This is Nirvana Part 2: The Height of Extraordinary Seattle Bands | Fanboys Anonymous

This is Nirvana Part 2: The Height of Extraordinary Seattle Bands

Posted by Eddie Siqueira Saturday, March 1, 2014
Four voices. Some tortured, some introspective. Some of them singing for justice, others singing to make the pain go away. There was never a scene with so much pitch, range, tone, and intensity as that of Kurt's, Layne's, Chris's, and Eddie's in rock and roll. I can only think of England in the '70s, with Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath, but they weren't from the same place, were they? I see the human voice as the greatest musical instrument of all, and Seattle delivered. It wasn't only some extraordinary vocal talent—there were fantastic bands, musicians, and dedicated fans.

eddie vedder kurt cobain chris cornell layne staley pearl jam nirvana soundgarden alice in chains
Left to right: Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Layne Staley
Lightning didn't just strike once in Seattle. In fact it struck four times. In the year of 1992, the abrupt expansion of "grunge" music to the masses can be attributed to luck, fate, destiny, and a few coincidences. The four big bands from the rain city had little in common with each other apart from their geographical location, their clothes, and a win-or-die passion for rock. Nirvana was a punk/pop hybrid, Alice In Chains was rock/metal, Pearl Jam was stadium/folk rock, and Soundgarden, in all modesty, was the bastard child of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Perhaps it was this shotgun spread of rock music that helped the simultaneous success. Not a fan of metal? No problem, Pearl Jam is more jam rock. Into progressive? Soundgarden covered that. It's true that they had some significant musical differences, but these musicians also had some eerie similarities. Let's take a look.

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The Melvins
They weren't rivals, nor touring buddies. Some bills were shared in the early days, some social opinions and political views were unanimous with the local youth mentality. With the exception of Soundgarden, they barely had the blink of an eye to enjoy the camaraderie and disputes of the underground when big money came knocking. There was, however, a primordial soup in challengers of glam rock and pop music, and all that was needing a cynical punch to the groin. Bands like The Melvins, Green River, U-Men, Tad, Malfunkshun… these were the thick garage "sludge" rock bands of Seattle in the early to mid '80s that kickstarted the spawning grounds for the giants. Many bands were nurtured by the local Sub Pop label, which helped so many groups in their releases. So, Nirvana came, released Smells Like Teen Spirit, and the others tagged along for the ride, correct? Wrong. It didn't exactly happen overnight, despite what legend might say. It was a few years in the making.

Alice In Chains and Soundgarden were the first bands to sign to a major, Columbia Records and A&M, respectively, in 1989. Alice in Chains's first album, Facelift, was released in 1990 and the single Man In The Box was a moderate success on MTV. The band members were admitted admirers of heavy metal and glam rock, but guitarist Jerry Cantrell had too much of his own guitar style to simply copy an exhaustedly repeated sound and turned up with ingenious riffs that melded some classic rock skills with angry, dirty chords. The band also eased on their obsession with hair spray and make up and became less removed from the slack-y look we would later know as grunge.

mother love bone andrew wood jeff ament stone gossard grunge seattle
Mother Love Bone
Meanwhile, Soundgarden reached their apogee with the underground of Seattle and saw a good opportunity to advance their careers with a major label. Even though the band wasn't reaching a very mainstream level of exposure, this was blasphemous for longtime fans. Fans in that scene were extremely dogmatic, especially those who based their weekend nights on escaping the refined candy-rot from the mainstream, and the Seattle underground was all about escapism. Soundgarden released the albums Louder Than Love (1989) and Badmotorfinger (1991), with lead singer Chris Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron joining a tribute band that released one eponymous album titled Temple Of The Dog, in honor of the late Andrew Wood, lead singer of Mother Love Bone (which contained two future members of Pearl Jam). Soundgarden began to gather some attention in the rock world, but were still going to break through.

Then, the big bang of grunge happened in three instances. First, a three-piece band from Aberdeen relocated to Seattle, released their debut album Bleach in 1989 through the small but extremely important Sub Pop label, and then their sophomore Nevermind in 1991 through Geffen Records. Nirvana, as they were called, proceeded to unleash Smells Like Teen Spirit, the single that planted the seed for them to become the reluctant symbols of a generation.

Time magazine eddie vedder pearl jam grunge phillies 1993
Time magazine, Oct 23, 1993
The second bang was that, as Smells Like Teen Spirit rocketed up the charts like an innuendo I dare not write, another band released a phenomenal debut album called Ten. Pearl Jam had a leg-up from Nirvana's dirty pop kicking the door down, and had the hits Alive, Even Flow, and Jeremy in that first record. In the following year, they were already touring stadiums with the likes of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Indeed, 1992 was the year that the Seattle bands truly made an impact on mainstream music. Radios everywhere were blaring those heavy power chords with catchy melodies you could actually sing along to. As if that weren't enough, Alice In Chains released their masterpiece Dirt in that year as well, while Soundgarden were prepping up their milestone Superunknown to be released in early 1994.

