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A Grunge Story: The 12-inch Vinyl of the 1980s You Need to Own

The passionate fanbase of ‘grunge’ has been engaged in a never ending series of debates.

Who was the first grunge act? Which band was the most influential? What actually makes grunge ‘grunge’ anyway? Countless questions – no singular answers. What everyone can agree on, though, is that the sound, while difficult to explain, altered the landscape of popular music. Something special started in the greater Seattle area toward the end of the 20th century and that something changed everything. These pioneers created music that influenced a generation of listeners and fellow musicians, leaving behind a physical legacy of sought-after vinyl records.

The sludgy fusion of punk and heavy metal later known as grunge took shape in the early eighties. From there, the music evolved, the bands perfected their craft, and an upstart record production company, Sub Pop, changed rock n’ roll forever.

For the purpose of this article, our focus is only on the vinyl produced in the Seattle area during the early days of the grunge movement, including only U.S. pressings of vinyl released on the 12” format (7” history is another article for another day). These are the records that paved the way for the massive commercial successes enjoyed after the decade turned.

1984 – U-Men – U-Men

Bomb Shelter Records – SPY 007

Side A Matrix – SPY-007-A kdisc L 17685

Side B Matrix – SPY-007-B kdisc L 17685

1984 album from the band u-men

The U-Men didn’t reach the commercial success that other early grunge artists later enjoyed, but this 45rpm EP, though often overlooked in grunge chronicles, is among the earliest recorded sound on 12” vinyl from the genre. The U-Men are legendary among grunge historians. Famous Seattle photographer Charles Peterson called them “the Godfathers of the Seattle music scene1.” U-Men was produced by Bomb Shelter, a Seattle-based label of Bruce Pavitt.  Pavitt later co-founded Sub Pop records, which eventually played a transformative role in the grunge movement.  The U-Men are also honored on the famous Deep Six album, discussed below.

1985 – Come on Down – Green River

Homestead Records – HMS031

Side A Matrix – HMS-031-A1 1 MT DAMONT A Porky Prime Cut

green river vinyl record album come on down

Side B Matrix – HMS-031-B1 1 MT DAMONT G 

The importance of this 12”, 331/3 rpm EP derives not only from the music, but from the band members themselves.  Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard would eventually found Pearl Jam, while Mark Arm and Steve Turner became international grunge stars with their next band, Mudhoney.  Originally released with a full-sized, one sided photo and lyric sheet on rigid stock paper, it remains an essential collector’s item for any Pearl Jam fan.

1986 – Deep Six – Various Artist

C/Z Records  C/Z-01

Side A Matrix – FP.V.50649-1Re1 122685.K

Side B Matrix – FP.V-50649-2 12165.K

deep six compilation front cover

This compilation release was compiled by Chris Hanzsek and Tina Casale of C/Z Records to promote the music bubbling up through Seattle. Often considered one of the first full-length grunge albums, it features some of the earliest recordings of Soundgarden, The Melvins, Green River, and other pioneers of the Seattle scene.  Deep Six was limited to only 2000 pressings, one of which has been on display at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. The album, which has never been repressed, is a prize piece for anyone’s vinyl collection. The featured bands on the album include:

  • Soundgarden (their very first released recordings).
  • Green River.
  • The Melvins.
  • Malfunkshun (featuring Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone).
  • Skin Yard (featuring future Soundgarden and Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron, famed producer Jack Endino, and Daniel House, who eventually owned C/Z Records).
  • The U-Men.

1986 – Clairvoyance – Screaming Trees

Velvetone Records – VST 86002

Side A Matrix – VST-010-A kdisc JG “FACTORY NO PLACE FOR ME” L-25119

Side B Matrix – VST-010-B kdisc JG BOSS MAN LEAVE ME ALONE” L-25119-x 

screaming trees clairvoyance front cover

Along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, the Screaming Trees also saw some (read: less than they deserved) commercial success behind the unmistakable crooning of the great Mark Lanegan. Despite their impact on their Seattle brethren, it is often forgotten just how early in the era they were recording. Clairvoyance is the first full length album by a single band to make this list. Screaming Trees’ influence is undeniable and this album should be on every grunge collector’s shelf. Pressed once and limited to 2500 copies, it included a full size, double sided insert, while the vinyl itself was somewhat translucent.

