Not too long ago, a photograph of seven audio cassettes went viral. And with good cause. The stack of old tapes stood as a symbol of one of the most significant six weeks in modern rock history. Each album in the shot was an era-defining banger that influenced subsequent artists. Their echoes reverberate through the charts today.
Nirvana, Nevermind; Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger; Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik; Guns ‘N Roses, Use Your Illusion I&II; Pearl Jam, Ten; and Metallica’s The Black Album. Three of the albums were debuts (Ten, Nevermind and Badmotorfinger). Individually each were important enough: taken together, they signified nothing less than the birth of a cultural movement and a new direction in rock music.
Remarkably, not only were they all released in the same year, 1991, they were all released within just 44 days of each other. Three were released on the same day, September 24th, which has since been described as the most consequential day in modern music history, a cultural youthquake in which the conventional was overtaken by the alternative.
The albums represent a rock renaissance and a move away from convention. The commonly held theory for the popular embrace of the alternative sound contained in those LPs is that come the nineties, the kids were fed up with the hair metal and pop of the late eighties.
In the U.S., the decade that began with AC/DC, New Wave, Prince, The Police and Michael Jackson’s Thriller had ended with Tiffany, Bobby Brown and Milli Vanilli (who didn’t even sing on their own record). In the UK Ska, New Romantic and Indie acts had been muscled out of the charts by bubble gum pop sung by Australian soap stars, churned out via Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s sonic production line.
But while this musical disaffection is undoubtedly part of the story, it is not the full narrative, as Russ Robinson, host of Infectious Groove Podcast explains.
“There’s a revisionist version of history that says at the start of the nineties everyone was fed up with hair metal and pop. But for decades there had always been phases where what you might call disposable music surged on the charts,” he says. “Those influential 1991 records didn’t happen solely because people had enough of Poison videos, or Skid Row.”
And away from so-called “production-line pop” there were underground movements pushing sonic and cultural barriers in a way that hadn’t happened since punk. Public Enemy and N.W.A had formed in 1985 and 1987 respectively and had given a voice to a generation of disaffected youth, and In clubs in Chicago, Manchester and London a new kind of dance music was taking hold, based on repetitive beats teased out of Roland TB-303 drum machines that would evolve into Acid House, and a whole cultural revolution of its own.
The only problem for fans of rock music is that these movements were firmly dance-oriented. Guitars (barring the occasional sample) rarely featured.
Where did that leave rock fans as the decade turned? Initially at least, mostly looking backwards, rather than to the future. As Robinson points out, several bands that broke into the mainstream in 1991 such as Alice in Chains and Soundgarden even modelled their early looks on the poodle rock bands of the eighties. The music, however, was strikingly different. The clue to why the direction of commercial music changed so radically lies in the deeper social context of the times.
Popular culture in the 1980s reflected the era's political and economic themes of conservatism, credit growth and consumerism. It was the decade of the Filofax clutching yuppie, of Gordon Gecko’s ‘greed is good’ mantra and of high-tech gadgets, designer clothing and mindless consumption.
As the LA Times proclaimed in 1989: “The 1980s were the years of buying dangerously.”
It was self-centered and materialistic. But away from the wealthy professional classes and the trust fund kids there was a shadow generation of young people plagued with anxiety and self-doubt who didn’t subscribe to the shallow doctrine of the dollar.
Songwriters such as Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder voiced the disaffection and alienation many felt through lyrics that tackled subjects that late eighties pop and rock-lite never reached.
“There was definitely a generation who were looking for something more and they latched right onto it with bands like Pearl Jam,” explains Robinson.
Some maintain that those seven releases marked the arrival of grunge, a cultural movement born out of Seattle. Grunge was more than a music scene, as Darragh McManus wrote in The Guardian.
“Grunge wasn't just another musical or youth trend - it was the ultimate expression and fusion of most of the defining cultural, ideological and social threads of the modern western world. Feminism, liberalism, irony, apathy, cynicism/idealism, anti-authoritarianism, wry postmodernism, and not least a love of dirty, abrasive music; grunge reconciled all these into a seminal whole.”
It was Gen X’s antipathetic sneer to the yuppie generation, full of contradiction – discordant and angry, yet sensitive and thoughtful. Non-conformist, anarchic, yet cool and intelligent.
Robinson argues that true grunge developed later, in the subsequent albums of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
“In my opinion,” he says, “Ten is a blues rock album. But if you listen to the first three tracks of Pearl Jam’s follow up album, Vs, that’s what grunge sounds like.”
Indeed, Blood Sugar Sex Magik was heavily influenced by psychedelic funk, while Use Your Illusion I&II owed more to Elton John, The Who and Meatloaf than they did to the underground alternative scene.
Rather than signaling the start of grunge, 1991 started a period where the alternative moved into the mainstream.
Another misconception is that each album was an instant hit. In reality, some took weeks and even months to become popular. Nevermind, for example, was a slow burner and didn’t become a hit until early 1992.
Ed Christman, veteran Billboard reporter, told The Ringer how Nirvana’s label, Geffen, decided to play safe and hold back promotion when the record was first released.
“I was at a Musicland convention, and they did a product presentation, and they didn’t include Nirvana in the presentation,” said Christman. “I went up to the head of sales, Eddie Gilreath, and I said, ‘What are you doing? That Nirvana album is freaking amazing.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s going to be a slow burner. We’re going to build that. But yeah, that’s a great record. We’re gonna really get behind that’.”
