1991: The Year That Grunge Broke

Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) live
Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (Image credit: Photoshot)

There have been few times in popular music history that you can pinpoint when a true rock revolution took place, where musicians and their work reached beyond their sounds, and influenced and/or shifted fashion, politics and the way you looked at the world in general. Case in point: the late-60s psychedelic set, punk in 1976 and then… grunge in the early 90s.

If you think back to the dawn of the 1990s, rock music was in flux. As far as metal went, the vast majority of bands could be neatly categorised into two separate camps: the glitzy fashion of hair-metal, and the anti-fashion of thrash. The only problem was that by this stage both genres were becoming predictable and played out – with most newer bands merely serving as copycats of the earlier trailblazers.

And then came 1991. Bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Pixies, Faith No More, Primus, and Jane’s Addiction had hinted that rock didn’t have to be so one-dimensional, while also attracting mainstream attention. But there were hints that something special was brewing in the US Pacific Northwest.

First was Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, and Alice in Chains creating a buzz with acclaimed major-label releases. And then, incredibly, within the span of barely over a month, 25 years ago, three albums were issued in rapid succession, and rock music would experience one of its biggest (and quickest) shifts ever, with the arrival of Pearl Jam’s Ten, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger.

Suddenly, rock bands looked like they could have been the same as the people in the audience. And overnight, flannel shirts, Doc Martens, shredded jeans and second-hand guitars replaced spandex, tight jeans, mile-high hair and sharp/pointy guitars. Will we ever experience another rock revolution like we did in 1991? We’re still waiting…

Temple Of The Dog

Temple Of The Dog

Still reeling from the death of Andy Wood, his former Mother Love Bone bandmates Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament decided to continue to work together. On the recommendation of a mutual friend, singer Eddie Vedder was welcomed aboard, resulting in the formation of Pearl Jam. At the same time, a one-off tribute album was put together for Wood:Temple Of The Dog.

JEFF AMENT (Mother Love Bone/Pearl Jam bassist): Not long after Andy died, Susan [Silver] and Kelly [Curtis] shared offices, and she mentioned that Chris [Cornell] had recorded a couple of songs that pertained to Andy, and wanted us to hear them. I was blown away. I thought initially that he could just release them like that and they would have been great. Chris had all these songs together, and there were a couple that Stone had. We knocked them out in five or six days.

Around that time, I ran into Mike McCready. He said he’d been playing with Stone, and I needed to come over and check out what they were working on. As soon as I started playing with Stone and Mike it seemed like that was more what I wanted to do. The end of Mother Love Bone wasn’t that creative – it was super passive-aggressive. I remember saying: “I want to be able to throw out ideas and not get laughed at. We should be able to play whatever we want.” That was probably the main thing we took into Pearl Jam – we wanted to be a really good, diverse band. We wanted to be able to play a country song, a hardcore song or a groovy mid-tempo rock song.

JERRY CANTRELL: I always liked Jeff a lot – he was a real business-oriented guy. A serious individual. Really into the graphic art part of the band as well as the musical direction.

JEFF AMENT: Stone and I were in Los Angeles, promoting the Mother Love Bone record – which was a horrible, arduous task. I don’t think it was something that either one of us wanted to do, but we felt that we wanted Andy’s legacy to be heard. Somehow through [Michael Beinhorn] we got in contact with Jack Irons, who we loved as a drummer. We heard that he had quit the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Got his number, and ended up meeting him down there. Gave him a tape, and didn’t hear from him for three months.

EDDIE VEDDER (Pearl Jam vocalist): I got this tape through Jack Irons, who I had become friends with while he was playing drums with Joe Strummer on [the] Earthquake Weather tour. I played it on the way home to San Diego. Then I’m sure I went right to work; I was a glorified security guard/gas station attendant doing midnight shifts. I had the music in my head. I went out for a bit of a surf in the morning, and then wrote the songs in this shack that I had a four-track sitting in. I sent the tape off that day – my version of three songs.

JEFF AMENT: It was so much more intense than anything we’d ever done. I remember when he [Vedder] came to Seattle, the thing he told me before he left was:, “When I get there I want to go straight to the rehearsal studio and play. I don’t want to hang out and chit-chat.”

EDDIE VEDDER: I had no business making any demands, but I felt it was a gentle one.

JEFF AMENT: There was never any doubt in my mind that he was the singer for us. He was so into it – so dedicated and uninhibited when we were playing. The first time you play with people, it usually takes three or four times until it feels right. With him it all locked right away.

