"We had to die" - A history of The Grunge Wars, told by those who were there

 A gravestone bearing the inscription 'The Grunge Wars: 1989 - 1993)
A gravestone bearing the inscription 'The Grunge Wars: 1989 - 1993)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Hard rock owned the 80s. From Back In Black onwards, the classic albums swung in one after the next, as unstoppable as wrecking balls, breaking records and birthing legends. But by the end of the decade the priorities had shifted. Rock had become bloated, garish and frivolous; a pot-bellied, slurring shadow, and an irresistible target for those behind the raw, primal, urgent music being fused in the sweaty basements of Seattle.

In retrospect, the situation was not quite that black-and-white. Some ‘hair’ bands were still making great records in 1991, while others were already starting to change their sound. Many of the grunge musicians had been wearing hairspray five years before, and their talisman, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, was a fan of Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Metallica.

The simultaneous release in September that year of Nirvana’s back-to-basics Nevermind and Guns N’ Roses’ opulent, sprawling Use Your Illusion I and II laid out us-against-them battlelines that hadn’t been seen since John Lydon walked into Sex wearing a T-shirt that sneered: ‘I hate Pink Floyd’


Geoff Barton [editor of Kerrang! in 1991]: I was a huge fan of hair metal, but there comes a point where you think: “My God, that’s a bit silly” The whole party-hard, Mötley Crüe, Poison thing can only go on so long before you get a serious hangover.

Nikki Sixx [bassist, Mötley Crüe]: It wasn’t like a glass of champagne and a little line of cocaine, it was half a pound of cocaine and the whole champagne truck. I remember being at [LA rock club] The Cathouse. Riki Rachtman and Taime Downe were running it at the time. I asked them if they had a beer bottle cap. I spat in it, poured some cocaine in it and shot up right in front of them. They flipped out. I was like: “What’s the problem?” I didn’t get it, because that’s who we were. Our music didn’t really suffer. But we started to suffer as human beings, which started to affect our music.

Geoff Barton: If you say that 1987 was the height of hair metal, then by the end of the late 80s, the whole scene needed a massive shake-up. Grunge needed to happen, without a doubt – something was needed to turn the tide in rock. But I don’t think we anticipated the fallout.

Everett True [former Melody Maker journalist]: Seattle 1988 is where it [grunge] all started. People ask me what the attraction was. It was the energy. The insane amount of energy rising up through the boards of that town’s clubs.

Mike Tramp [ex-White Lion frontman]: To use surfing terminology, waves come in groups of 12. First come the big ones – Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. The next two or three waves were bands like Poison, White Lion and Cinderella. By wave 10 or 11 you’d passed Trixter, Hericane Alice and another 10 other bands with a bleach-blond singer.

CC DeVille [guitarist, Poison]: Everyone would look at the image of the band and think we were poseurs. They wouldn’t even listen to the shit, they’d just see the make-up.

Seb Hunter [author, Hell Bent For Leather]: They were ripe for the picking, for a cull, for death. And that was exactly what happened next. I fell in love with Kurt Cobain straight away. I got it all, saw it all and knew that he was right – we had to die.

Everett True: Unlike metal, which by the late 80s had degenerated into a bad LA parody coupled with dullard sexism, grunge had an impassioned urgency.

Kurt Cobain [frontman, Nirvana]: We’re just musically and rhythmically retarded. We play so hard that we can’t tune our guitars fast enough. People can relate to that.

Kirk Hammett [guitarist, Metallica]: When we were recording the Black album, I was listening to this band that was on this independent record label, and I was really into their first album. I sat down with the singer. His name was Kurt, and he said that one of his favourite albums was Ride The Lightning and one of his favourite Metallica songs was Whiplash. I can remember when we played in Seattle, Kurt came to the show – he was in The Snakepit – and I remember the entire time we were playing he kept on waving his arms at me. I went over there to see what he had to say, and his one question was: “Are you guys gonna play Whiplash tonight?” We did, and he was just loving it.

Nikki Sixx: Grunge was just [existing music] repackaged. Soundgarden were the new Black Sabbath, Pearl Jam was like Doors-ish-type stuff.

Jerry Cantrell [guitarist, Alice In Chains]: I don’t know if anyone feels comfortable with that title [grunge]. As far as I look at it, we’re all rock’n’roll bands to various degrees, drawing from all sorts of different influences: from pop to punk to metal to rock, you name it.

