In September 1991 Grunge exploded onto the world scene with a song that, twenty years on, surely ought to be preloaded onto every new iPod, Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It came hot on the heels of a decade during which hard rock was increasingly defined by bands that looked like the forced mating of tigers, feather boas and glitter; a decade where environmentally unfriendly hairstyles took precedence over the music itself. Times had changed; Bush’s election pledge ‘read my lips: no new taxes’ was met with a rise in taxes, the shit was about to hit the fan in the Gulf and the economy was making funeral arrangements. People didn’t want to hear about fucking in the back of a limousine or snorting coke off of a hooker’s tits. People were pissed.
Of course Grunge wasn’t fresh off the rails, it has been doing the rounds in the Seattle underground since the mid-eighties. Yet it was only now that the Morlock children of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were ready for their time in the sun. Dressed in whatever clothes they stumbled across on the bedroom floor, these brave souls put fuzz guitar and introspective lyrics over the spandex and sexual innuendo of overpaid, oversexed acts like Mötley Crüe and Poison. Nirvana were riding the crest of this new wave, but the undercurrent, bands like ScreamingTrees, Mudhoney and Malfunkshun represented the community on which that movement had been founded.
In fact, by all accounts, Nirvana had very little to do with their contemporaries, which given how musically inbred Seattle had become – ignored by a music media fixated on L.A. and New York –betrayed social skills on par with a blood-drunk polar bear. The other big names in grunge were endlessly collaborating, such as when the death of Andrew Wood, the singer for local act Mother Love Bone, lead to Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and future members of Pearl Jam forming Temple Of The Dog, a group dedicated solely to his memory. Even Alice In Chains’ reclusive singer Layne Staley, who was so good at avoiding human contact that no one knew he was dead until two weeks after the event, had formed a supergroup with other grunge linchpins. It was like a musical orgy. Meanwhile Kobain was off on his own was recording such feelgood hits as ‘I Hate Myself And Want To Die’.
Nevertheless, the flood gates were open. After the whirlwind success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, a string of grunge albums hit the charts so hard that Nikki-Sixx choked on Tommy Lee’s chocolate-covered strawberries. Singles from Soungarden’s Batmotorfinger, Alice In Chains’ Facelift and Pearl Jam’s Ten dominated MTV airtime. On top of all that, it was finally ok, even cool, to go out smelling like a foot. “Duh, I’m grunge.” Smelly kids rejoiced.
Still the most important thing for me about the impact of grunge isn’t so much it’s wiping out some of the godawful dinosaurs of eighties rock, but reminding the world that a couple of guys with guitars at your local bar could change the world with simple honest music, all whilst wearing a cosy-chequered shirt and loose-fitting jeans.
by Michael Havis