1991 was the year that saw the decade’s heavyweights make their mark, shedding their underground cult status to become global stars. Meanwhile, the surging scene coming out of northwest America brought a focus on a hub of crunching creativity that cemented it in musical history. In the UK, the music scene was in a flux, treading water somewhat but there were still jewels to be found as some bands were releasing their best work, forming and splitting, and leaving the year as one of the best in musical history. 30 years on, Nathan Whittle looks back at the year that defined much of what the decade would become, the year that was essential to his own musical journey.
I was 10 years old, leaving junior 3. Until that point, the music I listened to had principally been that of my parents’. I poured over the cover of Sgt Pepper many a time, traced the stencil of the Tom Robinson Band’s Power In The Darkness again and again and wondered aloud as to when my school guitar teacher would show me more than Greensleeves and Michael Row The Boat Ashore. I had blisters on my fingers and nothing to show for it. Outside school, I was taught Love Me Do and Dire Straits’ Romeo & Juliet. Finally, an introduction to chords! It was the summer of 1990 when everything changed. My best friend at the time had been to visit family in India and he returned with two bootleg cassettes that would change my life forever. As we passed the summer hooked to his Nintendo, our soundtrack forecast the year that was to come, the year in which the barn door would be smashed wide open.
The first of those two albums was like a forbidden fruit for my tender ears, still hopped up on New Kids On The Block and the dizzy pop of Deee-Lite. It was Guns ‘n’ Roses Lies. In it lay a dose of danger. I washed cars for the summer to save up enough to head into my local record shop and managed to get my hands on Appetite For Destruction and Motorhead’s No Remorse. I’d never heard a thing by them, but the leather cover drew me straight to it. Slash became my guitar God. I picked slowly over and over again at the intro to Sweet Child o’ Mine, desperately and frustratingly failing every time. I hadn’t realised at that moment that it was the second album that would really kick off my own musical revolution.
Brash, dirty, loud, intense…and playable! By the time I started my final year in primary school I knew where I was headed. I diligently set the video timer every Friday evening to record my weekly dose of Raw Power, and woke early every Saturday to devour it before The Chart Show started, hoping, too many times in vain, that that week I’d get a rundown of the Indie chart. 1990 ticked over into 1991 and I still had no idea just how important the year was going to be. As I fell further down the rabbit hole over the years, 1991 seemed to be a year to which I would return to again and again. Given the albums that were released that year, it’s little surprise.
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The American underground takes over
1991 will be forever associated with the explosion of music out of Seattle. Of course, Nevermind was one of the biggest-selling records of the year and Nirvana’s jump from Sub Pop to Geffen Records put the clout behind a record that would come to define the era. But theirs was by no means the only one. Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl may have put the winds in the sails with their second album, but behind them came a fleet of bands, some who had already paid their dues and others who seemingly burst out of nowhere.
Sticking to their independent roots, Mudhoney decided to stay with Sub Pop for their second album, the fantastic Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. Their decision is often credited as keeping the label afloat at that time. With songs like Into The Drink and Who You Drivin’ Now?, the album quickly became essential. It’s no surprise that they featured alongside their ex-labelmates in the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Sonic Youth, who had also jumped to Geffen for the release of their classic Goo the year before, headed up a cast of stars of the underground as it took over. Also making the shift to the majors in 1991, and featured in the documentary, were Dinosaur Jr., or rather J Mascis, for the release of Green Mind. The year also saw the release of Hole’s debut album, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and TAD’s 8-Way Santa. The other Great North West had taken over and was shining a light through the Seattle rain onto bands from across the US.
I played 1991… to death when it came out a year later, watching in awe as the crowds flocked to Sonic Youth’s European tour. These bands could be your life. They had become mine. What none of them probably realised though as they whipped up a frenzy across the continent in the summer of 1991 was that a band was about to release a debut album that would immediately propel them to the stars from which they would never return. The band was Pearl Jam. The album was Ten.
