Published on July 21st, 2011 | by Alan Cross10
Grunge Nearly Ruined Alt-Rock: Discuss
I have a theory: grunge nearly ruined alt-rock to the point of killing it altogether. But it wasn’t grunge’s fault. Here’s why.
I’ve been following a Facebook group called Remembering the Spirit of Radio CFNY 102.1 for a couple of weeks now. It’s populated by people who remember the CFNY of the 1980s, a time when the station (and all things alternative) were far beyond the fringes of mainstream music.
I was part of that era. I joined the station on October 3, 1986, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. I was from the Prairies, fer crissakes. Where I grew up, people believed that rock had attained perfection years earlier. What more did you need than Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” playing on the Roadstar cassette player in your Firebird?
But within hours–literally, hours–of joining the staff, one question kept going through my head: “Where has all this music been all my life? And why did I have to move across the country to discover it?”
The 80s were a fascinating time for alt-rock. The people involved in the scene–from the bands and managers to the labels and DJs to the record stores and fans–reveled in their outsider-ness. We wanted nothing to do with the mainstream. Which was fine, because they wanted nothing to do with us. It was all very, very tribal–and we liked it that way.
The few commercial alt-rock stations that existed back then were connected only by anecdotes. None of the radio industry magazines published alternative charts or tracked airplay. Each station simply served up music it thought its local audience was like. That’s why CFNY sounded so much different than say, WFNX in Boston or KROQ in LA.
Consequently, a staggering breadth of music made the playlists was staggering. Techno-pop. Industrial. Every flavour of punk. Early rap and hip-hop. Goth. British indie. Remixes that made you want to unselfconciously dance. Ethereal dream-pop. And yes, a smattering of guitar rock.
Here’s the top ten from CFNY’s year-end list from 1986:
- Peter Gabriel/So
- The Smiths/The Queen is Dead
- New Order/Brotherhood
- REM/Life’s Rich Pageant
- Depeche Mode/Black Celebration
- Paul Simon/Graceland
- OMD/The Pacific Age
- The Cure/Standing on a Beach
- Steve Winwood/Back in the High Life
- Love and Rocks/Express
Scanning through the rest of the list, you’ll find reggae (UB40), pop-funk (Level 42), mainstrema rock (Genesis’ Invisible Touch), rap (Run-DMC) and folk (Bruce Cockburn).
But as artistically fulfilling as this may sound, it wasn’t good for ratings. To get big ratings, you need to appeal to the greatest number of people and get them to listen as often as possible and for as long as possible. And as much as we still want to believe that the world craves Good Music, it doesn’t. While there may be millions of us, there are billions of people who just want songs they can sing along to in the car and once in a while, they buy a CD at Wal-Mart or at the counter at Starbucks.
And since a radio station’s revenues depend on ratings (higher ratings = more revenues), commercial alt-rock stations struggled along from month to month, always with the spectre of a format change looming overhead.
Salaries were low to the point of poverty (trust me), but these places were staffed by hardcore music fans, people who were on a mission to deliver Good Music to the masses. I know it sounds stupid to say this, but it really was about the music, man.
And so it was for the so-called Golden Age of commercial alt-rock radio.
But then came grunge.
Hints that the world was ready for a change came in March 1990 when 25,000 people rioted outside a record store in Los Angeles as Depeche Mode prepared for an autograph session around the release of their Violator album.
Then twenty years ago this week–July 18, 1991–the Alternative Nation was born. The first Lollapalooza show kicked off in the Arizona desert. This was Perry Farrell’s invention: an old-school touring caravan of fringe acts, all supporting Jane’s Addiction’s farewell tour.
The Toronto show was at the old Exhibiton Stadium. Along with Jane’s, the line-up included Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Color, Ice-T and Body Count, Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band and some weirdo new group called Nine Inch Nails.
The tour was a modest success despite many, many unsold tickets. But the fact that upwards of 20,000 people would pay to see all these decidedly non-mainstream bands convinced everyone to do it again. So they did.
By the time the 1992 tour started exactly one year later, alternative was no longer “alternative.” It was well on its way to supplanting the mainstream. And the thing that did it was grunge.
Thanks to riff-ready songs from Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and especially Nirvana, alt-rock began to coalesce around hard guitar rock. Sure, there was still room for the odd electronic-based band and ballad-loving chanteuse, but as the record labels piled on and as record sales went through the roof, the focus settled on guitar rock.
By the middle 90s, grunge was alt-rock. Here’s CFNY’s (renamed The Edge in 1993) top ten for 1996:
- Smashing Pumpkins/Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
- Oasis/(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
- Soundgarden/Down on the Upside
- Tragically Hip/Trouble at the Henhouse
- Pearl Jam/No Code
- Bush/Razorblade Suitcase
- REM/New Adventures in HiFi
- Stone Temple Pilots/Tiny Music: Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop
- Nirvana/From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah
No, it wasn’t all grunge. The list also included Tracy Bonham, Radiohead, Ashley MacIsaac, Poe, the Cranberries and the Cowboy Junkies. But the overwhelming majority of acts were guitar rockers, with most of them being grunge (or at least grunge-ish).
Guitar-based alt-rock bands–led by the grungers–continued to sell records and concert tickets in ever-increasing amounts. Everyone piled on. Alt-rock stations proliferated across the continent as companies jumped into serving the new, growing and hungry Alternative Nation.
Industry magazines started compiling charts and monitoring airplay. Now when a program director in, say, Des Moines, wondered what songs he/she should add to the playlist, the first thought was “I wonder what KROQ in LA is doing?” A quick check of the charts and suddenly Des Moines was following LA instead of trying to come up with something that would work in Des Moines.
The result was a unstoppable homogenity of sound. Grunge was so big and so popular that it effectively became alt-rock. All those varied sounds that were so big in the 80s? Squeezed out in favour of big guitars and screaming vocalists.
Please don’t get me wrong. Grunge was great. I can’t imagine a universe without Nirvana or cousins like the Pumpkins. Not only did they make great music, but this was alt-rock with training wheels that lured people in with its different-yet-familiar approach to traditional guitar rock. Once someone bought a Nirvana record, they were sucked inside the Alternative Nation. Millions were inspired to go deeper into alt-rock (and beyond!) and found their lives richer for it.
But when it came to commercial alt-rock radio–well, grunge became the foundation of its sound for many years. Instead of taking a chance on something truly new and different, it was safer from a ratings point of view to play something grunge-ish (i.e. guitar-based, preferrably with dropped tuning). And as listeners empowered themselves with iPods and MP3s and torrents, stations tightened their playlists more each year to keep those ratings and revenues up. Charts and airplay monitors only served to reinforce this circle-the-wagons mentality.
For a while, it looked grim. The original grunge bands died off and we were left with dreck like nu-metal. The grunge well went dry and for a while, there was nothing concrete to replace it.
Happily, things have loosened up a bit over the last five years as indie rock has exploded. Thanks to the White Stripes, the Black Keys, Cults and others, we’re hearing a wider variety of sounds on commercial alt-rock stations.
But will we ever go back to the kind of alt-rock radio we heard in the 80s? No.
The demands and listening habits of the public have changed irrevocably in the last 30 years. We cannot (and should not) go back. Commercial alt-rock radio of the 80s was an era in media whose time has passed. If you were around then, remember it fondly. Check out that Facebook page.
Above all, try not to say dumb things like “In my day, music was SO much better!” We all need to remember that every generation has the right to believe that the music of their youth is the greatest of all time. It’s an argument you will never win. You’ll just sound like Grandpa Simpson.
But will 80s-style alt-rock live online? Absolutely. Try Rdio and fill yer boots.