Les Underdogs De Grunge

Decades on from its heyday, grunge still evokes cringe-worthy memories. Even a whiff of the genre makes some people gag, and that’s understandable given that many of grunge’s lumberjack balladeers feigned their tortured genius in unquestionably awkward and embarrassing ways. All the goodwill in the world can’t disguise that grunge’s commercial success also meant a legion of abysmal bands ruined the genre’s credibility. And yeah, I just said credibility.

Truth is, grunge was great fun, for a time. Early on, the genre had nothing to do with melancholic megastars—it simply referred to a host of independent basement/garage rawk groups making dirty and often chaotic music. That music was born from a wave of punk and alternative rock that emerged from the Pacific Northwest in the early 80s, and most of grunge’s earliest practitioners also mixed in the grit and grime of groups like MC5, Black Sabbath, The Wipers, and the Sonics.

By the early 90s, grunge was basking in chart-topping glory, which is about the time it became a tired fucking joke. Unwarranted hype meant that a new band was hailed as the next champion seemingly every single day, and cash-ejaculating record labels exhausted the genre’s creative potential in record time.

Grunge’s ascension saw gruff bands transform into tepid chart-baiting facsimiles, great groups implode due to the pressure to compete, and far too many young lives wasted. Grunge unleashed a tsunami of hyper-inflated angst upon the world. But worst of all, grunge’s success decimated the underground attitude inherent in the genre’s early days.

I guess that’s no surprise, though. The mainstream music industry rapidly co-opts and consumes every trace element of what it seeks to exploit, and then it plugs the gaps with extraneous filler. Soon enough, core ingredients are diluted beyond recognition, and crucial burrs are buffed smooth on their way to the upper reaches of the charts.

Well, fuck that bullshit. The greatest grunge was always raw and shambolic, and plenty of underappreciated grunge bands fall into that category. The most interesting bands always featured scrappy punk, scrappier metal, and the scrappiest indie rock around. And while thick metallic guitar became grunge’s signature, jittery garage rock and dissonant noise rock also permeated the genre’s soundscape.

Like any genre of popular music, grunge’s superstars—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, et al.—only ever represented the tip of the iceberg. Bands like Mudhoney, Tad, L7, and Screaming Trees also enjoyed a lot of recognition. But some of the best grunge bands never managed to claw their way out of the underground.

That’s what we’re digging into below: shining a spotlight on some lesser-known groups. And while most of these bands never found fame and fortune, they’re just as much fun as grunge’s VIPs. All the selections highlighted in this piece sold jack-shit numbers of records compared to their famous kin, but every one of them still played jacked-up rock ’n’ roll, through and through.

7 Year Bitch [Seattle, WA]

In another life, 7 Year Bitch would have been tagged as a scrappy and snarling punk band and been left to get on with the job. But during the 90s grunge rush, countless bands were greedily scooped up and misleadingly promoted in the hopes of cashing in on the genre’s popularity. 7 Year Bitch joined a mountain of indie, punk, metal, and Riot Grrrl bands that were all thrown into the exact same heap.

Plenty of great bands got lost in that process, and one could argue 7 Year Bitch did, too, but not before they’d delivered a couple of great albums for C/Z Records in the early 90s. 7 Year Bitch’s 1994 album, ¡Viva Zapata!, is an absolute classic release that paid tribute to the tragic deaths of The Gits vocalist Mia Zapata and 7 Year Bitch’s founding guitarist Stefanie Sargent.

The band signed with bigwigs Atlantic Records to record their follow-up, but like so many other bands, 7 Year Bitch’s major label debut—1995’s Gato Negro—wasn’t anywhere near as untamed as their previous independent efforts.

7 Year Bitch broke up in 1997, and while they limped off the field in the end, they certainly gave it their impassioned all during their prime. [Craig Hayes]

Helltrout [Seattle, WA]

Forget the psychedelic romance of Soundgarden’s moniker, or the surrealist affectations of Meat Puppet’s chosen handle. Those are just pretentious fucking art school names compared to Helltrout’s. It takes a “special” kind of band to name themselves after a slang term for an eye-watering turd, and Helltrout’s music is aptly shitty. (And I mean that with the utmost affection, obvs.)

Helltrout’s drummer, Dave Foster, played in Nirvana for a split second, but Helltrout don’t sound like grunge’s gazillion-selling superstars. Instead, this band’s garbage-dump grunge sounds like a sub-basement version of Alice in Chains jamming with a demo version of Soundgarden.

