When grunge came out, it was considered the future. Combining punk and hard rock, it broke the back of hair metal, something Metallica and Guns N’ Roses were already trying to do. The mainstream press called it “alternative,” yet by the time Kurt Cobain died, there was nothing alternative about it. It was the mainstream. Yet in the years that followed, the music was freer, looser, more original. Bands did not feel compelled to be Led Zeppelin or David Bowie. Grunge made the 1990’s the WTF Decade in rock.
Nowadays, it’s maligned. One recent British music writer said there was nothing original about grunge and it deserved to die. This was the same idiot who left Dark Side of the Moon and Never Mind the Bollocks off a list of most influential albums of the rock era. Hey, I hate the Sex Pistols, but if you leave out Bollocks, you’re too stupid to live. Leaving out Dark Side warrants breaking all your fingers, smashing your laptop, and forever barring you from calling yourself a rock journalist. Not that I’ve really thought about it.
Yes, grunge did combine hard rock and punk. It was time to strip rock of its excesses. It was time for guitarists to quit trying to be Clapton, Page, and Beck. It was time lead singers stopped trying to be Robert Plant. (Unless you were Chris Cornell. Because Cornell sounds like Robert Plant without trying.) It was time for David Coverdale to go. (And I say that as a life-long Deep Purple fan.)
But grunge was a function of the times. Musicians my age playing to an audience five years younger and tired of the screaming vocals, day-glo Spandex pants, and canned “incendiary” guitar solos. It was time for rockers to shut up and play. Grunge begat post-grunge. It opened the door for Brit pop in America. It held the door for Lillith Fair. It let Green Day go mainstream without selling out. Hell, progressive rock fans now embrace Green Day. That would not have been possible with grunge. So who were the purveyors of grunge?
Probably the godfathers of grunge. Their Ten came out at the tail-end of the hair metal movement. Only lead singer Eddie Vedder didn’t so much sing as growled. Unlike some grunge bands, they thought nothing of having prominent guitar solos. The only difference was that they didn’t seem canned. They seemed drawn from the song itself. “Even Flow” exploded on the scene in 1990, but things got really dark with “Jeremy.”
“Black Hole Sun” was the scariest damn video I had seen when it appeared in 1992. Those CGI-stretched smiles were creepier than the black hole sucking up everything. Soundgarden mixed harmony with power chords and lyrics about something other than snorting coke off some groupie’s bare ass. Intelligent, meticulous, yet sounding like a bunch of guys jamming in a garage, Soundgarden rejected the metal way of doing rock.
Alice in Chains
Layne Staley committed slow suicide to make this band sound great. That’s the way he described it. Alice in Chains started out as a metal band along the lines of Guns N’ Roses in their early days. But a funny thing happened on the way to MTV’s Headbangers Ball. Someone noticed they were from Seattle and decided they were grunge. That probably was the best thing to happen to them. They could focus on Staley’s tortured lyrics and his harmonies with Jerry Cantrell. These days, William DuVall fills Staley’s shoes as vocalist and guitar player. Now the band is all about those dark harmonies and even darker lyrics (as if that was possible.)
Stone Temple Pilots
Wait a minute! A grunge band from San Diego? It had all the ingredients: Guitar more woven into the music, a lead singer who alternately growled and screamed, moving from acoustic to power chords on a dime. And drama. Lots of drama. Lead singer Scott Weiland spent the 1990’s on most people’s celebrity death poll, managed to get fired from STP, and even reminded Velvet Revolver why they all quit on Axl Rose. But oh, they sounded great. “Core,” “Sex Type Thing,” and “Interstate Love Song.”
The Foo Fighters
Okay, technically, they’re post-grunge. And through most of the 1990’s, they were the Dave Grohl Band. But Nirvana planned to split up the songwriting between Grohl, Krist Novocelic, and Pat Smear to evolve the sound and take some of the load off Kurt Cobain. But Cobain died, and Grohl had some songs he wanted to do outside Nirvana. One trip to Sound City later, boom. Foo Fighters. They’ve since become the Band of the 2000’s. But grunge did not die. If you listen to the Foos’ output, it becomes clear it just outgrew itself.
The mack daddies of grunge. Kurt Cobain’s fuck you attitude with lyrics personal to the point of being unintelligible. Those drums. The bass player bouncing about the stage the way most guitarists do. They didn’t scream. They yelled. They were pure punk rock, but, as Grohl said about 20 years after Nevermind, “We wanted to be The Beatles.” They made a pretty good run at it.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Red Hot Chili Peppers – more a funk band, but with the same attitude as their grunge brethren; Hole – Oh, come on. Courtney managed a few jewels between periodic self-destruction; Smashing Pumpkins – Rush fan Billy Corgan rewrites the rules, then breaks them all; Garbage – Shirley Manson is a grunge singer in search of a band. She found them in three producers from Madison, Wisconsin.