SUSAN SILVER (Soundgarden/Alice in Chains manager, ex-wife of Chris Cornell): Kelly [Curtis, Pearl Jam manager] and I were in New York. We were waiting for some Alice meeting, and he played me this cassette. This guy, Eddie, had put some melody and lyrics to this song – it was Alive – and I go: “Oh my God, it’s amazing”.

SCOTTY CRANE (Owner of Soundhouse Recording Studio): When I did see those early Pearl Jam shows, I was blown away by Eddie Vedder. I was blown away by his stage presence. Eddie was a wild animal on stage – insane. He was fearless. It was like: “He’s going to die!” The way he was jumping off huge things and throwing himself into the audience like a madman.

JEFF AMENT: [Alice In Chains] were kind enough – they took us down the West Coast. We probably played about ten shows opening for them. That was huge at that point.

KIM THAYIL (Soundgarden guitarist): There were a lot of strong hooks. When I first heard Pearl Jam, I saw them live. Eddie’s voice and some of the melodies he was singing actually sent shivers up my spine. That’s not an experience that I would have with any degree of regularity. It was his voice and the way he presented it. I thought: “There’s something there too.”

EDDIE VEDDER: Our record [Ten] is getting mixed, and now it’s getting ready to be put out. It was like: “What’s the goal here?” There was the magic number of forty thousand. I remember that. “If you can sell forty thousand, they’ll let you make another one.” I don’t know if that was true or not, but that was what we were being told. Then we made our Alive video and did a couple of things. It seemed like we were getting opportunities. You could start to feel the pot simmering.

SEAN KINNEY (Alice In Chains drummer): It was really amazing to hear that record before it came out. Just knowing it’s going to be huge.

KIM THAYIL: The record came out. It was great to hear a lot of the songs, because there were so many great hooks that Stone came up with. And of course Jeremy, which was Jeff ’s riff. Initially when I heard the record it didn’t seem to have the immediacy of their performance live. They remixed a lot of the singles, and it had a better sound. If you listen to the radio or MTV mixes of those songs they seem to be a lot better-sounding than the record. Ten benefited ultimately from good singles mixes.

MARK ARM (Mudhoney/Green River vocalist/guitarist): We met with an A&R guy who said: “This Nirvana record is doing well now, but the one that’s really going to blow up is the Pearl Jam record.” We thought he was nuts, because we’d heard the record once and nothing jumped out to us the way that Smells Like Teen Spirit or In Bloom did. Lo and behold, he was right.

Soundgarden in 1991

Soundgarden in 1991 (Image credit: Getty)

The first grunge album to hit big was Alice in Chains’ debut, Facelift (released in August 1990), while Soundgarden broke through with their second major label album, Badmotorfinger. But each band reacted differently to its initial success.

SEAN KINNEY: I played [Alice’s debut, Facelift] with a broken hand – I broke my hand right before. I almost didn’t play on the record – they started rehearsing with the drummer from Mother Love Bone, Greg Gilmore. I was sitting there playing with one hand, guiding him through it. Luckily we took a tiny bit of time off. I had that cast on for a while, and was like, “I can’t miss this.” I cut my cast off in the studio and kept a bucket of ice by the drum set. Kept my hand iced down and played with a broken hand. I tried not to do that again – your first big break and you fuck it up.

NANCY LAYNE McCALLUM (Mother of Layne Staley): Layne called me one day after he’d given me Facelift and said: “So, what do you think about the tape?” And I said: “I think there’s a sleeper on that album” – a song that was going to creep up on people. “It’s called Man In The Box.” And he said: “Mom, I wrote that song.” I said: “Layne, it’s so beautiful.” But I didn’t know he was the man in the box. I’m sure he just kept wanting me to get it.

JERRY CANTRELL: We were a great live band. We had a lot of energy – Layne was an amazing frontman, me, Mike and Sean were like Tasmanian devils, headbanging, spinning all over the fucking place. We had a “fuck it” attitude. If we got a gig that nobody else would take… Like, Soundgarden’s not going to go open for Poison in the Seattle Center Arena, but we would. We’ll go play with anybody. That was our vibe. I don’t care what style of music it is. We opened up for Helix, Poison, Warrant…

EDDIE VEDDER: It was interesting to watch a band change the mood of people, cos we were doing our first little tour with them. Not really any backdrops or whatever – they were small places – but just with songs being able to change a mood, some of the darker stuff. Layne, you’d see him with sunglasses, you didn’t really know what his eyes were doing. He wore sunglasses the whole tour, including playing and at night. If you were to take him from his lyrics, you thought: “Well, I certainly don’t want to bother him with small talk.” And it seemed hard to get to know him, but all you had to do was say two words. He’s really gentle, incredibly warm, and childlike – in the best of ways. That seems so different than how you’d anticipate him being, or how you expected him to be from the songs.

