Recently I was reading an interview with Seattle Rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot. He was discussing an up and coming artist here in Seattle named Ayron Jones who draws inspiration from the early 90s music scene here. He made some comments in an interview with the PI about a whole lot of Seattle music industry people, artists included who would rather the Grunge label and everything they thought it represented would be better off left to the dustbins of history. In Mix’s words: “In my opinion, Seattle, kind of, I don’t know what happened, somebody put the fire out.”
Also recently I watched a series of interview segments on KCTS with rather influential Seattle music scene folks, club owners, promoters and whatnot, and I was struck by some comments made that Grunge was not something that a lot of industry people here wanted representing Seattle, as if it was their job as custodians of the scene to decide what best music should in fact represent Seattle. I find this to be the height of pretentious arrogance.
I also quite frankly have tired of reading articles in the weeklies here written by 20-somethings and Millennials who were maybe all of 2-years-old when things were really cookin’ here back in the day. Never shy of slagging on what they feel is an antiquated music form, they seem to believe that Grunge was some sort of full blown movement, an army of melancholy downer people marching in step to the sounds of doom, clad in flannel. The famous premier indie radio station here in Seattle might play a song from Nirvana or SG from time to time, but for many years now in no way have they been supportive of any new music reminiscent of that magic window in time that was the early 90s.
The idea that music of the that time was negative, angst fueled and good for little else is just ridiculous. Songs that are grounded in social awareness and serious subject matter are not negative, they merely reflect reality. Is this not more interesting than the escapism and auto tuned conformity of the spent cell phone gazing indie rockers or the pseudo nu-folk popular in music today?
Grunge was not a movement. Grunge is not a monolithic musical genre. It was not a targeted reaction to the corporate cheese ball metal pop of the 80s Sunset Strip, it had nothing to do with that. Grunge is a misnomer born out of hype and little else. Do you have to be from Seattle to be labeled Grunge? Nirvana does not sound like Pearl Jam does not sound like Soundgarden does not sound like Alice in Chains does not sound like Screaming Trees does not sound like Mudhoney does not sound like Hammerbox.
Now, I know kids today have some attention issues and focus can wander after a song or two, and I am sure that some of you have Grunge playlists with songs that are all very similar. However these bands made albums and if you listen to a few complete albums you would recognize just how diverse the sounds coming out of Seattle were at the time.
There was a lot more focus on music back then. It was more mystic. The music and the words and the feeling of belonging people got from the great Live Shows of the time was different. Nobody had a cell phone in 1990. Engaging in social media meant going to the show! It made for a far better energy I think.
Back in the day, the late 80s and early 90s, I lived and had a band in my hometown Missoula, Montana. Although we did not live here in Seattle, I was able to meet, become acquainted and even friends with quite a few very well known musicians of that time by, putting on and playing shows with them in Missoula, as well as having a great time, every time, on our frequent visits to see friends and shows out here in Seattle.
I can tell you unequivocally that in my experience none of the artists I knew ever referred to themselves as Grunge. In fact, it was a frequent topic of jest, as to just what that term even meant, dirt stuck in the treads of your boots — a greasy sink trap perhaps? The artists I knew did not find it flattering that people were calling them Grunge. I have heard the term originated from Mark Arm describing the dirty or grungy guitar sounds him and Steve Turner are so rad at, most likely from a Fender Twin and a Super Fuzz Big Muff or Vintage Rat distortion pedal. But like so many things, the label stuck and became overblown.
What happened in Seattle was nothing short of extraordinary. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains collectively have sold well over a 100 million albums worldwide. For a city this size it rivals the Motown scene in Detroit in the 60s. It is a feat I am sure the likes of which we will not see again, and no, Thrift Shop does not count.
The origins of what went down here are far more organic and have a far longer history than I think most people realize. The music industry of the 70s and 80s was a corporate juggernaut. At that time Americans spent more money buying music than on just about any other entertainment diversion. It was a gold mine. Commercial Radio play was dominated by a payola system that ensured you would only hear what the major labels were willing to sell. Distribution and retail space were also very tightly controlled.
Meanwhile though, the counterculture of the 60s persisted and the punk ethos of being different and doing it yourself really took hold. What began to happen with the rise of the FM radio format in the early seventies was that radio stations began popping up on college campuses throughout the country. This was a huge turn events because now records that were not on big corporate labels, that were not mainstream, began to be heard. By the 80s college radio had become a big deal. The college Music Journal began tracking charts, independent labels were popping up everywhere and so were small independent records stores like Rockin Rudy’s in Missoula for instance who were well stocked with Twin Tone records from the Twin Cities, Caroline records from the East, SST in California, Rough Trade, IRS, Enigma, Touch and Go from the Midwest and later Sub Pop from here in Seattle.
