Grunge History 101

Way back in 1983, when the loud-fast acceleration of hardcore punk had turned the music into an atonal sonic speed race, a little-known band named the Melvins decided to slam on the brakes. Formerly a garden-variety, slash-and-burn combo, this Aberdeen, Washington, trio decided to play it slow. Real slow. Grindingly slow. Like Sabbath Bloody Sabbath spinning at 16 rpm. Like a band keeping time to a lava-lamp metronome. For a legion of fans skanking and slamming in Pacific Northwest punk clubs to the high-speed blur of hardcore, the Melvins' post-punk metal goop was baffling and irritating, a return to the kind of slovenly hard rock that punk rock had supposedly obliterated. Boasting a sound that was neither slammable nor danceable, the Melvins tested the tolerance of punk tastes, and most fans hated them.

"We had a lot of trouble," bemoans Melvins vocalist/guitarist Buzz Osbourne of those early gigs, during a phone interview from the Los Angeles offices of Atlantic Records, the Melvins' label of choice for the last three years. "There were a lot of boneheads who couldn't figure out anything musically beyond whatever was going on at the time, so they couldn't make up their minds about us. Everyone else was playing fast, so we wanted to do something different. We decided we wanted to be the slowest band around. And we pulled it off, for whatever it's worth."

And surprisingly that distinction came with some dividends -- albeit way after the fact. Following the release of their 1987 debut album Gluey Porch Treatments, the Melvins -- Osbourne, drummer Dale Clover, and bassist Matt Lukin -- were growing disgusted that their slow-burn sludge wasn't setting Seattle crowds ablaze. Lukin quit, and Osbourne and Clover relocated in 1988 to San Francisco (and later Hollywood), picking up a new bassist named Lorax and hooking up with the Berkeley-based Boner label. Meanwhile, a funny thing was happening back in Seattle. Some of the Melvins' few fans there had started their own bands and were incorporating the slo-mo metal of Aberdeen's unfavorite sons into their own post-punk mutations -- groups like Soundgarden, Nirvana, Green River, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees. Without even trying, the Melvins had become forebears of grunge, a hipster influence cited repeatedly by the likes of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain (who had once auditioned for the Melvins as a guitarist) and hailed by critics as the creators of a scene in which they never belonged.

"It's ridiculous," Osbourne says of the Melvins' reputation as the godfathers of Seattle grunge. "We've lived in California almost nine years now. When we left Seattle, the most money we ever made at a show was $160. There was nothing for us there and we never wanted to be part of a scene. There's no way I'd live there now. I live in Hollywood and I really like it here. The weather's better, there are more opportunities here, and I think the best music we've ever made has been made since we've been in California."

Osbourne's right. In the seven albums and countless singles and stray tracks the band has released since its '87 debut, the Melvins have perfected a singular brand of big, powerful heavy metal -- one that has links to the thunderous roar of Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, and other monsters of Seventies rock, but without the stoner concepts or the tedious musical excess. The Melvins' early indie-label efforts such as 1991's Ozma and the self-titled set from the following year work best when the band stomps along the line separating homage and parody, challenging, even daring the listener to tell the difference. Should you laugh at the tongue-in-cheek sex screed "Anaconda" or marvel at Osbourne's ferocious vocal and the Robin Trower-worthy riff? Should you revel in their letter-perfect cover of Alice Cooper's "Ballad of Dwight Fry," or wonder what possessed them to drudge up the camp-rock nightmare classic? And the Melvins' unabashed passion for KISS, while presaging the current revival of the makeup-caked foursome by a good five years, always bordered on camp. (In 1992 the three Melvins each released a solo album just like the Kiss boys did in 1978, with album art that nodded to the glowing renderings of Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter.)

There is no camp or kitsch to be found on the Melvins' three albums released by Atlantic: 1993's Houdini (coproduced by Kurt Cobain), Stoner Witch from 1994, and Stag, their latest. Armed at last with a worthy bass player (Mark Deutrom), the band's molten sludge gets thicker, but the riffs get tighter; a few cuts -- "Hootch" and "Sweet Willy Rollbar" most notably -- sound almost ready for the airwaves. Even Houdini's version of the Kiss anthem "Goin' Blind" is played straight, and smolders with authority and reverence. But parts of Stoner Witch and nearly all of the new disc find the band enhancing its crunch-rock attack with ambient noise textures and oddball sound effects, elaborating on the experimental journey captured on Prick, the band's 1994 album for Amphetamine Reptile, released between Houdini and Stoner Witch. And as Stag reveals, the Melvins have also figured out a way to work horns, acoustic guitars, and keyboards into their hellish soundscapes ("Black Box," "Soup," "Sterilized").

"I think you can hear a progression in our work," Osbourne says of the band's oeuvre. "I don't think any of our albums sound the same, but you can tell it's the same band. We've managed each time to do stuff we've never done before on each of the records." And they've taken heat for the experimentation: Osbourne complains that Prick was greeted by Melvins diehards as a noisy indulgence, not unlike Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, his widely loathed white-noise opus from 1975. "A lot of people got real pissed off," Osbourne says bitterly. "They thought we were ripping them off because it wasn't a regular Melvins record -- that it was all experimental and weird. I'm not saying I disagree, but [the audience] looked at it like they were fucked. Well, I'm sorry, we're not making cookie-cutter music like they want. I'm sorry they have these expectations of us that we're not living up to. Just keep it to yourself," he adds.

Similarly, the Melvins were slagged by indie-rock purists when the band inked a deal in 1993 with the major-label Atlantic, a career move that bordered on sacrilege to staunch underground standard-bearers. And like the hubbub surrounding Prick, Osbourne has no time for the complaints. "There are always dopes who are going to think that way. Fortunately, in my own life, I don't let a label determine what music I listen to. If I'm stupid enough to let that sway me one way or another, then I'm an idiot. And if you're only interested in music that's on an indie label, then you're not really into music. You're just a dumb-ass."

Besides, he counters, being on a major has its advantages. "I can complain about any situation I'm in, but I like being on a major," Osbourne admits. "I've never understood why people bitch about major labels. Independent labels are a way bigger ripoff. We're probably owed between $30,000 and $60,000 from indie labels. The big difference between an indie and a major like Atlantic is that Atlantic pays their bills. They give us money to make records and their checks don't bounce."

And, Osbourne adds, major labels have the promotion clout to expand their artists' fan bases. He says both Houdini and Stoner Witch have sold upward of 50,000 copies, whereas their best-selling albums for Boner Records never broke the 25,000 mark. "We doubled our audience with our first Atlantic record," he claims proudly. "Granted, our audience isn't that big, but still that's not bad. I don't think we've made Atlantic a single dollar. I'm sure we owe them money. But we've sold enough records that we haven't lost them any money, and they're willing to keep taking chances with us and we're still trying to sell the band. I wish for our music to be heard."

The Melvins are among the slew of bands performing today, Thursday, July 18, at Lollapalooza, South Florida Fairgrounds, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach; 407-795-8883. Showtime is 1:30 p.m. Tickets cost $38.

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John Floyd