Grunge is a distinct type of rock music that became popular in Seattle in the 1980s. The music form uses a lot of electric guitar and typically the lyrics of the songs are full of angst, the musicians generally looked scruffy and unkempt and dressed from thrift stores as opposed to wearing high fashion. Grunge bands typically imported this stripped down aesthetic into their stage performances, eschewing complex displays to simply play on stage. Grunge musicians are able to bring in a lot of different musical forms such as slower speeds and stop start techniques. Grunge combined a number of punk influences into rock music and was originally extremely heavy musicbefore the influence of Nirvana introduced a more melodic element.
What can be said about Nirvana. They were not the first Grunge band (that title belongs to Green River), the first to sign to a major record label (Soundgarden) or even the most long lasting and popular (probably Pearl Jam). They were, however, the band that brought Grunge to the popular audience. After forming in 1987 they released their first album in 1989 through indie label Sub Pop. They were later signed to DGC Records who produced their second album Nevermind which contained the influential single Smells Like Teen Spirit, the popularity of which lead to frontman Kurt Cobain being referred to as the ‘spokesman of a generation’.
Nirvana’s success launched the Grunge scene in the public mind and many of the other grunge bands mentioned here owe their success and popularity to the influence of Nirvana and Nevermind. Nirvana’s musical style was formed by the need to fit in to the expectations of the Sub Pop Grunge fanbase. They used a mix of quiet and loud sounds moving from punk rock to traditional songs adding in screaming vocals and rhythmic guitar full of power cords, it was the drumming, however, that set Nirvana apart from all other bands. Kurt Cobain did not consider the lyrics of his songs to be overly important, at times picking and choosing lines from poetry he had written and other times juxtaposing contradictory images.
Nirvana’s live success was short-lived; in 1994 they had to cancel tour dates as a result of Kurt Cobain’s drug addictions and they broke up following his suicide in 1994. The band has subsequently released a repertoire of posthumous work which has had significant success and the remaining band members have performed with guest vocalists most notably at the ceremony when Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame.
Following the dissolution of Mother Love Bone Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament joined with others to form the group Pearl Jam. They have gone on to sell more than 60 million records worldwide. While seen as one of the most influential bands of the 1990s they have managed to retain their popularity through to the present day.
While their first album Ten dealt with traditional grunge subjects such as suicide, murder and depression. It was anthemic, heavily influenced by classic rock and has gone on to become one of the bestselling rock records of all time. While it was well received by the public it was heavily criticized by the Seattle music scene; in particular Kurt Cobain complained that they were commercial sellouts who used too many guitar leads to be a true alternative grunge band.
Success did not sit well with the band members, they decided not to produce music videos and scaled back on commercial work and television appearances. They toured extensively but ended up in a legal battle with the venue organizer Ticketmaster about service charges added to ticket process. Their 2000 European Tour was marred by tragedy when nine fans were killed during a crush at the concert, the band were powerless to prevent the disaster. They thought seriously about breaking up but decided to continue.
Pearl Jam’s music style is not as heavy as many of their contemporaries and uses a rhythmic rather than dissonant guitar style which has been cited as one of the reasons for their popularity. The band actively worked to make their style less catchy as they wanted to reduce their runaway popularity. The band’s lyrics are often hard hitting and cover personal, social and political issues.
Pearl Jam have become the most successful and popular of all the Grunge bands and have fanatical and loyal fans similar to the band Grateful Dead. They are considered to be one of rock’s great arena acts. The band are well known for their principled stand on issues with which they disagree (such as the Ticketmaster monopoly on concert venues) and their use of concerts and lyrics to promote causes in which they believe.
Taking the time to listen to Pearl Jam’s music will allow you to enjoy the work of one of the very best loved bands of all time. Listening to their early music in particular allows you to hear the early influence of Grunge style on their work.
Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains formed in 1987 and became one of the most successful bands of the 1990s with 14 top 10 songs, nine Grammy nominations and their second and third album making the number 1 slot in the albums chart. They combined heavy metal style music with dark grunge style lyrics. They benefitted from the mainstream success of Nevermind and their subsequent work was marketed as alternative music in order to drive sales.
Their lead vocalist Layne Staley was a prolific drugs user which led to the band being unable to produce as much work as they would have otherwise liked. Staley died in 2002 and the band relied on a number of guest vocalists before recruiting William DuVall to replace Staley full time. Since DuVall’s appointment the band have released two further albums and toured to promote them.
Listen to their songs Man in the Box, Angry Chair and Them Bones to get an idea of their musical style and influence.
Soundgarden are one of the longest running grunge bands on the scene. Formed in 1984 they have sold more than 10 million records in the US alone. They were the very first Grunge band to sign to a mainstream label and as such were instrumental in popularizing the Grunge sound and bringing it to a mainstream audience. Soundgarden broke up in 1997 but have subsequently reformed and are still producing critically acclaimed music.
