Today I’ve got something a little different for you via past contributor Victoria Greene, who explores the impact of grunge on Seattle. This seems timely based on recent events.
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With that, here’s Victoria!
Very few artists are completely original; even great artists build upon what has occurred before, and add their personality and talent to create their own original expression. – Stephen Tow, The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge.
When people say Seattle punk one word comes to mind: grunge. Below I’ve given you a brief history of grunge and what the impact of this punk movement has been on Seattle.
“I hate Mr. Epp and the Calculations… ”
“… Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit.” So said Mark Arm, of his own band (Mr. Epp and the Calculations), in a 1981 letter to the Seattle zine Desperate Times.
Arm wasn’t just some snot-nosed punk-spit with a fancy for self-deprecation. He would later go on to form Mudhoney, the band who grunge artists themselves considered the scene’s watermark. As Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder said:
When it comes to grunge or even just Seattle, I think there was one band that made the definitive music of the time. It wasn’t us or Nirvana, but Mudhoney. Nirvana delivered it to the world, but Mudhoney were the band of that time and sound.
But it wasn’t until 1988 when Arm formed Mudhoney. In between plenty happened to fire Seattle’s punk scene.
“Ultra-loose GRUNGE… ”
“… that destroyed the morals of a generation.” That was the tagline used by Sub Pop (more on them shortly) when promoting Dry As a Bone, the second EP releases by Arm’s band, Green River. Formed in 1984, Green River were early punk pioneers.
The group released two EPs – Come On Down (1985), and Dry As a Bone (1987) – and one album – Rehab Doll (1988) – before disbanding in 1988. However, Green River’s influence was felt strongest in the bands that formed from the group’s ashes – Mudhoney and Pearl Jam.
Mudhoney formed the year Green River broke up, while Pearl Jam started in 1990. By the time Pearl Jam got together, grunge was swollen with bands. But before we get there, a quick wind back…
“This isn’t metal, it’s not punk… ”
“… What is it?” Sub Pop is now one of Seattle’s most successful punk exports. That’s all down to grunge. In 1987 the record label released Sub Pop 100. Sub Pop would put out many records crucial to the pre-commercial explosion of grunge, with Jack Endino producing.
Endino’s quick, gritty, and cheap approach to recording meant that the records put out by Sub Pop had a shared sound – sludgy, sloppy, and screwy. Among these records were Mudhoney’s self-titled first LP (1989), Nirvana’s maiden album, Bleach (1989), and Soundgarden’s debut EP, Screaming Life (1987).
Soundgarden were predicted to be grunge’s breakthrough act. In Chris Cornell they had a frontman with fearsome lungs and cheekbone charisma, while his bandmates provided a rock sound that locked both forwards and backwards. But it was Pearl Jam, just a year after forming, who cracked the mainstream with 1991’s Ten.
“I don’t have a TV in the car I live in.”
Pearl Jam eased open the doors to the mainstream for grunge but Nirvana ripped them off the hinges, poured gasoline on them, and tossed in the match. This caused pop to explode, with Seattle emerging from the flames.
Kurt Cobain may have been living in his car when Nirvana released their game-changing sophomore LP, but it wouldn’t last long. Nevermind hit record stands on September 24, 1991 and knocked Michael Jackson from the top of the Billboard 200 less than four months later. The impact was seismic.
Seattle couldn’t have been hotter.
Its bands ruled the charts, airwaves, and music channels – with Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and their peers’ fusion of punk, metal, pop, hard-rock, and lo-fi, scorching the earth.
Its style became the fashion of the day, with ripped jeans, flannel shirts, long-hair, and battered baseball shoes filling the streets.
Its stars filled the newspaper columns – Cobain in particular, who was both a menace to America and the future of its music.
But Seattle punk’s time in the sun was to be brief. Less than three years after the release of Nevermind, Cobain was dead. Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and many of their peers remained, but the commercial impact was drained. By the mid 90s pop-punk had swamped the chart, and California had claimed Seattle’s flame.
Grunge is (Not) Dead
It may be nearly 30 years since grunge’s heady days, but the punk movements impact on Seattle lasts to this day. What did Arm, Cobain, Cornell, Staley, and Vedder bring to their town?
The spirit of DIY, of doing things your own way. Not decidedly to be different (though, being different is no obstruction) but because it’s the best way.
- It can be seen in its folk schools. Started as an alternative to the established academic methods of education, these institutions let people unpick themselves from the fabric of modern, tech-driven, society.
- It can be seen in its businesses. Seattle is one of the most febrile areas in the US for startups. The current Seattle business listings are full of companies started by creatives in their spare time, for love (not money, which have come to global attention – just like grunge).
- It can be seen in its alcohol, its arts, its politics, its theater, and, of course, its music. If you are a musician seeking inspiration for how to make your way as an entrepreneur, there are some excellent places you can turn to help you make your way in business on your own terms.
Kurt Cobain might be gone but grunge is not dead. Grunge was founded on a spirit of integrity, liberalism, and equality. Most of all it was about doing things your own way and succeeding as a result.
Grunge didn’t make Seattle independently minded but it showed the world it thought and fought for itself. Today Seattle continues to show those DIY qualities to the world.
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