10 Times Houston, Texas Made Indie Rock History
Houston’s connection with early rock and then classic rock is well established, but the city remains an important source of inspiration for alternative and indie bands, too.
Local connections go all the way back to Goree Carter’s 1949 single “Rock Awhile” (said to be the very first rock and roll record) and to Elvis Presley‘s “Hound Dog” (which Big Mama Thornton first recorded for Don Robey’s hometown Peacock label in 1952). Into the next era, Houston could boast foundational connections to ZZ Top, Billy Preston (often referred to as the “fifth Beatle“) and Michael Nesmith of the Monkees.
We dug deeper into the city’s more recent role in music. Here’s a look at 10 times Houston made alternative and indie rock history.
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Sterling Morrison co-wrote iconic tracks like “Sister Ray” before quitting the proto-alternative band Velvet Underground in 1971. He informed them after a show in Houston, and Morrison ended up remaining there. Besides teaching and music, he also worked as a deckhand and then as a captain on Houston tugboats.
Iggy Pop, ‘Houston Is Hot Tonight’
Arista tried one last time to make a pop star out of Iggy Pop with Party, but the former Stooges frontman remained stubbornly weird anyway. “Houston Is Hot Tonight” finds him roaring through town atop a wave of nervy post-punk created by a crack band featuring long-time David Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar and Blondie drummer Clem Burke.
Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt moved to Houston as a youngster and began his celebrated (but sadly abbreviated) career as a singer-songwriter there. He was eventually cited as an inspirational figure for Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers, Cowboy Junkies, Caleb Followill of Kings of Leon and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth.
Beck, ‘Lord Only Knows’ (1996)
Beck‘s typically expressionistic lyrics obscure the meaning of this song, which also provides his breakout album Odelay with its title. In order words, “lord only knows.” That said, there’s no denying his country-tinged enthusiasm about a trip to Houston, where Beck intends to “do the hot-dog dance” and, more confusingly, “get me some pants.”
Whitley was born in Houston, and he died – at just 45, after a cancer battle – in Houston. But the doomed blues-rocker wandered for much of the time in between, drawing in fans as diverse as Tom Petty (for whom he opened), Iggy Pop, Don Henley, Joe Bonamassa and Keith Richards. Along the way, he collaborated with Dave Matthews, Blondie Chaplin, Jeff Lang, Bruce Hornsby and others.
Discovered by Kid Rock‘s manager while playing a Houston live music venue, Blue October scored a No. 31 Billboard Hot 100 single with “Hate Me” from their 2006 platinum-selling album Foiled. That kicked off a string of five studio releases that reached the Top 30, highlighted by the No. 8 2011 album Any Man in America.
Steve Earle, ‘Home to Houston’
When Steve Earle talks about returning to Houston in this rockabilly-influenced track from 2004’s The Revolution Starts Now, it’s not an empty cliche. Long before this respected singer-songwriter collaborated with the Indigo Girls, Sheryl Crow and the Pogues, Earle lived there. He met early hero Townes Van Vandt in Houston, as well as his first wife.
Reverend Horton Heat, ‘Livin’ on the Edge (of Houston)’
This feverish song, first released on 1993’s Full-Custom Gospel Sounds, stands as a terrific example of the psycho-billy subgenre personified by the Reverend Horton Heat. Born Jim Heath, he grew up in Texas’ Coastal Bend area – giving “Livin’ on the Edge” a distinctively autobiographical bent.
Tom Waits, ‘Fannin Street’
Tom Waits memorializes the old flop-house reputation of Houston’s Fannin Street. This is actually his own 2006-era version of a song included on John P. Hammond’s Waits-produced album Wicked Grin from five years before. The area has since seen a wave of revitalization, with the last dive bar reportedly boarded up about a decade ago.
Arcade Fire are based in Montreal, but Win Butler grew up – along with his brother and bandmate Will – just outside of Houston in the Woodlands. Their dad Edwin Butler II was a geologist for Halliburton in Houston. Butler moved to Canada to attend McGill University, where he met future wife Regine Chassagne. They co-founded Arcade Fire in 2001.