Watch ten rock stars from the 90s in their earlier bands

90s stars in a former guise
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

As the saying that I am about to make up goes, behind every great band is usually a rubbish one. This lesser, pretty cack version of themselves is where the rock gods you have come to know and love cut their teeth. It’s what made them, where the steel was forged as they glanced upon another audience consisting solely of a lone soundman with headphones on eating a sandwich and said to themselves, ‘I’m not giving up, I’m sticking with this, I’m going to be a bloody rock star, do you hear me Trevor The Soundman?!”, or something like that. Sometimes they weren't not so rubbish, it just didn't work out, the stars had not yet aligned for them. But sometimes they were. Sometimes they were really bad Here are ten earlier, less successful efforts from artists who went on to become 90s rock superstars.

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Layne Staley – Alice N’ Chains

Let’s start with the most round about one. Before Layne Staley was the singer in Alice In Chains, he was the singer in Alice N’ Chains, a completely different band who shared the distinction of having Staley as vocalist but that was about it. Replacing the snarling, low-end menace of the version whipped into shape by Jerry Cantrell, this quartet specialised in a blend of high-energy funk-rock and big-haired glam-metal, the sort of music you might hear in an 80s film when the errant teenager goes to a club and everyone is dad dancing. After the band split, Staley teamed up with Cantrell and, after working their way through a series of unsatisfactory monikers (including a spell being called Fuck) they decided to recycle Alice N’ Chains as Alice In Chains, with blessing from Staley’s old bandmates.

Eddie Vedder - Bad Radio

Another soon-to-be grunge superstar with funk-rock on his CV is Eddie Vedder. The Pearl Jam frontman spent the end of the 80s getting nowhere with his San Diego outfit Bad Radio, who unacceptably had a song called What The Funk. Another staple of their set was an early version of the PJ classic Better Man, also recorded for a demo tape doing the rounds at the time. It’s pretty similar in arrangement to the version that would end up on Vitalogy a few years later, but missing the urgency and crunch of Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament & co. – Vedder’s vocal apart, it sounds a bit like a Mike & The Mechanics version of Better Man.

Kurt Cobain - Fecal Matter

No funk or Mike & The Mechanics vibes with Fecal Matter, a punk rabble from Aberdeen, Washington led by Kurt Cobain and also including Dale Crover of the Melvins. Beginning life as a covers band and delivering upside-down, inside-out versions of songs by Led Zeppelin, The Ramones and more, they recorded their Illiteracy Will Prevail demo at some point in the mid-80s. Kurt’s songwriting chops are evidently still a way off but there are signs of what’s to come buried in its 56 minutes, a mix of lo-fi thrashing, gruff vocals and drums that sound like they’re being played on a shoebox. Not many melodic hooks but you could say it was the blueprint for the ramshackle white noise of Nirvana’s secret tracks.

Billy Corgan - The Marked

It’s funny to listen to Billy Corgan’s pre-Smashing Pumpkins band and realise just how much the frontman gravitated back towards this sound the longer that the Pumpkins went on , to the point that you wonder if 2023’s Atum series of records should’ve been put out by The Marked instead, sharing as it does icy synths, glacial guitar sounds and taut beats. Corgan's early band nodded heavily to Depeche Mode and 80s electro but still sounds unmistakably like him, the main differences to early Pumpkins being that the guitars don’t sound like a volcano erupting, he doesn’t sound as angry and there’s no rhythmic pummelling from Jimmy Chamberlin. Somewhere along the line, he met the drummer, someone introduced him to a Big Muff and he got in a massive mood about something. The Pumpkins DNA was born.

Radiohead - On A Friday

Talking of angsty frontmen in an earlier, chirpier incarnation, how about this from the band that would become Radiohead. Called On A Friday because they rehearsed in school on a Friday, at this point in their young career, they were yet to recruit Jonny Greenwood, a few years behind them in school. Instead of his guitar wizardry, they had someone on saxophone. That’s right, this is Radiohead with a sax player, tooting away over their Smiths-y, R.E.M.-inspired jangle-rock.

Zack De La Rocha - Inside Out

Hardcore punks from Orange County, Inside Out split up before they could really get going. Before they broke up, though, the band had begun working on a record titled Rage Against The Machine and vocalist Zack De La Rocha kept the name for his new band. The music is pretty straightforward, a mix of heavy riffing and generic metal licks, but De La Rocha’s voice is fully-formed, just waiting for something groovier and more vital to come along. Enter Tom Morello... oh wait, not yet...

Tom Morello - Lock Up

At the time, Morello was also perfecting his craft, demonstrating those wiry yet explosive riffs that would become a RATM trademark but in the totally wrong setting. His guitar playing is about the best (only good?) thing on this track by LA rockers Lock Up, but if you ever wanted to know what RATM might have sounded like if they hired a Michael Bolton look and soundalike as a singer, then it’s your lucky day.

Trent Reznor - Exotic Birds

Another guy who presumably used up all his happy reserves before finding success as a stroppy git is Trent Reznor. Or maybe Trent was just irked that there was footage out there of singing the lyric “don’t be fooled by my foolish heart”, the least NiN lyric of all time. In keeping with calling his band Exotic Birds, Reznor is also sporting A Flock Of Seagulls-style barnet here.

Shirley Manson - Goodbye Mr Mackenzie

Outliers in this list in the sense that they had some success and they were actually quite good, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie included a pre-Garbage Shirley Manson in their number on keyboards and vocals. The Scottish indie-rockers went to number 26 on the UK Album Chart with their debut Good Deeds And Dirty Rags but they’d split up by 1993. The next year, Manson decamped to the US and joined Garbage.

Courtney Love - Faith No More

A good few years before Courtney Love formed Hole, she fronted an early version of Faith No More as documented in their first TV appearance in 1984. It pairs their searing riffs and trademark percussive boom with a Siouxsie-style vocal from Love (then going under the name Courtney Henley). Read more on it here.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.