JERRY CANTRELL: I remember going to New York City – I went with Layne. I think coincidentally, it’s the week I started smoking [laughs]. Our album was on the cover of Billboard magazine. I think we were there to do a press thing. Me and Layne picked up a couple of homeless guys that were hanging by our hotel. We got into a conversation with these guys, and we figured, “Fuck, we’re doing good,” so we invited the guys up to our suite. We ordered all this room service and booze, and hung out with these two homeless dudes all night – and gave them train fare to get back to where they were going in the morning.

VAN CONNER (Screaming Trees bassist): Talk about debauchery – they made the rest of us look like Catholic schoolgirls! They were out of control – in a fun way too. But it served to their demise as a band, eventually.

YANNI ‘JOHNNY’ BACOLAS (Layne Staley’s roommate): [Layne] told me that he started his ‘abuse’ [during] the Van Halen tour. That’s when he was introduced to heroin. I asked him: “How did this happen?” His exact words were: “Johnny, when [I] took that first hit, for the first time in my life, I got on my knees and I thanked God for feeling good.” From there it just didn’t stop.

MARK IVERSON (DJ, KCMU Seattle): I saw [Nirvana] with Jason Everman, and then saw Soundgarden with Jason Everman. Then of course he left – and has to be the unluckiest man in show business.

KIM THAYIL: [Jason] certainly could do the musical thing, but it wasn’t keeping the band together. We were at a point where Chris and I realised: “I don’t think we’re going to be able to be on the road all the time.” We really weren’t identifying or behaving as a band. We had our moments where everything was great, but we weren’t like four fingers curled up into one fist. We realised we had to make a decision. Chris’s suggestion was Ben Shepherd. He’d been thinking of Ben’s ability and personality, and thought that could be the thing that gets us back to where we were – personally and creatively.

TRACY MARANDER (Photographer, former girlfriend of Kurt Cobain): [Kurt Cobain] loved Soundgarden. At one point, when they were looking for another [bassist] – I think it’s maybe when Ben Shepherd joined the band – he actually thought about quitting Nirvana. He wanted to try out for them, because he liked them that much.

MATT CAMERON: We rehearsed our asses off. We did a lot of [Badmotorfinger] at our friend’s studio, Avast! Our old sound man, Stuart Hallerman, let us hole up in his new studio for what seemed like months – at least three or four months – rehearsing these songs, working on music. So by the time we got down to Sausalito, California we recorded at this place called Studio D. We used Terry Date again. We never really went into the city; we were very workmanlike. I think we recorded the bass and drums down there for two weeks, then we came up to Seattle again and overdubbed the guitars and vocals at Bear Creek Studios in Woodinville, Washington. The sessions were pretty quick and efficient.

TERRY DATE (Producer, Mother Love Bone/Soundgarden): They felt Louder Than Love was a little too smooth, they wanted more of an edge. At the time, most of the stuff I was doing and what they were doing wasn’t getting a whole lot of radio play. Nobody took it very seriously. Which gave us a lot of freedom to do whatever we wanted to do. I had no expectations, I knew it was a good record.

CHRIS CORNELL (Soundgarden singer): It was probably Louder Than Love, the record, where I really started writing songs that had two distinctive guitar parts. So we could still tour and I could, like, sing the song, and Kim could play one part and we could just sort of leave out the other part. But by the time it was Badmotorfinger, there were songs that just were more elaborate in terms of the guitar arrangements, I had to start playing some of the parts. And also we had a versatility on record that wasn’t really happening live, cos Kim would really just play through the same amp, the same guitar with the same tone on virtually every song. He didn’t really change anything in the live context at all. So in order for us to have variants and dynamics, I almost had to add a guitar, just like I would take one away.

KIM THAYIL: We kind of knew prior to the album’s release that [Outshined] was going to be slated as a single. I thought they’d work more on Somewhere or Mind Riot. I don’t know how big it was as a single, I wasn’t a big radio listener or MTV watcher.

MATT CAMERON: We did an eight-month Guns N’ Roses tour around the States. Then we were in Europe with them. Then we toured with Skid Row – we were in ‘the metal trenches’ at that point, just fully paying our dues. We were like the opening act for 1991-92.

