How Melvins Invented Sludge: "Ugly Spawn of Punk and Metal" | Revolver

How Melvins Invented Sludge: "Ugly Spawn of Punk and Metal"

An exclusive excerpt from forthcoming book 'Doomed to Fail: The Incredibly Loud History of Doom, Sludge, and Post-metal'
melvins 1991 GETTY, David Corio/Redferns
Melvins' Dale Crover and Buzz Osborne, 1991
photograph by David Corio/Redferns

In February, Rare Bird Books is set to release Doomed to Fail: The Incredibly Loud History of Doom, Sludge, and Post-Metal by author and musician J.J. Anselmi. As its subtitle states, the tome dives deep into the strange origins and evolution of a few of heavy music's most crushing, atmospheric, patience-testing and forward-thinking subgenres. And what would a book about doom, sludge and post-metal be without at least one chapter about those relentless trailblazers the Melvins? Pretty much worthless. Thankfully, Doomed to Fail has such a chapter — colorfully titled "Sniffing Glue on Your Cousin's Porch" and replete with direct quotes from the band's own Buzz Osborne — and we're giving you the first read of it below.

"Bands like Flipper and Black Flag had been flirting with slowing down hardcore riffs when Melvins came along, but that stuff doesn't really compare to Melvins in terms of heaviness," Anselmi tells Revolver. "At the same time, Melvins definitely was not a doom band. Listening to Gluey Porch Treatments alongside Trouble or Candlemass, the difference between sludge and doom is very clear. Melvins had a really intense and defined punk spirit, which made what they were doing that much more visceral and aggressive. In the same way you can point to Black Sabbath as the first doom record, you can point to Gluey Porch Treatments as the first sludge record. It's impossible to imagine what the genre would look like had that album never came along. From Eyehategod to Kylesa and so many others, Melvins has inspired countless bands and musicians to make unforgettable heavy music.

"When I talked to Buzz about Gluey Porch Treatments, it blew me away to hear about how hostile early audiences were toward that legendary album. I've also heard quite a few fans talk about Melvins playing to highly antagonistic crowds over the years. For that band and their music, it clearly means they're doing something right. Gluey Porch Treatments, and lots of other Melvins' material, is pugilistic. Of course it makes people want to fight back." Read on for more on Melvins' combative innovation.

Sniffing Glue on Your Cousin's Porch

Growing up in a small town will make you weird. There's bad weird: salty townies who fear change. There's also good weird: outcasts who come of age consuming any and all culture that crosses their path, and who don't see distinctions between genres the way city kids do. Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover of Melvins fit into the second category.

Osborne was born in Morton, a rural Washington town with a population just over 1,000. His dad worked in the timber industry, moving his family to the Montesano area when Osborne was in sixth grade. Back then, Osborne said, he devoured every piece of music he could get his hands on.

Where I lived during my formative years as a music fan, you couldn't even buy a record. People don't really have any concept, today, what it was like in rural America before the internet. The one-stoplight town where there's no record stores, and ten miles might as well be 10,000 miles. If I wanted to buy a record, I bought it mail order. When I was twelve, I would give my mom money from mowing lawns or working in the woods. She would write me a check, and

I would order records from places like Creem magazine. Then it was six-to-eight weeks minimum before you got your David Bowie record. I didn't have older brothers or people I knew that were cool. I didn't get along with people where I lived, so I didn't have anyone showing me the new Jethro Tull record or anything like that. I just got into those bands simply because of the way they looked. Same with punk bands like Sex Pistols and The Clash. From that I went into The Stooges and MC5 and just took it from there. I listened to all that stuff way before I saw any of the shows. Seattle was 150 miles away, I didn't have a car. I wasn't sixteen.

In cities, and especially suburbs, you'll find a collective nostalgia for small town life, a hazy idea of simpler times and kind townsfolk that's only alluring for people who've never lived in rural America. Osborne's experience is that people in small towns are more often spiteful, nosy—he hates the "I saw you went to the post office today" bullshit—and unwilling to accept difference. "Just try to be different, and see what happens...The tallest sunflower gets its head cut off," he said.

Although he didn't start playing guitar, at least seriously, until he was eighteen, music was the only thing that made sense to Osborne. Finding like-minded weirdos in those places is equivalent to finding $100 on the sidewalk. It doesn't happen often, so when it does, you appreciate the shit out of it. Osborne met bassist Matt Lukin and drummer Mike Dillard in high school, but they didn't start jamming together until after they graduated. The trio originally played heavy rock in the vein of Cream and Zeppelin before moving on to punk, inspired by bands they saw in the basements of Olympia and Seattle. Osborne worked at Thriftway with a generally-disliked guy named Melvin. He thought it would be funny to name his band after his surly coworker.

