As a life-long lover of music, listening to certain bands or songs can take me to a special place at any given moment. In 1991, I rather felt like how my parents must have felt in 1964 when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones first invaded our homeland. Most Rock-n-Rollers were dying for a change in the music world, and we got it in the last half of 1991.
Of course, things were brewing for years before hand. The original Alternative Rock music came in the form of what we called “College Rock”, which was essentially music that never was played on mainstream radio. I am talking about bands like XTC, The Pixies, The Smithereens, The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, and REM before they hit the big time. Grunge and 90’s-Alternative favorites like Dinosaur Jr., The Flaming Lips, and Soundgarden were already releasing albums and touring long before 1991, not to mention a little unknown band that blew the music world into pieces named Nirvana.
These bands, and so many more like them, were played on the underground radio stations based in colleges around the U.S., but never got the attention and respect they deserved. Some were lucky enough to be featured on MTV’s 120 Minutes; a 2-hour program shown in the wee hours of Sunday mornings. If you worked late, you usually watched this after your shift. If you worked in the mornings, then you probably taped the show onto VHS and watched it the next day.
120 Minutes was the video version of College Rock; an avenue for music lovers to breach the realms of normality and conformity. Aside from word of mouth and College Radio, 120 Minutes was how most people ever heard of Lush, The Pixies, or The Replacements. Sonic Youth and The Soup Dragons got most of their airplay thanks to 120 Minutes. Hell, before the Grunge scene blew the doors wide open, even Jane’s Addiction only got played on 120 Minutes.
But then everything changed in 1991.
I remember the first time I saw the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, I thought there was a mix-up in programming at MTV, in that the video was aired during prime-time. I had heard the name Nirvana before, but I do not think that I had ever actually heard them. I thought that they were just a weird punk band with a cool new sound. I did not expect them to change the world.
Nirvana and Pearl Jam came at the perfect time, almost simultaneously. In 1990, Alice in Chains had a couple hits with “Man in the Box” and “Sea of Sorrow.” In 1989, Soundgarden released their second album, “Louder Than Love”, and was starting to get a bigger buzz from the local College Radio stations. Later, in 1992, Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” and Alice in Chains’ “Dirt” would become huge hits for them. In 1991, the time was ripe for a musical revolution.
Of course, we all know that Nirvana blew things up with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but most people forget that Pearl Jam released their debut album, “Ten”, a month earlier, resulting in two major hits in 1991. “Alive” and “Jeremy”, combined with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” changed everything musically. A new sound was born, and “Grunge” was its name.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out right around my 23rd birthday; a perfect age if ever there was one for taking opportunities to explore the music world. I was an avid viewer of 120 Minutes, and I listened to the local KDVS from Davis, California whenever my radio reception allowed it.
However, I was also a Deadhead, a Prog Rocker, and a Metal Head.
I used to tour around with the Grateful Dead, seeing them any chance I could. When I wasn’t seeing The Dead, I was seeing any other band I could. I was huge into Guns N’Roses, Aerosmith, Rush, Van Halen, Genesis, and Jane’s Addiction in early 1991. But, I was also dabbling in a lot of early Alternative music like Primus, The Pixies, Camper Van Beethoven, and Dinosaur Jr. at this time, as well. But, Guns N’Roses, Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Rush were about the only mainstream music that I listened to. The radio was saturated in Hair Metal bands like Poison, Motley Crue, Warrant, and Cinderella, and I couldn’t stand any of that pop metal crap! I desperately sought out new music, but in Sacramento, California, which had two Classic Rock stations, a Hard Rock station, and a generic pop station, it was difficult to branch out.
When the so-called Grunge music scene burst through the generic mainstream music model, I was overjoyed. Not just with the Grunge music, with its Punk/Metal influences, but also the other Alternative music that suddenly played everywhere. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who I had heard years before, were now all over MTV and the mainstream radio. New bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and Blur were being played alongside older bands like The Pixies, The Replacements, and The Meat Puppets in the mainstream.
It was an exciting time to be a music lover, and certainly one that defined me. As I look back at this time, now more than 20 years behind me, I can still feel the exhilaration of hearing a new band or a new song. It seemed as though something new came out of the stereo speakers every hour. I loved this new Alternative/Grunge sound—and it was a new sound. Like nothing I had ever heard before.
There was a heavy darkness to bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, and a playful whimsy added to the heaviness of Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. Pearl Jam’s lyrics were dark and depressing, and suddenly, everyone wanted to sing about how fucked-up their lives or childhoods were.
Soon, copycat bands emerged and ruined everything, which turned out to be a good thing, really. Now bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden changed their sound to distance themselves from the new conformity that emerged with the new wave of hype. Compare Pearl Jam’s “Ten to “Vs.”, and you will hear a stark difference. Each album they made afterward sounded different from their last, lest they be pigeonholed as the newest trend. Likewise, compare Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” to “Superunknown” and you will hardly know they are the same band, if not for Chris Cornell’s voice.
All good things must end, and by 1994, possibly as the result of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the era had ended. There was not much in the way of new music. The music industry still labeled everything “Alternative”, but it was not the same. Alanis Morrisette, Sheryl Crow, and 311 were so far removed from the original Alternative scene. They were about as generic and mainstream as music could get. Then it just got worse after that. We were right back where we were in the pre-91 era.
I hope I live to see another musical revolution like the one that happened in 1991. I wrote about a minor musical revolution in the Canadian Indie scene in 2007, but that was too underground to make a difference here in the States. I love the Canadian Indie music that emerged in the last decade, but it never blew-up into a major scene. I guess I should be grateful for that.