Helltrout wrote songs like “Punchcock” and “Dick Like A Noose,” and they cranked out a couple of obscure, albeit metal-friendly albums in the early 90s. Both of those releases featured graveled vocals and grittier-than-gritty production, and the songs were chaotic, primitive, and sounded like they could fall apart at any second, which only added to the fun. No question, Helltrout are an acquired taste—like rimming. [Craig Hayes]

My Sister’s Machine [Seattle, WA]

Heavyweight grunge luminaries Alice in Chains were once a thickly mascara-ed hair metal band named Alice N’ Chains, and Nick Pollock, the vocalist in My Sister’s Machine, used to sling guitar and glam it up alongside vocalist Layne Staley back then. When that band ended, however, and My Sister’s Machine eventually arose, the band still had a link with the newly christened and far grimmer Alice in Chains, because both bands made heavier and more bruising music than many of their wistful contemporaries.

My Sister’s Machine released two studio albums: 1992’s Diva and 1993’s Wallflower. Both releases found immediate critical success, but neither sold in significant numbers. Touring with Pantera, King’s X, and White Zombie contributed to My Sister’s Machine’s initial momentum, but the band were left high and dry when Elektra Entertainment abruptly folded the band’s label, Chameleon, in the early 90s. My Sister’s Machine never recovered, but the albums they left behind are big and burly, and they show a lot of melodic nuance. They also underscore that grunge wasn’t all cardigans and woebegone sighs.

A lot of grunge hasn’t aged well, but My Sister’s Machine’s music is still immensely enjoyable, which is a tribute to the band’s creative strength and robust songwriting. [Craig Hayes]

Skin Yard [Seattle, WA]

Grunge’s genuine (and often unsung) hero is the Seattle-based producer and musician Jack Endino. You’ll find Endino’s name on the back of Nirvana’s best album, Bleach, and Endino engineered crucial recordings for groups like Tad, Mudhoney, L7, Soundgarden, and the Screaming Trees. However, Endino’s own band, Skin Yard, also had a profound influence on grunge.

Skin Yard never found a lot of recognition outside a dedicated cadre of fans, but the five albums recorded between 1986 and 1993 were all rousing successes, even if they remained subterranean. Skin Yard made feral and often ferocious music, and while the band were clearly influenced by punk’s demeanor and sonics, they delivered balls-to-the-wall heavy rock imbued with grunge’s signature sludgy elements from day one.

Skin Yard’s early songs were often intricately constructed, while their later work was more directly fueled by brute-force metal. The band never signed to a major label, nor did they adapt their sound to try and attract more alternative rock fans in the 1990s.

Skin Yard were unheralded underdogs and masters of uncompromising songcraft, right to the end. [Craig Hayes]

Willard [Seattle, WA]

Seattle band Willard recorded their Steel Mill debut with producer Jack Endino in 1992, and the excellent (if little-heard) release was touted by Roadrunner Records as “an antidote to the grunge overdose.” Obviously, that was just marketing nonsense, because Roadrunner clearly desired some of that grunge ka-ching! The label went further, saying that Willard would have bands like “Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains for breakfast—then vomit the undigested chunks all over Nirvana’s nice new house!”

Willard never managed to challenge anyone’s throne, or house, for that matter. The band did make great music, though. Steel Mill featured heavy sludgy grunge à la Alice in Chains, Tad, or The Melvins, and there was an undercurrent of industrial noise that echoed releases on labels like Touch and Go or Amphetamine Reptile Records. Steel Mill wasn’t a novel album, and it reeks of its time and place, but Willard’s no-bullshit, working class grunge was imbued with filth, sweat, and a welcome in-your-face bluntness. [Craig Hayes]

Love Battery [Seattle, WA]

Like many worthy bands, Seattle’s Love Battery stumbled and then got lost in all the noise during grunge’s heyday. Their second album, 1992’s Dayglo, is a triumph of psychedelic grunge, but it was criminally overlooked at the time of its release.

Much like their sonic kin Screaming Trees, Love Battery’s music mixed fuzzed-out rock with Beatles-esque pop, and the band adeptly balanced sweetened melodies and rawer distortion right from the start.

Love Battery took a stab at joining the big leagues with their third album, 1993’s Far Gone, but contractual issues with Sub Pop meant PolyGram Records essentially ditched the record. The follow-up, Straight Freak Ticket, was released by Atlas Records in 1994, but it was also a disappointment, and that halted the band’s momentum. They attempted a return in 1999 with Confusion Au Go Go, which was released by indie label C/Z Records, but it arrived too late to revive the band’s chances, despite being a strong album. [Craig Hayes]

Truly [Seattle, WA]

Truly featured Soundgarden’s founding bassist Hiro Yamamoto, former Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel, and singer Robert Roth. The band’s 1995 full-length debut, Fast Stories…from Kid Coma, was released during a time when grunge was becoming ever more stagnant by the day, but Truly injected something genuinely fresh into the genre. Sadly, despite Truly’s smart songwriting, they failed to increase grunge’s chances of long-term survival. That said, the band’s mix of grunt and eccentricity exhibited imaginative ideas that exceeded the creative range of many of their peers.

