(Note this was written in 2003 or 2004, a version of it's original appearance on the web can be found HERE it's also worth noting that I never got around to writing about the bands or working on this idea any further)
Spinters: Overlooked Shards of the Alternative Nation 1990 - 1996
‘This is the story of a transition period in American Rock and roll, of a changeling era which dashed by so fast that nobody knew much of what to make if it while it was around, only noticeable in retrospect by the vast series of innovations it would eventually spawn, both in the way that music would be listened to and the way it was constructed.’
Original Nuggets Liner Notes, Lenny Kaye Fall 1972This is a history of an era of rock and roll that seems to have been forgotten. It has become the victim of a campaign of miss information and denial. The common consensus these days seems to be that the Grunge/ Alternative ‘movement’ was merely a marketing scheme to boost corporate record sales and revenue. I for one don’t buy that theory, as the true genesis of the so called ‘Alternative Revolution’. In fact I would say that in until the majors managed to find a way to control the sales of ‘alternative’ records that the revolution was exactly that. It was a period of time when the bean counters had no idea what was goin g to sell and what wasn’t, in commercial terms it was a revolt.
I have a personal stake in this story, because it’s about my history, and that of my generation. It’s about the mass culture of the period of time I was a young man. So for me this is all personal. I was the right age at the right time and in the right place to have a front row seat for most of it. It seemed to really be something that my peers seemed care about and could rally around. I should have known that they were mostly a bunch of bandwagoneers just like their parents. The moment they figured out how to make millions from the internet they were all buying expensive toys, and blowing cash like crazy, and forgot about all the things that I thought we were gonna change when we started to exert out control of the world. it’s like most of us forgot about the very real issues that the music was talking about.
Grunge, has become a dirty word (sorry the pun was too good to pass up), it’s the disco of our 2003, un-hip, un-cool and all but forgotten. As with punk, it’s blast of rock’n’social commentary has been watered down and tamed until the leading bands of the movement are all but forgotten, and all that remains is Modern Rock radio telling us that Creed has got something of note to say. Luckily Creed and their fourth generation afterbirths of Alternative Nation seems to be dying out. Today the top of the Alt rock heap is being challenged with the next underground sensation ‘Garage Rock’ (don’t get me started on that one).
So what was it about grunge and alternative anyway? It seems the current thinking on the grunge era is that people were just going along with the masses, just like their baby doomer parents did in the ’60 (Don’t get me started on that one either). It sounds like people have forgotten what their lives were like and what they cared about, or what they pretended to care about. Denial and discarding of ones past is the worst kind of revisionist history.
I always try to challenge my assumptions and beliefs about everything. In my life I have rarely just gone along with the masses, and I wasn’t just going along when it in the case of Grunge/Alt music. Unlike a lot of people I will publicly state that I still Like the first Pearl Jam album. I find that it was accessible and lyrically it was talking about things that I saw going on around me everyday. It was a lot more real than the party metal and teen pop that was being peddled to my generation only a few years earlier.
My musical interests have evolved and matured since the heyday of grunge/alt’s chart reign. I don’t listen to my old CD’s from that era too much these days. There are a few favorites that find their way into my CD player on a regular basis, but for the most part I do not play them. Pulling them out, I wondered how many were really worth having held onto, and how many were really worth remembering. I also found myself slotting some surprising bands into the category of Grunge and Alternative.
In looking back at the era, I remembered how blurred the lines between genres became in the days of grunge. I recall once the Legendary LA punk group X saying on MTV that they were an Alternative band, because the Alternative tag would sell more records. That’s a crass statement, but it also highlights the fact that alternative was less a sound, and more of an understanding that the music wasn’t commercially conceived. I think it’s important to note that most of the bands really were not looking to sell a million records, most just wanted to be able to play music and pay their bills. I can’t see that any of these bands were trying to jump on the bandwagon and follow the hip trends of the day. If that had been the case they all would have been trying to be the next Warrant or the next Poison.
A little Background
I started seriously listening to music in the late 80's. My friends and I went to Punk Rock high school USA. I walked among the Misfits devil locked cult daily, they exposed me to Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers almost 5 years before either would break through and become popular mainstream bands. I saw that Pubic image Limited P.I.L. tee shirt in the halls, and cluelessly had no idea what it was. Black Flag played their second to last show 4 blocks away from my high school in 1986. I didn’t know it at the time but; Iggy Pop (and the Stooges), The MC5, the Rationals, and Radio Birdman’s Dez Tek (none of whom I heard till a decade later) had lived in my hometown, Ann Arbor Michigan. While I was in high s chool; GG Allin and Dee Dee Ramone both lived in town, I must have passed them countless times around town not having a clue who they were.