KIM THAYIL: When we toured with Guns N’ Roses we alienated some of our Sub Pop/punk rock/indie fans. They thought: “Soundgarden was on the fence – kind of punk rock, kind of metal. But now they’re touring with Guns N’ Roses they fall into that side of the fence.” It’s like, no we didn’t. At that time, who were we supposed to tour with? When we signed up to tour with Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana wasn’t bigger than us yet. Who was there in that genre for us to tour with, that we could open up for? A lot of the cities we hit with Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row were places that we probably couldn’t have gotten gigs ourselves. Those tours were certainly a lot of fun.

BEN SHEPHERD: That whole year of Badmotorfinger seemed like: “Whooom! Where did it go?” It was like stepping into a fucking dragster and going for it.

It took one specific album to open the grunge floodgates, and Nirvana’s Nevermind was it. By the end of 1991, Nirvana were one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, with unexpected superstardom bestowed upon them.

CHRIS CORNELL: I think that Nirvana has definitely stood out as the band that really encapsulated a change that needed to happen for the audience of rock music. And it has not and I don’t think ever will look stupid. And I think that’s a really difficult thing to do. Because almost any period in music at some point becomes completely unfashionable and completely out, no matter how influential it was to begin with. I have yet to see or feel a period coming where a band like Nirvana is irrelevant or where they look silly, you know? They don’t. That band still sounds to me as powerful as they ever did, and the image in my mind left of them just seems like it will always be timeless. It will always be relevant, always fit, no matter what happens. That’s pretty amazing, almost impossible.

JEFF AMENT: I remember we came back home and I saw them at the Off Ramp. It was a totally different band. To this day, I think Dave Grohl was at least as much of a reason why they were great as Kurt was. Kurt was a poet and had an incredible knack for writing a melody, but Dave gave them all the power. He gave the songs a ship to sail on.

DAVE GROHL (Nirvana drummer): One of the reasons I was in Nirvana was because that was the kind of music I always loved to play. Since I was thirteen years old I loved to listen to Hüsker Dü and The Smithereens, a sort of aggressive pop rock. And that’s the kind of music I love to play. I like to feel the drums hit me in the back and I like to feel the guitars wailing, and I like there to be a melody. And I like it to be catchy. Look at Dinosaur Jr. Fuck, they have been doing it for so long. So it’s not like Nirvana invented this music. It’s been around for a really long time.

EDDIE VEDDER: Nirvana’s record – people were passing around advance copies. Like it was a keychain – everyone had one. Everyone’s office, you’d just hear it playing. Really exciting. But that was based just on music – everyone was excited about the songs. That was months before it came out.

VAN CONNER: Krist [Novoselic, Nirvana bassist] came over to Dan Peters’s house – we were having a party. Dan, him, and I listened to Nevermind right after it got done. We were like: “Wow, this is really good, man. You guys are going to sell… a hundred thousand records [laughs]. You guys will be bigger than Hüsker Dü.”

KIM THAYIL: I already loved Bleach. Many of those songs are my favorite songs ever – of any rock band. I was really looking forward to hearing Nevermind with great anticipation. Smells Like Teen Spirit stuck out immediately. It sounded pretty produced – it was definitely a very ‘wet’ record – a lot of reverbs and delays – whereas Bleach seemed punchy and dry. I know people like to think of Nevermind as being all punk rock and raw. Anyone who doubts that should put their headphones on and listen to it. It’s a very wet, slick, polished record.

DAVE GROHL: 1991 was the first time I was making an album in a big studio with an old 24-track board, and we were really blown away with how it sounded. I don’t remember the first song we recorded , but I remember when we went back to listen to playback it sounded like nothing that we had ever heard before. Like it didn’t sound like Bleach, and it didn’t sound like The Peel Sessions, it didn’t sound like any of the demos. It sounded like Nevermind. We were like: “Oh my God, those drums sound fucking big!” And it was such a short time in the studio – sixteen days. Nobody cared, cos nobody thought we were going to become a big band. So at one point I just called my manager and I said: “Hey, no one from the record company has come down here. Shall I be worried?” And he said: “Fuck that. You should feel lucky that they’re not here. You don’t want them here.” I’m like: “Oh, good.” And we didn’t even take pictures! It was a funny time, you know. We were just kids.

JERRY CANTRELL: I thought it was amazing. It was a serious step up from the record before. It was like three or four steps up.

CURT KIRKWOOD (Meat Puppets singer/guitarist): Nevermind was like Aerosmith or something. I thought it was still hard rock – not realising that there was another group of disgruntled teens coming out. I kind of started seeing that scene like that too – playing to the disenfranchised youth again.

