Inside the Pacific Northwest punk movement, from the Sonics to Sub Pop
The song was only three chords, hammered out to a calypso rhythm by guitar, bass, drums and a cheap organ. It resembled a morse code message to the subconscious brain, an invitation to all sorts of debauchery and depravity. But that was only the instrumental track. See, no one understood what the singer slurred, so garbled was his delivery. Not even an FBI investigation to determine whether the record was obscene or not decoded the words. Except for the chorus: “Louie Louie, oh no/Me gotta go.”
“Louie Louie” was a 1957 R&B cash-in about a Jamaican sailor coming home to see his girl, sold with a batch of songs by its composer Richard Berry for $750 so he could buy a wedding ring. He had no idea several Pacific Northwest-based rock ‘n’ roll bands would eventually discover his record and make it an area standard. Then Portland, Oregon’s the Kingsmen pummeled its three chords to death before three microphones in a cheap demo studio. It was a one-take wonder, complete with singer/guitarist Jack Ely coming into the third verse too early, warned off by drummer Lynn Easton’s stumbling roll that was surely accompanied by a withering glare. But something about both its indecipherability and simple riff made it universally appealing. The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” became a huge hit, a rock ‘n’ roll standard, played by everyone from the Kinks to Black Flag, and was eventually the subject of a rights-restoring lawsuit from Berry. It also established the primacy of punk rock in the Pacific Northwest.
“Wine is red, poison is blue”
As the ‘50s dissolved into the ‘60s, the Pacific Northwest became known for producing tough, white R&B-based rock bands. Initially, they began as instrumental outfits, featuring blown-out saxophones standing in for lead singers, with some member or other taking the occasional vocal turn. Typical was the Wailers out of Tacoma, often differentiated as “the Fabulous Wailers” to avoid confusion with Bob Marley’s band. They hit No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Tall Cool One” in 1959 and introduced “Louie Louie” to the rest of the circuit. But it was fellow Tacoma act the Ventures who would become the region's breakout act when they applied a boisterous rock ‘n’ roll attack to a jazz standard called “Walk, Don't Run.” It was the first of a string of million sellers, commencing a career that outlived any of the Ventures’ original members.
Then came the Sonics, who shared a Tacoma birthplace with the Wailers and the Ventures, as well as an affinity for R&B. That’s where any resemblance ends. Guitarist Larry Parypa cranked his amp until his tubes went blue and his speakers distorted themselves to bits. And singer Gerry Roslie? He didn’t sing — he screamed. We’re talking blood-curdling, throat-ripping sonic blasts every time he stepped in front of a microphone.
Their recording techniques were unorthodox, to say the least: hanging one mic above drummer Bob Bennett and having pummeling his kit; pushing all levels until they were red-lining the VU meters, causing the engineers to tear out their hair; ripping all the acoustic tiles off the walls of the studio to get a more live sound. The Sonics made the loudest, nastiest rock records to date, equivalent to what the Kinks were doing virtually simultaneously. Other locals were rapidly retooling their methodology in the wake of the Sonics’ crash-and-burn music-making. The Wailers dropped the instrumentals and began bashing out distorted crunchers such as “Out Of Our Tree,” while Paul Revere & The Raiders, who’d relocated from Boise, Idaho to Portland, similarly toughened up. But the novelty of their revolutionary war costuming and singer Mark Lindsay’s teen idol good looks gave them a bubblegum reputation, though they made records as raunchy as the Rolling Stones’.
A jobbing R&B guitarist of extraordinary ability from Seattle named Jimi Hendrix applied the local bands’ distortion to his own playing. Factoring in what he saw and heard when he migrated to London, he revolutionized how rock guitar was played in the late ‘60s. Similarly, as later rock historians and journalists codified what became known as garage-punk, the Pacific Northwest rockers of the mid-’60s, especially the Sonics, were feted for their contributions to punk rock. It must have been something in the water.
“Q. Why do it, you’ll never get rich? A. ‘Cuz I’m a refuser!”
