The Untold Story of Elliott Smith’s Teenage Band

Elliott Smith


Back in 1985, Elliott Smith was just Steven Paul Smith, a shy new kid entering his sophomore year at Portland’s Lincoln High School. He soon befriended a small group of fellow music obsessives, and over the next four years, this tight-knit crew recorded six albums of original material. The songs on these records have a lot of… everything: sections, lyrics, time signatures, guitar solos, era-appropriate keyboard sounds. One track, 1986’s “Laughter,” crams more of all those things into its bulging nine minutes than most Rush albums do in their entire runtimes. These homemade epics were released on cassette and distributed locally—which meant that for a brief period in the mid-1980s, if you went to one of the band’s shows or frequented the right record store, you could buy one of these tapes and listen to it on your stereo. 

Decades later, when Smith was an acclaimed solo star giving interviews to major music publications, this idea seemingly kept him up at night. Whenever these recordings were mentioned, he dismissed them relentlessly. “I really promised myself a long time ago I would keep [them] from ever seeing the light of day,” he laughed when asked about his high school albums in 2003. He didn’t even want to share a band name with the interviewer for fear someone might “dredge it up.”

Well, someone has—or rather, the combined forces of fanbase curiosity and passing time have forced the recordings into light. Now, Elliott Smith diehards who know what to search for on YouTube can hear these records for themselves. Although judging by the videos’ current view counts, this music, made by a teenaged Smith with his friends, is still very much hiding in plain sight.