The band was named for a famous sound producing sculpture in Seattle and was formed out of an earlier band called the Shemps. The members were good friends with the people who would go on to form the indie record label Sub Pop which was formed to release the Soundgarden single Hunted Down, the label was later responsible for promoting a lot of early Grunge music. Their early influences were Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and British post-punk bands.
Soundgarden’s first release was a set of three songs on the compilation album Deep Six which was a collaborative effort together with a number of other early Grunge bands. The band signed with SST Records in 1988 but were unhappy with the resulting album Ultramega OK as the producer assigned to the album was not familiar with Grunge and the Seattle music scene. Nevertheless the album was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1990. The band later signed with mainstream label A&M Records which caused problems for them when their punk rock audience felt that they had sold out and no longer adequately represented the settle sub-culture. Their subsequent album had a significantly more ‘metal mainstream’ feel.
By 1991 the composition of the band had changed significantly with a new bassist being brought in to give a more creative aspect to their music. Their album Badmotorfinger went platinum but was somewhat overshadowed by the almost simultaneous release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. The album was characterized by howling solos, dissonant riffs and a gnarled sound. Their single Jesus Christ Pose taken from that album was widely perceived as being anti-Christian and led to the band receiving death threats in the UK and the video was banned by MTV. The band then spent the next years touring as an opening act for Guns N Roses and later on the Lollapalooza tour with other Grunge bands.
This prepared the band for their breakthrough album Superunknown which was released in 1994 debuting at the top spot in the album charts. While the music of the album is acclaimed as incredibly versatile the lyrics which deal with suicide and substance abuse and were inspired by the writings of Sylvia Plath. Singles from the album became extremely popular and many went on to win awards including a Grammy award for best hard rock performance (Black Hole Sun) and best metal performance (Spoonman). The album itself was nominated for best rock album.
This marked the high point of their career. They produced a further record Down on the Upside in which the music was a significant departure from their early Grunge style. Following this album the band broke up. The band reunited in 2010 and has subsequently had a lot of success with tours and album releases.
Soundgarden’s music has evolved over the years and a tour through their discography is a tour through the history of Grunge.
While not a Seattle based band Hole, formed by Cortney Love, wife of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, deserves a mention on the list not least because they sold over 3 million records in the US market during the early part of their career. The band broke up in 2002 but reformed with different members in 2009 and there are rumors of a full reunion.
Hole has emerged as one of the most successful female rock bands of all time and the songs are typified by the exploration of women’s issues including exploitation and body language, child abuse and rape. The sound of the groups’ songs is often loud and discordant with a lot of feedback and the singing erupts into screams from time to time. Courtney Love refers to the music as grungy but not necessarily grunge. The sound has mellowed over the years and by 2010 was using softer melodies and showed more folk influences.
While the band’s name does appear to allude to a woman’s genitalia Courtney Love claims that the inspiration comes from Medea and the statement in the book ‘there’s a hole that pierces my soul’ and a conversation she had with her mother who told her ‘you can’t have a hole running through you all the time Courtney’.
Hole’s first album Pretty on the Inside was extremely loud and brash but received good reviews and gained a cult following. Courtney Love herself said it was ‘unlistenable’. Hole was supported on tour by fellow Grunge band Mudhoney. Hole’s second album Live Through This was released just days after Courtney Love’s husband Kurt Cobain’s death. At the time there was some controversy about the authorship of the album with many fans claiming that Cobain had written the majority of the lyrics, something that has always been denied by Courtney Love and other band members. Indeed Courtney Love claims that lyrics are extremely important to her and many come directly from her journal writings. She studied English literature for a time and references to well-known works by authors such as William Shakespeare, Dante Rosetti and Rudyard Kipling can be found in many of the songs.
Hole’s stage performances were erratic and they regularly destroyed equipment. At times Courtney Love would just leave the stage for no reason and without explanation. She dressed in a distinctive ‘kinderwhore’ style wearing torn babydoll dresses and smeared makeup. Courtney Love herself has said that she was high on drugs at the time and is ashamed of her excesses.
Hole’s best known works include Violet, Doll Parts and Awful. Listen to some of their work to gain an understanding of Grunge angst from the feminist perspective.
Screaming Trees formed as a band in 1985, they became one of the original Grunge bands of 1980s/90s Seattle and were one of the most successful underground acts on the circuit. Their name comes from a particular type of guitar distortion pedal.
The performers originally came together to explore their interest in psychedelic music, garage punk and classic rock and how they could be fused in a single sound. As their career progressed they started to incorporate folk sounds into their work. They released their first recording on a local indie label in the 1986 before being signed by the major label Epic Records in 1989. The band members did not have a harmonious relationship with each other and the band broke up several times during its lifetime.
