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Rock 'N' Roll History: Grunge (Part 2) Breakthrough

Posted by Thomas Spillane on


The alternative rock explosion of the early nineties has become one of the most influential music scenes for rock ’n’ roll.

Grunge, as it has become known as, changed the face of rock music  forever. Countless bands from the late ‘90s and early-2000s to today have imitated the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains. What is the story behind such an influential movement though? In our new feature series, University Of Rock will be looking at the history behind some of rock music’s most influential scenes. This is the story of grunge.

Check out part 1 here.

Lighting The Fuse

In the same year Mother Love Bone recorded their debut album, Apple (1989), Soundgarden signed to major record label, A&M Records. They were the first grunge band to sign to a major label, with Alice In Chains signing to Columbia Records in the same year and Screaming Trees signing to Epic Records a year later. While all three groups had released recordings, it was their first albums on these major record labels that gave them a significant boost toward the mainstream. Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger (1991), Screaming Tree’s Uncle Anesthesia (1991) and Alice In Chains’ Facelift (1990) were all underground successes.

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Mother Love Bone broke up after the tragic death of their frontman, Andrew Wood, in 1990. Understandably devastated, guitarist Stone Gossard began writing harder material than he had been before. After jamming with guitarist Mike McCready, he eventually reconnected with Mother Love Bone bass player Jeff Ament. After recording a demo, the trio passed it onto former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer, Jack Irons, who in turn passed it onto his friend Eddie Vedder. After recording vocals over the instrumental tapes and sending it back, Vedder was in. Although Irons passed on the invitation to join the band, Dave Krusen ended up finalising the lineup for the new project. Originally called Mookie Blaylock, they eventually landed on the name Pearl Jam.

Before his untimely death, Andrew Wood was living with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell. This friendship led to the creation of another important grunge album of this time. Temple Of The Dog was a short-lived project created as a tribute to the late Mother Love Bone frontman. Featuring Cornell, as well as Pearl Jam members Gossard and Ament, the group released their eponymous album in 1991. The record also featured a guest appearance from the Pearl Jam’s new vocalist, Eddie Vedder.

During this time Nirvana were also receiving major label attention. The soon-to-be grunge flag bearers had released their debut album, Bleach (1989), on Sup Pop Records. The record featured a dark and sludgy sound, much akin to the work of The Melvins. Nirvana were soon picked up by major label, Geffen Records and began sessions for their next album with producer Butch Vig. During these sessions however, Cobain and bass player, Krist Novoselic, became unhappy with drummer, Chad Channing’s performance. This led to his departure from the band soon after. Nirvana performed with Dan Peters of Mudhoney, as well as The Melvin’s drummer Dan Crover before guitarist and frontman of the latter, Buzz Osbourne, introduced them to Dave Grohl in 1990. Nirvana’s classic lineup was now complete.

The Grunge Explosion

Nirvana’s major label debut, Nevermind (1991), changed the face of rock music forever. Nobody could have predicted the impact the album would have; it was only expected to be a minor success at best. MTV picked up the music video for the album’s first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and ran with it like crazy. By early 1992, Nevermind (1991) had kicked Michael Jackon’s Dangerous (1991) off of the top spot on the Billboard 200 chart. The success of Nevermind (1991) has been somewhat attributed to the new direction taken by Nirvana. Where their debut, Bleach (1989) was rough, sludgy and noisy, Nevermind (1991) featured a more pop influenced sound. Equally influenced by the likes of Black Sabbath and The Stooges, as well as The Beatles, the record perfectly married the rough edges of punk with the melody of pop music.

After Nirvana blew up with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, grunge records that were released a year before became bestsellers. Originally only underground favourites, Badmotorfinger (1991) by Soundgarden, Facelift (1991) by Alice In Chains, and the Temple Of The Dog project were all thrown into the mainstream. Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten (1991), which was released a month before Nevermind (1991) launched the band into the stratosphere.

However, with each new trend there are corporations looking to exploit it, and grunge was no exception. After Nirvana helped grunge become the new centre of youth culture, fashion labels and major publications did everything they could to make money off of it. Major fashion labels marketed “grunge fashion” at young people, selling ripped denim jeans, flannelette shirts and worn denim jackets at premium prices. The New York Times was even conned into publishing an article of fake terms meant to be “grunge speak”.

After the exploitation of grunge by the mass media, it became a dirty word in Seattle. Although the major grunge bands were all lumped into the same alternative rock movement together, their music was all quite different. Nirvana took more influence from punk bands and ‘60s pop melodies while Soundgarden were the main grunge band to channel Black Sabbath. Pearl Jam heralded the arena rock sounds of Led Zeppelin and Neil Young, while Alice In Chains took much of their sound from heavy metal bands such as Metallica as well as the blues. Another band who were lumped into the grunge movement, despite originating in Chicago rather than Seattle, were The Smashing Pumpkins. Their albums Siamese Dream (1993) and Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness (1995) were propelled into the mainstream due to the movement.

...And The Wave Keeps On Breaking

The next round of releases by the major bands of the movement did nothing but add fuel to the fire. Pearl Jam felt burdened by the sudden success of Ten (1991), with a lot of attention falling on Vedder. Despite refusing to film music videos for their singles, the band’s sophomore effort, Vs. (1993), was a roaring success. Featuring a rawer sound than their debut, the album spawned four hit singles.

Foreshadowing the success of Pearl Jam’s sophomore effort was Alice In Chains’ Dirt (1992). Staley was suffering from a heroin addiction at the time and this informed most of the music as themes of addiction prevailed. Featuring a gritty sound, mammoth guitars, and the longing harmonies of Staley and guitarist/vocalist, Jerry Cantrell, Dirt (1992) was to become Alice In Chains’ seminal work.

Soundgarden released, what is considered to be, their magnum opus in 1994. Superunknown (1994) was to become the band’s most successful album to date and saw the group reach a new level of musicianship. Arguably becoming the most technically proficient of the grunge bands, Superunknown (1994) saw Soundgarden experimenting with alternative guitar tunings, odd time signatures and unusual recording techniques. A whirlwind of Sabbath-y riffs, psychedelic sounds and infectious melodies, Superunknown (1994) was to become one of the most daring records of the ‘90s.

Cobain was the musician who felt the burn of the spotlight the most. Heralded as the songbird of Generation X, he became more rebellious the more successful he became. Disillusioned by the exploitation of his music by the mass media, Cobain set out to record a harsher record to divide his fans. In Utero (1993) featured a rougher, more noisy production. Filled with themes of cynicism and depression, the record was a vehicle for Cobain’s disdain for success. Despite this, it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. The grunge wave was yet to fall.

The next instalment will focus on the decline of grunge and its lasting influence. Coming soon!

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