Alive, Even Flow, Jeremy, Black…every song on the album brimmed with a different kind of intensity. Lumped under the banner flown by their fellow Washington State residents, Pearl Jam brought something else straight to the table. The scenesters bucked at the album, kicked back and labelled them sell-outs. Hypocrisy in action considering that many of their heralded saviours had just signed to major labels. Ten was, and is, a masterpiece. Given that Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament had been instrumental earlier in Mother Love Bone and, with Mike McCready, in Temple Of The Dog before Pearl Jam’s inception, the reaction certainly seemed misplaced. As I plunged headlong into a Catholic secondary school, with a Religion teacher who delighted in imposing our opinions on us, seeing Vedder’s intensity in the following year’s Unplugged set, Pro-choice scrawled down his arm, was a further awakening as I approached adolescence.
The following year brought new albums by Babes In Toyland and L7, whose performance on The Word, along with Nirvana’s on Jonathan Ross in November 1991, will always stand out as milestone TV performances of the era. Further down the American west coast, another young three-piece were also making waves. Green Day released their album Kerplunk at the tail end of the year and soon realised that their ambition and burgeoning success meant that they would have to leave Lookout! Records and also sign to a major. The label desperately tried to convince them to stay for one more album, but to no avail. Their blend of pop-punk hit mainstream success a couple of years later as they led the charge of a new wave of punk to a wider audience in the second half of the decade. The spill over and rejection from the scene that had nurtured them soon led to the band creating their best work.
1991 also saw the release The Real Ramona, the fourth album from Throwing Muses and their first to break into the UK Top 40. The album harnessed the poppier experimentation that Kristen Hersh had started to develop on the band’s previous album, Hunkpapa. It was the band’s final album with Tanya Donelly before she left to form Belly and brought together the best of the band at that time.
But not all was rising in the US underground, as the year also saw the release of an album by a band that had called it quits at the end of 1990 citing the usual creative differences. The album flew completely under the radar at the time, released without an iota of promo. No one knew that the Slint’s Spiderland would go on to become one of the most influential post-rock albums ever made. No one except, of course, Steve Albini, who at the time called it flawless. It is, and its later impact was immense. As if to further hammer home the changing of the guards that was occurring, 1991 was also the year in which the Pixies released their final album with their full original line-up. Although Trompe Le Monde is regarded by some as effectively a Frank Black solo album, it wrestled back the urgency of their high-water mark album Doolittle and proved that they still had something special when their stars aligned.
While the US underground bubbled over in 1991, there were more acts gearing up. Mercury Rev released their debut album Yerself Is Steam, Smashing Pumpkins put out Gish, and Fugazi, one of the blueprint bands for the DIY scene released their second album, Steady Diet Of Nothing.
New heavyweights step up
While Nirvana and Pearl Jam together embodied the new American alt-rock scene and quickly began to sell out enormous shows, there was a trio of bands who, after building a fanbase throughout the previous decade broke through to produce their biggest-selling records and two of them would never again match the success in the US.
Album number five was the magic number for both Metallica, with their self-titled ‘black’ album, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, with Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Both had achieved the new level of success by essentially cutting back on the metal riffing that had, in their own styles, characterised more of their earlier albums and, in doing so, written the albums that would catapult them to even greater heights. It was also telling that the songs that spurred on the sales of both albums to the general public were, in both cases possibly the softest and most poignant they had ever penned – Nothing Else Matters and Under The Bridge.
Releasing their debut album the same year as Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, 1991 was also the year in which R.E.M broke through from being a cult act to international stars. Their seventh album, Out Of Time, saw them showered with accolades and sales. What the band had in common with Hetfield & co. is that, while these albums propelled them onto the international stage in a way they had never before seen, their earlier albums are often more revered. For the Chili Peppers though, Blood Sugar Sex Magik was their finest moment.
