1980s Seattle Underground Rock

Even though there were an increasing number of Seattle-and-thereabouts bands that had started to make a home on major labels in the early 1990s, it was the explosive one-two of Nirvana’s and Pearl Jam’s rise to fame from fall 1991 onward that fully turned the spotlight onto what was happening in the Washington state city and its environs. It wasn’t, of course, that there had been no music of note from the city before – anything but: besides famously being Jimi Hendrix’s hometown and where Quincy Jones began honing his musical skills, acts of note from the area in earlier decades included 60s garage rock legends such as Tacoma’s Sonics and the Bellevue-born classic rock stalwarts Heart. That band found a new commercial wave in the 80s even as another Bellevue act with metal leanings, Queensrÿche, also made its name. Later in the decade another local legend, Sir Mix-a-Lot, became the city’s first major hip-hop icon, while Duff McKagan, who had played in a number of Seattle bands, ended up in LA powerhouse Guns N’ Roses

But while all that was happening in the 1980s, a series of overlapping bands and scenes were making their names under the radar, supported by a thriving local atmosphere of enthusiastic club audiences, an increasing number of independent record labels and some press and college radio support, all factors that would play out in the rest of the US and beyond over those ten years. Generally speaking, punk was the ground zero of that new scene, initially showcased in compilations like Engram Records’s Seattle Syndrome Volume One in 1981. As histories of the time and place such as Stephen Tow’s The Strangest Tribe and Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town observed in further detail, punk was in ways more of a starting point than a specific code to follow in Seattle, with everything from random art weirdness to obsessive rhythm experiments to garage and psych rock revivals and more comedically-inclined work all emerging over the decade. (This doesn’t even include any number of other scenes and acts emerging elsewhere in the state, most notably Olympia and the Calvin Johnson-founded K label; Aberdeen, where Metal Church, the Melvins and Nirvana came from; and Ellensburg, birthplace of Screaming Trees and where Steve Fisk began his production career.) The real irony in the end was that far from being a triumph of the city’s many sounds, the 90s commercial grunge explosion was an ultimately frustrating simplification and rewritten history of a deeper reality.

Among the bands of lasting note who debuted on Seattle Syndrome were the Fastbacks, whose energetically bright pop/punk remains a lot better than many later bands with that tag, and the darker post-punk leaning Blackouts, featuring the earliest recorded work by future drum legend Bill Rieflin. Another act on the compilation, the Pudz, only ever released one single, the nervy clip of “Take Me To Your Leader,” but its leader Rob Morgan soon formed another legendary act, the Squirrels, who he once described as “Frank Zappa leading a prom band.” A further key early band, the U-Men, built up a high enough profile through the decade to be a touchstone for others who would follow in their wake; another act, Bam Bam, gained retrospective attention for Tina Bell’s role fronting the group as well as being one of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam stalwart Matt Cameron’s earliest drumming gigs. 

Meantime, Engram Records only made it to 1983, but by then numerous other labels were starting to emerge in their own right or would soon do so. The famed Sub Pop grew out of compilation tapes included with the original Subterranean Pop fanzine run by Bruce Pavitt, but they were far from alone; in particular there was PopLlama, initially founded by local production icon and inspiration Conrad Uno to give a recorded home to what would be an equally venerated act, the Young Fresh Fellows, itself sharing a member with the Fastbacks in the form of Kurt Bloch. There was also the first run of Green Monkey Records, providing a home for a number of acts with inclinations to catchy garage/psych sounds like the Green Pajamas and the Queen Annes; C/Z Records, whose 1985 debut compilation Deep Six, featuring acts like Soundgarden, Melvins, the U-Men and the Andrew Wood-fronted Malfunkshun, has been retrospectively claimed as grunge’s start point, and numerous other imprints.

