In 1992, Mudhoney made a halfhearted attempt to go mainstream
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The music video for Mudhoney’s “Suck You Dry”—one of the most prescient piss-takes by a band of piss-takers in a genre built on piss-takes—opens with a flyer proclaiming, “Mudhoney Celebrates 10 Years Of Grunge ’98.” At the time, it was 1992, and grunge was being “celebrated” pretty much on the hour. If you were lucky enough to catch the “Suck You Dry” clip on MTV (most likely with Alternative Nation’s thrift-store magpie Kennedy shrieking its title in your face), it was probably between that day’s 100th airing of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and some MTV News piece in which Tabitha Soren was once again stranded in the streets of Seattle, or maybe after a House Of Style episode where Cindy Crawford tried on some Doc Martens. The idea that grunge would still be a vital part of our culture a mere six years later wasn’t even a question. Grunge was forever.
Mudhoney, as always, took a far more cynical point of view. The imagined 10-year grunge anniversary is a pathetic affair taking place at Seattle’s Admiral Benbow Inn, a campy pirate bar once beloved by the sort of proudly working-class losers Mudhoney considered themselves to be, decorated with pep-rally posters sarcastically proclaiming, “GRUNGE OUT!” Among the few who bother to show are Sub Pop co-founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, tending bar and manning the door, respectively, while still trying to squeeze a little more money out of the headliners (whom even they don’t recognize). And hey, isn’t that Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, glumly nursing a beer at a booth stocked with other bored and wrung-out scenesters, two years before Kurt Cobain would really give him something to cry about? In fact, there’s only one guy who seems to be enjoying himself (played by Ed Fotheringham, Mudhoney cover artist and singer of its side-project goof The Thrown Ups) as he dances the lonely, desperate dance of so many a local’s No. 1 fan.
That Mudhoney would snarkily predict grunge’s flameout at a time when it was inescapable wasn’t just the group being wiseasses. In many ways, it was also career suicide: “Suck You Dry” was the lead single from Piece Of Cake, Mudhoney’s foray into the major labels it had resisted ever since Seattle had become overrun with desperate A&R types, and its first and best chance at finally capitalizing on the trend. Mudhoney had practically launched the whole genre, after all, with singer Mark Arm and guitarist Steve Turner captaining early, important bands like Green River before unwittingly helping to spawn the feeding frenzy by forming Mudhoney, Sub Pop’s flagship band. Their stew of Stooges fuzz-punk, Blue Cheer psychedelia, and Replacements sloppiness was emulated—or at least, paid lip service to—by every one of their contemporaries. Half of Seattle (and therefore the world) modeled itself after those early Mudhoney photo shoots of a bunch of cheap-beer-swilling, shaggy bros in ripped jeans and flannel, too drunk to pose.
If Nirvana’s distillation of that could sell millions, the labels no doubt figured, surely Mudhoney’s purer cut could match those numbers. And the fact that Mudhoney hated that hype-fueled line of thinking—as evidenced in the angry, sarcastic “Overblown” from that same year—only made the band more marketable. (After all, hadn’t that song been included on the Singles soundtrack?)
But as “Suck You Dry” illustrated and Piece Of Cake confirmed, Mudhoney’s antiestablishment, “corporate rock still sucks” attitude was different than a lot of its contemporaries’ more self-aware selling out. They actually believed that shit—enough to take their new contract with Warner Bros. imprint Reprise Records, their proverbial big shot, and blow it off. The group strayed from Sub Pop only because the label it’d helped launch was left broke and floundering, as the bands Pavitt and Poneman fostered sought greener pastures. And if Piece Of Cake can’t be seen as an act of (even unconscious) revenge for the way its home had been pillaged and fractured by outside opportunists, it was, in typical Mudhoney fashion, at least a whatever punchline.
The album kicks off with Arm flatly bellowing, “Act now!” over a goofy, Eurodance keyboard vamp that sounds like C+C Music Factory toiling deep within the bowels of hell. (“You want ‘grunge’?” you can practically hear the band sneering. “Here’s something for you to play while people shop for flannels at Express.”) It’s the first of several bizarre, untitled interludes padding out the album—the most prominent of these being the track of drumbeats overlaid with someone blowing raspberries. Reprise bought grunge’s most cred-conferring “statement” band, it seems, and that band replied with a fart joke.