The first music that I heard that really ‘changed my life’ was from the soundtrack to the film Dudes. The soundtrack was a combination of Punk and Metal and even a track by Jane’s Addiction before they became an early alternative staple. It was a interesting mix of tracks. Bands on their way up, bands on their way down, and bands that would never make it anywhere (of course the bands that went no where provided some of my favorite tracks on the album). Only 2 bands on that album would later be of note to the main stream during the Grunge/Alternative era, the aforementioned Jane’s Addiction and Megadeath (who had a mainstream hit in the fall of 1992). It was from thi s album that I became aware of the fact that there was music out there that wasn’t on the radio.
It’s interesting to note that at this time (the late ‘80’s) three big bands that were making inroads in the mainstream and becoming popular were R.E.M., U2 and INXS. All were what was labeled as post punk/pop/rock bands. They weren’t traditional pop bands, and at the same time they weren’t really rock or heavy metal acts. They stood out in a top 40 world that was filled with slick pop-Synth-New Wave and hair metal. Both of which really descended from edgier Punk and Metal respectively. Those two styles would be heralded as the main ingredients in Grunge. Only U2 and R.E.M. were able to hold on and capture the alternative revolution pay off and continue to this day.
For me the alternative revolutions started with that Dudes soundtrack, but what really kicked it into high gear for me were three bands that opened my ears and really made music matter to me. Before I head these bands pop music was something that I just didn’t undersand and didn’t get. We didn’t listen to Rock and Roll or Pop music in my house. These three bands let me know that music could and would connect with me, say something challenging or interesting, tell a story or just be fun.
Those three bands were
1 King’s X
They all had several things in common. All were bands that were; skilled players, wrote ‘Smart’ songs, sang about subjects of real substance, and all were underground bands that were just about to break on a national level. I like to think of all three as ‘proto-alternative’ bands. They were able to provide a bridge between the then currently popular hard rock and grunge/alt.
Queensryche and King’s X definitely came to my attention via MTV, not the radio, Sometime around 1990. I don’t recall if I first heard Drivin'n'Cryin on radio or MTV, but one or the other was the source. They all did receive some radio airplay, but it was MTV that gave me the most memorable exposure to all three. The video’s for ‘It’s love’, ‘Silent Lucidity’ and ‘Fly me Courageous’ were all distinctive, in that they were a change from the majority of video’s that were played at the time. There was a sense of something else in them. Either it was style, or zanyness or just a different vision.
They were all on major labels, and they all had ‘hit’ song(s) at this time. All three have faded from the minds of most people, but each have retained a loyal and thriving cult following. Both King’s X and Queensryche fans were early users of the Internet mailing list to contact each other. It was down right exciting to open my e-mail box each week knowing that I would be able to read the thought and information written by other fans. In those days it seemed like there was more content than Spam on those mailing lists.
All three bands came to the attention of the masses (for a short time at least) with solid albums, it was the album that came just before their ‘commercial break though’ album that is considered their best, and that they are most likely to be remembered for. In the case of King’s X it was ‘Gretchen goes to Nebraska’, Drivin’n’Cryin ‘Mystery Road’, and Queensryche ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ (even though for my money Rage for Order was the best thing that they ever released).
Anyway, it was 1990-1991, and the radio airwaves were ruled by the likes of NKOTB, Warrant and 3-year-old replays of U2's ‘Joshua Tree’ and INSX's ‘Kick’ album. R.E.M. were making inroads into the Top 40 world with their early hits. For the most part the popular albums of the time seemed to be easily marketed and easily categorized. Looking back it’s kind of surprising that these three bands were able to slip onto the charts. All three were pushed onto the Hair metal/ Blues metal set, even though Queensryche obviously belonged there, you can make a strong case for King’s X and Drivin'n'Cryin status as being rock bands not metal bands. However like Enuff'z'Nuff's (with their power pop gem ‘Fly High Michele’) th e industry felt it was easier to shove them in the hair metal category, and make a few dollars for the quarter.
I started adding Cassette tapes of the three bands to my small collection in 1990 and 1991. Cassette was the format of the time. CD's and CD players were expensive and the Walkman and Boom Box were the most accessible music players for a lot of people (me included). Most cars featured tape decks, and you could make comp tapes easily to share with friends. I didn’t have a lot of money and so I was only able to buy a few tapes.
I went to my college orientation in the summer of 1991. The guys staying across the hall from me spent all night blasting 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' by Warrant. That was the big hit of the moment. Looking back it really is hard to believe that six months later, everyone came back from Christmas break with ‘Smells Like teen Spirit’ as the song of the time and everything changed.
October of 1992, the Seattle 4 ruled the charts. The United States was under full the Alternative Nation assault and it would take a few years to be truly tamed and neutered to what we have today.
The Seattle four were of course: Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam. Each played a mix of Black Sabbath, Black Flag and Big Black, in their own concentration of elements. In other words a bit of Metal, a bit of Punk and a bit of noise rock.
