Revivals keep happening one after another. The neo-80s new wave, pop disco movements that started in the 2000s with bands like LCD Soundsystem, The Killers, and Franz Ferdinand are still going strong . The rootsy thing that started with White Stripes and Black Keys has lead to a new appreciation for blues, classic soul, and country with acts like Sharon Jones (RIP), Sarah Shook, or Robbie Fulks. Hip-hop is more popular than ever, but is not a nostalgic genre as yet.
Seattle dominated music through the 90s, even when Nirvana came and went. Sub-Pop was the coolest low-budget label that everyone wanted to be on. Acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains were huge with their slow, melancholy hard-rock. There were smaller college radio bands like the amazing Mudhoney, who combined distorted punk guitars with a 60s garage sound, or the Melvins, who took it to the extreme, foraying into thick, sludgy heavy metal. Neil Young got in on it with his album “Sleeps with Angels”, but Neil has always been sort of grunge. Grunge had a presence on the east coast too, thanks to the amazing Dinosaur Jr, with the emotionally charged yet strangely reassuring vocals of J Mascis’s contrasting to the raw intensity of their guitar sound. New York’s art band Sonic Youth, whose raw vocals, distorted guitars, and hypnotic drumming paved the way for grunge. Sonic Youth’s music is worthy of its own article. They may seem like noise at first, but if you stick with them you will see that their chaos has structure and a lot of emotional beauty.
Seeing a grunge band live was a spiritual experience. Mudhoney was a force, Mark Arm’s wailing vocals and Iggy Pop-like demeanor, backed by a relentless guitar and distortion sound. You thought you were never going to come up for air and you did not care. Nirvana had the perfect combination of melody, touching vocals, and heaviness and if you can get past all the hype, were truly great live or in the studio. Soundgarden had the deep, satisfying world-weary vocals of Chris Cornell, (RIP).
I know I keep coming back to that word spiritual, but that’s the feeling I got from seeing a grunge show. When everything was in line, the heavy guitar sound, melancholy vocals, not growling like death metal, but torn open and vulnerable with themes like hating oneself, or feeling dirty or low or black., and the driving, primitive drum sound – it connected you to the primitive emotional heaviness, the nirvana of it all. It was absolutely pure.
After Kurt Cobain died, grunge was still going strong thanks to the big acts – Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, and collaborations like Temple of the Dog or Audioslave. Then, eventually (unlike goth!), grunge actually died away to britpop, synthesizer music, rootsy music, and a million other things as ipads and mobile phones made everyone feel happier and shinier.
But what perplexes me is – why hasn’t grunge come back? Everything comes back. Maybe grunge still seems so “new” that it’s impossible to think of it as “coming back”. We thought it never left.
Or, perhaps grunge just doesn’t fit the mood we are in right now. It’s a lot like the 80s right now. We want momentary pleasures, a new iphone, a quick thing from Amazon, a quick post on Instagram to distract us. Grunge was deep and introspective. It was about being out in nature and smoking pot, not caring if your clothes stayed clean or if they got old and “grungy”, it was not about Met Gala or Camp or Lady Gaga or anything that would influence anyone on Instagram.
(WARNING: Brief history of everything to follow). Grunge came about at the end of the 80s. The 80s had been really bright and colorful, with lots of money. It started out with punk and new wavers rebelling against “dinosaur” stadium bands like the Eagles or Led Zeppelin. But then by the late 80s new wave was bloated and nobody wanted to hear “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or “True” again. Even punk was wearing thin. It was immature with no subtlety. Then the glam rock Guns ‘N Roses thing came about, but didn’t stay long, although Axl Rose is an amazing musician who is thankfully touring again. I was working in a record store in Hollywood and I remember the end of the 80s when bands like Mudhoney or Soundgarden, wearing old jeans, boots and no makeup, but still with a more soulful, sexy sound than punk, started to appear on the shelves.
