Aerosmith, Poison, Bon Jovi… The hair was hideous and the songs were sucktastic.
Fortunately, those days would soon play their big power ballad in the sky.
Outside the mainstream, and unbeknownst to the music industry, the Alternative movement was gaining steam. Bands like The Pixies and Sonic Youth combined elements of pop, punk, and metal to create an experimental new sound.
Then, in 1991, this new sound would crystallize around one band (and later, the bands of one city), knocking down the walls of the music industry and ushering in the era of grunge rock.
SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT
In a dark, mood-lit gym, apathetic cheerleaders led the student body in an alternatingly quiet then loud rock number.
Load up on guns / And bring your friends / It’s fun to lose / And to pretend
The teenage crowd erupts, sending the gym into chaos, as the janitor merrily dances along with his mop.
It was an anthem for Generation X; Nirvana’s breakthrough single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Thanks to heavy rotation on MTV, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became wildly popular, and by January 1992, Nirvana’s debut album, Nevermind, took the #1 spot on the Billboard albums chart.
WHAT DID IT SOUND LIKE?
If you grew up in the 90s, you recognize it right away- the quiet verse/loud chorus; the sludgy, distorted guitars; the apathetic, angst-filled lyrics… Plain and simple, grunge was rock music in the 90s.
Historically, it’s a mix of hardcore punk, heavy metal, and indie rock, but with a stipped down aesthetic, in contrast to the excesses of 80s glam metal.
Their first album, Ten, was actually released before Nevermind, but it wasn’t until after Nirvana’s success that Pearl Jam gained recognition. Despite criticism from the music press that they weren’t truly alternative, Ten went multiplatinum by 1992. They would later become very anti-commercial and refuse to shoot music videos, but the music video for “Jeremy” ranks as one of the most popular of the 90s.
The new home of rock became the Pacific Northwest, in the fair kingdom of Seattle (or “The New Liverpool”, as one ambitious journalist put it). Much was made of Seattle’s burgeoning music scene, and the plethroa of grunge bands that emerged from there. Flannel shirts, baggy jeans, and unwashed hair became the fashion trademark of Seattle grunge, a fashion that was quickly imitated and converted into consumer products. As a result, poseurs and sell-outs were born.
ALICE IN CHAINS
Leaning closer towards hard metal than the other grunge bands (they toured with Slayer, Megadeath, and Anthrax), the most memorable Alice in Chains single, “Man In A Box” peaked a #18 on the Mainstream Rock Charts in early 1991.
He was the leading figure of this era in rock, his uncompromised dedication to his art transcending the grunge label. After the mainstream success of Nirvana’s first album, Cobain wanted to challenge this new audience with a truly alternative record. And Nirvana did just that on In Utero, with such songs as “Rape Me”, which Cobain insisted the band perform at the 1992 VMA’s, much to the objection of MTV.
But Cobain was never comfortable with the fame, his only resort being an on-again, off-again herion addiction. This led him to ultimately commit suicide in April ’94 at the age of 27.
Despite such a short career, he’s remembered as one of rock’s greatest legends.
In 1994, their second album, “Superunknown”, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. With its memorable music video, the darkly ironic single, “Black Hole Sun” saw heavy rotation on MTV. If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the most iconic song of the grunge rock era, “Black Hole Sun” definitely comes in 2nd. It was the last high point for the original Seattle grunge bands.
DECLINE & POST-GRUNGE
The dissolution of Nirvana, along with Pearl Jam’s boycott of Ticketmaster (the band cancelled their 1994 summer tour), as well as the splintering off of Alice in Chains and Soundgarden members to pursue solo projects, marked the decline of the original grunge movement.
In reaction to grunge’s abrasive sound, Britpop, with its 60s infused guitars, would rise to the top of the charts as rock music’s next big thing.
A post-grunge wave would soon begin to form as new bands imitated the sound of grunge all around the world. But it was right back in Seattle where Dave Grohl would launch his post-Nirvana career, recording the first album of his new band, Foo Fighters.
What are your favorite memories of grunge rock? Please share your thoughts!
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