The Top 8 "Next Nirvanas"

Following Nirvana's surprise ascent to stardom, no one knew what would be the next underground success story. Here are eight examples of where people post-Nevermind opted to place their bets.

One only needs to glance over Spin’s recent rundown of the 40 weirdest major label albums released in the wake of Nirvana’s epochal Nevermind to be reminded how thoroughly the grunge trio changed the game in the early 1990s. A select few acts had jimmied open the door separating underground rock from the mainstream to varying degrees throughout the previous decade, but Nirvana blew that sucker off its hinges. With “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in omnipresent radio rotation and Aqua Net suddenly on deep discount, the record industry naturally sought to capitalize (and survive) amid this unexpected turn of events and started searching for the next potential from-the-underground success story.

The search for the next Nirvana was in a sense a fool's game, for zeitgeist-defining acts like that are by their nature in short supply. Furthermore, despite the industry's marketing research apparatuses and relentless cool hunting, it could never with any reasonable certainly estimate what music millions of people would form meaningful connections with, otherwise those late-‘90s ska and swing revivals wouldn't have flamed out so quickly. Hindsight is easy (the conditions that allowed Nirvana to become such a phenomenon were in retrospect just waiting for the right group to exploit them), while trying to plot the future of pop music can lead to squandered efforts and rude surprises (who would've thought at the height of alterna-mania that the most important rock band of the next decade would turn out to be the guys who wrote "Creep"?).

Twenty years since the height of the alternative rock gold rush, talk of finding the next Nirvana has taken on a less assured and urgent tenor. Few artists since have proven able to match Nirvana's stature historically, commercially, and artistically, and as the years progress the cultural resonance of dividing time into pre- and post-Nevermind sections gradually loses its immediate relevance. Someday soon or someday later, there will be another band that has a similar impact, but we'll only know it after the fact. In the meantime, we can look back over all the rapidly poached indie label rosters and the buzzed-about upstart genres, and try to figure out why some Nevermind-sized bets were placed where they were.

1. Helmet

Heavier than Nirvana and brandishing riffs just as good, New York alt-metal act Helmet was at the epicenter of a record label bidding frenzy that resulted in a reputed million-dollar deal with Interscope. Musically, the band's 1992 album Meantime, a punishing slab of post-hardcore aggression, was worth every penny. Yet for all its virtues, Helmet was never about catchy tunes, and leader Page Hamilton lacked the innate charisma of a Kurt Cobain or even an Evan Dando. Accordingly, Meantime remains a semi-forgotten gem still waiting for a critical rediscovery. Despite the failure to live up to the investment laid into it, Helmet's detuned riffage and cathartic grooves did eventually seep into the popular conscious by the turn of the century, when the band turned out to be one of many pivotal antecedents for the nu metal genre.

2. Pavement

Pavement was the Great White Indie Rock Hope of the 1990s, a perennial on-the-cusp-of-a-proper-breakthrough act that the underground's tastemakers championed as the exact sort of outfit that deserved the heavy radio play and multi-million sales that Nirvana's success had enabled. Slacker masterworks Slanted and Enchanted, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and the rest have gracefully moved from "must listen new music" status to "rock nerd essentials" in the past two decades, but despite a plum spot on the 1995 Lollapalooza lineup and a fluke radio hit in the form of 1994's "Cut Your Hair", Stockton, California's most treasured sons have never been embraced on a mass scale. In a bit of cosmic humor, the traits that make Pavement a difficult prospect for those weaned on radio-ready alterna-angst -- the irreverent genre dabbling, the willfully fractured musicianship, Stephen Malkmus' laconic sarcasm -- are often what draws others to the band in the first place.

3. Urge Overkill

In an era when rock excess was supposed to be dead, ‘70s trash-culture aesthetes Urge Overkill got away with reveling in it courtesy of an expertly-deployed wink. Well, sort of. The band's naked careerism ran afoul of the Chicago scenesters, with former BFF Steve Albini becoming their most vocal and withering critic. Despite big hopes and critical raves for major label debut Saturation, the goodwill afforded by rock radio to its lead single "Sister Havana" did not carry over to the LP, and most folks are only familiar with the creators of some of the best records of the decade due to a Neil Diamond cover that made it onto the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction.

