Damon Albarn: “If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m about getting rid of grunge. It’s the same sort of feeling: people should smarten up, be a little bit more energetic. They’re walking around like hippies again – they’re stooped, they’ve got greasy hair, there’s no difference. Whether they like it or not, they’re listening to Black Sabbath again. It irritates me.”
Heavy music in the nineties formed around movements. Grunge. Industrial. Alt-Rock.
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers slotted into a wide-ranging alt-rock category that encompassed a diverse selection of bands including Hootie and the Blowfish and the nineties version of punk rock as typified by Green Day.
But it was grunge that dominated heavy rock music in the early part of the decade. It quietly exposed the more ridiculous elements of glam metal. It was subversive, displaying a style of performance that didn’t require a cowboy-hatted alpha male to top the charts.
But it wasn’t all Nirvana, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Green Day.
Many of the bands who made the most interesting music were initially those who had been at the fringes of the eighties metal scene, but who didn’t quite fit in during that heady environment.
Perry Farrell and Eric Avery had formed Jane’s Addiction in 1985 having bonded over The Velvet Underground and Joy Division. They were already breaking up by the time their third album “Ritual De Lo Habitual” came out in 1990. “Been Caught Stealing” was an instant, catchy anthem and their 1991 farewell tour kicked off the indie Lollapalooza festival.
Another band navigating a new decade were Love/Hate. They flirted with a gothic image before settling on the glam rock look popular at the time. Their second album Wasted In America used interesting chord progressions and bass lines as you can hear in “Yucca Man” but the band were hampered by a slightly less-than-serious attitude encapsulated by an attempted publicity stunt where the band thought they would “crucify” singer Jizzy Pearl at the Y of the Hollywood sign. In the event, Pearl was left stuck 60ft in the air for several hours before a TV helicopter news crew noticed him, and had him rescued by police and fire crews, before putting him in jail.
Another band who took a slightly wrong turn was Enuff Z’Nuff. They saw themselves as a power pop group like The Smithereens, and their Beatles and Costello-influenced songs sounded like power pop as well. Unfortunately for them, they were persuaded by their record company to fit in with the glam rock fashion and were pilloried for it on Beavis and Butthead. “She looks like that Peter Frampton chick” said Beavis. “Glam rock just isn’t what it used to be” said Butthead.
“Heaven or Hell” is from their second (1991) LP “ Strength” and is a good example of the sound they had at the time. Just don’t watch the videos.
The seeds of alt-rock and grunge were found in Seattle in the shape of an exuberant admirer of Marc Bolan and Jim Morrison called Andrew Wood. His first band, Malfunkshun, was rejected by Sub Pop but his next, Mother Love Bone was signed by PolyGram and also featured future Pearl Jam players Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. Sadly Wood was, by then, addicted to heroin and died before Mother Love Bone’s debut LP “Apple” could be released in 1990. The song “Crown of Thorns”, also on their first EP in an extended form, was a stand out.
As other bands attempted to move forward, some bands in thrall to what we now call classic rock were still making waves.
Masters of Reality frontman Chris Goss had been signed to Rick Rubin’s Def America label in the late eighties, but joined forces with former Cream drummer Ginger Baker in 1992. The two co-wrote “Ants In the Kitchen” for the superb “Sunrise in the Sufferbus” LP which was probably Baker’s best post-Cream album.
Another band signed by Rick Rubin was Raging Slab, who hailed from New York and mixed Lynryd Skynryd style Southern rock with Black Flag punk rock. They built a studio and called it Slabby Road. They went through more drummers (20) than Spinal Tap, but on their 1993 “Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert” LP which was produced by Brendan O’Brien and featured string arrangements from Led Zep’s John Paul Jones they produced a wealth of good songs including the lovely, reflective “So Help Me”.
One of the bands that had opened for Raging Slab on a 1990 tour was a then little-known group called Mr. Crowe’s Garden. By 1993 The Black Crowes had sold 5 million copies of their debut 1990 album and had a #1 hit with their second in 1992. They recorded sessions for an album to be called “Tall”, but scrapped them. One of the tracks they discarded might just have been their finest hour, a Floydian, atmospheric tune called “Feathers” which circulated amongst fans only until the sessions were released officially (and temporarily, it seems) in 2006.
Soul Asylum had been together twelve years before scoring a hit with Grammy winning “Runaway Train” in 1993. The video showed pictures of missing people and appealed for their whereabouts, resulting in some being found. The accompanying album “Grave Dancer’s Union” mixed classic rock and alt-rock and contained gems such as the crushingly heavy “99%”.
