THE SONICS: "MAINTAINING MY COOL"

THE SONICS:  MAINTAINING MY COOL 
CD Liner-notes by Peter Blecha, © Copyright 1990


BRACE YOURSELF MY FRIEND. What you hold in your hands is no less than a digitally remastered reissue of savage ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll as created by one of the few truly legendary bands of any era – The Sonics. “Legendary”? A recording act with nary an international smash hit to their credit? A combo that is missing from nearly all of the standard rock reference tomes? A band that had performed almost strictly to small audiences in the backwaters of the Pacific Northwest? Yup:  Legendary with a capital L.

Interest in the band persists decades after their demise because the Sonics’ pioneering punky musical approach predated and quite conceivably influenced later 3-chord wonders including: the Standells, Kinks, Music Machine, Seeds, Blues Magoos, Stooges, et al. Although never blessed with the commercial successes of some of these snot-nosed punks, the Sonics were undeniably a musical force with lasting impact.

Indeed, the Sonics’ particularly crude musical genius has in recent years been recognized by various authorities ranging from the editors at the Time Life Books/Records outfit (which, albeit decades-after-the-fact, included a Sonics tune on one of their “Sixties sounds” compilations), to the Sex Pistols (who offered verbal kudos to their forebears). Rockers as stylistically divergent as Boss Springsteen and the Cramps have been known to perform in concert various songs associated with the Sonics. And it wasn’t too long ago that an entire tribute album was issued featuring a passel of current bands each pounding out their versions of classic Sonics gems. In addition, the Sonics’ raucous tunes have appeared in the soundtrack to German art flicks, on countless garage/punk compilation albums, and have been bootlegged for sale by piratical record companies worldwide.

Enter Maintaining My Cool. This compact disc package includes both the Sonics’ two regional radio hits from ’65 – “The Witch” and “Psycho” – couple with thirteen of the preferred tunes culled from the original band’s final recording sessions in 1966. But, more about that later…

The Sonics’ saga traces back to their hometown of Tacoma, Washington. A town forever in the shadow of Mt. Rainier and its first rock ‘n’ roll band, the Wailers.  Like other teenagers, the Sonics’ band-members – Larry Parypa (guitar), Andy Parypa (bass), Bob Bennett (drums), Rob Lind (sax), & Gerry Roslie (keys/vocals) – exposure to big-beat music was largely limited to weekend sock-hops.

Of course, back in those days the kids danced to Top-40 singles as spun by local disc jockeys – or, if on occasion there was a live act it would necessarily be some sort of polite jazz sextet or a union-approved stage band. There were, after all, no rock combos on the local scene yet.

None, that is, until one young Dixieland band slowly but inexorably mutated into a rock ‘n’ roll ensemble called the Wailers. Then in ’59 the Wailers surprised everybody by scoring a couple of international hits with groundbreaking instrumental-rock numbers like “Tall Cool One.”

Following in the wake of the Wailers’ left-field success, Tacoma saw the emergence of a number of early combos including: Little Bill & the Blue Notes, the Convertors, Sharps, Princetons, and the Ventures. Along with a few Seattle-based groups these acts were among the first generation of local rockers who would forge the new “northwest Sound” out of elements and influences as disparate as the musics of: Little Richard, Richard Berry, and Bill Doggett.

By 1960 the Wailers had rebelled against their New York-based label, and then acting all codes of conventional industry wisdom, the teenaged musicians went ahead and formed their own company, Etiquette Records. Their first release in 1961 was a 45 that instantly defined the region’s new style of rockin’: “Louie Louie.”

This occurred at a time when the Pacific Northwest’s teen-scene was really just string to pick up steam. The teen-dance circuit itself began to evolve around the activities of a few enterprising radio DJ’s-turned-promoters. And as the regional scene expanded it became clear who was the reigning kingpin:  Pat O’Day the top on-air man and Program Director at the area’s AM giant, Seattle’s KJR. By this time KJR had a growing reputation for breaking new hits (nationally) and for supporting various local 45s with airplay.

By 1962-’63 combos were emerging from garages on every street it seemed. A few of the newest Tacoma groups included the Sultans, Solitudes, Searchers, and our boys, the Sonics.  After a couple years bangin’ out as close a facsimile of the Wailers’ sound as they could collectively muster, the Sonics came up with a couple original tunes that they felt were ready for vinyl. And so they were soon auditioning for the guys over at Etiquette Records.

