In rock history, 1991 is most often seen as The Year Everything Changed. Anecdotally, grunge crashed down like a meteorite to annihilate the hair-metal dinosaurs that had dominated the rock landscape over the previous decade. But in truth there was no instant annihilation event for LA glam (or thrash, or just about any other form of popular guitar music of the 80s). Instead, a procession of landmark releases from August to September 1991 helped transform alt.rock’s steadily growing snowball into an all-enveloping avalanche.
“By the end of the late eighties, the whole scene needed a massive shake-up,” Kerrang! editor at the time Geoff Barton told Classic Rock. “Something was needed to turn the tide in rock, but I don’t think we anticipated the fallout.”
Rock journalists may have grown tired of glam’s increasingly cartoonish hedonism, but it was still big business as far as the record-buying masses were concerned. The summer began inauspiciously. On June 17 Van Halen released their ninth studio album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge which shot straight to No.1 in both the UK and US. Two weeks later Canadian pop-rocker Bryan Adams began conquering the singles charts with the massive Everything I Do (I Do It For You). The power ballad may have been a slice of 80s rock cheese, but it was an undeniable commercial sensation as it topped international charts, including a record-holding 16 weeks in the UK and a flabbergasting 39 weeks in Canada. And this, in the year that was supposedly all about grunge?
Adams’s success wasn’t anomalous; in January the Scorpions had released Wind Of Change, an international smash that sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Elsewhere, Extreme’s More Than Words claimed the top spot in the US on June 8, 1991. Neither band was particularly known for exploring their softer side (although Scorpions had certainly dabbled in their 26-year career to that point), but a trip to ballad country proved to be exactly what they needed in order to reach new commercial peaks, revitalising commercial interest in albums that had already been out for 12 months.
“People everywhere were like: ‘You’re out of your fucking minds releasing this,’” Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt told Billboard in 2016. “We fought for it because when we performed it for an audience they told us it was a hit. On stage, before we even got a word out, the whole crowd would be singing it – before it was even a single! So that right there told us: ‘Go for it, take that risk.’ And thank god we did.”
If the bands were worried about being labelled ‘sell-outs’, those accusations were easily drowned out by the sound of cash tills for millions of dollars being exchanged worldwide, proof positive that ballads were still a road to gold (even platinum).
By and large, the music industry was still operating as it had a decade before; the closest sign of any change to the rock landscape being when R.E.M. finally achieved a No.1 with Out Of Time. But considering each of their previous six records had already made it into the top 100 of the Billboard 200, R.E.M.’s achievement seemed to owe more to their longevity (and the popularity of lead single Losing My Religion) than it did to any wider cultural trend in rock music.
But on August 12, 1991 it looked like the tide might have started to change. Metallica had set their sights on becoming the biggest band on the planet. Teaming up with producer Bob Rock, the band traded in the prog-thrash pomp of 1988’s …And Justice For All for arena-metal imperialism and classic rock candour. Collected in a 12-track package titled simply Metallica (now most often referred to as the Black Album), their new album far outstripped even their wildest expectations, selling more than five million copies in its first year alone.
As Bob Rock told Reverb in 2017: “[The Black Album] actually changed something culturally; everybody owned that album. Dentists loved the Black Album! There was a musical transition when the album came out and it changed radio, because that heavy sound was now on the radio… I don’t think I’ve made a record that had done that before. I’m very proud of that.”
Bigger than anything in thrash and harder than just about anything in glam, the Black Album buried the competition and took Metallica from being a beloved, still somewhat underground metal band to being a global rock sensation. Lead-off single Enter Sandman even drew inspiration from the nascent scene brewing in Seattle, priming audiences for the next big thing right as it was about to break.
“I was listening to a lot of stuff out of the Pacific Northwest, and I’d been listening to the first Soundgarden album since 1987,” Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett admitted to Uncut in 2020. “I didn’t think of it as grunge so much as Sabbath-y. That movement changed the look and style of a lot of bands, and how bands should be at the time.”
Pearl Jam weren’t the first grunge band to release an album in 1991, although some of the band’s members were. Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard were still reeling from the death of their Mother Love Bone bandmate Andrew Wood when they were approached by Soundgarden frontman (and Wood’s roommate) Chris Cornell with the idea of recording some songs in tribute to the late vocalist. Recorded under the name Temple Of The Dog (referencing a Wood lyric) with the line-up filled out by Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and soon-to-be Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, the group had released a self-titled album on April 19. Scarcely four months later, on August 27, Ament and Gossard were unveiling the debut by their new band, Pearl Jam. Neither Temple Of The Dog nor Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten ignited the charts on release, but both records did help set the scene for the grunge explosion that was just around the corner.
