Grunge’s Long Shadow

In praise of “in-between” periods in pop history.

Pop music history is biased toward “the right place and the right time.” Just like its respectable elder relative, rock history, with its decisive battles and seismic elections, pop history fixates on origins and breakthroughs, magic years of transformation, cusp points when undergrounds go overground. It gives far less attention to those stretches of time between the upheavals—years of drift and diaspora, periods without an easily discernible “vibe,” zeits devoid of geist. Geographically, too, pop historians favor major metropolises over the provinces and suburbs. Time and again, they locate the motor of pop change in small cliques operating out of major cities like New York and Berlin or secondary cities like Manchester, U.K., or Seattle that briefly assert themselves as the place to be.

I’ve been an obsessive music fan for 30 years, a “professional fan,” aka critic, for 22 of them, yet I’ve ever managed to be in “the right place at the right time” only once, maybe twice. Pretty poor going for someone living first in London and then in New York. But partly because of this recurrent feeling of belatedness and partly because I spent my teenage years in a suburban commuter town, I’ve long had a special interest in those expanses of pop time that get skipped over quickly by pop chroniclers.

Makers of rockumentary series for TV are the worst offenders. It rankles a bit that the late ‘80s are now treated as a mere prequel to grunge. The recently aired Seven Ages of Rock on VH1 Classic was a marked improvement on earlier TV histories of rock, which tended to jump straight from Sex Pistols to Nirvana. But its episode on U.S. alternative rock nonetheless presented groups like the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth as preparing the ground for Nirvana. That’s not how it felt at the time: Sonic Youth and the rest seemed fully formed significances in their own right, creative forces of monstrous power, time-defining in their own way (albeit through their refusal of the mainstream). My Melody Maker comrade David Stubbs wrote an end-of-year oration proclaiming 1988—annum of Surfer Rosa, Daydream Nation, My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything—to be the greatest year for rock music. Ever!

We actually believed this, and our fervor was infectious, striking an inspirational, Obama-like chord with young readers heartily sick of the idea that rock’s capacity for renewal had been exhausted in the ‘60s or the punk mid-’70s. Yet that period will never truly be written into conventional history (despite efforts like Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life) because it doesn’t have a name. It’s too diverse, and it’s not easily characterized. For instance, the groups were “underground,” except that by 1988 most of them—Husker Du, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers—had already signed, or soon were to sign, to majors. Finally, it’ll never get fairly written into history because, damn it, grunge did happen.

Being turned into a prequel isn’t the only indignity that can befall one of those in-betweeny phases of rock history. The other humiliating fate is to be deemed an aftermath. Reclaiming one such period of “fallout” was the polemical drive behind my post-punk history Rip It Up and Start Againand its new companion volume Totally Wired. It was an attempt to challenge the perennial fixation on punk as the Big Bang and the corresponding tendency to see what came next as a scattered diminuendo, an entropic dissipation of focus and energy. Instead, I wanted to recover my own lived sense of the period not as a dwindle into disparateness but as the true fruition of punk’s ideals. The after-zones of rock history are hard to grasp precisely because they’re so various. This rich muddle demands identifying labels that are umbrella-broad and open-ended. Hence post-punk, not a genre so much as a space of possibility, out of which new genres formed: Goth, industrial, synthpop, mutant disco, and many more.

I can think of at least a couple more “post-” terms that could usefully redraw the map of pop music history:

Post-disco. Disco is often said to have died in 1979. That’s when the “disco sucks” backlash peaked with the infamous July 12 “Disco Demolition” night rally at Comiskey Park in Chicago, when thousands of disco records were blown up on the field midway between a double-header; it’s the year when radio dropped the disco format en masse as opportunistically as it had jumped on the bandwagon in the first place, the year when record sales for the genre began to slide precipitously. Casablanca, disco’s leading label, started to get into financial difficulties, while Studio 54, its most famous club, closed in February 1980. But people didn’t stop dancing, and disco music didn’t vanish from the Earth. Instead, the genre mutated while the movement itself fragmented into a panoply of subscenes that appealed to specific tribes of the once-united disco nation, styles like hi-NRG (a tautly sequenced, butt-bumping sound big in the hard-core gay clubs), freestyle (beloved by Hispanic youth in New York and Miami), Italodisco (the bastard bambino of Giorgio Moroder), and electrofunk (a sound associated with New York labels like West End and Prelude, artists like Peech Boys, and producers like Arthur Baker). With these and other post-disco offshoots, the classic sonic signifiers of heyday mid-’70s disco—the shuffling high-hat driven beat, walking bass lines, tempestuous string-swept orchestrations—faded away as the music became increasingly electronic, based around drum machines, sequenced bass lines, and synth-licks. But the torrid diva vocals endured, as did disco’s raison d’être (igniting the dance floor, providing release on the weekends), along with much of the infrastructure of a clubbing industry that disco had built during the ‘70s.

Bridging the so-called death of disco and the birth of house, all this early-to-mid-’80s music lacks a name beyond drably functional and neutral terms like “dance” or “club music.” Post-disco is better because this was music created by and for people—in New York, Miami, Montreal, and, if truth be known, most of the United Kingdom and Europe—who refused to accept the official decree of disco’s demise. But they didn’t just stick with the classic disco sound frozen forever as golden oldies; their restless demand for “fresh” forced the music to keep moving forward. And it wasn’t the case that disco went completely underground during this period, either: The careers of Madonna, New Order, and the Pet Shop Boys were largely launched off the back of ideas spawned in the post-disco era.

