Styles & Forms | Grunge | Rock

With lyrics written minutes before they were recorded and the most ramshackle production imagineable, Nirvana’s 1989 debut album Bleach didn’t sound like the work of a group capable of toppling MTV’s fixation with hairspray rock; nor did its initial sales of around 15,000 copies. But that’s exactly what the trio from Aberdeen, Washington, went on to achieve.

Armed with just the simplicity of guitarist/vocalist Kurt Cobain’s songs and a refreshingly fundamentalist view of what making music should really be about, Nirvana went on to revolutionize rock music as it was known in the 1990s and beyond.

Such was the impact of the band’s addictive breakthrough single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, it mattered little that the track’s riff was borrowed from ‘More Than A Feeling’ by melodic rock staples Boston. With hindsight, Nirvana were doing little that The Pixies hadn’t already attempted over a cult four-album career, though the group’s talismanic 1991 album Nevermind was greeted by media overkill. Indeed, the grunge phenomenon eventually found itself suffering from many of the ailments that it had seemed like curing.

Seattle Stars

Third-rate imitators were soon crawling out of the woodwork, though the credentials of fellow Seattle originals like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Mudhoney were never in doubt. The same couldn’t be said for Stone Temple Pilots, who despite achieving major stardom with their three-million-selling Core debut in 1992, were cast as plagiarists. Strange then that along with Pearl Jam, STP were among the few grunge acts with any real staying power. The fickle nature of fortune also ensured that one of the longest lasting and most talented of the Seattle bands, The Screaming Trees, also fell by the wayside (though vocalist Mark Lanegan is now a member of Queens Of The Stone Age).

The pressure of stardom was too much for the waif-like, increasingly self-destructive Cobain. The singer attempted suicide many times, and had several heroin overdoses; in 1993 after another overdose, he failed to complete a rehabilitation programme and went missing. Many conspiracy theories suggest otherwise, but it’s certain that Kurt shot himself on 5 April 1994, leaving behind a wife, Courtney Love of Hole, and daughter Frances Bean. Her marriage and subsequent tragedy obscured Courtney Love’s own musical achievement with Hole, whose breakthrough 1993 album Live Through This was widely acclaimed.

A New Stripped-Down Style

Pearl Jam’s popularity is only marginally diminished. Meanwhile, drugs terminated the life of singer Layne Staley and the career of his band Alice In Chains. Staley died of a heroin overdose eight years to the day after Cobain’s suicide.

Elsewhere, the Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell is now a member of Audioslave, who are completed by the three instrumentalists from Rage Against The Machine. A self-titled album has received rave reviews.

The glory days of what we traditionally recognize as grunge rock are long gone, but Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl has found success with The Foo Fighters and Creed...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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