Floored by the aural onslaught and the band’s originals, the label signed the band on the spot. Though the young players had about zero finesse – and as individual musicians they weren’t even close to being anywhere near the same league as any of the area’s premier combos – the jarring musical assault of the Sonics was undeniable. The drumming of “Boom Boom” Bennett had the violent impact of a freshly greased gattling gun; the grinding guitars of the Parypa brothers work you over worse than a professional wrestling tag-team; and the bloody-murder screaming that Roslie proffered as singing was – and quite possibly may remain – unmatched in the biz.  Then, of course, there was the unprecedentedly rude lyrical stance of their songs. While the Sonics’ worldview encompassed the “evil chicks” in their primo putdown song, “The Witch,” or severely disturbed mental states in “Psycho,” that was clearly not subject matter or music that would be very soothing to many ears.

Thus, commercial radio stations were understandably reluctant to stick their necks out by programming the band’s debut 45. After numerous long weeks of refusing to air the thing, KJR gave in to public demand in late-1964 and “The Witch” got its chance. I will personally never forget how “The Witch” seemed to just roar out of the radio having been unmercifully wedged-in between contemporary hits like Herman’s Hermits’ “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” and Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely.”  By week’s end the single was selling thousands of units a week all across Washington State. By summer, the Sonics were suddenly positioned as the top dance draw in the area.

For a moment things looked very promising: “The Witch” broke out of the Northwest and became a charting hit in radio markets including Orlando, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. Then great fortune struck when the 45’s flipside, “Psycho,” began to garner airplay on numerous brave stations. The damn record was a double-sided hit – a rare occurrence in the fickle pop music world. Locally. The general feeling at the time was that the Sonics were destined for the big-time. Throughout this period, however, various people involved somehow managed to blow opportunities to cut a deal by signing the Sonics up to any one of number of major labels (including RCA, Columbia, and London Records) who had shown interest.

It was no surprise then when in 1966 the Sonics frustratedly jumped ship at Etiquette and signed with Jerden Records, a happening Seattle-based label that had enjoyed a good run of national hits. Jerden – a moniker derived as a contraction of the name of founder/operator, Jerry Dennon – had in fact been on a serious commercial roll since 1963. In the final months of that year Dennon had pushed his 45 by a Portland band called the Kingsmen into a chart-topping smash: “Louie Louie.” From there, Dennon produced a long string of the Kingsmen’s subsequent Top-40 hits as well as a few by Portland’s next up-&-comers, Don and the Goodtimes.

One they too were on his talent roster, Dennon booked studio time for the Sonics with Seattle engineer, Kearney Barton – the man who’d recorded most all of the earliest Northwest hit-makers including the Fleetwoods, Frantics, Gallahads, and Bonnie Guitar. Dennon also brought the Sonics down to the fabled Gold Star studios – the home of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” hit-machine – in Los Angeles to have a chance at recording with ace engineer, Larry Levine.

The Sonics sure seemed to have momentum goin’ now: Jerden issued an LP titled Introducing The Sonics that was distributed by a major (ABC Records). In addition, the band flew off to make a TV appearance on Cleveland’s popular nationally syndicated Upbeat teen-dance show. Then the Sonics’ first Jerden 45, “You’ve Got Your Head On Backwards,” began to get airplay in a few radio markets – but with little help from ABC it ultimately stalled out.

Meanwhile various pressures began to take their toll on the band. Between concerns about college, the draft, and general boredom with the DJ’s weekly dance circuits, the Sonics began to crumble. In fact, shortly after the sessions represented on this CD, the band’s personnel began shifting and with the loss of key founding members and the addition of new blood to their ranks, the Sonics’ sound was diluted to the tragic point that the once-proud band finally devolved into a merely serviceable blue-eyed soul lounge act that while retaining the old name, was but a mere shadow of its former self.

Thus today only our youthful memories of witnessing the Sonics cuttin’ loose at the roller skating rink, or the community center rec hall, or an armory teen-dance remains. Oh, and the records.