Even Mudhoney itself admitted that Piece Of Cake was “half-baked,” its very title a reference to how easy it all was to throw together. The album’s first actual song, “No End In Sight,” is built around a guitar line that barrels right down the chromatic scale—the sort of boneheaded riff that someone who just learned how to make a barre chord might write. Both “Suck You Dry” and “I’m Spun” follow that same basic pattern, chugging along in the meathead, easily remembered guitar positions favored by the very drunk. “Let Me Let You Down” and “Living Wreck” (with its knowingly annoying “Shooting for the stars / My my how lucky you are” pop refrain) are built around lazy lyrical couplets repeated ad nauseam, stacked with all the artistry of boxes in a warehouse. Piece Of Cake was the sound of a band punching in to sleep through its shitty day job, then bailing at 5 p.m. with two upraised middle fingers.
And yet, the get-while-the-getting’s-good, slacker-goofball attitude of Mudhoney’s Great Grunge Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle doesn’t totally diminish the power of Piece Of Cake—and it certainly doesn’t diminish its overall significance. “No End In Sight,” “Suck You Dry,” and “I’m Spun” may be three of the simplest, most tossed-off songs in the band’s entire catalog, but they’re also three of the best, their battering garage-punk riffs a rejoinder to grunge’s ponderous classic-rock-aping slow burns. (They’re also way more timeless, remaining staples of Mudhoney’s live set today.) And it’s not as though the album differed all that greatly from its predecessors: The paranoid psych of “Blinding Sun” and the screaming wah-wah-laden “Make It Now” could have easily slotted between Superfuzz Bigmuff’s “If I Think” and “In ’N’ Out Of Grace,” while the woozy slide of “When In Rome” would have sounded right at home on Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. Indeed, despite all the supposed indolence that went into making it, the album feels like a sweaty, thrashing, boozy, nihilistic free-for-all that’s much closer to the spirit of the original Seattle scene everyone was trying to capture—more so than was managed by Mudhoney’s overcompensating contemporaries.
Unfortunately for the label, what it didn’t feel like was a proper “grunge” record. Given the way listeners reacted to checking out this band on Kurt Cobain’s or Eddie Vedder’s endorsement, only to hear old-fashioned call-and-response punk tunes like “Ritzville,” weird blues-metal numbers like “Thirteenth Floor Opening” and “Take Me There,” and the organ-laden groove instrumental “Youth Body Expression Explosion,” one can only imagine how Warner Bros. must have felt the first time it found out there would be no zeitgeist-capturing return on its investment. Cake’s closing track—the strange, curdled country ballad “Acetone”—finds Arm seemingly commenting directly on those expectations, moaning, “Oh Lord, what have we become? / We’re not fooling anyone” in a shrugging throwing-in of the towel, admitting they’re never going to fit into this newfound spotlight, and might have lost their way by even trying.
Writing about Mudhoney for the American indie-rock eulogy Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad obviously agreed with that last sentiment. He talks about the release of Piece Of Cake like it’s the death of the group, devoting a single sentence to dismissing it as a “rush job,” then skipping immediately to Arm lamenting that his band will be remembered as “a footnote… at best” for making the jump to a major label and supposedly blowing its big chance. That Mudhoney would continue to produce good-to-great albums for years afterward—including actually trying on 1995’s Reprise release My Brother The Cow, and releasing one of the strongest records of its career to mostly indifference —is apparently immaterial.
But as the intervening years have shown, being a footnote was really the best possible outcome for Mudhoney. Whereas most of its more successful colleagues imploded, or committed the greater rock ’n’ roll sin of trying to stay relevant, Mudhoney got to remain the underrated cult hero—the underappreciated “real grunge” group that never got its proper due. Had Piece Of Cake been a genuine attempt at making a Nevermind (or even a Sweet Oblivion), it likely would have been a sad failure. Not only because, let’s face it, Mark Arm can’t really sing, but also because it would have smacked of suit-pleasing effort, and that would have been the ultimate betrayal of all that Mudhoney stood for to those who might have cared in the first place.
Instead, Mudhoney remained true to itself, delivering a weird, snide spitfire of an album pitched only to those who got the joke (or were even aware that there was a joke to be made). And their fellow smart-asses rewarded it with an undying loyalty that continues to this very day. Yes, as predicted in the “Suck You Dry” video, Mudhoney really is the last “grunge” band standing. What the band couldn’t have predicted is that, thanks to Piece Of Cake, there are still people showing up to smirk right along with it.