Archive for September, 2012

Tuesday, October 2

Topic: Appreciating the underappreciated: the Young Fresh Fellows and the U-Men.  Next week, we’ll take a look at two of my favorite Seattle bands, two bands that got little recognition in the wake of the early ’90s grunge phenomenon.  The Fellows provided a humorous, albeit twisted take on punk/pop, while the U-Men–to paraphrase writer Dawn Anderson–“there are no words.”

Music: The Young Fresh Fellows: “Rock ‘N’ Roll Pest Control,” “This Little Mystery,” “Amy Grant,” “Searchin’ USA;” the U-Men: “Shoot ’em Down,” “Gila,” “Dig It a Hole.”

Blog: “Interviewing the Fellows’/R.E.M.’s Scott McCaughey”; “Interviewing the U-Men’s Tom Price”; “On the Road With the U-Men”

Student presentations: Three students will present on the following scenes: Nashville: ’50s and ’80s; Japan: “Visual Kei.”

(The Young Fresh Fellows perform at the Sunset in Ballard, Seattle, April, 2012.)

We had a lot to cover on Tuesday. The theme revolved around Seattle creating a musical identity. This process occurred around 1984/85, just as the music scene seemed to bottom out.  At that point, many musicians left town in search of greener pastures.  Seattle had become a dead end.  But those who stayed decided to make music for fun, breaking rules long set by London and New York.

I had the class read chapter 3 (“We Must Be Musicians”) from my book, which deals with the U-Men and the beginnings of what would become known as grunge.  Students seemed to get the Seattle attitude, especially with incidents such as the Thrown Ups oyster show (more on that later) and the U-Men setting a moat on fire at the 1985 Bumbershoot music festival.

Following that discussion, Sarvee presented on the LA “girl bands” of the ’70s, which I found quite informative. Most of us know about the Runaways, but not many had ever heard of Fanny…a band which influenced a generation of female rockers.

Finally, we readied ourselves for the main event: a conversation, via Skype, with the Thrown Ups’ Leighton Beezer. Leighton and his band essentially symbolized the aesthetic that was grunge.  Don’t practice, don’t have songs and–most importantly–don’t give a fuck about anything.

Leighton talked about the notorious oyster show where his band opened for Husker Du at  the upscale* Gorilla Gardens in 1985.  He mentioned how belligerent punk audiences could be back then…he had first-hand knowledge of such behavior as a fan and he was about to experience it from the other side.  So, the band brought raw oysters to heave at the crowd if necessary.  But the fans liked the Thrown Ups!  So, what did Leighton and Co. do?  They tossed the oysters anyway.  Of course.

Leighton has long had an improvisational vision for his bands.  I had never asked him about where that came from, so I used this opportunity to find out.  He stated he was in a band many years ago that had secured a gig at a party.  Going in, he knew the material did not fit the audience, and people would lose interest…which they did.  Following that experience, he vowed never to let that happen again–never again would people leave gigs out of boredom.  They might depart out of disgust, but not from lack of interest.

All in all, we had fun chatting with him, and I appreciated a Leighton statement, said in a typical Seattle tongue-in-cheek manner: “You should all try to be Steve,” basically implying that I’m able to get paid teaching a course about musicians throwing oysters and setting bodies of water on fire.  I agree.  It’s a pretty good gig.

* – “upscale”…that’s being sarcastical.

(Leighton Beezer chats with my students from Seattle via Skype.)

Tuesday, September 25

Topic: Seattle, grunge, and the creation of identity.

Special Guest: The Thrown Ups’ John Leighton Beezer, from Seattle via Skype.

Text: Tow, chapter 3.

Music: Green River: “Come on Down,” “Leech;*” Soundgarden: “Nothing to Say;” 64 Spiders: “Rubber Room;” Room Nine: “1000 Years;” the Green Pajamas, “Kim the Waitress.”

Blog: “Interviewing the Thrown Ups’ Leighton Beezer”; “Green River Reunion Show, July 2008”;

* – recorded live at the Sub Pop 20th Anniversary festival, July 2008.

