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"Taking Punk To The Masses" opens at Experience Music Project

This week marks the 20th anniversary of when an audience heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time. The band played it at Seattle’s OK Hotel near Pioneer Square and the rest as they say, is history. A new exhibit at the Experience Music Project called “Taking Punk To The Masses: from Nowhere to Nevermind” looks at all of the factors that led to Nirvana explosion onto the global music scene.

The "Nevermind" album was the end result of more than 15 years of the underground punk rock scene working hard, building a complex infrastructure of clubs, radio stations, magazines and independent record labels that would go onto launch Nirvana onto the world stage.

Ian MacKay, who played in the bands “Fugazi” and “Minor Threat” says in the early 1980’s it was all about doing it yourself.

“It was kids for the first time writing their own songs, forming their own bands putting on their own shows, putting out their own records. It was true rock 'n roll.”

Bands like the Replacements and Black Out, whet the public’s appetite for something completely different.

Nirvana’s earlier album, “Bleach”, was loud and raw, but Base player Melissa Auf der Maur remembers the day she heard Nirvana take it to a whole new level with their album "Nevermind".

“Friends who booked them during the bleach era were sent that advance cassette months before it came out. And I put that thing on my tape player in my apartment and I cried and I invited everyone over and said ‘listen to this!’ Life changed at that moment. I heard it in the songs. And I played it on auto reverse for an entire week.”

When grunge exploded

By 1992 the underground scene had gone mainstream. Flannel shirts were finding their way into Bloomingdales. Megan Jasper was a receptionist at Sub Pop Records and took a call from a New York Times reporter who was doing a story about the Northwest “grunge” scene for the fashion section. The reporter wanted to know what the local grunge lexicon was.

“Well, you know there is no lexicon, there never was. There was no secret language or weird language that was just unique to the northwest. So I decided to make it as absurd and retarded as I could get it to be, so that he would go, ‘dough this doesn’t really exist, come on.’ Well, that never happened. He just kept typing."

From that conversation, words and phrases likelamestain, cob knobbler and tom-tom clubwere born. 

 The entire exhibit is pulled together by a soundtrack overhead. Steven Fisk, a musician in his own right, produced it. He’s been a part of the Northwest music scene since the late 1970’s and recorded some of Nirvana’s early songs before the "Nevermind" album.

Could a phenom like Nirvana happen in today's digital world?

Fisk says today, with itunes, music clouds and youtube, Nirvana’s imprint on the music world becomes more apparent. He realizes just how big they were. Now with the internet, artists can find a fan base scattered all over the place. A defined regional sound and a clear voice representing it are gone.

“And that’s not a bad thing. What if we got stuck in some ground hog day thing and everyone was into his or her 22nd record and Sound Garden never broke up. Nobody wants that!”

"Taking Punk to The Masses from Nowhere to Nevermind" will be at the Experience Music Project for the next two years. This will give you lots of time to dig your wack slacks, fuz and plats out of the closet and reminisce about swinging on the flippity flop.

Megan Jasper's Fake Grunge Lexicon

WACK SLACKS: Old ripped jeans

FUZZ: Heavy wool sweaters

PLATS: Platform shoes

KICKERS: Heavy boots


BOUND-AND-HAGGED: Staying home on Friday or Saturday night

SCORE: Great



DISH: Desirable guy


LAMESTAIN: Uncool person

TOM-TOM CLUB: Uncool outsiders

ROCK ON: A happy goodbye


Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.