The songs that the Sonics selected to record for Jerden included a smattering of roots material (Little Richard’s “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone,” Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” and “Diddy Wah Diddy”) as ell as a few stooped pop covers (Tommy James’ “Hanky Panky” and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “On The Road Again”). But amid those ditties there also exist a hard-core of scorchin’ original boomers like “You’ve Got Your Head On Backwards,” “High Time,” “Dirty Old Man,” and “Like No Other Man” that even these many years hence offer up ample evidence in support of the notion that the Sonics were, in reality, every bit as wild and demented s e kids hoped way back at the roller rink. Long Live the Sonics!

[NOTE:  This is a lightly edited version of an essay that was originally published as liner-notes to Jerden Record’s Maintaining My Cool CD.]

THE ULTIMATE SONICS


THE ULTIMATE SONICS
CD Liner-notes by Peter Blecha, © Copyright 1990


The Sonics were the unholy practitioners of punk rock long before anyone knew what to call it. But that's not to say that certain parents in the Pacific Northwest didn't try to come up with a few choice words for the band and their primitive and brutally raucous sound.

Originally cut in 1964 and '65 the recordings offered here represent nothing less than some of the very rawest and most savage rock music yet achieved by mankind.

The Sonics aggressive aural attack was due in equal measure to the perfectly chaotic lead guitar spasms of Larry Parypa, the murderous screams that serve as vocal lines as patented by Gerry Roslie, the frenzied propulsion generated by Rob Lynn (sax) and Andy Parypa (bass) and the absolutely atomic tub thumping of Bob "Boom Boom" Bennett. These five bad-boys were strictly lewd, rude and crude.

Not only did the Sonics come up with killer riffs on a regular basis but their song's lyrical content relentlessly explored the full range of topics from satanic threats ("He's Waitin’"), to evil chicks ("The Witch"), to the joys of overdosing on toxic substances ("Strychnine") to disturbing mental states ("Psycho"). And all this in the name of fun.

The Sonics helped fuel a vibrant teen dance scene that also included other such notable Northwest combos as the Frantics, the Kingsmen, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Ventures, Don & the Goodtimes, the Viceroys, the Counts, the Dynamics, and of course the one band that overshadowed virtually all of them - the Fabulous Wailers.

Inspired by the Wailers' success, the Sonics formed in 1963 on the north side of Tacoma, Washington, in the heart of Boeing country. "We got our name from the sonic boom made by the jets," Andy once recalled. "It seemed natural."

The young band's first gigs were the usual, teen sock-hops and skating rink parties, and on occasion threw their own dances before finding work at places such as Evergreen Ballroom, Pearl's in Bremerton and of course the Spanish Castle Ballroom on old Highway 99

Although they maintained the standard 5-piece lineup (sax, keys, guitar, bass, drums) and they did share with many other local bands a common core of the Northwest standards in their repertoire, the Sonics simply transcended any possible limitations erupting with a tough and unprecedented new sound. It took a good year for the Sonics reputation to take hold, but then came the day when the Wailers' bassist, Buck Ormsby, out scouting for talent for their label happened to cross paths with our boys. "They were practicing in Bob Bennett's basement," Ormsby recalled in 1985. "I was looking for something that was different, something that would rock my socks off. I went down and saw them, and I found it. I liked the guitar because it sounded dirty, and I liked Gerry because he was such a screamer."

As producer, and co-producer with Kent Morrill, Ormsby's greatest challenge was to capture on tape, by whatever means necessary, the raw power and sinister essence of ths unique quintet. And he didn't give a damn what it took to accomplish this. In this quest they must have irked the poor studio staff to no end. The band members began by tearing down half the egg cartons that lined the ceiling and walls in one studio, "to get a liver sound." They then proceeded to push every piece of the studio's ancient gear well past reasonable limits. By redlining the deck's VU meters and overloading every tube in every old amp in the place the Sonics found their sound. "We had a hell of a time with the engineers," says Ormsby. "They just weren't used to the full energy stuff. You have to remember that the state of the recording industry in 1964 was something less than crude. We kept saying we wanted to do this or that and they kept saying you can't do that. We didn't care if it bled - I wanted to hear sweat dripping on the tape."

Hey, it bled. It sweated. And it was the most gloriously primitive din you were ever lucky enuff to hear on your transistor radio.

