Seattle Rises Again – A Music Scene Returns

It all began with a tweet: “The 12 year break is over & school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!” And with Chris Cornell’s statement – Soundgarden reunited. For one brief moment, I felt an adrenaline surge. I felt as if it was 1991-1994 again. Alice in Chains currently have a new record out. Pearl Jam does as well. It is as I have stepped off the time machine and I am in my late 20s and early 30s all over again.

To say that Grunge was a type of music is not quite true. In fact, it is utterly false. Grunge became a term for the Seattle Music Scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For each of the bands, there was no definitive sound. There was no definitive dress. There was nothing definitive between them except they were friends who played a lot of different types of music in one place – Seattle. The music itself was actually a mixture of punk music, metal, rock, and glam. It was a place where Black Flag met Black Sabbath. It is where punk met metal. Most people tend to focus on the flannel. Going back to John Fogerty and Neil Young, flannel had been an appropriate form of dress for rockers. But the Seattle scene was more about individual music than the flannel, the Doc Martens, or the long hair. What Seattle had that made it different from the music scene of the 1980s was it was not only loud, it was influential.

For most people, the Seattle scene started with Nirvana’s Nevermind and ended with Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. But the Seattle music scene really began back in the mid 80s. Bands like the U-Men and the Melvins were the early forerunners of the scene. The music world began to take notice with the release of Deep Six on Sub Pop Records in 1986. This compilation CD featured The UMen, Green River, Malfunkshun, The Melvins and Skinyard. That same year saw the formation of Soundgarden and one year later, Alice in Chains and Nirvana both started up. Major labels began perusing the scene. Green River would break up. Soundgarden would release two EPs, Screaming Life and Fopp, sign to influential SST Records and release Ultramega OK. In 1989 Soundgarden would be the first to sign with a major label, A&M Records. Nirvana would record its debut, Bleach, for a little over $600. The resulting album propelled them to a contract with Geffen the next year. Green River’s split resulted in two bands in 1988 – Mudhoney with Green River frontman Mark Arm and former Green River guitarist Steve Turner. The other, Mother Love Bone, had Green River bassist Jeff Ament and guitarists Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather hooking up with Malfunkshun frontman Andrew Wood. In 1989 Mother Love Bone signed a major label deal with Polygram. Alice in Chains would sign with Columbia that same year.

While each band had its own style and influences, they all tended to play loud, distorted guitars, and lyrics filled with angst. In 1990. Mother Love Bone would record Apple, Soundgarden released Louder than Love, and Nirvana began its short courtship with Geffen while Alice in Chains released its first EP, We Die Young. However, all was shattered in the weeks before Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood died from a heroin overdose. The death shattered many including Wood’s room-mate, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Apple would be released a month after Wood’s death. Alice in Chains Facelift would come out that fall.

Cornell would record a tribute album with Gossard and Ament called Temple of the Dog. Goassard and Ament also would start up their third band together, Mookie Blaylock, with a singer recommended by former Chili Pepper drummer Jack Irons named Eddie Vedder out of San Diego. Along with Mike McCready and drummer Dave Krusen, Mookie Blaylock began performing around Seattle and would eventually change their name to Pearl Jam during the recording of the major label debut on Epic.

1991 saw the Seattle Scene explode. A little more than one year after the death of Andrew Wood saw Nirvana release its major label debut, Nevermind. With new drummer Dave Grohl on board, the sound of Nirvana, rooted in punk, exploded with energy and one single video blew everything up. The world turned its eyes on Seattle.

Over the next year, everything Seattle took over the record industry. Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger around the same time as Nevermind. It too sold well, not Nirvana well, but well none the less. Also released around the same time, Pearl Jam would release Ten and the Screaming Trees and Mudhoney would be taken along for the ride as well.

By the summer of 1992, the Seattle scene had totally reshaped the music world. The hair bands of the 1980s couldn’t sell a record and no longer could sell out an arena. For the Seattle bands, their own individuality made them unique. While Soundgarden was steeped in heavy metal lore, it was also experimental in its sounds and records in a way the other bands were not. Alice in Chains came from a dark place lyrically and the harmonies of Staley and Cantrell along with their sludgy sound would make them highly influential to bands like Godsmack. Nirvana revelled in its punk and alternative roots. Pearl Jam, out of all the bands, I do not think they knew what they were. Where as all the other bands had been together essentially for years, Pearl Jam was a baby and its growing pains over the next three years would be hashed out in the press.

