The Bands That Killed Hair Metal: Part 2
Written by Rich Hobson
Sunday, 23 October 2011 05:00
Covered off in the first half of this article were many of the bands either directly involved in the Washington Grunge scene, such as Soundgarden or Alice In Chains or bands that had a huge influence on the scene, such as Sonic Youth and The Pixies. The final 10 bands are a set of bands that I have handpicked as the Grunge “elite” – almost all of them would see huge success worldwide (but not all of them), and most had hundreds of thousands of copies of their albums sold worldwide to rabid audiences desperate for the “Seattle Sound”, even if some of them weren’t exactly what you might call native. Sit back, pour yourself a good strong cuppa and enjoy your reading.
Babes In Toyland (formed 1987):
As mentioned in the first half of this article, Grunge is one of the few rock genres which boasted huge popularity and a higher degree of gender equality – bands from both divides of the sexes were able to reach commercial success in ways that hadn’t been seen since the heyday of Punk, with the likes of Poly Styrene and Blondie massing record sales alongside Rotten and Co. Formed in 1987, this band would go on to become somewhat “rivals” to Hole, they even featured Courtney Love on bass for a (very) short stint, with both sharing similar styles of fashion.
Obvious Album: ‘La Fontainelle’ (1992)
Whereas Hole would offer up strong flirtations with Alt. Rock and College Radio friendly singles, the Babes were always one foot in the Punk scene, so it’s no surprise that this album kicks off with the phenomenal ‘Bruise Violet’, setting the tone for things to come and giving the entire genre a boot of aggression which, in the words of L7 showed that “[they] got so much clit [they] don’t need balls”. The entire album is a twisted masterpiece of hybrid Punk Rock and Grunge, staying well clear of any flirtations with Alt. Rock. As a result ‘La Fontainelle’ forsakes the obligatory College Rock Single in lieu of a collection of ear splitting punk rock aggression.
Dig A Little Deeper With: ‘Spanking Machine’ (1990)
The band’s debut record, ‘Spanking Machine’ was so well received in the American Alt. Rock and Indie scenes that it featured heavily in the decision of Sonic Youth to include the band on their 1990 European Tour. Listening to it now, it’s not difficult to see why – opening with yet another killer track, ‘Swamp Pussy’ it boasts the kind of groovy bass and guitar associated with Dead Kennedys or Cow Punk bands like Dash Rip Rock, with vocalist Kat Bjelland’s distinctive Punk Rock howl to really capture the listener. Picking the pace up with ‘He’s My Thing’, and continuing to terrorise listeners all the way through, ‘Spanking Machine’ shows off not only the band’s Punk influences, but also their Noise Punk predecessors, especially with the slower, more aggressive songs like ‘Fork Down Throat’.
Where Are They Now?
Bjelland used the moniker for a 2002 European Tour, however due to legal issues the name was soon dropped. Since then no significant rumours of reformation have surfaced.
Mudhoney (formed 1988):
Formed from the ashes of Green River, one of the great predecessors to the Grunge scene, big things were expected of frontman Mark Arm. Pulling together a strong cast of misfits to fill out the band, including original Melvins bassist Matt Lukin, Mudhoney upped (or downed, if talking logically) the ante by down tuning their guitars, dirtying up their sound to near hentai levels and generally dismantling 70’s arena rock riffs to Punk Rock simplicity, whilst in the process creating some of what could be considered the more distilled examples of Grunge, Mudhoney simply wrote songs that could be lifted out of their albums and used for the dictionary definition of the genre.
Obvious Album: ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’ (1988)
The obvious choice considering it is the album that boasts “that” single (the stellar ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’), and for the fact is was re-released a while back with additional tracks and singles, ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’ in its deluxe edition boasts the original 6 tracks which catapulted the band to seminal underground status, alongside other demos and singles which surfaced around the era. Featuring the beastly bass licks of Matt Lukin, the album is a filthy masterpiece right from ‘Touch Me’ through to (original) closer track ‘In ‘N’ Out Of Grace’ which also delivers big, bouncy riffs, gut beating drums and intonation summoned by Arm which only he can offer up or possibly explain.