Besides Uno, other local producers such as Jack Endino, himself a member of C/Z flagship act Skin Yard, began to make their names throughout the decade, while bands from outside the city either relocated to make a more solid go at things, such as the Walla Walla-originated Walkabouts, or began to use Seattle as a recording and performing base. Increasingly a number of performers who had started off in various earlier bands, such as Cameron, Wood, Mark Arm and many more, began forming or joining new ones that would either keep together over time or be ground zero for any number of groups – most famously Green River, whose existence and then breakup would eventually lead to bands such as Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, Temple of the Dog and Pearl Jam. But besides the eventual grunge gods, the scrappier and quirkier side of things was just as important, with bands embracing everything from pure garage rock stomp to power-pop sweetness along with purveyors of sonic sludge like Tad and Blood Circus.

By 1989, many of these groups had begun to gain more steady attention worldwide via touring and more indie-label releases while an increasingly growing number of them were making a leap to the bigger imprints. Soundgarden ended up on A&M and Mother Love Bone on Polydor, to name just two; Screaming Trees would follow them in the near future on Epic after a quick Sub Pop detour while Alice in Chains had already signed to Columbia and begun planning its own debut release. Meanwhile acts like the Squirrels, the Young Fresh Fellows and the Fastbacks were keeping on being their sharp and entertaining selves. Nirvana were just happy to have a debut album out on Sub Pop in Bleach delivering their own blasting sounds, all while even newer acts were making their first tentative stabs at getting together and playing out. When 1989 ended nobody had any real idea what the next few years would result in, but any observer should have felt that there was plenty of evidence that the decade had truly created a rich new scene in Seattle worth celebrating in its own right. Decades later, remembering that scene to the fullest is the best way to honor it.

Bleach cover

As the first full length by a now endlessly lionized band, it’s almost hard to see Bleach for what it is, especially given the slightly unstable lineup that recorded it. Famously, Jason Everman didn’t actually play but just put up the money; Jack Endino’s production makes everything sound thick, loud and enveloping. Kurt Cobain’s vocals and guitar work were captured very well, and if he dismissed most of his lyrical work here later, songs such as the cover of Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz” and the just wistful enough “About a Girl” showed Nirvana’s pop heart was strong.

Shine cover

A better appraisal of Shine, the one release Mother Love Bone put out before Andrew Wood’s untimely passing, avoids the John-the-Baptist-to-Pearl-Jam’s-messiah framing to treat the lengthy EP for what it is: a sharp, just slick enough introduction to a new combination of already established Seattle performers. Wood sounds absolutely delighted to be there, charismatic and energetic, while everyone’s collective leaning into polished hard rock ranges from “Half Ass Monkey Boy”’s semi-funk strut to the stirring, vivid balladry of “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns.”

Return To Olympus cover

The 1990s’ explosion of interest in Seattle rock music led to understandable retrospection about some of its roots, especially in the work of Andrew Wood following the posthumous success of Mother Love Bone and the Temple of the Dog tribute. Return to Olympus provided an overview of Wood’s initial group Malfunkshun, drawing on various unreleased sessions recorded in 1986 and 1987. Ted Nugent’s “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang” gets covered but there’s everything from spoken-word weirdness to frazzled feedback rampages to stately classic rock-inspired anthems.

Rehab Doll cover

Green River’s debut album was also its hard fought over swan song, the quintet eventually putting together an eight song set that was often more Sunset Strip hard rock good times than some might have admitted at the time – then again, that’s precisely why Stone Gossard, Bruce Fairweather and Jeff Ament decamped to form Mother Love Bone even before release. Mark Arm’s vocals are definitely well on their way to the later Mudhoney wounded howl, while songs like “Smilin’ and Dyin’” and the leering “Swallow My Pride” mix trashiness with a pro feel.

26 Songs cover

Though there were tapes, comp appearances and even earlier demos that later surfaced, Melvins began their standalone career as such with the 1986 6 Songs EP, later expanded to 10 Songs and finally given an overall 26 Songs version in 2003. Recorded in Seattle with future Mudhoney stalwart Matt Lukin on bass, the basic principle of ‘what if Black Sabbath founded punk rock’ was in place, short but fierce songs dominated by Dale Crover’s drums and Buzz Osbourne’s shredded vocal howl and massive riffs as on “Easy As It Was” and “At A Crawl.”

