In August of 1991, film maker/director David Markey and Sonic Youth were sitting together in a hotel room in Ireland during their European tour. Jet-lagged and tired, they sat and watched Motley Crue on MTV, who after the release of Dr. Feelgood in 1989 were one of the biggest, most commercially successful bands of the time. Overall, glam rock was still the type of stuff that was filling the radio, stadium tours, and mass appeal for what people seemed to want from their music. So, when the Crue covered the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K.” Markey uttered the snarky remark “1991: The Year Punk Broke”. Everyone laughed, and according to Markey this became the running joke that can be heard throughout the tour he was filming as part of a Sonic Youth documentary.
This documentary also included a circus of other underground punk, or what people had coined “alternative” or “grunge” bands that were all relatively unknown to most of mainstream music. Little did Markey know, his statement would soon become somewhat ironic as he filmed bands like Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, Gumball, and Nirvana moments before they would officially break open the dam for commercial mainstream punk success, flooding the public with a musical attitude and approach that had been primarily isolated and sequestered in the punk community up to this point. Sure, if you were already into the punk or underground rock scene at the time, even if you just listened to the majority of college radio in the years leading up to it, then this explosion probably wasn’t as dramatic. But, in terms of the mass, mainstream and commercial music scene and its fans, this was their introduction to something completely raw and new.
21 years later, the 1992 film of this tour that was appropriately titled “1991: The Year Punk Broke” still sums up the year better than most reflections on music at the time. The notion of punk ever breaking out of the place it had resided in for the past twenty plus years seemed absurd. In an interview with the New York Times, Markey even states “Sonic Youth had already witnessed the commercial failure of the Replacements and Husker Du, and the musicians anticipated nothing more than a slightly easier ride after touring by van in the ‘80s.” Lee Ranaldo, Sonic Youth’s guitarist, described this period of time by saying “I guess we never expected that just around the corner there was this other level of success for a band that came out of our scene.”
The poster child for this level of newfound punk success falls most heavily on Nirvana. With the release of Nevermind on September 24, 1991, it replaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album at number one on the charts by January of 1992 and has gone on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide. Furthermore, this album more than any other is considered to be the album that sparked the cultural viability of “grunge” music to a large mainstream audience.
This influx of alternative rock suddenly led to having albums like Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger at the front of any mall record store sitting right next to C+C Music Factory’s Things that Make you go Hmmmm, Color Me Badd’s I Wanna Sex You Up, and Gerardo’s Rico Suave. A time where kids across the world were suddenly asking the DJ at their middle school dance to play “In Bloom” to follow up their best awkward Robin Hood slow dance routine to Bryan Adams “Everything I Do I Do it for You”.
You can't keep a good Roxette down
Sure, the standard forgettable pop shenanigans still dominated the airwaves and charts. Amy Grant told us about her “Baby Baby”, the Divinyls prompted us to all touch ourselves, and Paula Abdul dropped some silky pop maneuvers with “Rush Rush”. But, suddenly there seemed to be a huge number of easily accessible new and old bands playing music that rocked your face with an intense rawness. Formerly relegated to college radio, cities had to suddenly create entirely new alternative radio stations to play all of this seemingly new music that didn’t fit into their current station formats. Almost overnight, there was a new diversity in mainstream music that was not previously as apparent. It was the year it broke into common dinner table conversations, onto magazine covers, late night talk shows, and t-shirts at the mall.
This growth in the alternative music scene as the new norm was given an even larger push as bands who had been a part of the scene for some time, like R.E.M., the Pixies, Metallica, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers put out some of their strongest albums of their career - Out of Time, Trompe Le Monde, Metallica (the black album), and Blood Sugar Sex Magick, respectively. Soon enough, songs like “Losing My Religion”, “Enter Sandman”, and “Under the Bridge” could be heard just as easily as Extreme’s “More than Words”, Boyz II Men’s “Mowtownphilly”, or “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch. And when U2, who was already one of the biggest bands in the world, they completely reinvented their sound with the edgier alternative textures of Achtung Baby, alternative music was launched into high gear.
But the true icing on the cake was the creation and launch of the first annual Lollapalooza alternative music festival by Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell. With a lineup that included Sioxsie and the Banshees, Nine Inch Nails, Living Colour, Ice-T & Body Count, Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band, Violent Femmes, Fishbone, Emergency Broadcast Network, and Rage Against the Machine, it garnered some criticism from the likes of Steve Albini, for its corporatization of popularized “alternative” music. Albini has said “It is just a large scale marketing of bands that pretend to be alternative but are in reality just another facet of the mass cultural exploitation scheme.” Viewpoints such as these soon became more and more apparent as punk broke into the mainstream and many of the people that had held the ideology of punk so close to them now viewed many of these bands and music that goes against the very basic tenets and social beliefs of their culture.
Alternative people doing alternative things
Luckily for these folks, there was a fair share of great music being produced outside of commercial success that would be found at the time and for some, much later, to inspire countless musicians. With Loveless, a masterpiece two and a half years in the making, My Bloody Valentine inspired an entire scene of imitators and continues to influence how people express themselves musically today. Fugzi continued to inspire every hardcore band in existence with Steady Diet of Nothing, their most overtly political hardcore record to date with. Slint mastered the post-rock quiet-loud format that would commonly be utilized from this point forward on Spiderland. Plus, the Melvins, Jesus Lizard, Mudhoney, Jawbox, Pennywise, and Pegboy all dropped punk bombs on the scene.
Even with these releases, some fans continued to hold strongly onto their core punk ideologies, blaming the now mainstream punk bands for turning a community that thrived on rebelling against the status quo into the status quo. In addition, with this increase in accessibility of alternative rock, there soon came an oversaturation of punk/grunge bands and under-saturation of quality in the years to follow, causing some backlash against the whole scene as the nineties wore along.
However, 21 years out one could argue the importance of the overall byproduct of effectively infusing alternative music into the mainstream. Sure, it soon meant an industry filled with bands that were just playing the part of alternative rockers to take advantage of what others had worked so hard to make. But, on the flip side, it provided more people with experiences with music that diversified their perceptions of the cultural viability of different art forms as emotional ways of expressing themselves through music. Furthermore, this acceptance of increased diversity within mainstream music can now be heard throughout all forms of music today more than at any time before.
So, as time has passed and the dust has started to settle, we are beginning again to see and truly realize and appreciate the influences of many of these bands on modern music. Next time you see groups like Deer Tick, Blitzen Trapper or tUnE-yArDs, take note of their attitude that continues to permeate and drive them to tap into a raw, primal form of expression. A form of expression that is not restrained or limited in any way by barriers we may have thought existed at some time in music. This idea alone truly reminds us about why 1991 was so important. This was the year when punk broke, and broke through, in every way to provoke a major paradigm shift in modern music towards a space where there are only barriers created by the people who don’t see and appreciate the infinite musical possibilities that lay in front of them.