OK, I had nothing to do with this image. It’s important to say that because I think it’s a gorgeous photo – sorry my photo of the art doesn’t do it justice. I’m used to parodies of the Nirvana ‘Nevermind’ cover art…But this is beautiful in its own right and the choice has other levels – the crystal blue eyes, the baby blonde hair, the artist has picked a dead ringer for Cobain as a boy. Why does it matter to me? Well, it’s precisely why I thought Soul Jazz were a good label to speak to – they actually really think about what they’re doing and even this image from inside the CD case has been considered and chosen specifically. Plus, the release is a real snapshot of the musics and bands surrounding Kurt Cobain during the time he spent playing in the State of Washington before fame took him off elsewhere primarily playing LA and Europe (because that’s where the business people and the music media live – primarily – so that’s where every band has to end up eventually…)
So! Track listing – sorry for the delay – plus I’ve only had time to add my personal thoughts on the first disc – I’ll deal with disc two in a day or so (apologies! Give me time!):
CD 1 –
Starfish ‘This Town’
This kinda exemplifies the influence of the North West for me – it’s a band that transplanted itself to Texas (not uncommon actually, Maria Mabra of Shug – also on this release – also moved there with friends) once the corporate influx had started wiping out old Seattle – but remained composed primarily of State of Washington natives. Ronna and Jason had been in Treehouse and Helltrout respectively (among other outfits), both a presence on the Olympia scene and toward the rock end of the spectrum – neither was going to get picked up by K Records even if K were happy to support them live. I think it’s a great start not just because of the song title harking to that sense of Seattle as a title that’s become a substitute for a whole diverse range of sounds and musical outposts in the North-west, but also because I think it’s a great track. It reminds me of the Breeders and also shows what an influence Nevermind had across that decade – it was OK for underground bands to sound polished, sound good. The support of King Coffey’s label (he of Butthole Surfers fame) plus Bob Mould on production is a good demonstration of the intertwining of the NW and other alumni of what had emerged from the underground decade of the Eighties.
Vampire Lezbos ‘Stop Killing the Seals’
Vampire Lezbos played on March 19, 1988 at the Community World Theater in Tacoma – the night Nirvana first performed under their now immortalised name. It shows a lot about the company Nirvana were keeping – punk with twists and thrills, I love the vibe of the intro prior to the pedals to the metal verses, the way the song deviates so completely from the earlier punk template but still stays true to certain elements of it. It seemed important to have a political element on the record given how significant it would become to the guys from Nirvana later on in life plus given it was so crucial to the underground throughout the Eighties – it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the bands who made it big wanted to talk about gender, equality, the Gulf War, environmentalism given that willingness to comment was woven into the music scene a decade earlier. Oh, plus, I liked that it was a song that had a point but kept it kinda fun – it’s serious and makes me smile all at once.
Nubbin were present at the Gulf War demo in January 1991, the night Nirvana bid farewell to playing the Evergreen State College – George Smith had already been a member of Dangermouse, another band Nirvana encountered in their early 1987 gigs in Olympia. This is where I feel Nirvana were circa the Blew EP – a combination of pop and rock, plenty of fuzz keeping things bouncing along.
Saucer ‘Jail Ain’t Stopping Us’
I had such a surprise when I put the CD on my stereo and realised that the MP3 file I’d been listening to had lost that entire second guitar track – the one that sounds like a piano (note: it might actually be a piano…) Saucer, of course, played Nirvana’s secret show in Bellingham in late 1992 – post Nirvana’s fall out of the media’s grace – and are representative of what was an isolated but fertile scene to the north of Seattle. It’s kinda what I wanted to show when I suggested the release to Soul Jazz, that there was plenty going on across this incredibly large state that had nothing to do with Seattle. Sound-wise, the souring guitars on the choruses, the breakdown three minutes in allowing the bass to rumble – I love it – the incorporation of layered vocalists to provide a depth…It’s pop…It’s still punk…Nirvana weren’t alone in heading toward this arena.
Machine ‘Blind Man’s Holiday’
For most of it’s first year Nirvana was a Tacoma band – it’s where they played, it’s who they were surrounded by. Machine have the same roar Nirvana were toying with on Bleach with grittier vocals more in line with the punk layers from down in LA like Epitaph, Alternative Tentacles and so forth. This is the kind of company Nirvana were keeping when they weren’t being dispatched on Mudhoney and Tad tours for Sub Pop from 1989 on. It’s also the band who set up Nirvana’s farewell to Tacoma in January 1990 at a venue called Legends…
I’m OK if you wanna criticise my taste – but I love this song. I love the chugging guitar, this’d be a hit in the hands of a modern skate-punk outfit because it’s got that exact vibe of the stripped down verse, then the all-in chorus. Some people would call it the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ dynamic or the Pixies dynamic…I think its more akin to bands like Green Day or later outfits – and that’s not an insult. The simplicity of the lyrics, the love song theme as well as the psychedelic touches from the two minute mark appeal hugely. Is it teenager? Sure. Is that wrong? Nope. It’s simply damn good fun and I think it’s well positioned near the mid-mark of the record.
