Still Sick After All These Years: The Grunge Era Kicked Off In Earnest 30 Years Ago Today
On August 1, 1988, the grunge takeover of the world began. That was the day that Sub Pop Records released Mudhoney’s debut single, “Touch Me I’m Sick”/”Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More,” and underground/alternative rock would never be the same.
It wasn’t the first release on Sub Pop; the label was an offshoot of a zine that had been putting out compilations of Seattle bands since the early ’80s. It wasn’t even the first grunge record. They’d already released Soundgarden’s Screaming Life and Fopp EPs, singles by Blood Circus and Swallow, the debut album by the Fluid, and an album and EP by Green River, a Wipers-esque band featuring vocalist Mark Arm, guitarists Steve Turner and Stone Gossard, and bassist Jeff Ament. Green River’s Dry As A Bone, in fact, was promoted by Sub Pop with the phrase “ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a generation.”
Green River broke up in late 1987, after recording their only full-length album, Rehab Doll, and touring the US. Turner had left after their first EP, and Arm was fighting with Gossard and Ament about the band’s direction — the latter two wanted to move toward a more commercial sound (Rehab Doll flirts with hair metal at times, albeit of a hard-edged, Guns N’ Roses/Junkyard sort) and court major labels, and their vocalist…didn’t.
Arm reconnected with Turner, and after recruiting former Melvins bassist Matt Lukin and Bundle Of Hiss drummer Dan Peters, they formed Mudhoney, practicing for the first time on January 1, 1988. Three months later, they entered Reciprocal Recording with producer Jack Endino and tracked their debut single.
“Touch Me I’m Sick” is a flat-out incredible song, primarily because it’s made from such simple materials. The two-guitar riff is pure garage rock, blasted through an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff distortion pedal. It sounds like it’s being played over the phone, except that phone is being fed through a wall of Marshall stacks. Behind Arm and Turner, Lukin’s bass is a primitive boom, and Peters’ drums are a series of machine-gun snare explosions; I don’t think he ever touches the cymbals. It’s got three verses, a one-line chorus, and a bridge they repeat as a coda, all delivered in an unhinged howl, plus a guitar break so distorted it sounds like Merzbow; the whole thing is over in just 2:33, at which point you immediately play it again. If it was just a little less distorted (and didn’t add the word “fuck” in the final chorus), it could have appeared on the legendary Nuggets compilation. It’s a perfect rock ‘n’ roll song.
The B-side, “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More,” was originally meant to be the A-side. I seriously doubt the single would have taken off the way it did, had that been the case. It’s a good song, sort of a cross between X’s “Nausea” and the first Stooges album, but it’s much less immediate and gripping than “Touch Me I’m Sick.” It’s a slow, woozy blues that tells the story of a girl waking up after a night of debauchery — it literally contains the line “Wait till your father gets home.” The riff slips and slides like someone trying to crawl upstairs to bed without puking all over themselves, and Arm’s vocals wallow in that almost physical despair.
Here’s the thing about Mudhoney: Mark Arm is one of the most self-deprecating, smart-ass motherfuckers in rock music. In pretty much every interview I’ve ever seen or read with him, he comes off like someone who knows a tremendous amount about music — I would bet his record collection is massive — but has also been on the underground scene long enough to know exactly how much of an unglamorous slog it really is. He does not believe in rock stars, definitely doesn’t believe he is one, and in Mudhoney’s early days, he seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in puncturing rock writers’ illusions. When grunge took off, clueless mainstream-media folks began snuffling around Seattle for a story, and the New York Times was famously punked by a Sub Pop receptionist who made up a bunch of fake Seattle slang that the paper reproduced in a trend piece. Well, Arm and the rest of Mudhoney actually started using that fake slang in interviews, just to fuck with people.
Years later, in the liner notes to March To Fuzz, a best-of and rarities compilation, Arm said of “Touch Me I’m Sick,” “I thought this song was a B-side toss-off, until it stormed up the independent charts L.A.M.F. That’s when I said to the rest of the guys, ‘Hang on, the rollercoaster ride is about to begin.’ Turns out we were in the kiddie park.” He shrugged off “Sweet Young Thing” as “A simple nod to Feedtime and the Chocolate Watchband.” In the documentary Hype!, he offered a ridiculous story about the genesis of “Touch Me,” claiming that Sub Pop label head Bruce Pavitt “said, ‘Hey, you sing about dogs. You sing about being sick. You got a schtick, it’ll take you to the top.’ And he basically gave us five chords, but he said don’t use more than three within one song.”
The funny thing is, the band actually did try to recapture the magic of “Touch Me I’m Sick” a year later. The song “Here Comes Sickness,” from their 1989 self-titled album, is another stripped-down, pounding garage rocker. It’s a good song — and if I’m being honest, that album is the band’s last really great release. They’ve put out plenty of good songs in the years since — including their latest single, “Paranoid Core,” which appeared in early July — but Mudhoney peaked early.
I’m glad I was there to see it. In October 1989, they played the legendary Trenton, NJ shithole City Gardens (Jon Stewart used to work there! There’s a whole documentary about the place!) with the Fluid and Steelpole Bathtub, all of them opening up for GWAR. There was also a Halloween costume contest; a guy dressed as Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman won.
My memories of Mudhoney’s set are blurry. I mostly remember the sight of Arm and Turner leaning against each other, long hair flailing around as they cranked out a storm of massively distorted guitar riffs. They weren’t exactly punk, and they definitely weren’t metal; they were just noisy, crash-bang rock ‘n’ roll that was incredibly exciting to see and hear. Nobody watching them that night would have believed that there would soon be a music press-anointed “movement” called grunge, or that “alternative rock” would become a thing. They were just an awesome band rocking out for a bar full of dirtbags like themselves. And in 2018, Mudhoney are probably as big as they deserve to be. But their first single is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever.