Young Fresh Fellows paved the way for Seattle music scene 35 years ago
A few years before the Seattle music scene exploded with bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana – all playing variations of a certain now-quaint genre that rhymes with “sponge” – a light-hearted but loud and energetic pop quartet was one of the first local acts to be noticed by the national critics.
The band was the Young Fresh Fellows, and this autumn marks the 35th anniversary of their sophomore effort – and national breakout album – “Topsy Turvy.”
Scott McCaughey is one of the founders of the Young Fresh Fellows. He’s in his 60s now, and lives in Portland. He’s a veteran musician, who’s toured with R.E.M. and played with all kinds of musical acts, from the Minus 5 to Tuatara to the Baseball Project.
But McCaughey remains most closely associated with the Young Fresh Fellows, the band he launched in Seattle in the early ’80s. Before that, Scott McCaughey and the band’s founding guitarist Chuck Carroll came to Seattle from the Bay Area looking to start a music magazine.
Carroll, McCaughey says, had scoped out Seattle in the summer of 1979 and found there was nothing in the city like BAM — the free and much-admired music paper in San Francisco.
“So we just loaded up his Volkswagen van with all our records and guitars and just drove up there,” McCaughey said, of those simpler times. “We had a friend of a friend who had a basement where we could live.”
But the music magazine plans fell through almost immediately.
“In the two or three months that had passed since Chuck had been there, The Rocket had come out,” McCaughey said. “When we got up there, the first thing we do, we went into the Rainbow Tavern just by a fluke. We walked in there and they had the second issue [of The Rocket], the one with The Clash on the cover.”
“There goes our big idea,” said McCaughey, chuckling.
Since somebody else had already beat them to it, Scott and Chuck got jobs at The Rocket instead. Chuck sold advertising, and Scott drove around in his 1966 Caliente Comet collecting quarters out of the paperboxes for The Rocket’s parent publication, The Seattle Sun.
The pay? About $25 a week, says McCaughey. But it was cheaper to live in Seattle 40 years ago, even taking inflation into account.
“We were paying $100 together to live in this basement – a hundred dollars a month – and every Sunday, we’d go to Goldie’s on 45th Street, and they had 25-cent hotdogs, and it was a dollar for a pitcher of beer,” McCaughey said.
“We’d go there for a big feast on Sundays, and we kind of would starve ourselves the rest of the time,” he said. “I mean, it wasn’t like we were wasting away, and we certainly were drinking plenty of beer.”
“You could do it somehow on that very small, small income,” McCaughey said.
Along with their day jobs, the pair kept making music. They put out the first Young Fresh Fellows record – “Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest” – with McCaughey playing bass, Carroll on guitar, and Chuck’s cousin Tad Hutchison on drums. That record brilliantly re-purposed vintage narration from a Pacific Northwest Bell promo record as interstitials between the catchy pop songs. Producer Conrad Uno of Seattle’s Popllama Records sent the LP around to college radio stations and it made something of a splash on various campuses all over the country.
During 1984 and 1985, the Young Fresh Fellows were playing a lot in Seattle’s active bar music scene, and were part of a wave of local bands who were writing their own material rather than playing covers of other artists’ songs – which could be attributed, at least partially, to the influence of circa 1980 local wonders The Heats.
It was sometime in 1985 that Jim Sangster joined the band and took over on bass, allowing Scott to move to guitar – both Scott and Chuck played guitar and keyboard. With the fortified lineup, the band recorded and then released their second LP, “Topsy Turvy.” Like the first record, it was produced and recorded by Conrad Uno at Egg Studios – located in Uno’s garage in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood.
“Topsy Turvy” was as popular in the Northwest as a local record could be in those days, but somehow, big time music critics got wind of the album, too.
It was Rolling Stone that first showed how much they really liked the Young Fresh Fellows when they listed the band’s tour dates in the magazine in the spring of 1986. That may sound insignificant in 2020, but it was a huge boost in those pre-Internet days to get national media help alerting the fans to upcoming shows.