While it is clear that in 1991, bands from the US dominated the airwaves, there was already one band in the ring. On Achtung Baby, U2 also made a shift from their previous sound in a bid to cement their dominance with their seventh album. They, along with Metallica and RHCP may have prevailed as the years have passed since to stay standing, but in 1991 none stood chance against the might of Nevermind. The success of the album also put the noses out of joint of a certain L.A. band who that year put out their most ambitious project.
Guns ‘n’ Roses were riding high still on the success of their debut album four years earlier. The grandiosity their Use Your Illusion albums was a stark contrast to the stripped back brash sound of the bands that broke through that year and seemed somewhat out of place, a throwback to the decade before. The firing of Steve Adler meant that the band lost some of the roll, replacement Matt Sorum driving a straight rock style. The ambition of Rose led them to other styles as the sandwiched epic ballads between their more to the point hard rock. The subsequent two and half year tour of the albums left them a shadow of their former selves, broken to a point from which they would never really recover, especially after the departure of Izzy Stradlin.
Just what is it that you wanna do?
1991 was clearly a year in which US acts dominated and they filled a void that had been left on the UK scene, which was in flux between the headiness of the Second Summer of Love two years earlier and the anglophile reaffirmation that was to begin two years later. The music press was tired of the baggy sound, evident in the reaction to Blur’s debut album, released that year. However, a certain label found the space to release some of the UK’s best records of the year. In the desert, Creation found an oasis, although one fruit would nearly end them.
Alan McGee himself admits to having been gobsmacked upon hearing Primal Scream’s Screamaledica. After a couple of albums that had followed in the well-trodden indie path of the time, no one was prepared for the departure that would mark the success and future direction of the band. It was an album that put Creation firmly on the map. At the other end of the spectrum, My Bloody Valentine released Loveless, an album that is said to have almost bankrupted the label. With a single-minded vision and drive that stretched Creation bosses to braking point, Kevin Shields and his band crafted their opus. Between the media-led scenes of the late eighties and mid-nineties, the two albums broke new ground and would go on to become two of the most important British albums of the early 90s.
Although Nirvana were considered by many to have become the band of the moment, there was another Creation band that famously beat Nevermind to the title of album of the year in Spin magazine in 1991. Teenage Fanclub’s third album, Bandwagonesque, was in thrall to Alex Chilton’s Big Star while simultaneously combining the chiming pop with the denser sound that they had initially plied upon forming after a Dinosaur Jr. concert. It was their first album for Creation and one that saw them make headway into the States. Little did McGee know that while he was riding between the rising wave of Screamadelica and Bandwagonesque, seeing Loveless’ spiralling debt bare down on him, his next major charges were making their first steps onto the local Manchester scene. A few years later they would elevate Creation to the skies.
My infatuation with what was coming out of the US at the time meant that, apart from Screamadelica, these albums passed me by completely. I don’t think that my pre-adolescent ears would have paid much mind to the sonic blasts that My Bloody Valentine were crafting, but there was one UK album that in 1991 did grab me, in part due to the novelty of their final single of the year and in part thanks to an older family friend making his first forays into DJing after spending his own adolescence at the Hacienda. It was through him that I first heard KLF’s The White Room, their fourth and final album. It was a crossover album that threw together the reigning house scene with the attitude of punk into a genre defined by Select magazine as Bleak House.
The White Room is a pure adrenaline-fueled aural blast and was a magnificent swan song for the duo, who bowed out of the music business the following year, famously leaving a dead sheep on the steps of the Brit Awards with the message “I died for ewe”. The band had just won the Best British Group award and subsequently deleted their entire back catalogue. Just this week they sent their fans into a revival frenzy with the digital release of all their songs.
As the band bowed out, others were emerging. That year saw debut album releases from Massive Attack (Blue Lines), Saint Etienne (Foxbase Alpha), and The Orb (…Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld). The future stars were also readying themselves for the resurgence of British guitar bands that was about to come.
1991, for me personally, was probably the most important year in music. It was the year that turned my tastes around completely and set me off down the path I’ve been exploring ever since. And I bet I’m not the only one.
Words by Nathan Whittle. Find his Louder Than War archive here.