Was not The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Joy Division, They Might Be Giants, and a bunch of other bands prior to 1991 both alt rock and popular?
Basically, no. Those bands were semi-popular, but alt rock didn’t achieve mainstream success until Nirvana.
I have an interesting take on this subject.
Nevermind was released in late 1991. I think that I heard it a little bit, but didn’t pay it any attention because I was a metalhead, and this was not metal(Even with the lyric about being a metal group in the song).
In Feb 1992 I enlisted in the Navy. My entire world at that point became preparation for boot camp. I left for boot camp in April of 1992. In boot camp, at least at that time, you ad very little contact with pop culture. When I graduated boot camp, I attended a 1 month training course at Great Lakes, so my boot camp experience was just over 3 months long. When I got home in late July, it was as if Nirvana had taken over the world. All my friends had T-shirts. My girlfriend, who was definitely not into any of the bands listed above, couldn’t wait to play it for me. It was like the entire musical landscape had changed while I was away.
I do not beleive that the theory that Nirvana made alt rock popular is revisionism. Nirvana single handedly ended the 80’s Metal scene.
And I still hate them for it
Pearl Jam’s Alive was the song that made my friends and I think that the music we’d been listening to for a few years had finally arrived on the scene. It bore more of a resemblance to bands like REM than Nirvana did. Though, I think Nirvana’s impact on the music world was ultimately far more important and wide-reaching. They almost single-handedly killed 80’s hair rock.
I was in my 20’s when these bands were at there height and can honestly say I can’t remember one of there songs. They were perceived as niche bands for fringe people with blue hair and spikes (and god forbid, piercings :eek: ) . I recall first seeing Nirvana on MTV (the “real” MTV that showed videos) and turning to my girlfriend at the time (what’s her name) and saying these guys are onto something.
Nope. I know it’s difficult to image with today’s easy availability of music, as well as the selective memory of a generation who tries to pretend that most of our music wasn’t total crap (who remembers Jody Watley, really?) but back in the day, new and interesting music was fairly difficult to find. Most of us who were into the bands you mention had an older sibling in college or friends who did, or lived near a college town that had a radio station dedicated to and run by college students. College radio DJs could largely play what they wanted to, not what was on a programmed play list like the mainstream stations, and so unusual or “alternative” music was available there. But if you were out of their rather low powered range, you were out of luck.
Have you seen the movie “The Breakfast Club”? The only one of those students who would have certainly listened to any of your bands was Allison. (Bender would have listened to metal, Claire and Andrew pop. The only one who is unpredictable is Brian - he probably listened to some pop and some alternative and some classical, and if anyone ever came over, he’d quickly hide the “wrong” music before they saw it lying around.) Yes, it was fairly easy and fairly accurate to predict what kind of music a person listened to based on their clothing choices and their social group.
(I was a Brian - I loved musicals and classical and metal and pop and had a few Cure, Smiths and Joy Division, etc. records my older brother exposed me to, but depending on who came over, I’d have a frantic few moments of scrambling to hide the stuff they’d make fun of me for.)
And I still love them for it.
When I was in high school (graduated in 91 so hit college when Nirvana started to come out), The Cure, Depeche Mode, Joy Division & The Smiths was music the weirdo art students and loners listened to. No one in the “popular crowd” would have been seen openly listening to them, wearing a t-shirt, etc.
They Might Be Giants was more along the line of the eccentric-happy weirdos versus the mopey-black wearing weirdos.
[Breakfast Club’s Bender would have struck me as either a metal guy or one of the Zepplin/Floyd listening burnouts from my day]
I’ve got to say, with the exception of Depeche Mode, which is probably more notable for its longevity than for huge success, none of those bands listed were really all that popular.
In 1999, I was in a very remote part of Northern Thailand in a small village. There were probably 2,000 people who lived in the neighboring areas. I came across a bar and stopped in for dinner and a beer, and they were playing Nevermind. There is just no chance that this forgotten hamlet would ever have been playing They Might Be Giants.
There’s no question at all that Nirvana made the genre popular.
Agree. Love them or hate them for it, but you can’t deny them.
I would qualify that statement to say that Nirvana and Pearl Jam made “grunge” alt rock popular. Jangly power-pop alt rock was already popular with nerds and preppies thanks to bands like U2 and REM. Alternative bands like Alice in Chains, Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Blues Travelers were already starting to get serious airplay.
But it was Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Pearl Jam’s Alive that seemed to really strike a chord with my generation in ways that bombastic heavy metal stopped doing after 1991.
