How Grunge Saved Rock ‘n’ Roll

Chris Cornell performing with Soundgarden in the 1990s. Facebook

Despite the untimely death last week of Soundgarden’s iconic lead singer Chris Cornell, I am not interested in discussing the peculiarly high attrition rate of Grunge’s most famous vocalists. I have come here to discuss Grunge, not to discuss those who were buried by it.

The mortality rate is really nothing that special; I mean, all four original Ramones are dead; Norwegian black metal act Mayhem featured not only a suicide but members who actually killed other members; both of Badfinger’s leaders/songwriters killed themselves; and don’t even get me started on the Cowsills or the Beach Boys.

People in bands die. Nothing to look at here. Keep moving.

So let’s start here: Somehow, Grunge has become a gristly form of dad rock.

For a genre that was so fulsomely dominant in the early-ish 1990s, Grunge seems to have faded from our consciousness, except when there’s a tragedy or when we dial through the Sirius stations and ask ourselves, “Why for the love of an occasionally merciless but generally benign god is their an entire channel devoted to Pearl Jam?”

Grunge has also gotten a very unmerited reputation for non-authenticity. This is odd, considering that it falls between two deeply inauthentic musical subsets: the ridiculous Hair Band movement, where the only authenticity was defined by pussy and mammon and whatever would seemingly attract either; and the Hot Topic Faux Punk era, whose bands were a shadow of a chalk outline of the corpse of the real thing.

Actually, any discussion of the authenticity of rock ’n’ roll is bizarre—the line between authentic and inauthentic rock ’n’ roll is so thin that it is meaningless. You know what’s authentic? Sid Hemphill and Amédé Ardoin. Google them. Pretty much anything else—inauthentic.

But Grunge is sincerely non-ironic and loving and evokes both smiles and heart shivers. So that’s what matters. Its best artists are deeply genuine in their love of rock ’n’ roll and its power for engagement, distraction, and healing, and that is more then enough.

But whether you love grunge, hate it, or just don’t think about it much, over the years we’ve missed something very, very important about it.

Grunge saved American hard rock.

We’re going to explain that in a moment, but first, some necessary bookkeeping. There are a lot of sub-classifications when it comes to Grunge bands, and we will break our brains trying to sort it all out. For the sake of simplicity and non-brain breaking, I’ll delineate three categories:

  1. Those who came to Grunge “honestly,” and were pioneers in forming a movement that revitalized hard rock via a combination of stoner rock, classic rock and punk elements.
  2. Those who were just hair bands who stopped blowing out their hair, bought flannel shirts, and slapped Tad stickers on their guitar cases.
  3. Those who were actually punk, post-punk, or art-punk bands, and had the label applied to them.

The first category contains most of the bands we lovingly associate with the genre—Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, etcetera.

The second category contains some real stinkers like Sweet Water, and some bands that transcended their trend-jumping, like Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots (I’d argue that STP’s Tiny Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop is one of the masterpieces of the genre).

And the third category contains adventurous, artful, poppy, and exciting bands who were fellow travelers and found the label applied to them. This sub-category No. 3 encompasses many of the bands one might associate with the movement, like Nirvana, Melvins, Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Seven Year Bitch, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, etcetera. Bands in this “third” category were working on a straight line, more or less, from the social and artistic legacy of punk, post-punk, college rock, art-punk, noise, and hardcore; since that road happened to plow through the Grunge movement, they found that word writ in large letters in the dust on the back window of their vans.

But it was the artists in the first category—the “true” grunge bands—that revived, maybe even saved, American rock ‘n’ roll.

Pearl Jam. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

This gets a wee bit complicated, but I want to explain why (and how) Hard Rock died in the United States (prior to the Grunge revival), and how this contrasted, markedly, from what was going on in the U.K.

When the first wave of punk crested in the U.K. circa 1976 to 1978, it changed not just the musical environment but also the music industry itself. However, the mainstream music industry in the United States (epitomized by major labels, commercial FM radio, and Rolling Stone) pretty much universally decided to actively prevent such a thing from happening here (if you don’t believe this, analyze Rolling Stone’s coverage between 1976 and 1979 of new British music; it reveals an undeniable pattern of ignorant and cloistered men, putting up walls).

It would be far too distracting to explain precisely why and how this happened; let’s just say there was something about the initial British punk explosion that pissed off America’s Eagles-loving music executives, and they had the power to suppress it, so they did.

Although some artists playing college rock and new wave had made some mainstream impact in the United States by 1988, hard and charging guitar-based punk rock (which was closely related to the important New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement I shall discuss shortly) was virtually invisible in any mainstream chart or radio sense.

I looked up a lot of examples, but let’s just cite these: The Ramones’ highest charting album is 1980’s End of the Century, which reached No. 44 in the American Billboard album charts; the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks, by any estimation one of the fundamental albums of our time, climbed all the way to No. 106 in January of 1978; the Jam did succeed in placing five albums in the Billboard charts, but none above No. 72; and the Damned, the Saints, and Stiff Little Fingers never made enough impression on the mainstream American music industry to crack the top 200. Please keep in mind that all of these acts scored top 10 hit albums in the U.K. and often throughout Europe and the Far East.

Guitar-based punk rock (which I am distinguishing from other, less aggressive, forms of alternative rock, like Blondie, Talking Heads, R.E.M. or the Cure) was excluded from the American mainstream. This had significantly widespread consequences that haven’t necessarily been examined.

