In its 30 year history, Olympia’s K Records has fostered some of independent music's greatest artists, including Beat Happening, Built to Spill, Beck, Modest Mouse, and Gossip. It has also galvanized the international pop underground, helped create the grunge scene that took over pop culture, and provided a launching pad for the riot grrrl movement that changed the role of women in music forever. In Love Rock Revolution I tell the story of how it all happened, recounting the early journeys of K Records co-founder and leader Calvin Johnson from the punk mecca of London to the hardcore clubs of Washington, D.C., in the late-'70s, the creation of K Records in the '80s, the label's role in revolutionizing independent music in the '90s, and its struggle to survive that revolution with its integrity intact. This excerpt is pulled from the earlier part of that history, a few years after Calvin had discovered punk rock, but before he had figured out what to do with it. This is the story of the summer that changed everything. —Mark Baumgarten
In the summer of 1982 a postcard from Reno, Nevada, arrived at the Capitol Theater building in downtown Olympia, Washington. It was addressed to Calvin Johnson.
The postcard, sent by a woman named Bessie, was the continuation of a correspondence that Calvin, a 19-year-old Evergreen State College student, had been carrying on with her and another woman named Jone, both of whom published a fanzine called Paranoid that claimed “Blind and Illiterate Punks” as its audience. The first issue jokingly advertised itself as “Only $29.95”; later issues were only fifty cents. In its newsprint pages were stories about bands in the Reno punk scene and the latest on U.K. punk, the D.C. scene, and the West Coast’s more well-known bands, from Southern California’s hardcore groups to D.O.A. and the Subhumans, bands that were creating a scene of their own in Vancouver, B.C.
It was during a brief visit to Vancouver a year earlier that Calvin had discovered Paranoid sitting in a pile of publications at a party he attended. After writing the publishers of the zine, Calvin discovered that they were in an all-girl punk group called the Wrecks. The postcard was an invitation to Calvin to finally see the Wrecks when the band opened for Black Flag at a hockey rink in Vancouver.
Despite Black Flag’s popularity, Calvin was suspicious of the band. The year before, Dez Cadena, Black Flag’s third vocalist in its five-year history, had given up his lead singer role to focus on guitar playing. In his place, the band brought on Henry Rollins. Rollins was a product of the D.C. punk scene that Calvin had witnessed two years before while attending high school in the nation’s capitol. As the lead singer of S.O.A., Rollins performed at the Unheard Music Festival where Calvin first heard Minor Threat. Calvin remembered the singer well.
“I had never actually seen Black Flag before. But I had seen Henry play with S.O.A.,” Calvin recalls. “When I heard that he was going to be the new lead singer of Black Flag, I was just like, ‘No, that can’t be.’ He just seemed so random to me. He just seemed to me like he was some football player whose best friend was into punk, so he ripped the sleeves off his T-shirt and decided to be in a band. It just seemed so wrong; it just seemed so off, and ungood, so ungood. So I was really unhappy that he was in the band.”
In late 1981 Black Flag released its first studio album, Damaged, which featured Rollins punching a mirror on its cover. The album was not a commercial success, but it did succeed in impressing Calvin. Still, the young punk was more interested in seeing his pen pals in the Wrecks play than seeing Rollins lead Black Flag.
Lacking a car or money for the bus ride, Calvin hitchhiked the entire two hundred miles. Sam Hendricks, his friend and traveling companion on the trip, suggested that they visit their mutual acquaintance Bret Lunsford in Anacortes on the way up. The Friday before the show, Calvin and Hendricks packed their bags, went out to the nearest I-5 on-ramp and stuck out their thumbs. Four cars blew by before one slowed to a stop. At the wheel was Jon Turnbow, an Olympia musician that Calvin recognized. Three years before, Turnbow had released Alien City, a glam rock concept album that Calvin had seen on the shelf at Olympia’s Rainy Day Records shop.
It was rumored that, after releasing Alien City, Turnbow was committed to a mental institution. If that was true, he had managed to gain release and a wife by the time he met Calvin and Hendricks on that I-5 on-ramp. Turnbow asked Calvin where he and Hendricks were heading.
“Oh, going to Anacortes, so we just need a ride as far north as you can go. Mount Vernon would be perfect, or Burlington.”
“We’re stopping in Mount Vernon to meet this friend of ours. He’s going to Anacortes—maybe he can give you a ride.”
Two hours later, they arrived at the small town of Mount Vernon. Turnbow pulled into a restaurant parking lot full of cars and parked next to a man leaning against his car, waiting. The four Olympians exited the car and, after a brief conversation between Turnbow, his wife, and their friend, Calvin and Hendricks were ushered into the stranger’s car.