Today only Pearl Jam remains, however the music that they are creating is so far from where they started that you would never recognize them as the same band. Drugs killed Nirvana and Alice in Chains, and who knows what ended Soundgarden? Maybe is has something to do with Chris Cornell being the most commercially successful post Soundgarden, but Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd might be the most successful artistically? I really don’t know, but that last album was a real mess. Anyway, I'm not here to talk about the big four. I am sure that there are plenty of others that wish to tell you that story.
Hot on the heels of the arrival of the Seattle 4 'Modern Rock radio’ was born. It was the format that they were channeled into. In the early days of the Nirvana explosion the music was known under several names some old some new. I recall hearing: Grunge, Alternative, Hard rock, college rock, Subpop, punk metal, sludge metal, and sometimes just Seattle Rock. Modern Rock was and is what the industry has decided to call it. I look at it as being the for the same marketing purposes that punk became New Wave.
Early on the format seemed really open, as there was only a limited number of times that tracks by the big four could be played, in a day or in an hour. As we all found out that overplaying a song can kill it just as quickly as underplaying it. The number of other bands that were becoming popular, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, and Live just to name three, tracks you could also play by alternative hit makers were limited by old rules, record company pressure (can’t have more than one single at a time can you?) and fear. The remaining airtime was filled with older underground stuff that had cracked the pop market, U2, R.E.M., the B-52's etc. sometimes older punk: the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and Post Punk: Killing Joke, Love and Rockets, and XTC. Sometimes if you were lucky you might even get some proto punk ala’ The Stooges and MC5, it’s just too bad that the industry didn’t have the foresight to let the DJ’s run wild and play what ever they wanted.
All kinds of stuff initially slipped onto the airwaves, there were a lot of over hypes and quickly bombing one hit wonders. Every few superstars emerged from the era. For a moment, for the first time in many years it was a lot more likely that a small band that had been snatched up my a major label would get a shot at radio play. It was also a lot more likely that a band would have the opportunity to sink or swim on the merits of their MUSIC and not the record company pimping (which there was plenty of). Looking for this New Big Thing, the majors were also doing their best to raid the rosters of a number of smaller labels. Sometimes just buying little labels out right and using them as their minor leagues.
More important than radio was MTV, who had already changed the pop music landscape by pimping pretty boy New Wave (Duran Duran) and Hair Metal (Slaughter). Arguably the two most important shows on MTV at that time were the weekend graveyard shifts occupied by: 120 Minutes (the ‘alternative’ show) and The Headbangers Ball (The ‘Metal’ show). With the arrival of Nirvana and the rest there was some question as to which show they belonged on.
Watching the Headbangers Ball especially, you could feel that as time went on there seemed to be more and more dissatisfaction behind the scenes of both scenes. More conflict between he host and the producers. Dave Kendall who had shepherded 120 Minutes for many years vanished to be replaced by a revolving set of guest hosts, before a new host was set for the show. I don’t think that 120 Minutes was ever as good as it had been with Kendall. I don’t know if it was because of his input or that he was given more power because, ‘who cares about 2 hours late on a Sunday night?’ I stopped watching the show at some point, most likely in ‘96 and I hear that it is no longer around.
Without any warning or comment the Headbangers Ball vanished from MTV, along with Rikki Rackman. Some might be surprised that I would tag the Headbangers Ball as a forum for alternative music. It should be remembered that many alternative bands debut on The Headbangers Ball, before making their appearance on 120 Minutes and then finding rotation on MTV during the day and evening hours. At the same time there were more than a few bands that first appeared on 120 Minutes that were definitely more hard, heavy and metal oriented. These blurred lines caused bands that had been originally pitched as Heavy metal, finding a themselves with a non-metal fan base. The most famous of these was of course Nirvana, who first appeared on the Headbanger Ball before becoming the 3 kings of the Alternative nation. Nirvana was as clueless about why they were on the ball as anyone, which was bore out by Cobain’s snotty attitude towards the whole enterprise. This was of course before anyone knew anything about his hostility towards the corporate rock machine, he came off as being an asshole to those of us who were just music fans and had not yet been exposed to the punk anti-corporate ethic.
The changes in the hosts and/or content (and control) of both shows I would think was precipitated by the sudden interest of the ‘Bosses’ in these ‘established’ forums for alternative music. Undoubtedly the record companies exuded their pressure tactics on both shows as well. As is often the case, when the artist is allowed to follow their own muse their art grows, the instant that the bean counters get involved it all turns to more noise than signal. As with alternative music it’s self, both shows seem lost their way and fell apart before being canceled. They may be gone, but it is still important to remember that it was out of these forums that many of the biggest names in the alternative revolution were able to become mainstream bands.
