Part 6: Alternative Nation & the Coming of Post-Rock
With veteran acts like U2 and R.E.M. reinventing themselves for this new emergence of alternative music along with the arrival of different musical styles such as American grunge rock and the British electronic music. It’s becoming clear that alternative rock with its array of different sub-genres was starting to prove that there’s a lot more out there. It was the year where some acts who had helped cultivated an underground following in the 80s to finally get the chance to have their moment while it gave new bands a chance to be exposed. For some of the acts who had helped bring hope to fans of the underground, they see themselves facing the end.
1991 was a year where many acts from the 1980s who had been cult acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers finally get a chance to make their mark on the mainstream. After years of underground success and critical acclaim, the funk-rock band finally scored a hit with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground in 1989. The band would later meet former Def Jams Records producer and co-founder Rick Rubin who would produce an album that would expand their sound with dreamy textures and introspective material. The result was Blood Sugar Sex Magik as it would give the Chili Peppers the chance to become the mainstream and score major hits.
The success of the Red Hot Chili Peppers along with the emergence of grunge would allow a slew of bands to be exposed as one of the bands who opened for the Chili Peppers was the Chicago-based alternative rock band the Smashing Pumpkins. The band released their debut album Gish that was a mesh of different musical styles as it garnered lots of attention though the record wasn’t a big commercial success. Yet, it helped kick-start a band that would be one of the 1990s pre-dominant bands.
If the Chili Peppers and Smashing Pumpkins were setting their mark for the rest of the decade, a whole slew of acts were starting to come around proving there’s a lot to alternative music. Among them was Primus whose major label debut Sailing the Seas of Cheese gave the funk-metal band more exposure as they made an appearance in the film Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey that same year. Other acts such as the experimental band Ween, the hardcore punk band Fugazi, the noisy-psychedelic band the Butthole Surfers, and the alternative-country act Uncle Tupelo were making waves with their own sounds showing the music’s diversity. In the world of industrial and electronic music, acts like Pop Will Eat Itself and Coil proved that there is vitality to the music that can cross over into the world of alternative rock.
The year also gave way to an arrival of new bands such as the indie-pop group the Magnetic Fields and the dreamy alt-rock band Mercury Rev to release their debut albums as they would help be part of a different wave of alternative music that would eventually become indie. Another band that saw them release their full-length debut is the punk-pop band Green Day were they would later become on the most popular acts of the 1990s and 2000s. One act that managed to make a major breakthrough were the Scottish power-pop band Teenage Fanclub as their third album Bandwagonesque was named the album of the year by SPIN magazine which was a major surprise. Yet, the critical acclaim the record received proved to be true as the band manage to get some attention as they even got to perform on the late-night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live a year later.
With a slew of new acts starting to emerge while some of alt-rock veterans like Throwing Muses making their mark. It was the year that some of the acts that helped gave rise to the burgeoning alternative music scene were on their way out. One of the bands that had influenced countless of acts including Nirvana were the Pixies. The Pixies had been one of the darlings of the alternative music scene in the late 1980s with a slew of genre-defining albums but the increasing tension between singer/guitarist Black Francis and bassist Kim Deal was boiling. The band would make one more studio album in Trompe Le Monde that featured former Captain Beefheart keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman. Though the album was well-received, many fans and critics felt it was inferior to their previous releases as the band would continue to tour before officially calling it quits in 1993.
The Pixies were part of the legendary British indie label 4AD that was co-founded by Ivo Watts-Russell who had signed an array of acts like the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Throwing Muses, His Name is Alive, and Watts-Russell own project in This Mortal Coil. The year was considered to be the end of the classic period for the label where Watts-Russell would sign a five-year distribution deal with Warner Brothers Record in 1992. With Throwing Muses and His Name is Alive releasing their landmark recordings, many fans of the label saw that things were ending. Notably as Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses would leave the band as she formed the more pop-friendly alt-rock act Belly in 1993.
The label saw the final release of Watts-Russell’s label project This Mortal Coil with their third and final studio album Blood. The Gothic dream-pop record featured an array of guests that included Tanya Donnelly, Kim Deal, Heidi Berry, Alison Limerick, and Dominic Appleton providing vocals to songs by Chris Bell, Syd Barrett, Spirit, Rain Parade, and many others. Watts-Russell would later release a box set featuring all three studio albums plus a bonus disc of the original songs the outfit has covered over the years.
