Grunge at Ground Zero

Sub Pop’s Green River reissues pay proper tribute to the band that helped jumpstart a musical movement

Green River

This is a story about a legendary proto-grunge band, lost tapes and a betamax cassette machine.

It’s not entirely fair to say that the recent reissues of Green River’s Dry as a Bone and Rehab Doll happened by accident, except they sort of did. There had been discussion about rereleasing the cornerstones of the Seattle band’s sparse catalog for close to a decade, but plans were put on indefinite hiatus when the original master tapes went missing.

“They weren’t in the Sub Pop archives, and no one seemed to know where they were at,” recalled Mark Arm, who fronted Green River before going off to find greater success with Mudhoney. “There was a lot of stuff, the original tapes for Dry as a Bone and whatnot.”

Green River Dry As A Bone, Sub Pop 1987

Inspired like many bands at the time by hardcore’s expansion into slower, more riff-conscious musical territory, Arm, guitarists Bruce Fairweather and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Alex Shumway formed Green River in 1984. With Dry as a Bone, the band became among the first to help lay the sonic blueprint for what would become grunge (a term that Arm himself is often credited with coining). Today, the record still sounds like what we think grunge should sound like: loud and unvarnished but still inviting, like some bastard child of Jimi Hendrix and the Dead Boys.

Dry as a Bone and Rehab Doll remain early case studies in a hybrid punk-metal musical style that birthed a musical revolution. But Green River has always been defined more by the sum of its parts. After the band dissolved in 1988, its members had already splintered off into other projects. Arm reunited with one-time Green River guitarist Steve Turner to form Mudhoney, whose Superfuzz Bigmuff–released on Sub Pop later that year–would prove to be grunge’s first major strike on the cultural radar. Ament and Gossard, meanwhile, would form Mother Love Bone before finding worldwide critical and commercial success with Pearl Jam.

“I didn’t know what to do, but it also felt like a relief,” Arm said of the end of the band. “Not that I have anything against anybody personally in the band, but, you know, it was time.”

Green River Rehab Doll, Sub Pop 1990

Dry as a Bone and Rehab Doll were packaged together and rereleased on CD after going out of print on vinyl, but the band’s music got lost in the hysteria surrounding the Seattle sound in the early 1990s. Which is a shame, because both records offer plenty of sleazy punk and roll fun. Arm’s feral wail is as identifiable here as ever, while Fairweather and Gossard punch up songs like “Unwind” and “Porkfist” with distorted, bluesy guitar turns. And while the end results are unmistakably underground, there are also flashes of the arena rock aspirations of the bands it begat. If there’s any doubt about Green River’s standing as one of the ground zero acts of the grunge phenomenon, the proof is in the pudding.

“You could definitely hear what everyone was up to by the time things got to Mother Love Bone and Mudhoney,” Arm said. “Listening to Rehab Doll in particular, there’s a lot of great rock riffing with these lyrics that had this darkness on top. It suits, and [Mother Love Bone frontman] Andrew [Wood] was sort of the perfect guy.”

 

 

For years, the success of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam rendered Green River to being little more than a footnote in grunge history. It wasn’t until a reunion performance in celebration of Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary decades later that any serious attention turned back to the band. Pulling off the set required the band to go back and relisten to its output, which Arm says was a somewhat uncomfortable experience.

“It’s weird to get sort of thrown back into the frame of mind I was in at the time,” Arm said. “That’s probably more cringe-inducing than anything else. It doesn’t feel like the work of someone totally different, but definitely a younger, dumber me. I do like some of the lyrics quite a lot. But then others are sort of like ‘Oh, man.'”

At the same time, Arm admits that rediscovering the Green River catalog also triggered some happy memories. The anniversary performance served as impetus for exploring the possibility of reissuing Dry as a Bone and Rehab Doll as separate releases.

Green River poster

“The idea was just to get it on vinyl,” Arm said. “That stuff’s only been available on CDs for many years. We also wanted to be able to separate the two records out. As we started digging through everything, we just found more and more stuff.”

But the project quickly hit a wall due to the missing master tapes. The band never abandoned plans for the reissues, but progress essentially came to a standstill until Jack Endino, who produced and engineered the Dry as a Bone sessions, stumbled across the masters years later. The tapes had fallen into the hands of John Burton, Pearl Jam’s longtime live archivist. Endino, meanwhile, came across the tapes while searching through material for a Soundgarden reissue.

“John probably just listened to it, checked it out, and marked what it was,” Arm said. “Before that, it probably just didn’t say anything on it. Eight years later there was this miracle that happened.”

 

 

The Dry as a Bone reissue features five bonus tracks, including “Your Own Best Friend” and “10000 Things”, originally recorded for the legendary C/Z Records compilation Deep Six. “One More Stitch”, “Searchin’”, and “Hangin’ Tree”, the last of which could easily pass as an early Mudhoney tune, are lost cuts from the Dry as a Bone sessions that Endino recorded onto a Betamax Cassette machine.

“That was the recording gear they had at [Endino’s studio] at the time,” Arm said. “The crazy thing is Jack found one of those machines and owned one of them, just in case he needed to he could deal with it.”

Green River was no more by the time the eight-song Rehab Doll EP was released, but the record more precisely nails the punk-metal cross pollination explored on its predecessor. On tracks like “Forever Means” and “Swallow My Pride”, you hear the earliest evidence of the Seattle sound starting to come to fruition. The reissue is fattened up with 10 additional cuts, including several recorded to eight-track by Endino.

“I’m probably as steeped in [Green River] now as I have been since,” Arm said. “It’s been good. You know, you hope that what it is you’re doing will be something that people will want to listen to down the road.”

 

Ryan Bray

Ryan Bray has written for Wicked Local, Consequence of Sound, AV Club, Village Voice, and Washington City Paper.

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