When reality escapes the narrative…
by Art Chantry ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
‘grunge’ never really existed. the big problem with the term ‘grunge’ is that it was strictly developed to replace the word ‘punk’. bruce pavitt, the creative dude behind the sub pop label, was simply trying to come up with a term to use when trying to sell the music he was releasing on his label. he knew that “punk” was a dead end as far as sales went.
even in the late 1980′s, the word ‘punk’ was poison in the record stores. you really could GIVE away a ramones record in a mainstream record store. that’s the reality of those times. whenever i hear a ramones record on a tv commercial i still laugh out loud.
so, try to imagine getting a record played on the radio by a band name like “cat butt” or “the butthole surfers”. fergit it. that was what sub pop was facing when they started out. so, bruce fished around for a word to use to replace ‘punk.’ he wanted to trick the public into listening to punk.
i remember bruce coming by the rocket to drop off his monthly underground record review column (called ‘sub pop, usa’) and actually bouncing words off of people like grant alden – “hey grant. what do you think about using THIS word – “grunge.” grant woudl groan and make some pithy remark. the rest of us would laugh at the encounter. so weird.
the word ‘grunge’ actually first turns up in a record column by lester bangs talking about some band like ‘the godz’ or something back in the early 70′s. so, the term wasn’t coined by anybody in seattle. i seem to remember it as something that TIDE would clean out of your dirty laundry (ring around the collar).
but, the first place it showed up in seattle was in a letter to the editor in a little (but very important and early) ‘zine called ‘desperate times”, edited by maire masco and dennis white. it existed for about 6 issues back in the year a 1980 and was the official bible of all things hip and punk in seattle. even the rocket loved it and eventually hired both dennis and maire to work at the rocket.
maire and dennis both had a lot of other activities going on as well. they managed bands, booked clubs, ran gigs, operated group houses, etc. etc. one of the projects they had on the side was a small record label called “pravda records ” (from maire masco’s last name. get it?). of course, they also promoted their own bands releases in Desperate Times. it’s a time honored tradition o
at one point, just after they started their new label, maire and dennis were walking down the street and noticed a couple of dumb kids (named mark mclaughlin and jo smitty) stapling gig posters to telephone poles. the flyers were for a silly band called “mr. epp & the calculations (named after a despised math teacher). in reality, the flyers were a joke for a non-existant band. these two guys had just been faking this stuff for fun.
of course, maire and dennis didn’t know this, but instead were so excited by their brand new label, that they offered to sign this band on the spot and start putting out their records. mark and smitty said ok, then looked at each other blankly and said, “geez, we’d better get some instruments.” neither of them had ever touched one before.
even before mr. epp and the calculations had make a single sound, these two had been writing letters to the editor at desperate times, ‘desperatedly’ putting down all the lousy ‘other’ bands in town and boasting up their own (non-existant) band. the series of letters from mark mclaughlin are hilarious rabid screeds denouncing all the lame posers and bragging up the virtues of mr. epp.
at one point, mark is trying to accurately describe mr. epp’s new bold inventive music style and settles upon the word “grunge” and declares mr. epp “grunge rock”. and this is where the word first popped up in seattle. maire was dating bruce pavitt at the time and he saw that and ran with it.
later, mark mclaughlin changed his name to mark arm. maire and dennis released a single by them that became a big regional hit, called “mohawk man” (where in mr. epp ridicules fake punks with silly mohawk haircuts). mark arm’s later band, called “mudhoney”, released the first single on sub pop records called “touch me, i’m sick’ and completely defined the ‘grunge’ sound for eternity. jo smitty later opened a pizza shop.
so, grunge was a serendipitous marketing term that so accurately described the scene as it became defiend by outside media whores as a generic term for something that was just snotty punk rock. there was no grunge – just snotty bratty punk rockers.
to further clarify my point, think of the ‘grunge graphics’. many people accuse me of perpetrating that style. like i invented it. sure, i promoted a classic cut and paste DIY style that was easy to emulate and fun to do. the entire look of the rocket was also based on this basic approach. so many designers of real merit worked at the rocket over the years that they )collectively) put a huge regional stamp on the design look of our region. when grunge became big box office, the designers from the rocket (myself included) simply designed for their buddies at sub pop. the cycle fed off itself.
because outside journalists (as opposed to local writers and historians) came to town and documented what happened, the reality escaped the narrative. the history of grunge is almost entirely written by people who weren’t there.
the fantasy of backwoods lumberjacks making teen angst out of chicken wire and chain saws became what the american public wanted to dream about. soon, anything ‘new and different’ became classified as ‘grunge graphics”. somehow the title of ‘grunge king’ was transfered over to david carson, as if his look at raygun magazine was somehow the grunge style. since he was famous, then he invented it. right? huh?
so the real trajectory of ideas and styles escaped the pop narrative almost entirely. the media wanted to create something that wasn’t there to explain something imagined. this was a punk rock scene with dozens of different styles drifting almost aimlessly through the undergounrd. the version that became the fantasy was a tiny fraction of what went on here in the northwest.
this image i post today is by randy willoughby. randy was one of the originators of the music scene that became labeled ‘grunge’. his first band was called ‘pure joy’. their inital ep release was an instant classic in the undegeround music world.
after that band broke up, randy’s brother, rusty (also in pure joy) went on to perform in several other bands. his big ‘commercial effort’ band (the one that would make him rich along with every other grunge band) was called “flop”. if ever there was a prescient name for a band, this was it. they were a great brilliant band. but. like 99.9% of the bands in the northwest ‘grunge’ scene, they weren’t exactly what the world dreamed of when they thought ‘grunge.
this 45 cover is from 1990, right at the height of the scene’s explosion, released almost minutes before nirvana’s ‘nevermind’ hit the charts. this is a brilliant and strange , even illogically disturbing, design by randy. he was working in style utterly unique back then. it’s still unique now. he worked at the rocket for a time and then eventually pursued a design career. he’s now an art director at walter dorwin teague associates (one of the most famous industrial design firms of the last century).
this cover design is still locally considered a classic grunge-era cover by those that were here. it ;looks absolutely NOTHING like the stereotypical ‘grunge’ style. this is my point.
this was the look of seattle (as was the rocket, as was desperate times, as was mr. epp, as was everything else) back when grunge took over the world. the grunge style didn’t really exist outside of media hype. it was a total falsification that became reality. i (along with others) took ahold of that fake media style and help to mould it through sub pop into a regional style that could be exploited by my friends and myself. it worked. but, it’s a fake.
cool, eh? we actually were able to make a living for a while – until the rest of the world became grunge and didn’t need us any more. seems they could fake it themselves. instead of DIY, it was FIY.
welcome to the modern world. advertising makes it happen!
AC: what started out as a community helping out it’s own became a bloody free-for all . money changes everything. i think maybe you can count the fingers on your hands and have the real number of people who got rich on grunge. and most of those names were NOT in bands…. reading all those old lester bangs screeds was an exercise of “in one eye/out the other”. it all mushed together into one brilliant speed rap in my mind. thanks for that clarification…. the gorilla gardens was extremely important in many ways. just the fact that the metal kids and the punk kids met up in the lobby and finally began to not try to kill each other. many folks say that that lobby is where “grunge” was borne of heavy metal meeting punk. dunno about that, but it certainly linked some major antagonistic communities together….