The Rock & Roll world is defined by seminal moments and occasional revolutions. Elvis Presley breaking onto the mainstream scene in the mid 1950s. The Beatles igniting the British Invasion upon their American arrival in 1964. The advent of MTV in 1980. Then there was 1991. The mainstream never saw it coming. I’m not even sure the Pacific Northwest saw it coming. Yet what came out of Seattle that year began a short-lived phenomena that was nothing short of a Rock revolution.
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Being a product of the ’80’s and having two older brothers, I was well-versed in the popular brand of rock that decade had to offer. Yet by the late eighties the Van Halens and Motley Crues had been joined by a crowded room of imitators. Sure, Living Colour bursting on the scene in ’88 provided an original take on the hard rock scene, but I definitely found myself starting to tire of the “hard rock / metal” thing. Not satisfied with the Warrants and Wingers of the world, my solution was to look back. It was around this time I started listening to Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix. I knew them of course, but I didn’t really know their catalogs.
Just as I was starting to enjoy my education of these late ’60’s acts, I one day stumbled upon something on MTV that caught my attention.
It was certainly Rock N’ Roll. Hard Rock at that. But there was something different about it. In fact, it was entirely different from the accepted norm of Hard Rock at the time. I recall being dumbfounded by how much raw sound came from a three-piece band. Of course I’d never heard of the band. For that matter, I couldn’t even understand what the hell the lead singer was saying. But that sound? I couldn’t put my finger on it….but as I said, it certainly got my attention.
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Sometime soon after, my friend Rob showed me this new CD he bought. Nevermind by Nirvana. Hey, that’s the band I saw on MTV! Well if Smells Like Teen Spirit hadn’t already gotten my attention, this album cover certainly did! (The baby in that image is now a grown man who has spent his adult life attempting to live off the “fame” of being “The Nirvana baby.” Really sort of sad when one’s claim to fame happened before one is even old enough to remember it, but I digress).
Listening to Nevermind start to finish confirmed my suspicions about this band. There was something different here. Something new. Something special. In short order the album and the band exploded in popularity. Seemingly everyone at school was talking about this strange, new band. The local record stores (remember those?) couldn’t keep the album on its shelves.
Around this time I started hearing rumblings about another new band, also from Seattle, who just released an album that I needed to check out. I was told they were different than Nirvana, but yet similar in some sort of unexplainable way.
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The band was called, Pearl Jam, and before long they too found their way onto MTV.
To say they were different than Nirvana was an understatement. Five guys instead of three. A sound, though also somewhat raw, more refined and less hard. They looked more similar to the Rock bands of the ’80’s in that the guys in the band were good looking dudes. But it was their young singer who really stood out. His voice was different than any other singer I’d ever heard, but it was good. Really damn good in fact.
The weekend I bought the CD I think I listened to it start to finish probably 30 times. I couldn’t turn it off. Every track, one after the next, just delivered. I understood what others told me. Yes, they didn’t sound like Nirvana, but there was something about them that felt the same.
Then it happened again. Somebody said to me, “Hey, have you heard the other band yet?” What? The other band they were referring to was Soundgarden. Now I said, wait a minute. I’ve heard of those guys. They’re that strange metal band with the long black-haired, bare-chested lead singer. I’ve seen their video on MTV as well.
What in the world do they have to do with Nirvana and Pearl Jam? Then I was told, no man, they’re not some ’80’s metal band. They’re part of the Seattle thing too. In fact, they’re real tight with the guys in Pearl Jam. What? So sure enough, it was time to make another purchase. Good thing I had that part-time shoe sales gig at the mall’s Finish Line store back then!
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The album was called Badmotorfinger. Upon one thorough listen I quickly realized they were not some run-of-the-mill metal band. Soundgarden was something completely different as well. I instantly fell in love with this band. Pure bad ass. Remember how popular Rock ballads had become in the latter part of the ’80’s? Soundgarden was literally the antithesis of that. Every Rose Has It’s Thorn? Try “take your roses and shove ’em up your arse!” They were powerful like Nirvana, yet didn’t sound anything like them. They didn’t sound like Pearl Jam either, but they shared a similarity….an amazing singer. Much like Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell boasted pipes like nothing I’d heard before.
The thing is, Soundgarden had actually debuted in 1987. Nirvana’s first album was released in 1989. Though Pearl Jam was a new band, members of the band had been pounding Seattle pavement for several years in bands called Green River and Mother Love Bone. Of course the mainstream wasn’t aware of any of this, but the Seattle scene certainly was.
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I read this book a few years ago. It’s an oral history of that very Seattle scene, from its humble beginnings, to the bitter end. An absolute fascinating read.
Yet for most of us, these bands, for all intents and purposes, were born in 1991. The next year I learned there was yet another.
Alice In Chains had some moderate success with their 1990 debut album, Facelift. It featured a somewhat hit titled, Man In The Box, that got solid rotation on MTV. But sort of like my first impression of Soundgarden prior to listening to their album, I assumed Chains was just another ’80’s hard rock band. It wasn’t until they released their 2nd album, Dirt (1992), that I realized they were yet another one of these newer Seattle bands.
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Dirt was a masterful piece of music. Another Seattle band. Another great album. Four bands from the same town. Four bands that broke through relatively at the same time. Interestingly, all four were different from one and other. In some ways, vastly different. Yet there was this common, unexplainable thread. They were different, but still connected. I don’t just mean in the geographic sense. I didn’t know any kids back then who only owned one or two of these albums. Or only liked one or two of these bands. If you liked one, you liked them all. If you owned one, you eventually owned all four. So what really tied them together?
In short, the movement. I said earlier what came out of Seattle in 1991 was nothing short of a Rock N’ Roll revolution. That was the common thread. These bands ushered in a new direction for mainstream Rock. The ever-popular Rock bands of the ’80’s were seemingly gone overnight. The ones big enough not to disappear in a flash were suddenly deemed uncool, and thus more or less faded away.
As I type this post it’s difficult for me to process that it’s now been 30 years. I swear I remember it like yesterday. These bands continued to have success through most of my college years and influence the Rock scene in great ways. They opened up the flood gates for other different sounding Rock bands from all corners of the country. Before long there was Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Helmet, Stone Temple Pilots (yes, don’t hate. STP was better than we gave them credit for back then). Veteran rockers like R.E.M. were suddenly mainstream cool.
Whether you liked what came out of Seattle in 1991 or not, it was truly a Rock revolution. It broke the formulaic mold of the 1980’s rock band. No longer did every band have to look and sound the same. Substance suddenly ruled over style. Back then they called it “alternative rock.” Looking back though, it was just Rock N’ Roll. A beautiful, original, and likely never to happen again period of Rock N’ Roll. The year was 1991.
Thanks for reading,