OK…before I get in to this, let me make one thing perfectly clear: Nirvana did *not* kill the so-called “hair bands.” The over-saturation of lame, talentless, flavor-of-the-month hacks killed off that movement (pun intended). Bands with names like S’natch and Vain.
That era was overdue to die. It had lost its fertility long before people stopped teasing their hair, donned flannel, and wore Doc Martens. Much in the same way punk, funk, disco, and the British invasion had all run their course, so too did “Aqua-net Rock.”
Let me also make this perfectly clear: had it not been for Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden, Nevermind may never have happened. That’s right. I just said the long unsaid. To many, the following sentence is nothing short of heresy.
Nirvana were not the be-all, end-all of the 90’s Alt-Rock revolution.
I know Nevermind is celebrating its 20th Anniversary. For the past few weeks, I’ve heard every conceivable story about how Nirvana ushered in the “Grunge” era. How Nirvana were the saviors of Rock. How the world was changed by this one almighty band.
The last statement is true. The world *was* changed by one band during that time period over 20 years ago. But, that band is…
To overstate their impact three years prior to Nevermind’s release, is utterly impossible. Jane’s Addiction were so different than those that had come before, that I recall an entire room full of well-schooled musicians at the Berklee College Of Music, stopping everything at the sound of something foreign to our ears. Never before had we heard that kind of trippy art-rock, melded with our traditional Metal.
That’s not to say it didn’t exist. It just became an integral part of our lexicon in 1988 upon the first listen to Nothing’s Shocking. No more were we hearing the sugar-coated pop created by bands like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake. This was darker. With a sense of anguish that would be credited to Cobain three years later. Jane’s changed the game. We just didn’t know it yet.
And let’s also not overlook Soundgarden. Their Zeppelin-meets-Sabbath dirges thundered in our ears long before Nirvana re-worked Boston’s song structure for “More Than a Feeling.” There was something new happening. And it wouldn’t be long before fluorescent clothing and spandex once again became the exclusive uniform of professional wrestlers only.
What Nirvana *did* have that neither the aforementioned bands possessed, was the most successful marketing department of one of the era’s largest record labels, behind them.
See…when a band came along that the record industry saw as having the potential to do something groundbreaking, every label wanted to have their own version of it. This is a phenomenon I later called the “Creed of the Week” philosophy. But…it’s not new. Nor, is it unique. Think Herman’s Hermits, and every other band that the industry tried to use to recreate the Beatles. Or, the hundreds of teen idols manufactured in an effort to have “another Elvis.”
When Warner Brothers records signed Jane’s Addiction, it set off a feeding frenzy for the next wave of cash cows that the music industry could serve up to a public burned out on “butt-rock.” And lest we turn this into a vilification of the corporate record companies, keep in mind that just as bands like Motley Crue began their careers on independent labels, so too did almost every band from the “Grunge-era.”
Before Nirvana released “Love Buzz,” Soundgarden had already released the Screaming Life EP on the now legendary Sub-Pop Records. The band was a few steps ahead of Nirvana when it came to having the full package. Ready made for the major labels to market. This would actually turn out to be a blessing. A&M Records snatched up Soundgarden, and had their first entry in the post-hair band sweepstakes. And a good one at that.
When it came time for David Geffen’s people to find their horse, the label that gave us such blockbuster bands as Guns n’ Roses, Whitesnake, and the Aerosmith comeback in the preceding decade, after hearing what the band was capable of (once again thanks to Sub-Pop, who gave A&M Soundgarden’s resume) made its bid to grab Nirvana.
But even more so than what was going on in the music arena…American youth culture was already undergoing change. You have only to view the movies of Christian Slater that had become popular: ”Heathers” and “Pump Up the Volume.” Movies that were the “anti-John Hughes.” The optimism and mawkish fun of “Ferris Bueller” was supplanted by “Happy Harry Hard-On.”
And like Christian Slater, Nirvana were rebellious-looking, and simultaneously non-threatening.
Whereas you knew there was something overtly sinister about Soundgarden, and middle-America still can’t handle the visual of Perry Farrell kissing Dave Navarro back then, Nirvana were led by a seemingly all-American, blond-haired, blue-eyed kid who looked like he needed a hug. Little did we know then, what we know now.
Combine that with the flawless marketing of their record company and their coronation as the “last Rock band made by MTV,” and you have the makings of a perfect storm.
Ultimately, Nevermind was not even representative of Nirvana. It was a watered-down, slickly produced, prefabricated corporate, polished document of what could be mass-marketed to record buyers. It really wasn’t the musical tipping point we have been led to believe for a generation now.
That happened three years before when we experienced Jane’s Addiction for the first time. Nothing’s Shocking was just the tip…just for a second…and 23 years later, it still feels pretty good.
Those who would consider Nevermind to be the beginning, would also have you believe Columbus discovered America…
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