Is a Nirvana-Style Breakthrough Looming with '90s Revival?

We've almost weathered the '80s revival without anybody rear-ending the morons stalled at the intersection listening to Spandau Ballet, but it's official: The ladle's scraping barrel when it comes to that decade's nostalgia.

The Winona Ryder/Christian Slater movie Heathers is getting turned into a series on Bravo. (Bitchy fictional teens, the perfect lead-in for their older Real Housewives counterparts.) Already, pouf skirts, neon colors, and the most horrific of '80s fashion crimes — shoulder pads — have returned like a cold sore. (At least now we have Valtrex.) On a similar, even more foreboding note, Bret Michaels released a chart-topping album two years ago and has another on the way.

If I'm Nickelback or any other conventional "active rock" band, I'm frightened. Staind's Aaron Lewis saw the signs and made a country album. You could just ask Michaels. One minute you're comped at the Hilton, the next you're crashing at Motel 6. It happens quicker than you can say grunge. I've got my fingers crossed.

It's not even out of spite. The late '80s through early '90s was an exceptionally fertile period for underground rock. (Much like the same period 20 years earlier.) Kurt Cobain led the way for dozens of bands that spilled over into the mainstream. The funny thing is that circumstances are remarkably similar in the underground today. Only this time, maybe David Geffen won't need to open his wallet to find Nirvana.

Of course, broach the idea of another underground rock revolution to a major-label record exec today, and he'll laugh you out of the room. All the label money goes to the Nicki Minajes and Brad Paisleys of the world. Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell finds this a travesty.

"I have a torn ligature in my hip, torn meniscus in my knee. I have double hernias and might have a third hernia on the way — all from performing, but that's not what bothers me. To be honest with you, I take all that in stride. What bothers me is the way the music industry has just abandoned musicians and gone for this quick, pop commercial buck," Farrell says. "I understand, back in the day, they thought the rock 'n' roll kids were all downloading. So they didn't want to invest in them. They knew that they could get little kids to buy coffee mugs and nail polish."

That hasn't stopped the pot from simmering. Indeed, unwatched the underground rock scene is beginning to boil. You can hear it from long-standing grass-roots iconoclasts like Lightning Bolt and Neurosis through more recent pop experimentalists Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer, and St. Vincent to the clamorous, hooky sounds of Japandroids, No Age, and Ty Segall. Less attendant to commercial concerns, people are doing their own thing. And the cream's rising. Farrell points to his own annual Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, one of many similar destination rock events (Coachella, Hopscotch, Fun Fun Fun Fest) that have popped up across the country over the past decade.

"We don't book pop. We're booking the real deal, and guess what? Hundreds of thousands of people are coming out to see that," he says. "They're still the coolest. They're still the ones you really want to get behind and say, 'They're representing me.' These commercial crappy contest winners, they have nothing to do with my life. If you say I'm hungry and I need something, I don't go to a box of Pringles; I want some steak."

Nobody's arguing that things aren't tough for rock musicians today. No more than 10 percent of their income is from album sales, forcing bands to earn their keep on the road. Everyone's in the same situation, filling the clubs with established acts all competing for a shrinking dollar.

But, years ago, David Bowie made an observation that really rings true today. He suggested that downloading would squeeze out all those for whom making music was a choice and not a necessity.


For all the moaning you hear from musicians, they have little reason to complain. Things are much better than they were 25 years ago. Computers and the Internet make touring much easier. Bouncing Souls bassist Bryan Kienlen recalls frantically handwriting postcards in the back of the van to alert fans of their upcoming shows. Heck, before Black Flag trail-blazed across the country in the early '80s, there was no underground touring circuit. Back then, you were DIY because there was no other alternative.

"[We] are such a product of Phoenix, in a way, because it wasn't in any way an industry town," says Meat Puppets bassist Cris Kirkwood. "My motivation was so exceedingly personal. I just really liked stringed instruments, and it was something we pursued doggedly. The parallel that exists [between then and now] is that we didn't need a label either when we started. Everybody just started making their own label. That was the burst of creativity that went down at that point."

That's what makes the incipient '90s revival so informative. Before Nirvana, there was no pretext of commercial success. They weren't hopping some trend or pandering to the lowest common denominator. They were making music for themselves.

