NIRVANA SIGNS TO A MAJOR (or how Kim Gordon saved the world)
A truly seismic shift in popular culture happened 26 years ago today – but no one involved had any idea that what they were doing would fundamentally change the world, spell the commercial death of an entire musical genre and usher in what was the last true rock ‘n’ roll youth movement.
On this date in 1991, Nirvana signed with Geffen’s DGC records – a major label.
They sold out, maaaan!
Urged to sign Nirvana by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon (one of the many, many reasons she will be carved into the rock ‘n’ roll Mount Rushmore for all eternity), DGC took this essentially unknown trio from the incubator of legendary indie label Sub Pop and gave them a wider platform from which they’d launch the most complete rock revolution since the early punk era of the 1970s.
With a stroke of a pen, the insipid hair metal that had been a dominant genre for over half a decade was shot through the heart by Kurt Cobain.
They released Nevermind on September 24th of the same year. By September 25th, we lived in a different musical world. If you’re too young to have lived through it, well…
It was freakin’ glorious. It felt like we won.
What sometimes gets lost in the nerdy discussions of Nirvana’s impact is how much their success shattered conventional wisdom in the stodgy music industry. After Nevermind, some of the most head-scratchingly bizarre bands – all of whom would have been deemed unsignable before Nirvana – found themselves in the unlikely position of being courted by the majors. To me, this was one of the best aftershocks of the Cobain earthquake.
Let’s take a look at three of the truly outsider artists who scored major label deals in the wake of Nirvana.
- DANIEL JOHNSTON – Probably the most obvious example of an unlikely artist scoring a big deal due to Kurt is singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston. Kurt was a huge Johnston fan and sung his praises often. Though an undeniably gifted and unique talent, Johnston is schizophrenic. In fact, he was in a mental hospital while a major label bidding war was raging for his talents. He released the album Fun on Atlantic Records in 1994. Here’s a cool little short documentary about him:
- BUTTHOLE SURFERS – There’s absolutely NO WAY a band called “Butthole Surfers” gets signed to a major during the heyday of Poison, Winger and Warrant. Unquestionably among the most important and influential groups of the American Alternative movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Surfers combination of noise, spectacle and danger set the standard for unbridled hedonism among the smart set. They signed to Capitol in ’92 and released Independent Worm Saloon the following year. It was produced by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and still sounds awesome in the 21st century.
- ROYAL TRUX – I crack up when I think of Virgin Records throwing a pile of money at Royal Trux. Personally, I think they rock like hell; but the thought of the boardroom meeting where some eager young A&R rep pitched the band to his corporate overlords never fails to make me giggle like a lunatic. Royal Trux were dark, addicted and a total mess. Fronted by the beautiful (and beautifully damaged) Jennifer Herrema, RTX emerged from the New York noise scene that spawned bands like Pussy Galore and the John Spencer Blues Explosion. They’re my favorite band on this list. Check out this live performance from ’95:
It was a time of truly uninhibited creativity – or at least a time of uninhibited spending by major labels. It didn’t last very long, though. By the late ’90s, these big labels weren’t taking chances on edgy artists anymore. Poptarts and boybands were much easier to control, much easier to rip off and much easier to sell; so that’s what the world got.
But for a while it seemed like inspiration and perspiration could equal remuneration in the music biz. It was a fun time – and it was all because Kurt Cobain scrawled his name across a piece of paper 26 years ago.
NOT SO FAST – A REBUTTAL
by Jason Lent
As my RPM co-conspirator Jeff Nolan has so eloquently pointed out, Nirvana created a seismic shift in popular culture and was the “commercial death of an entire musical genre.” Seemingly overnight, society built a funeral pyre out of Winger and Warrant cassettes and set fire to David Coverdale’s Jaguar. For someone about to graduate high school and leave for college, this seismic shift really sucked.
I had spent the latter half of the 1980’s ingesting high amounts of sugary pop metal on MTV and was champing at the bit to turn 18, go to college and experience parties that would make Caligula (and maybe even Tommy Lee) blush. Finally, I was a freshman on campus in Tallahassee, FL only to discover it was totally uncool to listen to Cinderella’s Heartbreak Station. The tight leather pants and metal studded bras I expected to find strutting around my dorm were actually baggy flannel shirts. I’m certain there was less hairspray used in my entire dorm that first year than Slaughter used during the video shoot for “Up All Night.” Whoever that Bob Dylan was, he was right, the times were a changin’ and you could come as you are.
