The New Rock
We’ve seen the future of Rock & Roll and its name is no longer Bruce Springsteen. The band on stage at New York’s Ritz sounds like an ailing vacuum cleaner riding roughshod over a madrigal choir. Looking like zombies with T-shirts, they play intently, barely acknowledging the slam dancers before them. The fans don’t mind the neglect; they’re too busy defying gravity. When they aren’t crashing into each other, one or more of them will scramble onto the stage and hurl their bodies back into the crowd (called the moshpit). Unruffled by the chaos, the band—My Bloody Valentine, from London—doesn’t flinch. Nonchalantly the musicians step out of the stage-divers’ way as waves of high-intensity drone and retina-piercing white lights wash over the crowd.
If this sounds as if we’ve been invaded by the planet Zon-Dar, then you’re entitled to an explanation. On the one hand, there exists a fossilizing corpse called classic rock—a four-decade-old mummy grown stale and tired, a once vibrant part of mainstream culture now reduced to background music for car commercials and Olympic events. On the other hand, there is a new life form, pegged ”alternative rock” by the industry and the media. It is a ridiculously vague term, referring to everything from R.E.M.’s sweet jangle pop to Soundgarden’s lumbering metal to EMF’s jagged dance tunes. But the rubric is useful if only to identify a new, abrasive, and refreshing scene that has slapped pop music upside the head.
Alternative rock has been fermenting for a decade on independent record labels, on college campuses, and in clubs in the U.S. and Britain. And now, to the delight and horror of anyone who loves it, the genre has found itself dragged-kicking and screaming, like some of its best music-into the mainstream. It is now big business, symbolized by more than just the jaw- dropping quadruple-platinum success of Nirvana’s Nevermind album. In a scenario that cannot help but bring a smile to the face of anyone who came of age to R.E.M. or Husker Du records, bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Temple of the Dog are leaving the likes of Wilson Phillips and ZZ Top in the Billboard dust. And record companies, confused but exploitive as ever, are scrambling to sign bands with long hair, sarcastic attitudes, thrift-shop clothing, and loud guitars.
Even Hollywood smells the potential of teen spirit. Imagine a major motion picture in which characters sport faded Mudhoney T-shirts, pull Replacements albums from their record collections, and go hear Alice in Chains, and you’ve scripted Singles, Cameron Crowe’s look at love among the ruins in Seattle (due Sept. 18). Then there’s the Lollapalooza ’92 tour, a seven-band alternative- rock circus stuffed with the Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. With nearly all of its 36 shows sold out, Lollapalooza ’92 is-like its ’91 predecessor-one of the summer’s leading concert draws.
”Basically, kids got disenchanted with what they were being force-fed on radio,” says Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis. ”And they were looking for something more sincere to help them get through that stage in their lives when they’re searching for meaning and rebelling against the Establishment. Something more heartfelt, than, say, Def Leppard.” Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Phil Collins the news.
What exactly is alternative rock, beyond a name for styles that don’t yet have Grammy categories? “It’s an alternative to schlock like Elton John and Lionel Richie, I suppose,” says guitarist Miki Berenyi of the British band Lush. The concept is “hard to define,” admits Bill Gould of Faith No More. “But our attitude toward it is you don’t have to rely on certain rock tricks, like 20-minute guitar solos or teasing your hair and wearing makeup.”
Gould is a bit disingenuous-the way alternative bands dress down is itself a shtick. Yet the music embraces an attitude not entirely new to rock but more widely accepted than ever by a generation raised on Watergate, MTV, and Reagan: sardonic or downright oblique (especially in its lyrics), conscious of rock’s cliches, wary of the notion that the music can free your soul. And, of course, it sounds different. While they owe a few allegiances to the past, the frenetic funk & roll moves of Fishbone, the claustrophobic industrial crunch of Ministry, and the caterwauling punk metal of L7 are new to rock. It is music a young generation can call its own-and if, like rap, it irks or confuses baby boomers, all the better.
The alternative-rock world of the ’90s began taking shape a decade ago, hatched out of the remains of the ’70s punk scene. By the ’80s that world was a burnt-out memory, but its spirit lived in cities like Seattle and Minneapolis, on college radio stations, and in scruffy musicians who would snicker at the thought of attending music school. The new scene was less sexist—women could lead cranky, noisy bands just like the boys—and much more willing to break down genre barriers (as in punk-funk) than the rock of the ’60s and ’70s.
It was only a matter of time before the music business caught on—and it has, with a typical vengeance. Major labels have been luring bands away from their independent-label homes since the mid-’80s, encouraged by the slow but gradual success of R.E.M. Yet the record sales of that Athens, Ga., band and now of Nirvana have dramatically upped the ante. The New York alternative-metal combo Helmet found itself the object of a bidding war earlier this year and wound up with a contract worth over $1 million with Interscope Records. Says Kat Bjelland of the Minneapolis screech & roll trio Babes in Toyland (who were snatched up by Reprise, a division of Warner Bros.): “I thought it was pretty wild that Warner signed us. I thought we were too strange-sounding for the general public. I told them, ‘Uh, we’re not going to do anything different than this, you know.’ And they were like, ‘Okay.'”
