It all started with the Melvins. Forming in 1983 in Washington State, the band, as well as its generational peers, spent their time listening to the likes of KISS, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC. The city of Seattle at that time was just shedding its hippie image while holding onto the hippie values of counterculture and non-conformity. With a sound heavily influenced by the bands they loved, the Melvins were the first step in mixing metal and punk.
In 1984, Green River and Soundgarden formed, followed by the Screaming Trees in 1985. The year 1986 brought the founding of Sub Pop Records and saw Seattle-based record label C/Z Records’ first release, Deep Six. This compilation, credited as the first distribution of grunge, included the Melvins, Green River, Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, and The U-Men. The following year saw the forming of Alice in Chains.
Between 1988 and 1990, the tight-knit group of Seattle bands did a lot of member-trading and band transforming. Green River split into two groups: the members who wanted to stay “underground” formed Mudhoney, while those who wanted to become famous rock stars formed Mother Love Bone (picking up the lead singer from Malfunkshun, Andrew Wood). Representing another shift in those values of non-conformity, Soundgarden signed in 1988 with a mainstream label, A&M Records, to the dismay of many of their fans.
At the start of the new decade, Mother Love Bone was set to become the rock stars they intended to be when Wood unexpectedly died of a heroin overdose. Wood’s roommate, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, wrote a tribute to his late friend. A few songs played with the surviving Mother Love Bone members turned into an entire album, Temple of the Dog. When Cornell decided that one of the songs would be better as a duet, he invited a backup vocalist, Eddie Vedder, to join him for the singing of “Hunger Strike.” In the same year, Eddie Vedder joined the remaining Mother Love Bone members in creating a new band, first named Mookie Blaylock, and eventually renamed Pearl Jam.
Still, in 1990, Nirvana had yet to find a full-time drummer. Eventually, they were introduced to Dave Grohl through—coming full-circle—their friends, the Melvins. And so all the staple grunge bands of the ’90s were made possible and grew through immense collaboration and perseverance.
Before any of these bands really left Seattle, they would describe themselves in self-deprecating ways, mostly as jokes, calling their bands dirt, scum, and—you guessed it—grunge. In 1991, when Nirvana reached number one on the Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart, with Pearl Jam following closely behind, “grunge” turned from a joke to an actual descriptor of the rock music subgenre characterized by guitar distortion, feedback, and heartfelt, anguished lyrics. That same year, Mudhoney and the Screaming Trees entered into indie success. Soundgarden didn’t catch up with the commercial success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam until 1994.
As these bands developed a need for marketing, “grunge” changed from descriptor to ultimate promoter, especially in fashion. The industry, from Macy’s to Marc Jacobs, dove into the style of these bands and their Seattle audiences, namely flannel shirts, combat boots, wool ski hats, and unwashed hair.
Whereas the muses for these fashion statements were too poor and cold to buy anything else, and too lazy to wash their hair, they still inspired style for the rich, warm, and motivated. The combat boots that were practical for traction in Seattle’s rain began hitting the catwalks. For the first time, instead of going from boutiques to last season’s department to Goodwill, clothes purchased from Goodwill were inspiring what got brought into the shops. Punks were anti-fashion: their outfits made a statement against it. Grunge was fashion-indifferent: they made no statement at all. And yet, grunge became a fashion statement in and of itself.
As the concept of grunge was increasingly used in the mainstream, it was increasingly rejected in the still anti-conformist Seattle. Grunge became a blanket term for Northwest bands of the ’80s and ’90s, even if they had completely different styles and sounds, rendering the genre label inaccurate and somewhat ridiculous.
Today though, the term has been reclaimed. Seattleites still hold the same values that began the grunge movement and have learned to embrace the subgenre title that, in a lot of ways, put them on the map.