My Voyage into Alt Rock

I’m mostly a classic rock you, but my interests are far and wide, eclectic so I’m told.

My wandering in the vast rock landscape has taken me to The Cure, The Smiths, Paul Westerberg, Modest Mouse, The Flaming Lips, The Cranberries, The Breeders, Wilco, World Party and others. The definitions of indie rock, alt rock and grunge are somewhat blurry. Generally, it is a tougher, guitar-driven form of rock.

That said, there are bands, very successful ones, that I fail to connect with their music. Foo Fighters, Raidiohead, Alice in Chains, Train, Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, Arcade Fire, Soundgarden, The White Stripes, Stone Temple Pilots and Beach House to name a few.

There are a few songs by The Smashing Pumpkins, The Black Keys and Red Hot Chili Peppers I enjoy. Eclectic acts like Aimee Man, Feist, Broken Social Scene, Bjork and Matthew Sweet are represented in my collection. So is Billie English.

When I hear music that appeals to me, I don’t care what the genre or label may be. In the early 1990s, when grunge and alt rock gained attention, bands like The Cure, The Church, New Order, Tears for Fears, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Peter Gabriel and U2 were creating sonic magic with dense layers of sound. It is less about the guitar or the synthesizer, and more about the attitude and ambience. Funny, I heard those words used to describe film noir. I describe alt rock / grunge / indie rock as gritty and unleashed.

So, my point of this meandering blog is about taking another pass at listening to some alt rock bands that I have avoided. In 1992, the film Singles, about a collection of 20-somethings in Seattle, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, had a killer soundtrack. It introduced me to the music of Paul Westerberg (The Replacements). Also on the soundtrack were Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, The Smashing Pumpkins, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam and others. I didn’t love every song on the soundtrack, but within the context of the film, it certainly did. When the soundtrack was rereleased, with bonus tracks, I grabbed it.

The one band that eluded me the most was Pearl Jam. I have borrowed a few CDs to listen to Pearl Jam. I never connected with their vibe, though I never made much effort to do so. In terms of mood and swagger, I think of The Doors, Jim Morrison unchained. I am not comparing them musically or even thematically, but the attitude is similar.

Pearl Jam has sold more than 85 million albums, including their debut album, Ten, released in 1991, which has sold more than 13 million copies. A number of sources identify them as the most successful rock band of the 1990s, certainly by record sales and concert tickets sold. You might recall them taking on the giant Ticketmaster over ticketing policies. Pearl Jam was not afraid to use their power and influence on issues they believed. One has to admire that.

I started with live the albums Let’s Play Two and MTV Unplugged. Live recordings are like greatest hits servings, bands are amped up and they fix any performance issues in the editing. You may not get all the overdubs of the studio, but technology and emotion can give modern concert recordings something special. Live recordings, whether you prefer it or not, can sound different enough from the original to have a freshness that can be inviting to someone who has heard the studio release over and over.

Ten was quite an eye-opener; Pearl Jam hasn’t had a comparable seller since, but their releases are still quite successful. Every recording artist would want a 13 million selling album. Ten is now 30 years old. Has it aged with grace?

Stay tuned for part 2.

5 thoughts on “My Voyage into Alt Rock

  1. Rock music seems to reshape itself with each new generation. Robert Wyatt said that most of us cling to the music of our youth, and I’m no exception. “Alt-Rock,” as it is known, was after my glory years. I’d already experienced the “alternative rock” of the British Invasion, folk-rock, psychedelic, progressive, country-rock, singer-songwriter, glam, punk, and New Wave. So when college radio stations began cranking out this darker, less harmonic extension of New Wave in the early ’80s, for me it was “Here we go again.”

    Re Pearl Jam, I remember hearing a song from their first album I really liked. Then it was ruined when I saw a live video , where Vedder climbed like a monkey into the stage rafters. He looked like a total idiot. Compounded by John Densmore’s (The Doors’ drummer) recollection of Vedder quizzing him about Jim Morrison. “You wanna be a dead rock star, Vedder? Really?” Despite that one song I liked, it became obvious to me that Vedder was more concerned with fashioning an image than making good music. Kind of what “Alt-Rock” was supposed to be opposed to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so right! That video of Vedder climbing the rigging in the video turned a LOT of people off the band. Then, when he gave interviews . . . and all you got was a bunch of pretentious, “sensitive artist” insecure mumbling — that turned off the rest. The final nail was their big Ticketmaster fight . . . going before Congress. Ugh. Those were the days!


  2. That I even know that Truly is a Soundgarden/Screaming Trees off-shoot — courtesy of bassist Hiro Yamamoto and drummer Mark Pickerel — is just part of the massive, utterly useless alt-rock trivia I retain. Sure, it was nice to have back in the heydays when I spun this stuff as “new releases,” but not so cool to still remember, now.

    Yeah, alt-rock is becoming “classic rock” these days, but do listeners, after hearing a Pearl Jam tune, need to hear a jock like me, tell them about their side projects, like Three Fish or Devil Head? Nope, LOL. Just one outta date and outta time dude, I am, with rock info that’s no longer relevant.

    I was not aware of the Singles re-issue, I’ll have to dig into that one. So, thanks for that! One you may want to look at is Deep Six. It’s a rather important Seattle compilation that came out on the indie C/Z that got an A&M reissue due to Soundgarden being on it with early local-band era tunes.

    A good read down memory lane!


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