The Macs: The Sound of Early Seattle
Before there was Grunge, Seattle had a lively power pop band called The Macs
The first time The Macs entered Seattle’s Triangle Recording studio in 1980, they recorded what proved to be two-thirds of their total recorded releases: sides A and B of a 45rpm single. It was the band’s first time in a studio.
Back then, before Nirvana recorded Bleach there, and Mudhoney recorded “Touch Me I’m Sick” and turned the building into grunge holy ground, Triangle Recording was just a nondescript wood-sided wedge set on the corner where 6th Avenue branches off from Leary Way.
Built around 1914, the building used to be a grocery store. When studio engineer Jack Weaver leased it in 1976, the big side windows were broken, rainwater pooled on the floor, and homeless people slept inside. He rented the place for seventy-five dollars a month.
Fire gutted the studio in March of 1980. After they rebuilt in July, Weaver says, “We were jammed with business day and night for years.” He sold his portion of Triangle to his partner Bill Stuber in 1984. In 1986, Jack Endino and Chris Hanszek leased the building and rechristened it Reciprocal Recording. There, throughout the late-80s, Endino recorded the sessions that Sub Pop Records used to sell itself and market sleepy Seattle as a cultural mecca: Green River’s Dry as a Bone, Soundgarden’s Screaming Life, Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, TAD’s God’s Balls. When a little-known band named Nirvana came up from Aberdeen to record a ten-song demo in 1988, that old grocery store became the place that forever changed American music. But eight years before Cobain arrived, The Macs recorded six minutes of music that arguably constitute their crowning achievement. They recorded one more song and disbanded that year, before many people ever heard of them. I’d certainly never heard of them. Then I walked into Jackpot Records in Portland, Oregon on Record Store Day 2011.
Mudhoney’s guitarist Steve Turner was there spinning records from his huge personal collection. Under the name DJ Dollar Bin, Turner worked two turntables in the back by the stairs. People lined up in front of him waiting for the register, records clutched in their hands. That was a cool surprise. This dude had been there from the start. He played in Green River before the term Grunge existed. He watched the U-Men play tiny Seattle stages. He saw Mother Love Bone perform and was not impressed. Before there was a Pearl Jam, and while Andrew Wood still teased his hair and told audiences “Love rock awaits you!” Turner and Mark Arm’s band took their raw, garage rock to England in 1988 and helped usher in the Alternative Era for kids like me. He provided the soundtrack of my youth. In high school, I blasted Mudhoney while pulling into the school parking lot. My date wore a Mudhoney shirt under her clothes to a school dance. Turner was a legend. No one bothered him.
This was the kind of thing I move to the Northwest for.
As I sifted through crates of markdowns, a song played overheard that grabbed my attention. In place of guitar chords, a simple driving staccato guitar line played over a swift 4-4 beat. And a guy with what resembled a French accent sort of talked over the music: “I’m walking down the street again, I’m walking down the street.” Curious, I walked over to the DJ table and asked what song he’d just played.
“Which?” Turner said.
I told him—two songs before this one—then I hummed the melody as best as I could remember it, which was barely. How embarrassing for a thirty-something-year-old man who can barely play a four-string instrument to have to hum to a guy who helped define a generation.
I hummed. His face registered nothing.
In my marble-mouthed way, I sang what I thought were the lyrics—something about walking and a street. Just as I started to fear I’d misheard them, Turner said, “Oh, oh, maybe ‘Walking Down the Street?’” He flipped through his stack of already played records, pulled a 45 from a plain white sleeve and handed it to me. “It’s The Macs,” he said, “an old Seattle band.’”
I wrote down the name. The A-side was called “The Cowboy Song.”
“Good luck finding that,” Turner said, returning the record to the stack. “It’s a hard one to track down.”
The record came out in 1980. I fell so in love with that B-side that I thought about it for weeks. I also marveled that, had I arrived at Jackpot Records five minutes later, I still would never have heard of this band. I found a few copies of the record for sale online; one in Germany went for $105. When I tried to dig up info, though, I found very little.