Dig A Little Deeper With: ‘Piece of Cake’ (1992)
Featuring somewhat cleaner production, whilst also keeping the fuzz levels set to “sasquatch” the band’s third release boasts songs that to this day are staples of their live set, including the dirty masterpiece ‘Suck You Dry’. Whereas ‘Superfuzz’ was somewhat Garage Rock riffy in its structure, ‘Piece Of Cake’ is faster, and more Punk Rock paced, which no doubt contributed to the popularity of certain songs in the live environment. Also included in the album are psychedelic flirtations, in the form of ’13th Floor Opening’, which has a certain Black Sabbath, ‘Black Sabbath quality to it, in that it is somewhat psychedelic whilst also sounding as bleak and dark as music can possibly be.
Where Are They Now?
The band released their 11th studio album this year entitled ‘Head On The Curb’, although this currently runs on LP format only. The band have also been touring alongside Pearl Jam for the latter band’s 20th anniversary. A tour that has not yet hit UK shores though announcement of dates would no doubt get UK Grunge fan’s mouths’ watering.
Tad (formed 1988):
These days Tad are probably best known as the band that Nirvana opened for on their first European tour dates (thanks in part due to their lack of overwhelming success, and the description as such in Charles R Cross’s Cobain biography ‘Heavier Than Heaven’) however back in the early 90’s the band were a force to be reckoned with. Whereas most bands of the Grunge era shunned much of their Metal genealogy, Tad embraced it wholeheartedly and had a sound that hit you like a fucking juggernaut.
Obvious Album: ‘8 Way Santa’ (1991)
Produced by Butch Vig and released in the iconic year of Grunge album releases ‘8 Way Santa’ has much of the makings of a Seattle Sound success, however in reality the album never managed to break into huge commercial success. Which I guess was in part due to the lack of any “huge” singles (‘Jack Pepsi’ is a great track but it lacks the mainstream qualities of ‘Alive’ or ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ that little something extra that would fling it into the public consciousness) and also in part due to the legal troubles faced by the band (first for the original album cover, featured alongside, which had been taken from a Seattle Thrift Store) and also for the use of the Pepsi logo in the release of ‘Jack Pepsi’.
Musically the album is much more metal than any of their Grunge bedfellows, though it still featured much of the Grunge musical iconography of the scene at that time, including prevalent bass, slightly “off” production, plus the every-man quality of the songs and the delivery of its frontman, Tad Doyle.
Dig A Little Deeper With: ‘Infrared Riding Hood’ (1995)
The band’s final album failed to make any commercial headway, and helped to finally slam the coffin lid shut on their musical career as a band. If the ‘8 Way Santa’ album hits you musically like a juggernaut then ‘Infrared Riding Hood’ hits you like a lead meteor, featuring heavier than concrete riffs, violent and powerful drum beats and vocals much more akin to Slayer than to the Pixies. The album may not have been successful commercially in the Grunge heyday when all things metal were passé, but if this album (and the band) had surfaced 10 years later it would have gone down a storm with legions of Machine Head and Lamb Of God fans who like their music charged up like a rampaging bull on heat.
Where Are They Now?
Since breaking up the band have gone on to become members of other acts throughout the US, including Hog Molly and Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth.
Smashing Pumpkins (formed 1988):
The Smashing Pumpkins are one of those bands that it’s easy to endlessly debate as to whether or not they were actually a part of the Grunge scene. Sure they had Butch Vig as producer, and ties to other bands in the scene (most notably Hole) but they also boasted huge production values, and even made concept albums, something completely alien to the everyman nature of the wider scene. For the purposes of this list however, I’ve included them for both their musical prowess, (which was a melding of multiple styles even if it did lack the fuzzy overtones boasted by other bands on the list), as well as for those aforementioned ties to the scene.
Obvious Album: ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’ (1995)
For the purposes of defining band who were ultimately responsible for finally killing Hair Metal, perhaps its the Smashing Pumpkins that can boast one of the biggest blows. Concept albums certainly weren’t unheard of pre-1990’s, though many tended to come from bands with the words “Pink” and “Floyd” in their name, and even within the Hair Metal heyday big productions and high concepts had started to shine through in the mind of the likes of W Axl Rose. The trouble was, their albums just didn’t deliver. Far from being the masterpieces they were sold as, the albums housed a few great tracks but were just as prone to filler, leaving listeners somewhat unfulfilled.
