Monday, February 21, 2011

20 Years Since Grunge Broke In the U.S.A.

It's been 20 years since the grunge explosion that emanated from Seattle and took the world by storm.

Yep, it's been that long. I picked up a music magazine last weekend that covered this anniversary and that got me thinking...

For many of us now in our late 30s or (as in my case) early 40s in the U.S., grunge was THE BIG THING in music for our generation. We grew of age in the 1980s only barely able to sniff the last dying vapor trail of the original punk and new wave scenes, but mainly we were treated everyday to popular acts the likes of Bon Jovi, Poison, Ratt, Paula Abdul, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Culture Club, REO Speedwagon, Night Ranger, Foreigner, Bananarama, Whitesnake, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam (not "the Cult Jam," just "Cult Jam"), Rick Astley, INXS, Richard Marx and on, and on, and on for years.

For every one quality band from that mid/late 80s era that you can think of, like, say The Smiths, Guns & Roses, Prince, PiL, REM, U2; there were dozens if not hundreds of lameoid, flimsy, pre-fab acts to drown them out to a large extent unless you really knew where to listen.

But then something happened.

When nobody was looking in 1991; when everybody was geeked up for the next big release from...I don't know...Bell Biv DeVoe or Color Me Badd, some scary dudes shoved their way to the forefront of music with gritty sound that blew away what would be considered rock for some time.

Finally. Finally! Real, new, authentic, heartfelt, aggressive, noisy and non-pandering rock and roll that you could hear on the radio and easily buy in a our time!

At the epicenter were a few bands out of the Seattle area who had been working for some time leading up to this. Key among them - but by no means the only ones - were Nirvana, Pearl Jam (and its previous incarnation as Mother Love Bone before singer Eddie Vedder arrived), Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Alice In Chains.

To simplify things greatly, Nirvana recorded and released their second album - Nevermind - at the right time and with the right mix of pop hooks married to aggressive and noisy music and a screamy/angsty/gravely vocal delivery. This magic combination was a bit different for Nirvana who had previously traded in all of the above but obvious pop hooks on their previous album - Bleach - and in their live shows.

At any rate, the huge reception Nevermind received from the music buying public sent record companies looking for other similar acts to sign up and make some money off of. And, as mentioned, there were several perfectly poised to be signed after several years of honing their sound and performances.

These bands weren't conjuring a whole new form of rock, but they were taking from key strains of it and adding something of their own.

Again, to simplify, I would suggest that three of them - Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam took the "Led Zeppelin" route of heavy, thundering, dark music with vocal sung by classic rock voices (a complement!) and then brought some minor pop sensibility and, of course, their own lyrical content and message. Meanwhile, I think Nirvana and Mudhoney went down the "Sex Pistols" route of more pop-hooks but with super aggressive sound, lyrics of alienation and raw vocal delivery.

Either way, these things were new to the U.S. listening public for the most part.

Quick history the name of making lots of money, the modern pop music industry's primary underlying assumption was that to sell records you needed songs that sounded pretty, were about love (or the lack of it) and were delivered by attractive and palatable people. So, to be saleable, you had to conform to these rules. The UK had this default position ripped away in the 70s with punk as the Pistols, Clash, Damned and others not only did something different, but they circumvented the system with songs sold very well and topped charts. Even though one may argue that punk started in the U.S. with the Stooges, MC5 and the Ramones and others...none of those bands in their time ever sold many records or ever topped any charts. But their cousins in the UK did. Here in the U.S., we mainly went forward with the same old same old...until the magic year of 1991 when "punk" broke here with these Seattle bands.

Why Seattle? Hard to say. Could be just luck. But, the city has a long history of musical innovation with greats like Ray Charles, The Wailers, Jimi Hendrix, the Sonics, Heart, Queensryche and others. And, with the recession of the late 80s/early 90s (thanks Ronnie and Georgie Sr.!) the area - especially outside the city proper - had many people and musicians facing hard times. And of course there is the generally gray weather for a large amount of the year that could potentially drive the local artists to despair. But even those reasons are not the complete answer as many cities in  the U.S. could say the same and were worse off that Seattle. No, add to all of the above - luck.

It just so happened that the odd, innovative and emotionally hurt Kurt Cobain was born in Aberdeen south of Seattle and formed a band in the area.

It just so happens that a mid-80s local band called Green River split up with some members forming a group called Mudhoney and the others starting a band that would become Mother Love Bone and then Pearl Jam.

It just so happens that the guys from Pearl Jam (after Mother Love Bone but before the name Pearl Jam) were looking for a drummer and a singer, but when their initial choice for drummer turned them down, that drummer also passed on the name of a singer he had met at a Joe Strummer show in L.A. named Eddie Vedder who might fit the bill for the forming Seattle band. And he did. And the rest is history with that outfit too.

And it just so happened that the right set of dedicated musicians found each other to create Alice In Chains and Soundgarden respectively - with Soundgarden more than any other listed above lit the fuse of what became known as "grunge."

And perhaps most important of all, it just so happened that a couple dudes with a keen ear for quality new music formed a record label called Sub Pop and started signing these bands up to initial recording contracts so their music could be heard, promoted and sold.

And for anyone paying attention after that, you know how things went. Naturally, the grunge era faded out by the mid/late 90s as many acts called it a day, the public got weary of listening to a flood of second rate grunge-type bands foisted on them by record companies, tastes returned to a more pop-oriented sound...and of course with Kurt Cobain killing himself in 1994.

But hey, if you think back 20 years to when grunge was fresh, new, exciting and raw...that was an exciting time. We finally got our own, made in the U.S.A. punk rock revolution.

And guess what? The best music by the best bands of that era is still EXCELLENT rock music today. And that's the sign of something truly quality...standing the test of time.

With the 20 year anniversary in my mind this the past week, I've revisited and rocked out to my grunge collection and I can highly recommend the following:

  • Nirvana - all three albums. But, first album Bleach and third album In Utero are actually similar to each other and not like the famous Nevermind. Check out the "book end" albums first.
  • Soundgarden - loads of great records from these guys, but my vote goes to Badmotorfinger. Wicked good rock and roll.
  • Mudhoney - this band is often cited as putting out the first "grunge" song - Touch Me I'm Sick. That song and other good ones are on the album Superfuzz Bigmuff. Check it.
  • Alice In Chains - of all the Seattle grunge bands, I'm not as big a fan of Alice In Chains. But check out Dirt. That's the one they are famous for and it's pretty good.
  • Pearl Jam - the most prolific and long-standing grunge band, Pearl Jam have many great albums. I say check out Ten, Vitalogy and their most recent one Backspacer. 
Oh, and play those albums loud!

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