Clark Humphrey’s seminal book Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story doesn’t mention The Macs. Mark Yarm’s canonical oral history Everybody Loves Our Town doesn’t mention them, neither does the Hype! documentary. The Macs were pre-Grunge, not proto-. In fact, they predated the bands that pre-dated grunge, bands like The U-Men and Green River who influenced Seattle’s sludge and fuzz rock musicians.
The web yielded no live photos, no concert listings in zines, or old Seattle papers, not even a single flyer that some meticulous music archivist had digitized for posterity. In place of a band history, I found an aging post about them on someone’s personal blog, along with three songs posted on YouTube. However hazy their origins, their body of work was clear: three songs, two on The Cowboy Song/Walking Down the Street single, and one called “I’m 37” on the Seattle Syndrome compilation. If the singer was thirty-seven when “I’m 37” came out in 1981, he must have been sixty-eight years old by now. He could be my grandpa—if, that was, he was really thirty-seven at the time of the recording.
Triangulating The Macs’ lifespan by the evidence they left felt like carbon dating insects from microscopic dust. A mention in the first Subterranean Pop fanzine in 1980, the seven-inch single, a song on that comp—they appeared to have existed somewhere between 1979 and 1981. The thing was, their singer-guitarist Colin McDonell helped start the band 3 Swimmers in 1980, which suggested that The Macs had dissolved by then, which itself meant that a band this good might have only lasted one year.
I did more research.
I found a high-res scan of The Cowboy Song record sleeve online which provided this information:
Written and Directed by Colin McDonell
Bassist: Angus McDonell
The Drummer: Neal Erickson
Below that, the session info:
Produced by Homer Spence
Executive Producer Mike Pescura
Mr. Brown Records released the single. According to the K Records website, Mr. Brown was “an Olympia independent label in the early ‘80s.” Before he co-founded Sub Pop Records in Seattle in 1986, Bruce Pavitt lived in Olympia. While enrolled there in Evergreen State College, he started an indie music radio show and zine called Subterranean Pop, later renamed it Sub/Pop, and he released cassette tapes of underground bands. When he moved to Seattle, he channeled his enthusiasm into a column for the city’s culture paper The Rocket. Kurt Cobain was a devoted reader.
Under the heading “LOCAL BANDS” in Subterranean Pop’s first issue, Pavitt lists a number of note: The Blackouts, The Beakers, Larry & the Mondellos, FRED. The Macs are listed as The Mac’s Band, of which Pavitt says: “A very distinctive pop trio that seems to be generally looked down upon around here. Maybe their name isn’t trendy enough. Anyway-young, teen bass player shares the vocals with one of the most melodic guitarists around.” It made me wonder: Had The Macs written more songs that they never got around to recording? If they played shows composed of more than covers, they had to have more than three original tunes.
In Sub/Pop #2, published in 1980, reviewers said: “The Macs have just added a keyboard player who’s supposed to be very ‘tasteful.’” That was most of what we knew from that year of their life and all we knew of their live performances.
A short roundup of recent record releases appeared on a following page: Beakers’ Red Towel 45, and a record from a band called (_______) – all Mr. Brown Records. Of The Macs’ 45, Sub/Pop said: “Along with the Bongos and Epicycle, The Macs are undoubtedly one of the strongest students of ’60’s pop in the U.S. of A. In Walking Down the Street, we see an aching pop vocalist slide down some haunted London back alley: chilling. Cowboy Song is the real sleeper here though: a one-minute guitar intro (!?) proves Colin McDonell to be the most melodic guitarist in the U.S. underground. a (sic) classic.”
“[T]he most melodic guitarist in the U.S. underground” is a flattering description but hyperbolic. In his role at Sub Pop Records, Pavitt evolved into a master of hype and promotion. You can see that quality on display here. He’s trying to convince you of a band’s magnificence in order to ensure that magnificent is what they became; he’s also probably trying to sell you something. You have to love him for it, though, that conviction, that passion, that snake-suit salesmanship for something as marginalized back then as independent music.
Characterizing “The Cowboy Song” as ‘classic’ feels hyperbolic, too. ‘Great,’ maybe, ‘stellar’ even, but ‘classic’? The Stooges’ Raw Power is classic. Coltrane’s Giant Steps is classic, as is, to a lot of people, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. The Macs’ 45 is worth tracking down, but it’s no Raw Power. With Pavitt’s glowing description, you’d expect a series of potent releases to follow this 45. Instead, it would be their only one.
