Our SS17 campaign pays homage to the musical movement of Grunge, a genre that reshaped the musical landscape as well as influencing youth culture and fashion around the globe. Over the next few months Tom Ojendyk, expert on and sometime contributor to legendary record label Sub Pop Records will be taking us through a Grunge journey, from the music’s origins to its lasting legacy.
PT. 1 THE ORIGINS OF GRUNGE
Grunge is like obscenity, it’s hard to define, but you know it when you hear it. While noted bands Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney all sounded different, there were some commonalities: they were loud, they favored old, discarded fuzz pedals, they came from the underground music scene, and above all, they rocked unapologetically. Generally seen as a Washington State phenomenon, early grunge bands took advantage of the media isolation to create a musical form that is still influential 20–30 years later.
The origin of the term “grunge” is debatable, but it was popularized by Sub Pop Records in the mid-to-late ‘80s to describe the label’s roster. Most basically, it means a fusion of punk and metal; more specifically, Grunge happened when the punks outgrew the orthodoxy of hardcore, slowed down the music, and grew their hair. They re-discovered sludgy pre-punk bands like the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, and The Sonics. They mixed it with less hardcore-related bands like Die Kreuzen, Tales of Terror, and Black Flag. They followed the lead of Midwestern noise rock bands, like Killdozer and Big Black, and of Australian guitar rock bands, like The Scientists and Feedtime.
GRUNGE AND SEATTLE
Like most American cities, Seattle had a healthy, though largely undocumented, hardcore punk scene. Bands like the Fartz, 10 Minute Warning, the Vains (featuring a pre-Guns and Roses Duff McKagan), the Drills, Deranged Diction, and Mr. Epp and the Calculations played speedy, aggressive, sarcastic hardcore. Some were lucky enough to release a 7” single or place a song on a compilation release before breaking up, and members of a few others later formed key grunge bands.
The definitive document of the early years was Deep Six, a 14-song compilation C/Z Records released in 1986. While compilations like the Seattle Syndrome series captured earlier northwest post-punk bands, Deep Six was the first to showcase the burgeoning Grunge sound. The record debuted The Melvins, Soundgarden, Skin Yard, and pre-Mother Love Bone band Malfunkshun, as well as The U-Men and Green River, who both already had releases under their belts.
SUB POP RECORDS
Although record label C/Z may have arrived first, Sub Pop, with its goal of world domination, gave the scene fuel, releasing seminal early records by Green River, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Tad, and… Nirvana. Grunge’s aesthetic was formed here: engineer and producer Jack Endino gave the records a damp, fat bottom end, Charles Peterson’s black and white photography emphasized the chaos and viceral nature of the live shows, and Linda Owens, Lisa Orth, Art Chantry, and Jane Higgins tied the package together with distinct graphic design. The early records created an underground buzz about not just the music, but also about the label, much as Manchester’s Factory Records defined a strand of UK post-punk. (Sub Pop was perhaps cheaper, scuzzier, and more soaked in beer).
TOUCH ME, I’M SICK
No record epitomized grunge more than Mudhoney’s debut single, “Touch Me, I’m Sick.” At two and half minutes, the song was a contagious primal rock therapy blast heard around the world, or at least, by hungry underground rock fans and hipper UK music journalists. The characteristic sound came from turning the knobs all the way to ‘broken’ on their Big Muff and Superfuzz pedals—tools important enough to the band’s sound that they named their debut EP after them. Mudhoney were the best and brightest of that era, and the longest lasting.
Compared with their peers, Tad had a more obvious heavy metal influence. Tad’s music was smarter and funnier than a lot of people gave them credit for — and also more controversial. At any given moment, the band was just as likely to be holding chainsaws as they were court summons. Tad released three essential records on Sub Pop before jumping to a major label. Unlike Nirvana and Soundgarden, however, Tad sadly failed to cross over and broke up in the late 1990s.
THE BIRTH OF NIRVANA
Nirvana were initially seen as the Melvins’ younger brothers and played countless shows in neighboring towns before playing their Seattle debut at a near empty bar. After the success of their debut record on Sub Pop, Bleach, the band signed with Geffen who initially expected the band to sell around a couple hundred thousand records. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released in late 1991 and by 1992, the band knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top spot on the Billboard charts.
Once Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains blew up, the major labels flocked to Seattle and offered contracts to anyone with a flannel shirt and a Fender Jaguar. Some bands did okay, some fell through the cracks, some had their records instantly relegated to the discount bins, and some saw their master tapes sit hopelessly in a closet collecting dust because the label had expected something prettier.
I mentioned Tad already, but there was also Blood Circus and Swallow and Cat Butt—bands that gigged constantly and released records and still sometimes play the odd reunion show. There was Feast and Bundle of Hiss, who never got around to releasing records and who are remembered (fondly) because they appeared on flyers with soon-to-be famous bands. And although Sub Pop’s sound was always more diverse than grunge, they label deliberately widened their scope and released material by non-Northwest bands like The Fluid, Babes in Toyland, L7, Hole, and England’s The Hypnotics.
It’s funny now to look back and see ‘grungewear’ in high street shops and on runways. The iconic clothing—flannel, torn jeans, and of course Dr. Martens — was always more about function than fashion. Cold, rainy climates required warm shirts and durable shoes. It was neither fashion nor anti-fashion, that it looked right was simply accidental.
While the Grunge Boom is long over, and while Seattle’s economy has dramatically changed, the ideas of individuality and that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously still remain vital parts of the cultural landscape. Conformity and pretentiousness aren’t worth the effort.
Stay tuned for more articles from our Grunge Season over the coming weeks.
Imagery by Charles Peterson.