Emanating from the Pacific Northwest, new counter-culture music borrowed its name from the American term for dirty, repulsive, or disgusting: “grunge.”
Like the rockabilly of the mid-1950s, grunge in the ‘90s was a hybrid of genres and musical ideas. Influenced by the punk and metal sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s, grunge was built around a slower tempo, dissonant harmonies, and terraced dynamics. It brought the sound of the distorted guitar forward, pumped up the imposing bass lines, and added angst-filled lyrics.
Because grunge had so many musical influences, those in the authentic grunge period would often lean towards punk, or metal, or alt-rock in their particular flavor of grunge. All this while being faithful to the essential core of the Northwest Sound.
Early influences on the Seattle grunge movement included Sonic Youth, a band from New York, who experimented with sound effects, unusual guitar tunings, and feedback as part of the sonic product. In many ways, Sonic Youth was a musical reincarnation of the musical elements of the 1960s New York City shock-rock band Velvet Underground.
Some of the early Seattle grunge bands got their start by opening on tour for Sonic Youth, and the New York band members, notably bass player Kim Gordon, were mentors for alt-musicians of the era. Their 1988 song “Teen Age Riot” was a precursor to the teen-angst songs, which would come just a few years later from Nirvana, Soundgarden, and other bands harnessing the anxious rebellion of teens in the early ‘90s.
Melvins, from Montesano, Washington, an hour from Seattle, were one of the first to explore the post-punk sound of grunge. The thick, sludge-like sound of distorted guitars, hammering drums, and occasion chanted vocals. Their version of a post-punk sound drew from heavy metal bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath but framed it in a raw, lo-fi sound. Though they released 33 albums in their 35-year career, the magnitude of their output was never matched by any commercial success. However, their impact on other grunge bands of the era was significant.
The sound of Melvins, with their slow-grind power chords, played through sludge-like guitar distortion, sometimes using multiple fuzz pedals chained together, was a vital characteristic of the developing grunge sound. This dependence on distortion was channeled through riff-based guitar chords and heavy, distorted lines from the bass guitar. Shunning massive drumkits, grunge drummers tended toward smaller (some as small as 7 or 8 pieces, compared to the 16 or 18 pieces used by earlier metal or rock bands) kits, focusing on hypnotic, heavy pulse patterns rather than variety and creativity. Altogether, it was nothing if not musically muscular. Just as the Velvet Underground prepared for the shock-rock and punk movements to follow, Melvins prepared the ground for new sounds in ‘80s and ‘90s rock ‘n’ roll.
Other bands also contributed to the cultivation of the grunge of the ‘90s. Mudhoney, formed at the beginning of the ‘80s, first saw modicum regional success on college radio stations with late ‘80s albums released on the Sub Pop Records label. Mudhoney brought classic ‘60s metal guitar distortion and riffs together with the intensity of punk to craft one of the patterns for ‘90s grunge. The release of their 1989 album, Mudhoney, established them as pioneers of the new Northwest sound nationally. Though never achieving lasting national success, Mudhoney was the starting point for a creative path that led through a series of bands (through Green River to Mother Love Bone) to Pearl Jam. Over thirty years, the band has released twelve albums, the most recent being Digital Garbage in 2018.
Though some bands like Melvins or Mudhoney never broke onto the charts to achieve any lasting commercial success, another pioneer of the style did find success.
Formed in the ’80s, Soundgarden explored a variety of subgenres, including metal and hard rock. Often compared positively with Black Sabbath, Soundgarden founding members Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil acknowledged that their influences included Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. With such non-traditional rock characteristics as dropped tuning and unorthodox time signatures, such as 7/8 and 15/8, Soundgarden pushed away from the pure punk and the traditional rock sound. In addition to breaking new ground for the grunge movement, Soundgarden also helped establish the alt-metal musical vein of the era. As late as 1994, they won Grammys in two separate categories: heavy metal and hard rock for their album Superunknown. Though the group disbanded in 1997, their foundation was necessary for one of the most successful bands of the ‘90s – Nirvana.
In a path similar to that taken by R.E.M. in Georgia, and Sonic Youth in New York City, Nirvana began as a local Seattle band, playing local clubs and colleges, eventually gaining a recording contract with a small label (Sub-Pop Records), and touring.
The two founding members of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, were high school friends who began playing music together at the Melvin’s rehearsal space. Though they discussed creating their own group, they explored a number of different combinations and ideas, including a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band and a punk band called Fecal Matter. Eventually, Cobain (lead vocals and guitar) and Novoselic (bass guitar) formed Skid Row and were joined by a series of disappointing drummers. In September 1990, after releasing their first album, series of demo songs, and a summer tour, all with a revolving door series of drummers, the duo finally found the drummer that would complete the Nirvana sound – Dave Grohl, introduced to the two by their friend, Melvin’s lead singer, Buzz Osbourne.
By 1991 Nirvana had a new label, DGC Records, and was prepared to release their second album, the monumental breakthrough Nevermind. While the label had hoped to sell a total of 250,000 albums, with the success of the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” within three months, the album was selling 400,000 copies a week. Within a year, it had dislodged Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the charts, begun a run of over 250 weeks, and established the group as the face of the alt-rock movement. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was not only the most significant musical contribution of the album but became the unofficial anthem of Generation X. In many ways, it encapsulated both the sound and the message of the indie movement of the early ‘90s. Ironically, their chart and commercial successes were in stark contrast with the nature of the pure indie movement, which despised mainstream acceptance.
Though Nirvana’s creative career lasted less than five years and barely three albums, the group became the alternative-rock model for many other 1990s groups and artists. Many consider Nirvana to be the pivot point between alt-rock of the ‘80s and the sounds that would follow in the 1990s. Kurt Cobain’s struggle with drugs, addiction, and personal troubles culminated in his suicide in 1994. The inner personal angst of justifying the co-existence of commercial success with artistic integrity added to his depression. The struggle to embrace commercial success and worldwide acclaim while ideologically eschewing both money and fame was, no doubt, a contributing factor.
As much an influence as Cobain and Nirvana had on American music, the impact on American culture was just as noticeable. Not only the sound of grunge, but the attitude and look of grunge, complete with disheveled hair, plaid shirts, tattered jeans, and work boots, had taken hold in Western culture. Like the ducktail haircuts and poodle skirts of the ‘50s and the mop-top and psychedelic fashions of the ‘60s, the look of the grunge fashion became one of the iconic statements of the ‘90s decade.
Though the impact of Kurt Cobain’s voice was significant for a generation, the effect of his death was acute in its meaning to the youth of the ‘90s. The post-boomer Generation X, struggling with anxiety and disillusion, had found their Elvis Presley – a voice to push against the standards and expectations of their parents. Tragically, their Elvis was taken from them before they were ready for his absence. It was as if he had been on the plane that took Buddy Holly in February 1959. The icon who had become their voice in the storm had succumbed to the weight of popularity they had placed on his shoulders.
With the death of Cobain and the dissolution of Nirvana, the era of pure grunge quickly began to dissolve into new hybrids and manifestations of indie-genres, and the rapid evolution towards a post-grunge sound had begun.