Craig Schuftan


We're the Load of Crap

Mudhoney and the Pathetic Aesthetic

"We wanna be free! To do what we wanna do!" The movie dialogue heard at the start of Primal Scream’s 1990 hit ‘Loaded’ had also been sampled two years earlier in another song — ‘In ’n’ Out of Grace’, by the Seattle-based four-piece Mudhoney. Peter Fonda’s freedom rap wasn’t the only thing the two groups had in common. Like Primal Scream, Mudhoney had spent the late eighties mining a vein of loose, loud psychedelic garage rock at odds with both mainstream pop and the underground scene from which they’d emerged. Bobby Gillespie and Mudhoney singer Mark Arm were both devotees of Roky Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators, and had in common a taste for biker chic and sixties exploitation films (Mudhoney’s name was taken from a movie by one of the kings of the genre, Russ Meyer). The members of Mudhoney and Primal Scream also shared a considerable appetite for drugs — especially speed and ecstasy — which played a decisive role in the history of both groups. It was ecstasy that drew Gillespie to rave culture and gave Innes the idea of collaborating with Weatherall; while Mudhoney might never have existed if drummer Dan Peters hadn’t been high as a kite when Arm and guitarist Steve Turner asked him to join the band.

But if the band shared many of the Scream’s influences, they seemed — as of 1989 — to have done a more convincing job of synthesising these into something of their own. Seattle’s relative isolation from both the US indie network and the LA-centric rock mainstream allowed its music scene to develop in highly idiosyncratic ways. The city’s bands were fired by punk, but had, by the late eighties, begun to grow their hair long and play rambling acid-fried guitar solos in defiance of indie orthodoxy. They rocked out in a semi-ironic fashion that let the audience know that they knew it was stupid, but they did it so well that nobody particularly cared how seriously they took it. They bought old sixties and seventies effects units because they were cheap and no-one else wanted them, and flaunted their bad-taste qualities while making no secret of their very sincere enjoyment of the sounds they produced. Two of these outmoded devices combined to give Mudhoney the title of their 1988 EP, Superfuzz Bigmuff. The record came wrapped in a sleeve featuring hand-drawn comix-style lettering and a black-and- white photo of the band in full flight — sweat, bead necklaces, dinged- up guitars and hair everywhere. It looked, in 1988, like a thing from another world — or another time.

In 1989, Mudhoney’s record company, Sub Pop, flew a British journalist named Everett True to Seattle at great expense so that he could cover the scene. True returned like a colonial explorer, with tales of a strange, wild beast roaming America’s northwest — the bastard offspring of hardcore and Creedence Clearwater Revival, raised on a diet of beer and ecstasy, driven half crazy by post-industrial boredom and long, cold nights. ‘Raging primal grunginess,’ wrote True, in his profile on Mudhoney. ‘Ultimate gnarly gristly gory grossly grainy, grimy garage group.’ In the midst of the UK’s highly politicised and fashion-conscious music scene, at a time when polite jangle-rock and third-rate Velvet Underground copyists seemed to define the limits of what bands could achieve, news of a genuine rock freakout in the forest caused no small amount of excitement.

After ‘Loaded’ Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie was fired with enthusiasm for even more bold genre collisions, as the band began working on an album that would fuse psychedelic rock with dub, hip- hop, free jazz and post-rave chillout soundtracks. But hearing one of the early results of this experiment — a cover of Roky Erickson’s ‘Slip Inside This House’, Mark Arm declared that Primal Scream had ‘butchered it’ by removing the guitar riff. The comment was telling — while Gillespie was attempting to make a record that sounded like the Rolling Stones, The KLF, Jane’s Addiction, Sun Ra, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Sly Stone all at the same time, Mudhoney seemed to be writing the same song over and over again. The band’s aesthetic, which had seemed so promising only two years earlier, now appeared worryingly limited, and Mudhoney’s highly anticipated debut album, released in 1989, sounded like a group stuck in a rut — playing the same kind of noise as they had on their earlier EPs, but without the sense of urgency or conviction. The UK press lost interest, London’s love affair with Seattle appeared to be on the rocks, and Mark Arm was on the defensive. ‘Fuck you!’ he told the NME. ‘We used to do E years before you guys over here did.’

In a sense, Mudhoney had simply become victims of the UK music scene’s notoriously fast news cycle. A geographically small country served by three competing weekly papers created a constant demand for next big things — and an alarming tendency to lose interest in them if they failed to come up with any new tricks within three months of being discovered. American musicians had grown used to watching this carnival ride with a kind of bemused disbelief. Unless, of course, they were taken for a spin themselves. ‘We’d say, “It’s all hype, what a load of crap,’’’ as Mark Arm recalled, ‘and then the next thing you know, we’re the load of crap.’

But there were other, more specific reasons why Mudhoney’s star fell so dramatically after 1989. When the band talked in interviews about the qualities they admired in music, they used words like ‘sick’, ‘poorly played’ and ‘messed up’. Mark Arm’s lyrics were mostly confined to themes of disease, failure and degradation. He wrote — by his own admission — only two kinds of songs, songs about dogs and songs about sickness. The band’s taste in retro moved in a similar direction. To Mudhoney, the sixties was fun because it was cheap, and a good joke. The seventies was even better because it was bloated and in poor taste. They loved the cornball kick of old fuzz pedals and old biker movies, and happily admitted to stealing riffs from their favourite garage-rock tunes. But unlike the British positivists, Mudhoney had no vision of tomorrow — they weren’t using all this stuff to invent the future, just playing with it because there was nothing else to do. ‘I think you’re kind of fooling yourself as a rock band if you think you’re doing anything really original,’ said Arm. Hearing Peter Fonda talk of freedom and partying on ‘Loaded’ was quite a different proposition to hearing the same speech in the midst of a Mudhoney EP — where the first spoke of possibilities, the second made an ironic joke of their disappearance.

In the midst of British music’s prevailing ‘positivity’ vibe, Mudhoney’s lack of ambition and obsession with failure seemed perverse. ‘We don’t have time for negative thinking,’ said the Stone Roses in 1990.8 But in the American underground, there seemed to be all the time in the world — negativity was encouraged, and failure became popular. In Seattle, Mudhoney played a festival with Tad and Nirvana called Lame Fest, while their record label did a brisk trade in T-shirts with the single word ‘LOSER’ emblazoned across the front in bold type. ‘The loser,’ explained Tad’s Kurt Danielson, ‘is the existential hero of the nineties.’ Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis had declared that it was his ambition ‘not to have ambition’, and Mascis’s friends in Sonic Youth had paid tribute to the guitarist’s legendary apathy in their song ‘Teenage Riot’. ‘It’d take a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now,’ sang Thurston Moore. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, indie band Superchunk had a hit with a song called ‘Slack Motherfucker’, in which singer Mac McCaughan confirmed Mark Arm’s suspicion that rock history had come to an end. ‘Everything’s bought,’ he yelped, ‘and everything’s used.’

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, director Richard Linklater staged the first screening of his film Slacker, which included a scene where a young musician hands out flyers for his band’s gig. ‘We’ve changed our name,’ he says. ‘We’re the Ultimate Losers now.’ This was a wise decision — in the American underground, the rhetoric of UK indie had been completely reversed. No US band, at the dawn of the nineties, would describe themselves — as the Stone Roses had — as ‘the best band in the world’. In fact, any notion of success had to begin with the realisation that you were the worst.

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