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18 comments
pking5
pking5

To say that the underground music scene is in a "fertile" period seems pretty silly. Nothing in many years has come out that feels as authentic and exciting as what was happening 20 years ago. Sorry kids. When you get angry enough at Facebook, American Idol, Glee, and all the other crap, then maybe something can happen.

passthesalt91
passthesalt91

No. There will never be another "Nirvana." There will never be another "revolution" like the one they started in the early 90s. They said the same thing about The Mars Volta for crying out loud. Different times, different attitudes. It will never happen.

kayyyy
kayyyy

perry farrell isn't being honest or realistic i was at lolla this year and he booked haley reinhart, an american idol alum (she actually has a great voice and writes herself) but just fact checking here. and perry booked lady gaga TWICE for lolla. she's a singer songwriter at heart, though

 

 any comeback of that style of rock would be contrived

joeLeggy
joeLeggy

@TheGrungeScene But who's going too lead it?

joeLeggy
joeLeggy

@TheGrungeScene Most definetly it's coming SOON!

sorayab
sorayab

I loved the music of that era and I would hate for it to be re-hashed. It would be IMPOSSIBLE for a band coming out now with that same style not to be tampered with and exploited; turned into a contrived trend. I don't see this as a good thing. That said, I despair of the state of music GENERALLY these days. And Kurt thought it was bad back then...

SorayaBakhbakhi
SorayaBakhbakhi

@RoystonGhana As much as I LOVE the music and style of that era, I would hate for it to be re-hashed. It would destroy what made it special.

drone
drone

Chippendale is the DRUMMER not the bass player.

gage992112
gage992112

Here goes "remember the old days" b. s....  The computer made music disposible.  People can download 1,000's of songs with little emotional investment or physical involvement.  I don't get the same rush looking at music on Amazon as I did the first time I walked into Tower Records or looking for a bootleg at Roads to Moscow or cased a Diamond's department store for the quickest  way to the customer service where the Select-a-seat was located (and bitch about the $.45 service charge) because that's how we used to get tickets and music. 

 

And guess what---rock has alwas been DIY.  Blame Buddy Holly (sorry, doesn't fit your narrative).  

 

I think grunge was one of the last gasps of Old school R 'nR.  And ironically Nirvana played the opening night of their IN Utro tour at the Arizona State Fair (I mean because the article about the Arizona State Fair was a major sidebar)  But grunge was the last musical bubble before the current digital age.

 

And Perry Ferrall...  the first time I saw him was in a closed Clothe World at 33 ave & Bethany Home to Celebrity Theater, ASU activity Center, opening LOLLAPLOOZA on a f'n hot day in July  1991 and more recently at the Sea of Concrete (Desert Sky Pavillion I think) .   And I think there was 1992 post LOLLA gig @ the Ice House downtown.  I was just glad he didn't do the Steve Perry dissappearing thing (because he seems a bit like an introvert)  and I was worried about that when Porno for Pyros came out.

 

Rock is dead they say..........

Steve
Steve

"Nor will rock. It will forever be a place kids go to find identity, sow some rebellion, and just celebrate the fine art of living. Guitars and loud, boisterous music always will have a home in kids' hearts, even when the media and money men are indifferent."  

 

Forever? Always?  Seriously?  The music is only about 60 years old, and you've decided this style is eternal?  Get real.

humanclock
humanclock

"...(Coachella, Bumbershoot, Fun Fun Fun Fest) that have popped up across the country over the past decade."Uh, the year Bumbershoot started you might have been able to spot Kurt Cobain there screaming his lungs out...because he would have been four years old and dropped his ice cream cone.

LMFQP
LMFQP

@joeLeggy @thegrungescene You should check out @AnaKills from Detroit. A lot of talent and 90's raw feel.

RoystonGhana
RoystonGhana

@SorayaBakhbakhi ...couldn't agree more. Pop eats itself every few years and spews out pale simulacra that miss the point by miles

SorayaBakhbakhi
SorayaBakhbakhi

@RoystonGhana Exactly. I mean, if Kurt Cobain thought it was bad when he was alive, it's a million times worse now.

SorayaBakhbakhi
SorayaBakhbakhi

@RoystonGhana I know, though I think KC did want success in a way, but he resented the idea of compromising himself. I love Bill Hicks!

RoystonGhana
RoystonGhana

@SorayaBakhbakhi he must spin every time nickleback think about going near a studio. Bill hicks would be apoplectic too

 
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