At midnight on September 17, 1991, 4.2 million copies of Use Your Illusion I and II went on sale in America. A week later, Nevermind landed. Suddenly, with albums bidding for the cold, hard cash of music fans, the sense of a changing of the guard wasn’t just a notion but a reality, with many of the hair bands fielding doomsday calls from their labels. You didn’t have to pick a side, but most bands, magazines and fans did.

Ed Rosenblatt [president, Geffen Records]: We didn’t do anything. Nevermind was just one of those ‘get out of the way and duck’ records.

Jack Endino [producer of Nirvana’s Bleach]: We had major-label signings of Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Nirvana… Normally, with any record on a major label 98 per cent of them crash and burn and sell 1,000 copies. And all these records did well. There was a total shift in the attention of the public.

Krist Novoselic [bassist, Nirvana]: It announced the new guard in rock music. The new regime.

Steve Brown [guitar, Trixter]: Nevermind wiped out our whole genre and I didn’t even see it coming. We were living in a bubble. We realised there was a problem when MTV wouldn’t add the video for Road Of A Thousand Dreams, from our second album, Hear!.

Guy Griffin [guitarist, The Quireboys]: The explosion they created definitely affected The Quireboys. Our second album, Bitter Sweet & Twisted, was delayed over and over again. Had the label released it sooner we might have ridden the storm. Although we never saw ourselves as part of any particular scene, we became musical lepers.

Luke Morley [guitarist, Thunder]: Grunge made life very difficult for us in America. The first album [Back Street Symphony] sold 250,000 copies without us even going there. We were two days away from leaving for a package tour with David Lee Roth when the call came: stay home, it will be cancelled. And it was. Almost overnight, America’s mainstream rock radio stations had shifted format to grunge. When we did get over there we played a prophetic show for RIP magazine: ourselves, Spinal Tap, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, The Screaming Trees and Alice In Chains. As we played, half the audience hissed throughout… because we weren’t grunge.

Mike Tramp: I wasn’t smart enough to anticipate the cull. Towards the end, I had to pretend to be Sebastian Bach to get [label boss] Doug Morris to come out of his office and see me.

Tom Keifer [frontman, Cinderella]: What I objected to was the way the industry adopted Nirvana as an image statement. The blanket, across-the-board dismissal of everything that went before appalled me.

Dana Strum [bassist, Slaughter]: Music has always been cyclical, but what caught me off guard was the way the flock of sheep swung so quickly against bands like mine. It was almost like religious programming. I still don’t know how much of the grunge era was a natural development or was planned by a team of radio consultants.

Geoff Barton: I don’t see that the whole Mötley Crüe-versus-Eddie Vedder thing as a media-created thing. It was much more basic and visceral. It came from the grassroots. Kerrang! was a real melting pot at that time. We were coming to grips with grunge, but we also couldn’t strip away our heritage, so we’d have Soundgarden on the cover one week, Mötley Crüe the next. We didn’t really see it as an immense clash, although a vast proportion of our readership did. There was a huge divide.

Vinnie Paul [drummer, Pantera]: Grunge had no effect on us. Pantera were not changing for shit. We liked a lot of the grunge bands, and it was time for the party-metal vibe to die. But to even suggest Pantera would jump on the bandwagon is laughable.

Geoff Barton: I think your traditional bulletbelted metal fan was genuinely upset by these bands coming along and stealing the thunder of the traditional metal fanbase, and finding that a lot of their mates were defecting to another area of music. At Kerrang! we did our best to publicise grunge bands, but I don’t think we anticipated the backlash from the grass-roots level. We didn’t think of the dichotomy between grunge and the whole classic metal, hair-metal thing, we just chucked it all in the mix. We didn’t anticipate the great divide.

Axl Rose [frontman, GN’R, speaking in 1992]: I had an advance copy of that record [Nevermind] and it became my favourite. I would put it on repeatedly. Nirvana has helped me do my job. I think that the world has gotten really bored, really fed up and really pent-up with frustration. And that comes through in Nirvana. I think a lot of people were aware of that feeling, and he happened to find the song that touched it and was able to let that feeling out in people. And I’d like to do anything I can to support it. That’s why we want them to play with us.

Dave Grohl [frontman, Foo Fighters/ex-Nirvana drummer]: When Nevermind came out, Axl Rose was a big fan. Guns N’ Roses was about to do this massive stadium tour with Metallica, and they wanted us to open. So Axl had been calling Kurt non-stop. One day we’re walking through an airport and Kurt says: “Fuck, Axl Rose won’t stop calling me…” I think it represented something bigger. Nirvana didn’t want to turn into GN’R. So Kurt started talking shit in interviews, and then Axl started talking back. It went back and forth like tenth-grade bullshit.

