It was a subgenre which helped to define the 1990s. It wiped 80s hair metal off the map and replaced it so completely that we’re still living in the aftermath of grunge to this day. So what was it about these musicians which captured our attention so much? Who technically counted as a grunge musician? What happened to them after they got famous? Find out more below about the greats of grunge.
Facts About Grunge Music Icons
46. Full Coverage?
In 1992, Donita Sparks of the band L7 made monocles all across Britain pop out of place when the band appeared on the BBC variety show The Word. While the band performed live on camera, Sparks pulled her pants down and appeared nude from the waist down.
45. Heck of an Internship!
Before he found fame with Soundgarden, bassist Ben Shepherd paid his dues in the grunge music scene when he worked as a roadie for Nirvana. We can only imagine the stories he had to tell his bandmates before they made it big together!
44. When the Two Mikes Met
While some bands are formed by childhood friends or classmates in school, Canadian band Our Lady Peace was formed through newspaper ads! In 1991, Mike Turner placed an ad a Toronto newspaper looking for fellow musicians. When Raine Maida responded to the ad, he was studying at the University of Toronto. The two of them joined up with a drummer and bassist, but when the bassist left, they placed a second ad looking for his replacement. At the time, of course, the band went under the name As If, but this was changed to Our Lady Peace (thankfully).
43. You Can’t Stop Me!
Long before Dave Grohl or Axl Rose performed onstage sitting down due to broken bones, Alice in Chains’ own Layne Staley beat them to the punch in 1992. After he ran over his own foot with an all-terrain vehicle, Staley didn’t want to lose out on a series of tours that Alice in Chains was supposed to do with Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osborne. In defiance of his injury, Staley performed cast and all, much to the delight of the crowds and the alarm of Staley’s doctors.
42. How it All Began
In case anyone’s unaware, grunge music broke off from punk rock in the mid-1980s. One of the first acts to play music identified as “grunge” was the band Black Flag. Their version of punk was slower and heavier in sound, sharing some traits with heavy metal at the time. Although this new sound was “only a few notes apart” from punk, it was indisputably its own thing. This was the start of grunge music as we came to know it.
41. The Pioneers Are Inspired
While Black Flag wasn’t necessarily huge in their day, some key people went to go see them as they toured the northwestern US. Aspiring musicians Buzz Osborne and Krist Novoselic were inspired by this new sound that Black Flag were playing. According to Novoselic, Osborne immediately began writing songs which emulated this sound. In case you aren’t familiar with those two names, Osborne would become the front man of the Melvins, while Novoselic would be the bass player for Nirvana.
40. Say That Again, Please!
One thing that many grunge singers like Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, and Eddie Vedder all became known for was a vocal style which was far deeper in pitch than hair metal of the 1980s. It was also a much more “gravelly, raspy” style of singing which freely descended into “growls, moans, screams, and mumbles” which made it hard to understand the lyrics. It’s often been seen as a musical reaction to hard times of the early 1990s.
39. We are Women, Hear Us Roar
Many have assumed that the grunge music scene was completely dominated by men. This perception is entirely incorrect, as there was a significant number of female artists or predominantly female bands who played grunge music. These include Courtney Love (who fronted the band Hole), L7, The Gits, Lunachicks, 7 Year B****, and Dickless.
38. Sisters Representing!
Rare in the entirety of the rock genre, several women became famous in the grunge world as instrumentalists rather than vocalists. These included Patty Schemel and Lori Barbero, who played drums in the bands Hole and Babes in Toyland, respectively. There was also D’arcy Wretzky and Melissa Auf der Maur; these two made their careers as bassists in The Smashing Pumpkins.
37. “Something from Seattle”
It’s almost become a cliché by this point, but Seattle truly was the capital of grunge music. Due to the isolation of Seattle (as opposed to the cultural centers or L.A. or New York, or the southern US bastions of country music), grunge music developed from fringe music. The number of grunge bands from Seattle would take up a large space on this article, so we’ll focus on the best-known ones to give you an idea of that city’s legacy: Skin Yard, Alice in Chains, 7 Year B***h, the Melvins, Temple of the Dog, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Nirvana.
