The soundtrack accompanying “Hype!” is hard evidence that the Seattle grunge scene, for the most part, was exactly that: hype.
The abrasive rock that once frothed in Seattle was unbridled, gritty, amateurish and non-pretentious. It wasn’t intended for the airwaves, MTV or the arenas.
Band members didn’t aspire to be rock stars. There was nothing glamorous about their lifestyles. Many were nerdy college students who had nothing better to do than make noise in their free time.
And this disc illustrates that.
Yet the music was a mixture unlike anything anyone had heard before. Grunge borrowed equally from punk rock and heavy metal, spawning a sound punctuated by heavy, leadish riffs and minimalist, punk structures.
That new sound suddenly caught the interest of record labels who began seizing the Northwest city’s talent.
Eventually, beginning in 1989, bands like Soundgarden, the Posies and the Screaming Trees signed major-label contracts. Then, a trio named Nirvana came along and altered the face of pop culture, turning Seattle into a media circus.
This single, 22-song disc (one hidden track) chronicles the scene during its development in the early and mid-‘80s, its peak in 1992 and its calming in 1994. The album is sequenced literally in that order. The disc, appropriately released by Sub Pop - the label that built its empire on Seattle bands - offers a fairly comprehensive look at the major figures that defined the once tightly knit Seattle rock community, million-sellers or not.
Despite what the media led people to believe, not all Seattle bands sounded like Nirvana or Tad, even though most of these entries were touched by the so-called Godfather of Grunge, producer Jack Endino.
Flop and the Posies mine power-pop. The Fastbacks, the Supersuckers and the Gits delve in punk. The Young Fresh Fellows churn out ‘60s garage pop. Gas Huffer and Girl Trouble crank up garage rock. And Pigeonhed offers up techno-flavored R&B.
Similar to the movie, the “Hype!” soundtrack demonstrates that the “Seattle sound” didn’t start with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It began with the Wipers (which, in fact, was a Portland band), the U-Men, Fastbacks and especially Green River (featuring Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney and Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament of Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam).
The Wipers, one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite bands, offer the punk-driven “Return of the Rat,” a song Nirvana covered in 1993. The U-Men, whose records are long out-of-print, shovel crusty sounds with “Dig a Hole.” Green River dishes up a rarity with an unreleased demo of “Swallow My Pride.”
A few of the songs react to the Seattle invasion. In some cases the songs speak louder, more profoundly than the band members’ interviews in the movie. The effects made the groups utterly cynical, especially Mudhoney, which penned a song called “Overblown” in the midst of the grunge hoopla.
Here, they contribute a live version of “Touch Me, I’m Sick.” This song - up until Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” took to the airwaves - was adopted as theme song for the entire movement.
Mudhoney recorded this poignant version a year after Seattle’s eruption. Before the band turns up the distortion, singer Mark Arm deadpans, “This song is about all things flannel and thermal.” At the end of the song he substitutes the lyrics “Love me, I’m rich!” for “Touch me, I’m sick!”
The Fastbacks, a mainstay in Seattle’s rock scene for more than a decade, kick off the disc with a live rendering of “K Street.” On it, singer Kim Warnick, resentment thick in her vocals, laments “After the trouble has come and gone/ it was here for so long/ now I’ve got this sinking feeling/ Everyone seems to be leaving.”
In the documentary, the music is used to break up the dialogue and to give the audience a glimpse of what these bands were once like. The rawness of the bands rocking out onstage bolsters their unrefined music.
Only on a couple occasions does the music in “Hype!” supplement the footage.
The most striking was the segment when the movie takes a sad twist to deal with Cobain’s suicide. Playing in the foreground is a weepy acoustic song “The River Rise” by Mark Lanegan (lead singer of the Screaming Trees).
And as the movie shifts from there to the aftermath of the explosion, Pearl Jam cranks up the distortion with a live version of “Not for You.” (Obviously directed to Seattle’s intruders, it’s hardly credible considering Eddie Vedder moved to Seattle from San Diego in 1990.)
From a historical standpoint, “Hype! The Motion Picture Soundtrack” does a good job of capturing the essence of the early Seattle scene. Also to its credit, 13 of the 22 songs haven’t been available previously. Be warned, though: Many of the songs on this disc are not necessarily the ones that made these bands great.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Hype! The Motion Picture Soundtrack” Label: Sub Pop Records Artist: Various