Post-psychedelic. The reigning view of psychedelia, at least in America, is as a slightly embarrassing fad that was served notice early in 1968, when Bob Dylan released the recorded-in-two-days simplicity of John Wesley Harding. Dylan acolytes swiftly followed suit, from the Band, with their equally steeped in rootsy Americana Music From Big Pink, to the Byrds with their country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The sharp critical view to take on Sgt. Pepper’s has long been that it’s a pretentious mess compared with its predecessor Revolver; sharper still is the claim that Rubber Soul is better than the already-getting-quite-psychedelic Revolver. The stance is strengthened by the Beatles’ own rapid retreat circa 1968 from studio-as-instrument frippery with the Chuck Berry-styled “Back in the USSR,” the 12-bar bluesy “Revolution,” and the gritty “Get Back.” Likewise, the Rolling Stones followed Their Satanic Majesties Request, their debacle attempt to match Sgt. Pepper’s, with the stripped-bare virility of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man,” while the Doors recovered their mojos with the hard, bluesy Morrison Hotel. In the final year of the decade that had once hurtled full-tilt into the future and out into the cosmos, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s faux-Southern rock ’n’ roll dominated American airwaves, while the United Kingdom was overrun with blues bores.

But just as disco never died in a lot of hearts, there were plenty of people active at the end of the ‘60s and into the early ‘70s who kept faith with the visions of 1967. They kept on making music that, while not always blatantly trippy, nonetheless took its bearing from landmark psychedelic records like Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets, the Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Traffic’s Dear Mr. Fantasy, Donovan’s A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, Soft Machine’s self-titled debut. I’m not just talking about the obviously out-there kosmische rock and space rock of the era (Tangerine Dream, Can, Faust, Hawkwind, Gong) but some of the maverick singer-songwriters of the early ‘70s: the late John Martyn with his rippling after-trails of echoplex guitar, Robert Wyatt’s astral scat song and tape-as-canvas daubing, Tim Buckley’s zero-gravity vocal acrobatics on Starsailor. Ex-Soft Machine singer Kevin Ayers’ solo career flitted between Donovan-like ditties full of quaint English charm to transcendental tapestries of guitar-flicker such as his Nico-paean “Decadence.” Even certain artists we normally file under “glam” were indelibly marked by psychedelia: Roxy Music’s personnel included Brian Eno, a Syd Barrett admirer and believer in using the recording studio to create sonic phantasms, and the obviously Hendrix-damaged Phil Manzanera.

Like the after-disco and after-punk phases, this is a rich, diffuse era that suffers for the lack of a name. It’s not exactly “progressive,” although at various points it overlaps the terrain we generally think of as “prog rock,” while at its other boundaries it intersects with “folk” and “singer-songwriter.” What unifies it more than style or sound is a shared infrastructure (the artists were mostly clustered around certain key labels—Harvest, Island, Charisma, Virgin, UA, Elektra), along with a common set of preoccupations, values, and approaches: the classic 1967-style fascination for the bucolic and the childlike, a spirit of gentle and genteel experimentalism, a whimsical sense of humor tinged with melancholy. At the time, people often talked of “the underground”—a nebulous concept at best, based around sensibility more than anything, but again speaking to these artists having a common departure point circa 1967. This underground blurred into the mainstream: Most of the groups were on “head”-oriented boutique imprints of major labels (Harvest, for instance, being a sub-label of EMI) or on large independent labels like Island that, while aesthetically autonomous and highly adventurous, relied on major-label distribution. Moreover, some key figures from this quasi-underground—Kevin Ayers’ former sideman Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd—would eventually release some of the biggest-selling albums of the era while never totally losing their links to their old comrades.

Post-punk, post-disco, post-psychedelic: Ungainly as they are, these terms seem necessary to me, providing a handle on elusive but fertile regions of music history. Fuzzy at both temporal ends (they slow-fade into indistinctness while never totally going away), they’re hard to perceive as distinct eras in their own right. Their richness challenges history’s fixation on the “event,” the “turning point,” the “revolutionary moment.” And their diversity challenges the historian: How to locate and convey the “feel” of an era, the communality of consciousness shared by all those belated souls who lived and created under the sign of the “post-“?

P.S. There are some other “post-” genres out there, but to my mind, they describe something quite different from the above. Take post-rock, a term that mysteriously emerged in the early ‘90s to describe experimental guitar bands that increasingly abandoned guitars altogether. (Oh, OK, it was me who came up with that one.) But post-rock doesn’t have the same temporal aspect that post-disco or post-punk have; it’s not about the ripples set in motion by a galvanizing “event.” Rather, it evokes a sense of “going beyond” the strictures of a genre of music without completely abandoning its legacy of attitudes and assumptions. For similar reasons, the term post-metal seems increasingly useful to describe the vast and variegated swath of genres (the thousand flavors of doom/black/death/grind/drone/sludge/etc., ad infinitum) that emerged from the early ‘90s onward. Sometimes beat-free and ambient, increasingly the work of home-studio loners rather than performing bands, post-metal of the kind released by labels like Hydra Head often seems to have barely any connection to metal as understood by, say, VH1 Classic doc-makers. The continuity is less sonic but attitudinal: the penchant for morbidity and darkness taken to a sometimes hokey degree; the somber clothing and the long hair; the harrowed, indecipherably growled vocals; the bombastically verbose lyrics/song titles/band names. It’s that aesthetic rather than a way of riffing or a palette of guitar sounds that ties post-metal back to Judas Priest and Black Sabbath.