Aside from The Macs, Mr. Brown Records released the Life Elsewhere compilation, which Sup/Pop wrote about in its debut issue. The compilation features music by Beakers, John Foster, and Steve Fisk. Fisk and Foster, it turns out, helped release The Macs’ sole seven-inch on this same label. So I started my search for more info by emailing Fisk.
Although the 1999 Encyclopedia of Northwest Music calls him an “all-around experimental wacko”—whatever that means—Fisk was one of the most influential figures in the early Northwest underground. Fisk debuted as a producer in 1985 on The Screaming Trees’ debut album, Other Worlds, and he ended up engineering Nirvana’s Blew EP, Beat Happening’s exceptional Jamboree LP, Soundgarden’s Fopp EP, and Girl Trouble’s first album, Hit It or Quit It, in 1988. As a musician, Fisk’s music appeared on the groundbreaking Sub Pop 100 compilation in 1986, alongside songs from Sonic Youth, Wipers and Scratch Acid. When he moved to Olympia, Washington, he became friends with Bruce Pavitt when Pavitt was still publishing his Sub/Pop fanzine. As Fisk says in Steve Tow’s book The Strangest Tribe: “We all lived in this house on the west side [of Olympia]…Bruce lived downtown, and so he would go to the [Op] PO Box and find whatever had come in and would march up the hill to our place where we had tape machines and proper monitoring systems. And we’d listen to the people [who] were submitting things for Sup/Pop. When he helped run Mr. Brown, I asked, did he see The Macs play? What were they like? “The Macs were good live,” Fisk said by email. “Never that popular.”
“Mr. Brown was a loose co-op of musicians and friends,” said Fisk, “many of the editors and writers from Op magazine: John Foster, Dana Squires, David Rauh, Toni Holm, Mark H. Smith, George Romansic and others.” Op magazine was Olympia’s guide to independent music in the late-70s. In fact, it was Op that inspired Pavitt to start Sub/Pop. “We only put out a few records and cassettes,” Fisk said. “No real ethos. We were named in honor of James Brown.”
Bruce Pavitt had fewer details to offer about The Macs and their song “Walking Down the Street.” “It’s a great track....!” he told me with four ellipses and an exclamation mark, “but I really couldn’t tell you much, other than it came out on Mr. Brown Records and did not sell. The CEO of Mr. Brown, John Foster, whispered to me that he thought the choice of putting filmmaker Stanley Kubrick on the cover was a career killing move.” I’d read enough Pavitt quotes to know that the last line was a joke, possibly on me.
When I contacted John Foster, he said, “Talk about hazy. I don’t even remember what the Macs Band (that’s what we called them, I recall) looked like. They were a Seattle band, and I was (and am) Olympia-based. In fact, I didn’t remember that Kubrick was on the cover.” He suggested I contact two old friends of Macs guitarist Colin McDonell, musicians with whom McDonell formed the band 3 Swimmers: Mark H. Smith and George Romansic. Romansic had even helped run Mr. Brown Records. “For the record,” he said, “there was no CEO. We all did what we were better at. I guess my job was publicity, promotion, and distribution/sales, and it turned out I wasn’t particularly astute at any of them. If you knew me, you’d be amazed that I was entrusted with those pieces of the marketing puzzle.”
Hoping for more information or leads, I contacted Chris Hanzsek, cofounder of Reciprocal Recording and C/Z Records, who released the seminal Deep Six compilation. “Hmm,” Hanzsek told me, “wish I could help on your info search, but I don’t know anything about that band.” He put me in touch with engineer Jack Weaver.
I even sent Steve Turner a message on Facebook, asking about the song. “Hi Aaron,” he said, “funny, I just played it again at Jackpot on RSD... I don’t really know too much about it.” He generously transcribed the credits on the back of the seven-inch for me, said he’d covered The Macs’ song “I’m 37” on this first solo record, then he suggested I contact Steve Fisk and check out the book Loser.
