The Great Grunge Explosion of 1991

by Greg Prato

2021 marks 30 years since four bands from Seattle helped – seemingly immediately – shift the direction of rock music globally.

Of course, I'm talking about a period of just a few months in which Alice in Chains (who hit in the summer of '91 with the single/video "Man In The Box," off 1990's Facelift), Pearl Jam (Ten was released on August 27th), Nirvana (Nevermind was released on September 24th), and Soundgarden (Badmotorfinger was released on October 8, 1991) all did their part.

To celebrate, how about a few tasty excerpts from my 2009 book, Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, in which we take a look back on all four bands and their landmark releases.

Alice in Chains' "Man In The Box" hits in the summer of '91

Susan Silver [Soundgarden/Alice in Chains manager, ex-wife of Chris Cornell]: They'd gotten up to the level where they could play the Moore Theatre - which is 1,500. Alice played, and it was amazing. And it got filmed. Donny Ienner had the idea to bundle it for 40,000 copies with this concert video on VHS with Facelift, and that coincided with "Man In The Box" taking off at radio. A million records later, they were on the map.

Jerry Cantrell [Alice in Chains guitarist]: "Man In The Box" hit, and everything changed. When that song hit, we sold half a million records. I think we toured for eight fucking months, and sold 40,000 records. Then that song hit, and boom, there it went.

As far as "Man In The Box" goes, I've had conversations with the record company about this, and everybody conveniently forgets the fact that nobody really liked that song [laughs]. They thought it was too slow and dirgey. There was some discussion about it maybe not being on the record, and we're like, "Fuck that - that song is killer."

Sean Kinney [Alice in Chains drummer]: I thought it would have been "Sea Of Sorrow" more. I mean, there were other songs, like "Sunshine," that I thought would have been a bigger radio type of tune. That one just latched on for some reason. Somebody paid somebody somewhere! Isn't that how it works? Somebody pays somebody a shitload of money to play it all the time [laughs].

Pearl Jam release Ten on August 27, 1991

Jonathan Plum [Engineer (Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains)]: I did hear that Eddie was living on the couch [of the recording studio] for a while, when they were making the record.

Cathy Faulkner [KISW DJ]: They were recording Ten - one of our former disc jockeys was down there when they were mixing, and I went to give him a ride home. Got to listen to some initial tracks. The first time I heard them and really thought, "Oh my God," was in the studio. Instantly, I knew they were the real deal. They were raw, passionate, and there was a certain reckless abandon that Eddie had onstage that I hadn't seen a lead singer have in years. It was not only refreshing - it was infectious.

Eddie Vedder [Pearl Jam/Temple of the Dog singer]: Our record is getting mixed, and now it's getting ready to be put out. It was like, "What's the goal here?" There was the magic number of 40,000 - for some reason I remember that. "If you can sell 40,000, they'll let you make another one." I don't know if that was true or not - that was what we were being told. Then we made our "Alive" video and did a couple of things. It seemed like we were getting opportunities. You could start to feel the pot simmering.

Cathy Faulkner: When they recorded the "Alive" video at RKCNDY, it was 120 degrees inside, but there wasn't a person you could talk into going outside and getting fresh air. They didn't want to turn it into "a Hollywood video shoot," so they just played it twice - at the beginning of the set and at the end. Whatever they got, they got.

Eddie Vedder: I think with the advent of MTV and us putting stage diving in "Alive," [it] was regretful, because then it was like training videos for how to jump in the crowd - like that was the mode of expression. It wasn't the same version that was happening at early Social D or X shows. It got to be a distorted MTV version, and now it was like every frat boy buying a pair of spikes from the corner novelty shop, putting spikes on their big white gym shoes, and doing it. And guys that were way too big to have any business landing on people. It got out of control real quick.

