Touch Me I’m Sick may very well be the most psychotic debut single ever released. First there’s the burst of terrifying fuzz, like a runaway buzz-saw tearing through a crowded city street. Then a gargly, half-mad howl, the panicky yelp of a rabid dog falling down a well. Grunting, maniacal laughter. A propulsive, sub-Stooges sex-beat. Snarl and spit and threats. A guitar solo that sounds like someone wrestling a rattlesnake – and losing. And then, the most confusing come-on ever: “Fuck Me, I’m sick!”
Mudhoney, an entirely new entity assembled from the surliest members of Seattle’s glam-dirge almost-legends Green River, sounded like they were declaring war on everybody. The single, initially a tiny, understated release on a doomed medium, quickly spread like some sort of nasty virus, infecting college radio stations across the US and beyond, spreading Mudhoney’s garage-gunk splatter-fest far and wide, sowing the sickly seeds of the burgeoning grunge-rock movement.
It all started in 1984 with Green River, a sludgy punk-metal monstrosity formed by high-school buddies Mark Arm and Steve Turner. Also in the band were drummer Alex Vincent and future Pearl Jammers Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. Their sound was part Stooges, part Sabbath, part 12-car pile-up. And although they sold precious few records in their day, the were clearly a good decade or so ahead of their time.
Steve Turner quit after the release of their first EP, citing a distaste for their ever-more metal direction. Mark Arm hung on for the duration, but ultimately got sacked from his own band after a disastrous West Coast jaunt. By late 1987 Turner and Arm decided it was time to get things rolling again.
Mudhoney officially formed on January 1, 1988. Just four months later Touch Me I’m Sick hit the streets. The idea for the single came about when Arm mentioned his new band to Sub Pop label owner Bruce Pavitt.
“I was like: ‘Hey, I got this new band,’” Arm says. “And he knew all the people. I played him this boom-box recording of what we did which just sounded like ‘sssshhhhh-crackle-crackle-sssshhhh’. You couldn’t really tell what was going on. And he was like: ‘Why don’t you just go in one weekend with Jack Endino and record the songs so we can hear what they are?’ It was a total leap of faith on his part. He knew everyone involved and trusted our instincts. And that demo actually became our first single.”
As for the riff that opens the song, Arm says it’s mostly borrowed: “Steve had this guitar riff that was inspired by a local band called the Nights And Days,” he says. “But if you look to the origins of that riff it’s actually like The Yardbirds’ Happenings Ten Years Time Ago and/or the fast part of The Stooges’ I’m Sick Of You. As far as the lyrics go, I think I just came up with this idea ‘Touch me I’m sick’ and thought it was funny and ran with it.”
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Touch Me I’m Sick was released in August of 1988 on seven-inch vinyl. Vinyl singles were on a rapid decline by the late 80s, but the concept appealed to the record-collector-minded band. Sub Pop released a limited edition of 1,000 copies.
“One thousand seemed like a lot at the time,” Arm chuckles. “Eight hundred of them were done on coloured vinyl, mostly brown. And there were 200 on black which were intended to send to radio stations, because we figured people wouldn’t steal them if they were black, even though they were the rarer part of that pressing.”
Although the single is still in print, 20 years later its instant rarity kick-started a new wave of vinyl lust, and first editions routinely command three-figure prices.
“It seems a little silly, because the music’s available. If you’re really obsessed with this artefact, than I guess that’s cool, but if you just want to hear the songs… I mean, you can find them,” Arm laughs.
Interestingly, the band never considered Touch Me… to be the A-side of the single: “In our minds, Sweet Young Thing was the A-side. But Touch Me I’m Sick is the song that got picked up by John Peel and the people in college radio stations, and it’s the song that resonated with most people. You can’t predict that stuff.”
The gleefully obnoxious Touch Me… established Mudhoney as the kings of Seattle-fuzz, and almost 30 years later it’s still an integral part of their live set. And, luckily for the band, they still like it.
“We’ve played a few shows here and there without it, but the people want to hear it,” Arm says. “So why not? It’s a great song. The beauty of it is that it’s two minutes long. It’s not like it’s Free Bird where you have to suffer through 10 minutes of playing it every night.”