Somehow, someway, I made it all the way to my 27th year of life without ever seeing the fantastic documentary of the meteoric rise of all things Seattle, Hype! — and this from an admittedly huge fan of what was called “the Seattle sound.” I remember wanting to attend a screening when Hype! first came out in 1996, but the club must have been 18+ or something, because I ended up not going — and in the days before Netflix, never noticed it at a local video store. I finally watched it recently and very heartily enjoyed the experience.
Hype! is a wonderful music documentary by Doug Pray (Scratch), and highly recommended for anyone of my variety of musical come-uppance. I started high school in the fall of 1993, so I guess I missed the very beginnings of the explosion of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, but I caught up just as fast as I could (I had to go through my junior high Bel Biv Devoe phase, unfortunately).
Since I was young and somewhat naive, I never realized a lot of the background of music in the ’80s in Seattle. A point is made to lay the foundation for the film that Seattle was definitively not a cultural hotspot in the early 1980s:
“Bands never used to come here . . . they’d go as far as San Francisco and then not come all the way up to Seattle ‘cuz it wasn’t worth it to play just one show.” — Nils Bernstein, Sub Pop
“Well, Seattle was really lame, specifically in the early ’80s; it was like a million second cities. It had a fake Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, Killing Joke, all the fake Ramones you could shake a stick at, and, you know, people from Bellevue singing with English accents.” — Steve Fisk, record producer
That’s what made the explosion in the early ’90s all the more surprising to Seattleites, fueled largely by the Sub Pop record label. Bruce Pavitt started Sub Pop in 1979 as a cassette fanzine network where he’d make and distribute a zine along with compilation tapes of local bands. Pavitt teamed with Jonathan Poneman in 1986 to co-found the Sub Pop label with the goal of taking the sounds of their city beyond the confines of the region, with the hopes of allowing their musicians the freedom to quit their day jobs and take to the road, making it viable for them to get their music out there.
I loved a quote in the film from British record producer Martin Rushent, which captures the essence of the music scene at the time that Seattle started letting the raw rock fly: “When you’ve been through periods where you’ve had keyboard players with 50,000 lbs of kit on stage and 82 keyboards and 95 samplers, you know, after a while you just go, ‘Hang on. This is like eating too much food at one sitting; there’s too much sound, there’s too many colors, it’s all got poncey and posey. Let’s go see some bands where they just bash it out.” That ‘bashing it out’ is precisely what started to emerge from Sub Pop and other independent releases from Seattle.
In 1988, an article in the UK publication Melody Maker focused on the new sounds coming out of Seattle, and essentially wove together a story that created the myth of the city as an “explosion of subculture.” Journalists everywhere began writing about “the new Liverpool,” and what was happening in the Pacific Northwest. The NY Times article “Seattle Rock: Out Of The Woods and Into The Wild“ (by David Browne) posited, “This fall, the record industry went in search of the Seattle sound and returned with four rock bands whose only common trait seems to be inordinately long hair.”
And so began the fever for all things Seattle. The town became a mecca for bands looking to get heard and signed. Newly-formed bands were getting record contracts with only a week of live shows under their belt, just by virtue of being there.
One of the best cultural snapshots in the entire film is a shot of a sedate ride down an escalator in a department store. Piped in over the speakers is a tinny Muzak-synth version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ and the mannequins are all shown in their $180 “grunge wear.” It made me remember just how stupid and out-of-hand it all got once it was leeched onto by the fashionistas. Jeff Ament is quoted as saying, “More than anything else, I just think it’s funny. We wear long johns cuz it’s f*ckin’ cold!” (I’ll cop to wearing flannels pretty much my entire freshman year of high school. And Docs. And thermal shirts . . . okay, okay!)
