I fully admit that while I grew up in a "metal" village, I didn't fully embrace it. A lot of it is due to the lateness at which I came to most pop/rock music. But I still remember loving my K-Tel compilations and listening to Quiet Riot on them. I probably also had some exposure from my brother's 8-Track collection. I had enough of a metal background that (1) I could get along with most of the headbangers in high school and (2) one of my friends, The New Trendy Area in Toronto, credits me with exposing him to its dulcet tones.
It was with all of this background that I watched Sam Dunn's Metal series of documentaries (Metal: A Headbanger's Journey and Global Metal), and why I was excited about his series on Much More (and VH1 in the USA) called Metal Evolution. Rather than a sociological view of metal, it was a historical overview and examination of all the sub-genres of metal. While I love me a good historical overview of music, I was also excited to see if he was going to tackle one area on the his family tree of metal that caught my eye in the movies and the series. And so, between Christmas and New Year's Eve of 2011, my belated present was the Grunge episode.
I watched it with a great deal of excitement. "Grunge" (or as my mother once called it, "Skrunky") is the music of my maturation, when I started to form my own tastes. I'm a little protective of grunge (whatever it is), but I also know it's not mine to define. I could always sense the connections between metal and grunge, but I was interested to see how Dunn would link the two.
(Full disclosure: Although this means nothing to him, I once worked in an office across the hall from Banger Productions in Liberty Village, and saw Dunn a lot in the hallway when I would go to the washroom or duck out for personal phone calls. And yes, I was a little too star-struck and nervous to ever talk to him. So...Hi, Sam!)
I appreciated the fact that at the start, Dunn seemed to admit that he kind of painted himself into a corner by including grunge. He worked very well to find the connections between it and metal, and actually talked to a lot of the people who I think of as more metal than grunge (Kim Thayil, Jerry Cantrell, and extra props for talking to Hiro Yamamoto). Also thankfully included were Mark Arm, Melissa Auf De Mar, Brendan O'Brien, Buzz Osbourne and many more luminaries of the scene.
At the same time, it felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities. In a perfect world, I'd be as smart and talented as Dunn and make my own documentary (Grunge Overblow(s)n), but alas I have to resort to words.
Marginalization and Community
The Experience Music Project (i.e. The Poor Man's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) doesn't get a lot right, but one thing it does get right is explaining why grunge (whatever that is) sounds the way it does. In presenting a history of Seattle's music, it hits the nail on the head that it comes from the working-class embrace of metal combined with the DIY of punk (though metal is more DIY than people think, but that's another issue), tossed in with the Pacific Northwest's relative isolation.
One issue that the EMP and Dunn don't hit on as hard is the issue of marginalization. Dunn talks about this a lot in his documentaries, so it's always kind of there, but one thing that has held the metal community together for so long has been that they are a marginalized community. The same goes for the Indie/Alternative community of the late 80s and 90s. You might find something about the music in the trades, but most of the time it came from friends, and probably from outside. It makes sense, then that the punk and metal communities would meld the way they did - they were both on the outsdie looking in, so why not emphasize our common influences. It's the same way that folkie and occasionally electric Neil Young holds such a high place in Seattle lore.
Does this mean that one is a descendent of the other? Not necessarily. Kissing cousins, perhaps, or unwitting allies. And in some cases, frenemies.
Dunn scores this one also with the common influences, though he sticks mostly to Sabbath (or at least his subjects stick more to Sabbath) and the effect of drop D tuning on the scene. Also of interest, and not really dwelled on, is that there's a lot of Zeppelin in there also (it's all over Ten, especially parts of "Oceans"). The other common root that didn't get touched on was The Stooges, which you can hear a lot of in Mudhoney.
I think in some respects this gives Grunge the appearance of being descended from metal, like a half-brother. In reality, it feels to me like we're dealing more with a shared frame of reference than with a common lineage, much in the same way that The Bee Gees and Nine Inch Nails can trace elements in their sounds to Beatles and Beach Boys (oh....it's there. Listen to it. It's there. And it's not a diss).