So when Billy Corgan took up with the idea of making a concept album of his own, it proved to be a prudent move, one that paid off when the album was finally released, as it actually kicked ass. Tracks like ‘1979’, ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ and ‘Tonight Tonight’ stand alone as great singles, something that can really work in the favour of a good concept album, as it lessens the pretentious nature, and makes it more endearing to the listener.
Dig A Little Deeper With: ‘Gish’ (1991)
Released in perfect synchronicity with the first days of the Grunge explosion, and boasting the production credit of Butch Vig, ‘Gish’ was a strong debut for the Chicago quartet, offering up massive, Queen-esque production values on a 70’s Arena Rock and psychedelia inspired album, which seemed to have something a little brighter than most of the other bands making it huge that year. The album still stands as a great record today, and the high production values have stood the test of time. This is something which has claimed the lives of some other Grunge era records in my ability to listen to them in 2011, and even some bands such as Skin Yard who suffer now from productions that make them sound more lazy than artistic.
Where Are They Now?
The band reformed around 2005, although they didn’t play a live show until 2007. Since then they have released three new albums, and Corgan has voiced interests in reissuing the entire back catalogue with remasters and unreleased tracks, as well as another concept album, which he hopes to release in 2012.
Hole (formed 1989):
Whether you see Courtney Love as being the Yoko Ono of the Grunge scene, or her pairing with Kurt Cobain as the Nancy to his Sid Vicious, one thing that is often overlooked in a majority of the coverage afforded to Love is that she is in fact a competent musician, and a pretty damn good one at that.
Obvious Album: ‘Live Through This’ (1994)
Hole’s second release came out at possibly the most turbulent time possible for Love – hounded by the media for her drug use and constantly accused of neglecting her infant daughter, the fact the album was released 4 days after Cobain had been found dead in their family home obviously didn’t help matters, all eyes were on Love and her band Hole, and the critics could be almost guaranteed to be merciless if the album sounded sloppy or anything below superb.
Kudos to Love then that the album actually was fantastic, a departure from the Noise and Punk roots explored by the band’s debut, the band moved to a more Alt. Rock/Punk hybrid, making it possibly the most out and out “Grunge” album of the female fronted bands within the plaid shirted fraternity.
Opening with the seminal ‘Violet’, the track immediately makes a huge impact and it’s difficult not to immediately fall in love with the album when the first two songs are as catchy and intriguing as said ‘Violet’ and ‘Miss World’. ‘Live Through This’ boasts strong lyrical content; catchiness and a powerful sense of controlled aggression as well as heaps of melody that really captures the band’s audience and give them a truly great record in the process.
Dig A Little Deeper With: ‘Celebrity Skin’ (1998)
Following the death of original bassist Kristen Pfaff, Love drafted in Melissa Auf der Maur on bass duty, an artist with impressive abilities in her own right (shown off most notably in her solo work), to work on the follow up to ‘Live Through This’. A further move towards Pop Rock sensibility, ‘Celebrity Skin’ trades in almost all of the band’s original Punk leanings in favour of catchy pop rock tunes, however this doesn’t mean that the lyrical stylings were scarified, nor were the popular melodies with a kick that had made the band so successful in the first place. Now featuring the additional songwriting credit of Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, the lyrics further explored Love’s psyche as Rock Star Idol, and though the tracks may lack the aggression of tracks like ‘Violet’, the catchiness of tracks like ‘Celebrity Skin’ and ‘Malibu’ easily makes up for this.
Where Are They Now?
Love released a new album, ‘Nobody’s Daughter’ in 2010 under the Hole moniker, however it lacked any members of what could be considered the “classic” Hole line-up. In an interview alongside former band mates in 2011 Love did not count out the possibility of reuniting with her former compadres in the future, for performances or otherwise, instead stating “if it’s not miserable and it’s going forward and I’m happy with it…” when asked if she would work with them again in the future.