The ‘70s were rough for Pacific Northwestern rock bands. Things degenerated into a cover band scene that was ultimately a creative dead end, though an outfit with a loosely Led Zeppelin-esque hard-rock sound called Heart broke nationally in the mid-’70s. Glam rock gained a toehold in Seattle at least, in the guise of Ze Whiz Kidz. They were a gay theatrical troupe with a shifting cast, chiefly Tomata Du Plenty, Melba Toast and Rio De Janeiro, backed by a rock band, the Fabulous Pickle Sisters. Their outrageous performances, awash in glitter, transvestism and nudity brought them infamy, especially after opening Seattle Alice Cooper and New York Dolls gigs.
With Ze Whiz Kidz breaking up in 1975 and Du Plenty off to NYC, where he would witness the first stirrings at CBGB, impressionable teens attending those gigs began filtering those received ideas into their own nascent protopunk acts. Most notable were the Luvaboys, who according to Peter Blecha’s Northwestern Rock history Sonic Boom, were “pelted with fruit, called ‘f***ts,’ and beaten up afterward by schoolmates who hated their glam tendencies” after performing at a “riotous Roosevelt High School talent show.” Members split into two of the area’s earliest punk bands, with singer/guitarist Jim Basnight forming the Meyce before becoming an area power-pop fixture via the Moberlys, the Rockinghams and several other bands.
Then Du Plenty returned from New York with visions of Blondie, Ramones and the rest dancing through his head. He reconfigured Ze Whiz Kidz with Toast, De Janeiro and a drummer named Eldon Hoke as the Tupperwares, writing tunes with a provocative John Waters-like point of view, such as “I’m Going Steady With Twiggy” and “Eva Braun.” They organized one of the West Coast’s first proper punk shows: May 1, 1976, “The TMT Show” at IOOF Oddfellows Hall with the Meyce and another Luvaboys offshoot, the Telepaths. Du Plenty, Toast and Hoke all ended up in Hollywood eventually, the first two hitting town later in the year. Du Plenty and Toast (now renamed Tommy Gear) formed legendary techno-punks the Screamers, while Hoke effected a black executioner hood and led infamous porno-metal band the Mentors under the new stage name El Duce.
Another ex-Whiz Kid changed his name from Satin Sheets to J. Satz Baret, resurfacing in the Knobs in May 1977. One month later, he was fronting the Lewd, opening for the Ramones (twice) and eventually cutting one of the area’s first punk singles, 1979’s Dead Boys-meets-John Waters snot fest “Kill Yourself” between “Trash Can Baby.” They were beaten to the punch the year before by a few ex-Knobs, now calling themselves S’NOTS, with “So Long To The Sixties,” and Basnight’s charmingly titled “She Got Fucked,” featuring backing from various S’NOTS and Telepaths. ‘79 saw a slew of homebrew Seattle punk 45s besides the Lewd’s. Pride of place goes to long-running Buzzcocks worshippers Fastbacks, whose infectious “It's Your Birthday” features a teenage Duff McKagan on drums. Before co-founding Guns N' Roses, McKagan became Seattle punk’s all-star utility player, with an aptitude for every instrument a band could need. Bass was his main instrument, however, which he thumped on one of the area’s greatest early punk singles, “School Jerks” by the Vains. Future Muffs drummer Chris Crass sang and played guitar.
The greatest of the original Seattle punk bands so embodied the ethos, they remain barely documented and didn’t release a recording until the first of many breakups over the years. The Refuzors, led by genius songwriter/guitarist Mike Refuzor, were nihilistic to a fault, with a rowdy, hell-raising sound to match. Refuzor had a hyper-distorted guitar attack somewhere between Johnny Thunders and heavy metal that proved pervasively influential over Seattle for years to come. Unfortunately, the negationist philosophy embodied by songs such as “I'm A Refuzor” was enough that the Refuzors were perpetually chaotic and disorganized. They rarely got it together to document their glorious, gonzo punk ‘n’ roll and remain a local cult legend to this day.
