If one is to believe the “Music in Oregon” Wikipedia page, there was little to no music produced around here during the ’60s and ’70s. The introduction to the “Portland” section is 100 words long. There’s one very long sentence about the Kingsmen and Paul Revere & the Raiders, and two very short sentences about Quarterflash. Then the article skips ahead to punk rock.
It’s long been the prevailing narrative in Portland that punk rock—and its eventual offspring, indie rock—is our primary, if not only, musical export. This narrative is reinforced by the local media, best-of lists curated by national outlets, and Portlandia guest appearances. We had Satyricon—arguably the second most legendary American punk venue after New York’s CBGB, and the (alleged) birthplace of the second most disastrous rock ’n roll romance (after Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen). And we have the Wipers—one of the best, most consistent bands to hail from punk’s first wave.
But bands like the Wipers never had radio hits. They never appeared on Top of the Pops or played arenas. You’ll probably never hear “Return of the Rat” on the overhead speakers at a Nordstrom—even though that would be sick.
“I didn’t like [punk],” John Smith tells me in between bites of a cannoli. “You know, I get it. I think I liked the posters. I went to New York in 1978, and this was just when punk was starting, [and I went to this punk venue] called the Mudd Club. It was so loud, I actually got physically nauseated and I had to go outside and sit on the curb. So that wasn’t for me.”
Smith fronts the Portland pop band Nu Shooz with his wife and creative partner, Valerie Day. The band had a run of radio hits in the ’80s—most famously, “I Can’t Wait”—but were dropped by Atlantic Records at the dawn of grunge’s ascent in the early ’90s. Smith and Day eventually reformed the band in 2010, and today release new music independently. They’re about to embark on an ’80s package tour that includes A Flock of Seagulls and the Romantics, among others.
“In 1992, after seven years at Atlantic and a pretty amazing ride, our third record that we spent four years making wasn’t released after the first single didn’t do well,” Day says. “Our manager came to us and asked if we wanted help finding another deal, and we said no. Music wasn’t really fun anymore, and we wanted to move on with our lives. I started teaching voice and we had a kid, and I played in big bands and jazz quartets. We kind of went back to our first love, which was Coltrane.”
“We’ve talked to a lot of other bands on these ’80s package shows, and it seems like everybody’s record deal ended around 1992,” Smith adds ominously. “Why is that? Because: Nirvana and the whole Seattle scene.”
Only a few years before Nirvana would change music forever—or at least for a few years, before hair metal would re-manifest as Creed and Puddle of Mudd—Smith and Day were the epitome of cool. On the cover of the “Don’t Let Me Be the One” single, Day is sporting a hot pink blazer with black suspenders, a floral dress, and silver boots. Smith, meanwhile, is wearing a full-body snake-print suit. The whole thing is a gloriously horrific discordance of patterns. In other words, it’s an essential slice of ’80s ephemera.
Now Day has short blonde-black hair that evokes a bitten-into Charleston Chew, and Smith looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future if he were a Warby Parker model. To say they’ve aged gracefully would be an understatement.
Despite growing up in Portland and being heavily ensconced in the local music scene from a young age, I didn’t know who Nu Shooz were until I was in my early 20s. I never heard anyone at shows talk about them, and have never seen anyone in Portland wearing a Nu Shooz T-shirt. I rarely read about them in the local media, and I don’t think they’ve ever been name- checked in a hip retrospective on Pacific Northwest music.
“There’s sort of a millennial sensibility at those publications,” Smith says, indirectly referring to me and this publication. “They don’t even know that the ’80s existed, or early ’80s. It all starts with Everclear... which I finally heard, and they were a lot poppier than I expected.”
Nu Shooz belong to the same small, unique category of Portland bands as Quarterflash and the Hudson Brothers. They experienced commercial success—even if they aren’t household names, anyone who has listened to the radio is guaranteed to recognize the synth hook in “I Can’t Wait”—but they aren’t really considered a “Portland band” by the city’s arbiters of taste, young or old. One explanation for why that might be comes from a punk.
“I don’t think [Nu Shooz or Quarterflash] made any effort to brand themselves as being from Portland,” Mark Sten tells me. “The Dandy Warhols and Everclear kind of made an effort.”
Sten is the author of All-Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock, an expansive account of the nascent punk and new wave scene in Portland from 1977 to 1981. Sten’s snappy prose is accompanied by photos and posters from the era, comprehensive show calendars for each year within the book’s purview, and a map on the back of the book of the venues it references. Local critics and dime-store historians love drawing a tenuous line between Portland proto-punk bands, like the Kingsmen and Paul Revere & the Raiders, to the early ’90s indie-rock boom without really paying much mind to what happened in the middle. Sten’s book highlights that period.
