Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Three Year Old Could Do That: The U-Men Destroy Seattle

Ah, the U-Men. If you speak to any long time Seattle show goers, chances are they will tell you that the U-Men were Seattle’s best live band during the 1980s. They existed in the time after punk’s initial explosion and before grunge or alternative music’s pop chart domination, so their story is rarely told by boring Rock Historians. Often credited as a grunge forerunner, the U-Men were actually much more than just that. Their sound was much broader than the typical grunge band’s and musically they owed more to post-punk bands like the Birthday Party than they did to hard rock bands like Black Sabbath or Zeppelin. Their music also had a definite art edge to it, yet they still followed in the Northwest garage band tradition.

Known for their insane live shows (the most notorious show was when they were banned from Bumbershoot for setting a moat under the stage on fire), the U-Men were also one of the first Seattle bands to tour. However, for people like me who didn’t learn about them until Gas Huffer, the band also left behind a great vinyl legacy.

Singer John Bigley, guitarist Tom Price, drummer Charlie Ryan, and bassist Robin Buchan formed the band in 1981. Robin soon ditched the band and was replaced by Jim Tillman just in time for their self-titled debut EP on Bombshelter Records (run by Bruce Pavitt and Russ Battaglia) in 1984. A 2nd EP for Gerald Cosley’s pre-Matador record label, Homestead, soon followed in 1985. The U-Men were also featured on C/Z record’s Deep Six compilation in 1985, along with Green River and the recording debuts of Soundgarden, the Melvins, Malfunkshun, and Skin Yard. Further records include the 1987 “Solid Action” 45 and 1988’s Step on a Bug–The Red Toad Speaks LP, which were both released on Fallout Record’s label, Black Label. Former bassist, Tom Hazelmeyer, also included the U-Men’s cover of the Wheels’ “Bad Little Woman” for the first Dope-Guns’N-Fucking in the Streets 45 and released the posthumous “Freezebomb” 45 in 1988.

During a brief U-Men hiatus, Tom and Charlie also played in David Duet’s (a short-time singer in Girl Trouble) band, Cat Butt. This is the line up that recorded the song, “Big Cigar” on the Sub Pop 200 compilation. Tom and Charlie soon rejoined the U-Men, and Cat Butt went on to greater things on Sub Pop.

After the U-Men called it quits in 1988, Tom Price played in the Kings of Rock (who have since reformed), Gas Huffer, the Monkeywrench, and the Del Lagunas (Gas Huffer’s instrumental alter-egos). Charlie Ryan later played in the Crows, Bottle of Smoke (with David Duet), and the Right On (with Night and Days/Night Kings member Rob Vasquez). John Bigley also sang for the Crows and currently owns the Capital Club and Barca Lounge in Seattle. Bassists Jim Tillman later played in Love Battery, and Tom Hazelmeyer left town and formed the Halo of Flies. Another bassist, Tony “Tone Deaf” Ransom, supposedly moved to Alaska.

All these songs are included on the Chuckie Boy Records retrospective. You can buy it here.

U-Men - Shoot 'Em Down
U-Men - Bad Little Woman
U-Men - Solid Action

--Mr. Tom


Steve said...

Hey Lamestain --

During Bombshelter Videos I'd always see a commercial for Fallout Records that featured a cool U-Men tune, but I never figured out what it is. Do you know?

Later dudes -- Steve

Lamestain HQ said...

I remember seeing the video for "Dig It a Hole" a couple of times on Bombshelter. Great show, that.

The theme (by Naked Raygun) was also great.

Anonymous said...

Damn, what a great band. I got the feeling the rest of the band was always laughing at John Biggly (sp?), but so what. And their second EP had my Mom looking at me funny b/c I when I was around the house I'd periodically let loose with one of (John's) "Yeah-UH" or "Bring Out the Green Trumpet-t-t-t-tt..."

Their release party for "Stop Spinning" featured (very semi-) Pro Wrestling by Slamhound(?) and the Assassin.

When I was living in SF they tried to play the Mabuhay Gardens but they got there late, played 1.4 songs and pissed off the 14 people who stayed around to see them. I don't know if they got outside of the NW much.

Peter Davis said...

The U-Men actually got out of the Pacific Northwest at least a couple times. They toured on a big old school bus. There's a compliation LP documenting one of the "Woodstock" festivals that was held for a few consecutive years in the mid-80s, held just outside of Austin, TX and organized by Jeff Smith, who at the time ran Matako Mazuri records and was the lead singer for The Hickoids. The band was booked by Susan Silver who eventually went into band management, handling Soundgarden for many years, eventually becoming Cornell's wife (and now divorced).

Forced Exposure was pretty high on the band until they saw them live in Boston and ensuingly, after lauding the band's debut record, in turn, after seeing them, slagged them off, opining that Bigley's live antics were too much for them to take (I believe it was Jimmy Johnson who wrote it up); something to do with oddly off-putting effeminate stylings or some such... Conflict wrote about them prior to Cosloy's involvement with them via Homestead and my my own zine remained rightfully loyal to the band throughout.

Another missing piece of minutiae: 2nd bassist, Jim Tillman actually went on to be in Love Battery recording and performing with them from the first 7" on through at least the first full-length.

Lots of good history there and Seattle still owes a great debt to the U-men.

Bigley and Charlie went on to form The Crows who were a pretty righteous outfit with a lot of promise too but sadly outside of a couple releases via AmRep the act never took flight and put the leg underneath, carrying them out of town. All boiled down to careers and or adult life-choices for the most part: Greg the bass player had a good gig over at Adobe, John's property managemnt interests prevailed, and Charlie was making good jack as a maitre de. Under those conditions, why tour?

Anonymous said...

Song on Bombshelter that was the Fallout commercial was indeed "Dig It a Hole."

Wrestling match was between Slam Hate and the Assassin, AKA Larry Reid, the guy who ran COCA for years.

Tom Price was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's, but has been playing keyboard, tamborine, and shouting back ups for the Bug Nasties. Tom is an amazing guitar player and an amazing guy.

Charlie Ryan is also a pinball machine collector and repairer, and did (maybe still does) have some machines at Shorty's. He also bartended there, around the same time John Bigley bartended at Lava Lounge.

El said...

Thanks for posting. The U-Men were the best live band in Seattle (even surpassing Landrew the Love God and Malfunkshun).

And Slam Hate! He is a serious blast from my past.

Anonymous said...

Actually the song on the Fallout commercial was "Juice Party" and you can see the commecial on by searching "fallout records skateboards"....if anyone has any footage from bombshelter videos I would love to see it...I would pay for a kid I was in a commercial for "Rocket Pizza" that played during Bombshelter....I would love to see it again...

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