Out of the blue, Fisk wrote back. Colin still lived in Seattle, he told me, “Would probably dig your interest.” He provided a link to a profile page on the University of Washington website.
Hopeful about this development, I sent an emailing introducing myself and asked if he was the same Colin who played in The Macs.
The next day he wrote, “Hi Aaron, Yes that’s me…”
I sent him some interview questions and awaited his reply. What would he say? Would he even respond? Ten days passed until his answers arrived. When they did, I quit what I was doing and read them immediately.
In our era of Portland this and Seattle that, it’s hard to imagine that the Northwest was once an ignored region musically. Popular for salmon fishing, timber extraction, and sightseeing, before the mainstream press got wind of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991, pop music’s cultural tastemakers rarely thought of it. Yes, The Sonics from Tacoma are one of the pillars of garage rock, and yes, the Portland band The Kingsmen scored a huge hit in 1963 with “Louie, Louie.” But to outsiders during the 1970s and ’80s, the Northwest was a blank spot on the musical map.
As early Sub Pop publicist Nils Bernstein says in the documentary Hype!, “Bands never used to come here, because they’d go as far as San Francisco and not come all the way up to Seattle ’cause it wasn’t worth it to play one show.” Many locals liked it that way. Being ignored in a seemingly uninhabitable land of constant drizzle meant they could do whatever they wanted and create their own identities in a relative bubble free of conventional America’s mindless BS. Sub Pop’s heavy marketing changed all that.
Mudhoney’s song “Touch Me I’m Sick” became an underground classic, Sub Pop’s first version of a hit, and the label used it as a calling card to convince the British press that something big was brewing in Seattle. Nirvana’s album Nevermind broke that news to the rest of the world. The region was never the same again. It was in that gap between The Sonics and Soundgarden that The Macs emerged.
Colin formed The Macs in 1976 with his brother Angus, in sleepy pre-grunge Seattle. He was nineteen. “We liked to sing together,” Colin told me, “Jan & Dean, Beatles etcetera.” Colin had only picked up the guitar three years earlier. Angus learned bass to play with him.
Colin met their first drummer Neal Erickson at Scotty’s Juice Bar in Pike Place Market. Colin worked there at the time and had posted a sign: “drummer wanted.” Neal doesn’t remember a sign.
Neal sold leather crafts at a stall in the Market. He told me that he regularly bought juice at Scotty’s, so he and Colin talked about music. When they discovered they shared common interests, Colin asked Neal to come play music at his house sometime. At first, Colin had an old friend play drums, so Neal played guitar, even though he couldn’t play very well. “When he found out I was a better drummer than guitarist,” Neal said, “I took over (don’t know how he handled the other drummer but perhaps I should have taken note).”
Born and raised in Seattle, Angus and Colin came from a long line of Seattle natives. Their mother, Joan McDonell, was an award-winning journalist who made her mark with The Seattle Times. Their father, Lawrence McDonell, worked as a criminal prosecuting attorney during the 1950s, later a civil attorney. Colin and Angus were one of four boys, eight kids total.
The trio starting performing around Seattle in 1977. “At our first show in 1977,” Colin said, “we were described by someone as punk rock…which was interesting as it was West Coast garage and we hadn’t ever heard any.” The characterization confused him, but in retrospect he understood the error. “Since it was fast and furious, I supposed it sounded more punk than pop, but it was a description that was surprising.”
The band played out a lot. Sometimes they left the audience baffled, scratching their heads like “What was that?” Other times they left the crowd yelling “Encore! Encore!” Crowds often shouted to play certain songs again. They played their first gig in Portland, Oregon, opening for the Blackouts, a band mentioned in the first Subterranean Pop zine. The most memorable part of that show, though, was sharing the bill with The Wipers. “They were so good,” Neal told me. “The club was literally underground...” The Macs’ biggest show was opening for the Ramones at the Showbox. Word was that the Ramones really liked The Macs, though no one can confirm if the New York punks even watched.
