Camper Van Beethoven, Throwing Muses and the Pixies--were eager to experiment and push the boundaries of rock.

They wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible and toured relentlessly to do it. But the ceiling on "possible" was extremely low during alternative's burgeoning years, which spanned the 1980s.

For the vast majority of these bands, selling 20,000 or 30,000 copies of an album was tantamount to a substantial hit. Radio, except for college stations, wasn't interested. MTV, to the alternative fringe, was an alien force from a parallel universe, not a power to be courted as an influential ally.

Then, suddenly, alternative rock was seated at the big pop banquet table. In the summer of 1991, the Lollapalooza festival, led by Jane's Addiction and introducing Nine Inch Nails, showed that a touring alternative caravan could do big business.

By year's end, the movement had found its commercial messiah: Nirvana's single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was propelling the band toward multi-platinum sales previously inconceivable for an act rooted in the 1980s underground. Major-label scouts trolled what they viewed as the independent bush leagues and signed hundreds of bands in hopes of riding the rising wave.

Alternative had prevailed.

Or had it been co-opted? Were industriously tunneling creatures from the underground meant to flourish in the bright spotlight?

And, now that "alternative" had changed from a word with meaning to a marketing label, could the old ethics forged in the 1980s endure, and the adventurous spirit remain?

Some answers may emerge from "This Ain't No Picnic," an Independence Day showcase for the old independent spirit. Twenty bands will gather Sunday at the 5,000-capacity Oak Canyon Ranch in Santiago Canyon, a few of them signed to big labels, most on small ones.

As in the old days, all still exist apart from the rat race to the top of the charts that continues to fuel KROQ-style bands, and they don't sell many records.

The festival borrows its name from the title of a frustration-filled, 1984-vintage Minutemen song about being trapped in a dead-end job with a bigot for a boss.

Headliner Sonic Youth, a revered godfather of indie rock, sold 54,000 copies of its last album, "A Thousand Leaves," according to the SoundScan monitoring service, down from its quarter-million peak during 1992-95, the immediate aftermath of the Nirvana explosion.

Sleater-Kinney, the most celebrated new true-alternative rock band of the past three years, arrives for its first Orange County show having sold 64,000 copies of its brilliant 1997 release, "Dig Me Out," and 42,000 of this year's sequel, "The Hot Rock."

"The [mainstream] culture has shut down" for bands like those on the Picnic festival, who won't compromise their sound to make it palatable for radio, said Bob Lawton, booking agent for Sonic Youth, Sleater-Kinney, and three other Picnic participants, Guided By Voices, Rocket from the Crypt and Superchunk.

"In the post-Nirvana craze, everyone did a little better for a while," Lawton said. "Now it's settled back down. They don't get on the bigger tours."

The idea for the Picnic festival, he said, was "Let's put together this small, compact thing where everybody knows and respects each other and wants to have a good day of music. No one is out there making a big career move."

'True Underground

Music Is More Exciting'

Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, whose band, formed in 1981, was primarily responsible for bringing a new dimension of honed clangor and artfully wielded noise and dissonance to the rock-guitar vocabulary, has no regrets that mainstream commercial paths are barred now to bands that live, as a proud old Replacements ode to the true-alternative spirit put it, "Left of the Dial."

"Most of us were only too happy to see it go back underground and fall to the wayside," Moore, 41, said over the phone recently from the Manhattan home where he lives with wife Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth's bassist, and their young daughter.

"It was great when Nirvana busted open and decimated the [glam-metal] hair bands that had a stranglehold on the rock mainstream," he said. "But I'm really into the idea of the whole scene always having a flux to it. . . . The true underground music is more exciting now than it's ever been. It's wide open, and young people are getting involved with all strains of musical ideas and literate ideas and artistic measures."

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