“It was almost as if they were only meeting their friend to pass us off to him,” Calvin recalls. “They didn’t sit and talk with him, or anything. They just said, ‘These guys need a ride to Anacortes, bye!’ And they left.”
An hour later, Calvin and Hendricks pulled up to the Anacortes home of Bret’s girlfriend Krista Forsyth. After saying farewell to the stranger who drove them there, they entered the house to find Forsyth and her friends plotting plans for the evening. The big event was a show at the Summit Park Grange Hall, right outside the city limits. While Grange Halls were built in most rural communities to house events for farmers who belonged to the fraternal organization, they also served as community centers where events could be staged.
In this case, the event was a concert by a band called the Spoiled.
As far as punk rockers go, the Spoiled was straight out of central casting. Brash and uncompromising, the band had made its start under the moniker the Outcasts, covering early punk songs by the Sex Pistols and the Clash. When they started writing and performing their own material, which was as loud and obnoxious as any of the songs they were covering, the band changed its name.
Forsyth and her friends planned to meet Bret at the Summit Park Grange Hall. First, though, they would take Calvin and Hendricks to “cruise the gut,” the ritual teenage experience of driving up and down Commercial Avenue, the main strip that led from the main highway to the docks. After acquiring some beer, the girls and their guests made off in one of their parent’s muscle cars. “Don’t tip when you see square headlights,” Forsyth advised her passengers, informing them that the county cops all drove cars with headlights in that shape, and that they would pull them over if they saw anyone drinking beer. Resolutely sober since his junior year of high school, Calvin needed no warning.
When the car pulled up to the Grange Hall, Calvin saw a teenage paradise. There were kids in the parking lot. Past the doorman, who was also a teenager, were a couple hundred teenagers on the dance floor. And on stage was the Spoiled, teenagers as well, dressed in U.S. Army fatigues and leather jackets and wearing their hair short. The band played a combination of covers and original songs. Calvin found Bret standing against the wall and talked to him for a while before taking to the dance floor. For him, this party in the middle of the country with other teenagers was reminiscent of the early Beatles shows he had read about.
“It’s like normal kids appreciating local music, local culture,” he says. “That seemed exciting to me because it was not something that was going on anywhere. Local bands did not play and have people show up, you know? Even though it was mostly covers, still, it was just the idea that they were having a local scene. That was really exciting. And also the idea of having it at the Grange Hall. Crazy. I was like, ‘This is such a great idea!’ Because that’s what the Grange Hall is. It’s a place where people congregate. Yeah, it’s a trade organization, but it’s also a social organization. And it just made sense that here in this small town you would go to the Grange Hall to see the local band. So I was just like, ‘Why don’t we have this in Olympia? This doesn’t happen in Olympia.’”
The experience ended abruptly when the town sheriff and a handful of deputies showed up. “Okay, party’s over,” the sheriff announced, but the party continued. As the deputies ushered the young revelers out, the Spoiled kept on playing. The deputies finally pulled the singer off the stage.
“He wouldn’t stop playing,” Calvin recalls. “He just kept rockin’. It was so awesome. And so they arrested him, put him in the back of the police car.”
Outside, Calvin, Bret and their friends watched as the police ushered the rest of the teenagers out, placing a few of them in the backs of squad cars. Calvin was energized by what he had just experienced. Before that night, he had only been in a Grange Hall to attend Cub Scout meetings. Now, he saw community halls and the possibilities of punk rock in a whole new light.
“Anacortes has had a connection to the history of K, maybe dating back to that moment,” Bret says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I do recognize it now that something clicked for Calvin about Anacortes and about what was going on.”
The morning after the Spoiled show, Calvin and Sam woke up early at Bret’s house. Bret had invited them to go strawberry picking with him and his younger brother Jonn to make some extra money. The four teenagers trudged out into the early morning rain and down to the strawberry patch. After picking 15 dollars worth of berries, Calvin headed back to Bret’s house with Hendricks, changed clothes and hopped in Bret’s mom’s car. An hour later, Calvin and Hendricks were back at an interstate onramp, their thumbs stretched out in the midsummer rain, hoping to catch a ride 60 miles to the border.
After two hours in the rain and two short rides, a large American car pulled over. Inside, two young stoners greeted Calvin and Hendricks.
“Where you going?” asked the stoners.
“We’re going up to Vancouver.”
“Oh, so are we!”
“What’re you going to do in Vancouver?”
“Well, we’re going to see this show . . .”
“Oh. Cool. Yeah, yeah . . .”
Calvin and Hendricks settled in for the short ride to the border.
It was then that Calvin realized his back pockets were empty. He had left his wallet in Anacortes, which at this point was 80 miles behind them. Rather than alert the driver, Calvin kept the news to himself, hoping for a smooth passage through the border. He had no such luck.
