Beyond Grunge: the History of the North West Underground

Think you know grunge? You don't know grunge. Because grunge was just an easy label, one that mostly codified a few bands around one city and one label and left many more out . A new compilation CD, 'No Seattle: Forgotten Bands of the North-West Grunge Era 1986-97', seeks to re-paint the picture by uncovering some of the bands from America's north-west who were neither grunge, nor from Seattle, yet who were contemporaries of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. You won't recognise many (or indeed, any) of the names, but behind their fierce independence and punk rock drive lies a creativity that deserves note even now.

Here, Nick Soulsby - who wrote the album's sleevenotes - explains his continued fascination with the music from the region.

People aren't keen on complexity. Complexity isn't solved by “make it so Number One.” Unresponsive to being hit on the head with a cartoon mallet, it doesn’t fit on a single PowerPoint slide and the villain of the piece rarely receives neat comeuppance. Complexity essentially erases the possibility of the happy ending. That open-endedness, the lack of a tidy conclusion is so unsettling that one of the most common characteristics of the horror film genre is to end with the villain’s whereabouts still unknown, the survival of the hero/heroine still in doubt – complexity is a horror story.

So what if I said that the album I’d like to discuss is all about restoring complexity to an over-written but under-appreciated musical era? The Horror! The Horror! Soul Jazz Records' No Seattle: Forgotten Sounds of the North-West Grunge Era was a reaction to what I feel is an over-simplification, a reduction, of an expansive and diverse moment in music to an easily consumed stereotype; a mere morsel made of what was a feast. Heck, the 50th anniversary episode of British sci-fi series Doctor Who was able to casually joke of the Doctor’s “…grunge phase, he grows out of it,” in the safe knowledge that everyone knows what grunge means – so safe it’s now a Saturday night TV punch-line.

Sub Pop did a stunning job selling a package – you know in your mind what grunge was thanks to what they said it was 25 years ago: long-haired guys from Seattle with a week’s worth of stubble (and dire need of a laundrette) playing punk-inflected hard rock dirges. That’s it. Story over. Except it isn’t. Think about it, it’s ludicrous. Even the quintessential ‘Seattle’ bands didn’t originate in Seattle – there was a world and several years (an age in music culture) between a Soundgarden and a Pearl Jam – and the bands who actually made it onto major labels were only a tiny percentage of what was going on musically in that upper left corner of America.

Forget about that though; it’s easier just to remember the ABC: hair, dirt, hard rock. Stay ironic, joke about it so you can pretend it’s not corrupted. Not working? Alright then, I’ll put away the fairy story and tell what I feel is the greater truth and maybe explain the beauty in No Seattle.

The record label focused on what it could sell. That’s no disgrace – they had to eat, they wanted to be heard, they had bills to pay – this was business, not a charity. They had a Henry Ford conveyor belt production methodology with a house sound and style – it’s cheaper that way – any model so long as it’s black or, ideally, coloured vinyl. Each release had Sub Pop written right alongside the band name. They made themselves the home of the hair metal bands it was OK to like. This was no revolution: Mötley Crüe, Metallica, Guns n’ Roses had already pulled the trick of welding punk elements to hard rock. Indie labels often scraped through by virtue of one band on the roster selling enough to fund the rest, or one band getting bought up by a major – an anti-corporate philosophy was a recipe mostly for failure with integrity. Sub Pop, as a label, was set up to bankroll Soundgarden and sell them on. Sub Pop’s business strategy never changed after that, it just took time to find a band with a shot at glory. Sub Pop funnelled bands that looked close to, but not quite like, existing rock chart successes onto major labels – then Nirvana cash kept the label afloat long enough to become a corporate subsidiary.

No Seattle isn’t a rejection – I grew up on the grunge era, I love all that. But 20 years of being sold and re-sold the same tale of rebellious wild-men from the North-West because it was easy for the media, profitable for the majors who now own the core bands, comfy for the half-way-house labels and bands? It leaves me a bit jaded. Was it only one sound, one style up there? No. We saw so little of the music of the North-West because once the handful of easy names were snatched up, the industry declared the region dead and moved on down the road. California punk revivalists were next, then rap-metal once it had lost its rage against the machine and embraced thuggish egotism. That left 90% of the bands in the North-West still there, still playing same as it ever was. No Seattle isn’t about grunge, it’s about what was there around it, before it, after it. It's about giving the North-West back its glorious technicolour hues – all the music around what we were shown.