The album which is often referred to as the first grunge album is the 1984 album U-Men by the U-Men. The U-Men’s sound was frequently described as being “dirty” in comparison to other rock bands of the time. Like Black Flag, they would inspire the grunge artists who followed after them.
35. G’Day Mate!
Although grunge was a musical genre with mostly American roots, it was far more widespread than just the United States. One example of the international grunge scene was the Australian band Silverchair. However, they would move on from grunge soon after their 1995 debut album, evolving their sound into post-grunge and alt metal.
34. Legacy Lives On
As with any music movement, not all bands reach major success. The Seattle-based band called Green River never managed any success outside of their home city. However, they were a major influence on bands like Pearl Jam and Mudhoney, who did make it into the spotlight. We can hope that this gave them bragging rights at least!
33. Best and Worst of Both Worlds!
Of course, Seattle wasn’t the only place in the United States to spawn grunge bands. Before they moved onto other subgenres of rock music, the Stone Temple Pilots made their name playing the grunge music which was in vogue at the time. They had a rather mixed reception in those days; in a famously ironic moment, the readers of Rolling Stone voted for them as the Best New Band of the Year while they were also awarded the title of Worst New Band by the music critics who worked for the very same magazine!
32. A Sample of Canadiana
One of the musicians who most inspired the grunge artists was Canadian musician Neil Young, also known as the Godfather of Grunge. Known for being a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Young has also had a highly lauded solo career spanning decades of making beloved music such as “Old Man,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and “Heart of Gold.” Young also made his name as a political activist, which proved a major inspiration to artists such as Pearl Jam. In fact, it was Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder who inducted Young into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
31. No Need to Thank Us
Inducting Neil Young into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wasn’t the only time that Vedder and the rest of Pearl Jam got to know Neil Young, however. In 1995, the band served as Young’s backup for his album Mirror Ball. Surprisingly, despite this epic team-up, Pearl Jam couldn’t be advertised as being involved for legal reasons. They did, however, get individual credits within the album cover, so that’s something.
30. Well Done, Eh!
Another example of early Canadian contributions to grunge music was the New Brunswick band Eric’s Trip. While they never had the level of success that other grunge bands got during the 1990s, they held the honor of being the first Canadian band to be signed by the Seattle record label Sub Pop, which was considered to be the city’s “flagship grunge label.”
29. The Face of Diversity
One of the most famous faces and original pioneers of the Seattle grunge scene was Chris Cornell. Cornell initially found fame with Soundgarden, but he would also release solo albums and perform with bands Audioslave and Temple of the Dog. Even with Soundgarden, however, Cornell went beyond grunge and experimented with songs that dipped into metal, hard rock, and even blues. To this day, Cornell has been recognized as one of the greatest frontmen in rock history.
28. We Love Sports, It Turns Out
Pearl Jam continues to be one of the most famous bands to emerge from the grunge movement, but that wasn’t always their name. They originally named themselves Mookie Blaylock. Basketball fans might recognize this name as being shared with a New Jersey Nets player. In fact, Pearl Jam’s debut album title, Ten, was a further nod to Blaylock. The number that Blaylock wore on his jersey was 10!
27. We Didn’t See It Coming!
Given how successful Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut album became, it’s astonishing to think just how little faith Epic Records had in Ten before it was released. They didn’t even bother to produce a vinyl edition for American markets, although they did release vinyl albums in international markets. It wasn’t until 1994 that Ten got its vinyl debut in the US.
Most people are probably familiar with the Canadian rock band Nickelback, and the many jokes made at their expense. Incredibly, their very first album was firmly in the genre of grunge! Curb was originally released in 1996, but only within Canada. International audiences didn’t get to hear it until 2002. By this time, grunge was far and away past its height of popularity, and critics were particularly harsh on Curb as a result. It was accused of being “stuck in a time capsule” and “derivative.” At least now you know that people have been negative towards Nickelback from the very start!
