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Grunge: A Retrospective Look At A Bygone Musical Era

Following the release of Soundgarden’s latest album King Animal back in November, many had forgotten about one of the key pioneers of the Seattle grunge scene. It is widely believed that grunge died alongside Kurt Cobain in 1994 but bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden have become stalwarts of a bygone era which has been stooped in misunderstanding ever since its beginnings in the mid-1980s.

For those who don’t know what grunge is, it’s a subgenre of rock music that came from a movement of like-minded individuals in Seattle. Fledgling bands and singers were all expressing their thoughts, feelings and angst through their music about the desolate way of life in Seattle at the time. It is a more thought-provoking, inward looking and contemplative type of rock which its label doesn’t fully convey.

Above: listen to Pearl Jam’s ‘Jeremy’ while you read the rest of this post.

The word “grunge” was first coined in 1981 by Mark Arm, vocalist for the band Mudhoney – one of the key bands to establish the genre – who originally used the word descriptively to criticise a previous band he was in. It wasn’t until 1991, when an explosion of bands were releasing albums that would clock millions and millions of worldwide sales, that the mainstream media started levering the phrase into the wider public’s consciousness.

There were stand-out albums from the likes of Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Dinosaur Jr, Ugly Kid Joe and the aforementioned Mudhoney, but it’s the following three records that were the true building blocks in grunge’s rise in popularity…

Pearl Jam – Ten (August 1991)

pearl Jam ten

Eddie Vedder was sent the band’s demo tapes of five songs (‘Alive’ and ‘Oceans’ believed to be among them) so that he could write lyrics for them in 1989. While out surfing, Vedder inexplicably locked himself out of his cabin with the tapes playing on a loop inside. Rather than try to get back into the cabin he simply sat down and began singing words to himself to fit with the songs, the waves lapping on the shoreline. It is said that in this moment the greatest moments on Pearl Jam’s Ten were born.

After releasing an album as Temple of The Dog earlier in the year with Chris Cornell, as a tribute to their late friend Andrew Wood, Vedder, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Dave Abbruzzese formed Pearl Jam and knocked together their debut album Ten in just five months using Vedder’s demos.

Singles ‘Alive’, ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Even Flow’ sent shivers down the spines of fans that developed a manic obsession with the band.

Today the album has been certified diamond status and has sold more than 10 million copies in the US alone.

Nirvana – Nevermind (September 1991)

Nirvana nevermind

After establishing themselves on the Seattle music scene with their debut album Bleach (1989), Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl’s second album Nevermind was a catalyst for grunge’s upsurge in popularity in the 90’s.

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ encapsulated the angst in teens so much to the point that Nirvana became one of the biggest rock groups in the early 90’s. The album has sold over 30 million copies worldwide.

Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger (October 1991)


Like Nirvana, Soundgarden were riding on moderate success with their previous album Ultramega OK (1988) so when they brought the follow-up in Badmotorfinger in 1991 their stock skyrocketed.

Formed by Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto, with the name coming from a sculpture at a park in Seattle that whistled when the wind blew through it, the band’s moody riffs and Cornell’s pitch-defying screams became a trademark of their sound. The single ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ demonstrates this brilliantly.

So What Happened To Grunge?

Several things happened which spelled the end for grunge in the 90s.

Death of Kurt When Kurt Cobain shot himself in April 1994, fans worldwide mourned the death of the Nirvana front-man. Commercially, Nirvana was the driving force of the grunge scene and when they split shortly after the death of their singer, grunge’s popularity slowly subsided.

Pearl Jam Vs Ticketmaster During the early 90’s Pearl Jam asked Ticketmaster (who owned the monopoly on ticket sales at the time) that just one dollar of each of their tickets sold would go to their chosen charity. Ticketmaster agreed. However, it transpired that Ticketmaster simply upped the price of all of PJ’s tickets by one dollar as well, which infuriated the band. Subsequently, they boycotted the ticketing giants and limited themselves to extremely small venues which alienated the vast majority of their fan base.

Brit Pop Explodes Many believe the emergence of Brit Pop in the UK also consigned grunge to obscurity, since bands like Oasis were writing songs which condemned the negative aspects of the genre.

Is Grunge Still Around Today?

The candid front-man of Smashing Pumpkins, who were on the peripheries of the grunge scene for much of the 90’s, said in an interview in August 2012:

“When Soundgarden came back and they just played their old songs, great. I was a fan of Soundgarden, but call it for what it is. They’re just out there to have one more round at the till…” (Rolling Stone)

Smashing Pumpkins

Billy Corgan being moody. Get over yourself, Billy! Image by andra_veraart 

This was the general feeling towards the re-emergence of grunge acts but, as mentioned above, when Soundgarden released King Animal in November last year they toured that album with a great deal of success. In fact, the critics were unanimously in their praise for the album and proudly declared that they were back and better than ever. Up yours, Corgan.

For Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary in 2011 they released the Cameron Crowe-directed documentary PJ20 and accompanied it with an extensive hardback book detailing the 20 year history of the band – two of my most treasured possessions. They also released Backspacer in 2009 with great success too.

Grunge today is more about re-discovering the past rather than paving a way for a new future. The bands that made the genre did their own thing because that was what they wanted to do – not any pushing execs or greedy record producers. Grunge may be well and truly buried, but it’s certainly not dead!

Key Tracks:

‘Alive’ by Pearl Jam

‘Fell On Black Days’ by Soundgarden

‘Come As You Are’ by Nirvana

Featured image by kakisky on Morguefile

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  1. grunge music timeline

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