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Wow! That’s a tall order. How am I going to narrow done the vast sea of indie bands in the last 50 years and choose only 5? Well, I’m going to try. After giving it a lot of thought, I hope I’ve arrived at a list that mentions the most important names in indie music.
First of all, however, I think it would be rather helpful to define “indie music”, because it is a term that is used a fair bit these days, and for a long time I had no idea what “indie” was trying to describe about the music.
The technical meaning of the term “indie band” is a band that produces music independently from large, commercial record labels. They record and publish their own music themselves, or through independent record labels.
In other words, indie artists are in complete control of their music, instead of being managed and dictated by the commercial labels that monopolize much of the music scene.
Over time, the term “indie” has been thrown around and connotations have been added to its meaning. The term often hints at a band whose sound strays from the mainstream and the overdone, experimenting instead with their own style and producing something unique and different.
So, with that in mind, let’s start naming the 5 arguably most important indie bands the world has seen these past 50 years.
The Velvet Underground
We’ll start things off in the 1960’s with the Velvet Underground.
The band was formed in 1964 by singer and guitarist Lou Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Angus MacLise who was later replaced by Maureen “Moe” Tucker.
The quartet decided to name their band after a book called “The Velvet Underground” by an author named Michael Leigh about the hidden sexual subculture in the early 60s.
In their early days, their music was relaxed, almost gentle, with rhythmic guitar and droning sounds that had been influenced by La Monte Young.
In 1965, the Velvet Underground was introduced to artist Andy Warhol, who became the band’s manager for a time.
Warhol did quite a lot for the band. Aside from his iconic yellow banana on the album cover for “The Velvet Underground and Nico”, his reputation helped the Velvet Underground to gain in popularity and to obtain a contract with Verve Records. As manager and producer of their recordings, Warhol allowed them free-reign over their sound, thereby allowing them to keep their independence.
It was also Warhol who introduced the band members to German-born singer and model Nico, and it was his suggestion that she should join the band for some songs.
Between the years of 1966 and 1967, Warhol was hosting the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia roadshow that featured performances by the Velvet Underground combined with his own films.
The band’s debut album was called “The Velvet Underground and Nico”, and featured three songs sung by Nico. It was released in 1967 through Verve Records.
The famous album cover was designed by Warhol. The front cover showed a drawing of a yellow banana that was really a sticker, and the words “Peel slowly and see” were found at the top of the banana. If you peeled off the banana sticker from the cover, an unpeeled pink banana was revealed underneath.
The album brought taboo themes into the open such as drug abuse, prostitution and S&M. The song “Venus in Furs” is based off the book of the same name by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which talks about masochism and sadism.
“Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” are both about drug use. You can listen to “Venus in Furs” below.
The album “The Velvet Underground and Nico” truly showed the full range of the Velvet Underground, with droning and intense songs mixed with quiet and tender songs, such as “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Sunday Morning”.
Reed’s experimental avant-garde guitar along with Cale’s viola and keyboard made the album stand out.
After the release of their first album, the band decided to move on from their manager Andy Warhol, in order to try a different direction and evolve in their music and style.
They released their second album “White Light/White Heart” in 1968, followed by a few others in the ensuing years. In 1969 they toured the US and Canada; however, they were still met with very little commercial success.
Eventually, Cale left the group due to creative differences with Reed. Cale wanted to be more experimental, while Reed wanted to keep the music more accessible to the general public. Reed eventually left the band in 1970 and it fizzled out after that.
Nico went on to pursue a solo career. Her debut album was “Chelsea Girl”.
Reed went on to a long and storied solo career, highlighted with his Bowie collaboration album, “Transformer”, which had the famous song, “Walk on the Wild Side”, another taboo breaker.
Reed’s career (and life) ended not long after he collaborated with Metallica on a project called Lulu.
Next on the list we have the 1980s band the Smiths. Consisting of Morrissey as singer, Johnny Marr as guitarist, Andy Rourke as bassist, and Mike Joyce as drummer, the Smiths were an indie rock band that formed in Manchester in 1982.
They were only active until 1987, but in those five short years, the Smiths succeeded in making a substantial mark on indie music history, influencing many bands to come. In fact, the Smiths have been called one of the most important bands to have come out of the British indie music scene. Ok, let’s face it – maybe even THE most.
The band began as a duo in the spring of 1982 when Johnny Marr showed up at his old friend’s doorstep, Morrissey, and proposed the idea of starting a band. According to Morrissey, “We got on famously. We were very similar in drive.”
