Leave it to one of the unsung pioneers of grunge to outgrunge one of the Seattle Sound’s most iconic bands. While often overlooked as the band that helped draw up the loud-and-sludgy blueprint for Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and, err, Gruntruck, the Melvins were indeed in the trenches first. Long before he was the most celebrated rock star on the planet, Kurt Cobain was going to community hall show with the man known to his parents as Roger “Buzz” Osborne.
Because true innovators often get overlooked when a musical movement crashes the mainstream, the Melvins never really caught on when grunge hit big in the early ’90s. Some folks get the royalty cheques that come with being in Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam. Others at least find minor stardom in Mudhoney or the Screaming Trees. And a whole army of acts end up playing the same tiny clubs to diminishing returns as the years roll by and the world flits from alternative rock to nu-metal to electronica to garage rawk to crunk to....well you get the idea.
Osborne seems entirely okay with that, noting in the past, “From a very early age I was interested in underground music. I never appreciated the big stadium shows in the first place—I cut my milk teeth musically on smaller shows. A much more intimate basis.”
He’s also never been terribly fond of the fact that grunge become a cultural phenomenon that led to the end of two long-time friends: Cobain and, further down the line, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.
Both ended up committing suicide, Cobain at the height of his stardom, guaranteeing him instant-icon status with the likes of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Brian Jones. Cornell took his own life in a Detroit hotel room in 2017 while on tour with Soundgarden, which had reunited after a 13-year hiatus.
Talking about both the grunge explosion, and the legacy it left, in a 2018 podcast, Osborne commented: It’s a horrible, horrendous nightmare, ending in tragedy and I honestly I wish none of it would have ever happened and [they] would be still alive. That’d be a lot better, a much better ending.... If people want to look at that with some kind of nostalgia, good old days type of thing, I just don’t see how suicide and heroin addiction are romantic in any way.”
All of this bring us to a just-released video where the Melvins no only cover one of grunge’s biggest hits, but do so in a way that doesn’t feel like a note-for-note remake.
The great thing about the band’s version of Soundgarden’s “Spoonman” is that it somehow captures the spirit of the original while taking it into an entirely different world. The song was the first single from Superunknown, the record were Soundgarden abandoned the fantastically user-unfriendly art-alt-metal of Badmotorfinger for rock-radio acceptance. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely, and, from that point forward, the band was never as interesting as it had been during its early years.
Osborne has cited Badmotorfinger as his favourite grunge record. And from the lumbering monster "Outshined" (with its unbeatable line "I'm looking California/And feeling Minnesota") to the overdrive exoricism "Jesus Christ Pose", it's obvious why.
So it’s fitting that his reworking of “Spoonman” sounds like it could have been an outtake from those sessions: bludgeoning, polyrhythmic, and unrelenting. For that, major credit goes to dual attack of Melvins’ timekeeper Dale Crover and longtime Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, who sits in here.
Still, it’s King Buzzo who makes “Spoonman” his own, his Gibson Les Paul electrifyingly raw and fantastically abrasive, his vocals psychedelically doomy. There’s a good reason the Melvins are loved by their fellow musicians, and not just the underground ones. And while Osborne would likely disagree, something good came out of grunge. Argue that all you want, but not until you’ve listened to this.