Name the appeal? ‘Run Around’ by Starfish and its slamming chorus, its energetic chants are akin to the powerful female-fronted bands of the Nineties like Hole — singable, in tune with their pop side. I love the unconventional structure too: the subdued intro, the tense quiet of the first verse before the song explodes into that chorus that swallows the rest of the song whole. Favorite song on the record? Medelicious’ ‘Beverly’. A friend described it as “a cross between Nirvana’s cover of ‘Molly’s Lips’ and ‘I Wanna be Sedated’ by The Ramones.” It’s that energy, that happy embrace of simplicity and enthusiasm that marks any good pop rock song. I could keep going, there are innumerable moments that made me want to see this music out there whether that meant Jaime Robert Johnson’s beautifully sonorous annunciations, Shug’s dexterous twists, purrs and shrieks, My Name’s post-hardcore musical punch or Yellow Snow’s echoes of early Eighties new wave with the keyboard flourishes and echoed vocals.

Helltrout re-formed in 2010

The compilation is not a recapitulation of Kurt Cobain’s endlessly resuscitated Top Fifty Albums list. It is, however, representative of the music culture surrounding his band. On a historical level this is a stroll through the bands and individuals who served their apprenticeships on the same stages as the future ‘last great rock band.’ Nirvana’s first six shows in 1987 were played alongside just ten bands; No Seattle features Nirvana’s then drummer, two of those bands and musicians from a further two. At the other end of the time scale, Nirvana played a mere five shows in Washington State in 1992-1993. Here, No Seattle presents three of the twelve support bands present, plus members of a further three. The ‘Six Degrees of Nirvana’ game (also featured within the booklet accompanying the set) is just numerical trivia, sure, but this is a fuller picture of the bands Nirvana surrounded themselves with when at home than anything else out there – this was their community.

Nirvana is the elephant wedged halfway along the fret-board. Without that band’s meteoric career it’s unlikely that I, a mere 14 years old in 1994, would be listening to, or appreciating the bands on No Seattle. Furthermore, without Kurt Cobain’s violent death it’s unlikely that I, a 34 year-old adult, would have been impacted deeply enough to want to convert that teenage enthusiasm into a cultural artefact in 2014. Death remodels all that has come before, creates the deceptive stillness of unending doubt and it’s this unceasing uncertainty that gives a cultural item its longevity. Since early 2012 this question has inhabited my mind day-in, day-out; I permanently question whether writing of Kurt Cobain, turning his influence into fresh work, is a betrayal and an exploitation of him. I’d consider it a sin to confuse my personal journey with a wider truth – you should judge me. But I’d still say the music on the No Seattle compilation deserves to be heard – the musicians are decent souls who have stayed true to their desire to play music, pursued it outside the Seattle spotlight, inspired the same crowds of friends as more famous offspring of the region and I think their music stands on its own merits and creates a far more diverse picture of what was happening during that period.

I asked Bruce Pavitt what made him proudest about Sub Pop and he responded “Letting people know that culture starts at home. You have to support local scenes and independent artists if culture is going to move forward.” Soul Jazz kindly chose to dedicate a page to listing the bands that musicians on No Seattle currently dedicate their time to; that’s the open end – a whole new culture, scene and set of independent artists still moving forward. One worth supporting. One of the few joys Nirvana seemed to find in their stardom was in using it to promote the music of others. Do I think the surviving members of Nirvana might be proud to know they were still inspiring people such as I to get independent music some small share of the spotlight? I’ve never asked the question until now – and I don’t know the answer either. What I do know is that I’m personally very proud to play some tiny role in taking others’ punk to the masses…

No Seattle ... is released on 8th September via Soul Jazz Records. Nick writes about Nirvana and their continued influence on his blog.

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