“In the early to mid-’90s, Portland was already recognized as a moderately hip enclave that would increase your marketability, and that was not true of the Quarterflash or Nu Shooz era,” Sten says. “Both of those bands did fine by ignoring the fact they were from Portland and putting out a product that had no discernible local influence. Those could have been from anywhere. I don’t mind those acts, but they somehow seem completely deracinated as far as having any connection to this town.”
Marv Ross from Quarterflash has a slightly different theory. Ross formed Quarterflash in 1980 with his wife Rindy following the dissolution of their previous band, Seafood Mama. They were one of Geffen Records’ first signees, and their self-titled debut from the same year, which featured the ubiquitous single, “Harden My Heart,” would go on to achieve platinum status.
“Oregon is such a rural place, and even though we don’t think of ourselves that way in Portland, you only have to go 100 miles in any direction and you’re in rural America,” Ross says. He speculates that grunge and indie rock are considered “Music Year One” in Portland’s collective consciousness merely because that aesthetic is more reflective of our cultural identity—which seems obvious, but it’s a good point nonetheless.
“Not being slick, not being urban, sort of acting like everything needs to return to being natural—that fits us really well,” he adds. “We embrace that again and again. I see it now with young bands playing mandolins and fiddles, and strumming banjos and singing in unison. It’s white American music.”
When Mark Sten says that Quarterflash didn’t make an effort to “brand themselves as being from Portland,” he is essentially saying that Quarterflash didn’t adopt the rural aesthetic that is stereotypically associated with Pacific Northwest music. Certainly the band’s Portland connection has been evident in their music from the get-go; the last track on their first album is called “Williams Avenue,” and it even references the Oregon Zoo. (Considering this is years before Portland became a permanent tourist attraction, it doesn’t really seem like pandering.)
Ross says not embracing that aesthetic was a conscious choice. He makes the point that the early ’80s were, from his perspective, a rejection of the ersatz rural authenticity that characterized music from the previous decade.
“‘Harden My Heart’ is in a movie called Rock of Ages,” Ross tells me. “Everything about that movie is a rejection of the Eagles and the LA canyon music sound.”
“Everyone in the early ’80s was like, ‘Fuck Tom Petty, fuck Linda Ronstadt.’ There was a complete rejection of that whole scene. But then you see that sort of repeat again at the end of the ’80s. All of a sudden you have people like Kurt Cobain, and he’s wearing ripped jeans and a flannel shirt. He looks exactly like Neil Young did when he was a part of the canyon rock scene, so this sort of revolution keeps happening.”
If you were a more commercially minded artist in the ’70s and ’80s, it made sense not to embrace Portland. You were 10 hours away from what was then considered the nearest bastion of civilization—the Bay Area, and that’s by car, not covered wagon—and record labels probably didn’t take you seriously because you were from Portland. As a result, Portland’s music underground rebuffed mainstream homogeny. It could be argued that the same hyper-provincial attitude that facilitated the development of grunge and indie rock—two distinctly American, distinctly Pacific Northwestern styles of music—worked against any band in the pre-Nirvana era that wasn’t content to merely play for their friends.
“We were always looking to move somewhere sunnier,” Valerie Day says, and she likely means it literally and figuratively. “[Portland] was a backwater for sure. That’s why it was really hard for us to get a deal, partly.”
No successful Portland band seems more culturally divorced from Portland than the Hudson Brothers. The group formed in 1965 as the New Yorkers, and had a minor hit in 1967 under that name with the single “Mr. Kirby,” which earned them opening slots for the Who, the Supremes, Buffalo Springfield, and more.
But brothers Bill, Brett, and Mark Hudson wouldn’t experience any real success until the mid-’70s, when they were given their own variety TV show—The Hudson Brothers Show, which was renamed The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show shortly after airing.
The band’s TV debut coincided with the release of their best song, and one of the best post-Beatles pop songs, period: “So You Are a Star,” a generously melodic, inherently hypocritical indictment of celebrities that could only come from the tattered heart and soul of someone reared in a soggy little town like Portland (or Liverpool).
And though they were perceived as such by the mainstream, the Hudson Brothers were no flash in the pan. They have at least three worthwhile records—1974’s Hollywood Situation and Totally Out Of Control, and 1978’s The Truth About Us—and were one in a handful of torch bearers for simple, ’60s-influenced pop-rock in an era when plagiarizing Muddy Waters and J.R.R. Tolkien was the hottest trend in music.
