The U-Men are the band that gets the ball rolling in Mark Yarm’s enormous book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. Turning the clock back to 1985, before there was even a Sub Pop label, Yarm weaves together everyone’s recollection of the time the Seattle punk band the U-Men set a moat around their stage on fire at the Bumbershoot Festival. This little incident told in a chapter named “Something Crazy’s Gonna Happen”, sets the tone for the U-Men’s reputation as Seattle’s indie jesters.
Throughout the rest of the book, they remained the underdogs as Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Mother Love Bone went on to sow the seeds and reap the rewards for the music scene in the Pacific Northwest. They are even eclipsed by their most famous fan, Mark Arm of Mudhoney, who wrote the liner notes for this comprehensive collection of studio recordings simply titled U-Men. “The U-Men had nothing to do with Grunge[,]” he wrote, and he’s right. When listening to this 30-song, 90-minute collection, two things are evident: 1) The U-Men didn’t sound like the bands that soared past them in popularity, and 2) the band’s highly charged music and flamboyant delivery continue to stand out after more than 30 years of fickle indie punk confusion.
U-Men starts with the band’s self-titled EP from 1984, which was bankrolled by Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt but was released on the Bomb Shelter label. Four songs, 13 minutes, it gets right to point. “Blight” is a perfect little breakneck opening number. Next is the druggy weirdness (“Flowers DGIH”), a sleazy nod to the Stooges (“Shoot ‘Em Down”), and the guttural howls of yet another punchy neckbreaker (“Gila”). After three stray tracks, the second U-Men EP Stop Spinning is ready for a spin.
By this point, the U-Men were on the Homestead label. Being label mates with names like Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and Nick Cave did nothing to tame their sound. “Club” and
“The Fumes”, the first two songs on Stop Spinning, are among the rowdiest and the weirdest things the U-Men have done. Singer John Bigley’s voice is in a constant state of exaggeration. It doesn’t matter if he’s howling, grunting, growling, laughing, shouting, or “singing”, none of it sounds like a normal singer circa 1985. Guitarist Tom Price combines lead and rhythm into a sometimes ungodly racket that even the Replacements/Hüsker Dü rivalry couldn’t reproduce.
The U-Men made only one album.
Step on a Bug was released on Black Label Records back in 1988. By this time, the band was on their fourth and final bass player. Robin Buchan had been replaced by Jim Tillman before they began recording. According to Arm’s little essay, Tillman’s departure in 1986 took a great deal of wind out of the band’s sails: “They remained a very good band, but with Jim, they were a great band and they never quite recovered.” Halo of Flies member Tom Hazelmyer filled the bass slot for a short time, followed by Tony Ransome.
Step on a Bug appears in its entirety on this collection, though the running order seems to be a little off, with the album’s last two songs preceding the first song. The U-Men were not going through any aging or maturation process by this point; they were going through a frustrating process. According to Everybody Loves Our Town, the in-fighting was really mounting around this time. Having little money didn’t help either. The competition coming from outside of their musical genre was also getting the U-Men down, making Step on a Bug their final gasp. If a fan like Arm doesn’t consider it their finest hour, it still has many things going for it. “Dig It a Hole” is punk rock somehow gone crazier than normal. “Solid Action” similarly lives up to its name and also became the namesake for the band’s 1999 compilation album. “Juice Party” is Price and drummer Charlie Ryan at their most fast and furious. And lastly, Step on a Bug contains my two favorite song titles — “Willie Dong Hurts Dogs” and “A Three Year Old Could Do That”.
“I remember thinking at the time that most of their recordings were a little soft and didn’t capture the power of the band live,” writes Arm in his concluding paragraph. If these two EPs, one LP, and five unreleased tracks ever qualified as “soft”, then the U-Men must have been an absolute hurricane live. And although it’s a shame that the world at large will never be able to experience any of those live shows ever again, having their studio works intact is better than having them completely forgotten. Bruce Pavitt can finally have his wish — to have a U-Men release on the Sub Pop label.