MARK ARM: I remember starting a tour just as Nevermind was about to come out. It seemed like every club was playing Smells Like Teen Spirit as we loaded our gear in. We played the last two shows of that tour with Nirvana in Portland and Seattle. The idea was one band would headline Seattle, and the other would headline Portland. Once Nevermind got released it was clear that we wouldn’t headline either show [laughs].

1991 wasn’t all Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, though. With grunge in full swing, Mudhoney and Tad each issued classics for the Sub Pop label that year – Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge and 8-Way Santa – while the Screaming Trees made the jump to a major label with Uncle Anesthesia.

TAD DOYLE: Mudhoney never failed to stir up the audience and get them excited. There’d be a lot of stage diving, all kinds of shenanigans and craziness. They’d do all these crazy, ‘skinny guy antics’, like bending over backwards completely and touching their head on the floor – still holding their guitar and playing. Athletic stuff that a big guy like me can only wonder about.

MARK ARM: After we recorded [Mudhoney], Steve [Turner, Mudhoney] was like: “Dude, no more songs about sickness or dogs!” [laughs] Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge was largely saved by Steve. At this point I was getting heavier and heavier into heroin.

STEVE TURNER: Anyone with a drug problem is going to be kind of out of it, secretive and weird. I always maintained the position that if someone wants to do drugs they have every right to do it. It’s not like we were pressuring him to stop, really. On tour he was fine, it was just the first few days would be a disaster because he’d be sick. We made him go into rehab once, because we had a tour booked. We were like: “Either you go into rehab or we’re not doing the tour.” I think you have to solve those problems on your own, in a certain way. He solved his problems on his own, and then it got a lot better [laughs].

NILS BERNSTEIN (Sub Pop Records publicist): In Tad, they brought in some more overt 70s metal sounds.

KURT DANIELSON: We hooked up with Steve Albini [producer] in Chicago. Recorded [1990’s] Salt Lick, which was done very quickly and raw-ly. The songs weren’t really done. We had the opportunity, Steve had the time, Sub Pop had everything set up, we just jumped at it, and let the chips fall where they may. It ended up being a live record in the studio.

TAD DOYLE (Tad singer/guitarist): I think we spent two or three days on it. I remember Steve telling me not to sing because I can’t, and don’t even try. I remember saying: “Fuck you, I’m going to”. I wound up doing it anyway. But [Albini] brought a lot of energy out of us, he got us fired up. So after Salt Lick we just toured.

VAN CONNER: [The Screaming Trees] did Buzz Factory, and then after that we did an EP for Sub Pop.

MARK PICKEREL (Screaming Trees drummer): I’m proud of [Buzz Factory], but even more proud of the release we did right after it, which unfortunately is not a full-length. I think that is our best recorded moment, that period. Our confidence in ourselves was at an all-time high. We really felt like we were fulfilling our vision. Mark [Lanegan] had developed his talents into something that was truly unique. That was the magical moment for us.

MARK LANEGAN (Screaming Trees singer): Grunge has become something that happened to some other people, really. I was on the outskirts of it and it happened to some of my really close friends. It was just one of those things. All those bands that had all that major success to my ears didn’t sound like one another, and they just happened to be from the same place, which is odd. But we had already seen that sort of thing happen in Austin, Texas, in Minneapolis, in Athens, Georgia… These were all small towns that had the focus of the underground rock world on them at some point, and all the bands within those scenes became famous. But then what happened with Seattle was it translated to the real world. Of course, some of those bands from some of those other scenes had also become really popular, but not five of them, you know, went to the top of the Billboard chart. And that’s what happened with Seattle and that’s really what set it apart. That’s why people talk about grunge music now.

JERRY CANTRELL: The individuality and quality of work has stood the test of time. It’s as good today as it was then. Are the grunge generation the classic rock bands of today? Heh, we are now, man. Twenty-five years – isn’t that the rule?

Excerpted from Grunge Is Dead by Greg Prato, published by ECW Press Ltd., 2009, 9781550228779. It is available for purchase.

With additional material by Marcel Anders, Rich Chamberlain and Henry Yates.

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Greg Prato

Contributing writer at Classic Rock magazine since 2004. He has written for other outlets over the years, and has interviewed some of his favourite rock artists: Black Sabbath, Rush, Kiss, The Police, Devo, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Soundgarden, Meat Puppets, Blind Melon, Primus, King’s X… heck, even William Shatner! He is also the author of quite a few books, including Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, A Devil on One Shoulder And An Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon And Blind Melon, and MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video, among others.