Bikini Kill (formed 1990):
Formed in Washington in 1990, throughout their career Bikini Kill would shun major label attention and the idea of ever getting poppier as their career progressed, standing firm in their Punk Rock ideology.
Obvious Album: ‘Pussy Whipped’ (1993)
Notable for the huge single in ‘Rebel Girl’, as opposed to other notable singles which the female fronted Grunge boasted, which often saw them show off poppier tendencies (think ‘Pretend That We’re Dead’, by L7) ‘Rebel Girl’ is a full Punk Rock anthem, a rallying cry for the female musicians that were popping up in the Riot Grrrl movement. The album itself continues much in this vein, a noisy and unabashed punch for the band that shared its sound with early releases from bands like Babes In Toyland and wanted to show their grit to the world.
Dig A Little Deeper With: ‘Reject All American’ (1996)
Not really a difficult choice, as the band only had 2 full album releases, alongside splits and the like, however this record still stands as a great example of Bikini Kill as a band, with politicised and feminist friendly lyrics put to Punk Rock howls and riffing which made the band a popular underground success.
Pearl Jam (formed 1990):
Formed out of the demise of Mother Love Bone, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament began looking for a new band to play with after Andrew Wood’s death by heroin overdose in the late 80’s. As opposed to finding a fellow Seattleite however, the band instead found vocal duties falling to San Diegan Eddie Vedder, who recorded vocals to a demo tape forwarded to him by onetime Red Hot Chilli Pepper Jack Irons. This demo would go on to form a mini “opera” of sorts, the “Mama Son” (or “Mamasan”, according to differing sources) trilogy of ‘Alive’, ‘Once’ and ‘Footsteps’.
Obvious Release: ‘Ten’ (1991)
As opposed to the psychedelic tendencies of Wood, Vedder was a surfer dude from San Diego, and this features heavily in the sound of ‘Ten’. Opening with an instrumental, (known as ‘Master’) which forms the extended intro to the song ‘Once’, the record kicks in with true 70’s Rock ‘n’ Roll flair, boasting a huge riff and powerful vocals, even if the listener is not aware of the “Opera” the track is a part of the vocals have an anthemic feel which make them easily accessible to listeners.
From here on in the album just gets stronger and stronger, and as opposed to ‘Nevermind’ or ‘Badmotorfinger’, ‘Ten’ boasts almost absolutely no filler tracks, with each song feeling as unique, fresh and powerful as its predecessor, right from the opening of ‘Once’, through to the massive riffing on ‘Even Flow’, to the powerful melody in ‘Black’ and the frantic blast of Rock in ‘Deep’, each track captures the listener like a web of steel, and the potent mix of paces, styles and influences makes this album stand as possibly the true masterpiece of the Grunge era. Remastered in 2009, the “Legacy” edition of the album is well worth its heavy price tag, because as opposed to just a slight retouching, the album has been given a total overhaul, making absolutely every little intricate detail of the band’s musicianship stand out brightly for the world to appreciate.
Dig A Little Deeper With: ‘Yield’ (1998)
Following the popularity explosion the band enjoyed with ‘Ten’ they faced their critics head on (amongst whom was Kurt Cobain himself, though he did later recount his statements about the band) but the band also seemed to be dismantling their fame, taking up crusades and generally changing the direction of their sound to suit the bands ever evolving musical tastes.
‘Yield’ trades in most of the band’s early 70’s Arena Rock for a variety of different sources, including the Ramones like Punk Rock ‘Brain Of J’, the bouncy Rock riffing of ‘Do The Evolution’ or balladic tunes like ‘Faithful’, ‘Pilate’ or ‘In Hiding’. This album boasts a wider variety than most of Pearl Jam’s back catalogue, which often has an overall “theme” and sound for most of the records, be it 70’s Arena Rock (‘Ten’), Funky Alt. Rock (‘V’s’.) or Ramones style Punk Rock ‘n’ Roll (‘Backspacer’).
Where Are They Now?
