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."

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Chris Parker
Contact: Chris Parker