A History of Alternative Music Brilliantly Mapped Out on a Transistor Radio Circuit Diagram: 300 Punk, Alt & Indie Artists

Lump­ing millions—billions!—of peo­ple togeth­er arbi­trar­i­ly by their birth­dates sounds ridicu­lous in the abstract. But when we lump togeth­er gen­er­a­tions with clus­ters of pop cul­tur­al ref­er­ences, it always seems to give the con­cept flesh. A cer­tain cohort around the world—ye olde Gen­er­a­tion X (though few­er and few­er peo­ple prob­a­bly know where that comes from)—can mea­sure their com­mon sen­si­bil­i­ties by a con­stel­la­tion of musi­cal ref­er­ences dat­ing back to the late six­ties and for­ward to the ear­ly oughts (where­by the runts of the bunch final­ly got around to hav­ing kids and most­ly stopped leav­ing the house after din­ner).

But instead of a con­stel­la­tion for the web of con­nec­tions that some­how joins Ryan Adams, The Spe­cials, and Sui­cide, the graph­ic above (view it in a larg­er zoomable for­mat here) takes as its source the cir­cuit dia­gram for the first com­mer­cial tran­sis­tor radio from 1954, and well… “Well Done,” is all I can say. Design­er James Quail began “Alter­na­tive Love,” as it’s called, with the Sex Pis­tols, then worked his way back to David Bowie, the MC5, the Stooges, and the Vel­vet Under­ground and for­ward to The Strokes, Radio­head, the Arc­tic Mon­keys, and Arcade Fire.

These lin­eages seem fair­ly obvi­ous, as does the pro­gres­sion from the Ramones through the Smiths in the four large cir­cles in the cen­ter, which dri­ve pow­er­ful cur­rents to the dis­parate likes of Nir­vana, Depeche Mode, Shel­lac, the Human League, and Can. Does it work his­tor­i­cal­ly? Not exact­ly, but that’s hard­ly the point.

Quail’s “chart­ed his­to­ry of counter-cul­ture rock music,” writes Mar­garet Rhodes at Wired, “spills out… not in any kind of lin­ear board game way.” It start­ed with a rumor—that the audi­ence of the Sex Pis­tols’ June 4, 1976 show at the Less­er Free Trade Hall in Man­ches­ter “includ­ed guys who would go on to start bands like The Smiths, Joy Divi­sion, and the Buz­zcocks.” It might as well have jumped off from Bri­an Eno’s famous quote about every­one who bought the Vel­vet Underground’s debut album start­ing their own band. What mat­ters here is that it works: explor­ing the num­ber of intri­cate con­nec­tions between these bands with more breadth and imme­di­a­cy than most alter­na­tive cul­ture his­to­ries.

While Rhodes com­pares it to a stream­ing ser­vice that uses “musi­cal con­nec­tions to iden­ti­fy lis­ten­ing rec­om­men­da­tions,” there’s much more going on here than Pandora’s algo­rithms might man­age. You’ll find the garage rock revival­ism of Thee Oh Sees, The White Stripes, and Ty Segall pop up on your inter­net radio, but most machine intel­li­gences wouldn’t link them so neat­ly, as Quail does, with sem­i­nal, if obscure, acts like Bil­ly Childish’s 90s band Thee Head­coats or 60s garage rock­ers The Son­ics. Dorothy, the design house respon­si­ble for “Alter­na­tive Love,” allows you to zoom in on every part of the dia­gram to find lit­tle clus­ters of jan­gle pop, shoegaze, post-punk, grunge, synth pop, Brit­pop, hard­core, and neo-psych.

The blue­print, Dorothy explains, “cel­e­brates over 300 musi­cians, artists, man­agers and pro­duc­ers who (in our opin­ion) have been piv­otal to the evo­lu­tion of the alter­na­tive and inde­pen­dent music scene.” You can buy the blue­print as a poster ($45), and it will make a bril­liant gift for the mid­dle-aged music nerd in your life, as does an ear­li­er dia­gram, “Elec­tric Love,” which traces the devel­op­ment of elec­tron­ic music from Thomas Edi­son to Nine Inch Nails, using—what else?—the schemat­ic of a Theremin.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Mas­sive 800-Track Playlist of 90s Indie & Alter­na­tive Music, in Chrono­log­i­cal Order

The 120 Min­utes Archive Com­piles Clips & Playlists from 956 Episodes of MTV’s Alter­na­tive Music Show (1986–2013)

Three-Hour Mix­tape Offers a Son­ic Intro­duc­tion to Under­ground Goth Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Stuart Arentzen (Seattle) says:

    Espe­cial­ly in an arti­cle that speaks of ‘obvi­ous lin­eage’, I am still dis­mayed and dubi­ous as to why no cred­it has ever been assigned by the design­er, or by this page, to Rus­sell Mills’ design for the “Short Cir­cuit — Live at the Elec­tric Cir­cus” V/A 10″ EP for Vir­gin Records (1978). There’s a lot of talk in this arti­cle about the bril­liance of this when it real­ly appears to be a (grant­ed- nice­ly thought out and expand­ed) copy job.


  • Eric says:

    In my opin­ion, The Ramones are way over-esteemed, here. As are, Arc­tic Mon­keys, Strokes, White stripes, Pix­ies. These guys are, good, but minor play­ers.

    Way UNDER-esteemed:
    Kraftwerk, Bowie, Sui­cide, Radio­head; PLUS, sev­er­al that don’t even reg­is­ter: Bri­an Eno, John Cale, Echo & the Bun­ny­men and The Sis­ters of Mer­cy.

    My wood­en nick­el.

  • Igor says:

    Spacemen3 ?

  • Jon Ford says:

    It’s a cir­cuit *dia­gram* not cir­cuit *board*. There’s actu­al­ly a HUGE dif­fer­ence. It’s right in the main text but the head­line is wrong.

  • Jon Flynn says:

    And no Marc Bolan or T.Rex, that has to be a joke

  • Jimsin says:

    Nice to look at, but on clos­er inspec­tion it does­n’t seem to make very much sense. How are Killing Joke con­nect­ed to The Sug­ar­cubes — how are Siouxsie and The Ban­shees relat­ed to The Pogues? Heavy on style, low on sub­stance methinks.

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