Galaxie 500 and the (Upper) Class Consciousness of Indie Rock

The perfect encapsulation of Galaxie 500 appears rather late in Temperature’s Rising, a brief but intriguing scrapbook and oral history about the band. A college classmate of theirs explains, “Their album covers made a statement. Cool Restraint. Educated. Upper Class. Lots of Social Contacts.”

This frames them in a way few musicians would aspire to be framed. From one perspective, it could even be taken as a devastating bon mot. First of all it’s about their album art, not their music. Second, the word “restraint” was anathema to rock and pop music until quite recently. If you still look forward to Rolling Stones reunion tours or spend a lot of time pondering the importance of “punk rock,” applying the adjectives “restraint,” “educated,” or “upper class” to a rock and roll band is clearly a dis. However, if you think of popular music as an expanding field, something mutable rather than a system of set mores and ideals about vitality and youth, well, then it is a great introduction to a different kind of band.

I would argue that Galaxie 500 were the ultimate cult group, a band who set the stage for the indie scene of the twenty-first century, helping to mold a new aesthetic ideal for American rock bands, all while making music that is little more than a footnote. Their active lifespan—1987 to 1991—was brief and produced only three albums. When these records were reissued in 2010, the indie brand Pitchfork awarded the debut a rare 9.5 rating and the second, On Fire, a coveted 10. But the review doesn’t describe their sound in a way that merits such high marks. Again, the first lines about On Fire are devoted to something aside from the music—the review mentions “the iconic cover art” and “Kramer’s brilliantly surreal liner notes.” (Kramer, a ubiquitous presence in New York’s “downtown” music scene of the ’80s and early ’90s, produced the band’s entire discography.) Eventually the music is complimented as the “definitive slowcore statement”—but that is an aesthetic judgment so finely sliced, and utilizing a genre term so meaningless to laypeople, that it serves as faint praise. The author of Temperature’s Rising, Mike McGonigal, made an even more lukewarm musicological assessment in a recent interview promoting the book. “Galaxie’s music is completely original, but only subtly so,” he says, before admitting, “You could write some kind of rock and roll equation for their sound quite easily,” and going on to cite a who’s who of cult music influences—K Records, the Velvet Underground’s third album, the Young Marble Giants. To that I’d add Television and the Feelies, bands who existed just a few years before Galaxie, and wrote more durable songs in a similar vein.

But here’s the thing: lots of people are expending energy burnishing Galaxie 500’s legacy right now despite their wan accounts of the band’s music. McGonigal—an underground fixture since the ’80s—not only edited this volume, but published it. And Pitchfork, which tends to be strategic when bestowing its halos, ran the original version of McGonigal’s book as an article on the site. So, what is the secret to Galaxie 500’s posthumous canonization? Why do they remain so trendy, and why are people still discussing them today?

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And here’s where I insert myself. At the annual South by Southwest music industry conference about a half-decade ago, I remember attending a showcase featuring the band Vampire Weekend. I bumped into a journalist who had graduated from the same Ivy League University as I did, and we got into a conversation. She wondered why so few of our peers had grown up to be writers of note, why so few seemed to aspire to such things.

“Because these days more Ivy Leaguers dream of growing up to be rock stars,” I said. “Very few people still care about the art of the novel. Our classmates are trying to make the Great American LP.”

One reason Galaxie 500 are still relevant is because they were the original Ivy Leaguers of rock. Guitarist-vocalist Dean Wareham, bassist Naomi Yang, and drummer Damon Krukowski formed the band soon after graduating together from Harvard. More to the point, they first met while attending the Dalton School, a Manhattan institution that, while not restricted to the 1 percent, probably counts among its tuition-paying families members exclusively of the top 5 or 10. For a long time, this was a very unusual background for a rock musician, whereas an unscientific sampling of today’s indie success stories reveals a lot of what one might informally call “book learnin’.” The band with which I have a long business and creative association, The National, includes a pair of members who graduated from Yale and Columbia, respectively. Two musicians in our circle best known for their ubiquity as sidemen—arranger/composer Nico Muhly and keyboardist/producer Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman)—attended Columbia too. So did all four members of the aforementioned Vampire Weekend and Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan. Though Superchunk is from a previous generation in subcultural terms—the ’90s—the label McCaughan founded, Merge, has assembled a roster of remarkably educated rock and pop performers: Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler went to high school at Exeter and, later, McGill University; Magnetic Fields leader Stephin Merritt went to Harvard Extension School, while manager/member Claudia Gonson went to Harvard proper; and a more recent signing, the Mountain Goats, makes a virtue of wordiness more than any musician since Bob Dylan.