A week before Nevermind was released; Guns-n-Roses dropped the bloated mess that was Use Your Illusion 1 and 2. Axl and company had clearly lost their minds and were trying to turn a genre grounded in Aerosmith riffs and cleavage into some sort of higher art (the video for “November Rain” being exhibit one). It was pure crap to my ears and left the gates down for Nirvana’s coup d’état a few months later. But just as Nirvana’s revolution would breed some pretty awful music, hair metal’s glorious reign gave us some indisputably brilliant rock and roll albums. Here’s a set of stone cold classics that still get my teen spirit racing:
10. Tesla – Five Man Acoustical Jam
After Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora unplugged at the 1989 MTV Music Awards, the race was on to ditch the electric guitars and strip back the sound to showcase the musical talent. In a decade of over-production and walls of synthesizers, this was unfamiliar territory for many bands and fans. For Tesla, this actually worked because they had the chops and FMAJ was the first “unplugged” record for many hair metal aficionados.
9. Bon Jovi – Slippery When Wet
Three of the genre’s biggest songs on one record and the underrated “Never Say Goodbye” make this the only essential Bon Jovi record. It’s also the only one to have decent songs between the hits.
8. Whitesnake – Whitesnake
I am 100% positive I didn’t know who Deep Purple was when David Coverdale struck gold with “Here I Go Again” on MTV thanks to Tawny Kitean and a Jaguar. I certainly didn’t know Whitesnake had been around for a decade or that even “Here I Go Again” was just a synthed up reboot of one of their older songs. None of that mattered either. Hair metal was about selling teens a fantasy and for one album, Whitesnake did it better than the rest.
7. Ratt – Invasion of Your Privacy
What?! What about Out Of the Cellar? Three words: you’re in love. The opening track on Invasion of Your Privacy is one of the five best examples of what hair metal was all about from the sound to the video. Take a look:
6. Skid Row – Skid Row
Unlike Ted Nugent, when Skid Row titles a song “Big Guns” they aren’t talking about their hunting arsenal. Sebastian Bach had David Lee Roth’s star power without the buffooning. This band could hang with metal’s heavyweights when not giving us anthems like “Youth Gone Wild” and “I Remember You.”
5. Motley Cure – Girls Girls Girls
You could argue that Dr. Feelgood had the more memorable singles and that Shout at the Devil made a bigger impact on the genre. And you would be right. But Girls Girls Girls arrived at the right time (Feelgood came out much later than you probably remember) and the growing darkness in the band’s sound makes it far more interesting. “Wild Side” sounded like a band living too close to the edge and they were.
4. Def Leppard – Hysteria
In the 80’s, to be a famous hair metal band, you had to have one or two rocking singles – preferably about partying, booze, sex or all three; and the big ballad that made the girls swoon. With Hysteria, Def Leppard went off-script and released an album full of hit singles. It’s the pinnacle of glossy hair metal production thanks to Mutt Lange (who then poured this sugary formula all over country music once he started shagging Shania Twain) and the commercial highpoint of the genre.
3. Poison – Look What the Cat Dragged In
The prettiest boys in metal found the perfect balance of sleaze and glam on their debut. Open Up and Say Ah had the bigger hits and was nothing but a good time but Look What the Cat Dragged In sounds like a band still fighting to be heard on a crowded Sunset Strip. Side Two of the cassette, starting with “Talk Dirty to Me”, sounded exactly like I imagined a Friday night in Los Angeles to sound like.
2. Cinderella – Long Cold Winter
Cinderella’s name and Tom Keifer’s piercing wail might have turned off some but the band delivered three of the genre’s best albums. Their debut Night Songs had the mix of rockers and ballads with sharp videos to fit snugly between Poison and Whitesnake. With Long Cold Winter, the clock struck midnight and Cinderella turned into a badass blues rock band. Cinderella were a great 70’s rock band that stumbled into the wrong genre.
1. Guns-n-Roses – Appetite For Destruction
The greatest hard rock album of my lifetime. Everything else on this list is actually about twelve parsecs away from Appetite. The anger and darkness seething from the speakers told us about the underbelly of a music scene that was living too fast and dying too young. The perfect record from start to finish. If only Guns-n-Roses had just stopped right here….
REBUTTING THE REBUTTAL – FINAL WORD
by Jeff Nolan
Ay yi yi, Jason… Hysteria? That record sucked out loud and was everything wrong with the ’80s. If Nirvana only killed that one record, it still would have been worth it. Fortunately, they killed the whole insipid genre for a lot of years. As is often the case in the cyclical world of popular music, a new generation of folks have embraced the hair metal thing and it’s back. I want to shake those kids and say, “this sucked the first time! We don’t need to relive it!”
Appetite isn’t a hair metal record and doesn’t belong on your list. Nirvana didn’t kill G&R – they killed themselves.
If Cinderella and Tesla had hit the scene five years later, they would have been the Black Crowes; so I give them a pass.
I’m pretending you didn’t mention Poison so that I can keep my lunch in my guts.
Hair metal sucked.