The U-Men- Step on a Bug
Best Tracks: 2 X 4, Willie Dong Hurts Dogs, Solid Action
To call the U-Men a precursor to the Seattle Grunge scene is extremely tempting, but ultimately sloppy. Admittedly they had all the check marks: a hardcore punk foundation that had been warped into its own separate entity, a charismatic front man in John Bigley and a disgustingly mysterious otherness. This otherness, however, was so pronounced that to categorize the U-Men as “grunge” or “proto-grunge” would be an offense to the band and all of its fever-addled, swamp-o’-billy greatness. Their sole full-length album, Step on a Bug, is half a half hour trip of humid lunacy; a moment where fuzz-drenched guitars and rockabilly drum patterns build a surprisingly stable arena for Bigley to writhe as if his skin were melting off right there in the studio. It should be required listening for, well, everyone.
Conceived in 1981 Seattle adjacent to the “second wave” of west-coast punk which was becoming harder, more subversive, and (somehow) even less commercial than its mid-70s parent, the U-Men stood among out even among the most libertine acts, like the Germs, in their ultimately holistic embodiment of chaos. They didn’t appear so much as rebels as they did an unstoppable entity which existed completely separate from reality. Their sound wasn’t just speed for the sake of aggression; it was a bastard of western swing and grimy, overdriven guitar; it was the sonic equivalent of a bloated frog with an oversized cowboy hat doing an Elvis impression after inhaling too many cursed swamp vapors. They called it “swamp-o’-billy”.
The U-Men were Seattle’s flagship band from the early to mid-1980s. That’s right, less than a decade before the Northwest became an American Mecca for dirty melodrama, before even legitimate precursors like Mother Love Bone or Green River, its underground was ruled by a gothic hillbilly quartet whose lack of explicit metal influences were replaced by a drunken swing. And their popularity, at least before Kurt Cobainification, was strictly limited to Seattle simply because of their complete inability to tour. Unsurprisingly, any U-Man effort to take on the globe was hampered by a combination of drugs, mischief, and destruction which followed the band’s condensed chaotic energy. So Seattle was the only place to be.
Again, Step on a Bug’s greatness lies in its throbbing, pronounced otherness. Take, for instance, its opening track “Whistlin’ Pete”. Pete begins with an overdriven, mid-heavy guitar blast, and is followed up by a moan. Oh yes, a moan. A moan eases into a growl by the next blast. The drums kick in: Bigley’s cue to slip comfortably into an unhinged persona who dry heaves out poisonous gravel. His (or hiss) vocals lurch while his rhythm section doubles his vocal line, proving that his performance isn’t meandering by adding a distorted structure to the song’s belching path. The U-Men sound as if they are panicking through their caricature of Americana romanticism. But Whilstin’ Pete is only an introduction to the rest of the album, and by the time its growls are fully audible the listener has likely surrendered to a feverish catharsis. The remainder of the album offers episodes of the same ridiculous frenzy in Juice Party or Flea Circus. Unflinching, the Brothers U only begin to slow things down in Papa Doesn’t Love His Children, a mocking ballad which acts as another reminder of the bands’ classic country blues, uh, roots. Solid Action is crazy.
The U-Men’s, and Step on a Bug’s, popularity has unfortunately been relegated to a study of the conditions which made bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam possible. It’s not a malicious connection, they could fill the hypothetical gap between hardcore punk and the Seattle sound, but it is an oversimplified one. To afford the U-Men a proper appreciation, they have to be treated as a force of themselves. Their unbridled madness is unlike anything I’ve ever listened to. There is no discernable goal within it: no violent rebellion and no camp for the sake of theatrics. The U-Men seemed to have been sick and depraved before they recorded their first song.