Tacoma and The Rise of Grunge

-by Tobias Daugherty

Welcome to the Pacific Northwest: home of stunning landscapes, a constant drizzle of rain (if we believe the portrayals in movies and media), five active volcanoes, and the birthplace of the grunge music movement. It’s no surprise that the state of Washington birthed this gritty, self-aware, and often experimental genre, considering the roots that nourished cities such as Tacoma’s working class port-town and railroad terminus. While grunge in its more contemporary form didn’t take hold until much later, its origins can still be traced back to the jazz clubs and music halls that set the stage, as it were, for some of our present day heroes of music. 

So, hang onto your Walkman and grab your Pearl Jam shirt, dear reader, because we’re hopping on a tour bus to revisit the 80’s and 90’s of the Tacoma grunge scene. In this blog post, we will be exploring the history of some excellent musicians and bands that hailed from the greater Puget Sound area, such as Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains, Nirvana, and even some bands that predate the 1980’s but who left a lasting impact on the way the genre developed. In addition to exploring the righteous tunes that these artists created, I will also be introducing several venues that played a critical role in the growth of the musical community, including the Legends Club and the Tacoma Little Theater. 

Every good narrative needs an origin story though, and lucky for us, there are two bands that stand as the pillars that upheld a musical revolution in the late 1950’s: The Ventures, and the Sonics.

 While not exactly what we might expect of grunge bands today, their styles laid the groundwork. The Ventures helped popularize electric guitars, as you can hear in this sample from their first album “Walk, Don’t Run”, in 1960.

The Ventures “Walk Don’t Run”

Conceived in Tacoma, WA, the Ventures paved the way for surf rock and elaborate solos, and continue to tour over 5 decades later! 

The Ventures. Photo courtesy Tacoma Public Library.

Where the Ventures emphasized electric guitar, the Sonics did the same for their singing style. They cast aside the gentle cooing of their peers, and embraced a rough-and-ready style of vocals characterized by shouts, yells, and high energy that can still be observed in present day grunge bands. 

The Witch

Now compare their style to Nirvana’s recording of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and bask in the gruff, husky vocals that share so many similarities to the performance by the Sonics:

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (Official Music Video)

While the origin of grunge clearly takes its cues from these early day bands, the style continued to evolve well through the 80’s and 90’s. What good is a band if they have no place to perform though? Tacoma’s venues have acted as a space where these illustrious and daring musicians could express their styles for decades, and we often have to look no further than down the street to find the historical locations that served as the launching point for many musical careers. Indeed, the Red Carpet located on 52nd and South Tacoma Way housed a performance by the Sonics in 1964:

The Sonics – Busy Body!!! Live In Tacoma 1964 (Full Album)

Local radio station KEXP interviewed Sonics band member Andy Parypa, and he spoke about the origins of their band, as well as the experience of pioneering a new musical style with few venues available which were used to housing that kind of energy “there weren’t that many things going on. There was the Crescent Ballroom, that was the big place to play in Tacoma then. And we played in this place called the Gaslight Club on 1st Avenue down in Old Tacoma. We played at a place in South Tacoma called The Red Carpet – both Gaslight and The Red Carpet were teen night clubs”. 

This is a poster for the Tacoma Little Theater, which has hosted many shows over the years, and housed performances by bands such as Slaughter Haus 5, DeVOL, and Alice in Chains, and as a small venue, has been a part of many small bands as they strove to gain notoriety. 

Tacoma Little Theater Poster. 1987. Photo courtesy David DeSola

In an interview with Kerrang, lead singer Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains spoke about his first interaction with Layne Staley and his original group called “Alice ‘N Chains”: “The first time I saw Layne perform was in my hometown, Tacoma. His band, they were called Alice N’ Chains at the time, played, and as soon as he opened his mouth I thought, ‘Oh my God, that guy is fucking next level – I have to be in a band with him!’ We met and we hit it off immediately, and he invited me to move into the rehearsal place he was living in and he got me a job there. Layne would be fucking around jamming with us, but I needed to get him to commit to it properly, because he was in about three different bands then. So Mike [Starr, former Alice In Chains bassist] and I pulled a bit of a stunt on him: we put ads out and started purposely auditioning the worst people we could find, including a male stripper. We did it at the rehearsal so he’d see, and acted like we really liked them in order to piss Layne off and get him to join instead. It worked and he eventually did commit to us. We told him all about what we’d done afterwards (laughs).” (KERRANG, 2019). What is so incredible about this story is that Tacoma’s performing centers served as a social hub for musicians to meet, perform, and grow their styles. 

Layne Staley Performing Circa 1987. Photo courtesy Instagram

Alice in Chains performed widely across Tacoma, including at another spot that welcomed the rowdy performances of both Nirvana and their peers. This live recording gives us the amazing opportunity to transport ourselves back to the Legends Club in Tacoma on October 14th, 1989 to experience the raw energy that flowed from their performances:

Alice In Chains Performs at Legends Club

For further reading about the role the Legends Club in Tacoma played in the development of grunge and a great picture of the entrance to the club, I made a stop by the blog post Tacoma: Kurt Cobain Relics and Another Nirvana Venue

Former Tacoma Legends Club. Photo courtesy Nirvana Legacy Blog

As grounded as these bands were in Tacoma’s musical scene, they were by no means limited by its borders. From a gradual spread up to Seattle, all the way to international performances, these artists took their talent and vision far beyond Tacoma’s city limits. 

Here’s a show poster from Seattle’s Moore theatre for a lineup including Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana on June 9th, 1989.

Seattle Moore Theater Show Poster, 1989. Photo courtesy Washington State Historical Society

It’s easy to see the huge supporting role that Tacoma played in the birth of the grunge musical style, and the ways in which the city’s humble roots swept aside any notion of pretentiousness when it came to passion for music. 

About the Author

Tobias Daugherty prepared this article as his final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time he took the class in Autumn Quarter 2021, he was a senior majoring in Psychology.

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