When: Mid-1980s to the present, peaking in mainstream popularity in the early- to mid-1990s.
Who: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney.
Where: Seattle, Washington and eventually MTV.
A brief history:
Grunge as a musical scene has its roots in the DIY world of hardcore punk and the slacker-type college rock of Sonic Youth. Locals attribute the development of the scene to a sort of snobbishness in American independent music at the time, with Seattle providing an example of a “secondary” city, fit to consume the trailblazing music of New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., but generally considered too isolated and inbred to produce interesting, original music itself. The story is the same in many scenes across America, but if Athens, Georgia, Portland, Oregon and Omaha, Nebraska proved the metropolitan indie axis wrong, it’s still Seattle that trumped it completely.
Grunge began to take shape in the middle of the 1980s as bands like the Melvins and Soundgarden released records that combined the shredded intensity of hardcore punk with the slower, more considered jams of underground metal. A convenient Year Zero for the scene is the release of Sub Pop 100, a compilation by the newly formed Seattle label Sub Pop in 1986. The compilation featured artists as diverse as Sonic Youth on the New York indie side of things and Shonen Knife on the crazy insane Japanese ska pop end, but it put Sub Pop on the map, and from there on, the label was to grow immeasurably in influence and importance. Seattle heard the call and responded.
The sound of proto-grunge itself varied from utterly mulched, effect-drowned slacker rock to the more melodic, soft-verse hard-chorus approach of the likes of Tad and Nirvana. By the end of the 1980s, Everett True had already written a canonical guide to the scene for Melody Maker, and Seattle, once a fringe city thought capable of only derivative music, was firmly on the national map as a prolific source of excellent, alternative records. This is where other cities stopped, but the ‘Seattle Sound’ had more roll to it than that.
Gradually, Seattle grunge bands began to sign to major labels, beginning with Soundgarden signing to A&M in 1989. Pearl Jam joined Epic and Alice in Chains recorded for Columbia, both receiving mild national attention upon their release. The point where grunge left the territory of flannel shirts and garages for good, however, came with Nirvana’s signing with Geffen. Having released Bleach for Sub Pop in 1989, Nirvana were signed to Geffen in the hopes that they could provide an accessible access point into alternative culture along the lines of Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr.
Nevermind went ten times platinum. Its lead single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ provided the crossover track that grunge had lacked, and with its high school gym-based video piped over MTV to houses across America and the world, singer Kurt Cobain provided a new alternative icon for teenage America. Nirvana’s success heralded a broader mainstream interest in the genre, and Pearl Jam’s Ten eventually peaked on the Billboard charts at number two in 1992. Alice In Chains and Soundgarden also troubled the mainstream with subsequent records, and by 1993 with Nirvana’s In Utero and Pearl Jam’s Vs., grunge had reached the peak of its popularity.
In 1994, catastrophe struck with the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Grunge jumped the shark with references on the Simpsons and a generation of derivative bands such as Bush, and by the end of the 1990s grunge had fallen from its lofty peak to an anachronistic side-note on the newly emerging indie rock scene. However, its time in the sun proved that alternative music was capable of captivating audiences of a similar size to that of manufactured and mainstream pop acts.
Grunge lives on in the timeless world of lank-haired, black-clad teenage fans, as well as in the derivative, sheened music of the likes of Nickelback. Nirvana’s foray into (and domination of) the mainstream ended with the suicide of Kurt Cobain, but their influence on both pop culture and counter-culture still looms large. Dave Grohl transitioned from powerhouse drummer to stadium rock frontman with Foo Fighters, and Kurt Cobain will pop up in Guitar Hero 5 later this year, singing Bon Jovi, Public Enemy and whatever else you feel comfortable desecrating his memory with. Sub Pop stuck to its grunge guns through much of the nineties as the rest of the world moved on, and as a result it verged on pastiche. However, with the signing of bands such as the Shins and Wolf Parade in the past decade, it has regained something of its former lustre as one of the few remaining indie powerhouse labels. Pearl Jam are still together, with a new album this year, and Dinosaur Jr have reformed for the lucrative 90s alternative reunion market. Others such as Mudhoney, Tad and Alice in Chains have split, usually due to an inability to evolve as the grunge sound became stale well before members left or succumbed to sustained heroin abuse.
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Reviewed in the current issue of TN2