Truly’s music was critically applauded, but the band’s woozy dirges met with little commercial success, and grunge’s collapse eventually dragged Truly down, too. That’s a damn shame, because this band added red-hot and inspired ingredients into a genre that was rapidly growing cold and stale. [Craig Hayes]

Malfunkshun [Bainbridge Island, WA]

Singer Andrew Wood is best known for his work in Mother Love Bone, and his death from a drug overdose in 1990 saw grunge supergroup Temple of the Dog record a much-loved tribute album in his honor. Mother Love Bone wasn’t Wood’s only musical venture, though. His previous band, Malfunkshun, was also an important cog in grunge’s history.

Malfunkshun’s sole album, Return to Olympus, didn’t actually appear until 1995, released via Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard’s label, Loosegroove, which collected rarely heard recordings from 1986 and 1987. All of grunge’s bombastic elements are right there on Return to Olympus: see the hook-filled anthems built from buzzing riffs. Admittedly, the record is also very raw, but it clearly underscores Wood’s talent as a frontman, and it shows his charisma and arena-sized ambitions were manifest from day one.

The band also had songs featured on one of the most important albums in the annals of grunge: C/Z Records’ Deep Six compilation, which essentially established the “Seattle sound.” Deep Six was released in 1986, a few months before Sub Pop’s equally groundbreaking Sub Pop 100 compilation, and Malfunkshun appeared alongside pioneering inspirations like Skin Yard, Melvins, Soundgarden, The U-Men, and Green River.

Malfunkshun might not have found fame like the Melvins or Soundgarden, but their appearance certainly highlights how a very small band from an underground scene can end up having a huge influence. [Craig Hayes]

Blood Circus [Seattle, WA]

Seattle band Blood Circus were gigging hard before grunge went and got famous. In fact, Nirvana and Mudhoney played their first shows opening for the band. Their sole album, Primal Rock Therapy, was released by Sub Pop in 1989, making it an important document in the history of grunge. However, don’t confuse historical significance with creative magnificence. I’ve always loved Primal Rock Therapy, but the album is one of the worst-reviewed and worst-selling Sub Pop releases of all time. (But hey, what do critics know, right?)

Primal Rock Therapy is crude, disheveled, and unpolished, and Blood Circus wouldn’t win any awards for their rudimentary instrumentation. But I’d argue that grunge was supposed to be rough-and-ready and down-and-dirty.

To be fair, Primal Rock Therapy delivers exactly what’s promised—it features gut-felt rock ’n’ roll made by cocky musicians who knew their chances at stardom were slim-to-none. The record was re-released in 1992 with extra tracks, in the midst of the grunge frenzy, but it didn’t manage to garner any more appreciation at that point, either.

Even now, with the benefit of rose-tinted nostalgia, Primal Rock Therapy remains a… well, raucous experience. Of course, that’s also what’s so goddamn lovable about the album. [Craig Hayes]

Green River [Seattle, WA]

Zip album sales, but maximum fucking impact: That’s the short story of Green River. The Seattle band formed in 1984, making them a pivotal proto-grunge inspiration, but they are probably more famed for featuring members who would go on to form grunge superstars like Pearl Jam and Mudhoney.

Green River were formed by members who’d all been playing in punk rock bands, and while they were certainly punk in attitude, they added a thicker and sludgier layer to their sound—voilà, grunge was born!

It wasn’t smooth sailing for Green River: hard tours with little reward were undertaken as members came and went; records were recorded and then delayed for an age; and while the band’s reputation amongst fellow musicians grew, and crowds in the Pacific Northwest were receptive, Green River never secured a significant commercial foothold. What they did do, however, was release the first true grunge recording in 1985’s Come On Down EP.

The still fledgling Sub Pop Records released the band’s subsequent records—the Dry as a Bone EP in 1987 and the Rehab Doll LP in 1988—but by the time Rehab Doll was recorded, Green River had all but split due to in-fighting about the direction the band was heading. (See the different sonic pathways that the groups arising from Green River’s demise went on to explore for proof.)

