It’s been noted many times before that British and American culture has a narcissistic, slightly sickly obsession with it’s own past, and no more has this been apparent than these past 12 months.
2017 has seen all manner of sites plastered with content about the 40th anniversary of punk, often from outlets punk was originally a reaction against. This is an attitude or bizarre cultural happening most concisely summarised by two gestures that almost go beyond parody.
First and foremost comes the fact that a couple of years ago, Virgin Money (Richard Branson’s very own bank) released a range of credit cards adorned by The Sex Pistols’ 'Never Mind…' album artwork.
On top of that, the past year or so has seen McDonalds releasing a series of chicken wraps, which have an aesthetic that pastiches Jamie Reid’s ransom-note style Pistols album artwork, and is advertised on TV with the slogan ‘Live Bolder This Lunchtime!’ and a soundtrack of ‘What Do I Get?’ by the Buzzcocks.
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The nostalgia isn’t just restricted to punk rock, though, for punk is just an (albeit rather large) microcosm in the macrocosm of pop cultural reminiscence. At the moment, it seems like we’re at the heart of a 90s revival, with the best aspects of the decade being brought back for our viewing pleasure.
Take the much-maligned shoegaze scene, the UK music press’ flavour of the month for about 18 months at the start of the 1990s, before simply becoming cannon fodder for lazy journalists. It’s now back in a big way, with Ride, Slowdive, Lush and My Bloody Valentine headlining festivals and selling out tours across the land.
As well as that, David Lynch’s soap opera-come-surrealist horror series Twin Peaks has returned and is undisputedly the best thing on TV again, which is of course something nobody could object to. But the thing about this wave of 90s nostalgia, is that it seems to have not just swept up overlooked genres, like shoegaze, which now get the credit they deserve, or incomplete masterpieces of television, like Twin Peaks, reaching it’s not-so-logical conclusion.
This obsessive retrospective love for the 1990s’ pop culture has also meant that as a culture, our minds are constantly bombarded by aspects of that time period that are simply not worth the time of day. In light of Seattle Repertory Theatre’s forthcoming “musical” about grunge, that Clash reported on last week, it seems apposite to set our apertures to the way in which the tired, old, perpetually angsty figure of grunge seems to constantly be dredged up as though it were one of music’s great movements, when in reality it produced (for the sake of argument) one great band and really nothing more worthy of writing home about.
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There’s undoubtedly merit to the Seattle scene that later spawned the grunge phenomena. Bands like the Melvins, drone innovators whose only similarities to the whole ‘grunge’ thing can solely be traced to a friendship with Kurt Cobain, and the label Sub Pop, who’ve since gone on to become one of America’s most prolific indie labels, all come as shining lights from an otherwise cultural vacuum.
You can’t help but feel that for something so often talked about, so often put on a pedestal, and so often copied ear-achingly badly by teenagers thinking they’re reinventing the wheel and channeling ‘deep’ feelings whilst in reality sounding like a loosened up Nickleback, that this cultural phenomena would have yielded more art and more artists that are still worth talking about today.
Of course, the eternal infatuation with Nirvana seems fair enough. In Kurt Cobain, adolescents had a rock star authentic in his presentation and straight up with his flaws, a songwriter that tackled alienation in a way that was both articulate and instantly relatable to the Gen X teenagers of the world. In Nirvana were a band whose songwriting was strong and intelligent, whilst great riffs and a masterful control were almost second nature.
This combined with the way in which they seemingly tapped into the still young format of MTV better than any rock band before or since meant that nothing could stop Nirvana being one of the latter quarter of the century’s defining bands. Whilst they definitely arrived with a style of music that wasn’t particularly innovative at a time that was wry with exciting experimentation, it would be pointless to dismiss this band in any case against the enduring popularity of grunge.
But was ‘grunge’ ever more than Kurt Cobain and co? There’s an attitude at present that feels as though we’ve dredged up all we could on the man and his band (i.e. 2015’s botched ‘Montage Of Heck’ Kurt Cobain solo album), and that anything associate with Nirvana is somehow interesting to a 21st century audience. Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden are looked back with a fondness; the former still selling out whatever tours they may bother to embark on, whilst there is somehow some kind of baffling demand for frontman Eddie Vedder to play solo shows.
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And what’s worse than the pedestrian music of Pearl Jam, ‘edgy dad rock’ at the best of times, and the ‘elegant bachelors’ that are San Diego’s perennially beige Stone Temple Pilots is the wave of commercially successful grunge that followed Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide in 1994, that almost seemed to be appropriating the aforementioned Cobain aesthetic as little more than a costume.
The likes of Bush, Silverchair, alongside lots of names you definitely won’t remember if you’re lucky, spawned in the second half of the nineties; bands so devoid of creativity that have somehow remained the blueprint for tepid new grunge until this very point in human history.
These bargain bin dwellers were the first of many bands from a long lineage to take influence from Nirvana, etc, and manage to evoke none of the feeling, showcase none of the lyrical subtleties, or wield anywhere near as many of the riffs. Whilst there are too many new bands to name that are victim to this, it seems pointless naming and shaming them.
Instead, we need to have a rethink about the way in which we retrospectively look at grunge. I for one, can see the enduring appeal of Nirvana, or why the scruffy bleach-soaked jeans and mud-dowsed flannel shirt is to remain a favourite look for teenagers until the world ends, but at the end of the day, pining for grunge nostalgia feels ultimately vacuous.
The gargantuan success of Nirvana should have been a full stop, not a semicolon, and if we all came to our senses, the aforementioned as-yet-untitled ‘Grunge: The Musical’ should be a call to arms to focus on the eons of great music of now, rather than the lacklustre public moping of yesteryear.
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Words: Cal Cashin