When Evergreen State College student Bruce Pavitt began his Subterranean Pop fanzine in the early ’80s, covering American independent bands and recordings, he had no idea he would virtually invent an entire rock genre. He was just looking to earn a course credit at the freewheeling Olympia, Washington, higher education outlet. But the ‘zine had to shorten its name to Sub Pop, then spawn a series of cassettes anthologizing U.S. underground rock, then morph into a monthly column in Seattle newspaper The Rocket before becoming a record label in 1986.
Working at elevator music syndicate Muzak’s Seattle warehouse, Sub Pop issued Dry As A Bone, an EP by local metallic glam-punks Green River in 1987. Ads Pavitt took out promoting it described it as “ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation.” Yet, it wasn’t until SP18, Mudhoney’s immortal debut 45 “Touch Me I’m Sick,” that the label issued music that truly lived up to the second word in that slogan. Rock critics like Lester Bangs had been describing particularly filthy guitar sounds as “grunge” for years. Mudhoney and the other “primal rock stuff” Pavitt and partner Jonathan Poneman were signing defined grunge as a sound and an attitude.
Sub Pop grew into a powerhouse in a few short years. And though its meat and potatoes were Seattle grunge bands, it also issued fine recordings of basic punk bands, garage rock, jangly lo-fi indie pop and even local beat poet Steven Jesse Bernstein. The quality of packaging and graphic design throughout the independent music scene improved by quantum leaps thanks to Sub Pop. And its ingenious Single Of The Month Club subscription service created the vogue for the limited-edition colored vinyl seven-inch record that continues to this day.
It probably isn’t a stretch to say Sub Pop helped invent the modern indie label as we know it. We can certainly lay credit for grunge at its feet. These 10 crucial records created the phenomenon that is Sub Pop Records.
Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick” b/w “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More” 45
This is really Sub Pop Ground Zero—not the subsequent Superfuzz Bigmuff EP nor the self-titled full-length. Not even Pavitt’s old multi-band cassettes or the Sub Pop 100 comp qualify. This collision of Green River’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner with ex-Melvin Matt Lukin and drummer Dan Peters, as they found the connections between early Stooges and the sludge-metal of Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath (mostly the fuzzbox) is the ignition spark for Grunge, with a capital G. Turner and Arm’s guitars rasp out the Yardbirds’ “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” riff, as Arm drawls a sex anthem for the AIDS-plagued ’80s: “I won’t live long/And I’m full of rot/Gonna give you, girl/Everything I got.” Meet Seattle’s “Anarchy In The U.K.” or “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
Green River – Dry As A Bone EP
Turner was long gone when this speed bump in Mudhoney and Pearl Jam’s combined Paleozoic era dropped on Pavitt’s newly energized label. Hearing how the members not named Mark Arm altered that “Let’s mix punk and hard rock” game plan, it’s easy to see how Turner might have gotten uncomfortable. Tracks such as “This Town” sound more like Poison gone ballistic than Mudhoney’s garage-ier thrills. If this was “glam punk,” the “glam” part was more Sunset Strip hairspray sleaze rock than the New York Dolls. But when it works, as on the blues-drenched “Unwind,” it could be Seattle’s answer to the Dead Boys.
Soundgarden – Screaming Life EP
With this EP, many of the hallmarks of the Sub Pop aesthetic were firmly in place. Skin Yard guitarist Jack Endino produced and engineered the sessions at his Reciprocal Recording studio. Charles Peterson’s live-action photography provided much of the graphic thrust on the sleeve. Meanwhile, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Hiro Yamamoto (both of whom moved with fellow Illinoisan Pavitt to Seattle in the early ’80s) and ex-Skin Yard drummer Matt Cameron managed to simultaneously channel both Led Zeppelin and Bauhaus. Which was a perfectly beautiful bombast for Chris Cornell to surf with his shirtless, post-Robert Plant yowl.