Another act that saw its end was the British space-rock band Spacemen 3 where they would release their final album Recurring. The record reflected the dividing visions of the band’s founders as one of them in Jason Pierce was on the verge of forming another band in Spiritualized. While Spacemen 3 were an underground sensation in the U.K., their influence would prove to be big as it would leave a bigger mark for Pierce as his band Spiritualized would be one of the darlings of the British indie music scene.
With the world of alternative music proving to be a groundswell of different styles, some wondered what would be the alternative to alternative music. One of the sub-genres that was part of the alternative scene but more underground was a style of music that defied the conventions of rock music. Coined as “post-rock”, the sub-genre has been around in different arrays of style throughout the late 70s and 1980s but it was in 1991 where two landmark releases for the genre would shape the ideas of what is possible.
The first was Spiderland, the second album by Louisville, Kentucky band Slint. Slint was a quartet that had come from the world of hardcore punk. Taking the aggression of punk with unconventional rhythms and dark lyrical themes, Spiderland was unlike anything out there at the time. Though the band called it quits after the album’s release in March of 1991. Yet, the record managed to sell over 50,000 copies as it helped pave the way for different ideas of rock such as the math rock scene of the 2000s. Slint would eventually reunite in 2005 and 2007, the latter of which was to celebrate Spiderland as it’s considered to be one of the great albums of the 1990s.
Another band that would help shape the genre known as post-rock is the British group Talk Talk. Though they were known as a synth-pop/new wave band of the early 1980s with such hits as It’s My Life in 1984, their 1986 album The Colour of Spring saw them move away from that style to something more arty with organic instruments taking the helm. While the band was really a trio that consisted of vocalist Mark Hollis, bassist Paul Webb, and drummer Lee Harris at the time. The band was helmed mostly by Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene who had been an unofficial member of the group as well as their producer since 1984. 1988’s Spirit of Eden saw the band move away from their early sound completely by incorporating different styles of music such as jazz, ambient, and classical.
The record was an indication of where the band was going as a three-year gap that involved a lawsuit from their label EMI and the band’s refusal to tour due to the complexity of the music. When the band, minus Paul Webb, went to the studio in 1990 with a new label in Verve to support them, the group would unknowingly make what was considered to be a landmark recording for post-rock genre. 1991’s Laughing Stock went further into unconventional rhythms along with more somber musical ideas and more daring lyrical themes. Released in September 16, 1991, the album drew rave reviews with critics while only peaking at #26 in the U.K. album charts. Despite the critical attention it received, Talk Talk disbanded a year later.
The differing influences that Spiderland and Laughing Stock proved on how far the world of alternative and indie music can go in terms of just trying to find something new without really thinking about it. Notably as those albums provided templates for the underground wave of post-rock bands ranging from Mogwai, Tortoise, and many others that would go on into the 2000s for acts like Sigur Ros and most notably, Radiohead. Yet, post-rock would be one of many sub-genres happening with alternative music in 1991 as it is clear that times are definitely changing towards the end of the year.
January 11, 1992 wasn’t just known as the day that Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson out of the top spot of the Billboard album charts in the U.S. It was the moment that record companies all over the world realized that these little indie music scenes that been around for more than a decade had something. Overnight, the attention for both the music industry and pop culture at large changed. Gone were the spandex pants, big hair, slick clothing, and headbands that defined rock music of the 1980s as the idea of the rock star had become parody. All of a sudden, the rock stars no longer wanted to become rock stars in an age where kids at the time couldn’t relate to these mainstream bands. Nirvana’s chart-topping moment that January was evident that everything that happened in 1991 was something the world was waiting for.
With young kids now being able to find some relevancy with these new bands because they looked like them and came from the same background. Flannel and jeans became the new look while everyone decided to look a little dirty and such. For a while, it seemed like the answer to everything that grunge and alternative rock represented was an act of rebellion towards the commercialism of 1980s rock. Once Nirvana topped the charts and bands like Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, and the Smashing Pumpkins got a chance to be commercial forces in the 1990s. What was supposed to be a scene that was an alternative to the mainstream had suddenly become the mainstream.
While for many people who had been part of the underground since the fall of punk in the late 1970s, it was a mixed reaction to what this movement of alternative rock had finally morphed into. On the one hand, it gave people who were listening to a lot of mainstream music something that was very different proving that there was more to music than what is often played on the radio. On the other hand, it would give the music industry the chance to capitalize on these new bands by finding imitators to cash in on.