This year the band have undergone a huge tour for their 20th anniversary, alongside fellow Grungers Mudhoney, they have also released a documentary ‘PJ20’, directed by Cameron Crowe which received many plaudits right here on Uber Rock. The band have also been re-releasing and re mastering some of their older material, namely ‘Ten’, ‘V’s’. And ‘Vitalogy’, though amidst this back catalogue exploration the band have also expressed their plans to record a new album for 2012 release.
Bush (formed 1992):
Maligned for being a “Nirvana Rip Off”, Bush hailed from the UK and were possibly our only real serious involvement in the Grunge scene, featuring the vocal talents of Gavin Rossdale, channelling both Kurt Cobain and Black Francis to create music that seemed in give you the impression the music was being made in Washington.
Obvious Release: ‘Sixteen Stone’ (1994)
Though the band have received much criticism for the fact they seemed to be a cheap sounding knock off of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, the fact remains that they were extremely successful because they found a successful copycat formula and stuck with it. Bush actually made great songs (something which other copycat acts, such as Moist or Candlebox didn’t and hence why these bands have long sine been erased from most people’s memories). ‘Sixteen Stone’ boasts a heavy dose of Pixies style Alt. Rock mixed in with Punk at times to give a Grunge Lite feel, from the massive singles ‘Everything Zen’, ‘Little Things’ and ‘Comedown’, all of which follow the popularised “quiet verse loud chorus” structure through to the throwaway Punk experimenting of ‘X-Girlfriend’ or the Alt. Rock sing-along ‘Glycerine’, this is a great album, nothing more nothing less.
Dig A Little Deeper With: ‘The Science Of Things’ (1999)
Following the huge success of ‘Sixteen Stone’, the band released ‘Razorblade Suitcase’ to less than ecstatic reviews. The album saw a sideways move to electronic sounds, and cured the main problem with ‘Razorblade’ – it actually had singles which were catchy and listenable, just as ‘Sixteen Stone’ had, in the form of tracks like ‘The Chemicals Between Us’. Though ‘Sixteen’ had been somewhat upbeat through all of it’s angsty “get over her” lyrics, ‘Science’ sounds darker, and more serious by contrast, largely achieved by sacrificing the throwaway feelgood factor of tracks like ‘X Girlfriend’.
Where Are They Now?
The band released their fifth studio album, ‘The Sea Of Memories’ this year, and have been on the road pretty much ever since. They finally bring their show back to the UK for dates in November.
Grunge Supergroups (formed various years):
Supergroups aren’t really a thing associated with the Grunge scene, and even the big vocalists of the era who DID go on to front supergroups often moved to Heavy/Alt. Rock leanings (Audioslave, Velvet Revolver), however a few Grunge supergroups did exist, and here are two records are still relatively easily available.
Obvious Release: Temple Of The Dog – ‘Temple Of The Dog’ (1991)
Temple Of The Dog have become legendary since coming together to pay tribute to the late Andrew Wood, boasting future members of Pearl Jam, vocals by Chris Cornell and even a duet with Eddie Vedder, the album is a Grunge purists dream.
Featuring songs like ‘Say Hello To Heaven’ (a song which still pops up in Chris Cornell’s live solo sets to this day), a ballad directly speaking to the late Mother Love Bone frontman, alongside tracks like ‘Reach Down’ which show off a heavier, riffier side to the band and the aforementioned duet of Vedder and Cornell on ‘Hunger Strike’, the album itself stands as a strong release, and it’s not difficult to see why the members would find success with other bands later on in their careers. Since the release of the album the band have played precious few times, and the closest you are likely to come to a Temple Of The Dog live show is to catch one of the onstage collaborations sometimes undertaken by members of the band (most likely during Pearl Jam concerts).
Dig A Little Deeper With: Mad Season – ‘Above’ (1995)
Mad Season features the double whammy of vocals by Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley and guitar abilities of Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Mad Season have a more out and out bluesy vibe going on than Alice In Chains or Pearl Jam, and in turn also left something of a more melodic after taste on the Grunge palette.
Opening with the soft tones of ‘Wake Up’, the album is a real slow burner and one to listen to if feeling particularly bluesy. One thing is for sure and that is that ‘Above’ is a lot more melodic than Staley’s other releases, and offers up singles like ‘River Of Deceit’ and ‘Long Gone Day’ to really show off his more musical and songwriting abilities, focusing instead on subtlety, something that was not often seen with his day job band.