The Fluid – Clear Black Paper
Sub Pop’s first non-Seattle signings, the Fluid’s Denver residency was not the only factor separating them from what was becoming the label’s rapidly developing grunge orthodoxy. The other was that they became the first of the label’s handful of punk standard-bearers. All veterans of early ’80s Denver hardcore outfits, the racket they raised was closer to Detroit protopunk heroes MC5 mixed with Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones. Stomping howlers such as “Cold Outside” had more hip-shaking forward thrust than the sludge-fuzz for which Sub Pop was becoming known. Clear Black Paper’s an undeservedly lost classic of late ’80s rock ’n’ roll.
Nirvana – Bleach
Bleach was more of a piece with The Sound Of Seattle than the multi-platinum juggernaut that would be Nevermind: Endino’s thick, meaty hard-rock production; a Peterson cover photo emphasizing lots of dirty hair flying above flannel shirts; an emphasis on heavy sub-Sabbath riffs and none of the pop melodies that became a Kurt Cobain trademark. But his penchant for screaming in pitch is already in place, alongside his habit of tearing into one lyric and worrying it to death. Then “About A Girl” jangles up three songs in, sounding like someone dropped a Beatles outtake in the punch bowl. And 1991 suddenly beckons from a two-year-long tunnel.
Tad – God’s Balls
Tad was all about being heavy, from leader’s imposing girth to their clearly Melvins-inspired sound. Across their debut album’s riff monsters like “Pork Chop” and “Behemoth,” the quartet crunged away like their collective record collection consisted entirely of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and Black Flag’s My War. Which certainly makes them harbingers of stoner/doom rock’s future. Factor in their image as these untamed lumberjacks from Washington state’s dangerous backwoods and you have a formidable sound machine scarier than 90 slasher films.
Dwarves – Blood Guts & Pussy
Dwarves arrived on Sub Pop’s roster like a flaming brown paper bag of dog turds and water. HeWhoCannotBeNamed churned up the volcanic fuzz guitar action as Blag Dahlia (then Blag Jesus) snarled filthy one-minute hate bombs like “Skin Poppin’ Slut” and “Back Seat Of My Car,” basically waiting for 20 squad cars to arrive like at their gigs. This knighted these San Franciscans by way of Chicago Sub Pop’s second punk standard-bearers and was one of the label’s most exciting releases of 1990. It’s also one of the earliest of the label’s records to contrast Peterson’s streaky live reportage shots with Michael Lavine’s high-fashion-inspired, color-saturated photography. The cover: two naked women and a male dwarf, all covered in blood.
L7 – Smell The Magic EP
The Los Angeles quartet’s eponymous 1988 debut LP was produced by Brett Gurewitz for Epitaph, seemingly the worst fit for their propulsive grind rock. Smell The Magic was more like it. They were on Sub Pop, Endino producing at Reciprocal, and he asked Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner, “Can you please turn your fuzz boxes up?” As a result, tracks like “Fast And Frightening” and the single “Shove” slammed harder than anything they’d done previously. The Jennifer Finch (bass)/Dee Plakas (drums) rhythm section had a harder thud quotient, and Sparks’ tonsils were shredded more severely. L7 now defined “grunge” more than the label’s flannel-shirteddudes.
Fastbacks – The Question Is No
The trio—singer/bassist Kim Warnick, singer/guitarist Lulu Gargiulo and songwriter/lead guitarist Kurt Bloch—had been crushing out their pogo-rhythmed crunch-pop since the late ’70s, when all were high school classmates. They’d been through a string of drummers (including future Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan) and had issued a string of singles that deftly crossed the Sweet with Generation X. This compilation collected some from the last few years, including the previous year’s Sub Pop debut EP, The Answer Is YOU. Which meant it contained possibly the single best Fastbacks song, “Impatience,” a gem of everyday sweetness.
The Supersuckers – The Smoke Of Hell
The quartet originally called Black Supersuckers had all been high school pals in their native Tucson, Arizona, when they moved to Seattle in 1989. Judging by their mix of Ramones, Angry Samoans and Dead Boys with AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and ZZ Top, they didn’t pack any flannels in their suitcases. Nitro-burners such as “Coattail Rider” and “I Say Fuck” perfectly melded punk energy and aggression with hard-rock dynamics, centered on Dan Bolton and Ron Heathman’s matching Les Paul Gold Top riffing and bassist Eddie Spaghetti’s tuneful Lemmy growl. Thus began a legend that continues running to this day.