Northwest Music History: Proto-Grunge

Big Black at The Georgetown Steamplant Poster

August 9, 1987 was without a doubt one of the high water marks in Northwest music  history.  It was the “last blast” for Chicago’s Big Black, one of the most influential indie bands in the US back then.  The band was led by Steve Albini who would go on to be the engineer/producer of some great records, including ones by The Pixies, The Jesus Lizard, Cheap Trick, Nirvana and The Stooges.  In 2004 Albini estimated he has engineered or produced over 1500 albums.  He’s done scores since then.
The setting for Big Black’s Last Blast was a century-old nformer steam plant near Boeing field in south Seattle.  The steam plant had been abandoned so long ago that it no longer produced electricity-not even the facility itself was electrified. Generators had to be brought in to power the show. The audience stood on the large concrete floor in front of a large riser, or took to the catwalks high above the stage. James Husted and former member of The Blackouts Roland Barker-who would go on to play with Ministry -provided wafting, ethereal sounds as the crowd filed in.  The show itself began with Stephen Jesse Bernstein doing a reading that ended with one of his best lines ever.  The sound was set to echo his final words…This IS music, asshole…This IS music, asshole…This IS music, asshole.

Big Black played what woud (arguably) be it’s last show and they pulled no punches.  They meant to go out with the kind of blast they were known for. None of this improbable scenario at this improbable venue could have taken place without Larry Reid (CoCA’s program director and Administrative director Susan Purves pulling the strings.Larry had somehow finagled his way to become the program director of Seattle’s Center On Contemporary Art (CoCA).  Perhaps “finagle” isn’t the right term.  Larry had been involved in music and art for years.  He was an idea man…a BIG idea man.  With one foot squarely in the art world and the other in punk rock, he managed to bring both together a series of events that included everything from Lydia Lunch and Jim Thirwell leading a discussion on the artist’s responsibiity to society (“none” concluded Ms. Lunch) an early appearance of GWAR-in their full anime- monster gear, “Failure To Discriminate” an animalistic robotic destruction derby by Survival Research Laboratories, the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten and notrious performance artists such as Johanna Went and Annie Sprinkle.  The list goes on and on, including readings by William S. Burroughs more from Jesse Bernstien and a show dedicated to RE/Search magazine’s “Modern Primitives” which may or may not have begun the mass popularity of tattoo art by young  Northwesterners.  Along with the “big name” artists CoCA also provided a launch pad for hundreds of local artists and musicians.

Somehow Reid (and later CoCA director, Purves) were able to convince Seattle’s elite and CoCA’s board of directors to fund some of the most outrageous experimental, punk and underground-inspired performances of the decade. Big Black at The Georgetown Steamplant may have been the crown of Larry Reid’s achievements: and he’s had many acheivements.

The poster was a collaboration between Larry Reid and Susan Purves. There’s a bit of a backstory.  The design is unapologetically stolen from the packaging of “Back Cat” a popular brand of Chinese firecracker.  The design pays homage to the fact that the band, Big Black were notorious for ending their shows by blowing up a brick or so of firecrackers.  The company’s by-line “Black Cat is the Best you can get” is changed to “Big Black is the Best you can get” and obviously “The Last Blast” (not part of the original firecracker packaging design) also refers to the use of firecrackers in the show.  The Black Cat brand and it’s logo weren’t nearly as well-known then as it is today.  Perhaps it’s use for the Big Black poster helped make it a bit more recognizable.  We’d like to think so. A host of Seattle’s art and music  personalities were on hand. A pre-Nirvana Kurt Cobain, the aforementioned Roland Barker who would go on to Ministry, Kim Thayil who was playing in an up and coming band called Soundgarden and Mark Arm (Mr. Epp/ Green River/Mudhoney) are usually mentioned as being there, but it’s certain that many unnamed attendees would go on to help shape the legacy Seattle art and music has left the world. Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt has called Big Black at The Georgetown Steamplant show his favorite.  Reid himself says;

“In hindsight, this show marked a metaphorical passing-of-the-torch to Seattle as the center of the country’s counterculture”

The show was professionally shot, then edited by Steve Albini himself.  This poster is for the screening of the video.  Their is a similar poster that is similar to this photo except with screening dates at Seattle’s Scarecrow Video
It reads:

Today Larry Reid still has his hand in much of the nexus of Seattle’s art and music scenes. He also manages the flagship Fantagraphics Bookstore not too far from  the site of Big Black’s Last Blast”. Susan Purves went on to be CoCA’s director into the early 2000’s and now works for Bellingham Washington’s Pickford Film Center, a dynamic, multi-dimensional arts nonprofit that is not only involved in film, but culture, education and a showcase for artists of all types.

