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10 obscure but brilliant grunge bands who should’ve been huge

A montage of members of the toadies, seven year bitch and bam bam
(Image credit: Getty Images/Rick Kern)

The history of grunge had been written in stone long before Kurt Cobain’s death, as a bunch of misfits and malcontents from a permanently wet city in the Pacific Northwest accidentally built a self-contained music scene that somehow rewired culture in the early 90s.

Yet for every Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, there were a dozen bands who came and went without anyone noticing. Some were too early, some were too late, some were too drunk or messed-up to amount to a hill of beans. But amid grunge’s unlikely superstars and hopeless fuck-ups, there were plenty of bands who deserved better than a lifetime of obscurity. Here are 10 of them.

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Bam Bam

The greatest pre-grunge band no one ever talks about. Bam Bam were formed in Seattle in 1983 by husband-and-wife singer Tina Bell and guitarist Tommy Martin. Their metal-edged post-punk was ahead of the curve, but it was Bell – Black, female and charismatic as hell – who was their point of brilliance.

Bam Bam had the songs (Free Fall From Space and Ground Zero are as good as anything that came in their wake) and the connections (future Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron was briefly a member, and Kurt Cobain reputedly roadied for them), but they were never embraced by the gatekeepers of the Seattle scene and they split up 1990. “America was certainly fucking not ready for a Black girl up front in a hard band,” Bam Bam bassist Scotty Ledgerwood told Please Kill Me. Maybe the band will get the recognition they deserve one day, though sadly Bell won’t be around to enjoy it – she died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2012 at just 55.

Malfunkshun

Before Pearl Jam there was Mother Love Bone. And before Mother Love Bone there was Malfunkshun – a vehicle for charisma-bomb frontman Andrew Wood to live out his Freddie Mercury and Marc Bolan fantasies. An appearance on scene-defining compilation Deep Six put them in the thick of grunge’s original Class Of ’86 alongside Soundgarden, Green River and Melvins, but the trio’s lo-budget, hi-ambition showboating was funnier and more flamboyant than their peers’ anti-social grumblings. Wood’s dedication to the art of being a rock star sadly extended to the heroin habit that eventually turned him into grunge’s first casualty. 

Love Battery

Out Of Focus was the title of the first track on Love Battery’s 1992 debut album, Dayglo, which pretty much summed up their slackers-on-acid approach. That record was a spiralling whirl of fuzzed-out guitars and tracer-line melodies that owed as much to 60s psychedelia as it did Black Sabbath and The Stooges. Subsequent releases tweaked the doses one way or another, but the public still didn’t bite. Silly public. 

7 Year Bitch

Emerging from underground Seattle label-come-collective Rathouse, 7 Year Bitch were funny, furious and utterly free of giving any fucks whatsoever. Scuzzed-up ragers such as No Fucking War and the self-explanatory Dead Men Don’t Rape sat somewhere between grunge, punk and the emergent Riot Grrrl scene. But like too many bands of the era they were blindsided by tragedy. Guitarist Stefanie Sargent died from asphyxiation after choking on her vomit in 1992, while close friend and Gits singer Mia Zapata was beaten, raped and murdered in 1993 – her death inspired 7 Year Bitch’s stellar second album, ¡Viva Zapata!

Sweet Water

Breezier than their peers, what Sweet Water lacked in sonic filth they made up for in sheer tuneage. They’d already released a self-titled debut album via local indie New Rage when Atlantic picked them in the wake of Nirvana’s success. But 1992’s second album – confusingly also titled Sweet Water – was too upbeat for the plaid-shirted hordes and it fell through the grate. Major label fuckery meant it would be another three years before their third album, grunge-pop masterpiece Superfriends, came out, by which time it was way too late. Sweet Water are still going today, so it hasn’t been a total write-off.

Willard

“The drunkest band in Seattle,” is how Northwest freesheet The Rocket described hair-goblins Willard, which was some accolade. Their Jack Endino-produced 1992 debut album, Steel Mill, certainly sounded like it had just hauled itself out of the gutter and could collapse right back down there at any moment – like kindred spirits Tad and the Melvins, Willard’s slurry-of-noise approach blurred the boundaries between grunge and doom metal. A posthumously-released second album, Underground, was even gnarlier. In hindsight, Eddie Vedder was never going to lose sleep over them

Hammerbox

Hammerbox’s force-of-nature singer Carrie Akre should be way better known than she is. Her band made two albums – the first, 1991’s Hammerbox, is decent enough, but the second, 1993’s Numb, is as good as anything that came out of the Rainy City during that time. Not that it did them any good – a mix of internal tension and external apathy stopped them before they’d really got started. Akre went on to front Goodness, who were damn great too. 

My Sister’s Machine

 My Sister’s Machine frontman Nick Pollock has a lifetime pass to the Grunge Hall Of Fame – he was the guitarist in Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley’s original pre-fame groups Sleze and Alice N’ Chainz. There were parallels between the pair’s subsequent bands – both were basically metal longhairs in grunge drag, favouring hefty guitars and lung-busting vocals. The only real difference is that one sold millions on the back of it and the other didn’t. Still MSM’s two albums, 1992’s psychedelia-tinged Diva and 1994’s Wallflower, are both great – and why Alice In Chains never tapped up Pollock after Staley’s death is one of grunge’s great mysteries.  

Toadies

Post-grunge was basically grunge after it had been given a shave, shoved in the shower and force-fed black coffee until it sobered up. Fort Worth’s Toadies were more interesting than many of their mid-90s peers – a bunch of ZZ Top-loving ex-record store clerks playing big songs with a Texas twang that were just the right side of awkward. Their 1994 single Possum Kingdom was their big hit, though not quite big enough to turn them into the next Bush, let alone the next Nirvana. 

Truly

Few bands could match Truly’s pedigree. Bassist Hiro Yamamoto and drummer Mark Pickerel had been there at the birth of grunge as founder members of Soundgarden and Screaming Trees respectively, while singer and guitarist Robert Roth had come that close to joining a pre-Nevermind Nirvana. Roth’s Cobain-esque howl aside, the trio’s expansive, psychedelic noise bore little resemblance to any of their past endeavours. The circus had long left town by the time 1995’s debut album Fast Stories… From Kid Coma was released and it was all over after 1997’s swansong Feeling You Up, but Truly weren’t so much behind the times as a couple of years ahead of them – future Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme was a fan, and it shows.