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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The Early Years

March 12, 2008

The term grunge was first used to describe music in 1981 by Mark Arm to describe his band Mr. Epp and the Calculations. Arm would also go on to be in several influential bands, including Green River and Mudhoney.

So it was out of the environment of rainy Seattle that grunge was born. And reborn, as it happens. In fact, grunge is one musical genre that is so inbred that it’s hard to distinguish who came up with what and when. Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard alone was involved in nine different bands between 1982 and 1994. The genre changed about as much as the bands and their line-ups did. As a result, the music scene was very much like a big dysfunctional family, one that could be described as the Partridge Family on downers. Still, it was a family that put together some great music.

As a genre, grunge is a mix of punk and metal, with a definite mix of early 60s rock in there too. It’s no secret that many bands were influenced by artists like Neil Young, and were big fans of Rust Never Sleeps. The lyric “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” is one embrace and/or questioned by several grunge musicians.

It makes sense to start talking about grunge by talking about Green River. Green River was a band that included several people that would go on to be very popular during the grunge explosion of the early 90s. These were, primarily, Jeff Ament, Mark Arm and Stone Gossard. Ament and Gossard would go on to play in Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam (among others) and Arm would later front the band Mudhoney. Green River’s sound came from a mix of dark rock with a punk feel. With some influence from metal bands, early Green River releases like 1985’s Come On Down represent this very well. And for much of the grunge scene at that point, this was the standard. Early Soundgarden sounded much more like Led Zeppelin than it did Superunknown.

The first big break for grunge artists was the Deep Six compilation. The compilation featured Green River, Soundgarden, The Melvins, Malfunkshun (featuring Andrew Wood, who would later front the band Mother Love Bone), Skinyard and The U-Men. It was released in March of 1986 and became the “grunge” album of the time. And while the compilation probably doesn’t sound like the grunge we think of, but it was definitely the basis (The Melvins, for example, sound more like just punk rock than grunge).

Another significant album was the first Nirvana album Bleach, which received very little attention outside of the Seattle area.