And that’s not all: Dirty Projectors’s frontman went to Yale. Brown counts Nicolas Jaar and Will Oldham as attendees. To drive home the point about educational precocity and institutional credentials in indie rock, let’s open up this census to musicians hailing from a few other top-tier schools as ranked by US News & World Report. The key members of Das Racist and MGMT met at Wesleyan; Grizzly Bear at NYU; and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Oberlin. While this kind of high-end finishing school is hardly common among contemporary alternative musicians today, it certainly seems more common than it once was. And while these bands rarely advertise their pedigree overtly, the preppy trappings of an (upper?) middle class background are now more accepted as “cool”: Viz, Vampire Weekend’s fetish for SAAB automobiles, Cape Cod, and Oxford commas.

Which brings us back to the subject at hand, Galaxie 500. Make no mistake, I’m not setting up an argument about how education or refinement dilutes artistic authenticity, passion, or legitimacy. I enjoy most of the music I’ve just mentioned too much for that. Rather, I’d argue just the opposite: Galaxie 500 mark a turning point when underground artists began questioning rock and roll’s rebellious foundational aesthetic, rather than pushing it to its alienated extremes. What makes Temperature’s Rising a noteworthy document is how it details this new cultural position.

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Galaxie 500 were unabashedly refined, and for a long time, it made them hard to place in narratives of underground culture. For example, they were left out of Michael Azerrad’s era-defining 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991. In it, Azerrad (a Columbia grad, natch) profiled a baker’s dozen of their chronological peers. Why not Galaxie 500? Azerrad left out some bands for their major label taint or eventual mainstream popularity: R.E.M., The Pixies, X. But Galaxie never ticked those boxes. They remained indie and niche. Their most career-conscious moves were signing to renowned British indie label Rough Trade and opening for the Cocteau Twins on tour. At their peak they could draw maybe 1,000 payers headlining on the European club circuit.

No, the real difference between them and the groups that made Azerrad’s cut—artists like The Replacements, Butthole Surfers, Minutemen—is that the bands who fit his narrative came from working-class backgrounds or seemed like someone’s idea of the Working Class. They drank, talked about fucking, and occasionally clashed with authoritarian powers (e.g., major labels, police, club owners, lame musicians). The “seemed” part of this calculation is very important; before he joined the Butthole Surfers, the band’s singer Gibby Haynes was an honor-roll accounting student working on his MBA. These groups were no less intelligent than Galaxie 500, but they defined themselves by a kind of disenfranchisement. They embraced the idea of the working class as a conduit for rebellion. In some cases, their DIY approach began as a dirty necessity but transformed into an ethical principle. (Three of Azerrad’s bands, Black Flag, Beat Happening, and Fugazi, did as the actual working class might do: through dogged labor they started small businesses in the form of record labels, companies which exist to this day.) But generally speaking, these bands were defined by antisocial and anti-mainstream art. Belligerence, anger, and passive aggression were markers of credibility.

Let’s contrast this with the way Galaxie 500’s depict themselves in Temperature's Rising. Where Black Flag singer Henry Rollins famously quit his day job at an ice cream shop to join Black Flag, Naomi Yang quit graduate studies in architecture. Where Sonic Youth referred to Charles Manson and had press photos done by erotic photographer Richard Kern, Galaxie posed for publicity photos shot in front of a painting by Jean Dubuffet. In this book, they discuss their use of images by Parisian Eugène Atget, a pioneer of documentary photography discovered by connoisseurs long after his death in 1927. “Mannered” would be a good description of Galaxie’s vibe.

