Tad – God’s Balls/Salt Lick/8-Way Santa

I have astounding news for the world. The American grunge phenomenon of the early ’90s was not nearly so much an eruption from the underground as it was the result of a deftly choreographed branding campaign mounted by a couple of carpet-bagging dilettantes who just so happened to be in the right place (Seattle) at the right time (the mid ’80s) to reshape a loosely aggregated, regional music scene as a prefab musical subculture for fun and profit.

Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt were the wannabe Svengalis who had the guts, audacity and derring do to build an empire of sorts with their label, Sub Pop Records. And you’ve gotta admit, these guys had balls of steel and a wee bit of business acumen, to boot. And they were a little bit lucky, too.

America’s subaltern musical landscape of the mid to late ’80s was a weird, liminal space. The hardcore punk that had been a revelation in 1982 had crystallized into cliché by ’83. So, by ’84 the cooler skinhead and mohawked dudes had grown their hair out and realigned themselves with one of two camps: The more inward-looking and purportedly sensitive types enrolled in college radio’s Alternative Nation, while the hard-partying, rougher ’n’ rowdier dudes gravitated toward speed metal. And then there was SST Records, the ultra-hip California label whose second wave signees (Firehose, Screaming Trees, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth et al) occupied the DMZ between the aforementioned camps.

From ’85 to ’87 or thereabouts, SST was, hands down, the label. But SST began a devolution into its third wave by signing seemingly hundreds of lame, jazzy/jammy bands like The Alter Natives, Slovenly, Always August and Painted Willie. You’ve never heard of these bands, right? If not, don’t bother investigating them. Anyway, SST was on an accelerating slippery slope toward obsolescence by ’88 – and that’s around the time when Sub Pop took the proverbial bull by the balls to become the cool label in the early ’90s.

The “Seattle sound” of the mid ’80s wasn’t that different from the sound of any midsized town in America at the time. In the Jet City, just like everywhere else, a bunch of dirty longhaired dudes who’d cut their teeth on Black Flag, Black Sabbath, the Butthole Surfers and KISS were rutting around in any dive that would allow them to crank their amps to 10. What’s different about Seattle, though, is that it had Poneman and Pavitt on hand to shape this nebulous thing (stoned, longhaired punks playing loud hard rock) into a “thing” thing.

Job one: name the thing. Grunge. Job two: put a label (the instantly recognizable Sub Pop label) on the thing. Job three: package the thing in an appealing and familiar way. (All Sub Pop albums were packaged similarly, with eye-catching, black-and-white action photos of sweaty rockers flinging guitars and greasy hair everywhere. This was indeed cool.) Job four: advertise the products. Job five: get the products into the stores. Job six: pay the bands. Sub Pop performed excellently on jobs one through five. Job six, well, this is the inevitable fatal flaw of indie labels – provided they succeed on jobs one through five, that is.

Tad Doyle, guitarist and vocalist of his namesake band, Tad, was pretty much the paradigmatic personification of what would become grunge. Pre Sub Pop, Doyle was already a big, dirty dude with long hair who played really loud, guitar-driven rock. But Poneman and Pavitt had the foresight to repackage Doyle as a Northwestern Neanderthal; a guitar-wielding Gollum, a meat-eating, stoned, rednecked idiot savant whose only real skill was a startling ability to play riffs as crushing as his girth. And, yeah, Doyle was certainly willing to play along with this characterization, too.

So, Tad was supposedly the “heaviest” band on Sub Pop. I mean, what else would a gnarly, heavyset dude play?

On the front end, this marketing strategy worked. And Tad was a damned fine band that made memorable, melodic and (yes) heavy songs. The band released three significant albums and EPs on Sub Pop: God’s Balls (1989), Salt Lick (1990), and 8-Way Santa (1991). All three releases garnered heaps of critical acclaim and pushed into the netherworld between the top of the underground and the bottom end of kinda/sorta mainstream acceptance.

And of course, at around the same time, grunge exploded and other similarly dressed Sub Pop bands with similar musical formulas and skinnier (Mudhoney), prettier (Nirvana, by God) singers got more popular and made more money. Especially Nirvana, by God.

Nirvana’s ascendancy changed fucking everything, and before you knew it, mainstream radio was cluttered with grunge. Lots of money exchanged hands. Feeding frenzies ensued. Loud guitar bands were signed in droves. Even the Melvins and the Jesus Lizard got major label deals. And then even the fucking Butthole Surfers got a major label deal, for chrissakes. And Tad got a major label deal, too.

And you know where this is going: This is going where it always goes. Tad’s major label debut, 1993’s Inhaler, was yet another case of too-little-too-late. And then Tad got strung out. The band struggled on until around 2000. And then, of course, Tad broke up. And the band’s best material, the Sub Pop material, went out of print.

Thankfully, finally, the good folks at Sub Pop have seen fit to re-release Tad’s first three albums, all remixed and remastered, with niftier sleeves and a couple-three extra tracks per. And all is well with the world.

Interestingly, the succession of producers on the three albums follows Tad’s (and grunge’s) ascendancy from lo-fi to big volume. The Jack Endino-produced God’s Balls is the roughest sounding – although the newly remastered version sounds pretty slick. Sure, it’s fair to say that the Tad oeuvre as a whole is somewhat lacking in subtlety. But God’s Balls represents the band at its most bestial and (yes) brutal.

1990’s EP Salt Lick couples Tad with recordist (he doesn’t like to call himself a producer) Steve Albini. And this album was made soon after the production credit for The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa positioned Albini as the go-to guy for recording during the alterna-grunge haze. Here Tad has grown a wee bit more melodic. And, predictably, the sound is crystal clear – especially the drums. Salt Lick is, after all, an Albini recording.

Produced by Butch Vig, who was soon to become the go-to guy for production during grunge’s crossover into the big-dollar mainstream, 8-Way Santa represents Tad at their peak – and also most clearly exposes the stylistic tensions that run contrary to Sub Pop’s portrayal of Tad the man and Tad the band. Sure, there are (aargh) heavy, hellraising songs aplenty, such as the classic misadventure anthems “Jack Pepsi” and “Jinx” and the toss-off rural redneckery of “Hedgehog.” Contrastingly, elements of assured catchiness and the quiet/loud structuring of songs like “Candi” and “Wired God” could’ve easily been sandwiched in on a Nirvana album and no one would’ve known any different. And “Delinquent” is such a direct lift of Dinosaur Jr., well, it could be Dinosaur Jr. (Coming from me, this is certainly not harsh criticism. Nonetheless, the song is perhaps too derivative.) All of this is to say that 8-Way Santa is a great record, a memorable record, a foundational album that probably never reaped quite the props it deserves.

So what we have here are three fucking great albums that were kind of hard to find, all with a louder, clearer, crunchier sound. Like all “deluxe” reissues, there are bonus tracks. Big whoop. The extra tracks are just a distraction. What I wanted was the albums, and now I got ‘em (burp). And what have we learned? Not much, obviously.

God’s Balls
Salt Lick
8-Way Santa
[Sub Pop]