That first single, The Witch, charted within weeks on a few brave but minor local radio stations, but not on KJR the region's dominant Top-40 giant. Led by DJ Pat O'Day the station was clearly ignoring the single. Kids kept requesting "The Witch", so Pat started playing it on KJR and the place went nuts". Charting on KJR's fabulous 50 gave it a real boost and before long "The Witch" was breaking out in scattered radio markets including Orlando, Pittsburg, upstate New York, and San Francisco. "The Witch" became the all time best selling local rock single in Northwest history. Andy once revealed, "O'Day later told me that eventually the song had reached #1 in sales, but the station policy said it was too far out to chart at #1. The station only played it after kids got out of school because of the station's management fears of alienating the housewives that comprised KJR's daytime audience.

1965 was a wild year for the Sonics. These were the glory days for Northwest Rock in general and for the Sonics in particular. By 1966 the band had opened shows for many top acts including the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Jay & the Americans, Ray Stevens, Herman's Hermits, the Righteous Brothers, the Kinks, and the Lovin' Spoonful

In '66 the Sonics signed with Seattle's Jerden label which released a handful of uneven recordings that received national distribution through ABC Records, but regrettably they just never did score that one big international smash hit. But then, their’s was a specialty market, a finite potential audience, perhaps an acquired taste.

The Sonics remained a top draw at local dances right into 1967 when they broke their last sound barrier and folded. The Sonics will forever be revered for their solid proto-punk contributions to the sixties. They rocked like bastards and one imagines to this day that their name alone might send high school principals and small town police chiefs running for cover. Long live the Sonics!

Three chords, two tracks, and one hell of a band: THE SONICS

  • “We were a wild, dirty, kickass band." - Bob Bennett, 1985
  • “If our records sound distorted, it's because they are. My brother (Larry, guitar) was always fooling around with the amps. They were always over driven. Or he was disconnecting the speakers and poking a hole in them with an icepick. That's how we ended up sounding like a trainwreck." – Andy Parypa
  • “We were nasty. Everything you've heard people say about us is true." – Larry Parypa

NW MUSIC: LIVE PERFORMANCE VENUES

BELOW ARE LINKS to essays about the history of various significant venues and sites where music has been performed in the Northwest. From the area's original natives, to early settlers holding dances on giant tree stumps, to the rise of armories, hotels, theaters, roadhouses, union halls, nightclubs, restaurants, roller rinks, & arenas, local musicians and their fans have long had some very interesting places to enjoy live music.

DAVID BOWIE vs. PAUL REVERE & THE RAIDERS (1964)

WITH THE RECENT PASSING of British rock icon, David Bowie (on January 10, 2016), comes another moment to reflect on the significant impact that early Northwest rock ‘n’ roll had around the world. Just consider: back in 1964 – when Bowie’s teen band, Davie Jones and the King Bees, got their first opportunity to cut a record, they did “Liza Jane” (Decca F 13807). And for that single’s B-side selection they could have opted to do just about any other song around. But, what they chose was to cover "Louie - Go Home," the B-side of a fresh 45 by Portland, Oregon’s Paul Revere and the Raiders. Recently signed to the mega-label, Columbia Records, the Raiders had followed up their “Louie Louie” single with a second Columbia disc – also penned by the Los Angeles-based musician, Richard Berry – titled “Have Love, Will Travel.”

And, as a flipside for that disc, they included a new tune written by their singer, Mark Lindsay. Its backstory is that the band had tracked Berry down at some nightclub in order to introduce themselves and ask if he had any other songs they might be able to successfully cover. Berry was busy – and perhaps even a bit dismissive of the young rockers – and their feelings were hurt. Frustrated, Lindsay dashed off the lyrics to “Louie - Go Home,” and on March 17, 1964, that single (Columbia 4-43008) was released. 

A mere three months later – on June 5, 1964 – the King Bees’ “Louie, Louie Go Home” was released. It caught the ears of the British press with one reviewer noting it had a “Pounding beat...It’s a good slice of R&B and could make the charts,” while another pegged it as a “Hard-hitting R&B follow-up to the Kingsmen’s ‘Louie, Louie’ hit...surprisingly good for a homegrown group.” Then another up-&-coming young "homegrown" band also took the tune into a studio – although, when the Who cut it in 1965, the song morphed a bit into something called “Lubie (Come Back Home).”

