SUBTERRANEAN POP: Bruce Pavitt’s “Sub Pop USA”

Sub Pop book

In 1980 a tiny Northwest fanzine appeared on the horizon. Its mission? To decentralize rock ‘n’ roll and help put regional scenes within the grasp of independent music lovers across the USA. And while it may have only lasted a few years, its ultimate cultural arc and legacy remain profound to this day.

BY FRED MILLS

“Things started to click. I realized the freakiest, most interesting stuff was happening on the fringes, whether that was Devo in Akron or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in NYC. These regional bands became an obsession of mine.”

That’s a quote from Bruce Pavitt, in the introduction to his recently published book Sub Pop USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology, 1980-1988 (Bazillion Points Press), but it could’ve just as easily been uttered by yours truly, or any number of music writers who got their starts around the same time as Pavitt. See, in the late ‘70s I was working at a record store in North Carolina, having dropped out of law school after one remarkably inauspicious year, and I was also publishing a punk/New Wave fanzine called Biohazard Informae, having inherited it from the members of Chapel Hill’s H-Bombs (Peter Holsapple, Mitch Easter, Robert Keely, Chris Chamis). They’d originally started it as a means to help promote their band, but the ‘zine gradually evolved into a “proper” publication that covered the local scene as well as numerous national acts—bands like Cleveland’s Pere Ubu, Detroit’s Destroy All Monsters, DC’s Insect Surfers and, yes, Devo and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, along with such already-established icons as the Ramones, Television, Dwight Twilley, Patti Smith and the B-52’s and even the occasional cult heroes (think: Big Star, Flamin’ Groovies).

Part of the ‘zine “mission,” so to speak, was to get the word out on the disparate little regional scenes that were seemingly cropping up every other week as bored university students (or bored recent grads such as myself) formed bands, took on airshifts at their college radio station, dipped their toes into booking shows, or started their own fanzines. Of the latter, well, let’s just say that by the early ‘80s Kinko’s was probably in no danger of falling on hard times, given the steady march of would-be publishers through their doors. Ink stains and stapler mishaps were the order of the day, with such colorfully-named rags as Praxis, Talk Talk, The Offense, Non LP B-Side, OP, Modern World, Blind Boys Gazette and Pavitt’s own Sub Pop appearing, typically adhering to what could charitably be called irregular publication schedules and, equally typically, printing miniscule runs of 200, 300, maybe even 500 copies (that’s what Pavitt reports his first few issues mustered).

But what we lacked in frequency and/or quantity, I’d like to think we more than made up for in quality and enthusiasm. We’d also help one another out, reviewing our fellow ‘ziners’ efforts (most of them would have a fanzine roundup in each issue) and often even writing for one another. I was a regular contributor to both the above-listed The Offense and OP, and as the ‘80s unfolded my stuff appeared in everything from The Bob, Puncture, New York Rocker and (briefly) Spin to OP’s two successors, the short-lived Sound Choice and the now-defunct but justifiably legendary Option. You can probably blame Pavitt and all those other ‘zine editors for the fact that you are reading me now, because they no doubt encouraged me to continue wielding my, ahem, very modest journalistic talent into present-day times.

***

That’s the context within which Pavitt’s Sub Pop USA book should be placed. Everybody knows about Pavitt’s other undertaking called Sub Pop, and a lot of people probably know that prior to the label he’d done the Sub Pop ‘zine and a column of the same name for Seattle monthly The Rocket, both of them an outgrowth of his radio show “Subterranean Pop” for KAOS-FM, the Evergreen College (Olympia, WA) station. But until now most folks haven’t had the chance to actually see the fruits of Pavitt’s pre-label efforts. [Below: a young Pavitt]

Bruce Pavitt young 2

It’s quite a document. You get additional context via Pavitt’s introduction and testimonial essays from Calvin Johnson (of K Records and Beat Happening fame), Larry Reid (an influential Seattle scenester), Homestead/Matador Records’ Gerard Cosloy (who for a spell even published his own ‘zine, Conflict) and journalists Ann Powers and Charles R. Cross. But the meat, obviously, is Pavitt’s original scribbling. And scribble he did, right from the get-go, as evidenced by the book’s reproductions of each issue of Sub Pop.

From Sub Pop #1—which appeared in May of 1980, ran thirty-two 7” x 8 ½” pages and cost a whopping 50 cents—we get Pavitt’s “New Pop Manifesto”:

 

As our teen-bongo, Space Age counter-culture becomes infiltrated by wimpoid TV ‘mop tops’ in skinny ties and leather pants, it becomes apparent that the bland sameness of the pop suprastructure is with us once again… By supporting huge New Hollywood music corporations you… are giving the go-ahead to promote macho pig-fuck bands whose entire lifestyle revolves around cocaine, sexism, money and more money. The ‘80s need new sounds, but just as importantly, they need new cultural heroes. Only by supporting new ideas by local artists, bands and record labels can the U.S. expect any kind of dynamic social/cultural change in the 1980s. This is because the mass homogenization of our culture is due to the claustrophobic centralization of our culture. We need diverse, regionalized, localized approaches to all forms of art, music, and politics….

“The important thing to remember is this: the most intense music, the most original ideas… are coming out of scenes you don’t even know exist. Tomorrow’s pop is being realized today on small decentralized record labels that are interested in taking risks, not making money.”

