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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: The Year Grunge Broke

Twenty years ago, grunge exploded in the Pacific northwest, propelling Nirvana, Pearl Jam and others to dizzy heights of sometimes unwelcome superstardom. The following year, Q's Martin Aston profiled Seattle's Sub Pop Records and tried to make sense of it all--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Seattle, in the top left-hand corner of America, is famous for its once-thriving post-war aerospace industry, for its breweries and coffee, pine forests and clean air, for Jimi Hendrix - and rain. And rock'n'roll, as Bono recently announced from a Seattle stage, likes rainy cities.

Since 1989, the city has become increasingly known for scuzzy, long hair-tossing grunge'n'thrash'n'roll, with attitude on the side. Air guitars at the ready, if you please, for Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, L7, Tad and, resplendent at the pinnacle of the piney tree, the multi-platinum phenomenon that is Nirvana.

And whenever Seattle is mentioned, so is Sub Pop, the label most responsible for putting the whole place on the map. "It's still essentially wilderness country up here," Sub Pop's co-chief Jonathan Poneman paints the scene. "It's attracted a lot of crazy people, serial killer Ted Bundy for one, but there's a lot of the rugged, do-it-yourself, survivalist, drifter type. Apply that to rock'n'roll and that makes punk rock. People who live in the middle of nowhere party because there's nothing else to do. That's why the music is unusually rowdy."

Add a vibrant arts culture to a vibrant beer culture to frequent outbursts of rain - Seattle is a premier test market for books and films because people spend more time indoors - and you have, in the words of Poneman's partner, Bruce Pavitt, "a real heightened consciousness out there."

But this isn't Seattle, this is New York, where the smell of pine is more likely to be disinfectant. The occasion is the thirteenth New Music Seminar, an annual trade convention with an "alternative" tack that promotes the aesthetics of music alongside the making of money with a backdrop of panel discussions and concerts, although you can never tell who's in charge - the unknown bands itching to ink a deal or the label executives itching to abuse their expense accounts.

Not that Pavitt and Poneman see any contradiction between art and business - in fact, they revel in it. "At the end of the day, Bruce and I go back to our hotel, where we share a room," Poneman is at pains to point out, "but this is showbiz. The New Music Seminar is an event, and we're big fans of networking capabilities. We want to be able to make sure that we're sending out a large beacon so that people can see us."

By virtue of its regional isolation, Seattle needed the ballyhoo treatment, and Pavitt and Poneman, both driven by a combination of diehard enthusiasm and sharp business acumen, have been the right men for the job. Their initial spur, according to Pavitt, the more reserved, bearded half of the pair, was the fact that Seattle was a big city with a fertile music/arts scene that was ignored by an American media fixated on Los Angeles and New York. Pavitt actually graduated from college with a BA in Punk Rock, and went on to write a fanzine, Subterranean Pop, "which focused on the American indie scene because, at that time, everybody was reading the British papers and buying Rough Trade singles, and there was little enlightened information about all these American bands."

Believing he'd "at least network with some hip people and get turned on to some cool music", Pavitt progressed to cassette releases - "audio road maps to America's more remote locations" - to a weekly column in the Seattle Rocket and a slot on the local station KSMU. In 1986 he released Sub Pop 100, a vinyl compilation crossing state and musical boundaries, from New York to Austin to post-hardcore to techno-noise. But it wasn't until Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayill introduced Pavitt to Poneman, who'd relocated from Ohio, "to live like a hippie," but had wound up working in retail, radio and concert promotion, that the label started mining the Northwestern backyard that has since come up trumps for them.

While both say a "scene" can evolve anywhere, Seattle took off, the garrulous Poneman claims, "because it all fell together here. A lot of cities have great bands and dynamic, interactive people who don't want to, or know how to, play the game, because their vision is different to the corporate rock American dream, which is, basically, selling a million records, touring forever and resting in a condo they bought with their advance. But something special happened in Seattle because of different talents and personalities, while the egos that usually crop up in the business seemed submerged for a much larger common cause - not Sub Pop, but our scene, a unified crowd who'd go to shows, play in bands and sometimes party together. It allowed an organic quasi-industry to develop."

Sub Pop have never shied away from the hard sell, being particularly fond of slogans (Pavitt sports an "I LOVE PAYOLA" T-shirt when picking up a seminar award for Industry Newcomers). It's a pitch that, Pavitt admits, "is more associated with used car salesmen and major labels than the subtlety of most indie sensibilities, but we didn't see anything wrong with that. We thought it was the strongest tack to take because maybe it would stand out." They cite Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren as an inspiration: "Never turn down an interview and constantly exploit the media," they declare. "We admit, we're shameless. The pride is in the quality of the product."

Sub Pop music likewise went against the grain, binding hippy with punk ideals. As early EPs from Green River (who begat Mudhoney and, later, Pearl Jam) and Soundgarden revealed, Seattle bands shared the duo's distaste for the punk convention that guitars be played fast, and with a politically correct, non-sex'n'drugs attitude. Instead, the bands fused the dinosaur stomp of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin with Pistolian punk and American hardcore. The formula thus read: metal plus thrash equals grunge.

"There's this argument that Seattle music is new music, but part of the reason why it's been so successful is that it's old music as well, but updated," argues Poneman, to which Pavitt adds: "A band like Nirvana have dual demographics, reaching people our age, in their mid-thirties, who grew up with hard rock, but also young kids hearing it for the first time."

To cap it all, Sub Pop modelled its identity on labels like Motown and Blue Note, "which always had classic, corporate packaging." From working in retail, Poneman knew how obsessive fans could be when it came to owning every release on a hip label, right down to limited editions and box sets: "So much so, they'd subscribe to receive a new single every week, and send us money in advance, which was the Sub Pop singles club. It certainly helps the cash flow, especially when a label is young and struggling."

Which Sub Pop soon were. If the dynamic duo knew which way the wind blew, they couldn't dictate the weather. The missing chapter in the Sub Pop saga is that the label nearly didn't survive 1991, or that Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney and L7 - who only stayed for one single - have all departed for the majors, leaving the label without a real breadwinner. Will Afghan Whigs be next?

Poneman: "What happened was, we believed indie labels should support their musicians. We were convinced that if these people had more time to pursue their craft and tour, ultimately there'd be a payoff. So we supported Nirvana, Mudhoney and Tad for three years, on a very limited cash flow, while we gave too big advances because we anticipated a major label distribution deal, as we didn't have the capital to fulfill our bands' growing expectations. A&R mania was descending on Seattle, so we had to compete with the majors. But the third Mudhoney album sold around 50,000 in the US, which got us back on our feet, and then Nirvana happened."

But not before those collective band egos had surfaced (Sub Pop responded with a T-shirt reading: "WHAT PART OF 'WE HAVE NO MONEY' DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?"). "With Nirvana," Poneman gets down to the nitty-gritty, "it was a case of, We love these guys and appreciate all they've done, but they wanted to sell more records. We had to learn those lessons, and let me tell you, it was hard on our egos."


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