In April of 1990, hardscrabble Washington state rock band Nirvana signed a major label deal with Geffen/DGC records, and the mainstreaming of Seattle “grunge” music began. In September of the following year, the product of that signing, Nevermind, was released, Thereafter, for a significant period of time in the early nineties, the grunge genre would come to dominate not only rock music, but swaths of pop-culture consciousness as well. Late Nirvana guitarist/vocalist Kurt Cobain reportedly rejected the grunge designation, but the nomenclature stuck.
Classic eighties metal (don’t get me started on the term “hair metal”) had provided the hard rock and heavy metal soundtrack of the previous decade by virtue of raucous anthems, Spandex and leather garb, top-shelf production, and stellar lead guitar breaks. But bands such as Quiet Riot, Ratt, Warrant, and Dokken were all but shunted into the wings by the grunge incursion. The ascendance of extreme metal forms like thrash, black, and death metal had carved out a niche in the mid-eighties with the release of seminal albums Kill ‘Em All (Metallica) and Hell Awaits (Slayer), and similarly contributed to the demise of the phenomenal MTV-rotation-driven era of early eighties metal.
By 1992, forefather groups like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden were still successfully touring, and post-classic extreme metal had hit its stride with breakthrough albums from Megadeth and Pantera. But the Pacific Northwest’s flannel-and-angst hard-rockers largely owned the early nineties.
Cobain’s suicide in 1994 was the beginning of the end for grunge, but the genre did not pass into history before leaving the rock canon with several amazingly good songs. Looking back give or take three decades, here are four gems that sold in the millions, and cemented for the Seattle grunge explosion a secure place in rock history, and on classic rock radio to this day.
“Heart-Shaped Box” (Nirvana)
Having already highlighted “In Bloom” in a previous post, I’ll focus here on my second-favorite Nirvana song. “HSB” is quintessential Nirvana. Featuring the band’s patented quiet-to-loud verse/chorus dynamic, a rudimentary but plaintive guitar break, and poetically alienated lyrics, the song perfectly captures the dark, inward-looking ethos that commercially overthrew the sated and jaded era of corporate hard rock and metal.
The official video for the song, which won numerous awards and was ranked number ten on Time Magazine’s list of 30 All-Time Best Music Videos, presents the progenitors of grunge at their transgressive finest.
“Rooster” (Alice in Chains)
While in the earliest incarnation of heavy metal, in songs like “War Pigs” and “Children of the Grave,” Black Sabbath inveighed against the horrors of global conflicts contemporary with their times, it was the fathers of Gen-X kids like Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell who actually fought the Vietnam War. Cantrell wrote “Rooster” based on stories his father told about his experiences in Vietnam.
Walking tall, machine gun man,
They spit on me, in my homeland,
Gloria sent me pictures of my boy.
Late vocalist Layne Staley’s introductory stylizations conjure both the traumatized peace of being stateside after discharge and the tension of being hunkered down under fire in a war-torn jungle. Cantrell’s slashing power chords dramatically capture the moment when all hell breaks loose.
“Rooster,” from AIC’s second studio album Dirt (1992,) spent twenty weeks on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, and peaked at #7.
“Jeremy” (Pearl Jam)
Classic metal bands like Iron Maiden excelled at aural explorations of historic events, like their orchestration of the Crimean War’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” in “Trooper.” Extreme metal groups delved into pure evil, one premiere example being Slayer’s grisly depiction of Nazi medical experimenter Josef Mengele in “Angel of Death.”
Grunge rockers brought a more human scale to societal problems, often combining heavy riffs and soaring vocals with topical material. This conceptual focus works beautifully in “Jeremy” (from Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut album Ten), the story—based on a true occurrence– of one socially-maladjusted kid who commits classroom suicide.
First, this troubled boy is home drawing pictures that should have been a red flag for tuned-in parents. Then he bites the “recess lady’s” breast. By the conclusion, a conclusion rocked by some of the most angst-ridden chording and singing in the grunge oeuvre, he finally “speaks” in testament to the professional help or love he tragically never received.
The year the official video for “Jeremy” was released, 1992, has to be considered the banner year for grunge rock. The video won four MTV Video Music Awards that year, including Best Video.
“Black Hole Sun” (Soundgarden)
Probably the least grunge-like of the genre’s leading lights, Soundgarden broke concurrent with the rest of the Seattle pack in 1991 with their third studio album Badmotorfinger, which features one of the most heavy metal-like songs produced by the genre, “Rusty Cage.”
But it is their 1994 opus “Black Hole Sun” that can be considered the epitaph not only for grunge, but in a sense of foreshadowing, for lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Chris Cornell, who after a lifelong struggle with depression committed suicide in 2017.
Commenting upon how the song was misinterpreted as being positive, Cornell told an interviewer after the release of fourth studio album Superunknown, “No one seems to get this, but ‘Black Hole Sun’ is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper, which is ridiculous.”
The disturbing song opens with underwater-sounding keyboard notes reminiscent of Beatles hits like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” then darkens as its suburban world disintegrates and the chorus moves to a repetitive crescendo which asks, counter-intuitively, for a black hole sun to “wash away the rain.”
Grunge music came, and went. Like the guitar-slinging aspirant in Foreigner hit “Shooting Star,” the genre flashed across the firmament and then fell out of mainstream favor. Listened to in the empty, confectionary, pop and hip-hop-oriented musical landscape of 2020, the songs seem Paleolithic.
But grunge’s impact was considerable, and survives.