Grunge Music - Early History
Alternative music, Indie 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 indie 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 indie 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.
But 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 be referred 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 popular culture.
The Death of Grunge...