Nirvana release Nevermind on September 24, 1991

Steve Mack [The Thrown Ups/That Petrol Emotion singer]: When Nirvana played the Reading Festival that first year, it was on a Friday at two or three in the afternoon - they were, like, ninth on the bill. But after that, everyone was walking around going, "The festival's over. We just saw the best [band] - nothing's going to top that." That was one of those rare times in your life when you see a band, and go, "I guarantee they are going to be the biggest thing next year."

Craig Montgomery [Nirvana's soundman]: It was a very steady progression. You would hear them working on ideas at sound checks. You could see him moving away from the really heavy, noisy stuff, towards more pop melodies. I mean, on the first European tour, we spent just as much time listening to ABBA as to any kind of noisy punk rock or heavy metal. Kurt definitely had an appreciation for pop song craft. The first time they played me their rough demo of "Teen Spirit," my first thought I said to Kurt was, "Wow, Pixies!" And he said, "Yeah, I know. Do you think it's too obvious?"

Eddie Vedder: Nirvana's record - people were passing around advance copies of that. Like it was a keychain - everyone had one. Everyone's office, you'd just hear it playing. Really exciting. But that was based just on music - everyone was excited about the songs. That was months before it came out.

Art Chantry [Concert poster artist, album cover designer]: I was working at The Rocket, and a guy brought in a cassette tape. These two records by Nirvana and Soundgarden were being released - we had this 90-minute cassette in the production room, it was Badmotorfinger and Nevermind on the other side. So we started playing it - "Hey this is a great record!" Flipped it over. "Hey, this is a great record!" We flip it over. "Hey, this is a REALLY great record!" After a while, we quit flipping it and just played Nevermind over and over.

Van Conner [Screaming Trees bassist]: Krist came over to Dan Peters' house - we were having a party. Dan, him, and I listened to Nevermind right after it got done. We were like, "Wow, this is really good man. You guys are going to sell... 100,000 records [laughs]. You guys will be bigger than Hüsker Dü."

And... Soundgarden release Badmotorfinger on October 8, 1991

Matt Cameron [Soundgarden/Temple of the Dog/Pearl Jam drummer]: We rehearsed our asses off. We did a lot of [1991's Badmotorfinger] at our friend's studio, Avast! Our old soundman, Stuart Hallerman, let us hole up in his new studio for what seemed like months - at least three or four months - rehearsing these songs, working on music. So by the time we got down to Sausalito, California, we recorded at this place called Studio D - that was suggested to us by Faith No More. We used Terry Date again. We never really went into the city - we were very workman-like. I think we recorded the bass and drums down there for two weeks, then we came up to Seattle again, and overdubbed the guitars and vocals at Bear Creek Studios in Woodinville, Washington. They had a really cool Jack Russell Terrier there. The sessions were pretty quick and efficient.

Kim Thayil [Soundgarden guitarist]: We kind of knew prior to the album's release that ["Outshined"] was going to be slated as a single. I actually thought they'd work more on "Somewhere" or "Mind Riot." I don't know how big it was as a single - I wasn't a big radio listener or MTV watcher. I didn't get Cable TV until '94 or '95. So when I saw our videos, it was on tour in a hotel.

Susan Silver: That was the symbol of things changing in the industry, and the dedication of A&M to really help break Soundgarden. ["Outshined"] at a label with less support - maybe it wouldn't have gotten the sort of radio play, because the promotion staff wouldn't have been so focused on it, or the relationship with MTV wouldn't have been into play on that track. Amazing song and all the right circumstances surrounding it to have it promoted properly.

Ben Shepherd [Soundgarden bassist]: That whole year of Badmotorfinger seemed like "Whooom! Where did it go?" It was like stepping into a fucking dragster and going for it.

September 16, 2021

Get Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, at Amazon.

Further reading:
Pearl Jam Songfacts entries
Nirvana Songfacts entries
Interview with Kim Thayil of Soundgarden
100 Things Pearl Jam Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die - An Excerpt
Interview with Chad Channing of Nirvana
Hidden Gem Of Grunge - The Story Of Truly
Fact or Fiction: Grunge Edition

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