25. A Bird in the Hand…
During the 1990s, the British rock scene would eventually be dominated by the likes of Oasis and Blur. However, one prominent British grunge band was Bush. Named after the London neighborhood of Shepherd’s Bush, Bush helped revolutionize the music markets when they released one of the first CD singles ever produced in 1997. This single in question was “Greedy Fly,” charted as high as #5 on Billboard’s US Mainstream Rock charts and #22 on the UK Singles Chart.
24. High Water Mark Across the Pond
Speaking of “Greedy Fly,” the album it came from was called Razorblade Suitcase. This was the second album that Bush released, and it remains to be their highest-charting album. While it sold very well across the Commonwealth countries such as Canada and Australia, it debuted at #1 on the US Billboard 200!
23. Rippling Consequences
In a tragic example of parallel lives, the leading men of both Soundgarden and Nirvana struggled with depression throughout their lives, and each of them ended up taking their own lives. Kurt Cobain shot himself on April 5, 1994, at the age of 27. Chris Cornell’s death, meanwhile, was ruled to have been suicide by hanging, on May 18, 2017. On that same day 37 years before, Ian Curtis of the British band Joy Division (whom Cornell had admired) had also taken his own life by hanging himself. Two months after Cornell’s death, his close friend Chester Bennington of Linkin Park followed Cornell in suicide on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday.
22. Just a Letter and a Number is All We Need
Although the Spice Girls became associated with the phrase “girl power” in the 1990s, there’s a strong case to be made that L7 were the grunge champions of that term. This all-female band carved out a corner of their own in the world of grunge music, gaining a significant following in the US when their single “Pretend We’re Dead” reached #8 on the US Alt Charts. Their music was also used in several films at the time, including the highly controversial Natural Born Killers.
21. Professor Bass, Sir
While the grunge scene saw its share of jaded young men turning their back on society and sneering at convention, this wasn’t as common as cliché would have you think. For example, two of the co-founders of Soundgarden pursued post-secondary education before they tried being musicians. Lead guitarist Kim Thayil studied philosophy at the University of Washington while bassist Hiro Yamamoto went to Western Washington University and got a master’s degree in Physical Chemistry!
20. A New Branch on This Tree
Even as grunge music took pop culture by storm in the 1990s, a reactionary genre emerged almost immediately. Post-grunge came about at the height of grunge’s mainstream success, fusing the sounds of grunge with pop music. This meant a much higher production value to post-grunge songs. Lyrically, grunge and post-grunge both tackled dark topics like broken romance and drug addictions, but grunge often used third-person narratives to tackle issues while post-grunge usually relied on the first-person.
19. Heck of a Lineup!
While the post-grunge movement offended many grunge fans, there’s no denying that it was just filled with many success stories. Bands like Matchbox Twenty, Creed, 3 Doors Down, and Nickelback would become famous post-grunge bands. Even grunge artists would transfer to this new sound! Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell joined members of the band Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave, while Nirvana’s Dave Grohl would co-found the Foo Fighters.
18. Living Large
In the vein of second albums of grunge bands hitting it big, Alice in Chains struck gold with their sophomore album Dirt. The album spawned five hit singles and sold more than four million copies in the U.S. alone!
17. Singing in the Dark
Speaking of Alice in Chains’ Dirt, one of the hit singles it produced was the song “Rooster.” Fans of the song might recall that in the music video for “Rooster,” lead singer Layne Staley is wearing sunglasses the entire time. While that might not surprise anyone familiar with rock music, there was a specific reason why that was the case. When it came time to film the video, Staley was so high that his eyes were, according to the video’s director, pretty messed up. Luckily, there was a pair of sunglasses on hand to hide Staley’s distorted peepers.
