I’m not stoned but I wanted to tell ya
When I’m in the mood, I could think of playing there
Going to Seattle where the rock’s so heavy
With all them sex dogs in my Chevy

At the XTC, party, everybody’s invited
Cool! give it dude, we’re plastic like you
Going to a show, rock’s all night
And everyone I hate is at the party tonight
I said Sub Pop Rock City

Sub Pop Rock City Xmas 01

Yeah! Nothing bellows ‘Merry Christmas!’ to me like 11 blasts of particularly lo-fi 1988-style grunge.  In fact Santa Claus was clearly a big grunge fan.  Let’s look at the facts:

  • Santa lives in the frozen north where they still have like mooses and reindeer and stuff = Seattle
  • Santa lives on his own = Yup, he’s that fucking alienated
  • Santa has big-ass face foliage = Kim Thayil so copied him
  • Santa gets loads of letters = Probably running his own fanzine out of Olympia, WA
  • Santa makes all his presents = Typical grunge rejection of modern commercialism
  • Santa never sold out and recorded for a major label
  • Santa was the original bassist for Cat Butt, before switching to drums in an early incarnation of Green River
  • Santa fell out with Courtney Love in ’91 and she’s been on the naughty list ever since

Which is why I’m here listening to Sub Pop Rock City, which is basically the compressed European re-release of the Sup Pop 200 3LP box set from 1988, released on Glitterhouse Records.  As all the best Sub Pop releases do it comes packaged in a brilliant Charles Peterson photographs, all the bands have a shot inside and there’s a classic Peterson shot of a stage-diving singer on the cover, all monochrome and blur.  I really am a geek for Peterson’s work, Glen E Friedman aside with punk and hip-hop I can’t think of another photographer summing up a time, place and movement so well.

Sub Pop Rock City Xmas 04

But, wait! There’s some music on here too. My favourite track here is the opener, Tad’s ‘Sex God Missy’ by far the best Tad track I’ve heard too.  Now, call me a smutty-minded no mark and I certainly have no wish to malign Mr Doyle and chums but I do think that this tune may be about the mutual procreative act.  Evidence? after bragging about being ‘on the point of release’ we get,

Got my tongue halfway down your throat, baby
Tastes like love
Got my car and you drive it around, oh baby now
Smells like love

Slow, menacing and insistent, with walkie-talkie bits here and there this is a great track.  Far more 70’s rock than punk-influenced, complete with a threatening guitar solo, this really does rock my twisted little stockings off – (Tenuous Christmas Link *#1) ready to be filled with presents. Plus of course (TCL #2 Tad had an LP called 8-Way Santa, I don’t even want to begin to speculate what that could ever be about).

Traditional place-setting at the 1537 Christmas table
Traditional place-setting at the 1537 Christmas table

Next out of the blocks is another great one, The Fluid ‘Is It Day I’m Seeing?’, these guys completely passed me by at the time and they offer, on this evidence a good hard-rock influenced racket.  It’s pretty good, but maybe lacking a bit of the Christmas sparkle that could have pushed them up a gear.

Nirvana ‘Spank Thru’ is one of the main reasons I bought Sub Pop Rock City on my birthday 17 years ago.  I always find it difficult to place Nirvana into any proper perspective they were such a part of mine and my brother’s listening for years and of course everything that happened afterwards tends to push the simple-minded into worship mode, myself very much included.  However ‘Spank Thru’ is a very good track, one of their earliest in fact and it does show an understanding of dynamics that they only really showed sporadically until Nevermind.  I quite like the way the lyrics deal with the sweet and the sticky aspects of love too**, just like an illicitly scoffed box of chocolates, at Christmas.

Sub Pop Rock City Xmas 03

Continuing the full-on Christmas theme is Mudhoney’s cover of the Bette Midler ballad ‘The Rose’, as they, umm, make a present to us of their sarcasm, nihilism and acidity.  Now I’ve never heard the original, I can say proudly and I stand to be corrected if Bette’s version is hewn from the same rancorous racket as this.  The more I listen to Mudhoney the more I like them, some tracks are best served cold, marinated in their own spite.  The gull noises in the background behind the slow-almost-spoken break down bit in the middle are vaguely reminiscent of being threatened on a cliff – which for me has always been a family tradition at Christmas.

Title track up next by Soundgarden their own ‘Sub Pop Rock City’ being both a celebration and pisstake of the nascent Seattle scene, with more than a little nod to KISS.  I love it, it provides the drive and briskness necessary here, plus I really do like songs with phone messages in them – the Supersuckers did this a few times and so did Pink Floyd, it just works for me.  Kim Thayil saying at the beginning, ‘I wish I knew how to dance’ and Chris Cornell’s full-on rock vocal, followed by Thayil’s brilliantly over-the-top guitar solo – is it possible for a guitar solo to be sarcastic? on this evidence, yes.  If you listen really, really closely to the sludgey Sabbathy end bit you can hear an elf weeping – true story, TCL#3.

Sub Pop Rock City Xmas 05

Unfortunately this is possibly one of the single most front-loaded LPs in my whole collection, we’ve basically had all the best bits.  There is a very definite reason why you don’t own any Cat Butt T-shirts and a very similar reason behind the fact you and all your friends didn’t go through a heavy Blood Circus phase at college.  I’ve heard worse but let’s face it not excluding Green River all the bands on the B-side are of interest mostly to people who were either there at the time, or for historical interest to grunge scholars in terms of who were in the bands and what they went on to become. SPOILER ALERT: Mudhoney’s Mark Arm genuinely seems to have been in any band formed north of Culver, OR after 1986.

Which is sort of all a bit like Christmas.  No, me neither but I’m working on it!

486 Down.

PS – ***Delete before publishing: Those poor saps probably didn’t even realise that I meant to actually do a proper Christmas LP review this week but ran out of time; still I reckon I got away with it! ***

*henceforth to be designated thus, TCL.

**       Spank Thru
And as the soft pretentious mountains
Glisten in the light of the trees
And the flowers sing in D minor
And the birds fly happily

We’ll be together once again my love
I need you back, oh baby baby

I can’t explain just why we lost it from the start
living without you girl you’ll only break my heart …

I can feel it, I can hold it
I can bend it – I can shape it and/or mold it
I can cut it, I can taste it – I can spank it, I can beat it ejacu-late it … Aah!
I’ve been lookin for day Glo – Always hearing the same ole’
Sticky boredom with a book –
I can make it do things you wouldn’t think it ever could

12 thoughts on “Santa Rock City

  1. Man, those ‘grunge’ Sub Pop releases were awesome. Agree with the comment about Charles Peterson, too. I reckon I spent as much time looking at his shots on the albums as I did listening to them. In fact, I caught up with the Sonic Highways Seattle episode and there’s a bit o’ focus on him.

    As for Spank Thru, that’s probably one of my favourite Nirvana songs.

    … additionally, I hope the festive season is treating you well.

    1. It is and same to you J!

      They’re all worth seeking out these Sub Pop comps, I reckon. You’re right the photos make them a perfect embodiment of time and place.

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