Photo: Ipecac Recordings

The Menacing, Grimy Weirdness of Melvins’ ‘Houdini’ at 30

Once Houdini dropped, all the agonizing over whether Melvins would debase themselves and compromise their sound petered out before we were halfway into “Hooch”.

21 September 2023

MelvinsHoudini hit record stores in September 1993, the same day as Nirvana‘s In Utero, meaning I was broke by Friday. What matters more is how this juxtaposition of neighboring “grunge” bands, at the behest of Atlantic Records, encouraged folks who didn’t know better to assume that Melvins, former indie artists now on a major label, were acolytes of Nirvana, proteges of Kurt Donald Cobain. This despite the Melvins predating Nirvana by almost four years. 

“The other band from Aberdeen” took hold of me in the autumn 1987 commuter-college days in David Lynch suburbia when I rigged my off-brand stereo with a $5 Radio Shack FM antenna. By nightfall, this miracle-of-the-20th-century gadget opened the gate to the alternate universe of college radio, WREK Radio, to be precise, live from the campus of Georgia Tech. The night DJ, a mechanical-engineering major, spun records from bands I never knew existed. I latched onto these sludge metal pioneers, led by a corkscrew-haired, Bluto-voiced guitarist who didn’t pick up the instrument until he was 17. 

No precedent existed for Melvins—unless you count KissHotter Than Hell (1974) creeping on the turntable at 16 RPM—where every note weighed a thousand pounds. Melvins started making records in the glory days of Aquanet and Grover Jackson guitars but disregarded the trends, creating their own universe with dropped guitar tunings, hard-clipping distortion, bludgeoning percussion, and lumbering tempos. Guitarist Buzz Osbourne, the brains behind the operation, came from Montesano, 70 miles southwest of Tacoma, Washington, a region synonymous with timber, driving rain, and biting winds. A hellhole, Osbourne says, and he gladly wrote the soundtrack along with drummer Dale Crover and original bassist Matt Lukin. 

Not available at your local record store, not where I lived. Gen Xers in small-town America who discovered underground music share this experience. We lived in places where the record stores didn’t sell Flipper or the Dead Kennedys, so we turned to mail order or found offbeat record stores in college towns. For myself, things changed when I moved to the big city three years later and entered an independent record shop run by folks who got the memo, back when maybe a hundred of us knew the band and alternative music was barely a market classification. But the tectonic plates were shifting.

We woke one morning, and grunge was all the rage, with the big-time record labels caught flatfooted. A month ago, they were hung up on Skid Row. Now, they were beating the bushes for another Nirvana, and Cobain name-dropped the Melvins more than any other band of influence. The two had a history, often mythologized. In the apocryphal version, Cobain hauled gear and once auditioned for Melvins. In truth, Osbourne introduced Cobain to Black Flag and Dave Grohl— and Cobain attended Melvins’ practice sessions, jamming with them on occasion. Suffice it to say, those garage sessions played a part in incubating the so-called “Seattle sound”. So it’s not terribly astonishing that Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow, on first hearing Nirvana, nicknamed Cobain’s band “Melvins Junior” (Grant). We might say that a year before Houdini dropped, Melvins were already the most influential band no one had heard of. 

By 1993, Melvins had moved to San Francisco and released four LPs and two EPs (in addition to three “solo” EPs, a parody of the 1978 Kiss solo records), all low-budget affairs, typically recorded in four or five days. Melvins may have shared a tonal zip code with Cobain’s band, but as Nevermind reached number one on the Billboard charts, Melvins, in split-screen fashion, were recording Lysol (1992), the antithesis of commercial viability—a wall of drone and dirge. “What the Swans would sound like if they played heavy metal,” Osbourne says (Weingarten).

Atlantic Records came calling anyway, and Melvins must’ve relished in the absurdity of the major-label feeding frenzy since they never expected to sell records in the first place. But unorthodox music was kosher right now, and Atlantic needed a token grunge band. For once, Melvins would have more than four days to make a record, “a Cleopatra budget” compared to the usual, and conversations turned to the matter of producer. 