While R.E.M. and U2 were already big bands in the late 1980s that were part of the alternative scene, their reinventions into different sounds would make them more relevant to a new generation of music fans proving they could stay alive in the 90s. Other notable alternative acts from the 80s like the Cure, Depeche Mode, and New Order were also able to sustain their popularity into the 1990s though bands like the Pixies were unable to due to their own issues leading their 1993 break-up. Another key act that was unable to retain their popularity in the 1980s were INXS as they tried to keep up with the times only to be overshadowed by singer Michael Hutchence’s personal life and his death in late 1997.
With American audiences suddenly taking grunge as the new cool thing, many bands of the scene struggled with their newfound fame throughout the 1990s. Pearl Jam, who were being criticized to be successful in wake of Nirvana’s own success, found themselves in an unwanted media feud with Nirvana while getting demands from the industry to be commercial. Instead, Pearl Jam would end up taking more risks musically and professionally as they fought ticketing conglomerate Ticketmaster in the mid-1990s over pricing. Of the bands of their scene, Pearl Jam would end up being the one to outlast them all as Soundgarden broke up in 1997 and Alice in Chains’ inactivity in 1996 would play part to grunge’s demise.
Yet, it was Nirvana that proved to be the big band coming out of 1991 though its leader Kurt Cobain had a much harder time to deal with fame. Dealing with all of the trappings of stardom, a publicized marriage to Hole singer Courtney Love, a baby named Frances Bean on the way, and an addiction to heroin. Nirvana found themselves making scant appearances throughout the year while they managed to make a legendary performance at the 1992 Reading Festival in Britain. Despite being one of the biggest bands in the world, it only worsened Cobain’s state of mind and his eventual suicide in April of 1994.
The attention that bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam received was starting to overwhelm the British music scene as it was becoming a very bleak period. The release of the Happy Mondays’ fourth album Yes Please and its cost proved to be a massive flop which helped bankrupt the famed Factory Records label as it got sold to London Records. The death of the Madchester music scene as well as the indifference towards shoegaze despite its cult popularity only helped the rise of the American alternative rock scene in Britain. Yet, it would lead to a revolt among new bands that would help create a counterattack a year later that would provide the foundation of Brit-Pop through bands like Suede, Blur, and Oasis that became very popular in the mid-1990s.
It wasn’t the British music scene that was annoyed by the American alternative music scene but also those in the U.S. With alternative rock becoming big business for the industry, other bands who didn’t look or sounded like any bands of that era would be lost in the shuffle. This would lead to a counter-revolution of sorts of indie-driven acts like Pavement as its leader Stephen Malkmus took shots at Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins over their careerist attitude. Even bands of the alternative genre felt annoyed by the industry taking charge of what was supposed to something different from the mainstream.
In the wake of the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, bands that sounded similar began to arrive. For every Nirvana and Pearl Jam knockoffs, there’s Bush and Silverchair. For every Nine Inch Nails-type of acts, there’s Stabbing Westward and Gravity Kills. For a safer version of R.E.M., there’s Hootie and the Blowfish. The attitude of the industry to find bands with a similar appeal and make it more mainstream wasn’t surprising though it would lead to alternative rock’s death in the late 1990s.
With alternative music’s decline in the mid-to-late 1990s, there was always something for people to find that could be the alternative to alternative. With the British electronic music scene starting to pick up in 1991 and thriving throughout the decade. The industry took charge and created electronica as a way for the public to be into the next big thing. Instead, the electronica wave didn’t catch on though electronic music still proved to vital in the coming years as it’s become far more evident in a lot of the pop music of 2011. In fact, the score for David Fincher’s The Social Network by Nine Inch Nails leader Trent Reznor along with Atticus Ross became the first electronic-driven film score to win the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
The exposure of alternative music would help create an underground scene that is often known as indie that would include less-mainstream driven bands like Pavement to help indie labels thrive. In the years since, a lot of bands from indie labels would suddenly become successful as a new wave of acts with very different sounds would emerge. The surprise win for Album of the Year at the 2011 Grammy Awards ceremony to the Canadian indie band Arcade Fire proved to be shocking as the band was suddenly playing to large arenas including Madison Square Garden. This moment showed how far the emergence of alternative rock in 1991 had come were a band not many people know like Arcade Fire could suddenly grab the attention of the public.
1991 for alternative and indie was a year that will probably never happen again. It was a year of change and a year to make going to shows and listen to exciting music fun all over again. It was a year where new bands emerged and older acts who had been in the underground to finally shine. It was a year were new sounds and movements were happening. It is truly an incredible year that still continues to be inspirational as many albums of that era and from that genre still manages to hold up. In the end, 1991 was really the year where the outsiders or the kid next door could finally make a tiny difference in the world and actually say something to people who were feeling lost. What a fucking year it was indeed.
© thevoid99 2011