The cassette tape which also came into use in the early 80s was a revolution, it was the first wide spread music sharing medium as well as the first real DIY recording medium for many many bands of the time. Along with all the indie labels putting out largely unknown bands on real records, the cassette tape allowed tons of bands to record and distribute their own stuff on the cheap, my band and every band I have ever known did this. Before cassettes, putting out a record meant a real recording studio, reel to reel tape recordings, a vinyl master, no small feats for poor unsigned artists. The cassette tape allowed for the wide spread discovery of some very famous bands.
What drove more people to this burgeoning underground counterculture or alternative scene was a a reaction to not just the canned corporate music of the day but also even more so to the political realities of that time. With Reagan and the conservatives firmly in control in the 80s, the conservative culture wars were renewed with vigor. Conservatives waged war against people who like to smoke weed and People of Color under the guise of the War on Drugs, they waged war against and fought for even greater censorship of art, film and music, they publicly made light and made fun of Gay People and people with AIDS. Conformity was the order of the day, and if you had long hair, wore earrings, or heaven forbid skateboarded, in much of the country you were not only on the outs from the mainstream, you were considered a deviant.
The 80s were also the last days of the cold war. Conservatives pumped up the Military Industrial Complex and preached fear of nuclear holocaust at every turn, remember “The Day after”? We were taught early in school the enemy was out there ready to obliterate us at any moment for reasons that made no sense and were not to be challenged. Despite of and because of all this, the alternative counterculture grew and attracted more and more fans, big things were happening fast, by the late eighties the Berlin Wall was rubble and the Soviet Union was no more. It was an exciting time and it seemed like people all over the world were just itching to bust out and live free.
Just as people in the 60s gravitated toward folk music as inspiration and and a soundtrack of change, the same thing was happening in the late 80s with millions of people around the world who were tired of being oppressed, tired of being discriminated against and wanted to rage. At the same time, built on the now fully established college radio scene was a touring circuit of college gigs on campuses that drew good crowds and paid well. Alternative music and the music of the northwest began to spread like wildfire.
What really set the northwest bands apart was the spirit of the same ethos that drove the punk scene of the 70s. Be different. Just as punk and metal bands of the 80s began to play faster and faster songs. Bands in the northwest starting with the Melvins and a little bit later Soundgarden began to play slower and slower songs. Songs took on heavier grooves, guitar riffs became bigger and longer, odd time signatures were heard. Musical Styles were mixed in a new way that Hippies, Punks, Metal Heads and Rockers all dug. Under it all was the subject matter of social awareness, the desire to be heard and accepted, and it reverberated with people everywhere.
There is no real difference — in my opinion — between Punk and Grunge. The punkest band in the room at CBGBs in the mid 70s was Talking Heads playing Psycho Killer, for a room full of folks who came to hear something like the Ramones. The punkest thing in Seattle in the early 90s was Beat Happening opening up for Fugazi and being berated by an ignorant unappreciative crowd that didn’t get it. Ian McKaye chastised the crowd, Fugazi played their set and never played Seattle again. Doh!
What also really set the bands here apart and really drew people’s attention in my opinion were the voices of the bands. They had Soul. They sang about real issues that mattered personally and they were all so unique in doing it. Are there many voices more distinctive than those of Kurt Cobain or Mr. Mark Lannegan? What do you think Kurt would have sounded like auto-tuned, all air brushed and glossy? The level of skill and tone of Chris Cornell, Layne Staley, and Carrie Akre especially for me personally should be well noted. These are some of the greatest voices ever to be heard in modern rock music. It is a testament to good music education in the schools here I think. But again, do you think they used auto-tune? No, it could only have detracted and besides it was not available then let alone the industry standard air brushing practice that it is now.
It is no small wonder that the scene exploded with Nirvana at the tip of the spear. The level of talent concentrated here at the time still boggles the mind. An amazing generation of local talent not seen concentrated anywhere since. They had the soundtrack, they had the musical chops and they were able to capture the same feelings so many people did with all that was happening in the world and they were able to express that it in an incredibly eloquent and powerful way. That is what it is all about and Seattle should be very proud.
I remain optimistic. Interests ebb and tide, but you can’t keep good music down for long, and there have been some signs of attitudes toward Rock thawing by the established local music folk here in Seattle. So call it whatever you want, but you should know some context and history of how it all came to be, and above all else have a little respect for what a truly amazing thing it was that happened here because you probably won’t see anything like it again.