It’s fall, also known as flannel season. And it’s incredibly hard to think about flannel without thinking about grunge; the two are forever associated (sorry, lumberjacks). Fall is grunge weather, and with the heyday of the genre in our distant past, it’s a good time to look back at the genre’s early years, before bands like Bush and Stone Temple Pilots seized the reins. The beginnings of grunge were a time of collaboration, cooperation, and cohesion. Nirvana didn’t just come from a broken home in Aberdeen, Washington, and Pearl Jam didn’t come about solely because of five dudes’ mutual love for a comically under-sized professional basketball player. They came from other bands and were inspired by other musicians in a tight-knit circle.
The history of grunge’s formative years is a tangled mess of flexible band members, painful tragedy, and shared Rolodexes. Location, mutual admiration, and shared goals united them. Grunge didn’t start with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It began several years before.
Let’s start with The Melvins. So much of what would become grunge starts with them.
The Melvins, with Buzz Osborne on vocals and guitar, Matt Lukin on bass, and Dale Crover on drums, came together in 1983 in Washington. They were influenced by classic rock bands like KISS and Black Sabbath, as well as Black Flag, a hardcore band from down the road in Los Angeles. Starting out, The Melvins went back and forth between Cheap Trick covers and lightning fast punk. Their music gradually slowed, though, the tones coming from Osborne’s guitar growing muddier and murkier, seemingly filled with sludge. It was punk put through a grinder, emerging heavier, and with a plodding beat. It was a sound that drew the attention of impressionable younger musicians listening at home, at clubs, and at their dingy rehearsal spaces.
In 1984, two more bands formed amidst the overcast skies and towering trees of the Pacific Northwest – Green River and Soundgarden. Both existed around the edges of what would become grunge, albeit in their own ways.
Green River consisted of Mark Arm on vocals and guitar, Steve Turner and Stone Gossard on guitar, Jeff Ament on bass, and Alex Vincent on drums. Bruce Fairweather eventually replaced Turner. They had a big, classic rock sound with hints of punk, whereas Soundgarden – at the time a three-piece with Chris Cornell on vocals and drums, Kim Thayil on guitar, and Hiro Yamamoto on bass – could sound metal or like anthemic stadium rock at times. Green River’s debut album, Come on Down, was released in May 1985 and has since been referred to as the first grunge record. Yes, The Melvins got the ball rolling, but as far as putting that sound on tape, points go to Green River.
Also in 1985, in the quiet city of Ellensburg, Washington, a little more than a hundred miles from Seattle, Screaming Trees would form. It would be a couple of years before they would come into play.
1986 was a relatively quiet year as grunge developed in the clubs and bars of Seattle. C/Z Records, a local Seattle label, would help bring the genre to a wider audience with the release of the now-legendary Deep Six compilation, the label’s first release. It featured The Melvins, Green River, and the first-ever recordings of Soundgarden. Although Sub Pop 100, a mixtape of the Seattle sound released by Sub Pop Records, gets its fair share for helping to create grunge and the grunge scene, Deep Six deserves some love for getting the early grunge pioneers out there.
Soundgarden became a four-piece in 1986 when drummer Matt Cameron joined, a move that allowed Cornell to focus more on vocals. Green River called it quits in 1987, the same year Alice in Chains formed, The Melvins’ released Gluey Porch Treatments (featuring “Leech,” originally a Green River song that was given to the band) and Soundgarden released their Screaming Life EP. The demise of Green River was due in large part to a difference in career goals – half the band wanted to stick to the underground, and the other half wanted to become rock stars. They’d release one more album, Dry as a Bone, on Sub Pop in the summer before going their separate ways. Those in the band on the side of staying indie (Arm and Turner) would go on to form Mudhoney, and the dudes angling for big rock stardom (Ament, Gossard, and Fairweather) found themselves in Mother Love Bone.
Both Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone would hit the ground run running in 1988, one of the busiest years in the early stages of grunge. Mudhoney got the jump on Mother Love Bone, though, dropping the Superfuzz Bigmuff EP on Sub Pop.
The EP proved to be incredibly influential for a member of a newer Seattle band, who was working on their demo that year: Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Nirvana was anchored by Cobain and Krist Novoselic who, despite going to the same school together, didn’t become friends until they both spent time hanging out in The Melvins’ rehearsal space. A few years later, Cobain and Novoselic routinely talked about how The Melvins’ sound was so important to Nirvana. Upon deciding to form their own band, they enlisted Melvins drummer Dale Crover to play drums on their demo and in January 1988 released their first single, “Love Buzz.”