SEATTLE: THE CITY OF MUSIC - A HISTORY

Music has been made in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years. From the first Native Americans gathering to dance on these shores to the unholy mosh-pits of the Grunge Era, people in this region have always come together to create music. Over time, many of our finest local players have exerted a profound impact in various musical realms – including classical, jazz, pop, country, rock, and hip-hop – and have thus played important roles in shaping Seattle’s cultural life, and its global reputation. Today this area is as widely known for its unique sounds as it is for our famed computer and coffee companies – Seattle has blossomed into the “City of Music” and you are invited to explore many highlights from our deep history to our robust present through this website – and with the Seattle Music Map.

A Dustbin No Longer
Seattle – still a relatively young town – is certainly not the first to earn a reputation for its regionally distinct strains of music. Indeed, long before this area gained any notoriety for its tunes, places like New Orleans, Chicago, and Nashville were already the celebrated homes of jazz, blues, and country music. As recently as the 1940s while visiting the area, British symphony conductor [Sir Thomas Beecham] infamously quipped that Seattle’s arts scene amounted to an “aesthetic dustbin” – a harsh appraisal that wounded the town’s pride a bit, but surely also one likely shared by plenty of other worldly cosmopolitans.

So, though a late-bloomer in joining the music capitals’ ranks as a particularly inviting place to make and enjoy music, Seattle has, without a doubt, arrived. Our musical community has successfully developed an overlapping matrix of vibrant and resilient “scenes” that increasingly honor their pioneers and simultaneously nurture their emerging talents. Yet, in hindsight, we can also recognize that the path music-making takes is like a very busy two-way street –that traffic brings imported influences from the outside world, and simultaneously exports our local sounds to appreciative audiences in far-flung locales.

Early Sounds
The earliest-known music created locally was that which suited the cultural and spiritual needs of the indigenous Dkhw’Duw’Absh (Duwamish) Indians during the thousands of years that they’ve dwelled here. Then came sequential waves of inbound musical traditions brought here by Spanish and British explorers, French-Canadian fur-trappers, missionaries, miners, loggers, sailors and soldiers, cowboys, Oregon Trail emigrants – and, much later, World War Two-era jobseekers. It was, in fact, the children of some of the latter who grew up steeped in the local music of the 1940s and went on to fantastic careers – notably jazz and R&B greats like Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson.

The Wild West
But a question arises: Why? Why exactly did Seattle, of all places, become a serious music-making center, a genuine “City of Music.” Among the popular theories advanced to explain this little puzzle are those that hinge on the notions of geographic and cultural isolation, the long-acknowledged “Seattle Spirit,” and, well yes, this area’s famous – “It’s The Water” – precipitation. Considering our relative geographic isolation, this turn of events would seem highly improbable given that Seattle was simply way off-the-beaten-path in the eyes of the power centers of America’s entertainment industries in New York City and Hollywood. During the early decades after settlement – when few professional entertainers dared brave their way out into the wilds of the Northwest – local talents made music simply to satisfy themselves and entertain their friends.

One theoretical reason that Seattle’s music is unique is the special character of the Northwest people. Perhaps inspired by the helpful friendliness of Chief Seattle (“Si’ahl'”) and his tribal members who greeted the arrival of the Denny Party here in 1851, those early denizens of the tiny village we now call Seattle kindly helped one another settle into their new frontier homes. Among the very first log cabins constructed was the large cookhouse for Henry Yesler’s steam-powered sawmill – and that structure served for years as the fledgling community’s public house. It was there that the villagers entertained themselves. The charming young daughters of Denny Party member Nathanial Bell (for whom the Belltown neighborhood is named) were known to perform for their neighbors on occasion. This sort of cultural isolation ultimately has its impacts on the art that blossoms from a place, and Northwest music – produced not to please distant music industry moguls, rather to appeal to local tastes – slowly began to take shape in its uniquely regional forms.

Rhythm of the Rain 
Now let’s consider Seattle’s famous rain and what possible impact it may have on artistic endeavors. Though that silly ‘60s pop radio hit – “Seattle” – was all about “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle,” the truth is that this is one very soggy place. From ancient times onward, seeking shelter during the extended rainy months resulted in individuals spending an inordinate amount of time indoors. Cultural anthropologists have posited that a major reason why North Coast Salish artwork is among the most stylized – and easily recognizable – forms developed by any indigenous people on the globe is that they had abundant food sources which allowed them plenty of time to create art inside their longhouses.