Macs sets mixed originals with covers: Jethro Tull’s “Hunting Girl,”
Jan and Dean’s “Ride the Wild Surf,” The Beatles’ “Don’t Bother Me” and “All I’ve Got To Do,” and “Gut Feeling” by Devo. Tull, Beatles, Cream, Jan and Dean—the bands Colin heard growing up were the bands that influenced his guitar playing and pop sensibility.
In June 1980, Seattle’s legendary local music paper The Rocket described Colin as “a rock ‘n’ roll James Dean onstage, singing with a kind of sensitive rebellious look.” The Rocket described The Macs’ music as “part movie soundtrack and part dance music, with touches of psychedelic and western sounds, and plenty of pop hooks and vocals.” In that same article, Colin said, “Our music is real honest and personal.” He added: “We’re all kind of quiet.” Quiet, maybe, but Colin was confident, some would say cocky. As he told the interviewer, "We don't think any band has anything on us, period.” In Sub/Pop, Pavitt suggested that The Macs were black sheep in the early Seattle community, or at least a quiet presence. Was that true? “Bruce was always great for us,” Colin told me. “He thought, I would imagine, that we should have been more successful than we were.” What about Pavitt’s description of Colin as “the most melodic guitarist in the U.S. underground.”? “Very nice thing to read,” Colin said.
Short as they were, Colin’s answers filled in the band’s scant history.
At the time, Colin played a black Gibson Les Paul. To produce a thicker, more sustained sound, he liked to use heavy gauge strings on the guitar’s top three, stringing them with what would normally be the G-string. Then, instead of chords, he’d play staccato lines on one string at a time, favoring what he called a digital lead. The technique produced what he described as “something atmospheric to add different color on top of chord progressions.” It was an unusual approach, but the effect was profound. It also won him fans.
When Mr. Brown Records offered to release their first single, the band members pooled money to pay for studio time at Triangle Recording. Although the building now looks like any inner city liquor store boarded up and emptied by the recession, magic happened at 4230 Leary Way. Kurt Cobain smoked cigarettes between songs there. A young, fresh-faced Soundgarden parked a car full of musical equipment on the street to unload, and Mudhoney belched a beer burp near the mic before kicking off “Touch Me I’m Sick,” inadvertently creating one of the best adlib intros in rock history.
You’d also never guess it, but Colin vaguely remembered that Mount St. Helens erupted when The Macs recorded. That would have been May 18, 1980, the day a magnitude 5.1 earthquake collapsed the volcano’s north face, triggering the largest recorded debris avalanche in history, which leveled 230 square miles of buildings, wildlife and vegetation, and ejected a mushroom-shaped ash cloud some fifteen miles high, forty miles wide at the top, and ten miles thick at the base.
For nine hours, the mountain blew a scorching column of ash before the stream started gasping and withdrew into the cone. Maybe The Macs did a bit of the same: Released their stored energy and then dispersed back underground.
Colin described the session as “Fun. Very smooth.” If Colin remembered incorrectly, and they hadn’t recorded on May 18th, then they definitely recorded during the following days, when St. Helens still blew intermittent clouds after the main eruption.
In his Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, Charles Cross describes Reciprocal Recording at the time Nirvana recorded their demo: “The studio itself was only 900 square feet, with a control room so tiny three people could not comfortably stand in it at once. ‘The carpets were worn, the door frames all were coming apart and tacked back a few times, and it showed its age,’ recalled [owner Chris] Hanszek. ‘You could see that the place had the signs of 10,000 musicians who had rubbed their elbows against the place.’”
As big of an impression as The Macs made on studio owner Jack Weaver, he engineered so frequently that he remembered very little about their songs or history. “I do remember when they came for their sessions, they were a pretty subdued version of a power trio,” Weaver told me. “Colin and I were good friends and socialized a lot during that period. I only had known him a short time before he came in with The Macs.” Weaver described the session as straight forward. “We recorded the instruments first and then overdubbed the vocals. Nothing technically fancy. …Colin always had a sparse song style and didn’t go for any unnecessary elaboration. He didn’t like to overplay on guitar and many of his solo lines were repeated staccato notes.” Weaver didn’t think Angus McDonell remained musically active in Seattle after that session, and he couldn’t even remember the drummer. “It was,” he said, “Colin’s show.”
