Friday, 11 April 2014

I'm still alive... nevermind.

While the Factory label and the Hacienda nightclub was at the centre of the music scene in the north west of England in the 80s, 4,000 miles away in the north west state of Washington, USA, the Sub Pop record label harboured its own little secret that would soon explode globally. I had been aware of a noisy brand of music creating a bit of a buzz in certain corners of the music press for a couple of years. While I was working in Our Price, I met a young guy who would come in and buy some of those scuzzy sounding records – ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’ by Mudhoney, ‘Bug’ by Dinosaur Jr. and ‘Bleach’ by Nirvana. This guy, Lee, couldn’t have been more than 15 at the time yet I couldn’t help thinking how incredibly cool he was buying this music, much of which was alien to me. He intrigued me and I began listening to some of the stuff he was buying.

I really didn‘t get it at first; I was into indie bands and the whole Madchester thing so I had trouble connecting with this loud, rudimentary, almost primal sounding racket. But at its heart was a similar disaffection among its protagonists and its followers. While Britain suffered Thatcher, the US had been under the paranoid Republican control of first Ronald Reagan, and then George Bush Sr. The Cold War was ending, but a new enemy was emerging in the Middle East.  Because we have to have an enemy in the world, right? Someone who inspires fear and dread in our people so that the state can keep control and ‘protect’ us.

But like Vietnam in the 60s, the younger generation of the late 80s could not relate to the Iraq War. They felt as alienated and lost as their UK counterparts and sought solace in music. While Madchester inspired love and happiness, ‘grunge’, as it would eventually become known, was an altogether darker affair, fed on anger and despair. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t lost on us Brits and as some of those early Sub Pop singles made it across the Atlantic, it created rumblings of a completely separate scene that co-existed with baggy and rave.

In September 1991, as Madchester limped ever nearer to its inevitable demise, Nirvana released their second album Nevermind to an indifferent general public. It didn’t make it past the clique of grunge acolytes who bought it in their tens for the first few weeks. In November, it all changed. Smells Like Teen Spirit was released as a single and started getting airplay all over the radio. Suddenly it went stellar. Nevermind became the first number one album of 1992, four months after its initial release. The next thing you know, everyone started wearing chequered flannel shirts and ripped jeans, and Our Price started selling more than one Soundgarden or Alice In Chains record a month. When Pearl Jam released their debut Ten, featuring the incredible single Alive[1], cries of “corporate rock whores” abounded within the grunge fraternity. Grunge had indeed gone corporate.  

Mainstream. Such a dirty word. It’s always going to happen, of course. Once the men in suits cotton on to a way of making shitloads of cash from ‘the kids’, you can bet your arse they’ll grab it, clean it up and pump it out in quantity for the masses to lap up like the consumerist bitches they are.  

  “Buy this, motherfuckers.”
  “Why?  It’s noisy and loud, and they look such a mess.”
  “But it’s cool.  Look, it says so in Tatler.”
  “Oh yeah.  Gimme gimme gimme.”

But grunge, corporate or not, did produce some bloody great music. OK, so ‘Nevermind’ was a tad over-produced but there is no doubting its influence on so many artists since. How many people who heard Nevermind actually went out and formed a band? Answer: bloody loads.  It was a hugely inspirational record, even if, like me, you prefer its somewhat scuzzier follow-up In Utero.  

Grunge also forced music to rethink. For too long, ‘rock music’ in America had been dominated by awful hair-metal bands and their inexhaustible supply of clichés a la Spinal Tap. Grunge stripped away all the crap and got back to basics, much like what punk did in the 70s as a reaction to glam and prog. It did away with all the technical musicality and just went for the jugular; sheer, raw emotion was its driving force, not how many notes the lead guitarist can play in his umpteenth solo. Heavy metal, never the most vaunted of genres, became a laughing stock and took quite some time to get its act together and recover, though when it did it was all the better for it.

Historically, there are many parallels you can draw between hard times and genuine influential movements in music. Both grunge and Madchester occurred during a significant time in my life. I faced a major crossroads and had no idea which direction to go in. The baggy clothes gave way to the ripped jeans as I not so much switched allegiances, more divided my time between two hugely exciting so-called ‘fads’ that helped me see through some difficult times.

To some you were either baggy or grunge, you had to choose your tribe. But why should like-minded spirits stand divided? Why couldn’t you be both? I was.


[1] Seriously, I abso-bloody-lutely love that track.

1 comment:

  1. Would you believe me if I told you that I never fully understood the hype about Nirvana? I think I really listened to nearly everything that came out of Seattle in the late Eighties on Peel's BFBS shows, and in retrospect I still find Mudhoney's 'Superfuzz Bigmuff' rather enjoyable to listen to these days. But Nirvana? They never were favourites of mine. Last year I even sold my copy of 'Bleach' - for quite a fantastic price, I should add - nevertheless: the fact that I did says it all, doesn't it?