Even Flow: A (Brief) History of Grunge


They demolished the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit two years ago. The last pieces of the superstructure were scrapped in March 2018 – the remnants of its sorry carcass were hauled away in trucks, as the city wanted to make way for an Amazon warehouse.

Back in its prime, however, the Silverdome was an icon – it hosted Superbowl XVI (I don’t know why they just can’t call it 16)  in 1981, the NBA All-Star Game in 1991, the group-stage matches for the United States’s only FIFA World Cup in 1994, and numerous concerts by legends such as Elvis Presley, The Who, Led Zeppelin – and the biggest legends of all – NSYNC.

Perhaps the Silverdome’s most famous event though was Wrestlemania III. Over 93,000 fans (a dubious figure knowing the industry’s penchant for fiction) packed into the stadium to watch Hulk Hogan slam the massive Andre the Giant, and then deliver his finishing move, the Atomic Leg Drop on to his 500-pound body. Hulk Hogan then pinned him 1-2-3 to retain his belt – as his legions of Hulkamaniacs cheered him on.

hogan

The reason why I’m telling you this is because Wrestlemania III encapsulated the mood of the nation at the time. Hulk Hogan was a big, tanned, patriotic dude – who got his kicks beating up foreign bad guys, taking his ‘vitamins’, and saying his damn prayers. He was not only the poster boy for Vince McMahon but the United States in general. With music like Van Halen, movies like Terminator, events like the ’84 Olympics, and Presidents surviving attempted assassinations, America was kicking ass in the 1980s – delivering Atomic Leg Drops on any enemy who dared take them on. After all, this was the time where mullets, double denim, and geometric patterns were in style. Anything was possible.

dillon Fuck yeah!

The cocaine-fuelled, adrenaline-soaked, heavy metal adventure that was 1980s pop culture raged like an inferno – we in the United Kingdom probably looked on in envy at the proverbial tank-top the Yanks were wearing at the time, from the outside – America was the place to be if you wanted to hang out and get rich on Wall Street with Gordon Gekko, get stoned with Jeff Spicoli, or kick some ass with Hulk Hogan.

At least, that’s how it looked.

With bands like Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Van Halen, Warrant, and Bon Jovi selling out arenas up and down the country, rock had increased its volume but decreased its relatability. There were seedy underbellies and untold truths that weren’t being talked about – it turns out there was something else Hulk Hogan was taking along with his vitamins. Rock bands had all become millionaires and still had the gall to say they could relate to young people. Professional wrestling was choreographed, the Challenger tragically exploded, and, on top of all this, Rocky…lost.

Perhaps this image of America was largely smoke and mirrors. Young people found themselves jaded like we were in the mid-1970s. We had been there. We had seen Prog Rock make monsters out of our favorite bands – rock had got so big it forgot where it came from in the first place. The Who were now a pretentious rock ‘opera’ band, The Beatles had broken up, and the Rolling Stones went into ‘exile’ in their French chateaus. As a result, we took matters into our own hands and made our own music – it wasn’t fancy, but it was raw, authentic and aggressive – the way rock should be. Prog was out. Punk was in.

By the mid-1980s, a similar feeling of disdain was creeping in with the youths of America. Hair metal had become stale, its time in the sun was nearing its end. This was due mostly because there was such an oversaturation of hair metal bands creeping up – each looking and sounding exactly like the last. By 1988, it wasn’t cool to simply have long hair, ripped jeans and a Brooklyn accent anymore. Young people wanted something new, something different, and something that had a point to prove.

Enter Seattle.

Bruce Pavitt was a young man studying at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He started a magazine called Subterranean Pop during his studies, and the publication focused on the underground artists the city had to offer. These bands were strongly influenced by U.K. punk and possessed the raw, aggressive quality that commercial rock was lacking, Pavvit’s social commentary on the time summed things up pretty well:

“When people buy a record, they are not only plugging into the music, but into the values and lifestyle that are implied by the artist. By supporting huge Hollywood music corporations, you (yes you), are not only allowing middle-aged capitalists to dictate what goes over the airwaves, but promote macho pig-fuck bands whose entire lifestyle revolves around cocaine, sexism, money and more money. The 80s need new sounds and just as much they need new heroes.” – Bruce Pavitt

”Macho pig-fuck bands”. Now that’s a line I could only dream of writing.