“Whatcha all doin’?” asked the Canadian border agent. “Goin’ to Vancouver,” answered the driver.
“Are you all American citizens?”
“Oh yeah, we are. Well, we are. I don’t know about those guys.”
“They’re not with you?”
“No, I just picked them up hitchhiking.”
“Okay, pull over there, go inside, talk to . . .”
In 1982 the United States–Canada border was fairly lax. No passport was needed for U.S. residents to pass through, but they did require state-issued identification. When the border guard asked for his ID, Calvin told him the truth.
“Well, do you have anything with your name or anything that identifies you?” the guard asked.
Calvin reached into his bag, still wet from the morning rain, and pulled out the postcard sent to him from Bessie of the Wrecks. The card was limp and wet, the penciled invitation blurred. Still, the guard could make out the recipient’s address.
“And you’re Calvin Johnson?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Calvin replied.
“All right. Have a good time.”
Calvin and Hendricks walked back to the waiting car in disbelief. They sat in silence for the short 30-mile ride from the border to Vancouver. Perhaps aware of his slip at the border, the driver graciously dropped the two young punks at the entrance of the hockey rink where Black Flag was scheduled to play.
The show was a memorable one. The Wrecks played hard, seeming to know that this one-off show with the kings of hardcore would be the band’s biggest ever. Later that year, the Wrecks would break up, though its members would go on to form the influential San Francisco independent pop band Imperial Teen. Next, Vancouver’s Subhumans, at the height of their popularity, played to an enthused hometown crowd. By the end of the year, that group would disband as well.
Black Flag was a revelation for Calvin. After touring on its debut full-length for a year and celebrating the July release of “TV Party,” a single that would become one of its most well-known songs, the band was in muscular form. Black Flag mastermind guitarist and composer Greg Ginn wove the band’s tight-knit and brutally fast songs while Rollins, wearing his trademark shorts and nothing else, demanded the room’s attention and got it. The show far exceeded Calvin’s expectations.
That night, Calvin and Hendricks slept in the alley behind the hockey rink. The next morning, July 4, they walked to the highway and began hitchhiking back to Olympia. Twelve stops and a smooth entrance into the country later, they would settle for a night in Seattle. There, Calvin went again to see Black Flag play at the Nordic Hall before hitchhiking to Olympia the next morning. Later that month, he wrote a review of the experience for Sub Pop, the zine that he was helping his friend Bruce Pavitt publish.
“Henry was incredible,” Calvin wrote. “Pacing back and forth, lunging, lurching, growling; it was all real, the most intense emotional experience I have ever seen.”
The Olympia music community had made a complete migration from Evergreen to downtown that summer. While there still wasn’t an all-ages venue where bands could play, the growing number of groups made do by playing wherever they could. Concerts were put on in alleyways, or groups played small dance parties in each other’s apartments. It was at one of those parties later that summer that Calvin first heard the Supreme Cool Beings.
Like many Olympia acts, the band was a ramshackle affair, featuring musicians with limited ability playing whatever instruments were available to them. Gary Allen May, a former Evergreen student who had been booking shows at the New Deli restaurant, played guitar and bass and shared vocal duties with a very loud, self-taught saxophonist named Doug Monaghan and the drummer, Calvin’s former dormitory neighbor Heather Lewis. The Supreme Cool Beings was Heather’s first band.
“I never had any aspirations to play music,” Heather says. “I was taking visual art classes at Evergreen. I was over at Gary Allen May’s apartment with Doug Monaghan and Laura Carter. I think it was the first time I met Gary. He had a drum kit. I sat down and just started playing. I think he and Doug had been wanting to start a band and they asked me to play the drums with them. It just happened. The next day I went to band practice.”
May saw something in Heather that she didn’t and as the band developed, the untrained drummer turned into a fierce creative force.
“Heather distinguished herself as a hard-hitting drummer,” May says. “She actually could have done anything in that band and done it just as well as she played the drums. She was equally involved in anything creative that was going on. She wasn’t just some girl who played the drums. An equal partner; the songs were all by us and the lyrics were all by us.”
Undergirded by Heather’s drum lines, the music moved many in the Olympia scene, including Calvin, who invited the band to play an in-studio set during Boy Meets Girl, his Tuesday night show on Evergreen’s college radio station KAOS. The band played a set of eight short songs.
