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Friday, April 15, 2005
Genre Playlist: Grunge
The emergence of grunge at the start of the 1990's was the culmination of a decade plus of indie music, and also was a major revitalization of rock as a viable commercial proposition. Simply put, grunge represents what in the 70's was unthinkable; a merging of heavy metal and punk.
Its sound was muddy and murky, in the tradition of the muddy, murky records of the proto-punk era; its touchstones were the enormous riffs of Black Sabbath coupled with the frenetic sloppiness of the Stooges. It wasn't a metal scene, despite the obvious influences; grunge had more to do with punk, sharing (in the early days) indie label roots and a DIY ethic. Yet it wasn't a punk scene either; in the traditional sense. It was something new; and, for a brief time, became huger than anything.
The indie roots that most of these bands shared was one indie label in particular: Sub Pop Records. Sub Pop doubled as distributor of the early albums of nearly all the grunge bands of note, and also an important nexus between these bands and their audience. Among the bands that released material through Sub Pop were: Nirvana, Green River, L7, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and many other lesser known ones.
Grunge referred not just to the music, but to the youth culture scene around it, not just in Seattle, but also in Olympia, Portland, and pacific northwest college towns. At its height, it was the largest and most vibrant west coast scene since the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60's. It represented an attitude, which was fiercely independant as a culture; it even turned the flannel shirt into a hot item for a while, although in most cases the flannel was merely a reflection of the chilly climate.
If one were to cast a look back to its earliest forefathers, one might be tempted to go all the way back to the 60's; locally famous Pacific Nothwest bands such as the Sonics and the Wailers were hyper-fuzzed garage bands who recorded for local labels.
The first real grunge band was Green River, who recorded from 1985-1988 and released two albums on Sub Pop; the band is also important for siring two crucial bands from the scene: Mark Arm and Steve Turner formed Mudhoney, and Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard formed Mother Love Bone, and then Pearl Jam. Among the other first wave acts were Soundgarden, and the Melvins, who befriended the young Kurt Cobain.
The first wave of grunge was heavier than the second wave, which included Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots, among others. Ironically, none of these bands could have existed without Mudhoney and the Melvins, yet they went on to enormous international success, while the first wave languished and failed to break nationally.
Nirvana became the miracle breakout success, jumping from a recorded-for-$600 indie debut to selling three million copies of their major-label follow-up. Pearl Jam's debut took off following Nirvana's success, parlaying it into a long-term career.
In the wake of the mega-platinum success of those bands, national labels went on a frenzied signing spree, setting off a third wave of grunge, which included acts like Bush and Candlebox. While these bands met with commercial success, their albums were tepidly received by the music press, and were looked upon with suspicion, or downright disdain by fans of the first wavers. Many bands signed during this 1993-1994 peak commercial period sank without a trace following their debuts, and were dropped from their labels.
By 1995, grunge was already being pronounced over; two of its most important figures, Cobain and Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood were dead, the local scene had suffered from a heroin epidemic, and public tastes had turned to a variety of alternative rock styles. The grunge bands either adapted to the times (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots), or called it a day (Soundgarden). The legacy they leave is alternative music itself; they turned it from an independant phenomenon to a major one. The music itself remains true in spirit to rock 'n' roll, and at its best it has become part of the lexicon. At its worst, it still captures a time and place unlike any other.
Among the important songs and artists of the grunge era:
1. Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit
For better and worse, this was the song that thrust doomed reluctant hero Kurt Cobain and band into the forefront of the music scene. Their previous album, Bleach, was recorded at a cost of $600, and sold 35,000 copies. Nevermind, their sophomore album, and debut for record titan David Geffen's label sold 3 million, exceeding its modest sales goal 30 times. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" reached #6; when it appeared it was arguably the hardest rock ever to reach the top-10. Following this breakthough, the floodgates opened, and the world at large learned of grunge's existence.
2. Pearl Jam: Alive
"Even Flow" was their breakthrough, but "Alive" remains one of their most beloved songs, with a big meaty hook for a chorus, and unusually poignant autobiographical lyrics, about the father he never knew he had, from Eddie Vedder. Guitarist Mike McCready is in firey form throughout; Vedder alternates between quiet and intimate and bellowing over the din. Pearl Jam is one of the few grunge bands to maintain a career into the 00's and still remain vital.
3. Soundgarden: Black Hole Sun
In some ways, Soundgarden is the very definition of grunge; their oppressively heavy Black Sabbath style riffs meshed with the DIY post-punk ethic and sense of irony to create a mammoth, defiant sound. By the time of Superunknown they had refined this approach as much as it could be refined. "Black Hole Sun" is their biggest hit, a gloomy piece of psychedelic lead that reflected the mood of the scene in the wake of Cobain's suicide. They had many better songs, including "Rusty Cage" (later covered by Johnny Cash), but this leaves the longest shadow.
4. L7: Pretend We're Dead
L7 was often associated with the Seattle/grunge scene via Sup Pop records, the Seattle label that also released Nirvana's first album. Actually, L7 was an all female quartet from Los Angeles. "Pretend We're Dead" was from Bricks Are Heavy, produced by Butch Vig (who had produced Nevermind) in 1992. It was their biggest single, reaching #8 on the Modern Rock charts. Their sound was raw and abrasive, but with a depth and substance to this album, which put them at the forefront of the "riot grrrl" movement.