I was in high school when Nirvana became big. In 1990-91 bands like Poison, Guns and Roses, Bon Jovi, Ratt, and Warrant were still fairly popular. Cherry Pie by Warrant came out in 1990, and, as hard as it is to believe right now, they didn’t look ridiculous at the time. But by 1993 their look was kind of silly. I can only speak from what I observed but there was a big shift in what people listened to after Nirvana became popular when it came to rock. The weird thing is that grunge really didn’t seem to last too long.
I would say the Cure were fairly well known. “Love Song” hit number two on the Hot 100 in 1989–their best showing for a single. Even the singles off Wish didn’t climb into the single digits on the pop chart. I didn’t listen to much but mainstream and classic rock at the time, but I very much knew who the Cure and Depeche Mode were. Not the others until later.
Returning to the question, I would say that, yes, Nirvana and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the watershed moment where hair rock quickly went out and “alternative” really became mainstream. Pearl Jam’s “Alive” and Ten album in general would also work for me.
To me, and in the parlance of the time, those bands weren’t the same genre. They were New Wave, Nirvana was Alternative Rock. Their audience blends now, and did to a great extent then, but when people in the 90’s were talking about Alternative music, they were probably talking about Rock, and that meant Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, etc. And Nirvana absolutely paved the way for those. As others have mentioned too, none of those bands blew up a big as Nirvana did.
They certainly were classified generally as alternative in my neck of the woods.
We also need to give U2 and REM some credit. Joshua Tree came out in 1987 and REM’s first major-label album came out 3 years prior to Nevermind and both charted several hits. They were the first alt rock bands to go mainstream, and opened the door for a lot of what was to come. But, Nevermind gets a lot of credit because it changed so much about what was played after them.
Also, didn’t Alive come out before SLTS? I don’t think Nirvana necessarily paved the way for Pearl Jam.
I call shenanigans on the Nirvana claim. REM’s album “Green” was double platinum in the US (1988), and “Out of Time” (1991) was an even more enormous mainstream success. It hit number 1 album in the US, UK, Canada, France, Italy and in a couple other countries. In terms of sales, it was quadruple-platinum in the US.
REM’s Georgian fellow travelers, the B-52s were also very mainstream, although not as popular in the big picture. “Love shack” hit Billboard #3 single in 1989.
Nirvana was at the peak of the wave, but it had been building momentum for a couple of years. Alternative was not all about the "whiner music " genre (the cure, the smiths, DM, etc).
Yes, REM was definitely becoming popular slightly earlier. Same with the B-52s. But, being around at that time during my musical development, it didn’t seem like either of those had the mainstream impact of either Nirvana or Pearl Jam in terms of steering a large segment of popular music taste as a whole. The B-52s with songs like “Love Shack” and “Roam” didn’t really sound all that different to me than the music going on in the late 80s on the radio: it was kind of fun, happy, dancy pop music. Same with the popular REM songs. Nirvana and Pearl Jam (and then Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.) all sounded different than what was usually played on mainstream stations, and it was a completely new musical experience to me in a way bands like REM, the B-52s, and U2 weren’t. It really does feel to me like around 1991-1992, my music tastes rapidly expanded and I began exploring all sorts of music because of bands like Nirvana (the Vaselines, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Melvins, the Pixies) and, to a lesser extent, Pearl Jam. And radio certainly changed, with “alternative” stations like Q101 popping up here in Chicago.
Depeche Mode, Erasure, et al. certainly got some play on “Top 40 stations” during the 8s and early 90s. I clearly remember my 12 year old self playing Nintendo while singing “Policy of Truth”. I didn’t even know college radio existed.
Seems to me what Nirvana and Pearl Jam did was make alt music a marketable genre. So in that way, yes, they certainly made alt music popular. Prior to grunge being a “thing”, a lame-o like me who didn’t know about college radio and didn’t have the wherewithal to buy music had to wait patiently through reps of Jodie Whatley (who I fully respect, btw), Roxette, and Wilson Phillips on the local Today’s Hits! radio station. Maybe they would play REM or The Cure…and when they did, it would always be the blandest REM or The Cure song they could find. But shortly after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves, a lot of those cheesy Top 40 stations started playing nothing but alternative music. Suddeny a lame-o like me could tune in to hear an unadulterated stream of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Susie and the Banshees, and yes, Nirvana, and actually feel a part of a real subculture without being in it for reals.
That’s my feeling on it. REM and B-52s were known to “mainstream” audiences but more as almost novelty acts with the peppy fun songs. I’m sure some people were viewing REM as a watershed act but it wasn’t the people singing along with “Stand”
on the Top 40 stations. I didn’t really see people taking REM seriously until I was in college (1991). Again, I’m sure they had fans who already did but I’m talking about mainstream penetration. Just my experience/memories though.