Their first compositions were recorded in Marr’s attic on his cassette recorder, along with a cover of the song “I Want a Boy for My Birthday” by the 1960s female band the Cookies.
After a few months of composing together, Morrissey came up with the name “the Smiths” for the band, because according to him, it was an ordinary name and the band was meant to relate to ordinary people.
The first demos they ever recorded were their songs “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” and “Suffer Little Children”, through Decibel Studio.
Their first public performance was in October, 1982, at a student music and fashion show in Manchester.
After being turned down by a few record labels, the independent label Rough Trade Records agreed to release their single “Hand in Glove” which sold fairly well.
Something I found interesting was a comment made by BBC radio presenter John Peel upon seeing the Smiths perform at a gig in London. Peel said, “I was impressed because unlike most bands…you couldn’t immediately tell which records they’d been listening to. That’s fairly unusual, very rare indeed.”
I find this interesting because nowadays, it is obvious when a band has been influenced by the Smiths, but when they started, they were truly pioneering a new sound that hadn’t been done before.
After the singles “This Charming Man” and “What Difference Does It Make” earned spots 25 and 12 on the UK singles charts respectively, the Smiths released their debut album, “The Smiths”, in 1984.
You can listen to the song “This Charming Man” below, (one of my favourite songs).
Morrissey’s vocals were haunting, and his lyrics were of a personal nature; he made confessions in his songs that almost everyone has felt at one time or another. The words were forlorn and depressing but rung true for many.
Often among the morose lyrics, the band added touches of lightness, even touches of black humour, such as in the song “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, where Morrissey lists the things that make him most miserable in life, like “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now”.
Sometimes, tragic lyrics were sung to upbeat music, creating a curious combination, such as the lyrics “In my life, why do I smile, at people who don’t care if I, live or die?” sung to a catchy and buoyant tune.
It was this frankness and honesty in their song-writing that made them so well-loved by others. They took the everyday feelings of ordinary people and put them in the spotlight. This inspired a genre of confessional rock. The Smiths became a cult favourite and still are today.
Read our article, The History of The Smiths for even more moroseness!
Sonic Youth was formed in 1981, born from the no-wave and noise-rock movement of New York City. The band was made up of singer and guitarist Thurston Moore, guitarist, singer and bassist Kim Gordon, guitarist Lee Ranaldo, and a procession of different drummers throughout the years that basically ended with Steve Shelley to form the classic lineup.
The band had its humble beginnings in the genre of no wave, a movement that was taking place in New York City in the 70s and 80s. However, as time went on, they evolved into a more conventional indie rock and noise rock group, although we use the term “conventional” loosely.
One of the most notable things about this band was their creativity concerning the guitar – Sonic Youth revolutionized the way rock bands treated this instrument. Not only did they use non-standard guitar tunings, but they also prepared their guitars using different tools, such as screwdrivers and drumsticks, to change the timbre of the guitar.
This was a very experimental and DIY approach to guitar playing and song writing. These techniques were unheard of before Sonic Youth came about, and so the band largely shaped and inspired the indie rock movement that followed with their creativity.
Sonic Youth played at Noise Fest in 1981. Afterwards, no wave musician Glenn Branca signed the group to his independent record label, Neutral Records.
They recorded their first five songs and released them as an EP, “Sonic Youth (EP)” through the label in 1982. It went unnoticed by many, but those who heard it reviewed it positively.
Their first album, “Confusion is Sex”, released in 1983, presented more dissonance than their first EP, which featured a more traditional post-punk sound.
The band toured in Europe and gained some popularity there. Then in 1984, their fame began to rise in New York as well.
Sonic Youth are best known for their innovations in the indie rock and punk genre. They pioneered new directions that other bands later followed.
We may as well throw in this great documentary, The Year Punk Broke, for anyone who hasn’t seen it. We found part 1 on Youtube, so good luck piecing it together (or just go find it elsewhere, it’s not hard to find).
The Strokes are a band formed in 1998 in New York City. It is made up of singer Julian Casablancas, lead guitarist Nick Valensi, rhythm guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti.
The Strokes greatly contributed to the garage rock revival movement of the early 2000’s. Their debut album “Is This It”, released in 2001, ranked #2 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Best Albums of the ‘00s, and is also one of my favourite albums.
There are two covers for this album. The one released in the UK is of a woman’s bare behind with a gloved hand resting upon it (this was actually an impromptu picture taken by photographer Colin Lane when his girlfriend came out of the shower naked). The one released in North America was a photo of particle collisions in the Big European Bubble Chamber.
