Chris Cornell spent a career writing about the darkness, and this week, he finally succumbed. It’s another nail in the coffin of the brief grunge era, as one of the most charismatic frontmen of his, or any, era sadly took his own life in Detroit.
Grunge was a bizarre, accidental moment in time. Virtually any band saddled with the label rebelled against it, even if the term was coined by Sub Pop themselves. But it is hard to explain how quickly the cultural moment turned both towards Seattle, and then away from it. One day, MTV was full of videos for the latest hair metal bands and your local radio station was pumping out Motley Crue and Def Leppard tunes, and then virtually overnight, that scene died and new rock gods were shuffled on to the scene.
However, despite boasting some of the most charismatic lead singers in rock history, grunge largely eschewed the concept of rock gods. They tried to argue that rock music was made by everymen, and they bashed their heads against the barriers between band and audience. It’s no wonder so many did not survive. Andy Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Stefanie Sargent, and now Chris Cornell. And that list excludes other ‘90s icons like Shannon Hoon and Scott Weiland.
It all seemed so hopeful, so revolutionary. The freaks came out at night, and the inmates got to run the asylum. It felt like the Bastards of Young finally won. And within about five years, it was all replaced by horrible knock off bands and rap metal.
So here’s the attempt to rank the top ten grunge bands, admitting right up front that there really wasn’t any such thing as grunge and that this is one poor guy’s attempt at it. But let’s define it anyway, it was the punk/metal hybrid from Seattle that briefly took over pop music. That means I’m only ranking bands that were from Seattle or put out a record on Sub Pop during the grunge era. Sorry, Smashing Pumpkins.
10. Temple of the Dog
Not really a band, just a one off project between Soundgarden and the surviving members of Mother Love Bone with a new singer no one had ever heard of. Eddie something or other. The album really is the sound of a bunch of kids trying to get their arms around their own grief, as it was written and recorded following the death of Andy Wood, Chris Cornell’s roommate. “Hunger Strike” would make the rounds on MTV and become the blueprint on How To Make a 90s Video. But it wasn’t a cliché yet, and the washed out colors and shots of guys moodily looking away from the camera actually seemed fresh and new. Oh, and the songs rocked.
9. Green River
Dry As a Bone, the band’s second EP, was advertised as “ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a generation.” That’s probably the first use of the term, right there in Sub Pop’s marketing materials. The band took its name from a serial killer and sounded like an angry mash up of the Stooges and Aerosmith. But Green River is the creation myth of grunge. As the story goes, the band was playing a show in LA, and two of the members wanted to reserve their guest spots for industry pros while another two members wanted to use the list for their friends. Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard won the argument, reserved the slots for A&R reps, who then never showed. Deriding the decision as careerist, Mark Arm and Steve Turner left the band to form Mudhoney. The first two, of course, would later form Mother Love Bone and then Pearl Jam. In the end, everybody got what they said they wanted.
8. Seven Year Bitch
Grunge normally gets portrayed as a boy’s club, but it also was home to some bands that would be at home under the riot grrrl moniker, a scene beginning to thrive in nearby Olympia. It would exert a profound influence on the scene, getting Pearl Jam to identify with feminist causes and challenge Nirvana to up their lyrical game. But Seattle’s answer was beset by tragedy from the get go. Guitarist Stefanie Sargent died of alcohol poisoning or a drug overdose shortly after their first record. Supporter of the band and lead singer of the Gits, Mia Zapata, was raped in murdered in 1993, and the band explored both deaths on Viva Zapata! It is a landmark record. They did get a major label deal, but the band was short-lived, only releasing one more record.
7. Screaming Trees
In another universe, there are kids wearing Mark Lanegan t-shirts instead of Kurt Cobain. Another magnetic frontman, Lanegan was a high school football player with long blonde hair and a deep raspy voice that sounded like he had been smoking cigarettes in the womb. However, the Conner brothers formed the background of the band, and they scored a deal with the legendary punk label SST in the late 80s. They actually made the move up the majors before Nirvana and released Uncle Anesthesia in 1990. But they wouldn’t become mainstream successes until 1992, when “Nearly Lost You” became a hit single in the wake of Nirvana, and in my opinion, the best single of the grunge era. However, Lanegan chafed under the restrictions of the band, and being a grunge act in particular. He struck out solo in 1994, and is still a successful indie singer/songwriter. The Trees have reformed and broken up several times, but never rekindled that early magic.
