Frank Gutch Jr: The Bluest Skies You Ever Seen: A View, Not a History, of Seattle Rock Music; Plus a Couple of Notes…..
And it’s my view. It won’t mention Heart except to say that I knew their days were well past when they became a tribute band (and it was long before The Kennedy Center performance) and it won’t mention Nirvana because, let’s face it, Nirvana has already been mentioned enough (Okay, I might mention them once). I might mention Perry Como, though, because he had the hit with those lyrics and I might mention Bobby Sherman (just for the hell of it). I will mention many artists and bands of evidently little consequence outside of that fair city because I certainly do not hear them mentioned by people outside the Pac Northwest (by the people I know, anyway). But first, should you think Seattle a mere backdrop for movies and TV programs, let us look at what the youth think, and before you start pounding the keyboard in protest, I have not vetted the information and don’t really care (though having lived in Seattle for over thirteen years, I can attest to the fact that everyone does love Dick’s… Drive-In, and how can you not love the fact that they have a train/trolley called the SLUT). I’m just glad to see the youth making this attempt:
Now that you know all there is to know about Seattle, the city, let us delve into the music. Let’s start with this, a brand new video by The Green Pajamas. I will be writing about these guys.
I arrived in Seattle early ’78, I believe (though it could have been ’79 or even 1879, for all I know) and found a thriving tavern scene and little else. Folk was running rampant, performers like Reilly & Maloney, Jim Page, Baby Gramps and the like playing on streets, in bars, in studios, on ferries— wherever they could find an audience. Rock was running the tavs— The Skyboys gaining steam for the cowboys, Annie Rose & The Thrillers owning the dance crowd along with retro-rockers Jr. Cadillac. I could list more but for convenience’s sake, let us not.
It didn’t take long to get plugged in. I scored a buyer’s job at Peaches Records, responsibilities including consignments, singles and oldies. I dealt with the aforementioned Skyboys, Linda Waterfall (an early member of Skyboys), Jim Page (a prominent and well-respected member of the international folk community), Mark O’Connor (at that time a youngster and selling a couple of albums he had recorded and pressed himself), The New Deal Rhythm Band (who had just recorded an album with Cheryl Bentyne, already on her way to becoming a member of the Manhattan Transfer), and Moby Grape (but only the Live album, pressed on grape-colored vinyl). Not only that but The Fabulous Rainbow, a tavern directly across the street from the store, was scheduling bands like crazy, so we had access to product by Gatemouth Brown, Jr. Cadillac, Kidd Afrika whose first album sold a ton (I don’t remember a second album but I could be wrong), The Robert Cray Band (after their first show, the lines went around the block whenever they appeared— they were working out of Eugene and made the tavern circuit up and down the Left Coast until signing a recording deal with Polygram Records), and Crazy Eights, whose following grew incredibly fast and became too big to play small taverns and clubs.
Around ’86 or so, Howie Wahlen, our other record buyer, handed me a 45 he had just accepted on consignment. Listen to this, he told me, and proceeded to put it on the store system. It was jangly and sweet and love at first listen. It was The Green Pajamas‘ first single, Kim the Waitress. One listen and I was going around the story singing “Nobody can save us but Kim the Waitress” beneath my breath, it was so infectious. We sold a few. We should have sold a million.
Of course, Material Issue would get the big payoff when they covered the song in 1994 and turned it into a hit. Myself, I much prefer the Pajamas version but what the hell do I know?
I grabbed a vinyl copy of the Book of Hours album before I left Seattle in ’92 and that would be that until they released Poison In the Russian Room in 2009. Howie Wahlen (now working with Tom Dyer at Green Monkey Records) sent me a link, reminding me of my enthusiasm for Kim the Waitress. The timing could not have been better. Not only was I ready to dive back into the Indie scene (I had actually started a few years earlier, writing music reviews for Dave Pyles at the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange), but one track (or should I say two?) brought my love for psych to the fore. Faerie Queen I grabbed me by the ‘nads the first time I heard it. Faerie Queen 2 almost emasculated me.
It was the most complete one-two punch I’ve ever received from a band. I was, from that point on, a devoted fan.
I checked out their discography and was shocked at what I saw. I had missed seventeen albums. Seventeen! And that didn’t count EPs and singles and the occasional odd tracks and YouTube entries. Prolific? More prolific than any other band of which I’ve had knowledge.
After Russian Room, I was tossed The Complete Book of Hours. I had the original album, but this package added a whole string of new tracks recorded at about the same time as or during the actual sessions. I got clocked another one. I had listened to the LP a few times and liked it but the new package brought to light each member’s writing style. It took them atound two years to complete the project. Here is what I wrote in my review:
Book of Hours shows another and completely unexpected side of the Pajamas— that of Steve Lawrence and Bruce Haedt. Lawrence has a leaning toward sunshine pop and psych that’s almost unnerving. You remember the song the guy sang in the movie Uptown Girls? Lawrence could have written it (when I heard “My Red Balloon,” it was so evident). And then there is the Strawberry Alarm Clock-like organ on the harder-edged “Stand In the Light” (along with the sustained-tone fuzz guitar). “Falling Through the Hole” is as good a look back at psych pop as you will ever hear, the whiny Farfisa organ sound offset by the plucking of the twelve-string, the electronically altered voice and the driving bass— and how about that ‘mind collage’ in the middle? Outstanding. To my ears, Haedt heads in a whole ‘nother direction than the others in the band. He leans toward the psych side, as does Kelly and Lawrence, but adds a certain early Talking Heads influence which is intriguing. The last half of “Stand To Reason” could easily have been a cover of something off of Talking Heads: 77 (after a very pop-py first segment). And the rhythm and sound of “Big Surprise” is straight out of the David Byrne soundbook as is “Higher Than I’ve Been” and don’t think that’s a negative. All are killer tracks and are definitely Bruce Haedt.