Osbourne and Crover rejected every name thrown their way until Atlantic’s head of A&R, almost out of left field, asked, “What about Cobain?” Harebrained enough for the Melvins. Plus, no one else would better understand where they were coming from. Yes, the voice of a generation could produce this album. But his heroin addiction made him incompetent. Cobain was always late, missing, watching the engineer hit the “record” button or sleeping on the couch. Incidentally, Melvins had just fired bassist Lori Black (a second time) following an arrest for heroin possession. Exasperated and with nearly half the album left to arrange and record, Osbourne went to Atlantic’s management. “I can’t work with Cobain,” he said. And with that, a commercially-unknown musician, recording his major label debut, had fired one of the most revered songwriters of the decade. 

Somehow, the Melvins emerged from this near-fiasco with a fine record. Released on the same day as the most-anticipated record of 1993, Houdini entered a market where, aside from In Utero, the rock albums drawing the most attention included Pearl Jam‘s Vs, the LemonheadsCome on Feel the Lemonheads, and Smashing PumpkinsSiamese Dream. Entering the fold, Houdini’s Frank Cozik-designed album cover, with its perversion of the Dick and Jane world, signaled that the Melvins weren’t the second coming of the Bay City Rollers. 

“Hooch”, “Night Goat”, Lizzy”, and “Honey Bucket” are the closest thing to a batch of hit-singles in the Melvins’ universe—melodic but just unsuitable enough to merit disqualification from mainstream airplay. Everyone’s radios would’ve melted anyway, with three-quarters of the songs rendered in Drop-D tuning (dropping the lowest string a whole step), Osbourne’s preferred tuning for its “car wreck sound” (Riff Lords). “Hooch”, the opener, is a brontosaurus-stomp anthem of doom, an incantation with nonsensical speaking-in-tongues vocals. From there, we move through the basstortion-driven “Night Goat” to “Lizzy”—sludge metal’s answer to the truck-stop jukebox number. Meanwhile, “Honey Bucket” remains the record’s standout; one of Melvins’ greatest songs, a melding of hardcore and thrash—with some ZZ Top thrown in, according to Osbourne (Gordon). 

Flipping vinyl, you’d wear out the first side of this record. But the second half, aside from “Joan of Arc” and “Copache”, loses momentum. “Pearl Bomb” is grating typewriter-rock. “Set Me Straight” sounds Nirvana-influenced, delineating how these bands are nothing alike. Bearing in mind that Houdini’s credits are somewhat dubious, the liner notes acknowledge Cobain as co-producer on six tracks, contributing guitar on “Sky Pup” and secondary percussion on “Spread Eagle Beagle”, the latter an experimental piece featuring five percussion parts. Also, Lori Black appears in the credits and group photo but never played on the record. Instead, recording engineer Billy Anderson (who’d moved to the Bay Area to pursue a Master’s in Anthropology) contributed bass on “Hag Me” and “Teet”, while Osbourne and Crover handled bass on the other songs. 

Once this LP dropped, all the agonizing over whether Melvins would debase themselves and compromise their sound petered out before we were halfway into “Hooch”. Nothing about this record deviates substantially from previous Melvins albums. As for critical reception, Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times argued that Houdini makes In Utero sound like a Blind Melon record. Jonathan Gold of Spin described the record as “classic Melvins… [some tunes] will make you think the batteries are going dead in your boom-box”. Entertainment Weekly designated the Melvins “the godfathers of grunge”, a moniker the Melvins have always been a bit queasy about. 

Big-time label distribution meant Houdini appeared in odd places—like my local independent bookseller where, past Kerouac and the espresso bar, the music section’s “New Releases” display featured the Melvins in the purview of a predominately Baby Boomer clientele who weren’t into flannel or Doc Martens.

