In the early ’90s, a slow-paced and flannel-clad spin on rock bubbled out of the Pacific Northwest and conquered the mainstream. People often seem to think that the genre emerged in Seattle thanks to a little-known band named Nirvana, but it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. From ’70s trailblazers to the present day, here’s how it all went down…
Neil Young + Crazy Horse, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (1979)
Recorded in 1978, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ was recorded on Neil Young’s US live tour with Crazy Horse, before being overdubbed in a studio. Split into two halves, the opening five songs showcase the Canadian’s acoustic side. It’s in the second, more abrasive half that Young arguably earned his unofficial title ‘Godfather of Grunge’ – harsh, distorted, and electrified, tracks such as ‘Welfare Mother’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ draw from both heavy metal and punk rock, before slowing them down to a murkier sleaze.
Wipers, ‘Is This Real?’ (1980)
Starting life in Portland in 1977, Wipers are sometimes regarded as the band who brought punk rock to the drizzly Pacific Northwest – though their frontman Greg Sage disagrees. “We weren’t even really a punk band,” he later said in 2004. “See, we were even farther out in left field than the punk movement because we didn’t even wish to be classified, and that was kind of a new territory.”
Wipers’ taut, distorted music traded in sheer brawn and ferocity for a different kind of intensity: Sage messed about in the studio for hours and hours to achieve the group’s rich, overdrive-drenched guitar sound while other punk bands focused on breakneck speed. And the band’s sharp but distortion-slathered debut album ‘Is This Real?’ inspired countless future figureheads of the grunge scene. You can hear Wipers’ influence on everyone from Mudhoney and Melvins to Hole, Green River and most notably Nirvana. Kurt Cobain cited the group as a huge influence (and later covered Wipers’ songs ‘D-7’ and ‘Return of the Rat’).
Green River, ‘Come on Down’ EP (1985)
By the early ’80s, sludgy, slowed-down not-quite-punk was alive and kicking in Seattle – and in 1986, the influential ‘Deep Six’ compilation cemented the city’s newly emerging grunge scene. Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, The U-Men, and Green River all featured. A few months previously, the latter group had released their debut EP ‘Come on Down’. A wily blend of influences – spanning from heavy metal to post-punk – it’s glued together by some truly filthy guitar; it’s punk-rock but slowly dragging its heels in a gale-force wind tunnel. Today, it’s commonly regarded as one of the first ever grunge records: and members of the group went on to join Pearl Jam and Mudhoney.
Skin Yard, ‘Skin Yard’ (1987)
Up the proggier end of the spectrum, Skin Yard didn’t become household names, but their influence on grunge was enormous. Released in 1987, their self-titled debut is both gritty and glammy. There’s theatrical punch to Ben McMillan’s booming vocal, and the group’s knack for a yowling guitar line. Guitarist Jack Endino took the album on as his first ever engineering project.
Further down the line, Skin Yard’s Endino became one of Seattle’s go-to grunge producers partly thanks to his knack for raw, unpolished recordings (plus the fact he charged relatively low fees). The musician infamously recorded Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’ in just 30 hours on eight-track tape at a cost of just over $600.
Melvins, ‘Gluey Porch Treatments’ (1987)
Before releasing their debut album ‘Gluey Porch Treatments’, Melvins were one of the most ferociously fast bands in Seattle – their early demoes from 1983 are wrenched straight out of breakneck, hardcore punk. Then they flipped the formula, plunging into slow and sludgy heavy metal, dredging power from controlled pace instead of sheer speed. Their impact on the surrounding punk scene – and future grunge musicians starting to come through – was huge. Melvins eventually ended up benefiting from grunge smashing through to the mainstream, signing to major label Atlantic at one point, and their murky and dissonant debut is the album that laid down many of the foundations for grunge.
As Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil put it: “I was blown away – the Melvins went from being the fastest band in town to the slowest band in town. It was a pretty amazing and courageous move. Everyone was trying to be punk rock, a kind of art-damage thing, and the Melvins decided to be the heaviest band in the world.”
