Ten Years Since Nirvana – Grunge Story

It was the dawn of a new decade: the hair-metal phenomenon seemed to have run its course; rap was still expanding — Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer were out on tour together; The New Kids on the Block was rapidly wearing out its welcome; Jon Bon Jovi was on his own making soundtracks; people were finally over the Milli Vanilli scandal.

It was a time of disposable pop music and hard-rock, pop-metal about fast cars and fast girls. It was a turgid music scene all about having fun.

And then there was a rumbling in the Northwest “¦ and over the span of a few short months a couple of bands caused an entire music scene to explode. While it would be over in the span of a few years, what transpired between the summer of 1991 and the winter of 1995 felt like a mini musical revolution, the ripples of which can still be felt to this day.

September, 1991. Ground zero.

A few simple chords, a downtuned guitar, some sleazy cheerleaders and a gym full of angst-ridden fans moshing — that’s all it took: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had hit a chord in the general populace, the media and record labels sat up and took notice, coined the term “grunge,” and what was once a clothing necessity for the chilly, wet weather of the Pacific Northwest — the flannel shirt — became a fashion statement and sign of musical solidarity.

Sure, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t the catalyst, per say, of an entire musical revolution; “Nevermind” wasn’t even the band’s first album. But what it was, was a jump off point of sorts, a definitive moment to point to in terms of a tide turning on the musical landscape.

1991: The end of the summer, the beginning of the fall. The players? A quintet of angry, vocally-gifted individuals: Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden), Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana frontman) and Billy Corgan (lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins).

Corgan had been toiling in the Chicago area for some time and finally produced the fruit of his labor. His band’s first release, Smashing Pumpkins’ “Gish,” perfectly encapsulated what was to become grunge: the whole album had an air of melancholy, the guitar riffing was sludgy and thick and the band’s sound, as a whole, was heavy with an interesting dichotomy of foreboding yet somehow inviting vocals.

While “Gish” was (for all intents and purposes) overlooked by the mainstream, it began the 1-2-3-4 punch that swung open the door of this new scene.

In August, Pearl Jam released “Ten”; in September “Nevermind” came out; Soundgarden followed up in October with “Badmotorfinger.” At the time, most of these albums were received with little to no fanfare, and then “Smells” started gathering steam “¦ and the rest, well “¦ is history.

So, what exactly was this grunge? In many cases it was just an extension of the metal/alternative-rock culture. Towards the end of the ’80s, Soundgarden and Nirvana were cranking out some great material, melding a downtuned metal sound with the raw sensibilities of punk. Soundgarden’s back to back releases of “Ultramega OK” and “Louder Than Love” were mostly embraced by metal fans — Cornell’s voice the embodiment of some tortured, metal messiah.

Meanwhile, Nirvana was toiling away on the club scene in support of “Bleach,” an album most thought too raw for its own good. Tracks like “Negative Creep” and “School” encapsulated Cobain’s love of punk, while “About a Girl” showcased the band’s softer, more melodic side.

Like those that had come before them on the scene — Mother Love Bone, Green River and the Screaming Trees to name a few — Soundgarden and Nirvana seemed destined to toil the club scene waiting for a big break.

Fast-forward to 1992. The buzz around Soundgarden was growing since the band got off the road opening for what was quite possibly the biggest band in the world at that point, Guns N’ Roses. The supergroup Temple of the Dog was making waves with the single “Hunger Strike” and, in the process, expanding the fanbase of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Temple of the Dog comprised of Soundgarden bandmembers Chris Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron, along with former Mother Love Bone and current Pearl Jam bandmates Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder also lent vocals to a couple of the band’s songs. The band put out one album, a tribute to fallen-friend and Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, and the album was a hit on commercial radio and MTV, which slotted the “Hunger Strike” video in heavy rotation.

Around the same time, Alice in Chains had released an acoustic EP, “Sap,” to satiate the growing appetite for Seattle-band material. AIC were already somewhat established on the metal scene after the strong release of its debut, “Faceless.” Tracks like “Man in the Box” and “We Die Young” had been embraced by fans and hard rock radio. While AIC was, for the most part, a hard-rock/metal outfit, those elements that made up the grunge sound were also evident in their music.

At this point, the “Seattle scene” was beginning to take shape in terms of media coverage and national consciousness. Cameron Crowe used the city as the backdrop to his 1992 movie “Singles,” and the movie led to the perfect time-capsule of the entire “scene.”

The “Singles” soundtrack dropped, June 1992.

