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Rock History-Grunge (Part 1): Genesis

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.

Inspiration From Isolation

There are many different factors that led to the culmination of grunge on the early-‘90s. Location, a moulding of different musical influences and timing all contributed to the popularity of the genre.

Often referred to as “The Seattle Sound”, grunge found its beginnings in Seattle, Washington. Cut off from the massive music scenes of New York and Los Angeles, it was Seattle’s isolation as a city that helped curate the sound it has become so synonymous with. Where in other areas there was a divide between scenes of punk rock and hard rock/heavy metal bands, musicians in Seattle embraced both genres.

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The isolation of Seattle also led to it being a fairly poor area. Made up of working class families, it would be the relative poverty of the city that helped define the attitude of grunge. Grunge fashion would become something latched onto and perpetrated by the media after the grunge explosion, and this all came from the working class background of the underground scene.

Epitomised in flannel shirts and ripped jeans, grunge brought rock music back to basics. Before grunge, in the ‘80s, the most popularised rock music in America was made up of glam metal bands such as Poison, Great White and Motley Crue. Defined by their outrageously teased hair, spandex costumes, and often superficial lyrics, they eventually became boring. This left rock fans asking for something more down to earth that they could relate to, and grunge was their answer.

A Melting Pot Of Musical Influences

While there were clear divisions between punk rock and hard rock/heavy metal in other scenes at the time, the underground scene in Seattle accepted them both. Grunge came from a combination of the dissonance of punk, the sludgy pace of heavy metal, and the melodic sensibilities of hard rock.

A lot of credit has to be given to a number of bands in the underground scene of Seattle that fused these genres together before the major grunge bands. Groups such as The Melvins, Sonic Youth, The Pixies, and The U-Men all experimented with the melding of these genres before the grunge explosion, influencing many major artists of the scene.

The Melvins should perhaps be given the most praise for fathering grunge. Influenced equally by hard rock bands like Cheap Trick, heavy metal legends Black Sabbath, and hardcore punk group Black Flag, their music became a slower, heavier, brand of punk rock, with the same level of energy. The murky and dark guitar tones of vocalist/guitarist, Buzz Osborne, caught the ear of many future grunge stars.

The Melvins also influenced the genre through fostering the underground scene in Seattle. The band, especially Osborne, enabled many major grunge musicians to form connections through them that would eventually lead to high profile projects.

Neil Young has also been credited as “The Godfather Of Grunge”. Due to his work with the band Crazy Horse, Young’s use of distortion became a massive influence on many grunge bands, most notably Pearl Jam. The second side of his LP, Rust Never Sleeps (1979) embodied many key features of the grunge genre before it was even conceived.

Alternative rock band The Pixies were another band that was integral to the sound of grunge. Most notably influencing Kurt Cobain, the dynamics of the band’s songs had a huge part in the grunge sound. Moving between soft verses and loud choruses, or vice versa, is a technique that Kurt Cobain shamelessly admitted to “ripping off” of The Pixies.

Before The Explosion

The underground music scene of Seattle that grunge grew from was very much a community. Many musicians that would become famous in grunge bands played in different groups before finding the one they break through with. There are a few bands that deserve credit for paving the early grunge scene before it broke in the early-‘90s.

Green River are often credited with releasing the first ever grunge record. Comprised of Jeff Ament (bass guitar) and Stone Gossard (guitar) who would go on to form Pearl Jam, Mark Arm (vocals), and Steve Turner (guitar) who would go on to form Mudhoney, and Alex Vincent (drums), they released their first EP, Come On Down (1985), a record that featured a combination of heavy metal and punk influences.

Another historic record for grunge music was Deep Six (1986) released by C/Z Records. The compilation contained recordings from groups such as Green River, The Melvins, Skin Yard and The U-Men, as well as the first ever recordings of Soundgarden. Famous grunge label Sup Pop also release the Sup Pop 100 compilation later that year, as well as Green River’s second EP, Dry As A Bone (1986).

Green River would soon break up after the release of their second EP. The story goes that Arm and Turner had a distaste for Ament and Gossard’s rockstar aspirations. The pair then went on to form Mudhoney, who garnered popularity but only within the indie scene. Ament and Gossard would go on to form Pearl Jam, but with one stop beforehand.

Mother Love Bone was the last band Ament and Gossard created before Pearl Jam. Joining forces with Bruce Fairweather (who also had a stint in Green River), Andrew Wood (former vocalist of Malfunkshun) and Greg Gilmore (former drummer of Skin Yard), Mother Love Bone became quite popular in the Seattle scene. After the release of their debut album EP, Shine (1989), it has been said the band were tipped to be the next big American rock band. However, days before the release of their debut album, Apple (1990), Wood tragically died from a heroin overdose. This left Ament and Gossard to form Pearl Jam.

The next instalment will chart the rise of grunge. Coming soon!

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