By the time 1994 rolled around, the fame, the pressures of fame, and the inability to even breathe took its toll on all the bands. Mudhoney and other smaller bands had their crack at the national scene but faded back in to Seattle. Pearl Jam was imploding under the weight of fame, Ticketmaster and finding who they were as a band. They stopped making videos and doing interviews for most of 1993 and 1994. Soundgarden was getting ready for its biggest year yet and Alice in Chains were sinking into a pit of hell of which we must not speak. It all came to a crashing halt with the suicide of Nirvana singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain on April 8, 1994. Some felt the Seattle Music Scene died that day.

It was a devastating body blow. But the scene did not die. Nirvana would disband, Alice in Chains struggled through two more years of singer Layne Staley’s heroin and crack problems before going on “hiatus”. Soundgarden released Superunknown and shot to the stratosphere of Rock Gods. Pearl Jam continued making music. After a short rest in 1995 the band toured with idol Neil Young and emerged on the other side with No Code, an album of quiet songs along side punk influenced songs.

Soundgarden would break up in 1997 near the end of their tour for Down on the Upside. Alice in Chains was in retreat and Mudhoney and the Melvins were still going, but on a smaller scale – which is probably how they like it. But Pearl Jam kept going. Every couple of years they would release an album, tour, go away for a couple of years, come back, tour, suffer a tragedy, release 72 live albums at one time on one day, and keep touring. It has gotten to the point that Pearl Jam has become the Greatful Dead of the 21st century. Its loyal fans follow them not across the US but Europe and Australia as well.

Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell would go solo as would Chris Cornell for a while. Cornell would hook up with Rage Against the Machine trio of Wilk, Commerford, and Morello for a trio of albums as Audioslave before going solo again.
Starting in 2005, Jerry Cantrell began playing with former band mates Sean Kinney and Mike Inez at a few shows. Along with singer and guitarist William DuVall, Alice in Chians would later reform and release Black Gives Way to Blue in the fall of 2009. It has been a somewhat controversial release with many fans feeling that Layne Staley could not be replaced and it’s a besmirch upon the original work. Others feel the band was as much Cantrell’s vision. It is a very perplexing debate. My friend Dom stated this on Facebook,

[I have] “spent an inordinate amount of time listening to Black Gives Way to Blue since the day it came out. It has been far too many years since I have liked an album this much. Alice in Chains, your 4 1/2 albums have played such an amazing role in my life. I still have a picture with my Alice in Chains Rooster shirt when I was 13!”

I have mixed feelings about the record. While I like the songs and the sound, I think maybe it would have been best to call it something other than Alice in Chains. Unfortunately, many other bands have carried on after the deaths of members including The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Pretenders, and Metallica.

Also, Pearl Jam released a short action packed record in the fall of 2009. It finds the band playing with as much energy as ever and at the peak of their powers in the studio.

As for what the future holds for Soundgarden, I am not sure. Drummer Matt Cameron now has double duty since he has been the drummer for Pearl Jam for the last ten years. Will they record or just tour? Who knows. It will be interesting to find out.

As for me, I will be patient and not have any pretensions about the future. I just know this about the era. It has been the soundtrack to my adult life. Pearl Jam, along with Chris Whitley and Radiohead, have provided the music I have bought the last 15 years along with John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk. Music has just not been the same for me since nor for the public. If you look at the top of the album charts you will find them dominated by pop acts, American idols, and hip hop artists. It is unfortunate that rock music is not at the forefront of palette of America as it was during the heyday of the Seattle music scene. I thought the Rock Band or Guitar Hero games would help bring back rock but we will see.

VH1 Documentary on the Seattle Scene from the late 90s.

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9 comments

  1. Between my husband and I, we own or have owned all of these albums… Except for Mudhoney. They were just along for the ride….
    We even have some crappy Jeff Ament side project.
    If flavored coffee comes back into vogue again, I’ll say you’re onto something.
    And in that spirit, remember when the discman required 17 batteries?

  2. Full disclosure: I’m listening to Prince as I write this…

    On a separate note, my most vivid memory of “grunge” was that it followed on the heels of one of the worst periods for rock music EVER, at least for me as Jr High student living in Kirkland, IL. Wayne’s World touches on this with its emphasis on classic rock–unless you wanted to listen to Warrant or Metallica or Aerosmith or Extreme or Queensryche–the only place you were going to find guitar was on your mom’s Led Zeppelin album or, you know, Bohemian Rhapsody. On the pop end, it was equally horrendous, as you may recall the dominance of Mariah Carey, crappy Prince and Whitney Houston, aka the adult contemporary hellscape… Not saying there was nothing good at work in those years, but it was rare or as in the case of “college music” I didn’t have access to it. Had I found The Stone Roses or The Smiths or Throwing Muses… well, let’s just say I lost a few years there in middle school. The point is, have we hit rock bottom yet, and if so, do we have a music system that can reset the clock anymore? I have roughly 8 sources for new music, and I know they’re vastly different from that of most people I know–the proliferation of media has led to some serious specialization and who has an attention span anymore?

