Music for the People: The Clubs that Formed the Backbone of Seattle’s Early Alternative Scene

Any underground movement, when it builds up enough momentum to break into mainstream consciousness, offers the rest of us an opportunity to peer at the inner workings of a youth community that’s working to create its own culture and values. Apparently, a music industry that prefers to package its acts and calculate its images must assume that anything else it encounters must be packaged and calculated too. But most of the surface trappings of “alternative” scenes – the clothes, hairstyles, and lingo – were never as self-conscious as the media would have us believe.

Many of the band members who gigged and recorded in Seattle during the heyday of Grunge Rock never dreamt of playing arena shows, selling millions of records, or millions of online streams through gudang lagu. They wanted to write and record the kind of music they loved and earn enough money to eat and pay the bills without having to compromise with the major record labels. Herein lies the paradox of the scene: it was a rebellion against the music industry machine that finally grew to overshadow the established musical community. And its performers, who scorned the trappings associated with rock stardom, ended up being interviewed and written about in the biggest publications of the day.

Back in 1976, however, the idea of Seattle’s music scene is the darling of the world could not have been more foreign. The youth culture had begun to take inspiration from London’s punk rock, New York’s disco scene, and the garage sound of two bands from Detroit: the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges. But there was no outlet in town for aspiring musicians to play – no clubs, only bars with cover bands and boogie rock. Punk and new wave bands would have to content themselves with playing rental halls, and with the occasional gig at the Paramount opening for national acts like David Bowie, Blondie, and the Talking Heads.

Things had improved by the early ‘80s with the opening of the Showbox, the Gorilla Room, and WREX, whose three nights a week shows inspired other bars around town to start booking bands. The Rosco Louie, a combined art and music space, provided another haven for Seattle’s musicians. This budding scene of the first half of the ’80’s nurtured such pioneering alternative rockers as the Fastbacks, Malfunkshun, the Accused, and the Melvins.

Pioneer Square became the hub of the new music scene when the Central Tavern, which was billed as “Seattle’s Only 2nd Class Tavern” started adding alternative-rock gigs to its normal jazz and R B; fare. Other supportive establishments around Pioneer Square included the Metropolis (an all-ages space) and two galleries: Ground Zero and Graven Image.

Unfortunately, many of these clubs were plagued not only by money problems but also by the unruly behavior of many of their patrons, which ran the gamut from drug use to violence and the destruction of property. For a time, the Seattle scene seemed fated to be torn apart by the very artists that it’d set out to nurture.