The Upshot: Crucial pre-history of the Northwest alt-rock scene, and a fascinating snapshot of an underrated but powerful, noisy, charismatic band. Warning: no grunge here.
BY FRED MILLS
Before Sub Pop Records launched, before Nirvana made “grunge” a household word, before Eddie Vedder made flannel shirts and Doc Martens chic, before the major labels descended upon Seattle in a feeding frenzy, before silly national acts like Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20 turned the term “alternative rock” into a punchline—there were the U-Men, whose tenure spanned the ‘80s and spawned one full-length and a handful of singles, EPs, and compilation appearances. And while one hesitates to label the noisily primal, skronk-powered Seattle quartet along lines of “wildly influential,” it’s likely that the proverbial Velvet Underground Effect, whereby people who happened to see the U-Men perform back in the day or bought their records (issued by labels both well-known, such as Homestead and Amphetamine Reptile, and justifiably obscure, like Bomb Shelter and Black Label) went on to eventually form their own bands, was operative at least to a small degree. (Go HERE to read a lengthy testimonial from Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, who calls them “the undisputed kings of the Seattle underground.)
U-Men is a sprawling 3LP box set (or 2CD should you not be a wax fetishist) that collects everything the band released along with five unreleased tracks, and as an artifact from Before The Dawn Of Grunge, it’s absolutely essential. And I say that as a ground zero U-Men fan, so to speak, as I either purchased or was gifted with, promo copy-wise, the bulk of the group’s original output, duly reviewing them for some of the fanzines I was scribbling for at the time. They were an irresistible draw, from the Gun Club-goes-thrash rev-a-rama of “Clubs” (off the 1985 12” EP Stop Spinning), to the unbridled, possibly improvised, dissonance-rawk of the subsequent “Solid Action” / “Dig It A Hole” 45 (it sports two of unhinged singer John Bigley’s gruffest, most extemporaneous vocals ever), to the dark, swampy blooze of “Whistlin’ Pete” in which the U-Men solidified their rep as America’s answer to the Birthday Party (it appeared on the group’s lone album, 1988’s John Nelson-produced Step on a Bug, a collaboration that yielded a relatively expansive, dynamics-rich sound).
The vinyl set is gorgeous, smartly graphically designed, with a thick outer box housing an inner slip-box that contains the three heavyweight LPs in their individual sleeves. Both the LP and CD versions have a thick booklet with full track annotations and interviews from the members—who would go on to bands like Gas Huffer, the Crows, and Love Battery—arranged oral history style, and it’s a colorful history, to say the least. Fun Fact #1: the group got its name from the bohemian section of Seattle the members came out of, the U-District. Fun Fact #2: for a short stretch, there was a U-Woman too, a female bassist named Robin. Fun Fact #3: the U-Men mounted three national tours, although we should use that term somewhat lightly; at least one of those tours consisted of something like five shows in three months plus a month-long sabbatical in Austin hanging out with fellow sonic discombobulators the Butthole Surfers.
Ultimately, it’s a crucial pre-history of the Northwest alt-rock scene, and a fascinating snapshot of an underrated but powerful, charismatic band.
DOWNLOAD: “Blight,” “Clubs,” “U-Men Stomp” (previously unreleased), “Dig It A Hole,” “Whistlin’ Pete,” “That’s Wild About Jack”
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