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1988: The Year in Portland Music

A profile of Portland's music scene in 1988.

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Odds are, you weren't there.

Like most significant moments in any local music scene—the grand occurrences of life-changing music that changed everything—they happen on someone else's watch. You might be basking in the glow of our current music scene (see Music Lead pg. 25), but that means you probably missed the La Luna days. And if you were there for those, you probably missed grunge. But if you experienced grunge, you surely missed the inspiring early days of punk. You can't win. But we all have our own time, and when archiving an era, or a year—say, 1988—in a music scene as vast and expansive as Portland's, let's just assume you weren't there. Because, lord knows, I wasn't.

So in order to capture the direction, style, and talent of Portland music circa 1988, we talked to a wide array of current/former players in Portland's music community. Our goal was not to summarize everything—there is no way we could do that given space limitations, or the generally hazy memory of the majority of our interview subjects—but instead we want to show that Portland music 20 years back was a lot smaller affair than it is today, yet no less inspiring.

In 1988 MTV didn't come calling for scene reports, national bands didn't pull up stakes and relocate here, and if there was going to be a Pacific Northwest musical explosion, it was destined to happen a few hours north in Seattle. Instead Portland was a vibrant little pocket of a music community, one that had fewer willing participants than the Emerald City, but still a deep commitment towards innovation throughout.

In 1988, the highlight of this came with the Mayor's Ball Too, a massive night of forward-thinking local music held in response to the more commercial leanings of incumbent Bud Clark's Mayor's Ball. Booked by Dave Clingan (formerly of Rockport Records and current owner of Crossroads Music) and held in the convention hall at the Memorial Coliseum, the event featured a local music murderer's row of talent—Poison Idea, Smegma, Hell Cows, Untouchable Krew (later know as U Krew), Napalm Beach, Dharma Bums, the Obituaries, Dead Moon, and tons more.

"The powers that be of the Mayor's Ball were shocked and appalled when 1,200 kids showed up to see this," says Mike King, longtime poster artist and former drummer for Hell Cows. "It was a big success and the following year a bunch of those bands were integrated into the regular ball, and we were asked to play. But we were convinced that they were going to pull the plug on us, so basically we just played 17 songs in a row, without any stops in between."

The success of the Mayor's Ball Too proved that this once quaint underground music scene wasn't going away anytime soon.

Another landmark of 1988 in Portland music was the Northwest Hardcore (and More) cassette compilation. Produced by Resist's Ward Young, the compilation was heavy on Portland bands (the Obituaries, Wehrmacht, Final Warning, and more) but also noteworthy for featuring early material from the Melvins and Mr. Bungle. Mark Landers, who released the tape ("dubbed one at a time") on his Media Blitz label (and who, also in 1988, hosted a cable access-esque program entitled "Who's Who" that featured a hilarious interview with the bratty boys in Sweaty Nipples), explains the music scene 20 years back: "Kids were spoiled in the '90s, but back then, and now, they have something to actually rebel against."

In this pre-La Luna era (it was still the Pine Street Theater back then, run by Chris Monlux and Mike Quinn, currently of Monqui Presents), the pulse of the Portland scene was generated by Satyricon. In the same spot as its current location—just a whole lot grittier—the club had just hit its stride by 1988 (it opened in 1984) and was fast becoming a beacon for the finest underground music and culture from Portland, and beyond.

According to longtime owner George Touhouliotis (who closed the space in 2003, only for it to return a few years later under new ownership), "[By 1988] We had matured, so to speak. The club took its own direction; it became a rock and roll club, a specific type of rock and roll with experimental, pre-grunge, and alternative music. It was kind of beautiful."

And while "beautiful" might be a debatable way to describe the questionable neighborhood at the time, or the club's downright notorious bathrooms, Touhouliotis is correct in summing up Portland's music environment 20 years ago when he says "It had a lot of energy, a lot of power."

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