By 5:30 at night on May 18th, St. Helens had released twenty-four megatons of thermal energy and had shrunk by 1,300 vertical feet. Ash from the eruption drifted across Idaho and as far as Edmonton, Alberta. Residents there found it dusting the tops of their cars the next morning.
Not long after the session, Neal’s stint suddenly ended. He never learned why. He just found out the band was playing with another drummer named Chris Utting, so he picked his drums up from the practice space and, as he put it, “that was that.” The full story is: Chris Utting, known as Criss Crass, seems to have elbowed his way into the band by convincing Colin that he was a better drummer than Neal. At the time, Colin was dating a woman named Sheila. Cris Crass was dating Sheila’s sister, Trish. That web of relationships might have skewed Colin’s allegiances away from Neal, or maybe he didn’t think Neal was a good enough drummer. Colin would never say. Criss ended up playing in a band called The Muffs that got pretty successful. But Neal didn’t know any of that. Forty years later, he still didn’t know that. He just got a safe job and raised a family, and he quit playing music. Only later, in the early 2000s, did he start playing in bands again.
Mr. Brown pressed around a thousand copies of the single and sold it at Seattle and Olympia record stores.
Seeing a need to document Seattle’s increasingly impressive musical community, a local named Engram Records put out the Seattle Syndrome compilation in 1981. The label’s founder wanted to collect songs from bands that didn’t have full-length albums, so it included The Pudz, The Fartz, The Refuzors (the letter ‘z’ seemed pretty popular then), Fastbacks, and The Macs. Just as Op magazine inspired Pavitt to start Sub/Pop, Seattle Syndrome inspired Reciprocal’s owner Chris Hanzsek to move to Seattle in the first place, where he recorded early incarnations of bands that become legendary for the Deep Six comp. The Macs contributed the song “I’m 37” to Seattle Syndrome. They'd recorded it at a second Triangle Recording session in 1980. It proved to be their final release.
The song is good.
Narrated by a thirty-seven-year-old man who works at a grocery store, the first-person perspective makes it tempting to interpret the lyrics as autobiographical. But they can’t be too autobiographical. Colin would have been twenty-three in 1980. Instead, the lyrics seem to represent some vision of himself, an expression of his feelings and fears and concerns about life. Maybe he felt stuck like the narrator felt stuck, quickly aging and often alone.
After a short, dark guitar intro, Colin sings:
I’m thirty-seven years old today, and I work at a grocery store. …People come in and purchase things, like cases of beers and magazines. What they do I wouldn’t know, but they always seem to have a place to go.
It’s a sad song about loneliness and alienation.
I work weekends, but that’s okay, ’cause I take my time and I get paid. I usually go home right when I’m through, because I don’t have much else to do. If money’s up I might go downtown and see a film or just walk around. I usually go to movies by myself, but if I wanted to I would bring someone else.
Before this song came out, the group disbanded: in late December 1980. In Colin’s words, they “Felt it ran its course.” The Rocket magazine had done a long interview with The Macs in preparation for a feature article about them, but when The Macs broke up, the paper cancelled the piece. Instead of a bang, they went with a whisper.
After The Macs, Colin formed the band 3 Swimmers with George Romansic and Mark H. Smith. They released two albums, a song on the second Seattle Syndrome comp. Seattle’s once-reigning music paper The Rocket covered them and they went on tour. When they split in 1983, Colin formed a studio project called Cinema 90. Steve Fisk said he recorded one of Colin’s ’90s era projects, called the Grand Hotel, which he described as “Very good. Never released.”
As Colin rounded out the portrait for me, his old 3 Swimmers’ drummer George Romansic wrote back. "Hey Aaron,” he said. “There are no quick questions about The Macs! But I am glad to try to help figure them out, because I have long thought that they are one of the most underrated bands in Seattle rock history, certainly of that era.” Friendly and helpful, you could also tell that, from the length of George’s response and the level of detail, Colin and his music remained a hot topic for him even after all these years. Something unresolved lurked below the surface. He said:
“Colin was an intense, brooding character, which sometimes made him difficult to work with but which added to his amazing power as a musician. He didn’t do things halfway, and when shows weren’t going right you could feel the powerful tension. I remember seeing one show that obviously frustrated him so much so that he climbed up on a chair at the side of the stage and stood with his head pressed against the wall…while the song was going on. It’s possible he may have stayed there for longer than one song. Memory’s hazy on the details, but I can remember being in awe of the tension.