You can clearly hear the genesis of both Mudhoney and Pearl Jam in Green River’s sound. The band’s mix of sneering garage punk and doomier and distorted hard rock is crude and often cruddy, but there’s a huge amount to admire about Green River’s ability to sculpt dark and addictive melodies from otherwise murky music. [Craig Hayes]

Bundle Of Hiss [Stanwood, WA]

Bundle of Hiss were a proto-grunge band that featured members who’d go on to find success in far more well-known groups like Tad and Mudhoney. They formed in 1980 and they broke up in 1988, and although the band only recorded a couple of demos and a few scattered songs, they ended up wielding their fair share of influence.

Bundle of Hiss’ initial recordings were circulated amongst diehard fans, but they were re-released in 2000 as Sessions: 1986–1988. Those recordings illustrate that Bundle of Hiss were inspired by a wider range of music than many other proto-grungers. Punk was there, and metal too, but Bundle of Hiss also threaded dark post-punk into their music, plus a heap of the Wipers and the Stooges, too.

Sub Pop were sniffing around at the tail-end of Bundle of Hiss’ career, but the band dissolved before they ever managed to cash in. This band isn’t as celebrated as pioneering bands such as Soundgarden, Green River, or the Melvins, but Bundle of Hiss’ contributions to grunge’s genetic pool are still significant. [Craig Hayes]

Cat Butt [Seattle, WA]

One of the charges leveled against grunge is a lot of bands seemed to consist of po-faced poets far more interested in their own ennui than the cathartic release of full-throttle rock. There is plenty of evidence to support that claim, but let’s not forget there were also grunge bands like Cat Butt—bands that utterly reveled in the hedonistic joys of greasy garage rock.

Cat Butt only existed from 1987 to 1990, but in that time they banged out a full-length for Sub Pop, trashed the tour van the label lent them (thus losing their recording contract), helped launch the career of the Reverend Horton Heat, and indulged in all sorts of shenanigans while on the road with L7.

Cat Butt’s predilection for self-destruction saw them burn… if not brightly, at least wantonly. The sole album they left in their wake, 1989’s Journey to the Center Of, is ugly, sloppy, and full of haywire guitar stonk. I’m not sure that Cat Butt ever had a firm idea of what kind of band they wanted to be, but you can safely file them under fucked-up sleaze grunge, par excellence. [Craig Hayes]

The Gits [Yellow Springs, OH]

The searing punk rock of The Gits is worthy of significant praise, but it’s the tragic rape and murder of the band’s charismatic singer Mia Zapata in 1993 that understandably dominates discussion of the band. Zapata’s death had a profound impact on the world of alternative music, and her influence has been cited by countless vocalists over the years.

The Gits recorded a couple of full-length albums, EPs, and a handful of other songs, and while their music wasn’t “grunge,” as such, Zapata’s rebellious magnetism appealed to many of grunge’s fans. Their debut album, Frenching the Bully, was released by C/Z Records in 1992, and it was met with rave reviews. A lot of DIY touring followed, and it wasn’t long before The Gits were being courted by labels galore. Sadly, Zapata was murdered while the band were in the midst of recording their second album.

Zapata’s death was heartbreaking for many, but the music she helped to create was always enlivening and often galvanizing. The Gits were an accomplished band, and it’s a testament to Zapata’s personality and her passionate performances that they’re so fondly remembered to this day. [Craig Hayes]

Gruntruck [Seattle, WA]

Gruntruck featured members who’d played in Skin Yard, The Accüsed, and Final Warning—making them a veritable who’s who of highly skilled noise-makers. The band put those skills to fine use on their first two albums, but alas, record label woes meant they never got a chance to capitalise on their creative prowess.

Gruntruck’s muscular and metallic sound wasn’t too far removed from outfits like My Sister’s Machine or Alice in Chains. The band’s 1990 debut, Inside Yours, was released in the US by Seattle label Empty Records, and the album attracted a lot of attention. Roadrunner Records soon swooped in, signed Gruntruck to a multi-album deal, and then re-released Inside Yours to a much wider audience.

Gruntruck’s second album, 1992’s Push, was even better, and touring with the likes of Pantera, Alice in Chains, and Screaming Trees caused Gruntruck’s profile to steadily increase, which in turn inspired major labels to float big offers. Sadly, Roadrunner refused all such offers, much to Gruntruck’s displeasure. Queue the heated band vs. label battles that eventually squandered Gruntruck’s promise.

Gruntruck attracted a crossover set of fans from both the alternative rock and rivethead camps for good reasons. Not least because Inside Yours and Push remain unvarnished and hard-hitting gems. [Craig Hayes]

U-Men [Seattle, WA]

Grunge’s early sound was obviously indebted to the work of brawny bands like Soundgarden and the Melvins. However, the attitude exhibited by grunge in its earliest years owes a debt to Seattle punks like Mr Epp, The Fartz, Limp Richerds, crossover crew The Accüsed, and godhead weirdos the U-Men.

