In the early 1990’s Grunge or “the Seattle Sound” dominated the airwaves, saturated MTV and then got copied into the rock music style still featured in the mainstream today. There were, of course, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees who all become very successful. Then there were bands with a similar sound and aesthetic, most of them not from the same Seattle area, that managed to also sell many records (Stone Temple Pilots, Silverchair, and even Bush).
In the wake of Nirvana’s success record labels scattered to find similar bands who they usually had a hand in packaging to look and sound “Grunge“. Worldwide famous grunge bands from Seattle were 4 or 5. Many just as brilliant were never truly offered that chance and they deserved out attention.
What are the most famous grunge bands?
The big four of Grunge, groups that have enjoyed enduring international success, are Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains.
However, the Seatle scene produced numerous other high-quality groups. Some of them, like the Screaming Trees, hovered around international renown, while many other bands, like the ones described in this piece, earned significant praise in the music underground.
Famous grunge bands, not so famous anymore
But there were bands that even though had great artistic merit did not receive the same due as their contemporaries. Most of the bands referred to here came from the Seattle area and in fact, in most cases, were veterans of the local music scene. Many of these groups had a lasting influence on underground and alternative music. We take a look at some of the great bands from the grunge era that somehow got a bit lost in the shuffle.
1. Green River
Green River is most famous for being composed of members that would later go on to form Pearl Jam and Mudhoney. Some refer to them as the “the first Grunge band”. In fact, their sound took elements of punk rock and classic rock and melded them together. The combination of punk rock and sludgy 70’s riffs would be a hallmark of grunge. The band was also important for being part of the first wave of releases
by the Sub Pop label, which would later be instrumental in the rise of Grunge music.
The band officially disbanded in 1988. Half the group chose to follow a sound that owed more to Punk Rock and formed Mudhoney, while the other leaned more towards a Glam Rock sound and image and formed Mother Love Bone.
Speaking of which. Mudhoney are the unsung heroes of grunge, defining its sound and attitude, while never completely receiving the same commercial acceptance as its peers. The band was formed by Mark Arm and Steve Turner after Green River had called it a day. They released their first single on Sub Pop in 1988 and have continued to record and perform until today.
To the band members, Mudhoney was not a project they expected would last, but the success of their first album Mudhoney made them darlings of underground rock. It looked like Mudhoney was prone to be “the next big thing”. Adding to that the band signed to a major label just in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind being released. Contrary to expectations though the band did not have the same success enjoyed by Nirvana or Pearl Jam, with the record-buying public finding the group a bit too eccentric perhaps. The band did have a strong influence on alternative rock bands and continues to have a large live following.
3. Mother Love Bone
Mother Love Bone was created by the other half of Green River members, choosing to favor a more pop-metal/glam sound and image. The band was led by singer Andy Wood and featured future Pearl Jam members Stone Gossard (guitar) and Jeff Ament (bass). Like Green River before it, Mother Love Bone seemed destined to enjoy worldwide success with a growing following and critical praise. Their career was tragically cut short by Andrew Wood’s death in 1991.
Gossard and Ament later regrouped, formed Pearl Jam, and made the decision to search for a radically different singer than Andy Wood. They came upon surfer Eddie Vedder. Ironically, while having played for many years and enjoying critical recognition, the newly formed Pearl Jam had commercial pretty out of the gate with their debut album Ten.
In the wake of their dissolution, the band’s fame grew through a new generation of fans discovering their music. Pearl Jam themselves paid tribute by covering their song Chloe Dancer/Crown of thorns.
4. Temple of the Dog
Temple of the Dog was a group formed in the wake of Andrew Wood’s death by band members and friends. The band was meant as a tribute to the singer. Former roommate Chris Cornell of Soundgarden had some songs he had written after his friend’s death. He enlisted the members of the newly formed Pearl Jam as a backing band, including their new singer Eddie Vedder.
The band only recorded one album, while rumors of a possible reunion exist until this day. As Grunge music became a global success the album’s notoriety grew as well. The group is still held in high regard with songs like the Cornell/Vedder sung Hunger Strike, All night thing, or Say hello to heaven still featuring heavily on grunge playlists.
Tad was a band emphasizing Grunge’s influence from stoner rock and doom. The band was led by heavyweight frontman Tad Doyle. The band’s lyrics often focused on redneck culture with band members using this as part of their image. Most of the time, like contemporaries The Melvins, they displayed a great deal of humor while the music was played with passion and aggression.
6. The Melvins
The Melvins were one of the most influential bands on underground music in America. Their influence is felt in Doom, Alternative Metal, and Punk. Their association with Grunge came mostly because of their friendship with Kurt Cobain who publicly championed the band and was rumored to at one point have tried for them (rumor denied by singer Buzz Osborne).
By the time that Grunge became a worldwide phenomenon, the Melvins were already a well-esteemed band. In the early 90’s they signed to a major label which helped boost their popularity. For the most part, they have continued touring and recording music of the same caliber to this day.
L7 was perhaps one of the best alternative bands of the ’90s. To be fair they enjoyed a good amount of success especially around their 1992 release Bricks are heavy. Featuring an all-female lineup, L7 was associated with the Grunge style especially because of similar influences owing to melodic metal and punk rock. The band returned from their hiatus for a tour in 2015.
Gruntruck featured singer/guitarist Ben McMillan once the singer of another Seattle favorite, Skin Yard. The band’s sound included elements of punk rock and ’70’s metal and made some solid recordings. It looked like the band would enjoy more success as they toured with the Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains and were compared at one time to Soundgarden. The ’90s were however a time when there was an overflow of alternative rock bands and Gruntruck seemed to fade from view.
9. Babes in Toyland
The trio of Babes in Toyland was one of the most visceral sounding groups of the Grunge period. The band is mentioned as one of the most important groups of the Riot Grrrl style started in the 1990s. A favorite of indie rock artists, Babes in Toyland chose not to make changes to their aggressive style and did not court public acceptance as much as some of the other groups of the period. The band enjoyed a large influence in the ’90s, especially on female artists and groups.
10. Mad Season
Mad Season, like Temple of the Dog, was an all-star, Grunge side project. The group featured singer Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), guitarist Mike McCready, drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees), and bassist John Saunders. Occasionally the group would also get help from low baritone and serial collaborator, singer Mark Lanegan (also of the Screaming Trees).
Unlike their other bands, the group focused their attention on atmospheric ballads and hard rock that emphasized McCready’s virtuoso playing. They recorded a single album that is regarded as one of the best offerings from the Grunge era catalog. When released, their album enjoyed commercial success and lead to discussions of future releases. Sadly, Staley and Saunders passed away.
More recently, the album got the deluxe treatment with song demos finished with the vocals of Mark Lanegan that were added to the package. In 2015, the band reunited for a live show with the help of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Singing duties were taken over by Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave) and Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver) played bass.
Note that famous Seattle artists have always seemed to find a way of assembling in new bands. One such all-star project could have been the collaboration between members Nirvana and Screaming Trees. The musicians may not have been stars yet as far as the world of popular music was concerned. But, they were treated as some of the more exciting talent to come out of Seattle. The unnamed group entertained the idea of recording a Leadbelly covers album. A handful of recordings survived although a full-length release was not to be. It is interesting to note that the singers of both groups, Kurt Cobain and Mark Lanegan, would later record Leadbelly’s Where did you sleep last night, separately, yet in an oddly similar arrangement and singing manner.
For an alternative look, at the most succesful grunge bands, make sure to check our article about the best-selling albums of the grunge era, as well as its accompanying Alt77 playlist.