I recently attended a concert by the Melvins in Chicago, wherein they performed the albums Eggnog (1991), Lysol (1992), and Houdini (1993) in their entirety. It was a rare opportunity to have an authentic grunge show experience—complete with drunken, flannel-clad twentysomethings, gyrating to the roiling rhythms of Seattle’s Finest. Yet, similar to punk rock, grunge is more a state of mind than a musical style; the story of its genesis requires an understanding of psychological, demographical, geographical, and cultural factors.
“We’d all been in bands that were more controlled, and more dynamic. Ya know, BETTER. Better bands, actually. And we just, well, our whole thing was we wanted to get away from all structure, and be chaotic, and not worry about that. It was a kind of joyful release.”
-Kurt Danielson, TAD
Grunge music was the product of its environment—again, like punk rock, which came to power in the shadow of the Vietnam War. The overcast skies and heavy rains of Seattle led some to find solace in the feedback-laced, lawless melodies of grunge. In his 1996 documentary Hype!, director Doug Pray (who recently directed Art & Copy) dives into the twisted logic behind an underground movement that transformed an entire city and made a huge dent in American popular culture.
“We’ve had keyboard players with 50,000 lbs. worth of kit on the stage, and 82 keyboards and 95 samplers. After a while you just go, hang on, this is like eating too much food at one sitting! It’s too much sound, it’s too many colors, it’s all got poncey and posey. Let’s just go and see some bands where they just bash it out!”
-Martin Rushent, English Record Producer
One of the things that made grunge so unique was the incestuous relationship that existed among nearly every band that fell under its umbrella. For example, when Green River broke up, Mark Arm and Steve Turner went on to form Mudhoney, while Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament would go on to be in Temple of the Dog with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, followed by Pearl Jam with Eddie Vedder. Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic got their start in Nirvana by telling Jack Endino (of Skin Yard, and later a producer for Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and others) that they were old hometown buddies with Buzz Osbourne and Dale Crover of the Melvins. Pretty much everyone in the Seattle scene was either friends with, related to, and/or currently or formerly in a band with everyone else.
“Across the street, lives these guys, they’re in a band called Sister Sidekick. And then there’s another band who practices there, and they’re all friends. And then Curveball, my little brother’s band. And they’re all friends and they go to the show and it’s, just… friends playing music.”
-Van Conner, Screaming Trees
I would not be the first person to argue that the history of grunge can be split into two categories: Before Nirvana and After Nirvana. In fact, it’s unfair and inaccurate to say that Nirvana single-handedly took grunge out of the dive bars and onto MTV—Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and were right there with them. But since grunge had originally been a rebellion against pretentious, over-processed popular culture, it was strange and unexpected to suddenly find it all over TV, on every magazine cover, and creating fashion trends; what was once intended to be the anti-mainstream, had now become the mainstream style and ideology across the United States.
“That’s probably why you create it in the first place—because of the freedom! You can do whatever you want, you can put whatever you want on tape. But, again, commerce is involved. And as soon as it starts going through those money-making channels, everything changes.”
-Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam
Nonetheless, what made grunge so exciting and fun to begin with was still what kept it in the spotlight: loyal, greasy-headed, wild-and-crazy mosh-pit patrons who felt they were a part of “The Next Liverpool.” Hype! explains how it was flattering and even motivational toward the bands—many of whom had probably been together less than a year—to see fans climb up on stage, flail around as if possessed by grungey demons, and then dive off into a sea of musical madness.
It wasn’t meant to last forever though, and many of its heroes succumbed to untimely fates. By 1994, many considered grunge to have been murdered by alternative rock, which was too big and homogenized to appreciate in the same way. Thanks to labels like Sub-Pop and K Records, the City of Seattle and State of Washington made millions and developed its infrastructure and reputation in a way that few could have predicted. Yet, just as Nirvana had “changed everything” with their rise to success, the death of Kurt Cobain marked the end of an era.
“Symbolically perhaps it represented the death of something. I mean, I know it affected me in such a way that I was seriously tempted to give up and go become a farmer. It was so disillusioning to me… it was hard. I didn’t take it well.”
-Jack Endino, on the death of Kurt Cobain
Amid the wealth of documentaries featuring individual bands, sub-genres, and assorted concert videos, Hype! is the most all-inclusive pass into the philosophy of early 1990s Seattle grunge. Never before and never since has such a musical style and mindset so quickly and overwhelmingly come to power and had such an impact on a single city. For one brief moment, the rainy, overcast forestlands of the Pacific Northwest shook beneath the thunder of a thousand sweaty young people, all clamoring to see what sort of crazed antics their local heroes would come up with next.