Smells like teen spirit, all over again
Dig out your Doc Martens: grunge is back, with new releases from stalwarts of the scene and a host of young pretenders
Saturday 27 October 2012
Those of us who fell between Generations X and Y remember where we were on 5th April, 1994. It was the day that Kurt Cobain killed himself and the day that marked the endtime for the shiftless, "slacker" mindset and the musical movement, grunge, it pulled along with it. In Hit So Hard, a new documentary about the Hole drummer Patty Schemel, it is likened to that moment on the grassy knoll in Dallas. "For some people, it's a seminal moment. It's like the Kennedy of their life, like 'Where were you when Kennedy was shot?'" says the alternative singer Phranc in the film.
If the Kennedy-Cobain comparison seems a bit hyperbolic, the truth is that for a generation of flannel-wearing teenagers, it's not too far off the mark. Cobain's musical exorcisms, characterised by their bruising melodiousness and pangs of crushing self-doubt, were as catalysing as Kennedy's message of hope in the 1960s. Cobain preached a message of reality and empathy, of physical and emotional imperfection that struck a chord. Grunge contained a phalanx of characters such as Cobain, a cast of outsiders who made us feel less alone as we mooned behind our fringes, from Pearl Jam's brooder Eddie Vedder to Pavement's nerdish Stephen Malkmus and the spirited likes of Kim and Kelley Deal. Famously Nirvana's Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson's Dangerous off the top of the Billboard charts.
When the musical revolution finally combusted with Cobain's suicide, the fantasy of a life beyond the mainstream died with the beleaguered Nirvana singer. And while Cobain has remained a symbol of radicalism – even Miley Cyrus sported a Nirvana T-shirt a few years ago to signal the beginnings of her own youthquake – there are signs that grunge is making a comeback.
A flurry of activity follows the release next month of Hit So Hard, including a special edition of Nirvana's Incesticide for Record Store Day and Soundgarden's first album for 15 years. Meanwhile, Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield play their first ever UK shows as a duo. In the early 1990s, the twosome were the talk of the musical press. With their chaste, indefinable relationship, they were the anti-Kurt and Courtney for the Doc Marten set and their reunion is another link in the grunge revival chain.
"Maybe it's a backlash to what's going on with pop music today", says Schemel, reflecting on the sudden presence of all things 1990s and alternative in an interview with BlackBook magazine. "Everything is so packaged and slick. Something dirty needs to show up." It makes sense. The dictums of today's pop kids – perfectionism and careerism – are in direct opposition to the characteristics of grunge. None of this "slacker culture" for a generation who grew up watching pre-teen pop stars being thrown into leotards before they could walk. As Hatfield says: "People used to worry about selling out – in my scene it was important to have integrity and to not sell out. Now the goal is to sell out."
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before grunge reappeared like The Return of The Repressed, beyond the mainstream's white picket fence. But Generation Cobain doesn't just provide a retrospective thrill – a new wave of bands has embraced the "dirty" sound that was grunge's hallmark. Flagrant, carefree and tapping into the musical unconscious, the songs of these new groups are as raw and inspiring as the originals. A raft of grunge-flavoured bands include Yuck (former indie types Cajun Dance Party who reinvented themselves through J.Mascis' squally songbook), Splashh (a quartet has more than a hint of The Replacements about them), Big Deal (silk and sandpaper boy/girl duo with a song called "Cool Like Kurt"). There's Cloud Nothings with their melodious-yet-scuzzed-up mix of Mudhoney and Nirvana on this year's Attack On Memory, and the lo-fi Scott & Charlene's Wedding.
For Cloud Nothing's Dylan Baldi grunge was a halcyon period: "The last time where a band who made music outside the standard pop format could actually develop a following and be as creative and weird as they wanted". For Eric Erlandson it wasn't just a period of great record sales for his band Hole, it marked the end of "the magic 1990s". "It was the last form of music which happened before the internet," he says. "After that, music became colder and flatter."
Scott & Charlene's Craig Dermody, however, is hopeful that one band could change the game. "I'd love for a completely heart-on-sleeve band to come through and tumble everyone over again," he says. It sounds like exactly what the mainstream needs.
'Hit So Hard' is out on 16 November; Nirvana's 'Incesticide' is released on 23 November; Soundgarden release 'King Animal' on 12 November; Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield tour from 29 November; Scott & Charlene's Wedding release 'Para Vista Social Club' on 12 November
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