Speaking of heavy, the world of metal was at a crossroads. With the likes of Motley Crue et al immediately rendered old fashioned in the wake of grunge, even newer thrash metal bands were developing growing pains.
Enter Chris Goss, mentioned earlier, who saw some Palm Desert teenagers called Kyuss playing outside parties in the middle of the desert. Their amplifiers were powered by oil-fuelled generators. The band, featuring Josh Homme, Nick Oliveri, John Garcia and Brant Bjork, played their guitars through bass amps, tuned them low, and the thundering sound, produced by Goss, would kick-start the desert rock and stoner rock movements. “Green Machine” is from 1992’s Blues for the Red Sun album. Homme had only just turned 19 when it was released.
Alice in Chains acted as a bridge for metal fans who had been intrigued by grunge. Lead singer Layne Staley had sung with glam (Alice ‘N Chains) and funk metal bands before taking the name for his new group. A heavier sound and their Seattle home put them in the right place at the right time. The debut album was a modest success, but follow up Dirt was a multi-platinum smash hit, and “Rain When I Die” a grinding, Black-Sabbathy highlight (Albarn was right), despite not being one of the five singles released from the album.
Suze DeMarchi had already had one stalled attempt at pop stardom – signed to EMI in the U.K. – before she returned to her native Australia and formed Baby Animals. Their 1991 debut album reached #1 in Australia (#70 in the U.K.) and featured the single “One Word”. Sadly the band never broke through elsewhere despite touring with the likes of Robert Plant, Bryan Adams and Van Halen.
L7 supported a young Nirvana on a U.K. tour in 1990. Their first Sub Pop album, Smell the Magic was heavily punk-influenced containing moments of sludgy genius such as “Packin’ A Rod” while the (Garbage drummer/ Nevermind producer) Butch Vig-produced follow up, Bricks Are Heavy, was more successful with “Pretend We’re Dead” hitting #21 in the U.K. singles charts. It was helped, perhaps, by their memorable appearance on late night TV show The Word, where the U.K. public were treated to singer and guitarist Donita Sparks removing her knickers as the song finished. Even Jimi Hendrix, with his burning Stratocaster would have struggled to follow that performance.
Funk metal band Dan Reed Network was the unlikely inspiration – at least of a kind – for Seattle residents Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow who met each other at a Dan Reed gig, and reflected they could both do much better. They formed The Posies, and played power pop. An early song “Golden Blunders” got radio play and was covered by Ringo Starr in 1992. Their 1993 LP “Frosting on the Beater” sounds like a lost album by their Scottish contemporaries Teenage Fanclub, especially on the wonderful “Flavour of the Month”.
Chicago’s Veruca Salt took their name from Roald Dahl’s fictional spoiled brat, and the title of their 1994 album American Thighs from a lyric in AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”. Singer-guitarists Nina Gordon and Louise Post signed a record deal on the back of their debut single “Seether” which remains one of the grunge era’s best tunes. Less successful in the charts, but still a great song, was follow up single “Victrola”, which also contained on the b-side this slow, slinky version of The Knack’s “My Sharona”.
Pearl Jam were formed from the ashes of Mother Love Bone following Andrew Wood’s death. Their first couple of albums are two of the most successful albums by any band, selling thirteen and seven million copies respectively. Perhaps their best song, however, is the last song on their third album Vitalogy. “Better Man” was written by a teenage Eddie Vedder about a woman trapped in a bad relationship, a woman he later said was his mother. It was withheld from previous album Vs, as it was deemed too accessible, and to prove it, it reached the US charts through radio play alone despite never being released as a single.
The Screaming Trees had released six albums before their song “Nearly Lost You” appeared on their Oblivion LP and the 1992 “Singles” movie soundtrack. It propelled them to the upper reaches of the (alt-rock) charts.
Four years passed before their next release. The Dust LP was worth the wait, and “Gospel Plow” one of the highlights, but by the time it was released, not even having Josh Homme on guitar to support Mark Lanegan’s husky tones was enough to break the billboard top 100, although the album did reach the top 40 in the U.K.
The next decade would take both men to greater heights with Queen’s of the Stone Age, but for now, The Screaming Trees’ Dust remains an overlooked classic.
You can listen to all these tunes by clicking the Mixcloud link at the top of the page. You will also find similar mixes covering the ‘70s and ‘80s on Mixcloud and on the Every Record Tells A Story site.