Hitting Birth ‘Same 18’
Hitting Birth are awesome. The leader has a charming tendency to criticise how his band sounded in studio claiming they couldn’t quite capture their live vibe…But this is a stellar track. It reminds me of the kinds of industrial sounds COIL were playing with at this point (and Coil are pretty well royalty in my musical universe). The siren sounds, the drums calling all to the night ceremony, the calls and shrieks in the background all add to the ambiance – I can’t tell if it’s darkness or flaring light. Play this in a darkened room and hear those saw blades tearing down the work bench toward the trapped hero of the piece…It’s cinematic and definitely studio music. Hitting Birth shared the New Year’s Eve show in 1990 in Portland – it felt right to have Portland here. It’s one of the three towns Nirvana played the most, it’s an incubator for so much music but has never suffered quite the same corporate ‘strip-mining’ of the music scene that Seattle endured. Also Hitting Birth’s musical collective vibe was something shared with bands like Distorted Pony and Crash Worship – bands Nirvana played with in their first year…I can’t help but wonder what impact seeing massed outfits with a theatrical awareness had on Nirvana’s developing live show – they’re half the whirlwind they became known as until late in 1989.
Nubbin are so listenable. This is a more muscular track than Windyyy – a lot more rock touches here. John Goodmanson handled production on both songs – a man famous for giving Nirvana their first radio play on KAOS in 1987 having been part of Dangermouse – this guy got everywhere in the years to come, another one of the crucial producers of the North West who doesn’t get too much mention. The vocal tones make me think new wave – that neat held note as well as the underrated funkiness of the chorus line. Timo Ellis is an incredibly prolific musician with dozens of albums available on his Soundcloud – it’s an honour doing some tiny thing to draw attention to some small part of his work.
Crunchbird ‘Woodstock Unvisited’
Love the voice – the intoned words on the verses blend into the instruments, it’s that sense of listening to a genuine stated via poetry then via music. Cobain likewise was underrated for how much of his music commences as poetic phrases or entire verses on paper – he was a writer not a live improvisor. I thought Woodstock Unvisited was a great reference – the festival that marks the high point of the hippy era, became the ‘kill a hippy’ slogan of the punk era and it’s legacy marks the end of the great era of alternative rock when Woodstock 1999 became such a complete fleapit of macho scumbags, sexism, outright criminality and rape. There’s a glorious piece called Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation? (http://www.avclub.com/article/part-10-1999-by-the-time-we-got-to-woodstock-99-52164) which recounts that final event and how it became such a betrayal of the openness, inclusivity and positive politics of the North-West’s early Nineties era. Crunchbird is a fair example of a band taking personal pains, disgust with much of the day-to-day and turning it into a positive sonic experience – the reference to the event book ending hippy AND alternative rock hooked me completely. Crunchbird himself is still a practising musician today (among many other angles) and, again, I think it was time for a compilation that celebrated those who continued creating, stayed focused on art for art’s sake rather than a compilation measured by how many media column inches and how many albums were sold to mainstream fratboys and their parents who liked their rebellion to stick with subjugating women and breaking stuff.
The Ones ‘Talk to Me’
Terry-Lee Hale was primarily an acoustic guitarist in a city dominated by amped up rock bands, I first heard his name via Sub Pop 200 and asked if he’d be willing to contribute to this release. He went one better and came back with a track from a band involving Seattle-uber-producer Jack Endino who was busy indulging his own country-inflected garage rock vibes alongside his (now) more famous outlets of Skin Yard and production work. Terry-Lee’s musical endeavours also ended with him heading to Europe where he found greater openness to his guitar-work and to rock music in general. Jack Endino meanwhile just continued being a totally nice guy and lending punch and intelligence to every band to come out of the alt. rock scene. Add one of their pre-Seattle becomes Famous pieces, showing that there was already a lot more going on, including Americana, long before Cobain and Novoselic teamed up with Lanegan and Pickerel from Screaming Trees to do the Jury sessions was a pleasure. Again, like Hitting Birth, there was a desire behind this compilation to show a breadth of musical styles alongside the geographic diversity and the easy-coexistence of male and female bands in a city that has become a bit stereotyped for being ‘big men with guitars and long hair and VOLUME’.
