The Gordon Geckos of Grunge
This year marks the 20th anniversary of “grunge,” or as David Markey aptly named his documentary about Sonic Youth’s European tour, 1991: The Year Punk Broke. The film, which came out the following year, captured the post-punk subculture on the verge of mass appeal, a time when jocks and stoners alike rallied behind dissonant guitars, big-muff effects petals and shouted-out vocal lines.
Just to set the scene: It was the summer of 1991, Sonic Youth were overseas promoting their major-label debut, Goo, after signing with David Geffen’s record label, DGC, the previous year. Dinosaur, Jr. and Nirvana were two of the bands that opened up for the New York noise-rock quartet. The epic albums of that fall— Nevermind by Nirvana and Ten by Pearl Jam—were still a couple months away, the First Gulf War had just ended and Gish by Smashing Pumpkins was all the rage in Chicago (the band would often play house parties under the assumed name “The Turnips”). “Alternative Nation,” as MTV would later christen it, was about to change the music industry forever, and Sub Pop, the Seattle-based indie label, were at the forefront of the music scene in the Pacific Northwest, and Seattle, in particular.
While cleaning out my apartment the other day, I stumbled upon this 1991 promotional CD compilation from Sub Pop, The Grunge Years. The irony, at the time, didn’t dawn on me, but this cover perfectly captures the mood of the early-90s echo chamber in and around the record business’ mania over “grunge.”
I was fortunate enough to attend a high school that had its own radio station. I played this compilation on my show. If I remember things correctly, my dj partner Christian and I riffed about the cover at the time. We loved the fact that it said, “Limited Edition of 500,000” in small caps on the CD booklet. The absurdity of a half a million copies being “limited edition” was a gonzo metaphor for Sub Pop’s shtick gone mainstream.
This was a time before the deregulation of the major media companies (that would happen five years later); not to mention the revolution the Internet would play in altering the dissemination of music worldwide by decades’ end. Physical product was still king and queen in 1991. And no label dominated the collector-scum mentality of independent music world better than Sub Pop in its’ hey day. From late-80s 7-inch singles club exclusives to colored-vinyl first edition albums, in the early-90s, if you pressed it, kids would come… and buy ‘em up like baseball cards. I was one of them.
In 1996, the documentary Hype was released. The name says it all. The film channeled the early-90s Seattle scene and the reality behind the myth of “grunge.” It was narrated matter-of-factly by Nils Bernstein, then Sub Pop’s press agent, from the backseat of a pick up truck, and poked a lot of holes in my memory.
The ascension of Seattle bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees and Mudhoney into the public consciousness was my generations’ “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment. With 20 years of hindsight, The Grunge Years compilation perfectly captures the bygone era of music-industry corporate executives gone awry. The times and technology may have changed, but the villains remain the same.
MEDIUMS: CS, CD
1. Nirvana / Dive
2. L7 / Shove
3. Tad / Stumblin’ Man
4. Beat Happening / Red Head Walking
5. Mark Lanegan / Ugly Sunday
6. Screaming Trees / Change Has Come
7. The Fluid / Tomorrow
8. Afghan Whigs / Retarded
9. Babes in Toyland / House
10. Mudhoney / Come to Mind
11. The Walkabouts / Long Black Veil