5. Stone Temple Pilots: Plush
Core was released in 1992 to almost universal negative reviews; much of the criticism suggested they were a rip-off. It's true that on their debut, Scott Weiland sounds a lot like Eddie Vedder, and the band plays like an ultra-murkified Soundgarden. Still, STP had the last laugh, by lasting longer than most of their peers, and developing a sound of their own. "Plush" is a triumph, though; a stately rocker in a heavy 70's mold, fuzzed up and juiced. Weiland currently fronts Velvet Revolver; essentially replacing Axl Rose in Guns 'n' Roses.
6. Mudhoney: Touch Me I'm Sick
Mudhoney probably deserves credit as the most influental grunge band, both on record and behind the scenes. Mudhoney would be the first band to really score for Sub Pop records, the label that made the scene possible. "Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More" b/w "Touch Me I'm Sick" was their debut single. Mark Arm's wailing, degenerate lyrics atop a guitar cacophony proved a potent combination. Mudhoney was signed to a major deal by Reprise records in 1992, but never placed an album higher than #189; after being dropped, they returned to Sub Pop and released an album in 2002.
7. Screaming Trees: Nearly Lost You
Where many grunge bands took their sonic cues from the 70's, Screaming Trees borrowed as far back as the sixties, particularly sixties psychedelic garage band music. This combined with the requisite 70's riffing and 80's punk aesthetic, distorted and fuzzed, to create a neo-psychedelic grunge sound. They recorded for SST and Sub Pop, with a discography going back to 1986; in 1989 they became the first grunge band to land a major deal, with Epic. "Nearly Lost You" was their biggest hit, from the summer of 1992. The band recorded through the 90's, but broke up in 2000.
8. Mother Love Bone: Stardog Champion
Grunge's first major loss was that of Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood. Flamboyant in a vaguely glam-rock manner, he and the band struck a contrast to the more taciturn demeanors of most gunge frontmen. The playing was strongly 70's classic rock influenced; Led Zeppelin meets Aerosmith. Featuring Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard from Green River, the band created an instand buzz, and was signed right out of the box to Polygram, where they recorded Apple, their debut. Sadly, Wood died of a heroin overdose months prior to the scheduled release. "Stardog Champion" is a good example of their sound and Wood's charisma.
9. Bush: Glycerine
Bush is another band that benefited greatly from the gold rush that followed in the wake of Nirvana's success. Indeed, they sound like a Nirvana-by-design, unlike the real Nirvana, which was a strictly by-accident phenomenon. Actually a British band fairly well ignored in their homeland, they were also one of the only British bands to attempt grunge in England. "Glycerine" was one of a pair of hits from their 1994 debut to reach #1 on the Modern Rock chart, and crossover to a top-40 showing on the pop charts. Bush earned tepid reviews at best throughout their career, but all five of their albums charted in the Billboard top-40 in America, the first two reaching the top-10.
10. Green River: Swallow My Pride
Usually credited with being the first grunge band of them all, Green River's first release was in 1985, and represented the vanguard or grunge's first wave. They're best remembered now as the band that gave Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament and Mudhoney's Mark Arm and Steve Turner their big start. Their Sub Pop debut was released in 1987, but the band broke up the following year. "Swallow My Pride" is a good record, and of considerable historical value, and appeared on several compilations. Mark Arm's discography can be traced to an amateurish band called Mr. Epp, which released an EP in 1982.
Listen to Mudhoney: Touch Me I'm Sick (1988)
I'd have gone for "Wargasm" by L7, it's a much heavier song that is more reflective of L7's sound, and it was written in response to the opening event of the '90's: The Gulf War. A killer riff that kicks ass and says everything it has to say in about 3 minutes, what more could you want?
Great retrospective, most of the albums you cite have stood the test of time as still listenable after more than a decade.
hey,when's the next random playlist showing up? I realize you're trying to streamline, or be more professional, or somethin', but you've completely dumped one of the more charming aspects of the site, your response to tracks as they come up.
You've alienated your faithful early supporters!
Well, no, but it would be nice if you'd toss in one a week, or something -- throw the dog a bone!
rob: Yeah, Wargasm is a killer cut. That'd be a better choice; I went with the hit, just because a lot of people might not know them at all. Great comments, thanks.
jimbo: the random playlists aren't gone; they're just being re-thought out. Most likely, you'll see a random playlist as a weekly feature, I'm leaning towards Wednesday night. I might expand the plays to 20 songs.
mellow; Thanks for your visits; I'm going to try to do one that'll fit your tastes in the next couple of days; I just needed to give some noisy music its due the past couple of weeks; I've been in a noisy music vortex myself. Must be stress at work or something ;-)
Yea--ah. I kinda liked the random stuff too Uao. They were whimsical:>)Post a Comment
Can I tell you a secret - *looks around* I'm not a big fan of grunge. There. I said it. All them years I was "with" the band and I kept my mouth shut but there it is - I'm not a big fan of Grunge. *shh* It's a secret.