Jeff Kelly? The guy is from another planet. I could go through each Kelly-penned track on this album but it would turn into a novelette. When I heard The Pajamas’ “Fairy Queen” off of the Poison album, I was overwhelmed. Two versions (that’s right— two versions) of a song which could run away with anyone’s head and both wrapped in psychedelic clothing from a perfect world. I hear Kelly. I get Kelly. His music floors me. So when I heard the faux horns worthy of Len Barry‘s “1-2-3” in the leadoff track “Paula” and the embryo of Fairy Queen in “Men In Your Life,” I was beside myself. And track after track, he gives me more reason to follow him as a musician. The trombone on the bridge of “The First Rains of September”; the almost uncharacteristic country rock flavor of “Walking In the Rain” with its Brit guitar; the orchestration on the six-minute-plus “Under the Observatory”; the beautifully structured “Time of Year,” the chorus carrying the background and the bagpipe of Doug Maxwell a perfect touch— and that ending— just long enough, just short enough.
In a way, my favorite of all the GP albums. Then again, I have said that about each and every one, depending upon mood.
There is something about Jeff Kelly‘s and Laura Weller‘s voices when they blend that throws me for a loop. Case in point, from the Poison In the Russian Room album.
I’m rambling now, but before The Pajamas, Laura was in a band known as Capping Day.
Steve Lawrence of The Pajamas— solo.
There were so many bands in Seattle during the eighties. The problem was, there were few places to play. Most bands got the occasional gig but only as few could make an impact. Jimm McIver struggled with his band, The Life, in spite of having guitar maniac Tony Bortko sharing the stage. Bortko had built a reputation as a guitarslinger and bounced from band to band after he left TKO. As this video attests, they had some chops.
There were a handful of labels back then— Green Monkey, on which I have been concentrating here— Popllama (Young Fresh Fellows, Presidents of the United States of America, The Posies, The Fastbacks, and The Walkabouts, to name a few— Sub Pop, which signed Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney in their early phases and which is responsible for albums by Blitzen Trapper, Sleater-Kinney, and Fleet Foxes, among others.
I knew a couple of the guys from The Posies who worked with us at Peaches Records— the bass player who went by the name of Rick Roberts back then though he has since returned to his real name, Arthur, and Mike Musburger, who has played with a string of bands over the years and is much in demand as a session drummer. They were good kids (I was ancient and everyone who worked at the store were kids to me) and I thought they had a good thing going, borrowing from sixties Brit Rock as much as anything.
I only saw them play once, at Gasworks Park for a radio station promotion, and I was impressed, indeed. They had melody, harmony and power and just the right touch for an old man steeped in the sixties. One hell of a show, though the station (KXRX) had little pull so the crowd was sparse. The music wasn’t, though. They rocked the park and soon left Seattle for greener pastures. This past year they cut a new album, toured to support it, played and recorded solo, and Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, the musical core of the band, participated in numerous Big Star shows.
The following video is a track from Dear 23, their first major label album.
While Danger Bunny‘s drummer George Romansic did not work at Peaches, he sold records to us through a small record distribution company, City Hall. I had not heard this until a couple of years ago but was well aware of the band. After hearing them, I wish I had tried harder to catch a show. George was one of the best guys I have ever known. A class act.
George also played with The Beakers.
One of my favorite bands out of Seattle will always be Son of Man. They came together when grunge began taking off but didn’t really fit the mold labels wanted at the time. In this video, they were recovering from a fire which destroyed the house they were living in and most if not all of their equipment. Frustrated, tired and disillusioned, they slowly dissipated as a band. Brad Kok eventually headed to Germany to form Pothead. Nick Hornbuckle headed north to B.C. where he learned banjo and eventually ended up playing with John Reischman & The Jaybirds, one of the top bluegrass outfits on the Left Coast. God knows what Mike Patterson, the drummer, did. He was my connection to the band (he also worked at the record store) but we lost contact. Tal Goettling, the voice, is a stonemason these days and formed Lavacado, which recently changed their name to See By Sound. Music available from both configurations, by the way. I dig it.
This is the band in their early phase (pre-fire).
Of all the songs which came out of Seattle during the eighties and nineties, I don’t think any impressed me as much as Radio van Gogh‘s I Hope I Get It All. In my head it stands as one of those pop tunes which could have defined a period.
As a precursor to next week’s column, I give you this— Liquid Generation, a band which contained one Bob Blackburn, the son of the legendary broadcaster Bob Blackburn, by golly. Let’s just say that it’s getting close to Spring Training. It’s a hint, folks. Take it away, Bob, and don’t hurt yourself.
While there are only a couple this week, it’s time for the…
Notes….. Tricycle Records is the home base for one of my favorite bands, The Hot Toddies, so I watch the artists on the label very closely. This one caught me quite by surprise. Lila Blue. I am impressed!
Note this name: Bill Scorzari. His impending album, Through the Waves, is going to turn more than a few heads. Outstanding songs, beautiful production, superb performances. And Scorzari’s pea-gravel voice which fits the music and moods to a T. Here’s what we have coming…
Frank’s column appears every Tuesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”