The U-Men’s significant influence on grunge is all the more surprising considering the music they made. The band appeared on C/Z Records’ formative Deep Six compilation—alongside grunge pioneers like Green River, Malfunkshun, and Skin Yard—but the U-Men’s eccentric and spiky garage punk stood out as wildly different from the rest of Deep Six‘s murky and heavy rock.

Throughout their career, the U-Men showed complete disregard for conventions, both musical and social. The band made singularly left-field music solely for themselves, and it was the U-Men’s personality, more than their actual music, that spurred a number of crucial Pacific Northwest bands into action. The U-Men’s music is strange and challenging, and certainly volatile. It’s not ‘grunge’, per se, but it’s grungy af. [Craig Hayes]

Paw [Lawrence, KS]

Kansas is a long way from Seattle, but at the height of grunge’s explosion, this Southern-rock-tinged four-piece was yet another band hailed as the “next Nirvana,” despite not being the next Nirvana. After a label bidding war landed them on A&M, Paw’s first and best record came in the form of 1993’s Dragline, a late-entry to the grunge wave, but one with the requisite combination of thick guitar riffs, here balanced against more ambitious and melodic touches, acoustic moments. Shucks, there’s even a pedal steel in almost-hit “Jessie.” (He was a good dog, I’m told.)

They weren’t the most original band around, but there’s an honesty in Paw’s second-generation grunginess. Mark Hennesy’s throaty delivery is like a blend of Vedder’s marble-mouthed emotion and Neil Fallon’s powerful baritone roar, and Grant and Peter Fitch keep the down-tuned riffs and pounding grooves coming through a strong set of songs like “Lolita,” “Sleeping Bag,” and “The Bridge.”

Coming on the tail of the wave, Paw still managed two albums after Dragline, each to lessened degree of success from an album that wasn’t successful to start with. Death To Traitors appeared in 1995 — that one saw them branching out musically and garnered them positive press, but lackluster label support damned Traitors to the same obscurity that befell its older, better brother. Still, I run across both albums pretty consistently in my used-bin crate digging, and both are worthy of the bargain price tags I see on them. [Andrew Edmunds]

The Nymphs [Hollywood, CA]

The kind of band that could only be born in Hollywood, The Nymphs walked the line between the grungy, the glammy, and the more straight-up alt-rock of bands like Jane’s Addiction, fitting comfortably in none of those categories. Though I never saw one, by all accounts, their live shows were wildly debauched — which would eventually culminate in vocalist Inger Lorre’s firing from her own band for fellating her boyfriend on stage in 1993, but we’re not there yet. Scruffy and sleazy in equal measure, The Nymphs managed only one album — 1991’s self-titled affair — and that music was triumphant glammy rock and self-loathing anger in tandem, all delivered in Lorre’s plaintive wail. Damned and sad, sad and damned; it’s rock ‘n’ roll, after all…

Unfortunately, The Nymphs’ penchant for self-destruction and rebellion would derail their career before they ever got off the ground. That singular album was held up by Geffen’s label politics, and fed up with his creative vision for her band, Lorre expressed her displeasure by urinating on A&R executive Tom Zutaut’s desk, which strangely didn’t make her a superstar. (Although, in some circles, it did make her a legend — here we are, still talking about it today.) Damned and sad, sad and damned, indeed…

After cleaning up, Lorre would reform The Nymphs with an entirely new backing band decades later, and yet another entirely new line-up continues now, apparently, but effectively, this one album is their legacy. At least it’s a strong one. [Andrew Edmunds]

Posted by Craig Hayes

Semi-literate hobgoblin, full-time shark obsessive, old-school nincompoop.

  1. I say TAD! Forma me in 1990/91 or so ad a teen reading Rockerilla Grunge was TAD.

    Reply

  2. That was a great article – a fun history lesson into the implosion of grunge and its many unknown underground participants. I never heard of almost all these bands, even though I was sort of into grunge at the time. Like millions of other people, I thought Nirvana was awesome at first (even “teen spirit”, which I cringe hearing now). Bleach is indeed their best album, though there are also a few killer songs on In Utero (“serve the servants”). These other bands you brought to light deserve as much recognition.

    Reply

    1. Thanks very much for reading, man! Much appreciated. (And agreed, there are some killer tracks on In Utero.) Glad you discovered some new/old bands to check out.

      Reply

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