Hardcore was a full-on movement by 1983, with figureheads like Black Flag, Bad Brains, and Minor Threat operating at full capacity. The guys in Melvins loved that music. They also saw how narrow-minded hardcore could be. "I realized by '84 or '85 that hardcore wasn't going to work for us," Osborne said. "Even by then, I was sick to death of most of it. We wanted to do something that was more confrontational." He'd already dealt with too many people who operated in rigid ideological boxes, and who tried to force others into those same parameters. He decided to start slowing hardcore songs down until they turned into something even more antagonistic: the ugly spawn of punk and metal we now call sludge.

Melvins can't be credited as the genre's sole inventor, however. San Francisco's Flipper crawled ashore in 1979. The group's feedback-drenched groove-punk had more in common with the abused dolphins who played Flipper on the TV show than the chipper version of the creature audiences loved. Album—Generic Flipper (1982) and Gone Fishin' (1984) sputter in noisy belligerence, an unhinged sound that inspired bands like The Jesus Lizard and Unsane in addition to Melvins. Saint Vitus released its eponymous record, featuring the sludge jam "Saint Vitus," in 1984. That same year, Black Flag put out My War, the B-side of which wallows in slow hardcore. Black Flag toured relentlessly for 1981's Damaged, spreading hyper-fast, bullshit-devoid punk across the country. Guided by the idea that anyone can be a musician—not just people who grew up in musical families or have spent years studying music theory—hardcore was a reaction to the polished, overly- professional, and sterile version of rock that dominated the 1970s. But hardcore became its own box, policed by muscle-bound jerks who saw mosh pits as excuses to get in fights and beat the shit out of people. More in tune with hardcore's taunting spirit than those fans realized, the B-side of My War is a brilliant troll.

During his early years with Black Flag, Henry Rollins sported a razor-shaved head, a middle finger to long-haired burnouts that had the added benefit of being a really cheap haircut. While writing and recording My War, he and guitarist Greg Ginn grew out their hair, yanking the carpet from under the feet of people who thought hardcore musicians had to look a certain way. It was also an attempt to alienate racist skinheads who mistakenly saw Rollins as one of their own. Hardcore kids across the board reacted to the slow songs on My War the same way they did to Saint Vitus: it pissed them off. The slap in the face those crawling songs deliver is accented by the fact that the first half of the record sprints like Minor Threat.

Of course the aesthetic of irritating people would appeal to Buzz Osborne, who'd developed quite a chip on his shoulder from living in towns where people threatened to kick his ass because they didn't like the expression on his face. Osborne and Lukin started to write painfully slow songs—even slower than Flipper and the B-Side of My War—that blended elements of metal and hardcore. As Melvins' sound began to change, it became clear that Dillard wasn't the right drummer for the band. Dale Crover played in a cover band in Aberdeen. The teenager's skill was obvious to Osborne and Lukin, so they convinced him to join Melvins. Crover loved punk but could also play Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath songs, plus he could hang with the weird timings and changes Osborne and Lukin threw at him. Oh, and he hit his drums with the grace of a jilted orangutan.

A 1985 C/Z records compilation of Washington bands called Deep Six features four Melvins songs: the first time the band's music saw light. That label also released the trio's first EP, Six Songs, the following year. Listening to Six Songs is like walking through a lightless house with rusted nails jutting from the floorboards: pain is inevitable but unpredictable. Featuring the classic "Easy As It Was" that appears in even uglier form on Gluey Porch Treatments, the EP was not, shall we say, well-received. Melvins embarked on its first tour, playing the Six Songs material and most of the as-yet- to-be-recorded Gluey Porch Treatments.

"We toured part of the US in 1986," Osborne recalled, "and we vowed never to tour again. It was a bunch of skinheads who wanted to kick our ass. They were not at all interested in our music." It's tempting to romanticize hostile reactions from crowds, of which Melvins have seen more than their fair share. But hearing every asshole shit on your band night after night would suck. "I went home a very discouraged fellow," Osborne remembered. "We nonetheless recorded Gluey Porch Treatments afterward. We just felt like we had to."