Colin was really driven, but didn’t always know what he wanted, or how to articulate it. He did know that what was happening wasn’t it. As time went on, he became increasingly minimalistic, wanting to cut everything down to the absolute bones. You can hear that in his guitar playing, where he would sometimes just play one single note over and over throughout most of a song.
As a drummer I knew that I was frustrating to him much of the time we played together because I wasn’t technically very good and found it difficult to play careful, precise parts. Sometimes I thought that Colin really needed a drum machine more than a real drummer. As I recall, he was really drawn to Kraftwerk in those days. When I listen to our recordings together (most of which went unreleased) I wish I could go back in time and do what he wanted, because I realize that he had a vision that could have been amazing if we’d been able to pull it off better. There are times to this day when I find myself wishing I could get together with him to try it again, to get it right this time.”
I found vinyl rips of The Macs’ three songs on filesharing sites. Seeing their oeuvre listed in iTunes really drove home the miniscule scale of their fingerprint. If they’d been performing entire live sets, then they had to have written more than three original songs. I asked Colin about it. “Yes,” he said. “Lots of originals and covers.” He named a few: “I-5,” “Sheila’s In England,” “Super Sonic Man,” “Blue Falcon,” “1980 Here at Last!” and “Big Parade,” which he described as a power ballad about the Seattle Super Sonic’s 1979 NBA championship. They even wrote one with Beach Boy style harmonies about surfing in Greenlake, called “Northwest Surfer.” The names tantalized. You could only wonder what they sounded like, if they were as good as “Walking Down the Street.” We’ll never know. Colin said they never recorded any of them. But on the Seattle Syndrome Facebook Group page, someone calling himself Johnny Vinyl said a few of those unreleased songs actually made it onto a cassette release of mysterious provenance.
“I also have some bad quality rehearsal tapes,” Johnny said on the group page. As it turns out, Johnny Vinyl was the screen name of the band’s old keyboard player, the one Sub/Pop #2 described as supposedly “very tasteful.”
Johnny is a longtime Seattle guitarist who’s played in a lot of bands over the years, from aaiiee to The Missing Links. Later in his career, he recorded and produced sessions at his house, including most of the sessions for Rob Vasquez’s band Night Kings, Gorls, and Nice Smile. In 1981, he joined The Macs for long enough to play keyboard on “I’m 37,” the third and final song that they released. “The funny thing is,” Johnny told me, “I wasn’t really a keyboard player, I played guitar mostly. I just happened to have a Korg synth, and they were looking for a synth player and Chris [the drummer] knew I had that so he asked me if I wanted to join the band.” Johnny and Chris had played in bands together, including one called the Radios, which had Kim Warnick on bass before she cofounded The Fastbacks. “My minimal keyboard skills and equipment sort of fit in with what they were doing,” said Johnny. It lasted a few months. Then they broke up.
Contrary to Colin’s account, Johnny says the band did record two other songs at the Triangle Studios sessions that produced “I’m 37.” They worked on a fourth song but never finished it. “I do have a not-too-bad cassette copy of the two Triangle Studio songs that we recorded at the same time as ‘I’m 37,’” Johnny said. “I’m going to have to dig through my cassettes to find the old rehearsal tapes. I have a few of them, but I think they’re pretty bad quality.” Sitting on these aging tapes, and wanting to expand the band’s recording history, Johnny asked Colin a few years ago if he had any of The Macs master tapes. Colin told him something like, “No, I threw them out.” He didn’t want to discuss it. “That is very Colin-esque,” Johnny said. “He doesn’t say much when it comes to things he doesn’t really want to talk about."
Also contrary to Colin’s account, the original trio’s first session wasn’t the first. Before “Walking Down the Street,” the band recorded two songs that never got released. Colin worked the mixing board, experimenting with sound and technique. Neal Erickson sent me a copy of both songs. They contain the upbeat pop soul of the band, showing a clear stylistic foundation for their second studio attempt stems, and a tantalizing hint of what those other unrecorded originals sounded like. One is called “American Family.” If the second has a name, no one’s told me it.