If there was a competition of which band had the fewest fucks to give, it would most likely be won by L7. They were an all-woman punk band from LA who had the good fortune to release an album on Sub Pop in 1990, right as the whole Seattle thing was about to blow up. They quickly jumped to a major and had Nirvana svengali Butch Vig produce Bricks Are Heavy. After openly attempting at the mainstream, a huge violation of punk ethics back in 1992, they worked on pissing everyone else off. They literally put flames around the parental warning label on their album to draw more attention to it. They played violent sets across the country, dropped their pants on live television (in England), and then most infamously, threw a used tampon at an unruly crowd. L7 proved that women could play faster, louder, and angrier than anyone. It’s amazing it took people so long to notice.
Personally, I would rank them #1, but I understand the sanctity of the Big Four. Formed from the ashes of Green River, Mudhoney is perhaps the platonic ideal of a grunge band. “Touch Me, I’m Sick” was the song that launched a hundred bands, and their drunken lumberjack aesthetic defined the early 90s. While Pearl Jam grabbed the brass ring and Nirvana maintained its ambivalence towards stardom, Mudhoney worked overtime to openly sabotage their careers. They got signed to a major label as the godfathers of grunge, and they turned in an album with techno songs and jazzy piss takes. They were given slots on movie soundtracks, and they gave Hollywood “Overblown” for Singles and “Run Shithead Run” for With Honors. And they’ve never stopped with their vicious takedowns of the scene like “Into Your Shtik,” a song that can make you feel bad for Courtney Love or “Chardonnay,” about today’s safe indie rockers. If there’s a band for whom the term “grunge” fit, it was Mudhoney.
Sorry, Chris. Really, you can put the top four in a bag and give it a shuffle, as they were the four headed monster that dominated pop culture for a brief period. And while the Seattle sound was a great leap forward for most people and certainly for radio, Soundgarden would have sounded at home in the 1980s metal scene. That’s because Kim Thayil played some monster riffs and Chris Cornell was nothing short of a rock god. He was just so damn beautiful. And that voice. My god, he had a voice that could move mountains, and it was about the only thing that could fight with the epic soundscape playing behind him. They put out great records, but they excelled as a live act, one of the very best of any era. Soundgarden was huge in 1992, but they would’ve been just as big in 1972. Cornell was born to be a rock star.
3. Pearl Jam
While everyone else flamed out, it was the “too careerist” survivors of Green River that are still selling out arenas. Gossard and Ament ascended to the levels of classic rock, primarily because they had the good fortune to discover Eddie Vedder. While he may have birthed about a million jokes about his hunger dunger dang singing style, it worked. A band that had only been together for a few months at the time of its first release found itself playing to sold out stadiums pretty much right away. Pearl Jam got derided as the less cool younger brother of Nirvana, and there is some truth to that, but they also quickly found their footing as the last great arena rock band. They always had the more mainstream sound so they were always going to be the band that lasted, and it’s time we stop holding that against them. They are going to be selling out shows for another two or three decades. They are the legacy band. I mean that in the best possible way. It’s hard to be the one who lasts.
2. Alice in Chains
Layne Staley had a gift: he could make any song sound like a song about heroin. Jerry Cantrell was the musical genius of the band, and he wrote a moving ode to his father who served in Vietnam, “Rooster.” In Staley’s hands, all I can hear is heroin. Alice had made it as a pop metal band in 1990 on the back of “Man in the Box,” a single that got huge play on MTV back when that sort of thing mattered. But they must have seen the epic shift in public taste coming because they went back into the studio and completely remade the band. First, they released one of the all-time great EP’s in Sap, adorned with a picture of the band pissing on their old promotional photos. Then came the finishing blow of Dirt, one of the single best albums to come out of Seattle, or any city. Not content with remaking the band as a grunge pillar, they swerved again with an even better EP, Jar of Flies, which expanded the sound into unforeseen directions. They were the rare band great at experimentation or just settling in and rocking the hell out. Mike Starr, unfortunately, came to the same sad end as Staley, a premature death thanks to years of drug abuse.
The riff was so simple, yet so perfect. Overnight, the music industry changed, and the relics of a previous era got muscled off the stage so a new generation could take over, if only for a little while. All of a sudden, everyone started dressing like me. It was a weird time. Cobain was never comfortable with his success, and the band responded by making a harsh, aggressive record on their next attempt. With the ability to do anything, they chose to try and alienate everybody. It didn’t work. In Utero was just as popular as Nevermind. That’s because for all of his punk ethos, Cobain could not help but write great pop tunes. He was always more McCartney than Lennon. The irony is that for such a great songwriter, Cobain’s best Nirvana recording is a cover, “Where Did You Sleep?” the closing track from their Unplugged performance. But that fits a band that trafficked in irony.