Grunge turns 20

By Harrison Mains

In 1989, Pop-Punk band Nirvana released their debut album Bleach, which was a minor local hit. After years of starvation, struggle, and a wide array of different drummers, singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic had finally put out a full-length album.

Cobain came from a broken home in Aberdeen, Wash., and Novoselic from Compton, Calif., but then moved to Cobain’s hometown in his mid teens. The two met in high school, where Cobain had just been turned on to the punk scene. They instantly clicked, and decided to start their own band – whose name they would change many times over the years. After calling themselves Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew, Bliss, and Ted End Fred, they eventually settled on the name Nirvana.

Their practice space was shared along with another band that resides in Washington, The Melvins . They came out with their first single in 1988, called “Love Buzz,” recorded with drummer Dave Foster to replace original drummer Aaron Burckhard. The song was originally by a Dutch rock band named Shocking Blue. After the successful release of the single, they began recording for the rest of Bleach. By this time, they had found new drummer Chad Channing. The album was majorly influenced by ’80s punk and ’70s metal.

In 1990, after writing songs such as “In Bloom” and “On a Plain” on tour, they started recording on their second album. Prior to this, they had fired Chad Channing, and were on the lookout for a drummer who would be a good replacement. Finally, after seeing him play with his band, Scream, they hired Dave Grohl.

One day during a recording session, they quickly wrote and then cut what would not only be their album’s first single, but would become their biggest hit, and later be considered one of the greatest songs of all time. The song, as you might have guessed, was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the momentum it gained would help launch Nirvana into super stardom.

By the time they finished recording and had began touring Europe, “Teen Spirit” was being played regularly on the radio and MTV. They noticed that all their shows were sold out, and people were going absolutely crazy for them. In September of 1991, they released the album “Nevermind,” which was selling 400,000 copies a week by December, initially selling over 7 million copies in the United States and 30 million worldwide. This caused an explosion in the Seattle music scene, with fans, newspapers and magazines referring to this new sound as “Grunge.”

Following Nirvana’s footsteps many other grunge bands would begin popping up and taking their share of fame, including Pearl Jam, who had much success with their debut album “Ten,” as well as the likes of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. “Nevermind” was later placed at No. 14 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and is considered the greatest album of the ’90s.

Nirvana would go on to release a collection of cuts from their early days, which they called “Incesticide.” The band then went on many tours, during which they decided to stop playing “Teen Spirit,” due to its extreme popularity. They released one more album in 1993, titled In “Utero,” which took on a harsher, more alternative sound. After Cobain’s suicide in 1994, the remaining members disbanded. Novoselic played bass in a few other bands, and even became a Washington politician. Grohl formed a new band, called Foo Fighters, who achieved great mainstream success, releasing seven albums to date.

Today, we commend Nirvana and other such bands for helping invent the “Grunge Scene” that became famous as Seattle music. The teenagers of the ’90s that listened to Grunge are sometimes referred to as “The Disaffected Kids,” or “Generation X.”

The Grunge style has become a stereotype, making the modern wearing of flannel shirts, ripped jeans, and sometimes Doc Martins a cliché, which is sometimes used ironically. In fact, while being questioned by a New York Times reporter, a Sub-Pop Records receptionist named Megan Jasper invented “Grunge Slang,” a joke about how some people thought people from Seattle talked to each other. These phrases included “lamestain,” referring to an uncool person, “wack slacks,” when taking about old ripped jeans, and even said that hanging out was referred to as “swingin’ on the flippity flop.” Funny enough, many major newspapers took these claims seriously and published their Grunge stories with these words included.

Teenagers identified with Grunge music in many ways. They saw it as a form of punk that was fun and melodic, but also serious in nature. It was ironic, angry music, with very meaningful lyrics. It didn’t matter who you were at the time; if you were a teen or a parent with two children, you were into Nirvana.

One popular feature of Grunge shows was the mosh pit. The mosh pit involved a large number of people rushing up to the stage at once, and going wild, punching each other, jumping up and down, and even crowd-surfing.

In the high point of the craze, Grunge hits were topping the charts. “Teen Spirit” was the most popular, but other hits included Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box,” Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” and Soundgarden’s “Spoonman.” Magazines like Blender and Rolling Stone were all over the Grunge craze, further popularizing the music. When Cobain died in ‘94, many of the Grunge bands continued to make music, though the label of “Grunge” faded over time.

Recently, the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum (EMP/SFM) opened up an exhibit called “NIRVANA: Taking Punk to the Masses.” The exhibit is an interesting look at the history of Nirvana through interviews, pictures, and artifacts. These include videos of people involved with the Grunge movement, walls that show pictures of the band (as well as quotes from the members), glass cases holding guitars, clothing, things the band owned (including their MTV VMA Award), props they used onstage, selections from their own personal music library, pictures they took on tour, and even notes that Cobain wrote to people.

There is even a wall by the exhibit that shows a web of Seattle bands and the areas that they are from. People are welcome to write in their own bands in their locations of origin in order to make current Seattle bands feel more connected to the greats that came before them. Several documentaries were made about the Seattle scene, one of the most famous being “Grunge: The Year That Punk Broke.”

The remaining members of Nirvana later released a CD version of their acoustic live show, titled MTV Unplugged in New York. The album won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.

On Sept. 20, a tribute concert was held in honor of the 20th anniversary of “Nevermind’s” release. Novoselic was there to help play a few songs from the album, although Grohl was not there due to a scheduling conflict. Other performers included the Fastbacks, the Long Winters, Vaporland, Visqueen, Campfire OK, Valis, Ravenna Woods, and more.

A deluxe, remastered version of “Nevermind” went on sale that day. The show sold out quickly, proving once again that the people of Seattle, and indeed the world, will never forget the lasting impact Nirvana had on popular music.