The Year Alternative Went Massive and Defined a Decade

by AJ Ramirez

29 September 2011


The Aftermath of Madchester and Lollapalooza

Outside of R.E.M. and the goth bands (whose top act, the Cure, sat the year out), alt-rock’s great commercial hope appeared to be the baggy bandwagon jumpers that swarmed the British indie scene in the aftermath of the Madchester craze. Alternative had long fared better in the United Kingdom than anywhere else—John Peel’s nationally broadcast Radio 1 show was a nexus point for all sorts of underground artists, and the Smiths had led the charge for the genre up the UK pop charts back in the mid-‘80s—but at the time, its domestic indie scene was beginning to hit a bit of a doldrums; as a counterpoint, American alt-rockers became very hip in Britain, resulting in the Pixies’ astonishing number three album chart placement there for their 1990 LP, Bossanova, as well as much excited chatter about Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and the Seattle grunge scene. Two of 1991’s biggest hits were the beaming dance/rock hybrids “Right Here, Right Now” and “Unbelievable”, by British alterna-dance groups Jesus Jones and EMF, respectively. Though those singles were obscenely catchy, their authors paled in comparison to the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays—Madchester’s leading lights—both artistically and charismatically. But with the former wrapped up in record contract squabbles and the latter losing itself to intoxicant-driven hedonism, the field was wide open for less-remarkable copycats.

British observers would bristle at how a band like Jesus Jones would vastly outperform the Roses and the Mondays commercially in the US, strengthening criticisms that Anglophilic Americans would lap up any dreck from the UK. Huge sellers they were, “Right Here, Right Now” and “Unbelievable” dated obscenely fast, a trait that relegated those singles to the status of curious novelties not long after, and rendered popular follow-ups “Real, Real, Real” and “Lies” as forgotten cast-offs of a big Brit-led dance-rock intersection which never materialized. Interestingly, one baggy anthem from 1991 that holds up remarkably well is “There’s No Other Way” by a fresh-faced quartet from Colchester, England named Blur, who would become of the decade’s most acclaimed alt-rock ensembles once it sorted out a new identity for itself.

Yet a third option for popularizing the genre was rearing its drug-addled head in 1991—unfortunately, said option had already decided to throw in the towel. The arty Los Angeles quartet Jane’s Addiction melded previously disparate musical strains including goth, heavy metal, and funk into an idiosyncratic, quasi-bohemian combination that managed to intrigue hard rock fans; some observers even touted the alt-rockers as the next Led Zeppelin. Jane’s had been one of the most buzzed-about bands in rock music for a few years already, but only three albums into its career and on the cusp of finally penetrating mainstream rock radio following Ritual de lo Habitual (1990), the group was ready to disband over creative differences and uncontrollable substance abuse habits.

Jane’s Addiction did have one last masterstroke at the ready, as flamboyant, forever idea-concocting frontman Perry Farrell, plus Ted Gardner and Marc Geiger, envisioned an American leg of the group’s farewell tour that would be a multi-band bill inspired by England’s Reading Festival and other such events in Europe unknown in the States. Instead of setting it up in one spot for a few days like the European fests, however, the three men fashioned it into a traveling, multi-date extravaganza. Named Lollapalooza by Farrell, it was a physical manifestation of the group’s open-minded, hedonist ideology, a subculture on wheels intended to arouse all the senses with information booths everywhere that advocated everything from gun control to body piercing.



Although Lollapalooza’s line-up wasn’t homogeneously alt-rock—the inclusion of Mick Jagger-approved hard rock band Living Colour and rapper Ice-T’s metal project Body Count precluded that—the heavy emphasis placed on the genre forming the backbone of the tour ensured that the style would receive countless namechecks in press reports. Furthermore, the bill was packed with artists that non-collegiate radio played rarely or outright ignored; aside from Jane’s and Siouxsie and the Banshees, none of the alt-rockers were even favorites of modern rock radio, the sole commercial format that alternative acts were often relegated to alongside post-punk/New Wave survivors. As the headlining act, Jane’s cannily placed itself on the frontlines of what Farrell dubbed the Alternative Nation, subconsciously positioning itself as an amalgam of the various sub-strains these artists represented, including goth (the Banshees), transcendent funk-rock (Fishbone), post-hardcore heavy rock (Rollins Band), gonzo noise rock (Butthole Surfers), and irreverent melodicism (Violent Femmes). In the midst of a dismal touring season, Lollapalooza bucked an industry-wide low-attendance trend to became one of the highest-grossing live shows of the year, selling approximately a half-million tickets by its conclusion. To Farrell’s surprise, he was asked to turn the festival into an annual affair.

Though Lollapalooza was ostensibly an elaborate showcase for Jane’s Addiction, the foursome would receive stiff competition from another name on the bill, industrial rock act Nine Inch Nails. Having originated as Trent Reznor’s rather synth-poppy (albeit still seething) one-man studio project, following the release of NIN’s debut LP Pretty Hate Machine (1989), Reznor assembled a full touring band, complete with loud, brutal guitars that resulted in a truly fearsome assault which, according to commentators, wound up stealing the festival from Farrell and Co. Having made an impression on Middle America via the tour, NIN and Reznor were stars-in-waiting by the end of 1991. The project would benefit greatly from the alternative revolution in the years immediately afterward, as its follow-up studio releases Broken (1992) and The Downward Spiral (1994) were greeted with Grammy Awards and multi-million sales, while Reznor, with his fetish garb and his graphic yet visionary music videos, became the sort of dark, transgressive media icon Perry Farrell always cravenly strove to be.


After Lollapalooza concluded, the last months of 1991 brought albums by now-seminal bands—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers—that would soon be plucked from the alternative ghetto and elevated to rock’s multi-million-selling A-list. What conspicuously tied all these groups together (aside from most of them sharing the bill on the Chili Peppers’ late-‘91 headliner tour and Lollapalooza ‘92) was they were alternative rock bands, complete with long hair, aggressive guitars, massive drums, and infectious riffs. Ultimately, this quality was instrumental in allowing alt-rock to finally achieve widespread popularity. Both the idea that pop crossover was the way to go and a general disapproval of rock’s macho clichés had led to an emphasis on melodicism as the key to mass acceptance by both musicians and industry types. However, rock fans in 1991 were starving for new, relevant sounds—contemporary stadium-sized superstars like Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, and U2 seemed hopelessly bloated, and pop, R&B, and hip-hop were dominating the musical landscape. If rock was to stage a comeback, it had to be in a refurbished, reinvigorated guise that connected squarely with Generation X, not its baby boomer parents.

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