The Rise of the Underground

March 12, 2008

In the late 80s, grunge acts were starting to get some recognition outside of the Puget Sound area. Some of the big bands at this time included Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Nirvana and Screaming Trees. It was in this time that the grunge sound that was to become mainstream was forged. Soundgarden, for example, had broken away from the high-pitched metal wail and went into a darker mode, one that would come to be on the album Badmotorfinger in 1991. Mother Love Bone could have been the big band to break grunge into the mainstream if not for lead singer Andrew Wood’s untimely heroin overdose and death on March 19th, 1990. Mother Love Bone’s Apple, released after Wood’s death, would prove to be formidable record, though due to Wood’s demise, its impact wasn’t felt far from Seattle. (The tribute to Wood, Temple of the Dog, would later become a spuergroup-esque release featuring Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder and guitarist Mike McCready.) Although it did reach former Chicagoan Eddie Vedder, who would join former Mother Love Bone members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard in Pearl Jam.


The true grunge explosion happened September 24th, 1991. Nirvana released the now landmark grunge album Nevermind, and became an overnight national success. Fueled by the hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana became the biggest band in America, knocking Michael Jackson out of the #1 spot on the Billboard Charts. With them, several other bands were also picked up. Pearl Jam released their first record Ten shortly before Nevermind, though record sales were sluggish until after Nirvana’s success. The same was true for Alice in Chains’ album Facelift, which was released in 1990 (followed by the Sap EP in 1992). Alice in Chains wasn’t like Nirvana or Pearl Jam, and their vocalist, Layne Staley, drove the songs with a unique voice that has, in recent years, become imitated. The other driving force in the band was guitarist Jerry Canterell

Bands like Soundgarden and Screaming Trees were getting recognized also. The Screaming Trees album Sweet Oblivion brought out a side of grunge with instrumentation similar to Mother Love bone but with vocals more like Kurt Cobain. Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanagan’s distinctive vocals really drive the album, and the raspy voice gives the songs a certain authority.


But with the musical success came some negatives. Once the mainstream media started reporting on this “grunge” phenomena, the markets of the world needed to know how to sell grunge. Part of this was in conjunction with a question asked by several media outlets of the early 90s: “What is today’s generation?” The new early 20s population didn’t have an identity that the market could latch onto. The big question was, “What do they want?” And the answer they got was “Nirvana.” But not specifically Nirvana the band, but the look and sound that came with grunge, which many people connected with Nirvana. The result is what Entertainment Weekly called the biggest “kind of exploitation of a subculture since the media discovered hippies in the ’60s.” The marketing for young people to grunge was overwhelming. Clothing designers in New York started making “The Grunge Look” and stores like Macy’s had flannel shirt sections. Grunge was being exploited to sell everything from clothes to cars to insurance. A dynamic shift had taken place. Film maker Cameron Crowe, who had set his latest film, “Singles,” in Seattle, went from pleading to producers to let the film be set there to being asked, “Is Nirvana in the movie?” (Nirvana was not, but the members of Pearl Jam were).


Pearl Jam released their Second album, Vs., in 1993. Vs. is considered by many fans to be the best Pearl Jam album released. While not a commercially successful as Ten, Vs. was a stripped down, more energetic album with more guitar distortion and more anger. The album was clearly less produced, which gave it a more natural feel than Ten.

Pearl Jam,TIME

As Pearl Jam got more popular, however, there came associations to the band from magazines like Time. Vedder was picture on the cover of Time (but declined to be interviewed) with the headline “All the Rage: Angry Young Rockers Like PEARL JAM Give Voice to the Passions and Fears of a Generation.” Eddie Vedder, was unhappy and responded:


“I think this is a whole bunch of crap. To look at it is very strange. It looks like one of those things you get at Magic Mountain for $10 or whatever where they impose your image on the cover of a magazine…This is my parents’ magazine, if I had parents…We’re on the cover as entertainment. Am I paranoid by thinking that we’re just a decoy? Do you know we’re declaring war on Haiti?” – (Loser,1995)

Certainly Pearl Jam was getting a lot of press. In fact, it would be less than a year before Pearl Jam would visit the White House and visit President Clinton to discuss one of the biggest events in grunge.


Video Links:

Stardog Champion – Mother Love Bone

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

Rusted Cage – Soundgarden

Hunger Strike – Temple of the Dog

Jeremy – Pearl Jam

I Nearly Lost You – Screaming Trees

Man in the Box – Alice in Chains



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