"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Monday, October 3, 2011

What you should have been listening to the last twenty years

20 years ago last month (I wanted to write about this in September, but that didn't happen), Nirvana released Nevermind, which would turn into some kind of phenomenon and change the way we thought of popular music.

In the Fall of 1991, I was driving around Provo, Utah, in my 1981 VW Rabbit, that German engineering putting it's way around town, when a song came on the radio. I didn't know what it was, but it was distinct and different from most anything on the radio at the time, even as I listened to the  "modern music" and "alternative" stations that were actually pretty decent in Utah back then. This song began with a staccatto guitar riff, which really hit when the drums kicked in moments later. The singer didn't seem to be singing as much as mumbling incoherently, then screaming a chorus that included the unforgettable "Here we are now/ Entertain us."

Over the next few weeks, Nirvana exploded. The "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video was all over MTV (let me forgo the joke about how MTV used to actually play music videos) and the radio.

I was no stranger to screaming vocalists or sludgy music. In fact, one of my new obsessions at the time was The Pixies, and I couldn't help but compare "Teen Spirit" to "Debaser." Later, Kurt Cobain would say he purposefully wanted "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to sound as much like The Pixies as possible.

Because of the sudden popularity of this "grunge" music, I tried to pretend I didn't care. But soon I was wearing the plaid flannel and the Doc Martens and growing my hair out as much as I could get away with at BYU, just like all of the other post-80's new wavers who were left stranded in the early 90's when Depeche Mode actually played guitar on "Personal Jesus."

I bought Nevermind on CD, one of the first CDs I ever purchased, in fact. And when a roommate's girlfriend stole it, along with Metallica's Black Album, I bought another copy.

I still liked to talk about how The Pixies should be bigger than Nirvana because they were there first and they were better. And I couldn't help but notice the influence of one of the greatest songs from the 80's on another song from Nevermind. You might have heard it, but probably from one of it's many uses in movies or TV. There was even a knock-off recorded for the movie Weird Science. It's called "Eighties" by Killing Joke. Listen to the opening riff to both songs and tell me Nirvana should get all the credit.

Killing Joke actually sued Nirvana for plagiarism, which they dropped after Cobain's suicide. I don't know what the big deal was. Cobain was a fan of Killing Joke. So he ripped them off. Happens all the time.

What gets me is that Nirvana went crazy big and Killing Joke was still slogging away, making the same music they had for the previous decade. (We must always forget and never mention again the late 80's interval that was Brighter Than a Thousand Suns and Outside the Gate.) In fact, Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions, one of their greatest albums, was released just a year prior to the Nevermind juggernaut. Where was their radio airplay and MTV worship? 

And speaking of albums that deserve more recognition, I say Nirvana killed off My Bloody Valentine. They released Loveless the same year of Nevermind. The fuzzy shoegazer melodies made Loveless into what is now considered one of the greatest indie recordings of all time, but where were they in 1991? And unfortunately it was their last album of all time, too.

Turns out I have kept few grunge albums, and I rarely listen to them. Every so often I'll dial up a Smashing Pumpkins retrospective, but I don't remember the last time I listened to Bush or Stone Temple Pilots. I can't even remember Hole. And I swear I owned Pearl Jam's Ten at one time, but it's not in my collection now.

I've lost track of my point. Okay. Nirvana, good. Still love Nevermind. But the grunge takeover of pop music obscured what would be better bands and better albums. So with the 20th anniversary of a pop masterpeice, maybe we should also take a look at what was lost along the way.


  1. Don't they (I never know who they are, just that they exist) say great writers borrow, good writers steal? I guess it works with musicians too.

    I was in high school in the 90s but didn't start listening to Nirvana until I was well out of it.

    A great post!

  2. I usually think more of Meat Puppets and Melvins when I hear Nirvana.

    Maybe a little Husker Du as well...

    I still think it's awesome that Nirvana brought the Boredoms on tour with them... talk about a guy trying to open the average listener's mind to different kinds of music.

  3. I have that pearl jam cd somewhere... Not a Nirvana fan by any means. Great post though.

  4. Fuzzy shoegazers. I love that phrase. Can you imagine a drummer trying to look as depressed as all the rest of the band? They would just slip into a coma.

  5. @ MJ: Everyone has his influences. Cobain wore his on his sleeve. And that's okay.

    Did you miss the grunge era, being in high school at the time? I'm curious, seeing how I look at teen trends from a teacher's point of view.

    @ Kev: Definitely all three of those bands influenced Nirvana. Where are their accolades? Husker Du was certainly one of the best punk bands that didn't get much credit until after the fact.

    @ Natalie: I like Eddie Vedder's attitude, but never really liked Pearl Jam's music. I did like his score to the movie Into the Wild.

    @ darev: Seriously. The whole band, on the floor. Audience in a daze. Or is that just the drugs?

    I saw several shows by shoegazer bands, actually, and they all pretty much rocked the house loud, despite their laconic demeanor.

  6. I think I quit going to concerts about the time grunge hit the scene but I still liked the music. And I do suspect that I started the whole look myself. But I wore army surplus boots because I couldn't afford Doc Martens.

  7. Ha! I haven't thought about these guys in forever. I should add some of their songs to my workout playlist.

  8. I think the blogosphere would enjoy a picture of a grunged-out Brent. Just sayin'.

  9. @ darev: I haven't been to a concert in years. I'm not even sure what the appeal ever was.

    And I was wearing plaid back in 1984, but the flannel thing is all grunge. Docs rule!

    @ Julie: My favorite song remains "Territorial Pissings" (I didn't make up the title) just because it's loud and fast and short. Work out to that.

    @ Doug: I actually broke out the flannels (two, because you have to tie one around your waist) and 15 eyelet Docs for a throwback dress up day during our school's homecoming week. I should have taken a picture.

    Maybe I can find an old photograph around here somewhere. But don't hold your breath.