The Upper Midwest is not without its share of significant contributions to rock music history. Waukesha wizard Les Paul established the electric guitar as a viable band instrument, then pioneered multitrack recording technology that would become the foundation of modern music production. Chicago blues players, whose distinct sound captured a worldwide audience off the wax of Chess Records, launched a generation of young American and British guitarists headlong into rock ‘n’ roll. And Minnesota’s Bob Dylan brought legitimacy to the nascent pop-rock scene of the 1960s with his folk/protest-infused accents.
But in each of these cases, success was defined by their reception in designated music industry hubs like New York, Los Angeles or London. Sure, there may be talent in the sticks, but unless it was recognized on the coasts, it was as if it never existed.
Fast forward to 1980s Madison, Wis. The punk revolution that had taken hold in places like New York, Washington and L.A. found its way into this college town, and its particular twist on the genre is the subject of a new documentary “The Smart Studios Story.” The film revisits a scene bubbling with countless basement bands formed among dormmates who brought an assorted variety of noise to local bars and house parties, all for a nominal cover charge and (maybe) a pitcher of beer. Some were good, and some were not. Most of them were generally in it for the fun, and there was no illusion of finding success in the traditional industry way. In fact, that was the point — to thumb their noses at the establishment. Who had any interest in being the next Huey Lewis, .38 Special or Styx?
Two Madison musicians, Steve Marker and Butch Vig, embodied this do-it-yourself spirit when, in between playing with an assortment of bands, they founded a local recording studio. They had no business model, no plan for profitability, no particular experience or expertise with audio engineering — really nothing other than a love for music. That should’ve been a recipe for disaster, but remember, this was Madison — no ordinary business environment. So Marker and Vig went about setting up their studio, paid bills when they could and recorded bands — lots and lots of bands. And those recordings found their way into other college towns like Minneapolis, Champaign, Ill., Austin and Seattle.
That’s where the story gets interesting. One of the bands Smart recorded, Killdozer, was turning heads as tapes made their way around the underground scene. It wasn’t necessarily the quality of the music — Killdozer had a decidedly unserious style that bordered on novelty. But the band’s sound — a relentlessly heavy, driving, pounding and thrashing once described as the sound of gravel in a lawnmower — that was a Smart Studios product that others quickly decided they wanted. One of those bands was Seattle’s Nirvana.
We know what happened next. Nirvana recorded briefly at Smart, landed a contract with Geffen Records, insisted on keeping Vig as producer (against the company’s wishes) and soon after released “Nevermind.” The album effectively ended the ’80s sound dominated by synth pop and hair metal while launching a new era in rock ‘n’ roll termed grunge, known for the heavy, pounding, thrashing amalgamation of noise that in some ways represented the long-awaited marriage between punk and metal. Whatever it was, it set rock music on a new course.
All starting in little old Madison.
Vig produced another seminal ’90s band, Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins (hat tip to the Midwest again) and went on to form Garbage with Marker and singer Shirley Manson. Smart Studios, meanwhile, hobbled along until shutting its doors in 2010, bringing a unique chapter in rock ‘n’ roll — and Madison — history to a close. In the end, it was a product not only of its place, but its time. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else.