1987 – Gluey Porch Treatments – Melvins

Alchemy Records – VM103

Side A Matrix – MPO (crossed out on most variants) VM 103-A-1

Side B Matrix – MPO (crossed out on most variants) VM 103 B-2

melvins gluey porch treatments front cover

The Melvins are often cited as a primary influence to so many bands that later reached great commercial success. Among the earliest grunge bands playing the live Seattle club scene, the Melvins released singles prior to releasing Gluey Porch Treatments, their first LP, in 1987. There exist a few ’87 variants, including a misprint on early versions. The misprint features no track listing on the back of the sleeve and the names of Buzz Osborne and Matt Lukin are swapped. There are also a few different label variations, and some versions do not have a publisher on side A. The misprint cover is the slightly more desirable version of the album, but sale prices are similar for all variants.

1987 – Screaming Life – Soundgarden

Sub Pop – SP12

Side A Matrix – kdisc JG L-28100 SP-12- A BUY GREEN RIVER

soundgarden screaming life front cover

Side B Matrix – kdisc SP-12-B BUY MALFUNKSHUN L-28100 

Screaming Life was Soundgarden’s first individual release. The album was pressed on 45rpm, 12” vinyl, with the first 500-600 pressings on translucent orange vinyl. The remaining pressings are on standard black vinyl. The matrix code and album information are identical on the orange vinyl and black records. The runout includes a message to “buy Green River and Malfunkshun”, two other Seattle bands trying to break through at the time. This promotion of other bands was a common theme for Soundgarden. Chris Cornell was often seen wearing other bands’ tee-shirts, notably those of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. This EP set the stage for the success that was soon to come for Soundgarden. In the following year, they would release another 12” EP, Fopp. The two EPs lead to their signing with famed punk label SST, releasing their first full length album, Ultramega OK, later in 1988. From there, Soundgarden was the first grunge band to sign with a major record label, A&M. In turn, they released the first major label grunge release, Louder than Love, in late 1989.

1988 – Superfuzz Bigmuff – Mudhoney

Sub Pop – SP-21

Side A Matrix – SP-21-A kdisc L-31537

Side B Matrix – SP-21-B kdisc  L-31537X

mudhoney superfuzz bigmuff front cover

After the break up of Green River, the respective band members went on to form two of Seattle’s most influential bands, Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone. Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Green River recruited former Melvins bassist, Matt Lukin, who along with drummer Dan Peters, formed the beloved grunge foursome, Mudhoney. Mudhoney was originally the face of the area’s independent record label, Sub Pop. The EP, Superfuzz Bigmuff was released on 12”, 331/3 rpm vinyl. The original US pressings of the album do not have a barcode and also included a poster. It was subsequently reissued multiple times in the early nineties.

1988 – Sub Pop 200 – Various Artists

Sub Pop – SP-25

Side A Matrix – SP-25-A kdisc Ch 1 L-32022

Side B Matrix – SP-25-B kdisc Ch L-32022

Side C Matrix – SP-25-C kdisc Ch L-32022

Side D Matrix – SP-25-D kdisc Ch L-32022

Side E Matrix – SP-25-E kdisc Ch L-32022 Buy Sub Pop

sub pop 200 compilation front cover

Side F Matrix – SP-25-F kdisc Ch L-32022 Buy Sub Pop 

In addition to releasing club singles and individual bands’ records, Sub Pop released two compilation albums in the eighties. Sub Pop 100 included alternative bands from around the country while Sub Pop 200 featured primarily Seattle-area rock. The desirability of this particular album was later elevated after Nirvana’s big national coming out. Sub Pop 200 features “Spank Thru”, the third song on side A, marking Nirvana’s first appearance on 12-inch vinyl. The album also includes tracks by other grunge legends, including Tad, Mudhoney, The Walkabouts, Soundgarden, Green River, Fastbacks (which once included famed Guns N’ Roses bassist, Duff McKagen), Screaming Trees, and The Thrown Ups (another Mark Arm/Steve Turner effort). The album was released as a box set of three 12” EPs and was limited to 5000 copies. It also included a 16-page black and white booklet.