Axl Rose [from the stage in 1992]: We’ve had our share of problems with so-called ‘alternative’ bands. What is this word? All that means to me is someone like Kurt Cobain in Nirvana who basically is a fucking junkie with a junkie wife.

Kurt Loder [presenter, MTV]: The backstage thing [at the VMA Awards in September 1992] was the most interesting, because it was Courtney [Love] and it was Kurt and it was Axl. It was like two worlds colliding. That was sort of an important moment in the way fashions changed, and you saw the culture of music going in a slightly different way.

Kurt Cobain: Axl walked by, and Courtney and I just jokingly said: “Axl, will you be the godfather of our child?” He turned around and started pointing his finger, aggressive and mean, threatening to beat me up. I couldn’t help but laugh, because I hadn’t been in that situation since I was in sixth grade.

First the explosion, then the fallout. Death or defiance had been the early options, but as the 90s gathered pace more bands chose to jump on the bandwagon. Although grunge had already peaked when Cobain took his own life on April 5, 1994, its ethos was still palpable by the post-millennium, in ‘nu metal’. But, with two decades of hindsight, did anyone actually win the grunge wars?

Kurt Cobain: Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I’m embarrassed by it now. It’s closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk rock record.

Everett True: The scene soon degenerated. Grunge started to die the moment it became exposed to the outside world, as all scenes do; as soon as the hangers-on and major-label A&R men in town started to outnumber the creative people, the artists, musicians and fanzine editors.

Jack Endino: Musically, grunge became commercial heavy rock around ’94/’95. Creed are the new Whitesnake. Without the snake.

Billy Corgan [frontman, Smashing Pumpkins]: It was shocking to see Nirvana play, because it was like, here’s this little guy with a monster guitar sound. Around the mid-90s it stopped being shocking, as every hair guy suddenly decided he was alternative.

Mike Tramp: By the time of White Lion’s final show I’d already begun mentally assembling my next band, Freak Of Nature. The colourful outfits became a Pearl Jam T-shirt and camouflage pants. Sure, I was sometimes called a bandwagonjumper. But it felt like a natural progression.

Phil Collen [guitarist, Def Leppard]: We’d felt a real sting from Adrenalize. The whole grunge thing had come out. And quite rightly, because there was such a load of old shit. Slang was refreshing, to do something different. It wasn’t just: ‘let’s get rocked!’

Jerry Dixon [bassist, Warrant]: Dog Eat Dog was a more grown-up record, with less of the sexual innuendo. It was darker and heavier and there were some tracks that could fit in with what Alice In Chains were doing.

Scott Weiland [frontman, Stone Temple Pilots]: For a while there I felt uncomfortable being myself. I would go through a period of insecurity because of the whole grunge, anti-fashion, anti-star thing. I’d intentionally tone down what I wore. I didn’t feel happy about it.

Stephen Lawson [Editor, Total Guitar]: Grunge’s effect on guitar music was felt most sharply at the end of the 90s, when producers more or less banned solos from the studio. You had players like Mick Thomson sitting on their hands.

Mick Thomson [guitarist, Slipknot]: Anything less than perfect technique is a hindrance, but my solos got stripped off the first record. I spent my life playing guitar, and [producer] Ross Robinson took my solos from me.

Stephen Lawson: But then the press and public got sick of nu metal and its lack of fret wanking. It was time for a change, we all felt that.

Geoff Barton: Who won the grunge wars? There’s certainly an argument that grunge was more transient, and hair metal had more longevity. The rock scene bounced back. Grunge definitely sent them packing for a bit, underground to their hairmetal bunkers… but they re-emerged, blinking, Morlock-like, and teased up their hair once again.

Jerry Dixon: Warrant is still around, which you can’t say about most of the Seattle bands.

Steve Brown: We got back together in 2008, and there’s still a lot of work out there. We feel like a classic rock band.

Dana Strum: The business people around us advised us to buy flannel shirts and grow facial hair. We told them to fuck off. By 1998 the music began to find its legs again. People still want to hear it.

Andy Cairns [frontman, Therapy?]: People look back on the 90s as if they totally destroyed hair metal, but really it was just a different type of hair that came along.