Steve Rabow’s 1982 Best of the KZAM Local Tape Extravaganza cover

While Engram Records’s original Seattle Syndrome compilation first placed the city’s scene on the punk/new wave map, it may be this collection of songs sent in to young local DJ and scene supporter Steve Rabow that’s an even truer portrait of the early 80s. Originally planned for release in 1982 and finally made available years later via Green Monkey Records, most of the artists are unknown as are the song names, but that makes this combination of DIY and proto lo-fi home recordings, some goofy and some earnest, somehow all the more engaging.

Skin Yard cover

First released in 1986 and then in an expanded and reordered version in 1990, Skin Yard’s sorta-metal sorta-post-punk debut is notable enough for being the full length debut of guitarist Jack Endino, who would soon become a producer of choice for any number of fellow Seattle bands. Handling those duties here means a thick sound for the feedback and it’s a well recorded effort in general as the quartet, with Ben McMillan’s bravura voice and Matt Cameron on a short drum stint prior to Soundgarden, cook up solid songs like “Skins In My Closet” and “Scratch.”

"Five Virgins" / Sing The Hits Of Johnny Kidd And The Pirates cover

When the Squirrels’ debut album emerged, it was split between two different lineups and names (the New Age Urban Squirrels and Ernest Anyway and the Mighty Mighty Squirrels). Rob Morgan’s enthusiastic genius remains the core, as his winning delivery on a slew of Kidd’s early rock and roll hits – not even including “Shakin’ All Over” – shows. As for the Five Virgins side, there’s uproarious Norman Greenbaum and Jerry Reed redos, not to mention the Joey Kline-sung “Me & Roger (The Cowboy and the Kid),” a most unlikely Roger Staubach tribute.

...And His Orchestra cover

While the Fastbacks had been releasing singles and EPs since 1981 it wasn’t until 1987 that they released their debut album …And His Orchestra, a slambang collection of punk/pop thrashers with girl group elan. Kim Warnick and Lulu Garguiolo’s vocals just do the business for Kurt Bloch’s songs, not to mention a blazing cover of Sweet’s “Set Me Free,” and their combined playing along with Richard Stuverud’s drumming is just a perfect rock and roll party start to stop. Other standouts include “The Light’s On You,” “K Street” and Stuverud’s “You Will Be The One.”

History in Reverse cover

History in Reverse handily collects the complete recorded work by the Blackouts, who migrated from Seattle to Boston to San Francisco across the early 80s, recording various EPs and tracks along the way but never a full album. What they did release, though, was often top notch, a kind of warmer, slightly Devolike version of experimental post punk dance, with an interesting sonic wild card in the form of the sometimes Russell Mael-ish singer/guitarist Erich Werner (that quality is evident more in the later – here, per the album title, the initial – tracks they recorded).

Something Quick 1980-1985 cover

Expanding the band’s original cassette of that title to include singles and unreleased tracks from the first half of the 1980s, Something Quick 1980-1985 shows the early Queen Annes to be perfectly enjoyable participants in the general underground revival of various 60s styles in that era. There’s Beatles harmonies, Who riffs and breakdowns, some general UK mod moves and garage rock rave-ups and a general sense of making new efforts out of the past that don’t simply sound like rewrites. Standouts include “You Got Me Running” and “I Thought of You.”

The Fabulous Sounds Of The Pacific Northwest cover

With an album cover and various samples referring back to a similarly titled album done as a tie-in to the Seattle World’s Fair, the Young Fresh Fellows kicked in their career with the brisk and crisp New Wave delights of Fabulous Sounds. It was also the first album released by producer Conrad Uno’s PopLlama label and was as much a definer of Seattle place and time as Deep Six or Sub Pop 200: hooky immediacy well and clearly produced, with highlights including the lightly Cajun-touched “All Messed Up” and the sassy harmonies of “A Humble Guy.”