1989 – Shine – Mother Love Bone

Stardog Records – 422 839 011-1

Side A Matrix – 422839 011-1-AS-HRM A-2 

            Variant Side A – 422839 011-1-AS-HRM A2    

Side B Matrix – 422839 011-1-AS-HRM A-2 

            Variant side B – 422839 011-1-AS-HRM A1 

mother love bone shine front cover

Barcode – 42283901117 

After Green River disbanded, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and Bruce Fairweather joined forces with Malfunkshun front man Andrew Wood and Ten Minute Warning drummer Greg Gilmore to create Mother Love Bone. Entering the studio quickly after forming, the quintet recorded Shine, a four song EP featuring the legendary ballad “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns”. Shortly after recording the EP, MLB seemed poised for a meteoric rise to stardom and recorded their first full length album, Apple, with a release date set for 1990. Unfortunately, just months before the album hit shelves, Wood, their charismatic lead singer, tragically died.  After his death, his friend and former roommate, Chris Cornell, began writing a tribute album. He shared his ideas with Andy’s former bandmates, and out of grief, the band Temple of the Dog was formed. (The name was taken from Wood’s lyrics in “Man of Golden Words”.) The untimely death of Wood eventually gave way to the formation of the most commercially successful grunge act, Pearl Jam. The EP was released on 12”, 331/3 rpm vinyl and consists of four songs that repeat on Side A and Side B. A promo version of the EP was released first with the variant matrix codes and a sleeve with a gold “LOANED FOR PROMOTION ONLY, not for sale” stamp on the back. The label on the promo also stated “Promotional Copy Only, Not for Sale”. Both the promo and standard EP remain very sought-after selections on the shortlist for any grunge collection.

1989 – Bleach – Nirvana

Sub Pop – SP 34

Side A Matrix – SP-34-A Kdisc ch L.32926

nirvana bleach front cover

Side B Matrix – SP-34-B kdisc ch L.329626.X 

Nirvana’s impact on global music cannot be overstated (although many have certainly tried), but years before Nevermind brought grunge to the mainstream, Nirvana released Bleach, their debut album on Sub Pop. Bleach is arguably the most sought-after grunge record, and for good reason. Not only is it the first full length album from one of the most beloved bands of all time, but its original pressings are quite scarce. There were two original pressings in the US. The first pressing included only 1000 copies on limited edition white vinyl and remains one of the most valuable records of the eighties. The second run was nearly as limited, with only 2000 copies pressed on black vinyl, making the first run of US pressings limited to merely 3000 copies. Both versions can be found with a folded poster and promotional cards, although they were not inserted in every copy of the album, making them all the more collectable. This album’s original pressings are often considered the holy grail of the grunge era, and on the short list of the most sought after of all rock vinyl.

The ten records listed are not the “best” albums of the era nor necessarily the rarest, nor the most valuable. They are, however, the albums that laid the foundation for a genre that would dominate the early nineties music scene. They helped set the stage for 1991, when grunge exploded and Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains dominated rock airwaves, spawning copycats and look-alikes that defined a decade. They are the cornerstones of the foundation of sound that shaped a generation of music lovers and changed the trajectory of rock music. If you love the history and the evolution of music, these select albums will round out your collection, providing a timeline of grunge from nascent Seattle sound to worldwide rock phenomenon.


1Prato, Greg. Grunge is Dead. ECW Press. 2009

All album specific details were attained from the Discogs database and from examples in Author’s private collection. 

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