In the mid-1980s, Seattle had an active underground music scene that was developing both its own sound and style. Some might even describe it as a subculture. The Grunge sound formed alongside of an underground music magazine called Subterranean Pop, published by Bruce Pavitt. The magazine reported on independent record labels and the bands signed to them. Eventually, the magazine’s name was shortened to “Sub Pop.” Soon, Sub Pop began including cassette tapes of underground bands for their readers.
In 1987, Green River, a Seattle band, recorded their first album, Dry as a Bone, with Sub Pop and they were officially a record label. Sub Pop described this piece at the time as, “ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation.” Jonathan Poneman provided operating capital for the new label and became partners with Bruce Pavitt. Other Seattle artist soon followed, like Soundgarden and Mudhoney.
So, what exactly is the Seattle or Grunge sound? A couple of things smack you in the face right up front, like the guitars. They are heavily distorted and “dirty,” or the opposite of what musicians call clean. They have their roots in Punk Rock and Heavy Metal. The vocals are equally noticeable, being rather guttural, or even nonhuman, and often screamed. To round things out, the lyrical content is usually dark and angst-ridden with themes of hopelessness and suicide not being uncommon.
The attitude defining the subculture was not only found in the music. The Grunge bands didn’t look like traditional Rock music acts of the day. Instead of fancy costumes, they dressed in rip jeans with sneakers. On top was a tee shirt, often covered with an oversized flannel shirt. The appearance was very unkempt and often dirty. (See the picture of Nirvana up top.) The stage shows were rather minimalist.
Some bands moved on to eventually sign with bigger labels, such as Nirvana with Geffen Records. However, no one or thing influenced the Grunge Sound more than Sub Pop. Others, outside the Seattle area would become inspired and soon bands in other places were picking up the Grunge torch, like the Stone Temple Pilots out of San Diego, California.
Unfortunately, not every band that was picked up by a major label was successful. Maybe some record companies just were ready for Grunge. A good example is the band, TAD. They were picked up by Giant Records and released their first album with them, Inhaler, in 1993. Unfortunately, the band distributed a poster to promote the album depicting Bill Clinton, President of the United States, smoking a joint. (See the picture at the bottom.) They were quickly dropped by Giant and never saw any commercial success.
To finish up, I think it’s interesting to look at the Boston Sound in 1968 and the emergence of the Seattle Sound in the late 1980s, and how we got from one to the other. In the late 1960s, the young generation was all about the greater good. “Love your brother,” “make love, not war,” and “peace,” were among the mantras of the day. A corporate, money making entity, like MGM, just couldn’t position themselves to capitalize on the Boston Sound in that atmosphere, like we saw a couple of weeks ago. The 1960s gave way to the 1970s, which was pretty much the “Me Decade.” This led into the 1980s, which became the decade of consumerism, money and spending. (Think of Madonna’s Material Girl.) It was in this age of money that the Seattle Sound was born. While the artists of the late 60s would never sell out to the Man, everyone in the late 80s wanted to be the Man! Out of all of this came Generation X and their Nihilistic outlook that so shaped the lyrics of the Grunge Sound. Sub Pop itself was rather well known for promoting this angst driven culture. When a band would submit an audition tape, most record companies had a sugar-coated rejection letter they would use, using such phrases as, “you are not quite what we are looking for,” and “good luck.” Sub Pop was well known among Seattle bands for their rejection letters that began, “DEAR LOSER.” There was no “love your brother” in the early 90s.
So, what ever happened to Sub Pop Records? They eventually began a relationship with Warner Bros. Records, which also owned Geffen, Nirvana’s new label. (Nirvana records have both the Geffen and Sub Pop logos on their labels.) Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman disagreed on which direction Sub Pop should go. Pavit wanted to stay close to their underground roots which he embraced in its early days. Poneman, who saw it as a financial venture, wanted to take the label in a more money-making direction. After a bitter fight, Pavitt left and Poneman used the Warner Bros. connection to secure a financially bright future for Sub Pop. Today they’re a subsidiary of Warner Music Group and remain in Seattle. They have numerous, financially successful, artist signed to the label and they promote themselves as an environmentally friendly, green company.
Tomorrow Night (Sunday, December 14) I will do a two hour special of the Seattle Sound from 7-9 PM at AWT. All of the bands mentioned above will be featured.
|TAD poster for their album, Inhaler.|