Throughout history, the stories of artists have served as an enduring peephole into the transgressive world of those whose art defies boundaries.
In the years following a global pandemic, economic recession, and imminent climate crisis — the rebellious, countercultural ethos of alternative music scenes has captivated public attention, with Gen Z championing its anti-capitalist messages of pleasure, creativity, and mischief. From grunge and indie-sleaze fashion trends to the growing obsession with underground nightclubs and oddball venues, the naughty sparkle of a ‘90s punk resurgence is in the air.
To help fill the ravenous demand for the stories of the underground, here are 10 books published this year that traverse the smells, bodies, and sounds that light up basements across the U.S. and U.K., uncovering music scenes unheard.
Raving by McKenzie Wark
[Photo via Duke University Press]
Lose yourself to the mushrooming fog, thumping subwoofer, and pools of sweat as McKenzie Wark takes readers inside the undisclosed locations of New York’s thriving underground queer and trans rave scene. Wark is the professor of the rave, reimagining the philosophical framework for understanding raving as a means of temporary freedom. With her quirky encyclopedia of made-up vocabulary and cheeky anecdotes from her experiences on the dance floor, Raving is at once theoretical and personal, sweet and nihilistic.
Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters by Lynnée Denise (September 12, 2023)
[Photo via University of Texas Press]
Most know Willie Mae Thornton as “Big Mama Thornton,” who embodied ‘50s and ‘60s blues with Billboard chart-toppers “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain.” In this biography of essays, coming out this September, author Lynnée Denise reclaims Willie Mae Thornton’s identity from the history books. From the reinterpretation of Thornton’s appropriation of men’s suits as an intentional queering of the Chitlin Circuit to her vaudevillesque performances in Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue, Denise uses shrewd music criticism and a Black, queer, feminist lens, to reintroduce Thornton as a performer who transcended gender norms. Most radical of all, perhaps, Denise refers to Thornton by her given name rather than “Big Mama,” a nickname that was given to her by a white manager. Denise’s thoughtful reimagination of Thornton’s career pays tribute to a woman that embodied Black creation and resilience.
I Could Not Believe It: The 1979 Teenage Diaries of Sean DeLear by Sean DeLear
[Photo via MIT Press]
Los Angeles icon Tony Robertson, known to most as Sean DeLear, was a fixture of the Silver Lake scene of post-punk in the 1980s and ‘90s. Lead singer of the punk band Glue, visual and performance artist, and general “it” girl, DeLear was a force in the burgeoning queer music scene in L.A. and New York, blurring lines of gender, race, and sexuality. With remembrances from Rick Owens, Telfar Clemens, Honey Dijon, Shayne Oliver, and a forward from Brontez Purnell, the Teenage Diaries of Sean DeLear, is a window into the bedroom of a queer, Black 14-year-old growing up in the conservative Simi Valley of California on the cusp of something bigger.
Mud Ride: A Messy Trip Through the Grunge Explosion by Steve Turner
[Photo via Chronicle Books]
Written by Steve Turner, lead guitarist of Mudhoney, the 1988 Seattle band that helped pioneer the grunge movement, Mud Ride chronicles the birth and evolution of the Seattle grunge scene, as told by the skate punks, hardcore kids, and general misfits that started it all. From backyard skateboard ramps and basement band practices to underground hardcore clubs and sold-out stadiums with Nirvana and Pearl Jams — the sleepy town’s grunge scene in the late 80s and early 90s, embodied by Steve Turner and his friends, holds the story of authenticity, creativity, and experimentation. Mud Ride offers a behind-the-scenes look into Turner’s bands, Green River and Mudhoney, and a first-hand account of a musical phenomenon that took over the world when they were least expecting it.
The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker by Jack Skelley
[Photo via MIT Press]
Jack Skelley’s “secretly legendary” novel maps out the 1980s anarchic underground of Los Angeles. In part, an homage to the inventive spirit of Kathy Acker’s cut-up novels, Skelley delineates, in chaotic, comic bursts, the definitive history of LA’s underground culture of the mid-1980s. From Venice to Disneyland, punk clubs to shopping malls, Skelley uses essays, playlists, and celebrity appearances to write a self-mocking love letter to Los Angeles.
Conform To Deform: The Weird & Wonderful World Of Some Bizzare by Wesley Doyle
[Photo via Jawbone Press]
Some Bizzare, the independent label that introduced the world to Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, and The The, is one of the many untold stories of alternative music. A vanguard of outside music in the 1980s, Some Bizarre enlisted a roster of acts that challenged the commercial industry it rivaled. From ecstasy parties in early 80s New York to video shoots in the Peruvian jungle, death threats to seedy sex shows in Soho, the Some Bizarre story is indeed an eccentric story of competition, vision, and ultimately, destruction.
Rude Girls: Women in 2 Tone and One Step Beyond by Heather Augustyn
[Photo via Small Axe]
The ‘70s and ‘80s ska revival in the U.K. represented the cultural unity of race in both the style and influences of songs and physical makeup of the bands. But for a movement as radical as this, that was so dedicated to the principles of racial equality, why did gender equality flop so badly? Empowered by the punk movement and impassioned by Jamaican ska and reggae, women took up the microphone, saxophone, and drumsticks and demanded their space onstage. Through exclusive interviews with more than 50 women involved in ska in the U.K., Rude Girls tells the untold story of women in ska, a life of risk-taking, rebellion, and sisterhood. Perhaps the “Queen of Ska” Pauline Black says it best: “If the boys won’t let you join in their game, then sometimes it’s best to invent a new one of your own.”
Naked: On Sex, Work, and Other Burlesques by Fancy Feast (October 10, 2023)
[Photo via Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill]
Celebrated burlesque performer, sex educator, and social worker Fancy Feast gives readers a backstage pass to the steamy world of nightlife and sex industries that most daytime dwellers have never seen. In a series of provocative essays, coming this October, Fancy Feast explores the failures of the American sex education system while working customer service at a sex toy store, the rulebook of communicating consent in sex parties and polyamorous relationships, and the burlesque stage where she makes a living taking off her clothes. Narrated with vulnerability and humor, Fancy Feast protests — with joy and sensuality — a culture that wants fat people to be self-hating and sexless.
Acid Detroit: A Psychedelic Story of Motor City Music by Joe Molloy
[Photo via Watkins Media]
When most people think of the radical counterculture movement of the ’60s, they often think of California as the sole hub of bohemian life and music. Acid Detroit tells the scintillating, technicolor story of Motor City as the forgotten hotbed of political activism, sonic innovation, and flourishing social scenes that set alive Detroit’s abandoned factories and warehouses. From incendiary garage rock to European-influenced techno and experimental hip-hop scenes, Joe Molloy reveals the history of Detroit, one of resilience and generation, from its heyday as an industrial powerhouse to its decline and tentative rebirth.
Hit Girls: Women of Punk in the USA, 1975-1983 by Jen B. Larson
[Photo via Feral House]
The explosion of punk sent shockwaves through the boomboxes, TV sets, and record players of every girl who was writing songs in their journals and singing with their hairbrushes. Punk ancestors Suzy Quatro, The Runaways, Patti Smith, Poison Ivy, Tina Weymouth, Debbie Harry, and The Go-Gos, gave young women permission to dream about being on stage. Hit Girls is the story of local and regional bands whose stories have never been told. The women profiled by Jen Larson were more than novelty acts or groupies — they were fully contributing members and leaders of mixed-gender and all-female bands long before the call for “girls to the front.”