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The real story of what led up to the grunge explosion.

Book Review: The Strangest Tribe: How A Group Of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge by Stephen Tow

With the recent twentieth anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, all the aging Gen-Xers are looking back at their lost youth. It’s kind of funny really, the whole thing was defined as a teen-spirit revolution, and now most of those teens have children and sub-prime mortgages in foreclosure. But just like the hippies in 1987, with their endless tributes to the Summer of Love in 1967, it is our turn to tell stories of the good old days.

Actually, there have been plenty of those self-serving accounts published already. Thankfully, Stephen Tow’s The Strangest Tribe is not one of them. Tow takes a completely different tack on the subject, one which steers very clear of the obvious to provide the story of what led up to “Grunge-mania” in 1991.

What makes this book interesting is the fact that Tow ends his narrative in 1991, rather than starting there. His tale is about the various ingredients that went into producing the instantly identifiable sound prior to the explosion. We begin in the late seventies, in a Seattle that has little in common with the big city it is today.

In 1978, punk rock was still a very distant rumor for most Seattleites. Big things were happening in London and New York, but the Pacific Northwest clubs were filled with nothing but Top 40 cover bands. That was a situation that would continue for most of the eighties, which is one reason the scene remained so small. Gigs at tiny venues were the norm, if the bands could get any at all, and the clientele was invariably other musicians.

Tow takes us through the development of local punk, with discussions of forgotten favorites such as 10 Minute Warning, The Fartz and Mr. Epp and the Calculations. Inevitably, the groups broke up after a short existence, and the various members dispersed to start new bands, or replace members in others.

All of this went merrily along until 1985, and the emergence of Green River. Named after the notorious serial killer, Green River contained a wealth of talent, and is considered by many to be the first grunge band. Concurrently, there was a network of support being developed, with the opening of lo-fi local studios, and shoestring budget record labels such as Sub Pop and C/Z. Famously, Green River disbanded due to internal differences. Mark Arm and Steve Turner went on to form Mudhoney, and Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard started Mother Love Bone, the precursor to Pearl Jam.

At the time though, all eyes were on Soundgarden. Most believed that they had the best shot at becoming successful. In those days, “making it” for an underground band was to reach the level of a Husker Du or Black Flag. Selling 30,000 copies of your album, touring the country in a van, and getting written up in SPIN magazine was about the extent of the dream.

Obviously, expectations were altered dramatically in the wake of Nevermind. What The Strangest Tribe does best is to break down the crucial period between 1987 and 1990. For Seattle natives, those were the grunge years. As the author correctly notes, the sound had pretty much run its course by ‘91, and would have likely been remembered as an interesting local detour, had it not been for the runaway successes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. We also witness the gradual, and seemingly inevitable introduction of heroin into what had previously been a scene mostly fueled by beer.

As a lifelong Seattle native of a certain age, I was there for it all — and can vouch for the fact the The Strangest Tribe gets it right. The author even discusses details such as small parties in Belltown, the events of which would one day alter music history.

The cooperation Stephen Tow received was invaluable. The hundreds of interviews he conducted and obvious research have paid off substantially. For an “outsider” (he lives in Cheltenham, PA) Tow has done an outstanding job of telling the real Seattle music story. The Strangest Tribe is a great read.

About Greg Barbrick

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