Guest Speaker: John Leighton Beezer

Leighton (or John, whatever you’d prefer) formed the Thrown Ups, arguably Seattle’s quintessential grunge band, in 1985. For a while, the Thrown Ups also featured Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner.  The band had no songs, and abhorred practicing…and that was by design.  Leighton continues to follow that improvisational formula today.  Professionally, he has been involved in developing music sharing software.

(Scott Schickler [Swallow], drums; Glenn Slater [Walkabouts], keyboards; and Leighton jam at Carla Torgerson’s [Walkabouts] house, April 2012)

We had a mixed bag to cover yesterday, spending about the first 30 minutes talking about the early ’80s Olympia (WA) music scene.  I picked that locale due to the city’s influence on Seattle and its contribution to the indie rock DIY ethic.

Students were assigned two readings: Chapter 13, “Beat Happening,” from Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life and Chapter 2, “KAOS in Olympia,” from my book.  Azerrad focuses on the music scene through the lens of one influential band, whereas I look at Olympia from Seattle’s perspective 60 miles to the north.

Students talked about Olympia’s eccentric, “anti-hippie hippie” movement centering around Calvin Johnson, his band Beat Happening, and his label, K Records.  They noticed the culture’s sort of longing for innocence, while simultaneously acknowledging a kind of subversive depravity.  I had them listen to two Beat Happening songs: “Indian Summer” and “Fortune Cookie Prize.”  They weren’t particularly fond of the music, citing its repetitive nature, but a couple of folks mentioned hearing “Indian Summer” before…in fact one student said her roommate overheard it and immediately transfered the song to her iPod.

I also had them listen to two tunes from the Young Pioneers, an Olympia band that has since been somewhat overshadowed by Beat Happening.  They sounded nothing like BH…as exemplified by my selections: “Round and Round” and “Instrumental.”  I picked the former song since you can hear the neo-psychedelic Paisley Underground influence…plus you can pickup people in the audience talking about raffle tickets.  The YP songs were recorded live at a 1985 outdoor graduation party at Evergreen State College.

I made sure they understood the importance of Evergreen to Olympia’s scene…that the school begat the above two bands as well as folks who would make major contributions to Seattle’s music community including Scott Vanderpool, Chris Pugh, Steve Fisk, Stephen Rabow, George Romansic, and Bruce Pavitt.

Next, Samantha did a presentation on the Chicago/Milwaukee emo scene of the ’90s…which I enjoyed since I knew virtually nothing about that genre.

We finished up talking about non-musician contributions to the music scene, and I had them read my blog post on Seattle music critic Dawn Anderson.  We talked about writers, zine creators, sound people, photographers, promoters, label owners, producers, just plain fans…all the folks needed to make the thing viable.  We also chatted about drummers, and I made them read my blog post on the plight of the Seattle percussionist.  They seemed to really enjoy that perspective, and a few especially since they have played drums in marching bands. One student compared the drummer to playing defense in soccer…both having necessary, but underappreciated roles.

Finally, we set things up for next week’s Q&A with the Thrown Ups’ Leighton Beezer.  I showed them two clips from hype! where he makes an appearance.  In the first, he demonstrates the incestuous nature of the Seattle music scene through a computer program he wrote on an old Mac.  In the second clip, he plays a Ramones riff on his guitar and describes it as punk, then follows with a Green River chord progression and identifies it as grunge. Then, we got to see someone hose puke off a sidewalk in Seattle while TAD’s “Helot” played.

(Leighton whispers sweet nothings in my ear following an Empire Vista show at Philly’s Tritone)

Tuesday, September 18

Topics: Moving beyond hardcore; Breaking free from New York and London: the Olympia music scene; I’m not in the band: supporting the music; The drummer’s dilemma.

Text: Tow, chapter 2; Azerrad chapter 13.

Blog: “Interviewing Writer Dawn Anderson”; “Sympathy for the (Seattle) Drummer” (all five installments)

Music: Beat Happening: “Fortune Cookie Prize,” “Indian Summer;” Young Pioneers: “Instrumental,” “Round and Round.” (YP songs recorded live in June 1985 at an outdoor graduation party at the Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA.  A major thank you to Scott Vanderpool, Chris Pugh, Brad Sweek, Bryan Learned, and David Todd for forwarding me the YP songs.)*

Blog: “Op Magazine”

Web Reading: “How Did [Olympia’s] K [Records] Start?”

Student presentation.

