For a brief little window in the early ’90s, some Bellevue rockers dominated the airwaves: multiplatinum records, hit singles, heavy MTV rotation, and worldwide arena tours that for a short time made them the biggest band on the planet. It was a slow, shape-shifting climb from the clubs after growing out of their early, awkward faux-metal years (an umlaut?) and a brief dip into glam rock. They hit their stride in 1988 with Operation: Mindcrime—a hair metal concept album about a junkie who’s drugged by the government to carry out assassinations for an underground movement so that…oh, forget it. Although not huge, it built enough of a fan base to make the 1990 follow-up, Empire, the tipping point in the band’s career. It gave them their defining moment: “Silent Lucidity,” a bloated orchestral ballad that despite ripping off Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” was still kind of awesome. Their reign, though, was brief and was ended, ironically, by that more famous Emerald City export—grunge. And when that raw, pulsing nerve exploded, all bands with Aqua Net in their shaving kits were swept under the rug. —BB
Because of them… Northwest heavy metal owned the airwaves before Cobain and company arrived on the scene.
Now hear this: For the casual fan, nothing beats Empire’s falsetto-heavy “Jet City Woman,” a stomping Seattle shout-out that boils all of the band’s good qualities—steady guitar work, powerful vocals, epic choruses—into a concise five minutes and 22 seconds.
Pearl Jam may be the most principled stadium band in history. Though the band’s intentions were criticized early on by Kurt Cobain—who implied singer Eddie Vedder and his estimable crew were perhaps no more than corporate tools—the group pursued stardom with a more diligent eye toward doing the right thing than almost any other act boasting megaplatinum status. That desire is part and parcel with the band’s output. Early songs like “Alive” and “Daughter” wrestled with questions of mortality and family. After the memorable video for “Jeremy,” a chilling hit about a high school tragedy from their 1991 debut Ten, overshadowed the song itself the band began abandoning the idea of even making videos—or, in fact, releasing singles. They famously boycotted Ticketmaster for its pricing practices in 1994 (although they finally had to give in by 1998). Beginning with their 2000 tour, they began offering fans reasonably priced “professional bootlegs” of their shows on the band’s Web site and in stores. The live gigs themselves are ever-changing affairs, testifying to a group that’s more afraid of standing still than they ever were of appearing on the cover of Time magazine. And while Vedder’s brooding visage and powerhouse yowl dominate the group in the public mind, Pearl Jam has never been a one-man affair. The band exemplifies the best aspects of democracy in action—messy, yes, but highly rewarding when done right. —MM
Because of them… Bands can sell out an arena without “selling out.”
Now hear this: Sure they make albums as discrete units and remain ferocious in concert, but they were also a hell of a singles band, as demonstrated on Rearviewmirror: Greatest Hits 1991–2003.
If Seattle’s radical past has survived to the present day, it’s reflected in the political songs of Jim Page. A modern successor to Woody Guthrie and Earl Robinson, Page has been writing and singing around here since the early 1970s. The City of Seattle changed its restrictions against busking in 1974 after Page lobbied the mayor and city council, gathered public support, and testified at a public hearing. He developed his performing chops singing in the streets, and playing during the breaks in other musicians’ gigs at clubs and taverns like Pioneer Square’s Inside Passage. “You had 15 minutes to get their attention, hold it while you did your thing, and set them up for the hat pass,” he remembers. At some places, he would end up with more in the hat than the featured band was paid for the night—but his radical political message didn’t go over with every crowd. “His topical songs,” remembers folk musician Phillip Williams, “would drive our audience out the door.” —JR
Because of him… Musicians have the right to play on Seattle’s sidewalks.
Now hear this: Page delivers musical commentary about the impact of new money on this city in “Paul Allentown” from his 2004 Seattle Songs CD.
Walt Robertson fit the classic folksinger stereotype: He spent his youth wandering the country collecting songs and meeting singers, among them Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger. He settled in Seattle in the mid-1950s, where he became a leading light in the folk music community. Accompanying himself on six- and 12-string guitar, he was a charismatic performer whose repertoire ran to American and British standards like “John Henry” and “Lord Randall,” much earlier than they became cliché material for grade school music teachers. He was a regular at coffeehouses, house parties, and on a live weekly KING-TV show called The Wanderer, named for one of his trademark songs. He ran coffeehouses and taught guitar, but it was as a singer, both on stage and at after-hours sessions, that he made his mark. —JR
Because of him… A true folk revival arrived in Seattle long before mainstream imitators made it a national fad.
Now hear this: Robertson gently acknowledges the plaintive side of his travels in “Wandering” on American Northwest Ballads.