In Praise Of Grunge

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?

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam

Photo by Lugnuts, used under Creative Commons

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.”

Soundgarden

Soundgarden in concert

Photo: musicisentropy, used under Creative Commons

“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

Alice in Chains in 2007

Photo: Jenya Campbell, used under Creative Commons

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

Stone Temple Pilots

Photo by Selena Smith, used under Creative Commons

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

Foo Fighters

Photo by Christopher Simon, used under Creative Commons

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.

Nirvana

Nirvana on MTV's Unplugged

Source: MTV

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.

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The 2013 Rock Hall Nominees

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its ballot for induction this year. It’s a pretty impressive list: Nirvana, Hall & Oates, Deep Purple, NWA, Chic, Linda Rondstadt, KISS, Cat Stevens, LL Cool J, Peter Gabriel, The Zombies, The Replacements, Yes, The Meters, Link Wray, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

That’s an impressive and extremely eclectic list. A couple of these have me scratching my head as to why they aren’t already in. The Hall is letting people vote on their choices through December 10. The top five vote getters will have their tallies factored into the final decision by the Hall. Fans can only vote for five each. I voted. I’m not happy I can only do five because really, 3/4 of them deserve it, and the rest all have reputations that make a case for inclusion. So who did I vote for?

Nirvana on MTV's Unplugged

Source: MTV

NIRVANA

This one is kind of a no-brainer, one of those bands that should get in on the first ballot. Nevermind was one of those watershed moments in rock when the music changed. Grunge was coming. No doubt about it. But Alice in Chains tried to be a heavy metal band before Nirvana exploded, and Pearl Jam’s label marketed them as hair metal. The combination of moody Kurt Cobain’s song writing, the frenetic drumming of Dave Grohl, and the calm center of the storm that was Krist Novocelic caused an earthquake in rock music. Add to that Pat Smear of The Germs at the end of the band’s career, and you have a revolutionary band that dragged punk kicking and screaming and into the mainstream.

The music died with Cobain, but it freed up future Hall of Famer Grohl to create The Foo Fighters with Smear, members of Sunny Day Real Estate, and Dave’s blonde, bearded clone Taylor Hawkins.

KISS live in 2013

Llan We, used under Creative Commons

KISS

Rock as theater taken to the nth degree. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have kept the hell fire burning since 1973 with an impressive line-up of side players, current drummer Eric Singer the longest lasting member.

The band went hair metal in the 1980’s after ditching the make-up, but came roaring back with the original line-up for a time, returning to their grease paint ways. KISS is definitely a marketing machine, but how many kids picked up a guitar because Paul was the Star Child, Gene was the Demon, and the rest played a whole host of other comic book-inspired characters? They might be a money-making juggernaut, but they definitely impacted rock and roll in a big way.

NWA

Source: EMI (?)

NWA

Okay, I admit it. I’m not a fan. But I’m not much of a hip hop fan to begin with. But like their contemporaries, Nirvana, they caused an earthquake in music. And they weren’t shy with the lyrics. Their classic Straight Outta Compton scared the hell out of people.

Though Easy E died in the early 1990’s, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre went on to be giants in hip hop. Dre would discover Snoop Dogg, stare down thuggish impresario Shug Knight, and do what Knight couldn’t do: Bring the world a white rapper with cred, in this case, Eminem. Before NWA, I said, “What the hell is rap?” Since NWA has faded into history, I’ve said, “What the hell happened to rap?”

Deep Purple in 2013

Photo: Jonas Rogowski, used under Creative Commons

Deep Purple

Geddy Lee of called out the Hall for overlooking Deep Purple again when Rush was inducted into the Hall of Fame. At one time rivaling Led Zeppelin, Purple has one of the largest family trees in rock. Ritchie Blackmore is cited as a major influence by a majority of rock guitarists, including his two replacements in Purple, Steve Morse and the late Tommy Bolin. The band overlapped Black Sabbath, giving that band two of its post-Ozzy lead singers, and spawned Rainbow and Whitesnake. Plus how can you go wrong when you’ve created one of the most memorable riffs in rock history? You know. Da da dah! Da da du-Dah!

Hall & Oates

Photo: Gary Harris, used under Creative Commons

Daryl Hall and John Oates

This is one duo that, like Deep Purple, should have been in long ago. They came out of Philadelphia around the same time as prog pop artist Todd Rundgren, and there’s a similarity between the sound of the two acts that’s hard to define.

But Hall & Oates were all about blue-eyed soul. “Sara Smile” is a seventies classic, but then there’s that string of eighties tunes starting with “Kiss on my List” and going all the way through “One on One.” The videos might have been silly, but the sound was real in a way many R&B artists have forgotten how to make happen.

Their approach is on display on Hall’s show Live from Daryl’s House. The music is played live, using the room (until this coming season, a restored colonial house Hall owned) as an instrument unto itself, with all the imperfections and happy accidents left intact. This is how he and John Oates have made music since 1973.

Favorite Bands: Nirvana

Nirvana on MTV's Unplugged

Source: MTV

Enigmatic.

That pretty much sums up Nirvana and its creative center, Kurt Cobain. If you listen to their music, particularly on Nevermind, their breakout album, you hear lyrics that are personal to the point of being impossible to understand. And yet it worked.

The classic line-up of Nirvana was Cobain, bass player Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl, later of the Foo Fighters. Near the end, they added a second guitarist, former Germs guitar player Pat Smear. Nirvana broke out at the dawn of the 1990’s as hair metal was breathing its last. After five years of band after band wanting to be Led Zeppelin or, failing that, a really loud, really high, really oversexed version of Aerosmith, we had a power trio steeped in punk rather than hard rock. And they exploded on MTV hitting you over the head with the sinister “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

This was a new sound. They called it grunge. Not quite punk. Not quite heavy metal. It encompassed bands that didn’t quite fit the heavy metal label, but were too polished to be truly punk. Cynics suggested grunge simply meant “comes from Seattle,” noting the major differences in sound between the city’s three most famous grunge bands: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. And yet grunge did have a certain vibe to it. It was all organic, guitar-driven, almost completely keyboard free. And the singers did not sound at all like they wanted to be Robert Plant. (For which, one suspects, Plant was probably grateful.)

Nirvana had three hits right off the bat: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come as You Are,” and “In Bloom.” The last showed Nirvana parodying the old Ed Sullivan Show, with People’s Court announcer Doug Llewellyn playing Ed. The video was shot in kinescope with cuts of Nirvana as clean-cut boys, a la Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do, intercut with the band in drag getting their Who on by smashing their instruments.

But while the rest of the nation was discovering Nirvana, this was actually the culmination of years as an underground band. Grohl, who by all rights should have disappeared into obscurity after Cobain’s death, was actually the last of a Spinal Tap line of drummers. By the time they released In Utero, they were international stars. Yet Cobain decried the studio trickery on Nevermind done by producer Butch Vig (later of Garbage.) The album was meant to be a rougher, edgier album. Cobain wanted to recapture the early days of the band.

And therein lies their downfall. Cobain did not handle success well and could not combat addictions. Couple that with the way his cryptic lyrics transformed him into a Generation X version of Jim Morrison, and you have a recipe for tragedy. Cobain killed himself on April 5, 1994. It was the one time I wondered if MTV’s Kurt Loder would actually lose it on the air. Wife Courtney Love, not exactly a paragon of patience and reserve, lashed out in her statement following her husband’s death. But the fact was the ride was over, and Kurt Cobain had jumped off the bridge to end it.

But for a brief shining moment, Nirvana helped give rock the jolt it so desperately needed at the end of the eighties.