Grunge Music History
Alternative music, rock, College
rock, Seattle Rock : Melvins, Mudhoney, Nirvana, Music from the X generation.
In the mid 80's a small movement was brewing in an unlikely place, Seattle,
Washington. This movement was not actually lead by Nirvana as many have said when they
released "Nevermind" in September of 91 but actually went back to other
Seattle bands like Melvins and Mudhoney. It was due in large part to
Nirvana and Pearl Jam that the movement came to the forefront of mainstream
success, a move which combined with the tragedy of Kurt Cobain's
death conspired to kill the movement. While alternative music was a term for underground rock bands,
Grunge bands combined guitar rock with punk and metal to give birth to a new movement. By the mid 90s the two movements combined in the eyes of the public
to one big genre known as grunge. As a offshoot of
this situation rock emerged and returned to the roots of the alternative movement and
took the mantle of what was formerly known as alternative or college rock. Grunge moved
from a local sound in Seattle through national and international venues and
became a part of the musical vocabulary of most subsequent bands.
Most modern musicians owe a debt of gratitude to those plaid wearing teens from
Seattle. What caused this phenomenon? No one knows exactly but there are some
possible causes to consider.
Seattle in the early 80s was an isolated place culturally. Major bands didn't
tour Seattle, the live scene was awash with derivative bands, and it rained a
lot which brings people inside together. In the words of local record producer Jack
Endino, "when the weather's crappy you don't feel like going outside, you go
into a basement and make a lot of noise to take out your frustration." In the
mid eighties British punk began to make its presence known in Seattle.
Bands formed and played small gigs they set up for themselves to an audience mostly of
other bands in tiny venues or clubs. It was a friendly scene playing to entertain themselves and escape
from boredom and the rain. We did mention the rain right? Lots of rain? Small independent record companies started up making
handshake deals producing vinyl records which were cheap and abundant. Fanzines also
helped glue the scene together and keep grunge enthusiasts informed on the new
bands and shows. Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitof of the famed and infamous rock record label Sub Pop
began to spread beyond the north west exerting their influence on a national
level. After starting with the simple goal of
getting a relatively unknown local band Soundgarden on record they soon became a driving force in the movement
that was quickly sweeping the nation.
In November 1988 they established the "Sub Pop Singles Club" producing limited
editions of singles from local bands, released monthly. It started with a
thousand copies of a thoroughly unknown Nirvana's "Love Buzz/Big Cheese". Other
local bands like Green River, Tad, Mudhoney, and Soundgarden put out Sub Pop
singles. King Snake Roost, Lubricated Goat, Surgery, Helmet, Tar, Silverfish,
Melvins, Cows, and Steel Pole Bath Tub began to be well known
on the local scene and the roots of the movement began to take hold.
In 1989 British journalist Andy Catlin came to Seattle. Poneman and Pavit
escorted him to a Mudhoney show. They showed him around town and the result was
a big story in Britain's Melody Maker, 1989, titled "Seattle, Rock City".
Suddenly the US underground was buzzing with the news about the Seattle movement. Art Chantry aptly
described the upcoming months as "an explosion of subculture". Many locals bands
hated the attention. In 1990 it seemed all the hype was overblown. Sub Pop had
fallen on such hard times Poneman and Pavit created a T shirt in 1991 which
stated bluntly "WHICH PART OF WE HAVE NO MONEY DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?"
It seemed it was much ado about nothing. Then quietly in September of 91 Nirvana's second album "Nevermind" hit the shelves. Nirvana
were still a small local act from the tiny logging town of Aberdeen. No one
expected much of the album. The when MTV placed
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" in high rotation suddenly almost overnight it became
a national phenomenon which some have called the anthem of a
generation. Kurt Cobain suddenly found himself as the unexpected spokesman of
what was beginning to
to as generation X. Nirvana toured Australia and suddenly Grunge was a part of
popular global culture. The
merciless exploitation was not far behind. As Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam stated
bluntly, "when commerce is involved, everything changes". Vanity Fair magazine did a
Grunge fashion spread which appeared on the runway of 7th Avenue New York
fashion shows. Chain stores advertised grunge wear for all ages. At the local
level in Seattle the grunge scene was limited to gigs in local clubs, the production of
fanzines, record releases on small local labels staying true to its roots and
keeping the movement alive but the kids in plaid couldn't keep the corporate
wolves at bay forever. Grunge was big business and artists need money like
everyone else. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and
Nirvana had big success on the charts and the big five wanted a piece of the
action. Geffen Records purchased Nirvana's
contract from Sub Pop, Alice in Chains signed with Columbia and Pearl Jam signed
with Epic. Suddenly out of nowhere all the major labels descended upon Seattle looking for the "next big
thing". Kurt Cobain said of Teen Spirit in his last major interview (US Rolling
Stone issue 674, Jan 27, 1994), "Everyone has focused on that song so much. The
reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times.
It's been pounded into their brains." That was the problem. The music was being
overplayed and it was only a matter of time before their was a backlash.
Once mainstream success came along local control of Grunge
was gone. National magazines heralded the "new sound" and major successes like
Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were in great demand.
Suddenly grunge artists became big celebrities and the gossip mill wanted to
know every little detail. Kim Thayil of Soundgarden was quoted saying "that's
what makes pop culture so significant to all the little consumers out there,
they have no interest in history or economics... they're interested more in
gossip and the nature of celebrity". Suddenly grunge became embedded in the
popular culture and to the artists who pioneered the movement it lost its appeal
at the same time. Groups began to distance themselves from the movement.
In December, of 1992, Spin magazine reported "Seattle...it's currently to the
rock world what Bethlehem was to Christianity" When the New York Times called
Sub Pop to get the inside scoop on "Grunge" employee Megan Jasper made up a
whole series of words which were allegedly the Grunge translation of common
terms. It was a total lie but was printed just the same. When the story was
exposed the hypocrisy of over commercialization began to become apparent and the
movement began to unravel.
At 11:05 am. on April 8th, 1994, three coroners from the
King County medical examiners office arrived at the home of Kurt Cobain. They
found Kurt's body in a small room over the greenhouse. They took pictures of the
scene and swiftly concluded Cobain had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Information was quickly leaked to the media, and the world learned that Kurt
Cobain spokesman for Generation X was dead. Has Grunge changed the music world forever? Certainly the grief at Kurt Cobain's
death shows that he was as important to his generation as John Lennon had been
to the 60's. The image of thousands at the Seattle vigil celebrating his life
amid a sea of media documenting the event was a fitting epitaph of Grunge as a
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