Rock Music -- Seattle

  • By Clark Humphrey
  • Posted 5/04/2000
  • Essay 2374

In the winter of 1991-1992, the Seattle rock-music scene suddenly became the darling of the global music industry. It was an overnight success, 15 years in the making.

Rock music as played in Seattle (exluding shows by touring bands) had three distinct eras before the late 1970s:

  • 1958-1966: The "Northwest Rock" years of roller-rink shows and bands like Tacoma's Wailers and Sonics;
  • 1967-1970: The flower-power years of outdoor rock festivals and touring shows but few prominent local bands;
  • 1971-1976: The bar-rock era of heavy-metal cover bands, white blues, and the early Heart.

By 1976, the bar-rock circuit had gotten awfully predictable. Most bands were cover bands, and most stuck to rigidly defined genres -- hard rock, soft rock, white blues. And for those under 21, there wasn't much except heavy-metal cover bands at school dances.

Punk Rock

Some U District hipsters, inspired by a new underground-rock movement in New York and London, started putting together their own bands and mounting their own shows, at first in basements and back yards. What would become known as punk rock had its first public local showcase at The TMT Show on May 1, 1976 (May Day of the Bicentennial year), at the Odd Fellows Hall on Capitol Hill. About 100 people paid to see the Telepaths, the Meyce, and the Tupperwares; enough for the bands to pay for the room rental. (The headlining Telepaths included drummer Bill Rieflin, still involved the scene today with his record label First World Music.)

Over the next five years, this little clique grew and formed more bands (including the Enemy, the Blackouts, Student Nurse, and the Fags), released a few cassettes and 45s (including two "Seattle Syndrome" compilation LPs), put on rental-hall shows, and tried to start their own clubs and bars (including WREX, the Gorilla Room, the Golden Crown, and the Showbox).

Most of these ventures didn't last long. None of these people had enough money to keep a business going; and there were constant problems with police and other authority figures who saw the punks as troublemakers to be stopped.

One band that did last long was the Fastbacks, who played their first show in March 1980 and (14 drummers later) are still recording and gigging today with an energetic mix of Kurt Bloch's noise-pop guitar and Kim Warnick and Lulu Gargiulo's tuff-gal vocals.

The year 1980-1981 saw all this coalesce in the Showbox shows, KZAM radio, the first issues of The Rocket, and the first indie-rock shows on KCMU. Some of these efforts didn't last, but they led to more shows and more bands. There were fake-Ramones bands, fake-Black Flag bands, fake-Joe Jackson bands, fake-Gang of Four bands, and a few that went in their own direction.

The Olympia Scene

Meanwhile, in the state capital of Olympia a parallel scene formed around current and former Evergreen State College kids and the college radio station KAOS. All of this group's endeavors involved an almost religious belief in independent production and contempt for the major record labels. KAOS DJs John Foster and Calvin Johnson supported what became an official station policy of devoting 80 percent of its airtime to music from independent labels. This philosophy was regularly explained in John Foster's OP magazine (1979-84) and in a smaller fanzine by Bruce Pavitt entitled Subtertanean Pop (1979-1983; by issue No. 3 the name was shortened to Sub Pop).

This DIY (Do It Yourself) philosophy extended to the bands and shows formed by the Olympia scenesters. Their bands (including the Young Pioneers, the Beakers, Westside Lockers, and Anonymous) were about, or claimed to be about, music as a shared egalitarian experience rather than a realm of rock-star gods and supplicant fans. Instead of trying to run commercial nightclubs, the Olympia scenesters preferred to hold shows in downtown apartment buildings or in short-term all-ages spaces at vacant storefronts.

Teen Dance Ordinance

All-ages shows also flared up in Seattle in 1983-1984, at spaces like the Metropolis, Gorilla Gardens, and Rosco Louie. But then came the Teen Dance Ordinance. Passed by the Seattle City Council in 1985, supposedly to "regulate" underage disco shows, it effectively made it legally or financially impossible to hold all-ages live rock shows anywhere bigger than a basement or smaller than an arena.

When mainstream Seattleites didn't view the punk scene as a menace to be stopped, they viewed it as a quaint oddity to be laughed at. This attitude was best revealed in a punk parody stage musical called "Angry Housewives," about four frustrated suburban moms who make a hit record called "Eat Your Fucking Cornflakes." The show opened in April 1983 and ran for six and a half years.

Whilst being ridiculed from outside, the scene had already developed its own sense of biting, sometimes self-deprecating humor. In 1984, Conrad Uno's PopLlama label first brought the Young Fresh Fellows' quirky, ironic power-pop, then continued with similarly smart-alecky and just plain smart acts (the Posies, Stumpy Joe, Girl Trouble), culminating by 1995 with the Presidents of the United States of America.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city, Sir Mix-A-Lot used a similar sense of wit to help create a brand of prosocial hiphop that celebrated middle-class black life, not the criminal romanticisms of Los Angeles gangsta rappers.

Heavy metal, meanwhile, continued to rule in the suburbs, with a number of national acts (Metal Church from Aberdeen, Queensryche from Bellevue).

The U-Men, formed in mid-1981, were among the first to mix the immediacy of punk with the expansiveness of heavy metal. Soundgarden (with singer Chris Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil), Green River (with singer Mark Arm and guitarists Steve Turner and Jeff Ament), the Melvins (from Aberdeen), Skin Yard (with guitarist-producer Jack Endino), and Malfunkshun (with neo-glam singer Andy Wood) started similar drives by mid-decade. In 1986, the compilation record Deep Six showcased these bands and this new hybrid sound onto a not-yet-appreciative world.