Indeed the book’s visuals are as important as the oral history, and Yang comes across as the key figure in curating the band’s image. Between high school and college she apprenticed (her term) with the designer of the “I love NY” logo, Milton Glaser—referring to him as “my hero.” For gig flyers, she raided her parents’ library for vintage map illustrations depicting venue addresses. And it’s her voice that animates most of the annotations, enthusing about borrowing typefaces from wedding invitations and an IBM Executive typewriter. “It was a special machine—the font was Futura!” she writes with characteristic pluck.

Though it was a sensibility versed in the history of high art and sophisticated graphic design, her means of creating these visuals was similar to her playing: primitive, simple, but well-chosen. The band was never virtuosic, but they were always intriguing. The most unique thing about them turned out to be an ability to heighten this intrigue by enrobing their music in a lovely and gilded container. For their peers, the road was littered with insanity and drug causalities. Galaxie 500’s issues were less dire: “You asked before about regrets... I might have some typographical regrets!” writes Yang, brightly.

The whole package was as different from antecedents as it was from their contemporaries. Yes, rock musicians have always been into iconography—Elvis’s blue suede shoes, the Beatles moptops, Buddy Holly’s glasses, everything about Little Richard. But Galaxie 500’s icons were intentionally obscure, literary, and artistic—they looked more like jazz or classical records, or something on fusion labels like ECM. To extend McGonigal’s judgment about their music it was iconography but “subtly so.” And while the music itself wasn’t as bracing as that of their more transgressive peers—it has aged quite well. While it’s easy to fall in love with the kind bands whom Azerrad profiled, it’s easier to listen to Galaxie 500. Listenability is a value that’s been honed, perfected, and sold on a grand scale by the new guard of erudite rockers catalogued earlier in this review. The edginess and alienation of ’80s indie still inspires people to form bands, but it’s the tasteful curatorial instinct pioneered by Galaxie 500 that allows today’s bands to make a career—headlining festivals, soundtracking television shows, et al. And, finally, that’s why I’d argue they are being celebrated so much today.

Have Galaxie 500 contributed more to the modern template for indie rock stardom than the Our Band Could Be Your Life clique? “Working Class” chic certainly lost some of its allure after the explosion of reality television and the “just plain folks” rhetoric of George W. Bush. And the Internet has made subcultural extremism seem quaint. In the ’90s, Amphetamine Reptile, a small Midwestern label founded by a former US Marine, released a compilation series called “Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets” and filled it with vile, scuzzy rock; these days actual examples of dope, guns, and fucking are only a Google search and a mouse click away. The culture at large has become more transgressive; the underground has become more polished. I wouldn’t say Galaxie 500 anticipated this shift, per se, but they did set a meme into motion. In the intro to the Pitchfork version of McGonigal’s oral history, he recalls that Liz Phair’s earliest, pre-fame recordings made around the time of their breakup in 1991 include the lyric “I was pretending that I was in a Galaxie 500 video,” and McGonigal himself dreamily admits, “There were a lot of us thinking like that.”

To be honest, I can’t recommend Temperature’s Rising to a casual reader. Black Postcards, the 2008 book by the Galaxie 500 member responsible for their break-up, Dean Wareham, tells their story in a more compelling fashion. (A tale about the traumas of mid-level rock stardom, it’s mostly devoted to his time with his next band, Luna.) But as a scholarly resource, Temperature’s Rising reads more like the unvarnished truth. Maybe such “truth and light” is important if we consider where all this is headed? (“Lux et veritas” as the Yale crest puts it.) I doubt the music scene will ever be as institutionalized as the art and literary worlds. A degree will never be the gateway to a career in pop music the way an MFA has become in the creative writing and visual art fields, if only because it’s harder for mass audiences to fake affection for a bad tune. But the point remains: When Galaxie 500 started, journalists sometimes referred to the alternative music scene as “college rock.” And now, often times, it is.