Senior Year, 1987: The Shape of Grunge to Come
by Chuck Eddy | August 20, 2012
So basically, here's how grunge started: Way back in the early '80s, San Francisco's wonderful hardcore band Flipper decided to play slow -- like, Black Sabbath-slow -- instead of fast. (In the '90s, Kurt Cobain would acknowledge their influence on him with a T-shirt he'd made.) By 1984 or so, suburban L.A.'s Black Flag -- hardcore's most famous band -- had slowed down as well, on My War, and were growing their hair out to boot. Though actually, up in Oregon, a band called the Wipers had already been sounding both metallic and punk-rockish as early as 1979; they were hardly alone, either (see: Philly's The Reds). But after hardcore hit, things really picked up.
Within the next few years, all sorts of moderately artsy punk bands, mainly from the nation's midsection ( die Kreuzen and Killdozer from Wisconsin, Hüsker Dü and their hack mimics Soul Asylum from Minnesota, The Necros from Ohio, Laughing Hyenas from Ann Arbor, Naked Raygun from Chicago, The Flaming Lips from Oklahoma, Scratch Acid and Butthole Surfers from Central Texas), starting working various hybrids of '70s hard rock ( Aerosmith or Zeppelin, for instance), early-'80s post-punk ( The Birthday Party or Killing Joke, for instance), maybe some power pop, and plain old slam-dance banging. Mohawk-wearing fundamentalist punks were frequently confused, but independent labels like Touch and Go, SST and Homestead put out the bands' vinyl anyway.
By let's say 1986, a scene was clearly coalescing up in the northwest, Washington in particular. Bands like Skin Yard, The Melvins and Soundgarden from Seattle and the Screaming Trees from Ellensburg were releasing their first records, similar to the Midwestern and Texas bands named above but often even more consciously sludgy/heavy/acid-rockish. Sundry outfits from the East Coast, the U.K., Australia, Holland and elsewhere were meanwhile developing their own high-decibel post-hardcore guitar-crud concoctions, at a time when indie rock (or "underground," or whatever it was it at the time) increasingly meant jangly R.E.M. wannabes with pencil necks. (Of course, in the '90s and beyond, indie would just keep getting wimpier. But that's another story.)
Anyway, all of this historical background is just a roundabout way of explaining this playlist: nearly two hours of noisily metal-indebted but indie-identified racket that managed to sound more or less grungy several years before "grunge" became an official name. (The term had been used by critics since the '70s, by the way, to unofficially describe any rock deemed vociferous and unkempt enough. And in 1985, Grunge Music also became the title of a children's book about Teddy Ruxpin.) The stuff here mostly dates from 1987, though I cheated in a couple instances and went a year or two earlier (even if you had your ear to the ground in pre-Internet days, it often took at least that long to discover obscure stuff); the playlist-ending Black Flag and (10-minute!) Flipper songs are even older than that, but both recordings come off 1986 live LPs.
Some of the other bands (Hüsker Dü, Buttholes, Bad Brains, Wipers -- whose "Losers Town" holds up surprisingly well regardless) were also already past their primes by 1987, as far as I'm concerned; others (notably the Pixies, who put out their debut EP that year and who I still don't have much use for, but it would've seemed odd to omit them) were just starting out. Some ( The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Flaming Lips, Dinosaur who technically hadn't added their Jr. yet, Soul Asylum -- all of whom had plenty of duller music ahead) wound up close to household names; others ( Janitors, Feedtime, The Left, Lazy Cowgirls, Gore, Rhythm Pigs, My Dad Is Dead) are barely remembered footnotes. Nirvana and their '90s-grunge contemporaries, judging from their sounds and stances, learned lucrative things from plenty of these artists. And if 1987 was really your senior year, and you knew more than a few, you were ahead of your time, too.