Nirvana (formed 1987):
Nirvana really needs no introductions, and that is why they have been left to last on this list. They were a band out of time that was so in time it was frightening, a band of multiple different avenues, a band who at any point could rip out songs which were inspired by The Pixies, The Vaselines, Black Flag or The Melvins. Nirvana were a once in a lifetime band, and in Kurt Cobain the Elvis of Grunge, however this legend sadly never got the chance to sample his very own Vegas years.
Obvious Release: ‘Nevermind’ (1991)
With this album’s recent Special Edition treatment finally elevating it into the truly legendary status that record labels normally only afford to more corporate b(r)ands. Hearing ‘Nevermind’ recently made me immediately think of a story Johnny H told me at Rebellion this years where a bloke stormed out of the record shop he once worked in just because the soon to be Uber Rock co founder had the audacity of refusing to turn down what is still my fave track from this album ‘Territorial Pissings’. Blasting the noisy Punk howler at full volume on a rainy Autumnal morning not long after the album was first released what was on offer really didn’t fit in with the Chris de Burgh brigade Our Price used to attract. But then again this album was all about reaction, reaction to a shit music industry, reaction to shit politics and reaction to what appeared to be Kurt Cobain’s seemingly shit life
‘Nevermind’ whilst cementing Nirvana as the “Punks” of the Grunge scene, also contains tracks like the dark and rootsy album closer ‘Something In The Air’ (not counting the hidden track ‘Endless Nameless’ of course), the cryptic ‘Polly’ and the hit single ‘Come As You Are’ that really helps you to understand the longer term and wider appeal of the album. ‘Nevermind’ doesn’t just stand on the ceremony created by its huge hit singles; it has quality in depth across its 13 songs (even if I don’t personally think its as consistently as strong as ‘Ten’) to really showcase the musical talents of the band. And whilst I’m talking about it, the Special Edition version of the album released last month pieces together various versions of the ‘Nevermind’ songbook in varying stages of making it onto the album bringing together demos and live sets across a mixture of CD’s and DVD’s Universal have managed to create the ultimate tribute to this great album in either deluxe or super deluxe formats.
Dig A Little Deeper With: ‘From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah’ (1996)
When picking a live Nirvana record most would immediately jump to ‘Unplugged’, and though this is an amazing and life affirming record it isn’t really Grunge per se. Also, some might jump to ‘Live At Reading’, and though this captures one of Nirvana’s most seminal performances, it lacks something of the aggression and raw power that is captured sonically on ‘From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah’. The setlist itself is a real Nirvana mix of loud, howling shit like ‘School’, heavy rock riffing of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and the frantic energy of tracks like ‘Aneurysm’ its no wonder that the band became a huge live institution based on this performance.
Where Are They Now?
Do I really need to do this for Nirvana? It was nigh on impossible for any former band member (whether it be Krist Novoselic, Jason Everman or Chad Channing) to simply blend into the background after being associated with the musical phenomena known as Nirvana. Sad thing was that all of Kurt’s ex band mate’s (yeah even Dave Grohl) subsequent projects all came with the subsequent expectation/stigma of “featuring an ex member of Nirvana”. And as I’ve said before how can you ever follow a once in a lifetime band?
When I was tasked with putting together this list my aim was to not only feature the trendy Grunge bands but to widen the net a bit and bring in some of the key acts that without whom Grunge simply would not have existed. And although this was the genre that was widely credited with completely destroying and replacing the Hair Metal dinosaurs it was long before the Grunge hierarchy were quickly turning into dinosaurs themselves. Thankfully for the ever-evolving rock scene we all love (whatever the label) many other bands started popped up throughout the 90’s who would once again change the face of music forever including;
- Rage Against The Machine
- Machine Head
And here in the UK we had the new wave of British Rock ‘n’ Roll in the form of bands like
- The Wildhearts
Though these bands are for another time, and another list…that I’m sure someone at URHQ will be working on right now.