Listening to Gluey Porch Treatments alongside Flipper, "Saint Vitus," and Black Flag is like comparing Sabbath to Zeppelin. They might drink at the same watering hole, but Sabbath and Melvins are clearly apex predators. From the start, Gluey Porch Treatments makes no attempt to invite listeners into its grimy world. Lukin starts "Eye Flys" with an obnoxiously lumbering bass line. Crover clobbers his toms at awkward moments, each hit going against what you expect to happen. Atop that racket, Osborne taunts listeners with grating feedback. Instead of moving into something melodic and palatable, the track builds into a slow-motion collision between instruments—a car crash you know is about to happen but can't stop or look away from. Nothing about Gluey Porch Treatments gets easier. The album is a flaming bag of dog shit on your doorstep: you have to put it out even though it's going to ruin your shoes.

If you think distinguishing between doom and sludge is academic, compare "Heater Moves & Eyes" to Sabbath, Trouble, or Candlemass. Those bands' songs, although slow and ominous, are often driven by easily digestible melodies and choruses, and they follow discernable narrative arcs. "Heater Moves & Eyes" is instead angular, nonsensical, and deliberately sloppy, putting off a very different vibe than Sabbathian doom. Because sludge is slow metal often written by people who grew up playing punk, there's a sneering irony you won't find in doom. Instead of depicting that most epic battle between good and evil, or reaching for spiritual truth, sludge is typically more grounded, delving into life's negativity while laughing at its absurdity. That's all true of Gluey Porch Treatments.

Crover pushes "Heater Moves & Eyes" back-and-forth with weirdo tom rolls that blur into tottering, left-of-center grooves. Trying to figure out his beats will make most drummers (including myself) feel mentally tongue-tied. Walk into any drum shop and Crover most likely won't be the drummer you hear clerks talking about. At first glance, it's easy to write off his playing as sloppy, dumb, and even out-of-control. But it's all intentional, making Melvins sound meaner, dirtier, and more unhinged. Often throwing in awkward hits, fills, and rests, he's always a zit on the ass-end of the beat.

"Influence of Atmosphere" is a red-headed stepchild, lashing out with unpredictable metallic jabs. Messing up the flow of Gluey Porch Treatments is a handful of songs that clock in at less than a minute: "Exact Paperbacks," "Glow God," "Big as Mountain," "Flex With You," "Clipping Roses," and the title track. Sometimes moving at the speed of hardcore, sometimes with the stride of up-tempo rock, and all featuring disorienting changes, those songs disrupt Gluey Porch Treatments, which is itself disrupting. Amid atonal chugging, precisely deployed feedback, and muscular drumming, a honey-sweet riff emerges from "As It Was," a song that may or may not be about golden showers. The LP ends with the cruel instrumental "Over From Under the Excrement," which churns for several minutes after you expect (and wish for) it to stop.

Gluey Porch Treatments is genius. It just took people a while to catch on. It "came out to a resounding thud," Osborne recalled. "No one gave a shit about that album." While it's a template for sludge, the record is also its own animal, an inside-out version of metal that Sonic Youth might've crafted, had that band decided to pursue heaviness. Melvins' subsequent releases fall more into that deconstructive schema.

Sick of Washington, the band relocated to San Francisco not long after Alchemy Records put out Gluey Porch Treatments. They still kept ties to a few Washington weirdos: Kurt Cobain, who grew up in the same rural area, and Krist Novoselic. Both musicians were heavily inspired by Melvins. Cobain and Novoselic recruited Crover to demo songs for Bleach, and a few of those demos made it onto the record proper. Lukin moved back to Washington and formed Mudhoney. Shirley Temple's daughter, Lori Black, joined Melvins to record Ozma, a slightly more refined album than Gluey Porch Treatments that sounds like The Jesus Lizard covering Venom. Featuring a garbage disposal interpretation of a Kiss song, Ozma came out on Boner Records, who coupled that LP with Gluey Porch Treatments as a single CD release.

Nirvana took over the world with Nevermind in 1991. Major labels sniffed around that trio's scene like hounds, looking for another breakout success. Melvins signed to Atlantic, knowing full well that the label's interest was a fluke. The band released Houdini in 1993, and Stoner Witch in 1994, through the corporate juggernaut. Before that, the group put out the untouchable Bullhead and Lysol, albums that underscore Melvins' stolid determination to avoid stagnation, which the band upholds to this day. Melvins has cemented its reputation as one of the most prolific and progressive bands under the umbrella of heavy music, routinely challenging and redefining what that means. From the proto sludge of Gluey Porch Treatments to the grungy earworms of Stoner Witch to the noise attack of Prick (1994) to the dual drummer onslaught of (A) Senile Animal (2006) to the simultaneously laid back and unsettling Hold It In (2014), Melvins has become its own genre, releasing timeless records for over thirty years. Even when Osborne and Crover are old enough to move into a retirement community together, they'll find new ways to approach Melvins.