IN THE FORM of a prominent tattoo on Kurt Cobain’s arm, the logo of K Records — a hand-inked logo around a capital K — has entered musical and cultural history, though largely as a footnote to grunge. There have been previous attempts to tell the story of the Olympia, Washington–based independent label in its own right: Heather Rose Dominic’s documentary feature The Shield Around the K appeared in 2000, and Michael Azzerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which concluded with a chapter on K’s flagship band Beat Happening, followed in 2002. Despite such efforts, both the label and the Pacific Northwest scene that surrounded it have remained the underchronicled property of participants and superfans. Mark Baumgarten’s Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music is an ambitious attempt to rectify this, both by reconstructing the label’s history through the eyes of its founder (and Beat Happening member) Calvin Johnson, and by arguing for the label’s influence on the musical and cultural underground that flourished, with little or no mainstream media attention, in the 1980s and 1990s.
By the mid-90s, when K Records was in full flower, the sound (and look) of bands on the label ranged from dingy hardcore to twee pop confection. One release might be based around two aggressive, distorted guitar chords; on the next, you might find the same two chords played on a toy piano, a whispery female vocal floating over the top. It could all be called “punk,” but in a sense that referred to a feeling and an ethos, not a particular sound. Love Rock Revolution reflects that feeling by describing not only the music itself, but the economies of culture, resources, and personality that made it possible. Similar economies inform recent manifestations of DIY culture in niches all over the world, and this makes the book’s subject larger and more important than the story of a single independent record label — even though that story, skillfully and entertainingly told, is its major focus.
As for the “love rock” of the title: the phrase was coined by Olympia (by way of Eugene) musician and visual artist Al Larsen in a 1989 manifesto, published in the Eugene music paper Snipehunt, that insisted on a version of punk free from nihilism. Larsen imagined an engaged, community-based punk inflected with politics, especially feminist politics, and that included a range of activities — not just music — that could create a better world. Baumgarten quotes Larsen’s “Love Rock and Why I Am”: “It’s a scary world, but we don’t need to be scared anymore. We need active visionary protest, we need to grab hold and make the transformation, from complaining that there is NO FUTURE to insisting there be a future.” The insistence that anyone could be part of this future bore fruit in the anti–rock star stance of the early K scene: anyone could make a band, be a band, play music, dance, connect. Nerve, passion, and improvisation trumped musical training, technical skill, and even amplification, and helped to expand conceptions of punk beyond the stylistic constraints of hardcore progenitors like Black Flag and Minor Threat.
This vision was also Johnson’s, and it has proved widely influential. The Etsy explosion, locavore food movements and urban agriculture, bartering networks, and rock camps for girls all owe a debt to the K...read more