I am probably the perfect person to write an “as it happened” history of grunge as I was 13 in the fall of 1991. I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the Sunday night new music show on WBCN in Boston. I recall my ears perking up during the song’s intro, but then the mopey verses bummed me out. At the time I had just discovered punk rock (read: bought Nevermind the Bollocks on cassette at Strawberries) and was not at all receptive to the loud/soft dynamic shifts of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Turns out it didn’t matter if I liked “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or not, as the rest of the fucking country loved it. In a matter of months, the song went from being played on college radio to being the number 6 song in the country on the Billboard singles chart. The album it was on, Nevermind, went to number 1 on the album charts. And grunge was suddenly the hottest music trend in the country. A&R men descended on Seattle (and Boston and Chicago) and signed any band that featured some longhairs in ripped jeans and flannel shirts.
While I was digging into punk rock 101 in 7th and 8th grade, I was also listening to a lot of Album Oriented Rock(AOR) radio, stations like WAAF, WZLX, and mostly WBCN. Pre-grunge WBCN would do things like play the Smithereens, King’s X and the Black Crowes back to back with Zeppelin, The Cars, and AC/DC. It had been at the forefront of developing the popular AOR format back in the day, and was filled mostly with 60’s and 70’s dudes (Aerosmith and Iggy Pop buddy and child diddler Mark Parenteau was the afternoon drive time DJ) who were receptive to new music as long as it sounded mostly like old music. And grunge, with it’s heavy reliance on 70’s rock, certainly bore more resemblance to Bad Company than Jesus Jones did.
Grunge came out of the indie and post-hardcore scenes in the 80’s (see the excellent book Our Band Could Be Your Life). When Nirvana hit, there became two types of grunge: the stuff mainstream rock radio played and they stuff they didn’t. Typical grunge bands circa 1990 like Tad, Skin Yard, and the Melvins never got played on mainstream rock radio. They existed in the underground that grunge had sprung from with bands like Jesus Lizard or Royal Trux; bands that were very popular on college radio and could fill large clubs and probably made a living off of music but certainly weren’t operating at the rock star level of success the bigger grunge bands were. Sonic Youth and Fugazi were the biggest bands in that world and if you had any friends with cool older brothers, that was what they were listening to in 1991.
At the other end of the scale, Pearl Jam was the epitome of radio friendly grunge. This stuff was way more influenced by classic rock than by punk. Eddie Vedder’s constipated baritone became the default singing style for thousands of really shitty bands around the world (one could draw a direct line from Stone Temple Pilots to Creed to infinity). Perhaps one could trace it back to Bruce Springsteen?
Bands like Soundgarden and Mudhoney can be divided into two periods: pre- and post- Nevermind. Which is to say pre-Nevermind they weren’t played on mainstream rock radio and after Nevermind they were. It would be disingenuous of me to claim that Nevermind is THE line in the sand for all alternative rock crossing over into the mainstream as there were bands doing it beforehand. In fact, Soundgarden was signed to A&M records in 1988, two years before Nirvana signed to Geffen. Bands like Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were getting mainstream radio play before Nevermind and certainly had similar punk rock backgrounds to most grunge bands, but they were seen as weird metal bands. Nirvana rejected the metal aesthetic entirely. What was Nirvana’s aesthetic? Well, they certainly dressed a lot like Soul Asylum (signed to A&M records in 1988 incidentally).
It is hard to separate “grunge” from “alternative rock”, as the grunge era was all about the major labels discovering these pockets of bands that they had ignored since they decided punk was dead in 1980 or so. It’s no accident the first Nirvana documentary was called “1991: The Year Punk Broke.” What bands like Nirvana really symbolized was the co-opting of 1980’s indie rock and underground culture. People had been dressing for years in thrift store T-shirts, old sweaters, and ripped jeans. These people were called “bums.” Suddenly, fashion magazines were printed photo shoots of “The Grunge Look”, just as they had done 30 years before for “The Mod Look” during the British Invasion (sadly, I cannot find any pictures online of Montgomery Ward’s “Go-Go Mod at Carnaby Street” line, but I swear it exists). This media retardation probably reached its peak with the famous New York Times “Grunge Dictionary” piece.
After hearing them on the radio all the time and having all my friends get into them in 8th grade, I began listening to Nirvana, too. “Smells like Teen Spirit”, “Come As You Are”, “In Bloom”, and “Lithium” all got very heavy rotation on WBCN. I taped the album off a friend. I remember watching them make out with each other on Saturday Night Live. But, as I was getting deeper into punk, both new and old, grunge was something that I regarded as uncool.
I still listened to WBCN and watched MTV at friend’s houses, so I definitely ended up listening to a lot of grunge. For a few years, this sort of music was inescapable. At the time I thought most of it was terrible. I couldn’t stand stuff like Pearl Jam (although I admit Stone Temple Pilots were a guilty pleasure). In retrospect, even the bad stuff was much better than what would follow it when the music was totally watered down and radio championed Grunge-Lite by Silverchair or Bush. This was followed by the pure pussyness of Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind, and the dumbshit Nu Metal of Korn and Limp Bizcuit.
With all that in mind, I present my favorite grunge radio hits.
1. Nirvana- Heart Shaped Box
If they hadn’t sold like 20 million copies the record before, this would have not been played next to Foghat on the Drive Time Rock Block at 6pm…
2. Soundgarden- Outshined
Kinda dopey, but sounds what 70’s hesher rock should sound like in the 90’s. I think I’d rather listen to this than Fu Manchu…
3. Lemonheads- It’s A Shame About Ray
The Lemonheads aren’t really a grunge band, but like the grunge bands they came out of punk, had a hard-on for trashy 70’s rock, and did lots of drugs. And this song definitely got played on rock radio (certainly more so in Boston).
4. Hole- Violet
I remember hearing this on the car radio right before a monster of a summer thunderstorm driving on Mass Ave. through Porter Square. The air was really still and there was that eerie low-pressure feeling and it was dark at like 2 in the afternoon. The song fit the mood perfectly and made it feel like it was the end of the world or something.
5. Mudhoney- Suck You Dry
Mudhoney had better songs than this certainly, but this one did get played on mainstream radio and “Touch Me I’m Sick” sure didn’t.
6. Stone Temple Pilots- Creep
Look, I’d love to make a list of nothing but Mudhoney and stuff, but the whole Stone Temple Pilots/Bush/Candlebox school of bands was really what grunge ended up meaning to most of America. These were the bands that took the sound and made it successful and alot of this dreck was played on the radio. I admit when this song came on I didn’t change the channel.
7. L7- Andres
While “Pretend We’re Dead” was their big hit, it never really grabbed me. “Everglade” was my favorite track from that record and that never got played on the radio. “Andres” was on the rock radio playlists for a minute or two in 1994.
8. Screaming Trees- Nearly Lost You
It’s on the “Singles” soundtrack. What could be more grunge than that? Also, there is something very funny about all these bands being forced to play with fucking Paul Shaffer. And, you have to love Lanegan’s black eye.
9. Meat Puppets- Backwater
Ok, the Meat Puppets aren’t quite grunge, but this song being a radio hit was probably directly related to their guest appearance on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged special…
10. Smashing Pumpkins- Cherub Rock
I was never a huge fan of these guys, but they were certainly a band of that era.
Ok, every got this? Because there will be a quiz!