If one genre of music put a definite end to the 1980s and heralded the dawn of a new decade, it was grunge music. Although most people associate grunge with the early '90s, marquee names like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, began playing as early as 1980. By the time the '90s arrived, grunge had refined itself into such a distinct and potent sound that it would quickly transform the music industry and define an entire era of popular culture.
The Early Years
According to the critically-acclaimed documentary Malfunkshun: the Andrew Wood Story, grunge music was born on Easter Sunday, 1980, when fourteen-year-old Andrew Wood founded his band Malfunkshun in Seattle, Washington. The group remained obscure, but Wood's influence was far-reaching. His live theatrics and eclectic mix of '70s rock and slow-chugging metal made a lasting impression on Woods' roommate Chris Cornell and other grunge musicians.
The fusion of metal and other styles such as post-punk and classic rock provided the basic formula for grunge. Many grunge musicians appreciated the distorted guitars of '80s metal, but they wanted to disassociate themselves from the macho glam scene that dominated MTV. Although many consider Andrew Wood to be the godfather of grunge, he embraced glam metal in a way that later grunge bands would not. The years 1983 through 1985 saw the formation of more purist grunge bands such as Melvins, Green River, Skin Yard, U-men, and Soundgarden. They stripped away any traces of glam and combined slow sludge-like metal distortion, seventies rock, and gritty vocals.
Virtuosity in Grunge
While many grunge bands would be known for simplistic, almost sloppy musicianship, singer virtuoso Chris Cornell and his talented bandmates in Soundgarden would strive for musical excellence. Their efforts produced some of the most complex music of any genre in rock and roll history. Their hit song The Day I Tried To Live provides a classic example of their use of asymmetrical rhythms and melodic phrases.
Sub Pop Label
In 1986, the Seattle grunge label Sub Pop formed. The label was so successful at promoting the genre on the underground level that major labels began sniffing around. As a result, the latter half of the '80s saw the formation of indie favorite Mudhoney, Andrew Wood's new band Mother Love Bone, Alice In Chains, and Nirvana.
Temple of the Dog
Tragically, Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990, and Mother Love Bone was disbanded weeks before its major label debut. Soon after Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, former members of Mother Love Bone, discovered San Diego-based singer Eddie Vedder and formed Pearl Jam. As the Seattle grunge community mourned Wood's passing, members of Soundgarden and the newly-minted Pearl Jam formed a one-time tribute band in Wood's memory. The resulting album, Temple of the Dog, would eventually become a multi-platinum smash hit.
Meanwhile, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were busy writing and recording their major label debuts. By late 1990, all the pieces were in place for the grunge craze to take the world by storm.
The Grunge Tidal Wave (1990 - 1994)
According to sales numbers, the early 90's were grunge's brightest period:
- Pearl Jam's 1991 album Ten would go on to sell over ten million copies.
- Nirvana's genre-defining 1991 album Nevermind, released a few weeks after Pearl Jam's Ten, sold 30 million copies worldwide. The legendary song Smells Like Teen Spirit became the anthem for Generation X.
- Alice in Chain's 1992 album Dirt sold over three million copies. Their biggest hit, Rooster, showcased Layne Staley's unique vocals. His haunting, razor-sharp tenor voice stacked into layered harmonies produced one of the most unique vocal sounds in rock history.
- Soundgarden's late blooming 1994 masterpiece Superunknown went five times platinum, selling over nine million albums. Their hypnotizing smash-hit Black Hole Sun won a Grammy and catapulted the band to international fame.
Women in Grunge Music
Though grunge music seemed to be a male-dominated genre, there were many highly influential all-female acts. Some of the most notable bands were L7, Lunachicks, Hole, and especially Babes In Toyland, who released some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the grunge era. Though these bands didn't see major commercial breakthroughs like Nirvana or Pearl Jam, they exerted great influence on the genre and became famous across the United States and the United Kingdom.
Cobain's Death and Grunge's Legacy
In 1994, Kurt Cobain's suicide marked the end of grunge's golden days. However, a new crop of bands imitating the original grunge scene would quickly fill the void. Between 1994 and 2000, new bands emerged and found popularity such as:
- Stone Temple Pilots
- Smashing Pumpkins
In today's music, grunge's influence is most evident in bands such as Lifehouse, Switchfoot, The Fray, and Skillet that, ironically, were all formed by Christian rockers. In stark contrast to the dark ethos of the first grunge bands, these groups express positive, drug-free messages in their lyrics and lifestyles.
The only current band flourishing in the mainstream that can claim any legitimate connection to grunge royalty is Foo Fighters. Nirvana's drummer Dave Grohl formed Foo Fighters in 1994 after Kurt Cobain's death. Not only have the Foo Fighters preserved the integrity of the grunge sound, they have matched grunge's commercial success of the early '90s. Their albums released in 2007 and 2011 won Grammies and went multi-platinum. The blockbuster film Thor featured their hit song Walk. Like Nirvana before it, Foo Fighters has reaped massive commercial success without departing from its grunge roots.
Grunge's Golden Era Remembered
Since the end of grunge's golden era in 1994, many of the first grunge bands such as Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden have continued releasing music. No one, however, has been able to resurrect the glory days of the early '90s. For many Generation X-ers, those years are remembered fondly as the days when grunge music conquered the world.