Crover was still a member of The Melvins, though. The same couldn’t be said for Matt Lukin, who was living with Cobain in Aberdeen and had opted to stay in the area when Crover and Osborne moved to California. Lukin would soon join up with Arm and Turner in Mudhoney. As for Soundgarden, in 1988, they became the first Seattle band to score a major label record deal, signing with A&M Records, a move that invited scorn from locals because it was, in a way, seen as an affront on the secular nature of the scene. Soundgarden, or at least the people working with the band, still had love for Seattle, though. Alice in Chains, led by singer Layne Staley and guitarist and vocalist Jerry Cantrell, were starting to make waves in town with their unique vocals, harmonies, and occasional heavy metal tendencies. Their demo got in the hands of Kelly Curtis and Susan Silver, Soundgarden’s managers, who in turn passed it along to Columbia Records. Alice in Chains signed with Columbia the following year.
The following year, 1989, was dominated mostly by two bands: Mother Love Bone and Nirvana. The former had moved on from being a cover band and released their debut EP Shine.
They were led by their flamboyantly theatrical singer Andrew Wood and were starting to sniff at the kind of fame Ament and Gossard had tried to attain with Green River. For all intents and purposes, Mother Love Bone had all the makings of the next great American rock band. As for Nirvana, they released their first album, Bleach, on Sub Pop and parted ways with guitarist Jason Everman, who had fronted the cash for the recording of the album and after Nirvana would end up in Soundgarden for a brief spell. Nirvana also axed drummer Chad Channing and, in the days that followed, enlisted Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters to record their single “Sliver.”
1990 was supposed to be Mother Love Bone’s year, but Wood’s sudden death derailed that. Wood, who was Chris Cornell’s roommate, died in March of a heroin overdose days before the release of the band’s full-length album, Apple. The release of Apple would subsequently be delayed until that summer. Wood’s death prompted Cornell to pen a tribute to his friend, which developed into an album and one-off project, Temple of the Dog.
Ament and Gossard hadn’t wasted any time finding a new band after Mother Love Bone, and Mookie Blaylock, soon to be known as Pearl Jam, played their first show in October 1990 at the Off Ramp in Seattle. Temple of the Dog was comprised of Cornell and Cameron of Soundgarden, and Ament and Gossard, who brought along guitarist Mike McCready and singer Eddie Vedder from their new band.
Nirvana was a year away from changing the game and found themselves without a full-time drummer. They called up their old friend Crover to play drums for them during an August tour with Sonic Youth. When that tour wrapped, Crover’s bandmate Osborne introduced Nirvana to a drummer from Virginia, Dave Grohl, whose band Scream had recently broken up. Grohl would audition in September and join Nirvana shortly after. Around this same time, Screaming Trees inked a deal with Epic and Alice in Chains released their first album, Facelift.
As with any tight-knit circle, cracks eventually started to form. By 1991, Nirvana had become world-beaters, with Pearl Jam not far behind. Mudhoney never reached similar heights, but maintained a consistent level of indie rock fame, with the same being said for Screaming Trees, whose 1991 album Uncle Anesthesia would be produced by Cornell. Cornell’s own band, Soundgarden, released Badmotorfinger in 1991 and achieved their own big-time success with their 1994 album Superunknown. Both Cornell and Mark Arm would appear on “Right Turn,” a song off of Alice in Chains’ 1992 EP Sap. Two years later, in an attempt to try to convince Staley, who was battling a heroin addiction, to get sober, Mike McCready, who had himself recently gotten sober, invited the singer to join the band Mad Season. The group, which also featured Screaming Trees’ drummer Barrett Martin, would release one album, Above, in 1995.
But again, so much of it all goes back to The Melvins. Nirvana might be the flag-bearers of the grunge scene, but there is no Nirvana without The Melvins. Pearl Jam isn’t around if not for the influence The Melvins had on Green River, and who knows what would have become of Alice in Chains if not for the assistance of Soundgarden’s managers, who themselves first appeared on record alongside The Melvins on the C/Z Records compilation, Deep Six.
It wasn’t just The Melvins’ sound that influenced grunge, it was the band’s members’ willingness to help out other bands that heavily influenced the scene, whether it was sitting in on sessions or introducing musicians to one another. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that “no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever make it alone.” You need a little help to achieve success. And this can be seen in grunge’s early years, when bands helped and relied on one another. The importance of a music scene often gets lost in a band’s biography, but it shouldn’t. A band’s surroundings can be as important and as influential as any other factor.
You can love Nirvana, but in doing so, you have to respect all that came before them. Because, remember, it all starts with The Melvins.