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.

Favorite Bands: Soundgarden

Soundgarden in concert

Photo: musicisentropy, used under Creative Commons

True story. I once drove a car off the Jake Sweeney lot for a test drive and bought it based on how Superunknown sounded on the speakers. There was a lot of good stuff on that album, and the musicianship was phenomenal. But what else could you say about Soundgarden? Of all the major grunge bands, they were the smoothest, their songs the most complex. Lyrically, they were a perfect fit with the angry Pearl Jam, the desperate Alice in Chains, and the darker-than-dark Nirvana. (We’ll leave the Foo Fighters and Garbage for later posts.) Early on, someone described them as “MC5-meets-Zeppelin/Sabbath” and that might refer to their club days.

But it’s Superunknown that caught my attention, and not just the popular songs like “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman.” The last song on the album, in particular, is pretty haunting and hypnotic. Called “Like Suicide,” it ultimately supplied the title to a short story I wrote later on.

If you listen to most of their songs, you can tell they’re born mostly of a jam session. But once the foundation is laid, they’re meticulously crafted layer upon layer. Like most grunge bands, they eschewed keyboards, going more for the classic sixties pre-power trio sound with two guitarists, neither one really lead or rhythm. If you had to press them, Kim Thayill is the lead guitarist. Fitting, since Chris Cornell is the lead vocalist, a role that usually doubles with bass or rhythm if the singer plays anything.

All this is backed by Matt Cameron’s drumming, which is rather complex in places. Cameron, along with Jimmy Chamberlin of Smashing Pumpkins, is probably one of the last jazz-influenced drummers in rock. (A case could be made for Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) Most drummers today have their roots in heavy metal or punk whereas the drummers of the hard rock era, guys like Keith Moon, John Bonham, Deep Purple’s Ian Paice, and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, cut their teeth listening to swing music from the 40’s. Cameron has that same sense of intricate timing.

And yet there’s a jam session somewhere in those songs. They might be worked-over and multitracked to radio-friendly perfection, but you can hear the jam in their construction. Helps that Soundgarden clearly recorded the room when they made an album, whether playing the take “live” or piecing it together. (Butch Vig, Garbage’s drummer and a long-time producer from the grunge era, does this a lot as well, even with studio trickery.)

But it’s Cornell’s voice that is the band’s primary instrument. Cornell can hit those Plant-like high notes that all but disappeared from mainstream rock around 1991, but his voice better compares to David Bowie. Like Bowie, Cornell can sing a couple octaves lower and sound like a completely different singer. Sometimes, he’s his own backup singer, using his high notes like Steve Perry behind Greg Rolie on those early Journey albums.

What most people remember about Soundgarden, though, is “Black Hole Sun” and that creepy video with the CGI smiles and apocalyptic imagery. It was also the occasion of one of the funniest Beavis & Butthead commentaries during the show’s original run, when the video opens on a meadow and Butthead says, “It is in these hills that Juan Valdez picks the richest coffee beans with his trusty donkey.” And then Beavis freaking out every time someone had got one of those almost demonic smiles on their faces.

But the song itself probably is what is seared into people’s minds. Too bad, because the album’s second single, “Fell on Black Days,” is a much better song lyrically and musically.

But hey, if you must be creeped out to memories of your ill-spent youth watching MTV when it still showed videos, here you go!