Seattle hasn’t always had a reputation for being a music mecca. In the pre-grunge years the city often found it difficult to even get bands on national tours to make a stop here, and the scene was made up of lots of bar cover bands much like the situation in the UK that helped kick off the punk scene there. Seattle’s popular music claims to fame were limited to the garage sound of the Sonics, the surf sounds of the Ventures, Jimi Hendrix, Heart, and Kenny G. And to be accurate, the Sonics and Ventures were from Tacoma, not Seattle, and as for Kenny G… the more that’s left unsaid, the better. So we’re pretty much talking about Hendrix and Heart on the national radar over the course of maybe 30 years or so. Yeah, there were a few others, but if you asked anyone in another part of the country to name a pop/rock performer or band from Seattle, that’s probably all you’d get until around the mid 1980s.
One of the bands that tried to break out of the gloomy bar cover scene was the Blackouts. Formed from the ashes of the punk band The Telepaths in 1979, the band navigated out of the punk sound and into post-punk and proto new wave (I’ve seen them described as no wave as well) with a more disjointed sound and the incorporation of synths and a saxophone. Following their 1979 debut 7″, Men in Motion was the band’s first EP, a four-song 12″ released in 1980 and a sort of underground cult Seattle classic. They lasted another two years in the city, releasing one more 7″ and contributing a track (“Young Man”) to the Seattle Syndrome Volume One compilation, before relocating to Boston and finally disbanding in the mid 1980s when some members joined Ministry.
Men in Motion certainly has a non-traditional sound to it. Some of the percussive sounds on side A don’t sound like they come from drums, more like blocks of wood, while a lot of the guitar is more feedback than playing. The bass lines provide the most stable, standard musical structure to the songs, and the regular drum sounds are pretty straight forward as well. What does all this sound like? I don’t know. Probably a little like a less frenetic Oingo Boingo, with a dash of early Cars, and maybe just a touch of Purrkur Pillnikk. “Being Be” on Side B seems to come closest to hitting the early new wave sound with it’s prominent synths and David Bowie-esque vocal sounds, but with a bit of a funk bass line, and it’s my favorite track on the record.
When I listen to post-punk records like Men in Motion I have to keep my focus. It’s too easy to view the sound as a transition between the more widely popular punk and new wave genres, but that sells it short. Post-punk was an important genre in its own right, and though the often disjoined and experimental sounds that emanated from that 1979-1982 period can be challenging to listen to, there were a lot of new ideas being explored on those albums. Some of them were relegated to the dustbin of musical history (and rightfully so, in some cases), others were the genesis of the new wave sound, and a handful existed only in this time and were important in their own rights. The Blackouts and Men in Motion were more than just a transitional step on the way to grunge. They were trendsetters who took the first steps to break out of the stagnant mold of the local music scene and deserve recognition for that.