Riding on the strength of the album’s first single, Alice in Chains morose “Would?” the soundtrack perfectly encapsulated Seattle’s musical landscape. Pearl Jam offered two hard-hitting tracks, “Breath” and the blistering “State of Love and Trust”; Chris Cornell showed a softer side with a solo rendition of “Seasons” but also joined his band on “Birth Ritual”; Washington mainstays Mudhoney, the Lovemongers (aka Heart) and Paul Westerberg (formerly of The Replacements) were showcased along with a classic track from Jimi Hendrix; Seattle favorites Mother Love Bone were also fit in along with a track from the Smashing Pumpkins. It seemed the only band missing from the list was Nirvana.

By the end of ’92 you had the “Singles” soundtrack maintaining momentum, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, their illegitimate birthchild Temple of the Dog all gaining speed, Alice in Chains cranking out what was probably their strongest and most grunge oriented album, “Dirt,” and Nirvana riding the crest of the movement on the back of “Nevermind” and throwing out a strong collection of b-sides and rarities (“Incesticide”). Grunge was in full swing.

But there was also a flip side. The grunge-effect took hold and the marketplace slowly begin its saturation with like-sounding artists. Bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox released debut albums in ’92 and ’93 respectively and got lumped in with the “grunge” movement to initially commercial success at the expense of their integrity. Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland was labeled a Vedder-wannabe and the band written off as a Pearl Jam clone by detractors. Candlebox’s first album was welcomed by fans of the genre even-though the band had no real association with the grunge scene other than the band hailed from Washington.

Both Nirvana and Pearl Jam released strong follow-ups to their major label debuts. Nirvana’s “In Utero” offered hit-single after hit-single — from “Heart Shaped Box” to “All Apologies,” Nirvana seemed to have become the biggest band in North America finishing off the year with the notorious MTV “Unplugged” performance. Pearl Jam’s second release went through a couple of name changes (“Five Against One” was an early choice) and was initially released self-titled before the band settled on “Vs.” The band offered a nice follow-up to “Ten,” showing signs of influence from “grunge godfather” Neil Young. Smashing Pumpkins offered its most grunge-influenced album, “Siamese Dream.”

But the cracks were beginning to show.

Pearl Jam, out of anger of the media, decided against doing any videos in support of “Vs.” Along with the slew of suedo-grunge bands saturating the marketplace, a disturbing underside was emerging. At this point, Cobain was deep into a relationship with fellow Washington musician Courtney Love, frontwoman for the band Hole, and also deep into a serious drug addiction. Heroin seemed to be the drug of choice, and Cobain wasn’t the only one. AIC frontman Layne Staley also had a well documented addiction, and most of the songs AIC was crafting dealt with the subject matter. Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone had died from overdosing. Weiland had his share of problems. Many musicians on the scene admitted to at least trying it out “¦ and things were about to turn deadly.

In March of ’94 Nirvana were in Europe on tour. Cobain, who had struggled with stomach pains most of his life, had fallen ill and the band was forced to cancel some shows. While in Rome, Cobain apparently overdosed on prescription painkillers and alcohol and had to be rushed to the hospital. He was in a coma for 20 hours. He finally returned to his home in Seattle and checked into rehab. However, on April 4, he was found dead in his home. Fans and friends were shocked. While his death wasn’t the direct cause of the end of the grunge era, it seemed to signify as much.

Later that year Nirvana’s “Unplugged” was released commercially. Pearl Jam offered up “Vitalogy” which signified the band slowly moving away from a grunge sound in favor or hard rock and more experimental fair. Soundgarden were still reaping the benefits of “Superunknown,” released a month before Cobain’s death.

By 1995 it felt like grunge had all but faded away. Alice in Chains’ self-titled release seemed more metal-tinged (although, by now AIC had a trademark sound uniquely their own). New angry, heavier bands loomed on the horizon: Korn, Rage Against the Machine and the like. Grunge slowly became nothing more than a memory.

Now, in 2004, most of the bands synonymous with the grunge era are now more. Nirvana died along with its frontman. Band members went off to their own projects to varying degrees of success. Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins disbanded. Pearl Jam continues on to this day with a strong, core base of fans and still enjoys a level of success though its sound has matured and changed over the years. And though fans held out hope of an Alice in Chains reunion, that hope was shattered in 2002 when Layne Staley was found dead after losing his own battle with drugs.

Still, a whole new generation of musicians raised on grunge have come of age and the era’s influence can be heard in new bands to this day. And Cobain’s face still adorns the cover of music magazines from year to year. But as any fan of the genre would tell you, there’s nothing that quite compares to those few moody, magical years.

Recommended listening:
Nirvana: “Nevermind”
Pearl Jam: “Ten”
Smashing Pumpkins: “Gish”
Various artists: “Singles”
Various artists: “Home Alive”
Alice in Chains: “Dirt”
Soundgarden: “Superunknown”
Temple of the Dog: self-titled
Mad Season: “Above”