In signing on the dotted line, has alternative rock sold out? In many ways, yes. The music is entering a new, and potentially terminal, phase—caught between rejecting conventions of the rock establishment and being seduced by them. (An employee of the hotel in Palo Alto, Calif., where many Lollapalooza ’92 bands were staying during the opening shows, complained of 5 a.m. room service requests for Jack Daniel’s—now there’s a rock tradition.) Alternative rock may soon be a shadow of its former self: Record stores are already stuffed with too many mediocre alternative records, and once the music industry realizes that not every band is the new Nirvana, the big-money contracts will recede as quickly as Michael Bolton’s hairline. For now, though, alternative rock has succeeded at what seemed like a lost cause—pumping some life, and rebel spirit, back into rock & roll. For that alone, let the slam-dancing bodies continue to fly.
So, what’s your preference-mosh & roll, grunge, goth, or dream pop? Bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers may suddenly be giving Mariah Carey and Def Leppard a run for their money on the pop charts, but that doesn’t mean so-called alternative rock is a new phenomenon. In fact, it has been around long enough, roughly a decade, to have developed its own founding fathers, subgenres, and offshoots, as well as its own fashion senses. Herein, a guide through the tangled, splintered world of ’90s alternative rock-proof positive that “alternative” is truly a meaningless term for music that refuses to stand still.
What It Sounds Like: Alternative rock’s version of New Age, but with a new-wave edge. Imagine layers of distorted electric guitars and drums washing over you, the lyrics mostly an unintelligible blur. Like those laser-light shows set to classic-rock tunes, dream pop is a zoning-out soundtrack for the disaffected twentysomething who wants to trip but without the drugs. And judging from the style’s popularity in Britain (where dream pop kicked off several years ago), plenty of those fans are out there. No wonder another term for dream- poppers is shoe gazers. Patron Saints: Old-world guitar head-trippers like the Velvet Underground and the Byrds and spiritual forefathers like the Cure and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Where to Start: My Bloody Valentine, Loveless; Lush, Spooky; the Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychocandy; Ride, Going Blank Again. Sample Lyrics: We’re still trying to figure them out ourselves.
What It Sounds Like: The aptly named death metal (a.k.a. hardgore) spits in the face of the blow-dried, power-ballad metal of the last decade. In bands like Carcass and Deicide, the front man isn’t singing, he’s belching. The guitars and drums imitate the rapid heartbeat of someone looking up as the guillotine blade falls, and the songs are obsessed with decaying corpses, the nuclear immolation of the earth, blood-drenched massacres, and other everyday situations. “Everybody has a lot of anger in them, so this music is a release,” says guitarist Trevor Peres of Obituary. “By the time you’re done hearing an album, you can leave the house with a totally better outlook on life.” There is also a corollary genre, grindcore—death metal with industrial rhythms-but the uninitiated may want to take it one genre at a time. You need some reason to get up the next morning.
Patron Saints: Classic heavy guitar rock (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Cream) and death-metal pioneers like Celtic Frost.
Where to Start: Grind Crusher (death-metal compilation featuring Carcass, Napalm Death, Entombed, Cadaver, and Morbid Angel); Carcass, Symphonies of Sickness; Godflesh, Streetcleaner; Deicide, Legion. Sample Lyrics: “Hot steel prods into your eyes/ Executioner nods, optics spew/Tanks roll forward claiming lives/Focus of death, nothing new” (Malevolent Creation, “Systematic Execution”).
ALTERNATIVE RAP What It Sounds Like: Witty and spacey-and more subtle than the hard-core rap of Ice Cube and Ice-T- psychedelic rap is the head music of hip-hop. The beats are undeniable, the wordplay and vocal rhythms intricate, yet the vibe is more laid-back, spiritual, and philosophical (and the occasional use of samples from the likes of Hall and Oates and even Dylan doesn’t hurt when it comes to pulling in pop fans). But it’s not lightweight, as Arrested Development’s soul-searching hit, “Tennessee,” or the punny pro-black messages of De La Soul attest. “I haven’t figured out what alternative rap is yet,” says Michael Ivey of Basehead, “but you can say it has the hip-hop mentality in sound but still has an edge that’s different from anything out there.” Bring headphones for maximum effect.
Patron Saints: From pop legends (George Clinton, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye) to early rappers like Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang. Afrika Baby Bambaataa of the Jungle Brothers adds the Beach & Boys and Chicago.
Where to Start: De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising; Arrested Development, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of; P.M. Dawn, Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience; the Jungle Brothers, Done by the Forces of Nature; Basehead, Play With Toys.
Sample Lyrics: “I struttle strut through the ghetto/The rain this time I feel is mental/The goal of this rain I feel is spiritual/Saw through the eyes of the inflicted people” (Arrested Development, “Raining Revolution”).
GOTH What It Sounds Like: Goth may be the only genre that makes dream pop sound upbeat. The New York Times dubbed goth “mope-rock,” a not entirely inappropriate description for music whose archetypical fan is a depressed, lonely blob pondering desolation, suicide, and how Robert Smith of the Cure maintains that spiky hairdo. The music matches that mood; dark and brooding, it is often built around sulking guitars and synthesizers-but with just enough spring to show that some desperate form of hope is up around the bend.