Portland Pushed Over The Edge
Portland dived into the ‘70s punk explosion with as much enthusiasm as Seattle. One of its earliest and best punk bands featured a Las Vegas transplant with an already established DIY ethic and solid connections to ‘60s garage culture. Fred Cole had settled in the area with wife Toody Cole a few years after his band the Lollipop Shoppe cut the underground classic “You Must Be A Witch.” They opened a musical instrument store, Captain Whizeagle’s, and released a few albums by Cole’s hard-rock band Zipper on their own Whizeagle Records. He began playing guitar in his next band, King Bee, which transitioned to punk rock after opening for the Ramones. After King Bee’s dissolution, Fred taught Toody bass, and the two started the lean, spare three-piece the Rats. They released three solid, semi-lo-fi LPs on Whizeagle before Cole became dismayed at the machismo infecting the punk scene in hardcore’s wake, dropping their final record in 1983. Fred and Toody resurfaced later in the decade, helming voodoo garage-ists Dead Moon, who spread their inspiration internationally.
Portland’s most influential and enduring punk band, however, was led by an autodidactic guitarist and record producer named Greg Sage. His father, a broadcasting professional, got him a recording lathe in his teens, feeding a lifelong fascination with recorded sound and its attendant technology that led to singing, writing songs and playing electric guitar. Six years after working at age 17 in 1971 on an album by a professional wrestler named Beauregard, he entered the punk fray with the Wipers. Intriguingly, he set out on a plan to independently record and release 15 LPs in 10 years without touring or promotion of any kind: “My thoughts were that the mystique built from not playing the tradition rock ‘n’ roll promotion game would make people listen to our recordings much deeper, with only their imagination to go by,” Sage says in Sonic Boom.
Which meant they played many a Portland gig but barely ventured beyond the city limits. Driving, moody, minor-key Sage classics such as “Return Of The Rat” and “Over The Edge” were relentless, distortion-drenched expressions of deep alienation that achieved a large worldwide cult audience, despite his reluctance to promote them. His own Trap label, founded in 1979, also became an important Portland punk clearinghouse. He personally recorded and released a number of important early local singles, including Stiphnoyds’ Afraid Of The Russians EP, Sado-Nation’s debut EP and Neo Boys. All this made Sage the most crucial and influential figure in the Portland punk scene.
This Thing Called Progress…
When hardcore hit the Pacific Northwest, its impact was hard in most places. Portland’s Sado-Nation sped up and tightened up considerably after their 1980 EP and the addition of singer Mish Bondage, one of the few women involved in an increasingly violent and testosterone-drenched scene. Portland also spawned the area’s greatest hardcore band, Poison Idea. With a negationist mindset and an increasingly powerful sound, Poison Idea simply got better and better until they’d developed into America’s answer to Motörhead. The Accüsed from Seattle began in 1981 as a fairly typical hardcore band before introducing metal elements and becoming one of the earliest speed-metal crossover acts.
Montesano, Washington’s Melvins pointed in another metal-derived direction for local bands to follow when they heard chief inspiration Black Flag getting slower and heavier. This proved massively influential to local youth such as Kurt Cobain (who received a punk primer cassette custom compiled by Melvins’ Buzz Osborne), fanzine editor Bruce Pavitt and members of an absurdist Seattle band Mr. Epp And The Calculations. Some of Mr. Epp folded into glam-garage-ists Green River, who issued their final recordings via the label Pavitt started from the ashes of his zine, which was also called Sub Pop. Cobain’s band Nirvana found a home there, as did ex-Green River members Mark Arm and Steve Turner’s new band Mudhoney. Grunge — the byproduct of the Melvins’ weighty, oozing grooves — rapidly became a thing in the wake of Mudhoney’s debut single, “Touch Me I'm Sick.” As it conquered the world, at its heart was that nasty, unstable guitar sound and rowdy ethic pioneered by the Sonics, refined by the Refuzors. Every revolution is never rootless, even with a negationist core.