Mudhoney, ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’ (1988)
Named after Mudhoney’s two most cherished guitar pedals – the Univox Super-Fuzz and the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff – the band’s six-track debut EP is pure filth; dirgy and dirty punk-rock from a similarly feral world Iggy & The Stooges inhabited. Ahead of its release, their single ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ sowed lasting seeds in grunge and if now regarded as a cult classic of the genre. ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’ is just as deliciously chaotic: the grinding gears of ‘Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More’ are hard to top, and ‘In ‘n’ Out of Grace’ shares a Peter Fonda sample later used on Primal Scream’s ‘Loaded’.
Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’ (1991)
Listen to most rock records from the last 30 years and you’ll hear hints of Pearl Jam – now a staple of classic rock, their debut record ‘Ten’ blew the lid off the genre. Hulking and atmospheric, it’s a blues-tinged juggernaut that conveyed their desire to fill stadiums, charged with the rough-edged snarl of Eddie Vedder. Released a couple of weeks before ‘Nevermind’, Pearl Jam’s debut wasn’t an overnight success – like Nirvana’s own breakthrough moment, it was a slower burn. The following year, ‘Ten’ shot right up to Number Two on the US’ Billboard charts and helped to cement grunge’s place in the mainstream.
Soundgarden, ‘Badmotorfinger’ (1991)
Released on the same day as ‘Nevermind’, Soundgarden’s breakthrough third album ‘Badmotorfinger’ has serious experimental chops, with a colourful spin on heavy metal that often borders on psychedelic. A mutant hybrid between Black Sabbath’s glammy flourishes, Led Zeppelin‘s driving guitars and brutal hardcore that sounds like it’s stuck in a sticky swamp. Chris Cornell’s lyrics often exude a surreal, dream-like quality: “Painted blue across my eyes and tie the linen on,” he sings on ‘Searching With My Good Eye Closed’, “and I’m on my way”. All erratic time signatures that can’t keep still and inward-looking angst, ‘Badmotorfinger’ was created during grunge’s worldwide takeover, but Soundgarden didn’t stick to the more straightforward sounds of their debut EP ‘Screaming Life’ in order to ride the wave. Instead they showed where grunge could go next, turning it into a hair-raising prog hybrid.
Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)
Omnipresent in the closing throes of every snakebite-fuelled student union night and sticky-floored alternative club almost 30 years later, Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is the definitive grunge record, and put simply is the reason why your nan maybe knows what grunge is. Though the band’s raw-sounding debut ‘Bleach’ and the gloomier ‘In Utero’ are both genre classics, it’s their second album ‘Nevermind’, which opens with that classic track,-is most influential of all, wrenching a then-underground movement and carrying it kicking and squalling into the mainstream.
It’s impossible, in fact, to overstate ‘Nevermind’s impact on ’90s culture – the album made an icon of Kurt Cobain, and its unexpected success turned the decade upside down. Arriving at precisely the right time, the trio of misfits Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic lit a fire under a generation of disenfranchised, bored teenagers. The rest, as they say, is rock history.
L7, ‘Bricks are Heavy’ (1992)
Stereotypically, the face of grunge was a scruffy-haired bloke in ripped jeans and a grubby flannel shirt. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ L7 took on a culture of misogyny with a mean, snarling bite. With their Butch Vig-produced third album they ignited a molotov cocktail of potent sexuality and the government’s thirst for war. “Body bags and dropping bombs,” they chide on ‘Wargasm’, “the Pentagon knows how to turn us on”.
Though the trio’s music was often despairing and disenchanted – on ’Pretend We’re Dead’ they dream of sleeping through the presidency of George Bush Sr – L7 were a political force out of the studio. Before releasing ‘Bricks Are Heavy’ they founded the pro-choice group Rock for Choice and fundraised to cover legal expenses for abortion clinics that had been bombed or otherwise targeted by anti-abortion protesters. Nirvana, Hole, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Mudhoney and Rage Against the Machine all got on board and played various Rock For Choice benefits.