By 1993, the third factor happened. It was brutal, cruel, relentless, and as soulless as the Dark Lord: the media. All of the yellow smiles, promises of great fortune, hyped up fans and exposure took the four bards of critical rock into a spinning hurricane. The spotlight was on Seattle, and many bands that had a similar look or sound were encouraged to produce albums that mimicked the success thereof. San Francisco band Stone Temple Pilots were even accused of being Pearl Jam ripoffs, but those were unschooled opinions from critics. Other bands like Collective Soul, Candlebox, and Bush were eventually signed to major labels, with a very good chance that they owed it all to the big four.

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Nirvana: seriousness was out of the question
While everything that goes up eventually comes down, it was a bit severe with our here-featured bands. Nirvana released In Utero in 1993, the opposite sound of Nevermind, meaning that it was not quite pop-friendly, and yet it did very well, meaning something had changed in the mainstream. If it sells, it's good, no need to turn it into a smiling, money making puppet that parents approve of. However, Nirvana's lead man, Kurt Cobain, became more alienated than before, although there were still some fantastic performances by the band throughout 1993 and 1994, in particular the MTV Unplugged series episode: it is considered to be one of the finest performances in television history. Despite Nirvana's awards and success, Kurt was beyond the fashionable, heroin-laced depression. It became dangerous. His stomach problems also worsened. Eventually Cobain died by his own hand, but I'll save it as we near the twentieth anniversary of his passing. The final piece of this series will be on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana exclusively.

Meanwhile, 1993 saw the darker side of the spoon for Alice In Chains's lead singer Layne Staley. Heroin was the culprit as Layne's health began to dwindle, and he became more erratic during tours. His band released the record-selling EP Jar Of Flies, which saw a softer, folk side to Alice In Chains and showcased just how truly rich the roots of the band was. They eventually returned to the studio in 1994 to work on their Alice In Chains album, the last with Layne Staley. The vocalist's drug problems worsened to the point that their 1995 tour was cancelled after a few dates. Staley joined seattle supergroup Mad Season, and they released a very unique album in 1996 called Above, which seemed to put the troubled singer in a better state. As the rock gods demanded, he relapsed shortly thereafter, going through a long road to overdose in 2002.

alice in chains layne staley jerry cantrell mike starr sean kinney grunge seattle
Alice In Chains, in a simpler time
Not everything was gray and dark for our Seattle heroes, however. Some of the downfall was purely self-sabotage. Eddie Vedder, lead vocals for Pearl Jam was alway straightforward, as were his bandmates, about political and social issues. One of their pet peeves was Ticketmaster's pricing of tickets. Upon discovering the number formula with which the company charged the fans, Pearl Jam entered a boycott which cost them quite a lot of tour dates. Pearl Jam tickets became incredibly difficulty to obtain, and the venues couldn't hold as many fans as there were. This, added to their reluctance to make a video for their albums Vs (1993) and Vitalogy (1994) made the band, though always active, fall down through the charts in the later '90s as grunge waned.

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This leaves us with Soundgarden, a fly on the wall to all this. They toured and made great music until their Superunknown album was released in 1994. Black Hole Sun became an instant classic, and a very recognizable hit was made. The band even won two grammy awards, in best hard rock performance and best metal performance for Black Hole Sun and Spoonman, respectively, making them the first of the grunge bands to win the award. Pearl Jam and Nirvana would both win one in 1996. However, even though Soundgarden avoided the dangerous cliches being thrown at them, they released only one more record, Down On The Upside (1996), just as musically brilliant as Superunknown. Although the post-Cobain world didn't reject them, the internal band strife did, and Soundgarden called it quits in 1997.

There is a silver lining to this. Alice In Chains have found new life with singer William DuVall, Soundgarden have reunited, and Pearl Jam seem to have rediscovered the joys of playing music and have been back in the spotlight for some years now. The spirit of Nirvana lives on through Dave Grohl and his stadium rock band Foo Fighters, elegantly shedding any inferiority complex regarding his previous band.

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London Bridge Studios: the gateway for Seattle's grunge into the world

What tied all of the "grunge" together? It wasn't necessarily the music. We covered that. Sure they dressed alike, but so did every rock band in their own time: the Seattle guys happened to be cold and needed flannel shirts. Regardless of what anyone says, in all of the inaccurate analysis one might find in books, Internet, and old newspapers (or even this humble article), one truth remains.

We recognize periods in history for their achievements, not for the Reagan-era depression of heroin, suicide, and bleakness of Seattle's youth. There was spontaneity, curiosity, childlike wonder in the music that came out of that scene that influenced people all over the world, although it was shrouded in a futureless gloom of the broken American dream. In the next article, you will see just how far that went into our culture.

What about you? Did you know any of this? Was any of my writing inaccurate? Inspiring? Comment or die in regret.

pearl jam ten vs vitalogy black and white
Radio friendly unit shifters: Pearl Jam went straight to the A-list of radio from their first tour

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