Pavitt’s rage at the state of rock at the time is evident. He makes a good point by saying that consumers want a lifestyle and values they can relate to – most people can’t relate to Jon Bon Jovi’s life, and I don’t think people even wanted to. I don’t think they even cared anymore. Music comes and goes as a trend, and Pavitt could sense a new one was coming.

His magazine evolved into a record label of sorts – compiling Seattle’s independent artists into one album, most of whom were featured in the magazine. The first of these compilation albums, Sup Pop 100, came out in July 1986.

sub pop 100

The artwork is certainly different. The tracks certainly were also. Featuring bands such as Scratch Acid, Sonic Youth, Skinny Puppy, and Naked Raygun – the album got its fair share of attention due its abrasive, homemade, and, at times, downright weird content. The moderate success of the tape led to more compilation albums, the last of which sold a few thousand copies. Sub Pop grew and grew, and artists started to take notice – local act Green River approached Pavitt and said they wanted to record their second EP, Dry as a Bone with Sub Pop. Green River’s popularity had grown steadily with Pacific Northwest audiences with time – their following shared with other up and coming bands such as Melvins, Soundgarden and Skin Yard.

However, Sub Pop did not have enough money to release the EP straight away. That had to come next summer – but when released in 1987, Pavvit promoted the album as ”ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a generation.” Pavvit had unknowingly coined a term that would be used to describe an epoch of music.

The growing roster of bands in the Seattle area was expanding rapidly. Lyrical content had become more introspective, more angsty – and more self-aware. The cultural shift was starting to become apparent in Seattle, artists were broke and wore flannel with second-hand VANS. They didn’t care. They weren’t interested in the image – they simply wanted Rock to gets its balls back. They weren’t mopy, either. They simply saw the issues of the world and the issue of the self that previous artists were too rich or too coked up to consider.

Sub Pop were visited by a group from Aberdeen in late 1988. They were aware of the new ‘Seattle Sound’ and had come down to check it out for themselves. The group had been started a few years before and had got through names such as Fecal Matter, Skid Row, and The Sellouts previously. They recorded a cover of a song by Shocking Blue named Love Buzz. Although the group was yet to secure a full-time drummer, they had at least settled on a name – The Jonas Brothers.

Oh, wait, that’s not right.

Nirvana.

Fronted by 21-year old Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s cover of Love Buzz became the first single in the Sub Pop Singles Club – a service that mailed the label’s singles monthly. It quickly became a favorite among college radio stations, and Nirvana began work on their debut album, Bleach, a month later. Featuring feedback-heavy guitars, loud vocals, and an overall ‘unpolished’ sound, the new ‘Seattle Sound’ had arrived – joined by other groups such as Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden, Seattle had become to grunge what Detriot was to Motown.

Bleach was released on June 15, 1989, and soon Nirvana took off on a European tour – taking with them the sound that would make them the poster band for a new, frustrated generation of young people who were disillusioned with the world around them. Grunge had arrived on the big stage – and it was here to stay. Newly formed Pearl Jam released their masterpiece Ten the next year. Gone were the days of singing about ‘cherry pie and paradise cities, and in were the days of addressing suicidal kids, domestic abuse, sexual perversion – and heroin use.

By 1992, grunge music had become mainstream. It was everywhere. MTV featured the now-iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit music video thousands of times, groups like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were all household names. The release of Nevermind in September 1991 had catapulted not only Nirvana but the fragile nature of grunge into the stratosphere. Soon, the term was so prevalent that it had lost all meaning, as bands splintered off into new directions. Grunge had become its own worst enemy, and its decline was inevitable.

Grunge seems like ancient history now. Kurt Cobain loathed the movement and wanted nothing to do with the ‘spokesperson’ tag the media gave him. The music slowly gave way to alternative acts such as The Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails – who took it in their own directions. Soon, nerdy rock acts such as Weezer came along. Don’t get me wrong, all of these artists are great in their own right. But grunge, like many people who were involved in it, led a short life. I don’t think rock has ever been as authentic since. For just a few years, it was ok to be yourself.

Oh well, whatever.

 

 

6 thoughts on “Even Flow: A (Brief) History of Grunge

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