March to Fuzz: Best Of and Rarities
By Jon Fine
My favorite Seattle-late-80s story goes something like this: A dorky bassist in a band newly signed to Sub Pop chats up two disinterested women at a party. As befits a guy of his age and that cultural moment, he talks about his band. He sees big things happening, he says, really big things. He says, I think we'll be as big as Jane's Addiction. (Cue eye rolling.)
Of course, history proved the bassist dead wrong. His name was Chris Novoselic, his fledgling band was called Nirvana, and, as everyone now knows, they ended up way bigger than Jane's Addiction. But hard as it is to imagine now, at the time Nirvana was a second- or third-tier Sub Pop band, goth was not an inappropriate adjective for Soundgarden, and the Fluid--remember the Fluid?--seemed the label's best bet for mainstream success.
And then there was Mudhoney, whose first tours were being greeted with the indie-rock version of Beatlemania. But Mudhoney didn't want to be bigger than Jesus, or even Jane's Addiction. They flaunted underachieverdom, made mischief from the back of the class. They wrote sarcastically about the furor that descended upon their hometown ("Overblown," which, ironically, appeared on the sound track to the 1992 Seattle commercial Singles) and the changes it wrought in people they knew (the 1995 rant "Into Yer Shtik," in which Mark Arm sneers, "Why don't you blow your brains out too?"). They released inconsistent albums and EPs crammed with tossed-off punk-rock covers. Sub Pop's other high-profile bands exploded, artistically and commercially, when they split for major labels; if anything, Mudhoney imploded.
Still, they outlasted their old labelmates--and with no lineup changes to boot, until bassist Matt Lukin departed last year. It's a stroke of luck that they were dropped by Reprise, if only so that what may be their final statement, the double-CD retrospective March to Fuzz, could come out on the label where it all began.
Billed as "best of and rarities," the compilation clocks in at nearly two and a half hours. The critical cliche about double albums (actually, this is a triple album on vinyl) is that they're better edited down to a single disc. But since it's Mudhoney, the slop and the misses are as essential, in the truest sense of that term, as the hits. You can grumble about the track listing--no sign of the top-notch "Mudride," from the 1988 debut, Superfuzz Bigmuff, and ditto their best older/wiser tune, "Oblivion," from 1998's Tomorrow Hit Today--but the compilation is as good a distillation of the band as you could hope for. March to Fuzz is uneven because Mudhoney was uneven.
Unlike their peers among Sub Pop's front ranks, Mudhoney started with 60s garage rock: though their earliest work suggested a tug-of-war between Blue Cheer and the Sonics, it soon became clear the Sonics had won. Those sizzling, absurdly fuzzy first singles and compilation tracks hit hard because they packed short, sharp doses of the energy and sick distortion that were Mudhoney's greatest strengths. But though careful craft is hardly the be-all and end-all of rock music, Mudhoney's bash-'em-out approach meant that stretching out in the studio was not going to benefit them the way it benefited, say, Soundgarden. Soundgarden didn't hit their stride until they started doing full-lengths. Mudhoney's full-lengths didn't meet the promise of their singles.
All the same, Mudhoney transcended garage revivalism. Mark Arm had an extremely limited vocal range, but his nasal rasp and primal snarls fit the material perfectly; he was the best front man of his ilk. Steve Turner was an unobtrusive "lead" guitarist, if you can really even call him that--in the March to Fuzz liner notes he says that "Here Comes Sickness" has "too many leads for my tastes"--but his lines more often than not made the songs, as with the groaning, descending, grinding slide riffs he coughed up on the early single "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More." And Mudhoney upped the ante on Sonic Youth in terms of building an aesthetic from the musical possibilities of shitty gear. Their first records sounded quite unlike anything else out there.
But like plenty of garage bands, they never successfully translated their live show to wax. They had a legendary rep from the start (deservedly--you can hear the power even on cruddy audience tapes from their first tours), and even as late as last year their shows were remarkably potent and exciting. They came off best live perhaps because their greatness was in an amalgamation of small things rather than any singular bludgeoning brilliance. For instance: before I saw Mudhoney in the flesh, I'd always thought Dan Peters was one of the weaker drummers in Seattle's aggressive bands. I still wouldn't trade the Melvins' Dale Crover for Peters without getting a bunch of future first-round draft picks too, but onstage you could see he had lots of snap and excellent snare work. He just happened to be very low-key about it. But then flash was never Mudhoney's raison d'etre.
Problem is, listening to March to Fuzz, you could interpret that as "Mudhoney never gave a fuck." In the liner notes, Turner writes: "In Seattle 1987, there was little reason to take being in a band seriously . . . I honestly thought it would last maybe six months." A reasonable attitude for the time, but for more than a decade Mudhoney hewed to the punk tenets of derision, sarcasm, and not taking oneself seriously to the detriment of their music. They were gifted enough to crank out a bunch of winners over the years anyway, from "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More" and "Twenty Four" to "Into Yer Shtik" to "A Thousand Forms of Mind" and "Ghost." But they got most famous for a song that was basically a bad punch line--"Touch Me I'm Sick"--and as if to prove a point, March to Fuzz trails off in a long string of uninventive covers (though you have to admit the good taste inherent in covering outstanding grotesqueries like the Crucifucks and Void). You gotta wonder what could've happened if they'd dared to admit a little ambition along the way.
The funny thing is, after their peers had conquered and split up, after the Big Muffs and other ancient fuzzboxes they helped fetishize were being manufactured anew, after Sub Pop's ascendance was a nostalgic anecdote, when Mudhoney itself was far too old to be current and far too young to be classic, they put out what's probably their strongest LP, Tomorrow Hit Today. The self-consciousness and sarcasm were largely gone. So was the wildness of yore, but I didn't miss it much. The songs were good, and the performances--particularly the drumming--were even better. Focused and rootsy, its charms were abundant, if decidedly modest. But modest charms were about the last thing anyone who saw Mudhoney in '88 wanted to hear from them ten years later.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anthony Saint James.