U-Men cover

Presenting a nearly complete studio discography (aside from a song from an obscure Christmas song tape comp from 1984), U-Men draws together their Step On a Bug album plus all the various singles, EPs and compilation appearances from the Seattle band’s decade-long career. While often claimed as forebears of grunge they don’t exactly sound the stereotypical part, favoring garage rock vibes infused with post-punk/Birthday Party-ish brawl, accentuated by John Bigley’s whooping and screeching vocals and often shattering guitar by Tom Price.

See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens cover

The Walkabouts’ formal full-length debut came four years into their existence, a good example of steady woodshedding via earlier EPs and tapes paying engaging dividends. While See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens on first blush may simply seem like an engaging indie folk-rock album of its time, there’s both steely bite in the overall performances and arrangements and, in Carla Torgerson and Chris Eckman, strong vocals that already showed their lyrical and singing talents well on songs like “This Rotten Tree,” “Glass Palace” and “Feast Or Famine.”

Hit It Or Quit It cover

Co-released by Seattle’s Sub Pop and Olympia’s K labels, it was perhaps appropriate that the debut effort by Girl Trouble came from a band in a city in between, Tacoma. Whatever the circumstances, Hit It Or Quit It, even more so than releases by bands like Mudhoney that clearly nodded to the area’s 60s garage punk legacy, was a one-band salute to Nuggets and rockabilly comps, with snarling fuzz and guitar twang, rolling rhythms and Kurt Kendall’s swaggering vocals on songs like “Primeval,” “She No Rattle My Cage” and, naturally, “Hot Monkey Love.”

Superfuzz Bigmuff cover

First released as an EP in 1988 and successively rereleased over time with more songs from the era, including the band’s definitive early anthem “Touch Me I’m Sick,” Superfuzz Bigmuff confirms Mudhoney’s place as grunge avatars, with Charles Petersen’s photo and Jack Endino’s production also both key. But Mark Arm was always more one for biting humor than bleak despair, and the classic original lineup of him, Matt Lukin, Dan Peters and Steve Turner just crank up the frazzled garage punk on songs like “Chain That Door” and “No One Has.”

Buzz Factory cover

Screaming Trees’s last album for SST was also the first they’d made away from Ellensburg with Steve Fisk as producer, shifting instead to Seattle and Jack Endino. In combination with Mark Lanegan beginning to own his own preferred and rapidly becoming unmistakable singing voice, it was a striking step for the group all around, continuing the psychedelic garage feel of their start while adding some solid classic rock punch to the performances. Standouts include “Where the Twain Shall Meet,” “Flower Web” and the heavy wah-wah of “Black Sun Morning” and “Wish Bringer.”

The Collection cover

It might be a half-stretch to call Gary Minkler the Bob Seger of 80s Seattle music, but there’s the same sense of full-throated and warm-hearted soul to his voice that gave his band Red Dress a notable live reputation, combined with his lyrical eye for bemusing character portraits and music that leaned more New Wave bar rock than heartland. Drawing on a variety of singles and recordings, their 1985 live album Little Ship and further live cuts, The Collection is an exhaustive catchall, including standout numbers like “Bob Is a Robot” and “I Like To Eat My Mousies Raw.”

Screaming Life / Fopp cover

Following their Deep Six compilation appearance and the “Hunted Down” single, the latter being Matt Cameron’s debut with the group, Soundgarden kicked into gear with 1987’s Screaming Life EP and the following year’s Fopp EP, with the two paired together regularly as a full length release since 1990. While the lengthy epics were yet to come, Soundgarden sounded big already, Chris Cornell’s famed vocal ability fully in place and the band touching on everything from stomping hard rock to doomy goth to, via Fopp’s title track, a solid Ohio Players cover.

The Complete Book Of Hours cover

Released in 1986, the same year as their flagship single “Kim the Waitress,” Book of Hours (later expanded and reordered as The Complete Book of Hours) found the Green Pajamas delivering an equally stellar example of mid-80s American rock reclaiming the mid- to late 60s. With all four members contributing songs, guitarist Jeff Kelly leading the way, it’s a Seattle spin on the Paisley Underground in the best sense, Bruce Haedt’s keyboards as important as everything else, making songs like “Men In Your Life” and “Ten Thousand Words” sparkle.