Dust Off Your Flannel

Does the looming '90s revival presage a Nirvana-style breakthrough?

We've almost weathered the '80s revival without anybody rear-ending the morons stalled at the intersection listening to Spandau Ballet, but it's official: The ladle's scraping barrel when it comes to that decade's nostalgia.

The Winona Ryder/Christian Slater movie Heathers is being turned into a series on Bravo. (Bitchy fictional teens, the perfect lead-in for their older Real Housewives counterparts.) Already, pouf skirts, neon colors and the most horrific of '80s fashion crimes — shoulder pads — have returned like a cold sore. (At least now we have Valtrex.) On a similar, even more foreboding note, Bret Michaels released a chart-topping album two years ago and has another on the way.

If I'm Nickelback or any other conventional "active rock" band, I'm frightened. Staind's Aaron Lewis saw the signs and made a country album. You could just ask Michaels. One minute you're comped at the Hilton, the next you're crashing at Motel 6. It happens quicker than you can say grunge. I've got my fingers crossed.

Nirvana's commercial breakthrough inspired a wave of alternative rock signings in the '90s.
KIRK WEDDLE
Nirvana's commercial breakthrough inspired a wave of alternative rock signings in the '90s.
The original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. reunited in 2005.
BRANTLEY GUTIERREZ
The original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. reunited in 2005.

It's not even out of spite. The late '80s through early '90s was an exceptionally fertile period for underground rock. (Much like the same period 20 years earlier.) Kurt Cobain led the way for dozens of bands that spilled over into the mainstream. The funny thing is that circumstances are remarkably similar in the underground today. Only this time maybe David Geffen won't need to open his wallet to find Nirvana.

Of course, broach the idea of another underground rock revolution to a major-label record exec today, and he'll laugh you out of the room. All the label money goes to the Nicki Minajes and Brad Paisleys of the world. Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell finds this a travesty.

"I have a torn ligature in my hip, torn meniscus in my knee. I have double hernias and might have a third hernia on the way — all from performing, but that's not what bothers me. To be honest with you, I take all that in stride. What bothers me is the way the music industry has just abandoned musicians and gone for this quick, pop commercial buck," Farrell says. "I understand, back in the day, they thought the rock 'n' roll kids were all downloading. So they didn't want to invest in them. They knew that they could get little kids to buy coffee mugs and nail polish."

That hasn't stopped the pot from simmering. Indeed, unwatched, the underground rock scene is beginning to boil. You can hear it from long-standing grass-roots iconoclasts like Lightning Bolt and Neurosis through more recent pop experimentalists Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer and St. Vincent to the clamorous, hooky sounds of Japandroids, No Age and Ty Segall. Less attendant to commercial concerns, people are doing their own thing. And the cream's rising. Farrell points to his own annual Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, one of many similar destination rock events (Coachella, Bumbershoot, Fun Fun Fun Fest) that have popped up across the country over the past decade.

"We don't book pop. We're booking the real deal, and guess what? Hundreds of thousands of people are coming out to see that," he says. "They're still the coolest. They're still the ones you really want to get behind and say, 'They're representing me.' These commercial crappy contest winners, they have nothing to do with my life. If you say I'm hungry and I need something, I don't go to a box of Pringles; I want some steak."

Nobody's arguing that things aren't tough for rock musicians today. No more than 10 percent of their income is from album sales, forcing bands to earn their keep on the road. Everyone's in the same situation, filling the clubs with established acts all competing for a shrinking dollar.

But, years ago, David Bowie made an observation that really rings true today. He suggested that downloading would squeeze out all those for whom making music was a choice and not a necessity.
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For all the moaning you hear from musicians, they have no reason to complain, in a certain sense. Things are much better than they were 25 years ago. Computers and the Internet make touring much easier. Bouncing Souls bassist Bryan Kienlen recalls frantically handwriting postcards in the back of the van to alert their fans of their upcoming shows. Heck, before Black Flag trail-blazed across the country in the early '80s, there was no underground touring circuit. Back then you were DIY because there was no other alternative.

"[We] are such a product of Phoenix, in a way, because it wasn't in any way an industry town," says Meat Puppets bassist Cris Kirkwood. "My motivation was so exceedingly personal. I just really liked stringed instruments, and it was something we pursued doggedly. The parallel that exists [between then and now] is that we didn't need a label either when we started. Everybody just started making their own label. That was the burst of creativity that went down at that point."

That's what makes the incipient '90s revival so informative. Before Nirvana, there was no pretext of commercial success. They weren't hopping some trend or pandering to the lowest common denominator. They were making music for themselves.

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deneyterrio
deneyterrio

I hope not, I had a great time in the 90s. Even though the current 80s revival is stronger then ever it's still the 8th or 9th time that horrible decade has reared it's ugly head since the 90s ended.

 

For those of us alive and informed during the 80s it was a really crappy decade. The economy was shit, music became a prefabbed commodity(thanks to disco) and fashion was awkward. The problem with nostalgia is that reality takes a backseat while fantasy stand front and center with legwarmers on. These 80s revivals have taken the substance out of the decade and replaced it unabashed romanticism. There shouldn't be anything wrong with that but I can see this happening to a 90s revival or 2. The industry will get a hold of it and strip it down to it's exterior with no recognition of the meat of the decade. The 90s didn't save the world but it certainly changed it. I think the 'fuck you' creativity that was fostered then was reminiscent of the 60s.

 

The 90s weren't about flannel at all. That era was about music and music only. It was the industry that tried to make it a style. The clothes were a necessity to the climate in Seattle and the north. As someone that lived up the road in Vancouver at the time I couldn't relate to the bright colors and cocaine of the 80s. My friends and I would hang out on the shore and play guitars tell the sun came up. What style your clothes were wasn't important, they provided a function and flannel was the cheapest. Plus everything was grey and brown and wet so these clothes let us blend into the city. The last thing any of us wanted was to look like a bunch of Skittles in those bright clothes. Let us trudge along in the grey and life deafening drizzle. It's how we liked it.

 

The current 80s revival replete with banks like Ariel Pink making records as if they were the bastard children of an OMD/Spandau Ballet mating is played out. The majority of music was horrible, utter trash. Thankfully bands are starting to shift but now every 3rd band sounds like Mumford and Sons. Guh.

 

The 80s were a coked up, neon clad stock broker that came to define the 'me' generation. It was excess upon excess. A horrible decade that we were lucky to get out of. I hope the 90s don't get the same nostalgia paint job the 80s got. Oh sure, I'd love to see Black Happy tour around with Roots Roundup but you won't be seeing my stage dive anymore :)

matthewc0le
matthewc0le

@HoustonPress anything would be better than dubstep

 

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