Last week, we offered an overview of Sub Pop’s greatest hits, both legendary and recent. Today, in our continuing tribute to 25 years of Sub Pop, we dig deep into the rocky underground that gives the Northwest label its name (Sub Pop = Subterranean Pop). We can think of no better tour guide than Robin Stein, a killer photographer here in Seattle, a good friend of Men’s Shop Daily, and a lifelong follower of Pacific Northwest music.
[Above: Earth photographed by Art S. Aubrey.
Below: U-Men by Rachel E. Tillman.]
While Sub Pop is widely known for its massively successful releases from bands like Nirvana, The Shins and Fleet Foxes, the legacy and scope of the label cannot be simply summarized by those artists alone. Sub Pop has long been a true promoter and purveyor of the decentralized underground world of Subterranean Pop. Here are some highlights from their back catalog that you may have never heard—but should. They’re selected to represent the legacy of music in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the grand scope of Sub Pop’s output. In no particular order:
1. The U-Men – ‘Dig It a Hole.’ Performing throughout most of the 1980s, The U-Men predated anything that anyone would or could call Grunge. Their song ‘Gila’ is featured on the first Sub Pop compilation, Sub Pop 100. The U-Men draw on the sludge and aggression of LA hardcore bands, the jarring start-stop rhythms from post-punk bands like Wire, and the wacked-out insanity of twang-weirdos The Cramps. ‘Dig It a Hole’ is on the aggressive side of the U-Men, and was never released by Sub Pop until many years later on the soundtrack to the film Hype. Nevertheless, this particular track foreshadows much of the aesthetics embraced by many Seattle bands in the years to come.
2. Green River – ‘Ain’t Nothing To Do.’ Green River might be the best example of the musical tension that went on to form the style that came to be known as Grunge. They’re a fast, heavy, punk band but with an overlay of glam-metal guitar solos. While this tension was ultimately the band’s demise (Mark Arm and Steve Turner went on to form Mudhoney, while Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament formed Pearl Jam), it just might be that Green River is the perfect blend of punk’s aggressive carelessness and metal’s heavy virtuosity. ‘Ain’t Nothing To Do’ is a classic teen-boredom anthem. Listen for the lyric that calls out being bored by the University of Washington’s old college radio station, which is now KEXP: “… I’m so sick of FM, even KCMU…”
3. Girl Trouble – ‘Wreckin’ Ball.’ Go back into the history of music in the Pacific Northwest, and you’ll find it deeply rooted in classic garage bands—The Sonics, The Wailers, The Kingsmen, Lollipop Shoppe—mostly coming out of Tacoma, Washington. Twenty years later, Girl Trouble continued this tradition of Tacoma’s classic Northwest garage rock. ‘Wreckin’ Ball’ comes from their first Sub Pop release, Hit It or Quit It from 1988. Also worth checking out is their song ‘Neko Loves Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ about their good friend, former Girl Trouble go-go dancer and Tacoma native, Neko Case.
4. Steven Jesse Bernstein – ‘Come Out Tonight.’ Bernstein was essentially the poet laureate of Seattle’s music community throughout the 1980s. While suffering from mental illness and drug addiction, Bernstein gained legendary status as an intense and outrageous performer and poet. His writing reflected the gritty character of Seattle before the tech boom of the ’90s. Bernstein often took up residence in the hotels and boarding houses of Georgetown, the location of this year’s Sub Pop Silver Jubilee. This recording, featured on Sub Pop’s 1988 compilation Sub Pop 200, is a filthy pop-culture diatribe with the repeated, haunting refrain of “Cheri, Cheri, baby, won’t you come out tonight?” and the wonderful, barked line: “I am secretly an important man.”
5. Dead Moon – ‘Johnny’s Got a Gun.’ The members of Dead Moon have been playing in bands throughout every era of Pacific Northwest music, starting with Fred Cole’s 1960s psych-garage band Lollipop Shoppe, to their most recent incarnation Pierced Arrows. What’s most notable about the band is that Fred and Toody Cole, both grandparents in their 60s, are still one of the best touring rock bands out there, possessing a rabid and dedicated fan base all over the US and Europe. Most of the Dead Moon catalog is recorded, pressed, and released on their own label, Tombstone Records (they run their own record cutting lathe). Sub Pop released a posthumous Dead Moon discography, Echoes from the Past, covering highlights from the band’s nearly two-decade run. ‘Johnny’s Got a Gun,’ sung by Toody, is a revolutionary warning song. Also check out the hard-to-find Cat Power cover of the song above, a 7″ definitely worth digging for.
6. Hazel – ‘Day-Glo.’ Hazel was a band from Portland, Oregon, featuring the paired vocals of Pete Krebs and Jodi Bleyle (Team Dresch, Free to Fight), along with bassist Brady Payne and full-time, free-form dancer Fred Nemo (I was once told that Fred could recite vast James Joyce passages on request). Hazel played throughout the Northwest all through the late ’90s. I probably saw this band perform more than any other while growing up. Side note: My first AOL screen name (dayglo269) is a reference to this song—perhaps embarrassing, but telling.
7. Eric’s Trip – ‘Girlfriend.’ This track is from the first album I ever bought on vinyl. Eric’s Trip (named after the Sonic Youth song) was a fuzzy four-piece from Moncton, New Brunswick. Their simple, distorted pop songs encapsulated a low-key blissfulness. This band always made me idealize the magic of Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Julie Doiron and Rick White of Eric’s Trip each went on to release music individually in later years; both of their solo albums are well worth a listen.
8. Beat Happening – ‘Red Head Walking.’ While Sub Pop is known for being a Seattle record label, all of this really started in Olympia, Washington, around the Evergreen State College’s free-form radio station KAOS. Bruce Pavitt started writing his Subterranean Pop ‘zines and releasing tapes with Calvin Johnson as a contributor. Johnson’s pivotal lo-fi group Beat Happening released several records on Sub Pop over the ensuing years. His iconic vocal style and the simple instrumentation from collaborators Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford embraced the DIY methods and ideals of punk, and transposed it into something far less aggressive, yet still transgressive. Beat Happening laid the groundwork for so much music to come; their influence is unmeasurable. Johnson continues to run Olympia’s K Records, and maintains a complete online digital version of all of the original Sub/Pop fanzines.
9. The Monkeywrench – ‘Great Down Here.’ If there ever was a ‘supergroup’ for Seattle, it was definitely The Monkeywrench. Featuring Mark Arm and Steve Turner (Green River, Mudhoney), Tom Price (U-Men, Gas Huffer), Tim Kerr (Poison 13, Tim/Kerr Records) and Martin Bland (Bloodloss), The Monkeywrench is a straight-up garage-punk band. Awesome. If you’re on the tour of ‘grunge supergroups,’ by all means start with The Monkeywrench—and you might as well forget about Temple of the Dog.
10. Earth – ‘Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine.’ While Earth maintains a legendary status amongst fans of Drone and Doom Metal, the average Sub Pop fan is likely unfamiliar with the long legacy and influence of Dylan Carlson’s musical career. I’d recommend approaching this 27-minute track more as a meditative and minimalist dirge. Earth is truly a product of the environment here in the Pacific Northwest—reflecting the wet and uniform grey skies of winter, with a slowly roiling undercurrent of volcanic activity. We are living on the Ring of Fire after all…