While well respected on the Seattle scene the band never gained more than a cult following and band members spent a lot of time working on external projects. Unlike many of their contemporary bands Screaming Tree was unable to profit from Nirvana’s runaway success with ‘Nevermind’. They did have some chart success with their 1991 single Bed of Roses (produced by Chris Cornell of Soundgarden) at number 23 and their best known single Nearly Lost you (number 5 in the Modern Rock Tracks Chart and number 50 in the UK chart). Their album ‘Dust’ charted in the US (134), Canada (39) and the UK (32).
This band deserves to be better known than it is and while I Nearly Lost You, is popular some of their other work such as Dollar Bill and Shadow of the Season are excellent examples of Seattle Grunge.
The band that started it all! Green River was started in 1984 by a selection of men who had previously played in punk and hardcore bands. The band was named for the serial killer Gary Ridgeway known as the Green River Killer who was convicted of 49 murders. In 1985 Green River released the first ever Grunge Album Come on Down their second album, Dry as a Bone was promoted as an album that ‘destroyed the morals of a generation’.
Their success did not last long, however, and the band was never particularly well known outside of Seattle. They broke up and many of the members went on to form other bands. Their best known songs include Together We’ll Never, Come on Down and Swallow my Pride. Their work is very much worth a listen and provides an opportunity to understand the early roots of Grunge.
Mother Love Bone
Mother Love Bone formed in 1988 by three members of Green River (Jeff Ament, Bruce Fairweather and Stone Gossard), Greg Gilmore and front man Andrew Wood. Wood was inspired by singers such as Marc Bolan and Freddy Mercury which gave Mother Love Bone a different sound to its contemporaries.
The band had a promising future and was signed by Polygram who created the label ‘Stardog Records’ especially for the band. Their debut Shine was extremely well received. By 1989 the group was working hard to record their debut album, Apple which was hotly anticipated on the music scene. Sadly Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose aged just 24 only days before the album was due to be released.
When the album was released it was to rave reviews confirming thoughts that this band could have made it big. Following Wood’s death Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament went on to long term success in the band Pearl Jam. Mother Love Bone’s best known works include Stardog Champion and Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns. The latter song was used in the 1989 film Say Anything and the 1992 film Singles both by Cameron Crowe. It has been acclaimed as trancelike, eerie and epic with Andrew Wood’s voice being called powerful and emotive. The song still form’s part of daughter group Pearl Jam’s repertoire. It is worth listening to their albums to get a sense of what might have been.
Mudhoney were formed out of the ashes of Green River and included Matt Lukin from the Melvins. The group is named after the film of the same name. As you might expect from a band that included Mark Arm, founder of Grunge, they were extremely well known and influential on the Seattle Grunge scene.
The 1988 debut song, Touch me I’m Sick typified the dirty sound and high distortion that was synonymous with Grunge. The lyrics are an invective of hate, force and self-loathing and appear to refer to living life with AIDS with phrases such as ‘I’m diseased and I don’t mind’ and ‘I’ll make you love me till the day you die’ epitomized the depressed, angst ridden verse that became so popular in Grunge.
While they released 9 albums Mudhoney were never a mainstream, popular Grunge band. They were however, considered to be an inspiration by many other Grunge artists a feeling expressed by Jay Himnan’s statement ‘At the end of the day (and even at the time), there was Mudhoney- and then there was everybody else…Mudhoney still sound like the undisputed kingpins of roaring, surging, fuzzed-out punk music.’.
Mudhoney still play today and released an album as recently as April 2013.
The Melvins, a band fronted by Buzz Ozborne (singer and guitarist) with a changing cast of other bandmates formed in 1983 taking their name from Osborne’s much hated supervisor. The band plays a range of musical styles within the overarching ‘Grunge’ classification including sludge metal, hardcore punk and stoner rock. Their experimentation with very slow speeds and sludgy music was a formative influence on other bands such as Soundgarden, Green River and Nirvana.
At first they played covers but soon started to perform their own music and in 1985 the album Deep Six contained four Melvins songs. Their Debut Albums Six Songs and Gluey Porch Treatments were released in 1986. Original band member Matt Lukin subsequently formed his own band Mudhoney.
In 1993 the band were signed by high profile label Atlantic Records but were dropped after just three albums. During this time they became even more experimental in their musical style releasing the album Prick which Osborne described as ‘a total noise crap record which we did strictly for the weirdness factor…a total joke’. The album was meant to be named for Kurt Cobain but the name had to be changed following his death.
The band are, to date, still going strong and in 2013 played a 30 year anniversary tour which saw them perform in all 50 states and in Washington DC over only a 51 day period, a world record.
Some of their best known songs include Easy as it Was, Hooch and Night Goat.