Enough years have passed that we can reclaim the word “grunge” from the Puddles of Mudd and Creeds of the world and admit that the original scene was pretty damn cool. In celebration of Sub Pop’s 20th birthday, I present to you a Sub Pop Grunge (well, mostly Sub Pop) Primer. Use it to impress that scuzzy guy who hangs out at the Comet every afternoon. We’ll skip Nirvana and Soundgarden, since Seattle has already erected statues to them. And sadly, there’s not enough room to go in depth about all those awesome Lonely Moans, Mad Daddies, Cosmic Psychos, and Lubricated Goat records.
Sub Pop 100
This 1986 compilation marked Bruce Pavitt’s first foray into vinyl (the SP comps were previously all cassette). The first thing you notice about the record is that it isn’t a grunge compilation. Really, it’s rather varied; while it contains some grungy or noisy tracks by Scratch Acid and Sonic Youth, it also features experimental songs by Steve Fisk and Savage Republic. Grunge godfathers the U-Men, while not a Sub Pop band, contributed the song “Gila,” which they also included on their first EP on Russ Battaglia and Bruce Pavitt’s Bombshelter Records. Even back then, Bruce and Jon had more eclectic tastes than they are generally given credit for.
Green River: Dry as a Bone/Rehab Doll
Along with California’s Tales of Terror, Green River were one the few post-hardcore punk bands that were able to rock hard without embarrassing themselves (most crossover bands were examples of the latter). Mark Arm and company showed, even in the 1980s, that glam could exist outside of L.A. hair metal, and temporarily made it OK for punk rockers to wear long johns under their cutoffs. Green River were truly one of the essential Northwest bands, and no local music collection is complete without multiple copies of these records: some for playing, some for admiring.
Mudhoney: “Touch Me I’m Sick” (7″)
An obvious choice. While it might not be my favorite Mudhoney song (that’d be “Here Comes Sickness”), this was the record that kick-started the movement: The Madchester-obsessed English music press went nuts for “Touch Me I’m Sick.” It’s one of the few early Sub Pop singles that remains in print. Mudhoney has also accomplished the rare rock feat of remaining exciting after 20 years. Really, you can’t go wrong with any of their Sub Pop records.
Blood Circus: Primal Rock Therapy
Like Cat Butt and Swallow, Blood Circus were one of the rare early Sub Pop bands that didn’t become major-label rock stars. Raw, loud, and bred on a steady diet of Motörhead, MC5, and the Melvins, Blood Circus pretty much epitomized grunge in its purest, pre-commercialized form. The CD reissue also includes their first single, “Six Feet Under,” which in a perfect world would have been the “Louie, Louie” of the turgid Alternative Nation years.
Sub Pop 200
Not only does this compilation include all the biggies, but it also features the coulda-woulda-shoulda grunge bands (Swallow, Cat Butt, Blood Circus), bands not normally associated with the “Seattle Sound” (Chemistry Set, the Nights and Days, Girl Trouble), and some “Who would have thought they would be on this comp?” artists (Terry Lee Hale, Walkabouts, the late Steven Jesse Bernstein). Steve Fisk was the only holdover from Sub Pop 100, and The Fluid were the lone non-Washingtonians on the compilation. Along with C/Z’s Deep Six, this record defined Seattle in the late ’80s.
Tad: Salt Lick (EP)
Tad himself might consider this record flawed, but in my humble opinion it ranks with early Jesus Lizard among the best metallic post-punk grunge. Steve Albini fiddled the knobs here, maximizing Kurt Danielson and Steve Wied’s punishing rhythm section. Some melody fights through Gary Thorstensen’s squall of feedback, but only barely. This is grunge at its most self-effacing, most shambolic, most volcanic…but also most fun and most delightful. The years following Tad’s implosion haven’t mellowed Tad Doyle out: His current band, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, is if anything even heavier than Tad.
Skin Yard: “Start at the Top” (7″)
You might have passed this one over in the used bins, no doubt misled by the Red Hot Chili Peppers sticker on Daniel House’s bass guitar. But I will vouch for its grungy purity! Jack Endino may be best known as a world-renowned producer, but he is also a badass guitarist. While Skin Yard weren’t technically a Sub Pop band—they mostly recorded on C/Z and SST-offshoot label, Cruz—you can’t say you understand grunge without giving props to Skin Yard. Tragically, singer Ben McMillan (later of Gruntruck) passed away earlier this year.
Dickless: “I’m a Man” (7″)
Contrary to public perception, the grunge scene wasn’t a total sausage-fest. Babes in Toyland and L7 may have been the most successful female grunge acts, scoring major-label deals, but Dickless were the coolest. Kelly Canary screamed like a vomiting hyena (one must wonder whether she can even speak anymore), and guitarist Kerry Green sounded as though she’d wired two dying distortion pedals into a wasted amp. Needless to say, it was brilliant. Hopefully, Dickless will eventually receive the deluxe-reissue treatment.
Night Kings: “Night Kings Theme” (7″)
Seattle might not know it, but Rob Vasquez is a goddamn rock-and-roll genius: His ’80s band, the Nights and Days, were hugely underrated, and his turn-of-the-decade band, the Night Kings, were just as good. The Night Kings played garage rock (not grunge at all) minus any and all lame revival shtick. This single and the record Increasing Our High (on Steve Turner’s Super-Electro Records) will someday sell for a ton of scratch on eBay. Hopefully, the long-lost Nights and Days record will eventually get released.
Earth: EARTH 2
If you ever wondered whether any band could out-heavy the Melvins…Few people understood Earth’s drones at the time, but times changed: This record probably sells more now than it did in 1992. There really was no way Earth could follow this record up without resorting to playing “songs”; for me, they lost it until their unlikely and welcome second act on Southern Lord Records.
The Legend: “Do Nuts” (7″)
Just kidding. This one totally sucks.
Tom Ojendyk runs Lamestain, the premier “grunge blog,” with his brother Bill. Visit them at lamestainnorthwest.blogspot.com.