The Supersuckers talk a bit about the excitement of the do-it yourself ethic in Seattle at the time, which I found inspiring: “That was the whole lesson we learned when we moved up here – just do it. We saw other bands no different than us just putting out records, zines –you know– a radio show, their own label, plus live shows.” That sounds to me a bit like the music scene at this very moment, with music blogs replacing the word-of-mouth of zines, MySpace streaming everyone and their gramma’s band on-demand, eMusic sales skyrocketing, and live shows like Daytrotter disseminating independent music faster than ever before.
The film’s got a very interesting (and humorously lo-tech) segment with Seattle musician Leighton Beezer, who constructed a computer program charting the inbred Seattle “family tree” for bands – linking musicians throughout a spiderweb network. It’s almost like ‘Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ through shared band members: Screaming Trees –> Nirvana –> The Melvins –> Mudhoney –> Green River –> Mother Love Bone –> Pearl Jam. Hours of endless entertainment in exploring those connections.
In addition to roiling, raw, cathartic live performances by everyone from Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to The Gits and The Posies, the film also includes the first ever live performance of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with Nirvana in a tiny club. It gave me the chills, with the grainy home video, the alternate lyrics, but that undefinable quality that always made it a great song.
When I was watching Hype, it struck me as sort of a companion piece to one of my favorite movies Singles, which was conceived by Cameron Crowe as a love letter to the city, but also served to glamourize the whole “scene” to a whole generation of wide-eyed teenagers (like me). Hype! is firmly based in reality of the era, while Singles is admittedly fictionalized, scripted, and styled, but they both document an era. I remember wanting to live there soooo bad (I almost went to college in Seattle), imagining in my subconscious that, you know, I’d be sitting outside my apartment building and Chris Cornell would walk by and nod at my new stereo system, or Jeff Ament would pop his head in the basement of my building and ask me to move my car. Ha.
Surprisingly, Pearl Jam’s role in the film was muted. Ed Vedder gives a reflective interview (sitting next to his ex-wife Beth Liebling, in an uncredited appearance) on fame and hype during a time when he was still very much struggling with it publicly, and is shown jamming on the drums with Hovercraft (a side band that he’s toured with). I loved the very ending of the film, which shows Pearl Jam conducting their rad Self-Pollution Radio program in their Seattle studios. A few of their friends are shown stopping by (Mark Arm, Kim Warnick from The Fastbacks, Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, Barrett Martin from Screaming Trees, Layne Staley from Alice in Chains, and Krist Novoselic from Nirvana), and the lyrics from the song shown here are a most fitting way to end the film:
“Small my table, sits just two
Got so crowded, I can’t make room
Ohh, where did they come from? Stormed my room!
And you dare say it belongs to you . . . to you . . .
This is not for you!
. . . Never was for you!”
Not For You (live on Self-Pollution Radio) – Pearl Jam
Here’s some more music documenting the sounds of that era, from tunes featured in the film. The full soundtrack to Hype! is also available on Sub Pop Records.
K Street (live) – The Fastbacks
Definite Door – The Posies
Touch Me I’m Sick (live) – Mudhoney
Negative Creep – Nirvana
The River Rise – Mark Lanegan
Low Beat – Young Fresh Fellows
Throwaway (live) – The Posies
Hype! also features a clip of Soundgarden performing this killer song off Badmotorfinger, in a bendy, sweaty, screaming performance with those notes being nailed by Chris Cornell. I saw Soundgarden in 1996 at the Henry J. Kaiser in Oakland, and it remains one of the best shows I’ve seen.
With My Good Eye Closed (live in 1996) – Soundgarden
And this is purely a bonus track from me; Green River is the now-defunct Seattle band of Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam, with Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney.
Queen Bitch (David Bowie cover) – Green River
Ultimately, it’s interesting to see how disparate and unique all the bands were that were lumped together under the headline “Seattle sound” when no one sound really ever existed. Hype! does a fine and entertaining job dissecting these years in American musical history. Director Doug Pray has made a convert of me to his productions; his next project is a film called Surfwise (about the life of Malibu surfer Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz) and I have a feeling it will include some choice tunes. Bring it on, Doug!