4. The Smashing Pumpkins

Though both bands vied for stadium rock immortality, Urge Overkill possessed a hipster cache that its fellow Windy City inhabitants Smashing Pumpkins lacked. Urge Overkill could laugh off its Cheap Trick riffs and showy outfits if necessary, whereas the Pumpkins' whole being was rooted in those twin banes of affected cool, raw sincerity and arty pretension. Not that the Pumpkins cared what their hand-wringing detractors thought -- indeed, principle Pumpkin Billy Corgan wore his background as an uncool suburban misfit like a badge of honor. That non-judgmental "I'm one of you" stance is the real reason why the Pumpkins were able to ascend to a level so many hipster faves failed to -- well, that and the arsenal of buzzed-out guitars that formed the basis of eternal alterna-anthems "Cherub Rock" and "Today". The multi-Platinum sales of 1993's Siamese Dream put the Pumpkins on par with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and for a brief shining moment when their follow-up Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness debuted at number one in late 1995, they were the biggest band in all of alternative rock.

5. Beck

The story of Beck Hansen's rise to stardom sounds like a joke about how much Nirvana screwed up the music industry's way of doing things: recorded a tossed-off white-boy rap over a blues riff onto an eight-track, released a couple hundred copies on an obscure label, got added into heavy rotation by alternative stations across America, and finally got signed to Nirvana's label. Slacker anthem "Loser" was the true successor to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and a frankly bizarre song that could have only become a hit in those heady times. Rather than ride "Loser" to one-hit wonderdom, Beck took full creative advantage of his newfound big-bucks backing and, starting with 1996's Odelay, positioned himself as one of alt-rock's most acclaimed auteurs.

6. Britpop

Come 1994, Britpop was well-positioned as a refreshing antidote to grunge. Whereas Pearl Jam et al. were grim, grimy, and sexless, Britpop radiated the optimism and cocksure arrogance befitting a generation of youth who expected the world to be its oyster. Britpop's basic faltering point was for a movement intended to be so emblematic of contemporary youth, it was heavily indebted to the music the parents of the girls and boys of Cool Britannia grew up on 30 years prior. The UK understandably went gaga for the music, but the intrinsic Britishness of Blur, Pulp, and Suede made export difficult, leaving Oasis to become the only band out of its peer group to fulfill the genre's promise on a global level.

7. Electronica

Circa 1996 and 1997, the buzz emanating from journalists and industry types was that rock was dead and that electronic music was The Next Big Thing. Indeed, the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers made a noticeable dent onto the American pop charts, and not long after Moby rode his Play LP to millennial pop stardom. Yet the successes were more of a fluke, and after a couple of high-profile misses and some misguided electronic detours by established rock acts, record companies and consumers were quick to move on to teen pop and nu metal. Still, over 15 years later electronic dance music serves as the foundation for most modern pop hits, and far fewer people are cracking wise about going to shows showcasing middle-aged men playing beats from a laptop.

8. The Strokes and other "The" bands

In the days when Korn and Limp Bizkit defined guitar-based music for legions of teenagers, a vocal minority called for the return of rock. Never mind that whatever its artistic shortcomings, nu metal at the very least managed to rock out adequately -- what those dejected souls desired was a Platonic ideal of rock clothed in skinny jeans and dark shades. Suddenly, the Strokes' Is This It? became the most talked-about record around, record stores suffered alarming shortages of the Nuggets compilation, and loads of bands developed a newfound inclination to include the definite article in their names. Always more hype than any sort of legitimate pop insurrection, the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, and so on ultimately suffered from the same shortcoming that dogged the Britpopsters: they simply sounded too much like bands people had heard before. Despite the favorable notices, most of these group faded from view once post-punk came back into vogue, with only the White Stripes managing to cross over to proper rock stardom.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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