For a larger version have a look here

The F-Holes

The F-Holes formed out of a jam session on Nov 21, 1984 at The Central Tavern near Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The original members were “Lucky” Tony Mathews, Douglas “Stringtie” Creson and John “Moondog” Mooney. The jam consisted of three songs. The booker was impressed enough to ask them to open for his band, The Alleged Perpetrators on Dec 14, 1984, and a band was born. Since that night The F-Holes have consistently been part of the Seattle music scene.

One night while Stringtie was playing pinball at a tavern with Kevin Heaven (a local musician and well-known scenester)’ Kevin said;“You gotta check out my new f-hole guitar!” Stringtie went home that night and made a poster. He brought it to rehearsal the next day. “We are the F-Holes” he told them.  The newly-named outfit’s drummer, John “Moondog” Mooney asked;“What am I gonna tell my Mom?”

1985 brought a solid stream of bookings.  The bookings continued.  The first few years The F-holes played more shows than they rehearsed. Doug Creson recalls;

“We’d rehearse on Wednesdays and play shows Thursday , Friday and Saturday”.

Things changed in 1986 when the F=Holes added Otis P. Otis on lead guitar. He was a huge Johnny Thunders fan and brought a heavier sound that lead the band into the pre-grunge era. The original F-holes sound included generous heaps of Psychobilly, Cowpunk, Garage Rock, Punk, Acid Blues and 60s Psychedelia. They add they also play Country music, though they add

“we’re not sure which country“.

Along with Otis  came a sound that brought the band to a new level and wider audience. They still played the same music as before-only heavier.  Their look was still psychobilly with the big pompadours and cowboy boots and bolo ties.  That would change in later years, but for the earlier part of their career the band was known for their appearance as much as their music.  Both were fun, over the edge and a little bit retro as far as their dedication to punk.

“Promoters always had a hard time pegging our sound but we played with all kinds of bands. Punk, Alt Country, Grunge, Power Pop” says Creson.

The biggest misconception may be that the F-Holes are a rockabilly band.  It’s a claim the band adamantly deny.  Since the beginning they’ve always played a few rockabilly-tinged numbers, and they often dressed in a style associated with rockabilly.  Still, it’s hard to listen to them without thinking they’re nothing less than a great punk-pop band with the talent to pull off just about anything they throw out to their audience.

Th band is also known for wicked sense of humor.  In 2011 when the magazine Seattle Sinner asked them what their fondest Christmas memory was Creson told the interviewer;

“We played a Buzz Scooter Club party in an abandoned building with 64 Spiders. On the way to the gig we bought a sheet of windowpane acid, 100 hits. At the party we dissolved the acid into the punch bowl. People were drinking kegger cups full of this shit. By the time we finished our set everyone was just flying, wandering around lost on the upper floors like wide eyed zombies. I wonder how many bodies they found when they tore that place down. This was in 1984, back when you hipsters were still crappin’ in your diapers and sucking breakfast out of your mama’s knockers”.
True story.

By the mid ‘90s band members drifted into other bands, failed marriages, rehab and dead-end corporate jobs. They played a few uninspired shows, now and again…not really breaking up, just not playing with the same passion and frequency as before.

In 2006 The F-Holes were invited to play Geezerfest at Seattle’s legendary Crocodile Cafe. It was a
showcase of bands that helped create the alternative sound and so-called “grunge” Seattle had become known for in the 1990’s.   These were long-time workhorse bands that had actually developed the sound, others had built their success on, but despite their talent were overlooked getting signed to a big record deals. Along with The F-Holes, the line up included bands like Catbutt, Coffin Break, Swallow, Snow Bud and The Flower People,  Blood Circus, Love Battery, and  other worthy bands.

The F-Holes showcase was so well-received that it led to their playing steady ever since. Now in their 33rd year of rocking their fans remain rabidly loyal, and friends are bringing their kids (and grandkids?) to their shows.

The F-Holes recorded output over the years has been sporadic…in fact there’s been only a few recordings available; but the good news is that they’ll be entering into the studio with Jack Endino in 2018. They’ve also found a newer and younger audience while keeping the old-timers.  An Endino-produced album looks promising.

The Stranger magazine’s Mike Nipper observed that after so many years;

“The F-Holes are, dare I say, a smart and (ahem) “songwriterly,” kickass punk group, and live they’re driving as a mofo”.

Even more fitting, on their website the F-Holes simply say “Totally Skankin’ since 1984”.

 

-Dennis R. White-Sources; Doug “Stringtie” Creason;  The F-Holes (home page, http://fholesrock-blog.tumblr.com); Mike Nipper (The Stranger, February 23, 2016); The F-Holes (thatsdadastic.com, 2010); Chuck Foster (“The F-Holes Unmasked: F-Holes Celebrate 28 Years of Being Misunderstood”  Seattle Sinner, December 2011)