* – Seattle is incestuous 101.  The Young Pioneers’ Scott Vanderpool also played in Room Nine with Ron Rudzitis (Love Battery) and now plays in the Green Pajamas with his wife Laura (Capping Day); Chris Pugh also played in Swallow with Rod Moody (Deranged Diction, the Fuzz); Rod played in Deranged Diction with Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam) and is now in the GUM with Rob Morgan (the Squirrels) and Damon Titus (the Enemy.)

(Senor Dorkinger [left] and Rod Moody, outside of the Sunset following the Squirrels’ and Young Fresh Fellows’ show, April 2012.)

Yesterday we focused on American hardcore punk, from 1980 – 1984.  I gave the students a bit of an introduction to the genre, which rebelled—at times violently—against the Reagan Revolution.  I also showed them an irreverent clip from American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock, 1980 – 1986.  For the reading, the class checked out the first two chapters of Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which covers the LA hardcore scene through the lens of Black Flag and the Minutemen. Morgan led the discussion.

I had no idea how my students would react to stories of Black Flag’s Henry Rollins having cigarettes put out on him, or the Minutemen’s Mike Watt dodging bags of vomit. To my surprise, they seemed to appreciate the work ethic of both bands, as well as the intense DIY nature of the LA hardcore scene. The students talked about the devolution of Rollins from naive frontman to self-loathing misanthrope (although one student mentioned she had recently seen Rollins perform at a spoken word gig and was impressed with his lucidity and intelligence.)  They also compared the dynamics of the two bands: Black Flag’s intense workaholic schedule and the tension dividing Greg Ginn and Rollins versus the Minutemen’s more congenial relationship between Watt and D. Boon.

Next, Julia led the discussion on the music. Students were assigned to listen to Black Flag’s “Rise Above” (including a cover by Rollins and Chuck D. of Public Enemy), plus selections from DC’s Bad Brains and Minor Threat (“Pay to Cum” and “Betray,” respectively), and Seattle’s Fartz (“You Got a Brain [Use It.”])  They talked about the energy and the intentional offensiveness of the Bad Brains’ song title, and the song’s mostly unintelligible lyrics.  Students seemed to prefer the raw quality of the original “Rise Above” over the cover.  One young lady admitted that she chuckled upon hearing the name of the Seattle band.

Several students talked about reactions they received from roommates/friends when listening to this week’s selections. One mentioned how she was listening to Minor Threat when her country-fan roommate looked at her and said, “What the hell are you listening to?” “It’s for class,” my student replied.  “An honors class.”

I believe the students appreciated hardcore’s ultimate contribution: using the DIY ethic to lay the basis for American alternative rock.

Finally, three people: Christine, Tatiana, and Danielle, did presentations on Motown, the NYC (Harlem) 1920s jazz scene, and 1960s London.  They had so much material to squeeze into 10 minute talks, but they all did a wonderful job conveying the richness of their respective scenes and genres.

Next week’s class is kind of a mixed bag.  We’ll talk about the early ’80s Olympia (WA) scene, which helped move independent music out from under the shadow of London and New York; non-musicians who supported the Seattle music scene; and the strange world of the drummer.

(The main reception area at KAOS radio, at Olympia’s Evergreen State College.)

Tuesday, September 11

Topic: Hardcore punk, 1980-1984.

Hardcore became the American successor to the 1970s punk movement.  Railing against the Reagan Revolution, groups of young kids throughout the country formed deeply underground music scenes. Unlike punk rock’s embracing of the feminine, hardcore ruled with super-charged testosterone. Shows were often marred by violence.  The movement pretty much burned itself out by the time Reagan was reelected in 1984.  That being said, hardcore laid the basis for American alternative/college rock.  Young people created music communities out of thin air, and connected themselves to other underground scenes.  By the end of the 1980s, underground music scenes flourished throughout the United States.

Music: Black Flag: “Rise Above;” Bad Brains: “Pay to Cum;” Minor Threat: “Betray;” the Fartz: “You Got a Brain (Use It.)”

DVD: American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock, 1980-1986.

Text: Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: chapters 1 and 2.

Student presentations on the following music scenes: London, 1960s; Harlem (NYC), 1920s; Detroit (Motown), 1960s/’70s.

(Bad Brains)