1984 was a crucial fulcrum on which the history of U.S. underground rock music turned. At the time of Green River’s founding, nascent punk scenes had arisen across the country mainly focused on hardcore punk. Some participants in these still tiny circles, however, were already tired of the straightjacket that musical style had become. In a single year the SST label would significantly expand the template with the release of Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade; Black Flag’s My War, Family Man, and Slip It In; Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime; and Meat Puppets’ II. On the East Coast, Sonic Youth hit a new stride with the Death Valley 69 EP; Swans released both the Raping a Slave EP and Cop; while Dinosaur Jr was founded after the demise of hardcore band Deep Wound.
Elsewhere in the country even crazier manifestations of punk spirit emerged: the Butthole Surfers’ first LP, Killdozer’s debut album, Scratch Acid’s first EP, the Replacements’ Let It Be… But it was the Pacific Northwest where bands emerged who would most effectively straddle the underground and mainstream by the start of the next decade. Without rehashing the well-trodden history of “SEATTLE”, a lot of the reasons for the city’s moment of musical dominance were already visible in Green River who – alongside Melvins, Soundgarden, and Malfunkshun – would spawn or influence all the bands and individuals of greatest significance.
Here in 2019 faced with not one but two deluxe reissues, the question arises: if it were not for its members going on to found Mudhoney and Pearl Jam, would the music of Green River be worth rediscovering? Answer: fuck yeah! If you like good time rock ‘n’ roll with a noisy DIY vibe, then Green River are buried treasure. The band broke up in 1987 when certain members wanted to go the major label route and to emphasize their hard rock edge, but the evidence here is sufficient to make me think those individuals were right in their belief that Green River could have been contenders for the first superstars of what would be tagged (for better or worse) as grunge.
The Dry As a Bone and Rehab Doll deluxe editions provide a comprehensive (though not exhaustive) overview of the band’s work compiling, as they do, the outcomes of five of the band’s official studio sessions – August 1985, late 1985 of early 1986, July 1986, July 1987 demos, and their only album sessions commencing in August 1987 – the only thing missing seems to be a December 1984 session which yielded their first official release, an EP called Come on Down.
The five songs that make up the Dry As a Bone EP show off Green River’s seamless merger of muscular hard rock and ecstatic punk energy to full effect. While the original 12″ kicked off with “Unwind” and “Baby Takes” and the B-side consisted of “This Town”, “PCC”, and a cover of Tales of Terror’s “Ozzie”, on the reissue the sides have flipped position. This seems a fair choice given “This Town” and “PCC” provide a high-pace, upbeat opening salvo. The EP is a perfect summary of Green River’s inherent strengths: a powerful and precise rhythm section, the catchy riffs, Mark Arm’s signature bark ‘n’ whine already calling to mind Iggy Pop at his unhinged best.
Rehab Doll is apparently where Green River’s seams came unstitched, but it’s hard to tell given the consistent quality of the music. The most crucial divide lies between Arm’s lyrics – uniformly disconsolate stuff like “you lost your footing reachin’ for my hand, you lost your faith when I pulled you in” (Together We’ll Never”) and “what you see is what you get, I ain’t seen nothing I want yet” (“Forever Means”) – versus the music created by his bandmates. Arm’s delivery deceives in that it could be mistaken for upbeat whoop and holler when, with the lyric sheet to hand, he sounds desperate, even panicked. The band meanwhile push a slightly more polished iteration of their established hard rock/punk rock riff ‘n’ tight rhythm, meaning there’s little emotional connection to Arm’s miserablist vibe… Still, sheer truth, this is an eight-track LP with no throwaways, not a scrap of filler.
However, that doesn’t mean Green River are beyond criticism. The flipside to such consistency is that there are no surprises or left turns. Once you’ve heard the first couple tracks you’ve caught everything the band has to offer and there’s not much sense of progression either, the songs work in virtually any order because – except for “One More Stitch” – they’re all variations on a single theme. What unifies the Green River alumni club is a staunch resistance to the call of the weird – both Mudhoney and Pearl Jam have made a virtue of always being there and always being pretty much the same – a trait visible right here at the start.
A further minor shrug arises because, for Rehab Doll, the band worked with Jack Endino to erase production choices they disliked on the original LP. The problem is this means they’ve removed much of the contrast between the original eight tracks of the LP versus the six eight-track demo versions reiterated here. Sure, there are differences, but I’d be hard pressed to say they were revelatory. The warts ‘n’ all original LP certainly featured some dubious choices, and Endino’s new version is definitely superior, but it makes it hard to hear the developments that drove the band to split up in 1987 or to feel overly enthused by the bonus demos.
It’s fair to say though that the bonus tracks are both solid and generous. The three covers included – “Queen Bitch”, “Ain’t Nothin’ to Do”, and “Ozzie” – all emphasize the limitations to Green River’s horizons: all the songs are great fun but that’s not down to the band who play them all resolutely straight, I was able to listen to “Ozzie” with the original playing simultaneously. There are four entirely unreleased songs, all of which are fully formed examples of Green River’s stock in trade and could fit on any of their releases with little more than the slightest lick of studio paint. The band’s tendency to cannibalize past works is explicit – we see multiple versions of quite a number of songs – and understandable given their brief lifespan and the tiny numbers pressed of their smattering of releases. It’s a mark of the band’s quality that repetition doesn’t kill the vibe – Green River rock and I’ve had both these records on repeat a full week now!
These reissues make clear why Seattle would be the city where the underground crossed over into the mainstream. There are riffs here that would fit any of the Hollywood Boulevard hair metal bands. On “10000 Things” there’s an opening wail from Mark Arm that draws from the same well Axl Rose was channeling on “Back Off Bitch”, a song Guns N’ Roses were demo’ing at Hollywood’s Mystic Sound Studio the same month Green River laid down “10000 Things” in Seattle. In truth, beyond the perennially remarkable Melvins and Soundgarden’s omnivorous tendencies, Seattle’s take on the underground sound of the eighties was the least innovative, weird, exceptional or experimental – which made it perfect for mainstream commercial hard rock audiences. Seattle rocked but with the consistency of a Boeing factory production line – the quirky humor stayed in the live environment and rarely impacted the records.
Green River truly deserve fresh appraisal and rediscovery because their output beats much of what came out of Seattle, out of the alternative rock era overall, and most of the band’s that era influenced too. In terms of Green River’s legacy, Mudhoney emerged in January 1988 and there’s an audible relationship between that band and the raw moments of its predecessor. The mostly forgotten Mother Love Bone meanwhile came up with songs like “Thru Fade Away” that sound like smoother takes on Green River’s sound with the addition of pop and psychedelic elements distilled to mainstream-ready concentrations. It was that concoction that poured into Pearl Jam two years later, not the heady moonshine Green River brewed up half a decade earlier.