Eric Martin insists he didn’t hate Nirvana — even though he knew at the time he was supposed to.
As frontman of the Los Angeles hair-metal band Mr. Big, Martin had been fed a story that Nirvana’s overnight success in the early 1990s came at the expense of the peacocking leather-and-denim types who’d dominated rock just a few years before.
“Everybody said they were taking food out of our mouths,” Martin recalls of the scowling Seattle trio that crashed MTV and the Hot 100 with 1991’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “We’d all been touring, having a great time, and then the grunge thing came in and pulled the rug right out from under everybody. Lot of guys went back to painting houses.
“But I thought ‘Teen Spirit’ kicked ass,” Martin adds. “I didn’t have a f--- clue what Kurt Cobain was talking about. But I liked the attitude. It still rocked.”
Martin’s generosity may have been due to the fact that Mr. Big wasn’t among grunge’s casualties (at least not yet): Five months after Nirvana upended the rock world with its album “Nevermind” — released 30 years ago on Sept. 24, 1991 — Martin and his bandmates scored a No. 1 hit with ballad “To Be With You.”
Pretty, polished and loaded with “baby’s” and “little girl’s,” “To Be With You” was precisely the type of tune that Nirvana was assumed to have killed with Cobain’s disaffected songs about feeling “stupid and contagious.” Instead, it spent three weeks atop the singles chart and drove Mr. Big’s “Lean Into It” LP to platinum sales.
Says Martin with a laugh: “It’s why my 16-year-old boys have four years of college paid for.”
Decades later, the well-received power ballad demonstrates that the conventional wisdom about “Nevermind” — that it was “a death knell,” per REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin, for bands that burned through Aqua Net by the case — isn’t entirely accurate.
“Grunge wasn’t a mass extinction event for that earlier hard rock,” says Tony Berg, the veteran producer and A&R executive who signed Beck to Nirvana’s label, Geffen, in the wake of “Nevermind”’s explosion. “But there was the almost instantaneous perception that it was so not cool. While there may still have been an audience for it, especially in mainstream America, the cognoscenti certainly was not wondering what the next Warrant record was gonna sound like.”
‘THE DARK AGES’
And not just Warrant: Any number of hair bands that had been riding high in the mid to late ’80s — from Whitesnake to Slaughter to Winger, whose frontman Kip Winger has described the grunge era as “the Dark Ages” — suddenly found themselves crowded out from the table by the brooding likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, all of which put out seminal albums within weeks of one another in the fall of 1991.
Desmond Child, who made his name writing flashy hits for Kiss (“I Was Made for Lovin’ You”) and Bon Jovi (“Livin’ on a Prayer”), compares seeing the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video to “Elvis Presley watching the Beatles on TV.”
“My own manager sat me down — I was in my 30s — and he said, ‘Well, basically, you’re all washed up,’” Child recalls. “I was stunned. I was like, ‘At this age?’”
Yet as producer and Garbage co-founder Butch Vig points out, this perceived change in taste was driven in large part by industry gatekeepers, most of them white and college-educated, rather than by fans.
Indeed, Bon Jovi was still playing arenas and stadiums in 1993, while a 1994 tour by Aerosmith — then enjoying a comeback that included its first No. 1 album, “Get a Grip” — outgrossed that year’s traveling Lollapalooza festival with Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day, according to the trade journal Pollstar.
READY FOR CHANGE
Still, for a record biz attuned to seeking out the next big thing, expending resources on a glam metal act like Trixter was viewed as “pretty much investing in the past,” as Berg puts it.
Rick Krim, MTV’s director of talent and artist relations at the time, notes that even before grunge blew up, “We were ready for a change. Our mindset was, Let’s shake it up and try something new.”
With its vaguely defined countercultural air — and its not-so-secret tunefulness — grunge met that need, especially after “Nevermind” knocked Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” out of the top spot on the Billboard 200 in January 1992, a hugely symbolic victory for alternative rock that set every major label in the business scrambling to find its own Nirvana. (By the end of the ’90s, “Nevermind” had been certified for sales of more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone.)
“A&Rs pitched me on thousands of copycat bands,” says Vig, who adds that a kind of grunge template quickly developed: “fuzzy, distorted guitars; aggro singing in the chorus; lyrics about how bummed out and frustrated people were.”
Yet in retrospect, tastemakers’ preoccupation with grunge threatens to misrepresent where the music sat in the larger context of pop music in the 1990s.
“Nirvana wasn’t really mainstream,” says Mark Kates, another Geffen exec who handled A&R and alternative radio promotion. “They were successful, and their impact was huge. But it’s not like they took over Top 40.” The week that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100, the song was bested by hits from Color Me Badd, Mariah Carey and MC Hammer; “Nevermind’s” second single, “Come as You Are,” got no higher than No. 32.
Grunge bands were big on MTV, no doubt about it; their videos offered viewers a window “into a whole culture,” Krim says, just as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were doing at the same time with their gangsta-rap “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” The music informed fashion and movies and defined how Generation X presented itself; it also moved rock away from hair metal’s depiction of women as bikini-clad arm candy.
For all its influence, though, grunge remained a relatively limited commercial phenomenon, at least compared with juggernauts like Garth Brooks, Michael Bolton and the “Bodyguard” soundtrack.
Like late-stage hair metal, grunge was eventually bled dry through the corporate exploitation of second- and third-generation acts — your Sponges and Creeds and Candleboxes. “It became about just following a trend,” says Luke Wood, who worked in marketing at Geffen in the early ‘90s. “It was like TikTok: the Grunge Challenge.”
By the late ’90s the music industry had moved on to electronica and teen pop and nu-metal — the last a kind of brutish remix of grunge’s white-boy blues — and not without many of the figures who’d been instrumental in creating earlier crazes.
Even Nirvana’s drummer, Dave Grohl, went on after Cobain’s 1994 suicide to fuse grunge and hair metal, more or less, with Foo Fighters, his arena-packing hard-rock group that will be inducted next month into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Nirvana was inducted in 2014, while Pearl Jam, still a touring behemoth today, got in three years later.)