Was this the moment that grunge started? (♠)
Record Store Day 2016 had some pretty big releases for Seattle music fans, including two live albums (The Sonics Live at Easy Street and KEXP Presents: Raw Power – A Tribute To Iggy & The Stooges) and the first ever official release of Green River’s 1984 Demos. I was lucky enough to find all three at Easy Street Records a couple of hours after they opened on RSD, and I couldn’t be happier with all of them.
You can make a solid case for Green River being the first true grunge band. Not only were they recording way before anyone was even using the term (♥), but when they eventually broke up in late 1987 members went on to form bands like Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, and Pearl Jam, each bringing a certain amount of Green River influence to their new projects, most obviously and sonically in Mudhoney (♦). So if Green River isn’t grunge’s patient zero, I don’t know who is. (♣)
Producer Jack Endino didn’t record these sessions, but he is the one who ended up with the tapes and was finally able to secure permission to master it for this RSD special vinyl release. It comes with a reproduction of an early Green River gig flyer as well as a band sticker. The edition was limited to 2,000 copies, and based what I’ve read online it sounds like 1,800 of these are black and 200 pink – but there’s no way to tell what color you have until you actually open the cellophane. Mine is black, which I guess is a bit of a bummer, but whatever – I wasn’t buying this as a collectable; I bought it because I love Green River. And after listening to it, I love them even more.
Endino notes that he hears Alice Cooper and Black Flag influences on these demos, and I certainly agree – I definitely hear some of the slow heaviness of My War‘s B side on songs like “Leeech.” I also get a ton of The Stooges and just general hardcore. But what I love is how they blend different elements together. “Means to an End” is mostly a hardcore song, but Turner does some little guitar start-stops that would have never flown in a typical hardcore song, fitting more into a straight forward rock style. “New God” takes that heavy psych quality of early Black Sabbath, but with an Iggy Pop-ish approach to the vocals. “Against the Grain” opens with a drum beat that has you convinced you’re about to get some hair metal, but then is joined by Turner’s guitar and you start thinking, “OK, this is some kind of prog rocker”… until Arm comes in sounding like The Sweet’s Brian Connolly on “Ballroom Blitz”… and that’s all before the song pounds forward into what can be best described as a early UK style punk number… but, you know, one with tempo changes… I think that song just broke my brain. The closest Green River come to a prototypical grunge song on 1984 Demos is side B’s “Take Me,” reminding me more than a little of the frenetic pace of early Soundgarden an Mudhoney.
What’s crazy to me is that the 1984 Demos material pre-dates Green River’s debut, the 1985 EP Come On Down, and yet of these nine demo tracks only “Tunnel of Love” made it onto that record – so basically the band recorded an entire album that it never used. Endino is right when he refers to 1984 Demos as “Green River album number zero.”
1984 Demos is a flat out killer record. That’s all you need to know. Go buy it!
(♠) Look, a lot of people, including a lot of Seattle musicians, hate the term “grunge”. I get it. I really do. But at the end of the day, that’s the label that was slapped onto the type of music that came out of here in the mid to late 1980s, so it’s a convenient term as much as anything. Sure, you could call it punk, but at that point you’d have to call it “Seattle punk” to differentiate it from the New York, Los Angeles, and DC styles, not to mention the stuff coming out of the UK and Europe. So for our purposes, I’m just going to call it grunge.
(♥) Of course, future Green River frontman Mark Arm famously used it in a letter to the zine Desperate Times in 1981 to criticize his own band at the time…
(♦) And not just because of Mark Arm’s unique voice. To my ears Mudhoney is like Green River v2.0, with that muddy, intentionally sloppy style that defines their sound.
(♣) Unless you want to argue for Arm and guitarist Steve Turner’s pre-Green River band, Mr. Epp & The Calculations.