We Never Called It “Grunge”

 

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Old stomping grounds (h/t Seattle Coffee Scene)

A few reflections on what it was like to be a music fan in Seattle back in the heyday of the so-called “grunge” wave–provoked by the recent passing of Chris Cornell, having lived through all that in Seattle and at the time–frequenting joints like the O.K. Hotel, the Crocodile Cafe, and later on, Moe up in Capitol Hill. That whole scene now feels a bit quaint, and the current “grunge nostalgia” business now seems really bizarre to me. Maybe once was enough. Since then, I’ve moved to the opposite coast and visit home much too infrequently–most of my old haunts are no longer around, which just makes me morose.

Just after Cornell passed there was a spate of articles suggesting that with the deaths of Kurt Cobain and now of Cornell, there is only one grunge founder left, namely Eddie Vedder. That, my friends, is possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. There were dozens of bands that made that scene tick the way it did back then, and to dismiss bands like Alcohol Funnycar, Coffin Break, The Fallouts, The Fastbacks, Gas Huffer, Girl Trouble, The Gits, Green River, Gruntruck, Hammerbox, Love Battery, The Melvins, The Mono Men, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, The Posies, The Presidents of the United States of America, The Screaming Trees, Seaweed, Seven Year Bitch, Skin Yard, Sky Cries Mary, The Squirrels, Supersuckers, Tad, ¡Tch’Kung!, The Treepeople, The U-Men, or The Walkabouts, is to miss a whole lot. There are lots of folks who built that scene who are still around who don’t happen the be “the big three” that international media seized upon. Those folks are still around–some never stopped making music.

Likewise, I heard someone declare if the music wasn’t on Sub-Pop or SST then it wasn’t “grunge.” This is the second stupidest thing I’ve heard in the wake of Cornell’s passing–it assumes there was some idea of what “grunge” was at the time–there wasn’t: most fans and musicians saw what would become the “Seattle sound” as local variants on either metal or punk trends of the day, and not some sort of new thing separate from either of those. Focusing on Sub-Pop and SST ignores the hefty contributions of labels like C/Z, Estrus, PopLlama, EmPtY, K Records, Kill Rock Stars, Epitaph, Amphetamine Reptile, and Tim/Kerr, to name a few.

Couple parting thoughts: I think the whole story of whatever we think the Seattle music thing in the early 1990s was is still pretty poorly understood, particularly outside of Seattle, but maybe I was too close to see anything clearly.  I recall in 1991-92 that major labels swooped in and were signing “our” bands to lucrative contracts to try to catch Nirvana’s lightening again. It was like being in the forest and watching the loggers fell trees. Big label releases almost invariably were poor imitations of what we had grown to love, and in many cases those releases were the death knells of those bands–they only returned 20 years later to catch the nostalgia wave.

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Back cover shot for Clark Humphrey’s Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story (1995) perfectly encapsulates the embattled feeling as “grunge” became a fad.  

Going to shows in that time was also starting to get weird: frat and sorority types from the University of Washington would start showing up in Nordstrom-purchased Official Grunge Flannels™ and on at least one occasion I can recall the newcomers ended up leaving bloody–with folks from the hardcore punk end of the grunge spectrum teaching some lessons in proper decorum.

We resented the hell out of becoming a zoo exhibit in the press and being condescended to by the university students; there was a heavy working class vibe in my end of the pool and folks could see how all of this was starting to warp our little scene and make things weirder and weirder. I suspect the end of this little scene came as folks–fans and bands–started to move on, and the whole thing faded pretty quickly.

So what has any of this to do with this movie blog? Plenty. Many of these bands saw inspiration in the sort of films I talk about here: Mark Arm’s Mudhoney–arguably the most important overlooked Seattle band–takes its name from the 1965 Russ Meyer film of the same name; Poison Idea (from nearby Portland) used a bit from another Russ Meyer joint from ’65, Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! Many, many, many of the posters up around town announcing shows were clearly inspired by low-budget film movie art.

There were court-jester concept bands that added to the scene whose clear point of departure were the schlocky late night B-movies on continual reruns. Exhibit A would be The Mummies who have tracks on some of their albums named for any number of these films, but are best remembered for “You Must Fight to Live on the Planet of the Apes,” and also for dressing in costume for their raucous stage shows:

I submit Man, or Astroman as Exhibit B. I believe both The Mummies and Man, or Astroman are still around in some iteration or another:

So, since both of these things–schlocky movies and grungy post-punk are near and dear to my heart–and since they feed one another, expect to see this blog punctuated with some tunes from here on out! Let’s pretend it’s 1989 again, when we were cool, or something.

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