In modern times staying inside during the dark rainy winters can bring a sense of the dreaded “cabin fever,” but it also can drive creative types to focus ever more deeply on their artistic endeavors. Musicians increase their skills. Songwriters hone their craft. Audio engineers perfect their techniques. Bands rehearse and develop formidable sonic profiles – musical sounds that more than once have managed to capture the attentions of the outside world.

Seattle Spirit
Then there is that timeworn phrase – “The Seattle Spirit” – which was initially applied in efforts to describe the bootstrap vigor with which townsfolk rebuilt Seattle in the wake of the devastating Great Fire of 1889. Not waiting for others to offer help, those people displayed an admirable do-it-yourself approach to the disaster. This “D-I-Y” attitude became an ingrained aspect of the Northwest character – and one that has energized our artists down through the decades.

Along the way, this region’s musicians created their own unwritten ground-rules. They developed an informal set of attitudes and practices that evolved into a Northwest ethos. Among the tenets adopted were the rather novel notions that blatant, overt careerism is not ideal; that collaborative camaraderie amongst musicians is beneficial; and that a music scene is composed of far more than just the players. Indeed, that the audience – ideally with an openness to new artistic explorations and willingness to support the community’s creative individuals – is essential and must be respected. And on that front Seattle is second to none.

Seattle Hunch
So, then: Why has Seattle evolved into an irresistible musical mecca that has attracted so many idealistic musicians from faraway places? (Hey, anyone remember those legions of rock ‘n’ roll pilgrims who sought the “Holy Grail” of Grunge here throughout the 1990s?) Well, in significant part, it is because we have established an open and supportive music community here. But even that reality is not something entirely new. Consider the historical fact that players have long relocated here from distant places in attempts to weave their way into the Northwest’s enviable and irreplaceable scenes.

That is certainly why jazz and R&B legend Ray Charles moved here from Florida in 1948. It is why the struggling country singer/songwriter Willie Nelson moved to the Northwest in 1957. Same story with Bakersfield’s honky-tonk hero, Buck Owens, in 1958. Then there was the amateur songbird Loretta Lynn who moved here from Kentucky around that same time, got a guitar in Seattle, and launched her remarkable career. Fresh and inviting, Seattle proved to be a land of opportunity for many additional soon-to-be famous musicians including the American folk icon Woody Guthrie, who penned 26 Northwest-themed songs here in the during the 1940s, and America’s premier avant-garde composer, John Cage, who moved here in the 1930s. A decade earlier our rough-&-tumble jazz joints provided steady work for the self-proclaimed “inventor” of jazz, Ferdinand “Jellyroll” Morton, who wrote and recorded his boogie-woogie piano classic “Seattle Hunch.” In each such instance the Northwest offered a nurturing environment replete with roadhouses and dancehalls and a receptive audience who supported them on their paths to stardom.

206 Talents
The Northwest’s most notable talents, however, were not visitors or recent emigrants at all, but rather, our own native sons and daughters. Among those who the expansive world of music has embraced are Bing Crosby (the “world’s most recognized voice”); Mildred Bailey (“the first female big-band vocalist”); Bonnie Guitar (‘50s country/pop star & pioneering female producer); the Ventures (world’s most successful instrumental rock band); the Brothers Four and Chad Mitchell Trio (hit-making folkies); the Kingsmen (purveyors of the region’s signature song, “Louie Louie”); the Sonics (‘60s garage/punk pioneers); Jimi Hendrix (psychedelic bluesman); Larry Coryell (jazz fusion guitar pioneer); Heart (hard rockers); Mark O’Conner (fiddle virtuoso); Danny O’Keefe (folkie songwriter), Robert Cray (superstar bluesman); Queensrÿche (heavy metal heroes); Sir Mix-A-Lot (hip-hop star); and Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana (gods of the 1980s-1990s grunge scene). On an equally as impressive level, the Seattle Symphony has in the last couple decades earned a reputation as one of the world’s most-recorded orchestras.

