Faber £16.99

Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge, By Mark Yarm

How Seattle conquered the lamestains

Thirty years ago, long before coffee and computers ruled, Seattle was so isolated from mainstream America that touring rock bands didn't bother to visit.

With few venues and no industry infrastructure, musicians set on fame had little choice but to leave town. Yet for a couple of years at the turn of the Nineties, as the hometown of grunge, America's last great white rock explosion, it became the hippest music city on earth. Soon, bands such as Arizona's Supersuckers chose to move north, eager to wear their leather jackets year round.

No one liked the damn word though, or cared about its origins. "Frankly I don't think anyone really wants to take credit for it," snaps producer Jack Endino. But others were more playful. Megan Jasper, a former receptionist at Sub Pop records, famously invented an entire lexicon of grungespeak for the benefit of a gullible hack. Readers of The New York Times learned that "swinging on the flippety-flop" was Seattlese for "hanging out". The lamestains (uncool persons).

At times, Everybody Loves Our Town could be documenting any regional music scene. But Mark Yarm (no relation to Mudhoney's frontman Mark Arm, né McLaughlin) does a decent job of describing short-lived projects and changing line ups so confusing that they might have been easier explained with Venn diagrams.

In a history retold entirely in quotes, the losers get as much space as the winners. Some were fated to evade fame – Jason Everman quit both Nirvana and Soundgarden and eventually became a soldier. Others are still sore. The now forgotten second-wavers, Candlebox, remain bemused at how fashion left them behind, and the heroically unpretty TAD still can't believe that their friends made it while they floundered.

So how did a city of "mountain climbers and heroin addicts", in Jasper's words, create something of universal appeal? There had to be more to it than the local writer Jeff Gilbert's assertion that "Grunge isn't a music style. It's complaining set to a drop-D tuning". The genius self-publicists at Sub Pop certainly built a buzz, but the collision of suburban metalheads and rural punky dreamers had been growing for half a decade into something new. And anyway, the wild logging country where Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic grew up was the sticks of the sticks, while Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees was badly injured after falling under a tractor. The city had nothing much to do with it. That was just where they all ended up, strung out on heroin.

Simply, no one had added sarcasm to hard rock before. In 2003, Sub Pop promoted its 15th anniversary celebrations with the slogan "10 years of great music". The description of the public wake of Andrew Wood, the singer in Mother Love Bone (Pearl Jam's ancestors) and the first local musician to fall to smack, is bleakly comic. Death and absurdity and bad weather all year round. No wonder the world identified with grunge.

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