The U-Men were an important transitional band in the process of grunge developing as an offshoot of punk. They’re only known to die-hards, but their influence on the musicians and bands that later made it big is undeniable. Stephen Tow, author of The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge, had this to say about them: “…the U-Men influenced their peers more than any other band… and that includes Nirvana, Soundgarden, and even the Blackouts, Seattle’s seminal underground band of the late ’70s/early ’80s.”
With that in mind, I was surprised to unearth this in the “Miscellaneous U” section at M-Theory Records in San Diego recently, maybe even more so since it’s the 1990 UK re-release (records move in funny ways… that’s a whole separate blog post in and of itself). But I was glad to have it since I’d probably have a harder time finding it in Seattle, and would have almost certainly had to pay a lot more.
Formed in Seattle in 1981, the U-Men had a strong but small core following, but their recorded output was relatively small – 1988s Step On A Bug is their only full-length LP, though they did have some EPs and singles, and also contributed a track to the early grunge compilation album Deep Six. Various websites and books can give you some more background on the band, so I won’t rehash a lot of that here. It’s unfortunate that such an influential band never had its own major success, but I’m not sure that bothered the guys. Tom Price later played with Gas Huffer, Jim Tillman spent some time with Love Battery, and Tom Hazelmyer founded Amphetamine Reptile Records, so it’s not like they just sort of disappeared.
What about the music? Well, I hear elements of a number of other bands in Step On A Bug, but obviously it’s impossible to say who influenced who. But John Bigley’s vocals remind me A LOT of one of my favorite grunge artists, Tad Doyle, especially on “2 X 4” (the best song on the album, IMO) and “Flea Circus”. It’s raspy, loud, and with an intensity that borders on desperation. I also get some Soundgarden-esque sounding guitars from say around their Badmotorfinger period. As for the lyrics… well… they’re sort of all over the place.
I could have killed her,
She let the dogs loose,
Day glow caboose.
— “2 X 4”
Alert the king the ship has been sunk.
— “A Three Year Old Could Do That”
See what I mean? Though I have to admit I like the Benedict Arnold reference.
Step On A Bug is some good stuff. This is the kind of sound that originally turned me on to grunge in high school, though honestly I don’t remember anything about the U-Men from that time. If you’re trying to get a sense of the genre’s roots, the U-Men are an essential stopping off point, and one that I think still holds up pretty well.