By the time Johnny joined the band, they’d quit performing “Walking Down the Street.” “I actually really liked it,” Johnny said. When he asked Colin if they planned play it, Colin said no without further explanation.
Although generous with his time and clearly appreciative of my interest in his music, Colin wasn’t very forthcoming. Many answers contained a single word: “Yes.” “Latter.” Others he skipped entirely, or he chose to address one part of a question and offer nothing on the other—which was fine. It was his life and his story to tell. “Yes,” Johnny Vinyl told me, “Colin sort of puts up a brick wall when certain subjects are brought up. I think he has a lot of negative feelings about that period of his life, and possibly some insecurity about being a frontman.”
But my desire to know the story made Colin’s resistance difficult to accept.
As someone trying to document an overlooked band’s short mysterious life, I felt a certain selfish civic duty. Granted, I was partly trying to satisfy my own curiosity. But I was also trying to bring The Macs’ place in the musical Northwest to life in vivid narrative, to do something that no one else seemed to be doing. That required details. Details were precisely what Colin offered few of.
Although many indie bands are defined by their short lifespans, did The Macs’ sparse recorded output disappoint or frustrate him? Had he hoped the band would last longer?
Colin said, “I reckon.”
Other musicians reckoned, too. As one close friend who shall remain nameless said of Colin, “He is one of the few musicians I know who I would truly call a genius, as well as being a true enigma.”
“It truly was Colin’s show,” Neal told me, “and I believe that he had the potential to be a significant musician, and I don’t know why that didn’t happen. We weren’t punk. I would call it pure power pop. I still have many of those songs in my head today.”
Even if they were relatively obscure as Seattle music goes, The Macs’ three songs endured. I mean, it was pretty flattering that Steve Turner covered “I’m 37” on his first solo album and performed it on tour, introducing it at a 2002 Seattle show by telling the audience: “This is a song by an old Seattle band called The Macs. I learned it on my 37th birthday.” He seemed to really dig it. Clearly I did too, as evidenced by the fact that I’d contacted all these strangers to ask about the band. Did people ever come out of the woodwork to compliment Colin on his music or ask about The Macs?
“Yes,” he said, “surprisingly.”
Drummer Chris Utting had asked Johnny to propose a one-off Macs reunion to Colin. Whenever Johnny did, Colin answered with a resounding ‘no.’ A reunion would be the only way to hear those unrecorded songs. Despite the nearly overwhelming urge to ask Colin if he’d reconsider a reunion, I never did. Instead, I asked if he wrote the lyrics to “Walking Down the Street.” What was its origin?
“Yep,” he said, “Just trying to get through the day…”
The answer raised more questions than it answered. I wanted to know so much more. I wanted details, a story, an image of him walking down a street when something profound hit him, a moment of clarity or insight, or at least some lyrical interpretation. Instead, he gave eight words.
In his guitar playing and autobiography, he favored minimalism, what George Romansic called the urge “to cut everything down to the absolute bones.” That or it was now an urge to forget or conceal.
How about the “I’m 37” lyrics: Clearly he wasn’t thirty-seven at the time, so was he writing in character? Channeling his internal struggles or fears of growing up and getting stuck in unsatisfying jobs? In one sense, that song’s lyrics could be describing the average working musician, not just in Seattle in the 1980s or ’90s, but anywhere in America: Day job, frustrations, entrapment, etcetera.
As usual, Colin offered little. In place of details or an anecdote about a bleak shift at Scotty’s Juice Bar in Pike Place Market, he said: “You got the gist.”
After drummer Neal Erickson read a version of this story online, he contacted me to send images and fantastic details. Sheila McDonell generously sent me unreleased photos of The Macs for this story and acted as an intermediary between Colin and I. Shortly after we spoke, Colin retired from the University of Washington and took the only email I had for him with him. Nearly a decade a later, both “Walking Down the Street” or “Cowboy Song” disappeared from YouTube, and just like that, the past disappeared back into the past.