Ryan von Bargen was a regular presence on the scene, played a while in Fitz of Depression, in amidst which he spent time with this instrumental rock trio who liked to tear down house parties in the North West. Again, it’s that combination of linkages – a band actually started at a party featuring Helltrout? The entire North-west music scene seems to have centred on band houses, house parties, a core of musicians/producers/designers/label owners who all knew each other, often had lived together and who started band after band with one another. It’s another background element that inspired me to propose this record – showing a small snapshot of these twisted connections as one individual or another pops up in multiple places in numerous guises. The music scene of the North-West wasn’t about a single record label capturing the zeitgeist and selling itself to British music magazines – it was about all these creative people building their own environment from the ground up.
Thrillhammer ‘Alice’s Palace’
Nirvana encountered Thrillhammer, then in the guise of Grind, on one of their early visits through Portland at the inauguration of their first U.S. tour. The band are a presence there as Nirvana enter the wider musical world beyond the North-West and there again in December 1990 in Portland as Nirvana leaves the North West and starts playing more profitable environments under their new major label masters. The rhythm under the verses on this one hooks me – then the lightness of the choruses “so here we are, drunk on stars…” There are numerous neat images in here, the mild slur on the verses, the submerging of the words into the instrumental backing delights me. The instrumental sway appeals.
Yellow Snow ‘Take Me for a Ride’
Yellow Snow have a theme song – the Yellow Snow Theme – that I simply adore. I’ve heard three versions now, two of them are tight one/two minute rips introducing the band with this great intro line which sounds like its being spoken through a high school tannoy announcement system, the other is a full eight minute long instrumental jam with everything and the kitchen sink involved – makes me smile every time. The treated echoing vocals on this one, the keyboards, the Eighties sound – it’s a neat glance back to the era and to new wave and also to a band that just did their own thing and still got on stage at the Community World Theater alongside the hardcore punkers. It may not have sparked a wave of imitation, a new wave in music, but that’s what I admire most on here – bands just doing their own thing and somewhere in amid the various sounds something truly original will ensnare the world. Heck, if one looked back and everything sounded just like Kurt Cobain or just like Jimi Hendrix would either artist matter at all? It was this world in which musicians were actively encouraged to get up on stage and just do their thing with fear in the belly and excitement too.
Helltrout ‘Precious Hyde’
Ending on a heavy note; Helltrout pretty well take over from Nirvana as the go-to-rock outfit in the Olympia area concluding not long before Cobain departed Olympia forever. I’ve been shocked how little music featuring Dave Foster, Nirvana’s third drummer, is out there in the world – the guy has some real weight to his playing, i’m not surprised Kurt n’ co. acquire another ‘Dave’ later in their band’s life, they want that solidness. It’s a rip-roaring track and about as grunge as this record gets I think. It just shows that it was a relative matter of luck whether a band ended up on Sub Pop and became relatively big, or whether they stayed away and become one of the lost bands of the North-West. By 1990 Sub Pop was near bankrupt, was starting to spread itself a bit thin and hook in underground ‘stars’ from across the U.S., wasn’t so Seattle-focused as it had been, wasn’t as local as it had been – a band coming of age after 1990 had a lower chance of getting a deal with Sub Pop and after the deal with Universal the label was no longer ‘local music for local people.’ Ah well! That’s success!
4 thoughts on “No Seattle: Forgotten Sounds of the North-West Grunge Era – Track Listing and Commentary”
I am thé author of the picture. End or is the “model”, my beautiful daughter whi is now 16th years old, who found your post on the web…
I suppose That you Know That you are not allowed to use it withput paying Rights of use… But what you Say is so beautiful That, for once, i am j’appuie to find on the web an illégal use of une of my pictures… So, thanks! 🙂
Oh my God – it was you who took the photo?! Well, if Soul Jazz haven’t already passed on my praise (I emailed them directly to tell them how wonderful I thought it was) then may I say it directly…? Behind me on top of my stereo I like to place an LP or two on display and since SJ handed me copies of the vinyl I’ve had the cover with this photo on there. It’s gorgeous work. Genuinely happy to take it down if you wish – a sincere apology on that score.
I like very much this image…. And me and my daughter are proud for the use in reference of the Birvana record… Where do you live? I would love to have a pic of the vinyl cover on top of your stereo! could you send that to me ?
I am happy
( not i am j’appuie !!!! )