Alice in Chains, ‘Dirt’ (1992)
Nihilistic is a word that often crops up around in relation to Alice and Chains, and of all Seattle’s grunge-leaning groups, this one hits the heaviest. Their second full-length, ‘Dirt’, a vicious onslaught of heavy metal-meets-dirge, sees them delve unrelentingly into addiction, death and destructive relationships. Even its love songs are brutal and menacing: “Bury me softly in this womb, I give this part of me for you,” sings Jerry Cantrell on ‘Down in a Hole’, “sand rains down and here I sit, holding rare flowers in a tomb / In bloom”. Dark and searingly honest, it’s Alice and Chains’ most successful album – and their best work.
Hole, ‘Live Through This’ (1994)
With their second album, ‘Live Through This’ Hole took the scuzzy core of grunge and added an edge of sherbety melody – as lead singer Courtney Love put it speaking on VH1’s Behind the Music documentary series: “I want this record to be shocking to the people who don’t think we have a soft edge”.
It was released a week after the death of Love’s husband Kurt Cobain, and Hole were plagued at the time by incredibly sexist suggestions that Cobain ghostwrote ‘Live Through This’ – in reality, this album could only have been written by a woman. Even in its gentler moments – the intricately winding ‘Asking For It’ or the lulling harmonies of ‘Softer, Softest’ – ’Live Through This’ sees the band attack misogyny and exploitation, putting forth strange, poetic lyrics that reflect on motherhood, femininity and self-image (from “Asking For It’: “I will tear the petals off of you / Rose red, I will make you tell the truth”).
Alanis Morissette, ‘Jagged Little Pill’ (1995)
By the mid-’90s, grunge in its original form was on the decline – at this point flannel shirts and beanies were being flogged as high fashion commodities, and with the death of Kurt Cobain the once-underground subculture stalled. Enter post-grunge: a new wave of more radio-friendly bands including Creed, Bush, Nickelback, 3 Doors Down and Puddle of Mudd – all of them pilfering the gravelly and distorted aspects of grunge, minus much of the disillusionment and angst.
And then there was Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ – the best of all the post-grunge records. Sure, it was a wildly successful monster that fused vague elements of grunge with a more generous dollop of pop, but beneath all this beat a heart that was razor-sharp and political. And like Hole and L7, Morissette also channelled grunge’s sizzling anger into speaking about feminism, whether she’s taking aim at pervy record execs on ‘Right Through You’ or celebrating her sexuality with a smirk. “Is she perverted like me?” she asks an ex on ‘‘You Oughta Know’. “Would she go down on you in a theatre?”
Garbage, ‘Garbage’ (1995)
In the early ’90s, drummer Butch Vig was best known as a producer – having worked on the likes of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Siamese Dream’, and Sonic Youth’s ‘Dirty’. Before his reputation in the studio took off, Vig was in a handful of bands: Spooner, Eclipse, First Person, and Fire Town. And so, when he set out in search of creative newness, Vig hit up some of his old bandmates, and formed Garbage. Despite a “disaster” audition, Shirley Manson soon joined up, and Garbage set out with a mission – as the band’s Steve Marker put it, to “take pop music and make it as horrible sounding as we can.“
Conscious of Vig’s reputation as one of grunge’s go-to producers, Garbage attempted to distance themselves from the genre – and instead, their self-titled debut is a gnarled and twisted hybrid of punk, power-pop, trip-hop, and even flickers of dance. Inadvertently, it became one of the defining post-grunge records for that very reason – invigorating the best bits of a fading genre and taking things in a refreshed direction.
Bully, ‘Feels Like’ (2015)
And into the present, two decades later, grunge’s spirit lives on. Originally an intern at Steve Albini’s Chicago recording studio, Alicia Bognanno brought the growl of grunge kicking and screaming into the present day – Bully’s frenetic debut record ‘Feels Like’ is charged with her pained howl. Crucially, there’s focused anger beneath every spiny, on-edge hook. “Invisible handcuffs locked on me,” Bognanno sings with disarming sweetness on ‘Trying’, before unleashing an unholy yowl, “been praying for my period all week”. And her killer third album ‘Sugaregg’, released this summer, proved grunge ain’t dead in 2020.