Then the recession hit and we Gen x’ers were all overeducated and underemployed like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites. I remember that moment where it felt like the party had ended, the mall was closing and now it was just dull people not getting dolled up anymore. Like the hobgoblin’s mirror in HC Anderson’s The Snow Queen or Frozen, grunge settled in everyone’s eyes and replaced the 80s mask, showing us how ugly we were, but and how real we were too. The new fairy tale would not be a Cinderella story starring Molly Ringwald becoming perfect through fashion, but one of introverted depression and transformation, and playing pool in old flannels and beat up doc martins. Truly one of the greatest accomplishments of the grunge era was that our common lack of money forced us to stop consuming and be creative. There was a flowering of indie fanzines, small bands, independent labels, and later on in the 90s, websites.
Although grunge removed the glam from both men and women, grunge had a touch of glamour too. You didn’t have to be Janis Joplin with no makeup. You could be more like Drew Barrymore, who put on some red lipstick and a flowery dress. It was a natural, hippie look. We stopped dying our hair funny colors and grew it out long. The term “hair farmer” was not uncommon. Between the grunge kids and the deadheads, the early 90s must have looked like a big 60s party to our parents. Now girls want funny colored hair again, and boys want weird beards.
Creativity wasn’t grunge’s only good side. Grunge could be really deep and poetic. Influenced the spiritual side of the pacific northwest, hippies, and even the California singer-songwriter tradition of CSN or Neil Young, it brought us back to the garden. That made it profound, solemn, but it was not just peaceful hippies. Grunge was also born from punk, fast distorted guitars, mosh pits, feedback, desolation. Grunge was spiritual but chaotic. Just listen to “I am One” by Smashing Pumpkins, it represents the intense spirituality of leaving it all behind and becoming “one”. Then there was the dark side – death. Many of the musicians were on heroin. We lost many of our grunge heroes – Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Stanley, and now Chris Cornell, RIP.
I am one as you are three
Try to find messiah in your trinity
Your city to burn
Your city to burn
Then there was the middle, the mediocre side. That side could be cynical, snarky, overly precious. “flower petting, baby kissing” reads the classic Sub Pop t-shirt, insinuating that the stoned guy with long hair and ripped jeans had a soft side, which he probably did, but it wasn’t apparent in the mosh pit. I wrote about 90s irony before, so I won’t labor it here. But I think the irony was caused by the fact that grunge stars were not innocent like CSN or even Sex Pistols had been. They knew they would sell out to lots of money, so all they could do was laugh and point out the absurdity of it.
But still, for all the heroin and cynicism, grunge had as many gleaming moments as the sun breaking through a rainy forest in Seattle. It got people to see past their trivial concerns and money for a rare moment. And maybe new bands don’t need to come along and create new bands that “sound like” older bands. That always falls short anyway. After you’ve heard John Foxx, how can you listen to TV Eyes? If you love the Fairport convention, the Owl Service is a pale substitute. And Interpol should just be banned, such a terrible substitute they are for Joy Division. Influences, on the other had, are often good. Nick Cave was influenced by Jim Morrison. Conor Oberst was influenced by Robert Smith crossed with country. And Franz Ferdinand was pretty good at reconstructing that 80s Gang of Four or Wire sound, without all the heavy Marxism.
I’ll leave you with some good grunge songs. In true grunge fashion I won’t capitalize the words. Find them in your own way.
- mudhoney – this gift, good enough, running loaded
- melvins – lizzy
- alice in chains – don’t follow, damn that river, rooster, them bones
- nirvana – about a girl, heart-shaped box
- soundgarden – somewhere,
- mother love bone – stardog champion, words of gold
- smashing pumpkins – I am One, Perfect
- hole – Mrs Jones, Good Sister/Bad Sister
- babes in toyland – Handsome and Gretel, Right Now
- pearl jam – black
- dinosaur Jr – blowing It, I Don’t Wanna Go There, over it
- sonic youth – titanium expose, i love her all the time, poison arrow, eric’s trip, walking blue, wish fulfillment, calming the snake
- meat puppets – plateau, oh me, backwater, whistling song