And then, Rolling Stone critic David Fricke raved about “Topsy Turvy” in the July 17, 1986, issue of the magazine. The Young Fresh Fellows, Fricke wrote, were “the perfect refresher, a bracing bop cocktail of daffy comic relief, canny pop songwriting, and punk-rock drive.”
The national exposure lit the fuse for the band, and, many would agree, helped light the fuse for what became the Seattle music scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But, all that attention didn’t change things much in the near term for Scott McCaughey – who kept his day job managing University District record store Cellophane Square – or for the other members of the band.
“We were looked at as being a really happening band in Seattle because we got national coverage, which nobody did back then, because it was before the Sub Pop thing happened and everything,” McCaughey said. “It was pretty cool for us, but we also had to kind of let people know, ‘Hey, it’s not like we’re big stars now. I’m still working at Cellophane Square and you’ll see me walking around the Ave, and we’re going to play a gig for a hundred or two hundred bucks at the Rainbow coming right up.’”
Attention from Rolling Stone “didn’t really change us overnight, but it changed the perception of us overnight, for sure,” McCaughey said.
But “Topsy Turvy” and all those live shows did help lead, a few years later, to a contract with a bigger indie label in California – which meant more records and more touring. Along the way, original guitarist Chuck Carroll was replaced by Kurt Bloch, one of the founders of the Fastbacks, another iconic local band. It’s this lineup of the Young Fresh Fellows that endures to this day.
While the Young Fresh Fellows never made it “big,” exactly, they did have at least one indie hit; they influenced a ton of other bands; and they got to share stages and recording studios with all kinds of other artists they admired, from The Replacements to NRBQ.
Nowadays, like every other band at the moment, the Young Fresh Fellows are laying low. McCaughey had some health issues a few years ago, but he’s doing much better.
Before the pandemic, the band was still playing frequent live dates in the Northwest, but also occasionally in Spain where they’ve had a big following for many years. They also just put out a new record called “Toxic Youth,” which was actually recorded three years ago – at Egg Studios, in Conrad Uno’s garage one more time, right before Uno shut down the operation permanently.
For McCaughey, who’s been involved in dozens of recording projects over the past 40 years, “Topsy Turvy” is still a big part of the band’s DNA, and many of the songs from the album are among his favorites.
“I love ‘Mr. Salamander’s Review,’ I love ‘Topsy-Turvy Theme,’” McCaughey said. “I just listened to it this morning when I got up, just to kind of refresh my memory, and it’s a pretty strong record. It’s hard to listen to the stuff that you did 35 years ago, but it sounds really good.”
McCaughey doesn’t sound boastful or egotistical as he lists his favorite “Topsy Turvy” tracks. He sounds more like an earnest fan who happens to possess a major hoard of insider information.
“You could tell that that’s a strong record because we still play a lot of those songs 35 years later,” McCaughey said. “We still go back to that record [for live shows] and play them all the time, really.”
And those Young Fresh Fellows live sets, even back in the 1980s, were always peppered with choice and sometimes decades-old esoteric covers – “Have Love, Will Travel” by the Sonics, “What a Way to Die” by the Pleasure Seekers – that could send music-obsessed fans into a feeding frenzy to ransack used record stores to try and track down the source material, pre-YouTube. In this way, McCaughey and the other Fellows were like astute blue-collar ethnomusicologists, delivering beguiling lectures on the history of folk, blues, pop, rock and punk to the most willing of students.
And, really, why should that ability to still love the music decades later be something that’s only reserved for the fans?
“I’m happy to be able to be playing music, and I’m happy that I still like some songs that I wrote that long ago,” McCaughey said.
On a personal note, it was 35 years ago this month that, thanks to two of my oldest friends – Ken Zick and Amy Orr Hunt – the Young Fresh Fellows played the 1985 Homecoming Dance at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland. Ken and Amy led the Entertainment Committee for the dance that year, and somehow convinced the teachers and administrators overseeing things to let them book the up-and-coming band. I’m proud to say that the fighting Kangaroos may be the only high school that can make this boast about the Young Fresh Fellows.