Making A Scene
Having outstanding musicians alone, however, does not define a genuine music scene. Just as Seattle continues to grow and mature, so too does its music biz infrastructure. Seattle’s audio recording industry has come quite a ways since Joe Boles’ modest home-basement studio cut the town’s first string of hit records back in the 1950s. Those teenaged rock ‘n’ roll musicians – including the Fleetwoods, who enjoyed a few international hits – each scored national hits for Seattle’s first successful pop label, Dolton Records. Inspired by Dolton’s sudden success, a handful of additional labels – including Jerden, Seafair-Bolo, Etiquette, and Camelot Records – also got in on the ‘60s action. Subsequent years saw the emergence of fine new recording studios like Bad Animals and hit-making records companies including Nastymix and Sub Pop. Today, Seattle is home to many high-quality studios and several dozen active record companies.

For musicians, recording a song and then having it marketed by a record company is but the beginning. The next step has been getting radio stations to support it with airplay. Luckily, Seattle has boasted radio stations that supported locally produced records. KJR was an extremely influential hit-breaking national leader throughout the 1960s, and more recently KNDD and KEXP have followed suit. Yet another – the high school-based student-run station, KNHC – has established itself as one of only six Nielsen-monitored stations that contribute song selection data to Billboard magazine’s national “Dance Airplay” chart.

The City of Music
Seattle has always benefited from having outstanding music schools including the Cornish School of Fine Arts and the University of Washington’s Music Department. In addition several local high schools’ jazz studies programs – most notably at Garfield and Roosevelt – have for decades consistently been recognized as among the nation’s best. Seattle is also the home to many music-focused organizations including one of America’s major music museums – the Experience Music Project (EMP) – and the city government’s own Office of Film + Music which helped found the Seattle Music Commission in 2010.

Considering the ubiquity of live music performances found here, Seattle – the “City of Music” – has especially earned its new tagline. Aside from the seemingly endless variety of tunes one can hear in obvious venues like nightclubs, taverns, theaters, concert halls, and elevators – remember Muzak (the “background music” company) was based here for many years! – music can be enjoyed in countless other settings – including the City’s OnHold program which provides locally produced tunes as background music heard by people telephoning City departments when they are placed on hold. 

Among those are the traditional street-corner buskers down at Pike Place Market; lunchtime concerts at Freeway Park; various Seafair events; the Vera Project’s all-ages live music shows; the Woodland Park Zoo’s Zoo Tunes concerts and the music scheduled at numerous scattered neighborhoods’ weekend farmer’s markets. And that doesn’t even include all of the many annual festivals at which music plays a key role – such as, Bumbershoot, the Capitol Hill Block Party, the Decibel Festival, Earshot Jazz Festival, Northwest Folklife Festival, REVERBfest, the CityArts Fest, and various ethnic events. So, to summarize, in Seattle, music is everywhere!

This city has long sought a definitive identity that could be easily encapsulated in a punchy marketing tagline. A century ago it was somehow agreed that Seattle’s preeminence amongst the region’s sparse settlements had earned its crown as the “Queen City.” Later – when widely viewed as a company town for the Boeing Company – people started applying the moniker of “Jet City.” Struggling to escape that inaccurate nickname, a concerted rebranding campaign began in the 1980s – one that inexplicably seemed to lean on Wizard of Oz iconography by asking us to click our heels and try to believe that we live in the “Emerald City.” Luckily, one can’t always choose how one is perceived, and today it is quite clear that many years of community effort have finally established this place as nothing less than: Seattle: The City of Music.

[Note: This essay by Peter Blecha was originally commissioned by the Seattle Mayor’s Office of Music + Film, and  posted on their website from 2011 through 2015.]