The genre remained inert as the summer wore on, however, with Rush’s Roll The Bones, Dire Straits’ On Every Street and even Bob Seger’s The Fire Inside making more of a play for chart positioning. By September the battleground had been set; seemingly every major rock release was crammed into a two-week period that saw newcomers and old giants vie for chart dominance. September 17 saw the old guard rally: Ozzy Osbourne with No More Tears, while Guns N’ Roses unleashed their sprawling double-album Use Your Illusion I and II.
One of the biggest bands on the planet (with some considerable claim on the title itself), GN’R’s achievement of those two records taking the No.1 and No.2 spots on the Billboard 200 (among other international charts) was all but assured. More surprising was that Osbourne had staged a second comeback with No More Tears, his sixth solo album. Having ended the 80s in ignominy, arrested after attacking and strangling his wife Sharon in a drink-and-drug-induced haze after the Moscow Music Peace Festival, many had written Osbourne off by the start of the 90s. But after six months in rehab, a freshly sober (and fitness-obsessed) Osbourne came back with a vengeance, with one of the strongest albums in his solo canon and critical acclaim.
Also released on September 17 was Pretty On The Inside, the debut by Los Angeles band Hole. While not on level pegging with the behemoths that they shared a release date with, Hole would go on to serve as the foundation for another major musical revolution of the early 90s – riot grrrl. Topping the UK independent chart, they were representative that the 90s alt. boom was neither confined purely to Seattle, nor to moody men singing about their drug problems.
On September 24, the match was officially lit on the alt.rock powder keg. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik represented the nascent funk-rock scene, while grunge had its own champions with Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Nirvana’s Nevermind. Of the three, Nirvana looked to be the weakest commercial proposition. Athough signed to a sub-division of Geffen (the same label that a week before had put out the Illusion pair), they were also the ‘newest’ band of the three and had the least ‘pedigree’ to draw on for sales.
Of those who figured in the illustrious seven weeks, Metallica came away as clear-cut winners, commercially speaking. On October 31, 1991 – just days after their tenth anniversary as a band – the Black Album was awarded triple-platinum status. When they embarked on a US stadium tour alongside Guns N’ Roses the following summer, they even had a cheeky billboard erected outside LA’s Whisky A Go Go club proclaiming: ‘Only one rock band has sold more than 5,000,000 copies of an album in the 90s’.
But while Metallica had won the commercial arms race, they had barely 24 hours to celebrate before being deposed as the most important band in rock. That title went to Nirvana, whose Nevermind reached No.1 in the US on November 1.
As with everything else in the story of grunge and alternative, Nevermind was by no means an overnight smash success. Instead it was the enduring power of lead-off single Smells Like Teen Spirit that truly catapulted Nirvana – and grunge as a whole – into the mainstream. A combination of radio airplay and heavy circulation of the iconic music video on the all-important MTV set up a feeding frenzy that meant the records were selling faster than Nirvana’s label could hope to draw up any marketing strategy. Geffen president Ed Rosenblatt would later tell the New York Times: “We didn’t do anything. Nevermind was just one of those ‘get out of the way and duck’ records.”
Within 12 months most of the albums (Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Ten, Nevermind) released in August-September 1991 had achieved platinum-status sales (ironically, Soundgarden began 1991 as one of the ‘biggest’ names in grunge, but ended up lagging behind as Badmotorfinger didn’t achieve platinum status until January 1993). More importantly, however, the huge successes of those releases signalled the death knell for glam-rock as bands were unceremoniously dumped from their labels while reps went running to the hills in search of backwoods gold.
Janet Billig Rich was an artist manager who worked with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Hole, among others. She also witnessed first-hand labels scrambling to sign Seattle bands. Speaking to NPR in 2018, she said: “You could make up a band, [and] make up a quote about them [that] Kurt Cobain said. The Melvins were the greatest example. Kurt liked The Melvins, so everybody had to go sign The Melvins. Everyone was a little shocked. Everything got really easy because it was this economy – Nirvana became an economy.”
While Britain eagerly consumed the fresh wave of US artists suddenly exploding in popularity, homegrown artists were already seeding their own takeover even as grunge hit. Blur’s unhappy experiences working on (and promoting) their debut Leisure (released on August 26, 1991) prompted a knee-jerk reaction to the widespread American rock, which ultimately helped codify the Britpop movement. Similarly, Primal Scream made their first commercial inroads with the September 23 release of Screamadelica, an album that saw the band shift from their early indie rock roots to a more house-inclined direction that precipitated the rise of bands like Massive Attack and The Prodigy later in the decade.
By the time summer 1992 rolled around, the rock landscape had transformed. Bands that 12 months previously had been star attractions were jettisoned out the back door, while previous commercial no-hopers such as Butthole Surfers and White Zombie were eagerly ushered into the fold of major labels. While there was no great grunge meteorite, the fact remains that in just seven weeks from August to September 1991, alternative music pulled off a cultural coup d’état unlike anything seen before or since, where nothing happened until everything happened.