Geffen’s wait-and-see approach bucked the idea that the opening week of a release should be its biggest. This was another new idea, as 1991 also happened to be the year when Billboard started using Nielsen SoundScan data to build its album chart. In May the system was introduced through which unit sales were measured with scanners and collated by computer. Previously the charts were calculated by calling record stores individually and asking them for their sales figures. Soundscan data pinpointed how albums opened like movies, and that for bands with established fan bases, the first week was usually, by far, the biggest, often launching records to the number one spot immediately.
Release dates thus became events. Album launches were stoked by single releases and heavy pre-promotion. Some record stores even opened at midnight on the day of release to sell to fans who wanted to be the first to hear their favorite band’s new material. This was in stark contrast to the slow-build methodology that went before. For example, 1982’s Thriller, the best-selling album of the eighties, debuted at No. 11 nearly a month after release and took 10 more weeks to finally get the top spot.
The historic 44-day period began on August 12 when Metallica released their self-titled album, commonly referred to as The Black Album. It was the band’s fifth album release. It was remixed three times, cost $1 million, and is said to have ended three marriages. It debuted at number one in ten countries, selling 650,000 units in the U.S. during its first week. Of the seven albums on the list, The Black Album is the most divisive, as although it brought the band mainstream success, it represented a departure from Metallica’s traditional sound and alienated hardcore fans.
It was not a traditional metal album but was still a rock album. It was an evolution and creatively the only album the band could make at that time, as Robinson explains.
“Metallica had just gone on the greatest run in the history of metal. What were they supposed to do? They had two choices. They could make their last album again or they could evolve.”
Two weeks later, on August 27, Pearl Jam released their debut, Ten. The band had been created from the ashes of Seattle band Mother Love Bone after lead singer Andrew Wood died. In addition to being a remarkable musical achievement, the album was also a personal triumph as it was released less than 18 months after Wood’s tragic overdose.
Pearl Jam vocalist Vedder was a San Diego surfer/singer/songwriter. He was chosen to audition after he wrote introspective lyrics for Mother Love Bone arrangements that had been sent to him by the surviving band members, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament.
On September 17 the four-year wait for the follow-up to Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction was over when Use Your Illusion I&II were released, having been delayed several times. While the former LP had been a down-in-the-gutter dirty rock ‘n’ roll experience, the band’s new twins were an altogether different prospect, in parts grandiose, epic, overblown and cinematic.
The releases were followed by one of the biggest world tours in rock history which arguably helped create a musical legacy of their own via the support bands they helped introduce to bigger audiences. These included established acts such as Faith No More, but also newcomers, such as Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins, who played a different sound than G N’R fans were used to. In 1992 the band also broadcast a worldwide live pay per view concert which included Soundgarden’s opening set.
While September 17 was undoubtedly an influential date in rock history, the following Tuesday, September 24, was epic – and is calculated to have been the biggest release day in chart history. The albums released then clocked up more than 20 million sales in the US alone.
In addition to the debuts Nevermind and Badmotorfinger, Red Hot Chili Peppers also released Blood Sugar Sex Magik, their fifth album. Produced by Rick Rubin, it transitioned them from cock-sock-wearing West Coast psychedelic funk-rockers to serious alt rock stadium fillers. The band formed in 1983 and had been progressively honing their sound and song writing ability. Blood Sugar Sex Magik further expanded their sonic palette and musical ambitions and hits "Under the Bridge" and "Give It Away" placed them firmly in the mainstream.
The flipside of the 44-day story is the omission of all the other exceptional and influential records released at the same time that got overshadowed by the big seven.
On September 24, for example, A Tribe Called Quest’s classic The Low End Theory was also released, as was Blur’s US debut album, Leisure. The period also saw releases from the Pixies and Hole, plus Ozzy Osbourne’s most influential solo album No More Tears. Garth Brooks released his third album, Ropin’ the Wind, which moved country towards the mainstream and ultimately paved the way for artists like Taylor Swift.
The entire year was full of incredible debuts and career defining peaks. In January Jesus Jones released Doubt, which brought their mix of electronica, rock, house and trance to the mainstream. In February Queen released Freddie Mercury’s last studio album, Innuendo. In March, REM dropped Out of Time, which featured the global hit "Losing My Religion". Over the following months Ice T released Original Gangster, NWA released N***az4Life, Smashing Pumpkins released Gish and Spin Doctors released Pocket Full of Kryptonite.
The year finished with Tupac’s debut, U2’s Achtung Baby, Prince’s Diamonds and Pearls and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous.
Sadly, we are unlikely to see such a historic period again. One of the reasons 1991 became such a phenomenal year for music was because the bands were allowed the creative freedom to develop. This was particularly the case for the Chili Peppers, Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, who had been honing their talents over the preceding years. Today it is doubtful any label would be patient or generous enough to finance several albums before a magnum opus was produced.
As Robinson says: “I understand that the world evolves and things are marketed differently now, but this whole thing occurred because there was a level of trust placed in the artists that is long gone now.
“Could it happen again? Maybe. But only if the record labels go back to recognizing talent and ability, rather than prioritizing what is marketable and what will trend on social media.”