 

True to Pavitt’s manifesto, Sub Pop’s first issue featured a Seattle scene/band report along with brief overviews of what was currently happening in Portland, Vancouver and Chicago (Pavitt, born in 1959, grew up about an hour south of Chicago, eventually going off to college in Olympia), Minneapolis, Detroit, Georgia, Texas, San Francisco, NYC and D.C. Some of the entries are no more than blurbs, but taken as a whole they paint a picture of a righteous, semi-thriving underground across the entire country—which of course is the entire point, per that manifesto. Subsequent issues took a similar approach, Pavitt typically zeroing in on scenes via record reviews but still finding time, occasionally, to delve into the infrastructure and surrounding culture. For example, issue #2 featured a look at Cleveland clubs written by that city’s Tommy Commando, and in the same issue Calvin Johnson wrote about his summer in D.C., hanging out at clubs and catching bands. So while Pavitt’s proximity ensured that the Northwest would be a de facto focus of the ‘zine, he took pains to live up to the standards established in issue #1’s manifesto.

Among the treats: issue #4’s Midwest/Chicago/D.C. report (raise your hand if you remember The Embarrassment, Sport of Kings and The Nurses, from each of those cities respectively); #8’s roundup of independent record labels (e.g., New Alliance, SST, Touch & Go, DB, Dischords, Propeller, ROIR); #8’s lengthy interview conducted by Calvin Johnson with Olympia’s Supreme Cool Beings; #3’s musical tourist guide to NYC, offering not only helpful tips to which clubs one should check out while visiting the city but also suggesting where you might sell your wares should you arrive with a stash of ‘zines. Oh, and let’s not forget the cassettes….

Sub Pop 5

The tapes: Issues #5 (July 1981), #7 (Spring 1982) and #9 (June 1983, the final Sub Pop) weren’t magazines but actual cassettes in runs of, respectively, 2000, 1000 and 500 copies. Each had a 16-page liners booklet detailing the bands and the music along with cover art from the soon-to-be-legendary Charles Burns. Pavitt and his crew, clearly putting their money where their mouths were, went above and beyond by offering the ‘zine’s readership a firsthand dose of what they’d been writing about all along, with artists ranging from Steve Fisk, Pell Mell, The Embarrassment and Sport of Kings to Jad Fair, Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, Velvet Monkeys and the Wipers being spotlighted. Some of the bands featured have vanished amidst the sands of time, but others achieved national and international prominence. And Sub Pop can proudly claim they had ‘em first.

Sub Pop 9 c

The second section of the book is devoted to Pavitt’s “Sub Pop” column for The Rocket. It ran from April of 1983 through July of 1988, basically as a higher profile continuation of the ‘zine, with Pavitt eagerly and earnestly reporting on the stuff that got him excited, both on the local and national levels, but anything pretty much fair game (in one column he wrote about James Brown Live At the Apollo, for example). The concentrated format of the column—2/3 of one page, The Rocket being a tabloid-sized newsprint monthly—prompted Pavitt to up his game, his writing becoming tighter and more focused, while the physical layout of the column, a design riot of fonts, logos and photos, gave it an obvious eye-candy visual appeal. It definitely was a high point of each issue of The Rocket, one of the pages readers no doubt first turned to in each issue to learn what might’ve fallen under Pavitt’s purview since last month (something Rocket editor Charles R. Cross tacitly admits in his testimonial when he writes, “Bruce was Seattle’s most ardent evangelist”).

Sharp readers with long memories will understand the significance of that July ’88 date. In ’86 a fledgling Sub Pop record label released Sub Pop 100, a collection of underground bands ranging from Sonic Youth, Naked Raygun and Savage Republic to locals the Wipers, U-Men and Steve Fisk—essentially a vinyl extrapolation from the earlier Sub Pop cassette compilations. Within two years Sub Pop had issued records by Seattleites Green River, featuring future members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. A little band from Aberdeen called Nirvana was just around the corner, so Pavitt decided to stop writing about music and devote himself (along with business partner Jonathan Poneman) full time to releasing it. The rest, of course, is… you know.

Sub Pop 100 labels

I still have copies of several Sub Pop issues, including a couple of the cassettes. Thumbing through this book now, it’s quite a journey down memory lane. At the time I was writing about many of the same bands he was covering; I also distinctly recall mailing off checks or well-disguised $5 bills in order to check out some of the bands he wrote about that I hadn’t yet heard. It was the pre-Internet era, and it took a lot more effort to find out about some group or distant locale than it does nowadays—there were no links to click, no MP3s to download, no SoundCloud or YouTube players to stream. Instead you had to wait patiently by your mail slot or post office box, hoping that the 45 or fanzine you’d sent off for a couple of weeks ago might magically appear. If you were lucky, there might be a college radio station you could pick up; I had Chapel Hill’s WXYC-FM, which for a good long while featured a fantastic show no doubt similar in tone and execution to Pavitt’s KAOS show, “Anarchy In The P.M.” by local deejay Ken Friedman. And if you were really fortunate, there might even be a regional club that regularly booked touring indie bands and like-minded locals; allow me to salute Chapel Hill’s Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro’s The Station, Raleigh’s The Pier and The Brewery, and Charlotte’s Milestone Club, some of which continue to operate to this day.

Sub Pop USA, then, may represent Pavitt’s story, his “Round 1,” so to speak, en route to the label. But in a larger and very real sense, it’s our story, too—those of us who divined, like Pavitt, that the action was truly “on the fringes,” out there in the regional scenes that were popping up all over the United States. His experiences were our experiences; or, more accurately, we all were part of a shared, collective experience that helped shape our tastes and our sensibilities and our belief that there was life beyond mainstream radio and major labels and arena shows.

By extension, Pavitt’s going on to found one of the most influential independent labels in history and play a part in bringing some of the most important bands ever to the public wasn’t just a success story for him—it was a success story for us, too.

Thanks, Bruce. We won.

[below: Pavitt today]

Bruce Pavitt now

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