One interesting note that wasn't discussed was Mother Love Bone. The Mother Love Bone/Green River nexus connects a goodly number of Seattle acts. What's interesting is that Mother Love Bone sound more like a hair band than anything else. And Andrew Wood on stage was more Brett Michaels than Cliff Poncier.
There is the common belief that Grunge changed the landscape and threw hair metal out the window. I want to say this is true, because well, it kind of is.
The thing is that something was going to chase hair metal out at one time or another, be it rap, or industrial. You could just as easily argue that country music's 90's revival also threw hair metal out. Between the time I left Minto (1990) and the second summer I came back (1992) most of my underclassmen/women had gotten rid of their Firehouse cassingles and replaced them with Garth Brooks CDs. The high school dances that used to be power-ballad and dance-pop heavy became line-dance marathons.
But as opposed to tossing out metal, what happened was that metal found a safe haven in the grunge scene. Within this community, people wanted to find the roots of it, so you had a lot of people who also wound up getting used copies of Zep, Sabbath, Floyd, Zappa. Some went for deep dives and took on Maiden. Some wanted something harder and got Metallica. What happened is that metal crossed over into "alternative nation". Some embraced the sound and ethos, even tried to change themselves to fit (The Spaghetti Incident? Load). They weren't always successful, but they at least allowed these bands to weather the storm and stay together long enough to either return to their sound, or become a powerful touring entity without becoming a nostalgia show. Some metal bands actually became more popular (Anthrax, for example). But what was important is that the metal bands that survived were the ones that had the ability to evolve, while the shallower ones were cast away. The thing is that for the majority of cases, all the "shallower" bands were in that one sub-genre of hair metal.
The Misbegotten Legacy
Dunn hits a sour note in his inclusion of "Post-Grunge". I admit, a lot of this is because of my own distaste of these bands (best summed up by Mark Arm in his comment "Well, have you HEARD them?").
Talking to Scott Stapp of Creed or Chad Kroeger of Nickelback is like watching a documentary on Hank Williams and then saying "It all lead to Billy Ray Cyrus!" No one wins in that argument. The saddest part in that reaching for relevancy, Kroeger mentions that Jerry Cantrell and Dimebag Darryl have played on their albums. (Playing the "we put on a good show and sell a lot of records" card is also immediate disqualification). This might (sadly) say more about how far these poor artists have fallen than about who they play with. Just remember, Donny Osmond's "Soldier of Love" had Peter Gabriel as a creative driver between it. Does that increase your respect of Osmond, or make you wonder about Gabriel? Does it make Osmond progressive, the heir to Genesis?
There's a strong link between metal and grunge. There's no denying that in the slightest. But it's not a straight line legacy: Beatles did not beget Sabbath which did not beget Floyd which did not beget Maiden which did not beget Queensryche which did not beget Nirvana. But Nirvana would be aware of most of those bands from their social milieu which informed their sound (Well, maybe not Queensryche so much, and Cobain always hated the metal sheen on Nevermind).
Rather, it's a mixture of sounds and environments that merged. One interesting even that Dunn brought up, that I admit I never really thought about, was a Black Flag show in Seattle in the early 80s, and how that show would have had a mix of metalheads, punks, and college rock listeners, mostly due to the fact that not many bands toured as far as Seattle. This show could be a turning point the same way the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall was for Manchester: A place where the marginalized and bored all bounced off each other for a night, and then went madly off in all directions.
Sam Dunn's Metal Evolution series is a much-watch, even if you don't like metal. I've learned more from it than any other source, and it's lead me to listen to a lot of bands which either I never had before, or hadn't in ages. I admire the fact that he stuck to is guns with the Grunge episode. I don't know if he made a convincing case that metal is an ancestor of grunge, but he definitely made the connection between the music, and in this time of musical hegemony, that's all we need.
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