Throughout the 1980s, right before Seattle’s grunge faux-nomenon blew up, the U-Men ruled the city’s subterranean rock scene with noisy, jutting songs and a stage presence that left interesting bruises and made crowds fear for their safety and sanity.
One of their biggest fans was and is Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm, who took time out of his busy schedule to write a tribute that accompanies Sub Pop’s press release for the archival treasure trove, U-Men (out November 3): “From 1983 to 1987,” Arm testifies, “the U-Men were the undisputed kings of the Seattle Underground… They ruled a bleak backwater landscape populated by maybe 200 people. They were the only band that could unify the disparate sub-subcultures and get all 200 of those people to fill a room.”
U-Men’s cult status never really waned, even after their eight-year run ended. Their rabid fan base includes several prominent contemporary musicians and studio wizard/grunge icon Jack Endino, who executive produced U-Men. He’s one of many people who still care a lot about their music—and who drew artistic inspiration from it, too.
Endino says U-Men gave his group Skin Yard their first show in 1985. In an e-mail interview, he raved about their greatness as a live band, but said he regrets that he never worked with them in the studio, as they split right when he was starting his production career.
But Endino jumped at the chance to remaster their catalog. “By now, I’m getting pretty good at what I call ‘forensic audio,’ meaning archival stuff, dealing with obsolete recording formats, baking the reels, etc. (see the TAD reissues, Soundgarden’s Ultramega OK),” he says. “So [ex-U-Men manager Larry Reid and U-Men guitarist Tom Price] asked me to help. I made sure the audio was handled correctly, and that we had the best sources for everything. Above all, I wanted access to the multitrack tapes to see what else was on there. Sure enough, I found five killer songs the band had never mixed or released, which was like striking gold. I got to mix those down, so I’m a happy man.”
Over the last 40 years in any major US city, you couldn’t throw a Marshall amp without hitting a noisy rock band. Yet few from the Northwest’s 1980s contingent still trigger the sort of frothing excitement U-Men do, if an informal poll among my friends is indicative. Arm cites Captain Beefheart, the Sonics, Pere Ubu, and Link Wray as influences, and beyond those auspicious references, a strong hint of Birthday Party’s weirdly gothic ferocity emerges. John Bigley’s vocals howl with natural wild-man charisma. While so many singers trying to project danger on the mic come off as risible poseurs, Bigley actually sounds like he’d bite off your nose if you knocked over his whiskey bottle. (Trivia: Bigley now owns Barça bar on Capitol Hill.)
One of U-Men’s most distinctive characteristics is Tom Price’s guitar. His stinging, coiled, and clangorous riffs radiate a nuanced hostility. But it’s doubtful any guitar magazines ever clamored to feature him, as Price admits that he and the band always squeaked by with janky gear. He borrowed Bigley’s Fender Mustang and found a Music Man amplifier for cheap, and simply relied on his considerable creativity and instincts to generate sounds that made you want to punch your fellow showgoer.
“I’ve never been that obsessed with tone or anything,” says Price, his voice slowed by the effects of Parkinson’s disease. “I just had to make do with whatever I could get my hands on. And in the course of that, I reached the point where I could get my sound out of any amp, any guitar.
“I tend to make the amplifier have a lot of high-end. I add low-end with the heel of my right hand. If you hold your hand over the pickup and mute the strings, they sound a lot more low-end. When we started, we had the crappiest gear—it was just incredible.” In U-Men’s early days, Price and their first bassist, Robin Buchan, would both play through the same 30-watt amp, often blowing it out. “It used to make me so nervous before shows,” Price says.
Despite those handicaps, U-Men sometimes receive credit as grunge instigators. Price dismisses such claims, asserting, “We didn’t have the heavy-metal aspect of grunge.” Maybe it’s because so many of grunge’s main figures moshed down front at U-Men shows? “I can think of one or two songs that have grunge elements. But [with grunge], the beat is on the accent, not the actual backbeat. And we usually had the beat on the backbeat, just like the Beatles or the Ramones.”
If anything, Price says, U-Men may have helped Seattle musicians realize that there was a need for the sort of infrastructure—booking agents, all-ages clubs, labels—that allows you to break out of your hometown. Given how much of a music-industry outlier Seattle was in the 1980s, it’s remarkable U-Men even made it out of the region. But they did find striking success in Texas, for some reason, even inspiring Austin freaks Butthole Surfers to write a tribute song titled “O-Men.” That’s what Wikipedia says, anyway, even if Price doubts its accuracy.
Whatever intangible quality U-Men’s music possessed during the awful Reagan years, its power and mystique have endured. When asked why he thinks U-Men’s rep persists while so many of their peers’ have faded, Price chalks it up to “an element of local self-mythologizing.” That’s why U-Men drummer Charlie Ryan insists they should never do a reunion concert, “because then people would remember that sometimes we sucked.”
Another factor contributing to the U-Men mythos is their tendency to do things differently, “even if it just took the form of a ridiculous publicity stunt. Maybe that made us a little more memorable than the Beat Pagodas or Room Nine, but it’s hard for me to think, ‘Oh, it’s just because we were so good,’ because we weren’t. Sometimes we put on good shows and sometimes we didn’t.”
Price credits Reid for helping to further U-Men’s notoriety with concepts like showing horror movies and handing out custom-made barf bags before their performances—even if it was just another Friday-night slot at the Vogue. “It seemed like almost every show we did, there was wrestling, or a flyer, or something out of the ordinary involved,” Price remembers.
In 2017, steadfast music fans still speak in awe of U-Men’s scariness—and not just because they set fire to the moat at the Mural Amphitheatre during Bumbershoot. That infamous incident lasted about five seconds and caused no serious damage, but Price says people have hyperbolized it into “U-Men burned down Seattle Center!”
“That’s the funny thing,” Price says, “we never were consciously trying to be scary, but I’ve heard that from a lot of people… I guess because there were fights at our shows, and we did play in some dumps that were pretty dumb. But no, the idea of consciously trying to be spooky or scary sounds kind ofdumb.
“You could say John Bigley was really unpredictable. Sometimes he would be confrontational, sometimes he would be really inward looking. We were furiously inconsistent, because we all drank so much and we took so many drugs. We were moody young men. We didn’t know what was going to happen at a given show. But we did know when we were sucking, and how to turn it into performance art.”
Price admits he hadn’t listened to U-Men since they disbanded, but revisiting the three LPs’ worth of songs for this archival release made him think they “weren’t barking up the wrong tree. It wasn’t just a bunch of noise. We were trying to do something different, and I think we were fairly successful. Just the way we put chords and notes together, and melodic lines, was fairly distinctive. There’s some good content there, and John’s lyrics became really good.”
Has anyone tempted U-Men to reunite? Oh, yes. Lots of times, Price says. But they’re not interested, despite some sizable offers. “The music was pretty complex, and there was an odd telepathy that took a long time to develop. I don’t know if that would instantly come back or what. But no. It’s probably best to just leave that alone.”