    Unfortunately, if we follow the logic that music is derivative and people look to the “20 years ago” mark to get some inspiration, I’m wondering how that’s going to work. Many of the rock dinosaurs like Cornell, who if you recall did a TERRIBLE album recently, are still roaming the earth, as they say, (which puts Neil Young roughly in the pre-Cambrian era.) I’ve enjoyed the past 10 years in some ways, despite the stupendously bad music on the radio. Bands were recycling the late 70’s and 80’s with some success, but that also means calling on a different basic aesthetic. Obviously, if you didn’t like those time periods, you probably won’t like their mutant offspring. For instance, I like Interpol, but you know, I liked Joy Division the first time I heard it, too. Most recently, there seems to be a disturbing trend of looking to Brian Wilson as the next Neil Youngesque musical father figure–I just can’t deal with all the falsetto harmony these days.

    Pearl Jam is sort of a mammalian anomaly–they’ve been plodding along with surprising legitimacy, and I give Dave Grohl credit for his thing that he does, even though it’s not my cup of tea. The Melvins have been producing albums continuously (as my husband is a big fan, we just keep acquiring them and they’re actually pretty good, though I’d never admit it). I’m just not sure Soundgarden is going to be able to avoid some painful Coverdale/Page type project that simply throws their prior glory into even sharper relief. Remember that horror show? All it did was make Led Zeppelin seem way more awesome (a legitimate descriptor of music, by the way.) And we see Courtney Love in all her glory… And look at REM–better off to quit while you’re relevant, eh guys? God forbid, had he survived, Kurt Cobain could be doing some BS collaboration with Wayne Coyne and Timbaland–which might actually be awesome, but like the jackelope, was just not meant to be.

    I don’t want some crappy, terrifying Jurassic Park of Rock with velociraptors in flannel, I want some new band to come out and kick some ass.

  3. Thanks for the comments Hattie! Like your brother, mother, and Mr. Squirrel, you have a wonderful taste in music. I remember those days like they were yesterday. However, I would be remiss to say the Soundgarden reunion leaves me filled with some trepidation. As Thomas, or Andrew, can probably tell you, I used to hang the article of Soundgarden’s breakup in my classroom. I don’t expect them to actually make a record. I would almost prefer that they do not based on the schlock that Cornell has put out the last five years. I, like you, too wish for a day when a new band comes along that blows the doors off of everyone. The greats in rock and roll have always come along with a new way of rocking. Be it the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Appetite for Destruction, the best records were always something raw, something transcending, something new. I don’t think any of the bands in the Seattle scene have that in them now. While PJ and AIC made good records with some good songs in the last year, they were not the behemoths they once were. Nor should they be. However, someone needs to be because I am not seeing it in rock and roll these days.

  4. Hey,
    This is a really nice article. We wrote something similar about the return/importance of grunge music but it’s not nearly as historically/factually laden as this (as we were born in 1990 and 88, ha!)
    We really appreciate someone taking the time to carefully explain the intricacies of the Seattle scene and caring to write about the best busic that EVER came out of the 90s.

    Vicky and Dre

    (PS. That comment about flannel is soo true!)

  5. I’ll never forget seeing Smashing Pumpkins during the Siamese Dream tour on the day Kurt Cobain died. Although they were out of Chicago, that was another one of those special albums, which also happened to be produced by Butch Vig (Smells Like Teen Spirit). I didn’t much care for future Pumpkins albums. However, there have been other great rock albums and acts. There was Radiohead, before they switched to mostly electronic music, of course. Also, the Queens of the Stone Age rocked for the first half of the 2000’s. However, recently the music scene has become much more fragmented and I can’t totally get into all the blog radio, etc. I am pessimistic about us ever again having a great rock music scene like that of the late 80’s early 90’s, since arena rock has pretty much died and record companies can’t make the same kind of money they did during those days. To that point I’ll add that another sad day for me was when Tower Records went out of business. One thing I do see happening though is Indie rock dying and some of the acts like Spoon becoming big time. Hopefully, this trend will continue and more bands will emerge that don’t purposely sing out of tune or in lame falsettos. By the way, I agree with the comment about the Brian Wilson thing. If you look at compiled reviews like those on Metacritic, they’d have you believe his album Smile was one of the best albums of all time!?

  6. This is a great article i enjoyed reading it immensely. Being a musician having been going it solo and bandless (‘regrouping my thoughts’, to quote the movie singles!) for the past six months i decided to listen to my influences again to get me through this testing time. The bands mentioned and the whole grunge scene was what made me pick up sticks in the first place. Thanks for the article.

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