My defection from the Alternative Nation came around 1995, and continued into 1996. Two things happened, 1) I was caught up in the re-birth of the Misfits and was becoming a fully fledged Horror Punk fan. That sent me off onto a musical road on a sub-sub-genre hunt, that I followed for the next 5 years. 2) Concurrent with that was the discovery of the Scandinavian Hi Energy Rock and Roll scene. That scene in turn was responsible for education me about the proto punk scene that had occurred in Ann Arbor Michigan in the late 1960’. That’s a whole story in and of it’s own, that I hope to tell someday.
What I want to talk about here are those that didn’t make it to the big big show, and a few of the bands that did, and couldn’t hold on to that attention and seem to have faded from memory. What I am interested in is the bands that seem to have come to the attention of the public in the wake of the big names. In their wake is the wrong phrase. Those that got a shot due to the interest in underground music created by the big four is more accurate. I think of them often as the forgotten bands. I see them as the splinters of the Alternative Nation, or what ever.
There is no good reason that a few of the bands I an going to write about never made it big. Mostly it’s all about timing, and energy and appearing to get there first. There are a few bands on my list that were there first, first being too early. For the most part they just never seemed to catch as many breaks as the big names, or have the backing that the others did at their label or what ever. Some might have called them the second stringers, and the could-have-beens, in my mind they are the lost bands the deserved rediscovery. Just as there are plenty 1960’s era garage bands that have been rediscovered and archived in the last dozen years, many of these bands are awaiting rescue from the cheap bins.
Of the bands that I am going to write about some had their moments of glory, but most just faded into the discount bin. There are also a few one-off bands or side projects that have landed on my list; I just felt that they had something to add to the map of the first wave of alternative music history. I also found as I was researching this essay that I felt compelled to include a band that went on to become huge later on, that would be the Goo Goo Dolls.
White Zombie was also a pretty major band, but they couldn’t hold it together, and imploded. I fear that they would have suffered the same fate as many of their contemporaries if they had stayed together, so I do not mourn their passing. Rob Zombie had emerged as the new Alice Cooper Guru of Horror, and he's into his own deal, which is much less alternative and more dance oriented industrial metal. Other than that most of these groups are pretty much forgotten by the masses. If they were known at all, they will be the ‘Hey, that sounds familiar’ band that someone plays at a party and the next couple of minutes will be spent trying to recall who they are.
Before we get started with the music, a few pieces of business that I need to deal with. First accompany this essay is a list of 27 bands/ songs that I think have held up in quality and stayed with me all these years. All of these bands were on major labels or major Indies at the time that I am writing about. I have limited my self to major label stuff, because these were the ones that we able to get at least an airing on MTV and radio. Most were also covered in the main stream corporate rock magazines, as well as the major indie ‘zines. There were more than a few bands that I dropped off this list due to their indie status. I feel the need to stress up front that these are MY picks as the best overlooked stuff from the 'splinters' era.
My second order of biz, is to answer the inevitable question as to why I have chosen 1990 to 1996 as the time span I am covering here. The answer is quite simple. That was the time period that I really got into the then CURRENT music. After ’96 I was really starting to look into the past and listen to old stuff from the Metal, punk, Rockabilly and garage rock era. 1996 was also the last time I truly recall being excited by NEW music. 1996 was also the year that President Clinton signed Rock and Rolls death warrant, the Telecom act of 1996. The Telecom act changed radio in such a way that fewer and fewer bands even had a chance to get air play than in the years leadi ng up the the Telecom Act. It affected Rock'n'Roll, as much as the advent of MTV changed the marketing of music in the early 80’s.
Now on to the music. What I have done is group the bands into sets. I intend to have a new set added to this piece every so often (like when I am done writing it), but until then, here are the sets and the bands I plan to cover.
We did it first, Proto Alternatives:
1 King’s X
4 Mother Love Bone
Hey We're From Seattle too!
5 Screaming Trees
We got cash, time for the Side Projects
9 Temple of the Dog
Follow for Now, Princes of X:
10 Galactic Cowboys
11 Atomic Opera
12 4 Non Blondes
13 Dead Can Dance
Punky, Noisy Power Pop For Alternatives:
14 Goo Goo Dolls
15 Psyclone Rangers
Lost in Middle America?
18 Season to Risk
20 Animal bag
From the Heavy Legions:
22 Monster Magnet
24 Life of Agony
25 Type O Negative
26 White Zombie
27 Dream Theater
 Who Blender magazine in their September 2003 issue voted the 34th worst band of all time. Other first wave of alt bands that made that list? Blind Melon, Toad the wet Sprocket, the Goo Goo Doll, The Spin Doctors, Crash Test Dummies, and Primus.
 It’s a shame that some billionaire didn’t scoop up these guys and launch a new music channel with established former MTV VJ’s and folks running and writing for the better rock magazine’s, (throw in a few musicians) running things.
 All hate mail can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org please indicate the subject line as Alternative Hate Mail or Your bands are lame.