Because of some controversy over a few of the band’s lyrics in the album, its release in North America was slightly delayed, and the song title “New York City Cops” had to be changed to “When It Started”. It was released in the US in October 2001 and was immediately well-received by critics.
The Strokes have said that they took inspiration from another of our most important indie bands, the aforementioned Velvet Underground. That’s actually quite fair, since both bands are very much New York bands, who are both poppy and punky at once and rely on the charisma of a sort of anti-star lead singer.
After the release of “Is This It”, the band toured worldwide, and also played as music guests on some late night shows.
The band released their second album, “Room on Fire”, in October 2003. While it was slightly less successful than its predecessor, it still received great reviews. You can listen to the song “Reptilia” from their second album below.
The band continued to grow in popularity. At the end of 2005 they released a new single, “Juicebox”. They released their third album early in 2006, “First Impressions of Earth”.
The Strokes took jangling 70s punk and updated it with their own spin. They gave voice to their fellow New York punk musicians, and they also spurred a British revolution, headed by the Libertines and the Arctic Monkeys.
In fact, in the song “Star Treatment” from the Arctic Monkeys’ latest album, Alex Turner sings “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes”, showing the influence the Strokes had over many other bands who formed in the 2000s.
Speaking of Arctic Monkeys, they are the last band on my list. Arctic Monkeys have been my favourite band for a long time now. They’ve been around a while and they have definitely helped to shape the current indie rock scene.
Arctic Monkeys formed in Sheffield, England in 2002. The band is made up of Alex Turner on lead vocals, guitar and piano, Matt Helders on drums and vocals, Jamie Cook on guitar and keyboards, and Nick O’Malley on bass guitar and backup vocals.
Their debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” was the fastest-selling debut album in UK chart history, and the second fastest-selling indie rock album in the US.
The band started off playing small gigs in the early 2000s around their hometown, Sheffield. At their gigs, they gave away the 18-song demo that they had burned onto a CD, now called “Beneath the Boardwalk” to build a fan base in the town.
In May 2005, Arctic Monkeys released their first single, “Five Minutes with Arctic Monkeys” through their own record label. It featured the songs “From Ritz to Rubble” and “Fake Tales of San Francisco”. They were beginning to grow in popularity in Northern England around this time.
Then in June 2005, the band was signed by the record label Domino. They chose this record label because they admired the way it was run. Owner Lawrence Bell operated the label from his apartment and only signed bands he knew and liked.
Their first single with Domino was “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”, which flew straight to the #1 spot on the UK singles chart.
In September 2005, Arctic Monkeys released their debut album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”. The album was given wonderful praise. Here is one of my favourite songs from that album.
In 2006 Arctic Monkeys recorded the EP “Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys”, followed by their second album in 2007, “Favourite Worst Nightmare”, which received critiques that were as positive as their first album.
Their ensuing albums are as follows: Humbug (2009), Suck It and See (2011), AM (2013) and Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino (2018), as well as a live album, At the Apollo (2008).
Arctic Monkeys’ genre of music has been called indie rock, garage rock and post-punk revival. They have been highly praised for their intricate and poetic lyrics. Their early songs talk a lot about life in their town in the UK.
Their lyrics, sung in Alex Turner’s iconic deep voice and Sheffield accent, neither romanticize life nor do they deprecate it; rather, their lyrics are true, poetic, and at times sentimental.
Their songs include themes of romance (as in “505”), nostalgia (as in “Fluorescent Adolescence”), night life (as in “From Ritz to Rubble”), and personal desires and troubles (as in “I Wanna be Yours”).
The band has aggressive and upbeat songs such as “Brianstorm” and “Do Me a Favour”, danceable songs such as “Knee Socks” and “Do I Wanna Know”, and slow, sentimental songs such as “Piledriver Waltz” and “Only One Who Know”. I am always impressed by their versatility.
Critics have also noted that some of the band’s sound has been influenced by the Smiths, number 2 on this list. Personal and thoughtful lyrics are a focus of Arctic Monkeys’ music, as well as drumming and electric guitar.
Arctic Monkeys are never afraid to try new things though; in their newest album (Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino), piano is brought into the foreground more than ever before, and the album has a totally different sound to their other albums, but still retains that Arctic Monkeys essence that makes them such an amazing band.
While there are of course many other indie bands that have been influential to music over the past 50 years, these were the five that I found most note-worthy. Each band has contributed something unique and important to the indie scene.
Well, that’s it for me. Bye!
Recorder of many songs, haver of many albums. Dave has been making music for the past twenty years or so, of varying degrees of quality. He has a keen interest in studying all aspects of music history, especially experimental genres like krautrock and no wave.