With new partner Jonathan Poneman on board, Bruce Pavitt relaunched Sub Pop as a full-time record label in 1987. Among its first releases were Soundgarden, TAD, Green River, and Mark Arm and Steve Turner's new band Mudhoney. By aggressively promoting the label in the British music papers, Sub Pop (and Seattle in general) quickly gained a (false) reputation as a scene built around one very specific style of music, which Arm and Sub Pop had dubbed "grunge."

Other punk/metal/pop hybrid bands in the area soon got the grunge label attached to them, whether they liked it or not: Screaming Trees, Flop, Seven Year Bitch, and Andy Wood's new band Mother Love Bone (which was on the verge of its major-label breakout when Wood died from a drug overdose).


From out of nowhere (specifically, Aberdeen) to Olympia came Nirvana -- Kurt Cobain, Chris (later spelled Krist) Novoselic, and a succession of drummers ending with Dave Grohl. They arrived at an Oly scene that had forged alliances with other indie-minded people in Washington D.C. and worldwide (including the radical-feminist musicians and zine pubilshers who became known as the Riot Grrrls).

Nirvana quickly released the LP Bleach on Sub Pop in 1989. The band was set to record another Sub Pop record when the major labels started sniffing out Seattle acts (Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, etc.) By mid-1991, Nirvana was recording for Geffen Records.

Enter Pearl Jam

Also around this same time, ex-Mother Love Bone members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament got together with Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell to make Temple of the Dog, a tribute album to Mother Love Bone/Malfunkshun singer Andy Wood. They also sent demo tapes for a new band project to drummer Jack Irons. He gave it to a California pal, Eddie Vedder. Vedder contributed lyrics and vocals to one "Temple" song, and then joined Gossard and Ament's next band, originally called Mookie Blaylock but soon changed to Pearl Jam.

Nirvana's major-label debut, "Nevermind," became an unexpected smash worldwide hit in the winter of 1991-1992, on the strength of punk-pop anthems such as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "In Bloom."

Pearl Jam soon followed Nirvana's success with its debut album "Ten." In contrast to Nirvana's tight song structures, Pearl Jam emphasized long solos by lead guitarist Mike McCready and vocal wails by Vedder. Nevertheless, the entertainment media classified both bands, and most all other bands in town, as belonging to one "grunge" classification.

Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Jim Rose Circus, and Ministry (with Bill Rieflin on drums) toured in the 1992 Lollapalooza package. By the end of the year, everybody out of town thought they knew what "A Seattle Band" meant, and seemingly everybody in Seattle tried to contradict that assumption. When a band emerged that couldn't possibly be shoehorned into a "grunge" label, such as ethereal psychedelic popsters Sky Cries Mary, reviewers treated such a band as a freakish occurrence -- "A Seattle band that's not grunge!"

A new club scene formed with the Crocodile Cafe, Moe's Mo' Rockin' Cafe (now ARO.Space), a reopened Showbox, RKCNDY, the Weathered Wall (now I-Spy), the Off Ramp (now Graceland), Sit and Spin, the Velvet Elvis (an all-ages club in the theater space where "Angry Housewives" had premiered), the OK Hotel, the Colourbox, and a score of other spaces. Cheap CD production helped a number of local labels get established (C/Z, eMpTy, Kill Rock Stars).

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain married Hole singer Courtney Love, had a kid, and had personal problems (including an off-and-on heroin addiction) that delayed the next Nirvana record, In Utero, until October 1993. While on tour in Rome to support the record, he overdosed on prescription painkillers and went into a temporary coma. One month later, on April 4, 1994, he shot himself in his Seattle home.

Cobain's suicide jolted a generation. Some writers and critics predicted it would be the end of the "Seattle Scene" mania. But Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Presidents, and new bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate continued to spread the NW-Rock sounds.

But by late 1995 and early 1996, the major labels had overloaded the marketplace with dozens of grunge-esque bands from California and Britain, turning "alternative" into a specific formula genre listeners eventually tired of.

In late 1996 and 1997, many of the leading Seattle bands either broke up (Soundgarden, Seven Year Bitch, the Presidents, Flop) or went on indefinite hiatus (Alice in Chains, Mudhoney) or were dropped by their record labels (Sky Cries Mary, the Fastbacks).

But many other bands started up, some of which are now gaining national and international reputations (Sleater-Kinney, Harvey Danger, Modest Mouse, MxPx, Maktub).

Today, the attention of the major-label record industry is largely focused on prepackaged teenybopper acts and white-crossover rappers. But while the media's left Seattle music relatively alone, there are several Seattle Scenes currently blossoming, including avant-improv, world-music, DJ-electronica, Christian rock, and hip-hop. All-ages gigs are making a comeback, thanks partly to new state rules allowing bars to hold booze-free early evening shows. And local companies such as Real Networks are at the forefront of the digital music revolution, which threatens to overturn the way music is disseminated and sold.

The "grunge" craze may have had its day. But for music-making in Seattle, the best may be yet to come.


Clark Humphrey, Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story, Updated Second Edition (Seattle: MISCmedia, 1999); Charles Peterson, Screaming Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1995); Gina Arnold, Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993); Michael Azerrad, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana (New York: Doubleday, 1993).

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