These days, the Hudson Brothers are elusive. Mark Hudson—who has worked with Ringo Starr, Cher, and Aerosmith in recent decades—is the only brother with any notable internet presence (and that’s saying something, as his official Facebook hasn’t been updated in over a year), and his last big media appearance was on Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast. Bill Hudson is the biological father of actress Kate Hudson, and occasionally makes tabloid headlines when he says something heinous about his significantly more famous daughter. Brett Hudson—arguably the most charming member of the group, and recipient of Tiger Beat’s prestigious “Tiger of the Month” award—is even less visible.
“They were probably some of the most talented artists to come out of this area,” Terry Currier tells me. Currier is the owner of Music Millennium, and is unanimously considered one of the most knowledgeable and influential custodians of the Portland music scene. He is one of the only people I’ve ever talked to who considers the Hudson Brothers a fundamental part of Portland’s musical legacy.
“They probably had a lot more success than anybody really recognizes,” Currier says. “They got signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records. They took off out of Portland. They knew the route to go, which was to leave town, because nothing was happening in Portland then. You had to go somewhere else. Possibly, that’s why they called themselves the New Yorkers before becoming the Hudson Brothers.”
The lack of local awareness surrounding the Hudson Brothers makes some sense—they consciously rejected Portland, and Portland hates rejection. Moreover, they were unabashedly commercial. In a rare video interview with RockTalk TV in 2015, Brett Hudson readily admits to agreeing to make a TV show only because the producers were offering to pay the band $5,000 a week. This makes the 15-year-old in me that strongly identified with This Band Could Be Your Life squirm.
But it doesn’t make as much sense with Nu Shooz and Quarterflash. Both bands are technically still active, and both bands’ members are meaningfully involved in the community. Valerie Day is a vocal instructor and was an adjunct professor for PSU’s jazz program for four years. Quarterflash hosts an annual charity show at the Aladdin Theater, where they donate all the proceeds to the Portland charity Friends of the Children.
Maybe it’s because there’s no common center of gravity for these bands. Their members are friends, and the two groups share some specious similarities—both bands revolve around a husband-and-wife duo, both lineups are kind of big by conventional “rock” standards, and both had massive hits in the ’80s. There isn’t a built-in narrative like there is for the bands who orbited Satyricon, or who played with Elliott Smith in the ’90s.
But there might also be a slight and subconscious manipulation of history. Smith’s comment about people assuming Portland music “all starts with Everclear” isn’t too far off the mark; that part of Portland’s musical legacy has come to hog the frame in recent years, which is as baffling to me as someone who was not a conscious body in the ’90s as it is to someone like Sten who came of age well before then.
“There’s a generation that’s of a certain age, like 40 or 45, [that is in] a position of influence now and was of an impressionable age in the ’90s, and it consequently refers back to a period in its youth,” Sten says. “[That’s the period] that had a big impact on their psychology on one hand and taste on the other. The generation that was impacted by the early ’90s is now in a position to have its identity felt in the mass media, and that’s partly why you see the ’90s referred to disproportionately.”
“[Portland music from the ’70s and ’80s] hasn’t been transferred onto the new generations,” Currier tells me. “There were champions of those scenes, and those champions are no longer involved, so they’re no longer keeping those things alive.”
I ask Currier if he thinks Portland bands in the ’70s and ’80s were disowned by tastemakers for being overtly commerical.
“It was different back then,” he says. “The locals did champion their bands, and when they got to be nationally and internationally famous, they didn’t dis them like they do now.”
My generation—and the generation under me—is content to recycle aspects of ’90s culture in perpetuity, but I did not live through grunge, nor do I wish I had. I did not experience its “purifying” effects on music and culture; Dave Grohl could be Orville Redenbacher as far as I’m concerned. The artistic dogmas that fueled rock music in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s are all equally meaningless to me.
This is great, because it means my generation can enjoy everything. The pendulum swing between “raw” macho authenticity and fey pretension that defined rock music’s superficial transmutations for 40 years ceased when rock music stopped mattering. (It still matters, of course, but you know what I mean.) “Poptimist” values—as detrimental to criticism as they’ve been in their own way—planted C-4 in the grandfather clock, filmed the explosion, and put it on YouTube. You can like Elliott Smith and Nu Shooz. Shit, you can even like Poison Idea and the Hudson Brothers.
“I think it’s just natural to reject the generation before you, or the movement before you,” Marv Ross tells me. “But when you look at it realistically, what are the chords you’re playing? What are the notes you’re using in your songs? Musically, when you look at it, nothing is that big of a shift from what was rejected. It’s more image than anything else.”