SEATTLE'S FIRST ANNUAL MUSIC FESTIVAL: 1916


IN JULY 1916 AN AMBITIOUS MUSICAL EVENT was promoted as Seattle’s “First Annual Music Festival.” A recently discovered promotional card reveals that the main musical attraction would be a performance of George Frederic Handel’s oratorio from “The Messiah.” A hand-penciled note at bottom states "Heard this in Arena, Seattle, July 23-1916" – but a bit more research will be required to determine what venue that actually was. The festival orchestra’s conductor was none other than the town’s very prominent musician, Claude Madden – who also served the arts community in many other capacities including the Musical Director for the Amphion Society, and the President of both the Seattle Clef Club and the Seattle Composer’s Society. The concert’s soloists included some of the finest singing talents on the local scene including Mary Louise Clary – who was already singing in Seattle by 1902, the same year that the Musical Courier magazine described her as “a contralto of unusual power and fine quality.” Clary went on to record for Victor records in 1923, and tour widely with her own Clary Concert Company. Another, Seattle soprano Alma Simpson, went on to study in Europe and also tour South America several times. The Musical Monitor magazine once noted her as “an American prima donna” who drew large crowds to gigs at prestigious rooms including New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, the Town Hall, and Carnegie Hall. Seattle baritone George Hastings also went on to a career in New York, and later in 1916, Olympia’s famed tenor Theo Karle also went on to make his New York debut and recorded for Victor Records that same year, but cut his best-selling discs later for Brunswick Records between 1920 & 1924. Karle also toured with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, sang concerts throughout Europe, and finally settled back home in the Northwest, finally passing away in Seattle in 1972.

SWEET MADNESS: SPOKANE'S LOST NEW WAVE KINGS (1978-1981)

The practice of rock ‘n’ roll archaeology continuously accelerates as the decades race by. At this late date – and given the countless rock compilation albums that have been issued since the 1980s, & the growing number of albums that have been issued to represent many deservedly overlooked vintage bands – it comes as a supreme surprise to discover any group whose old music demands one’s full attention.

sweetmadness1coverSweet Madness is perhaps the perfect example.

Formed in Spokane in 1978 – a time period when that town had zero cultural space for punk, New Wave, or anything musically interesting – Sweet Madness toiled in predictable obscurity without breaking through commercially in any measurable way. But as energetic and highly creative young men, the quartet focused admirably on their craft: writing impossibly catchy tunes, playing whatever gigs they could conjure, and – to our great luck – taking the initiative to cut plenty of their originals at numerous recording studios across the Northwest.

In that pre-Grunge Era – when our local music biz infrastructure was still in its infancy – it was the extremely rare local band that managed to rise above the legions of other bands and achieve any notable success. To get a manager was a miracle. To actually cut a record was highly unlikely. To get that record on the radio was almost unprecedented. Many tried. Many failed. When the Heats’ “I Don’t Like Your Face” 45 became a minor “powerpop” hit on a handful of regional radio stations in 1980 all the scenesters took notice.  Then, somehow, the Allies and Rail each saw their new music videos airing on MTV, and when the Young Fresh Fellows’ debut album was reviewed by Rolling Stone in 1984, that fact was the talk-of-the-town for weeks. In 1985 both the U-Men and Green River each signed to New York’s cool Homestead label and the excitement was palpable all across town…even though, the looming rise of Seattle’s Sub Pop label (and the all-conquering Grunge phenomena) were yet unknowable.

Still, by that point in time it was just plain too late for some of the scene’s most promising early talents including Red Dress, the Blackouts, and the Visible Targets. So the vast majority of the era’s bands were destined to basically be forgotten footnotes in music history. Which is downright unjust. It is also why us fans of Northwest sounds were thrilled to death with the release, a couple years back, of Sweet Madness’ Made In Spokane 1978-1981 album – as distributed by Seattle’s mega-successful Light In The Attic label. The disc won rave reviews far and wide, which undoubtedly helped prompt the recent [2015] release of the Made In Spokane 1978-1981 Volume 2 album. Both are chock full of delightfully quirky, but fully realized, rock tunes that might easily have remained locked away in the subterranean pop-memory vaults of only the band-members themselves and perhaps a few loyal fans.

Instead, we can all now gaze back and play the mental game of: What If.

What if Sweet Madness had managed to score a few more connections with Seattle’s fledgling music-oriented media? What if those young Spokeville rockers had gotten a shot at playing better gigs on the New Wave era dance-club scene? What if they’d signed a recording contract with a savvy label? What if kindred big-time outside bands – like, say, Split Enz, or Oingo Boingo, or Squeeze – had gotten the chance to hear them and maybe bring them along on tour? What if? What if? What if?

Well, of course, now we’ll never know. But with these Sweet Madness songs readily available I know that a lot of us somehow overlooked a terribly promising band, and it is simply everyone’s loss that we weren’t able to encourage them along their rightful path to greater success. Next time, as a creative community, let’s all be more vigilant & try and do a bit better, agreed?