The band started with “Who’s That?” Opening with a sinister bass line, the song quickly crackled with a snare hit by Heather, who began hitting the ones and threes as she sang a series of questions in a serious alto voice: “Who’s that walkin’ on the sofa?” “Who’s that hummin’ in the kitchen?” “Who’s that tappin’ on the air?” and “Who’s that breathin’?” At that point, Monaghan’s saxophone blurted out four brassy notes. The song continued, with May eventually answering all of Heather’s questions: “a cat,” “the refrigerator,” “I don’t know,” “me!” Wobbling in and out of time, the song never lost steam, moving forward until a flurry of saxophone honks finally gave way to four sharp snare hits. The song was far from perfect, but it was filled with the energy of a band on the verge of discovery. Unlike much punk music, which vacillated between self-seriousness and satire, this music just sounded fun—playful even. If there was any doubt of this, the next song put it to rest.
“Childhood has gone down the drain,” May sang as the band played “Your Name Here.” “Mr. Potato Head isn’t even the same.”
The rest of the set continued in similar fashion, with May taking most of the vocal duties. Halfway through, he switched from bass to guitar while introducing the next song, “Um.”
“Are you going to tell us a story, Heather?” May asked, before starting a song that required him to do little more than play two chords over and over. As Monaghan bleated and skronked out a non sequitur saxophone line for two minutes, Heather spoke her verse: “Um, well, um, well, oh I don’t know, um, see, uh, well, oh, hmm, well, um, ehh, um, I don’t know, um, well, see there was, um, well, oh, um, uh, well, oh, I don’t, I don’t know, I don’t know, oh, I don’t know.”
The song ended with a syrupy approximation of a surf rock breakdown. It was weird but also charming, a moment of playing dumb for a band that clearly had no problem being smart.
After a brief instrumental called “Liberal Art,” the band played the closest thing it had to a mainstream pop song, “Big Bombs.”
“Sun goes up, sun goes down,” May sang, his voice containing shades of the Talking Heads’ David Byrne. “Water goes up, water comes down.”
The final song, “Our Advice to You,” swung back in the direction of the band’s playful songs but was punctuated with subversion.
“This is our advice to you,” May said by way of introducing the song. Heather laid down a drum line that managed to be both slippery and tight, while May ground his way through a jangly chord progression and Monaghan wrestled notes out of his sax. After two minutes in this groove, all three stopped and shouted: “Take your clothes off!”
Unbeknownst to the performers, Calvin had taped the entire show. After listening to it again, he had an idea.
Earlier in the year, Bruce Pavitt had released Sub Pop 5, a cassette compilation that featured Calvin’s former band the Cool Rays, as well as songs by Jad Fair of Half Japanese and Steve Fisk. The compilation was meant to expose Sub Pop zine readers to an array of different artists. Cassettes made the creation, duplication and distribution of these collections easy. But, despite a growing number of mainstream artists who were moving from vinyl to cassette, very few underground artists had made the leap to releasing full-length albums through the new technology.
Without the financial means to release full-length vinyl albums, most bands in the underground had committed themselves to recording and releasing 45 singles. The prospect of recording a full-length just didn’t make sense, and since the cassette was the province of major labels, it carried the additional strike of having a bad reputation.
“On the mainstream, the cassette had completely replaced the album,” Calvin recalls. “But on the underground level, cassettes were never really accepted. They were tolerated. But if you made a cassette-only release, it was definitely looked upon as similar to a band today handing you a CD-R with their album burned onto it. It just wasn’t viewed as legitimate. If you made your own [vinyl] album, that was more like, ‘Oh, that’s legit,’ but if it was a cassette- only release, that was like, ‘Oh, that’s not a real record.’”
At the time, though, Calvin had little choice. With the full recording of the Supreme Cool Beings’ session in hand, and Bruce’s knowledge of cassette reproduction, Calvin saw the opportunity to issue, at little cost, an album that he believed people should hear. He approached May with the idea. After the band agreed to the plan, Calvin got to work. Through Bruce, he connected with Pat Baum, drummer for the all-girl new wave band Neo Boys and a feminist fixture in Portland’s underground music culture.
Baum had acquired the most rudimentary equipment to duplicate cassettes, which dubbed each one in real time, and started her own cassette label. She could make duplications for Calvin; he just had to supply the cassettes. With the help of his friend Rich Jensen, Calvin found a company on the outskirts of Olympia that carried blank cassettes in bulk. The company used the cassettes to record choral music for religious services but was happy to sell them to Calvin at a slight markup. Baum agreed to duplicate the Supreme Cool Beings tape at a cost of $1.20 each. Calvin sent her 150 tapes.
While waiting for his cassettes to come back, Calvin asked Heather, whose artwork he had seen at the female-centric downtown shop Girl City, to create the cover art. She painted three stick figures. Above them, in pencil, she wrote the band’s name; below, she gave the album its title, Survival of the Coolest. Before photocopying the sleeve of the album, Calvin would add a final touch: On the narrow side of the cassette insert, below the band name, he drew a capital “K” with a roughly drawn shield around it. K Records was born.
Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music will be published by Sasquatch Books on July 10.
Photo by Marty Perez.