Patron Saints: The Velvet Underground for guitar drone, Leonard Cohen for his mordant image and lyrics, the British punk band Joy Division for downbeat image, and Pink Floyd for onstage dry-ice fog. Where to Start: The Cure, Standing on a Beach-The Singles or Disintegration; the Sisters of Mercy, Vision Thing; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Tender Prey.
Sample Lyrics: “I opened up my eyes/And found myself alone alone/Alone above a raging sea/That stole the only girl I loved/And drowned her deep inside of me” (the Cure, “Just Like Heaven”).
GRUNGE What It Sounds Like: Along with punk-funk, grunge is the style of alternative rock that has many major-label executives salivating and writing large checks—thanks largely to three guys from Aberdeen, Wash. Actually, Nirvana is a bit more pop than your average grungefest combo—like Mudhoney or Dinosaur Jr—but the group’s splattering guitars, aloof lyrics, and Kurt Cobain’s proudly unvarnished yelp are staples of the genre. Born out of ’70s punk, the movement took hold in Minneapolis in the early ’80s and has since migrated to the Pacific Northwest. Although grunge remains male-dominated, a wave of female-led grunge bands-L7, Babes in Toyland, Hole, Scrawl, and others in the so-called foxcore genre-show that women also can exorcise their demons and pummel their guitars with snotty abandon. “It’s the attitude of ‘we can do whatever we want,'” says singer-guitarist Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland, “and if it sounds good to us, we’ll just keep doing it.”
Patron Saints: ’70s metal (Kiss, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, AC/DC), punk godfathers like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and X-and the all-woman Japanese punk band Shonen Knife.
Where to Start: The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me; Husker Du, New Day Rising; Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation; Nirvana, Nevermind; L7, Bricks Are Heavy; Tad, 8-Way Santa; Dinosaur Jr, Bug. Sample Lyrics: “We’ll inherit the earth/But we don’t want it” (the Replacements, “We’ll Inherit the Earth”).
What It Sounds Like: A metal offshoot that fuses the thudding power of Zeppelinish metal, the velocity of speed and thrash (Metallica, Slayer), and the vein-popping rage of hard-core punk (like Black Flag, which begat singer- alternative god Henry Rollins). In other words, music to cause cardiac arrest in the members of Poison. Seattle has staked a claim for these bands—monolithic, melodramatic noisemongers like Soundgarden—but New York isn’t far behind, thanks to Helmet’s blazing Meantime album.
Patron Saints: Led Zeppelin and other ’70s metal gods, plus classic punkers like Black Flag, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones. Where to Start: The Rollins Band, The End of Silence; Helmet, Meantime; Prong, Force Fed; Soundgarden, Ultramega OK. Sample Lyrics: “I am the man from a human choke hold…Now I watch myself explode/My body is scarred by age/Now you get to taste my rage” (Rollins Band, “Just Like You”).
FUNK AND ROLL What It Sounds Like: Only in the moshed-up world of alternative rock could this glop exist: bass and drum parts that pledge allegiance to funk, vocals that encompass both rock and rap, guitars with roots in hard rock. More than any other style, punk-funk is the next logical step for rock in the ’90s. Often heavy-handed and too party-hearty for its own good, funk & roll is nonetheless barrier-shattering. Its mix of black and white music played by both black (Fishbone, Living Colour) and white (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More) musicians proves alternative rock needn’t be as lily-white as its image.
Patron Saints: George Clinton, James Brown, and Sly and the Family Stone to FM radio gods like Led Zeppelin and Rush.
Where to Start: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik; Jane’s Addiction, Nothing’s Shocking; Living Colour,Vivid; Primus, Frizzle Fry; Royal Crescent Mob, Spin the World; Fishbone, In Your Face. Sample Lyrics: “I’m a lowbrow but I rock a little know how/No time for the piggies or the hoosegow/Get smart, get down with the pow-wow/Never been a better time than right now” (Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Give It Away”).
U.K. DANCE POP What It Sounds Like: Pop with a postmodern twist. Britain now seems filled with bands like EMF, Primal Scream, Jesus Jones, and the Soup Dragons, who fuse hooky, unabashedly danceable tunes with the occasional bit of discordant sample or noise-guitar. (EMF’s 1991 hit, “Unbelievable,” should tip you off.) In the best tradition of mid-’60s British Invasion bands, much of it is upbeat, heady, and proudly disposable. Warning to veteran pop fans who feel prematurely old: Most of the bands look really young.
Patron Saints: A little bit of everything: ’70s disco acts, ’80s techno-pop pioneers like Depeche Mode, and U2.
Where to Start: EMF, Schubert Dip; Soup Dragons, Lovegod; Jesus Jones, Doubt; Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, God Fodder.
Sample Lyrics: “This could be so everlasting/ This could be like nothing else/And this could stay in seventh heaven/ And this will always be forever now” (The Soup Dragons, “Everlasting”).