Predictably, Atlantic’s promotional efforts involved three bargain-basement videos: “Honey Bucket”, where Melvins perform in a barn to an audience of sheep and goats, “Hooch”, a lackadaisical effort featuring X-ray vision and band members submerged in a dark pool (for no particular reason), and “Lizzy”, where they play onstage in a cross between a high school cafeteria and a crackhouse as the audience tears the place apart. Then, in November of 1993, Osbourne and Crover appeared on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball (sans bassist), where host Riki Rachtman, donning an Islanders jersey, congratulated them for getting a major label after ten years, followed by some fascinating conversation. “Tell me about Hooch. The lyrics speak for themselves. I’ve always described Melvins as being loud. Is that a good description? It’s got some volume.” 

Melvins may be the godfathers of grunge, easily doubling their audience with this record—but even when signed to Atlantic in the heyday of grunge, the Melvins never generated the sales of the contemporaries they inspired. Problematically, “grunge” rapidly morphed into a catchall term for early nineties rock. Anyone who considered Pearl Jam a grunge band must’ve been thrown for a loop when they heard the Melvins. Not to mention how the chain record stores never got their act together, placing Soundgarden alongside Gin Blossoms in “alternative” record bins. Frankly, the rock record-buying public never really embraced genuine alternative music. Otherwise, the Butthole Surfers, Jesus Lizard, and Melvins would have platinum albums.  

All the while, Atlantic persisted with a marketing strategy that came down to “Meet Cobain’s favorite band”. Not necessarily misleading, but Cobain excelled at writing abrasive sing-along rock. By contrast, songs across the Melvins catalog almost suggest contempt for the audience, embracing elements of doom, hardcore, noise rock, general hijinks, and random contrariness. Osbourne maintains that he’s incapable of writing a song with an audience in mind, adding that the absence of hit songs allows the band to put together unpredictable setlists (Condran).   

Houdini remains the band’s most identifiable album, the first Melvins record for an indeterminate number of Gen Xers. Whether it’s the most “representative” or artistically strongest Melvins album, probably not. Osbourne agrees. “Of all the records that we’ve done,” he says, “[Houdini] wouldn’t even be in the top five. That’s not to say it’s bad” (Ritter). 

Atlantic dropped Melvins after three records, not because those weren’t good albums. That happened in 1997, and they kept right on going, recording and releasing a new album with another label and playing over one hundred shows that year as though nothing changed. To date, Melvins have never signed with another major label. Osbourne grew tired of the games. “If you think I’m willing to hand over my music to a 23-year-old A&R guy so he can tell me what’s wrong with it… that’s just not going to happen” (Prindle). 

Just because a band refuses to be commodified doesn’t mean they will stop making music, nor does it mean that people will stop embracing their work. “The other band from Aberdeen” have operated under that independent-minded ethic for 40 years. Though Melvins never gathered the commercial accolades of some of the groups they inspired, Melvins have managed to outlive all of them, and I imagine in some vague apocalyptic sense that they’ll be the last band on earth. 

Works Cited 

Ed Condran. “The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne Opines on What Would Have Come of Nirvana If His Late Pal Never Killed Himself.” PhillyVoice, 4 August 2017

Sarah Grant. “‘Night Goat’ from The 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Songs of All Time.” Rolling Stone, 14 March 2023. 

Mike Gitter. “We’re Definitely an Acquired Taste.” Kerrang, January 1992. 

Connie Gordon. “The Story behind the Song: Melvins’ Honey Bucket.” Louder, 2 January 2022. 

Mark Prindle. “Buzz Osborne Interview.”

“Riff Lords: Buzz Osborne of the Melvins.” YouTube, 2 December 2021.

Travis Ritter. “No Happy Ending.” The Stranger, 21 May 2009. 

Christopher R. Weingarten. “The Melvins’ Power Disinfectant.” The Village Voice, 11 May 2017.