The basic rock instrumental format, two guitars, bass, and drums, had become a dinosaur by the beginning of the ‘80s. The soft rock of the 70s, the studio-produced disco and early techno-sounds made the simple rock quartet a Model T Ford on the supersonic speedway of sound. Even heavy metal and punk bands that conformed to the basic format were more involved in pyrotechnics and provocation than crafting a sense of musical purpose.
In the debris of the post-punk sound, below the media hype that glorified ‘80s pop was the beginnings of a retro-sound which would, in the late ‘80s and ‘90s be called “alternative.” Like the term rock ‘n’ roll, alternative rock has been applied to such a diverse group of artists that it’s meaning seems to being continually morphing. In the beginning, though, it was a retro-rock sound that connected more with the Byrds than Devo.
The new/old sound was first heard in the simplified sound of an early ‘80s garage band called R.E.M. from Athens, Georgia. From their post-punk and southern rock roots, the three university students and record store manager formed a sound that was far more folk-rock than the techno-sounds that were being heard on the charts and MTV.
With uncomplicated layers of clanging electric guitar, understated bass, solid drum back-beats, and slightly nasal vocals singing enigmatic lyrics, the DIY band rediscovered the simplicity of the Monkees without the saccharine aftertaste. The group also rediscovered the unadorned structure of the verse/chorus format with solo voice on the verse and harmonized vocals on the chorus. Had the group recorded in 1968, their sound would have been recognized as one of the best folk-pop-rock bands of the era, but certainly not out of step with then current trends. Their appearance in 1983, though, made them seem at first, anachronistic. By the end of the decade, they were the acknowledged to be at the front edge of a style known as “alternative” rock. For many, it was rock reborn, or at the least, rediscovered.
A second band emerging from the post-punk wave forged an alternative sound from sonic experimentalism was the Irish band U2. Originally formed as a Beatles and Stones cover band in 1978, the band found their own identity in the early ‘80s and by 1983 had wide release of their album War in both Britain and America. Extensive video play on MTV helped build their following in America and identified them as a band that sincerely believed in the power of music and the ability of their band to participate in the revolution towards peace. Common to most of U2’s sound is the cleanly articulated lyrics, the firm, sometimes weaving bass line and steady back-beat with occasional drum-fills. The unique sonorous quality of U2 lies in the sonic landscape created by the Edge, U2’s guitarist. Far from the distorted power chords of punk, the Edge relies heavily on effects like fuzz-tone, wah-wah and tonal sweeps to shape arches of textured musical sound. In this, the Edge has come more closely to the effects of the synthesized keyboard than the aggressive experimentation of Jimmy Page.
The alternative movement in the ‘80s yielded many bands varying their own style of post-punk rock. The Cure created a following with a funk-pop commercial dance sound. Sonic Youth gave new energy to the post-punk sound with avant-garde textures and low fuzz-tone guitar chords that exceeded the limited three used in punk. Jane’s Addiction, with future Red Hot Chili Pepper’s guitarist Dave Navarro, fashioned its hypnotic, trashy, and gritty sound at the end of the decade. The Pixies’ wide dynamic swings, subversive lyrics, and noisy guitar solos helped pave the way for the indie movement of the next decade.
The evolution of alternative rock continued into the ‘90s with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Green Day. In their own way, they continued the aggressive, anti-pop path begun by R.E.M., U2 and others.