It led to a situation where mainstream American music fans were deprived of legitimate American homegrown Hard Rock for much of the 1980s. Instead, they were offered a shrill, pumped-up version of glam and severely watered-down punk rock, beaten into a shape where it could appeal to both the college rock clique and the hard-ballad MTV audience (Soul Asylum, and to a lesser degree the Replacements, are excellent examples of this; Soul Asylum were once a great punk rock band, something you’d never believe from their mewling, sad-girl-writing-in-her-diary Hootie-esque hits).

Although Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and AC/DC, to name just three, did massive numbers in the States during this time, they did not have any true American counterparts; in other words, Iron Maiden and Bon Jovi are very, very different bands, even if they may have shared some guitar endorsements, and both engaged in the raised fist culture.

The absence of indigenous, authentic Hard Rock in the pre-Grunge era is largely traceable to the fact that the British music industry and the British consumer embraced punk rock in the mid and late 1970s, and their counterparts in the United States didn’t.

See, the mainstream success of Punk Rock in the U.K.—what I will henceforth refer to as the “U.K. re-set”—changes everything. Not only did it lead to the propagation (and commercial success) of widely differentiated branches of new wave music (i.e., the punk rock explosion leads directly to everything from the Cure to U2 to the Human League to Bananarama), but more relevantly it also gave us the vastly important New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement.

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement has no real equivalent in the American music industry. These artists, who redefined and impacted metal in a way still being felt today, included Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Venom, Saxon, Girlschool, and many etceteras (plus it significantly boosted the career of existing British metal acts, like Judas Priest and Motörhead).

The U.K. Punk Rock re-set and the subsequent NWOBHM movement (both spurred by shared cultural factors and the rise in the visibility of independent labels) planted a whole pile of seeds throughout the British music industry, seeds that had no counterpart in the U.S.

Thanks to these seeds, and thanks to the U.K. re-set (made possible because there wasn’t a mainstream music industry hierarchy actively combatting it), rock, as in RAWWWWK, as in Honest To Goodness Hard Rock, was a constant part of the British landscape throughout the 1980s. It never went away. This didn’t happen in the United States, with the exception of some interesting and powerful outliers like Metallica, Slayer, Trouble, and Megadeth, who remained a minority party, dwarfed by the armies of the spandexed Hair Bands.

And I’ll just come out and say it: the Hair Band thing was a sorry and strange substitute.

Bon Jovi. YouTube

The Hair Band thing was a lot of things, but it was, essentially, showbiz, detached from the honest hard rock that was goddamn scarce in the U.S. by the mid-1980s. Hair Bands—I refuse to call it “Hair Metal”—started as a peculiar imitation of British glam, heavily influenced by Hanoi Rocks and the New York Dolls, with a lot of Mott the Hoople, Slade, T Rex, Cheap Trick, KISS, and Thin Lizzy in there, too; what it wasn’t was hard rock (I am comfortable calling this movement the Sunset Strip Heavy Pop thing). I mean, compare Winger to Budgie, and then shut up. Different freaking species.

Aesthetically, culturally and spiritually, there’s a continuum between, say, Deep Purple, Blue Cheer, or Sabbath and NWOBHM acts like Iron Maiden, Saxon, Venom, and Girl School. That all feels like compatible music. But the Sunset Strip Heavy Pop thing totally feels like something else, even if it produced some hard-rocking songs. Let’s put it another way: Motörhead and Venom sound like heavy metal. Poison and Motley Crüe sound like guys who saw Rocky Horror Picture Show and listened to Thin Lizzy and Mott the Hoople on the way home.

I think there’s a tendency to see a few too many straight lines when we talk about American metal. In other words, some might draw a line from, say, Van Halen and Rush straight to Motley Crüe or Poison, and then mistakenly lump that all under metal; what we don’t see is that the Van Halen/Rush line stops, stops bloody cold, and the Sunset Strip Heavy Pop bands descend from something else entirely. The Sunset Strip Heavy Pop thing hijacks American rock ’n’ roll.

Until Grunge.

Soundgarden. Facebook

First and foremost, Grunge was the revival of true Hard Rock in the American mainstream, something that the Sunset Strip Heavy Pop movement obscured, derailed, and delayed. In no way is there a straight line between, oh, Budgie or Rush and Ratt or Warrant; that line, however, goes around the Sunset Strip, and reconnects (largely) in Seattle, as the grunge bands began to make waves. When Grunge arrived, the interregnum caused by the lack in America of the causes and conditions that created the New Wave of British Heavy Metal ended.

The death knell for Grunge came not via its success, but by who succeeded: It came when artists who were actually punks, post-punks, noise punks, art punks, etcetera, wearing the sackcloth of Grunge, re-set the genre. Grunge became a form of angsty mosh-pit-infected college rock.

See, Nirvana is not a grunge band. Nirvana was a new model college rock band, with more spiritually in common with R.E.M. then Zeppelin. Nirvana (not to mention the pioneering Melvins or even fellow travelers like the Lemonheads) were cast as a grunge band because by 1992 the slurring, slippery, unapologetically loud chords of grunge had become muddled, in the minds of listeners, with the somewhat unrelated form of art punk Nirvana played.

So where does that leave us?

The net out here is that Grunge may have been commercially overshadowed by the Hot Topic abominations that followed, and it’s shaded in the public memory by the fact that it’s easier to create nostalgia around the bright colors and archaic spandex of the Sunset Strip Hard Pop Band thing.

Today, Grunge is beset by the further indignity that it is largely associated with the peculiarly high mortality rate of its vocalists. All of these things serve to obscure the rather hugely important thing about Grunge we all should be grateful for:

Grunge brought Hard Rock back to America.

How Grunge Saved Rock ‘n’ Roll