16. We’re Not Called “Good Band” for Nothing!
One of the prime examples of post-grunge music came in the form of Underdogs by the Matthew Good Band. Released in 1997, the album was only their second at the time, yet it became their highest-selling album to this day, going more than double platinum in their home country alone. It was also named the 18th best Canadian album of all time in a 2000 poll by Chart magazine.
15. I Don’t Know Whether to Laugh or Scream
One grunge band which stood out from their peers was the all-female band Dickless. While grunge music was not known for having a sense of humor, Dickless cheerfully made use of satire and comedy, as their band name can confirm. They famously covered Bo Diddley’s blues song “I’m a Man,” continuing that practice of irony and humor. However, this comedy was also accompanied by a “loud and abrasive” style of music which included a “unique growling shrieking vocal style” which was intense even for other female grunge bands at the time.
14. Waaaahhhhh We Hate Change!
As we mentioned before, Soundgarden was a pioneer of grunge music in Seattle, but they were quick to experiment and expand their horizons beyond grunge. However, despite their success with their expansion into hard rock and what became known as alt-metal, many of their original fans were upset. Soundgarden were decried by many diehard grunge fans as being sellouts. For our part, we’ll happily take Bad Motorfinger and King Animal without complaining that they aren’t stuck in the early 1990s sound, thank you very much!
13. Pass the Salt!
Grunge music was definitely a time to experiment with the sound of an album, but Pearl Jam took it to a new level when they mixed their debut album Ten inside what used to be an English farm. Fans of the album might notice that their song “Ocean” has a strange percussion sound. This sound came from the combined effects of a pepper shaker and drumsticks hitting a fire extinguisher! Try listening to that song again and imagine them goofing around in the kitchen at the same time!
12. Death Knell
Although Nirvana had done so much to bring grunge music into pop culture, music historians and music critics frequently blame them for also being behind grunge’s demise. Many have pointed to either the album In Utero or the death of Kurt Cobain as the points in time when the hypocrisy and emptiness of grunge became too obvious to ignore. This, in turn, led to the late 1990s, where pop music moved far away from the dirges of grunge to more positive and optimistic subgenres.
11. Life Imitating Art
While she became a familiar face in the grunge and alt-rock worlds with her band Hole, Courtney Love was also an aspiring actress. One of her first roles was a supporting role in the indie film Sid and Nancy. The film is based on infamous punk rocker Sid Vicious and his tragic relationship with Nancy Spungen. Love had auditioned to play Spungen, but while she didn’t end up getting the role, she ironically went on to be the spouse of an equally tragic relationship with Kurt Cobain. Maybe she was taking method acting a bit too far?
10. It’s a Fight!
While the Seattle scene was very tight-knit, a rivalry emerged between Nirvana and Pearl Jam during the early 1990s. Kurt Cobain despised their debut album, and he openly referred to Pearl Jam as sellouts! His reason for this was the plentiful guitar solos on their songs, which he said disqualified them from truly being indie rock. Despite this stance, Cobain would make his peace with the band, and even became close friends with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.
9. Never Again
One of Pearl Jam’s most controversial songs would have to be the 1992 hit song “Jeremy.” In true keeping with grunge music’s favoring dark topics, this song was based on a tragic true story of an American student who took his own life by gunshot while standing at the front of his class. The music video which Pearl Jam produced for the song intended to replicate this action, but MTV forbade them depicting the actor pointing the gun at himself on camera. In a sad irony, the ambiguous shots of blood and screaming classmates caused some people to believe that Jeremy had begun shooting his classmates instead of himself.
8. We’re Done With MTV!
The misunderstanding and controversy over the music video for “Jeremy” ultimately caused Pearl Jam to stop making music videos for their songs. The studio wanted to make a music video for their song “Black,” but they hotly refused to do it. As Pearl Jam explained, they didn’t want their fans to lose sight of the songs themselves rather than have them overshadowed by the accompanying music videos.
7. Fallen Friend
The punk rock band 7 Year B***h frequently dabbled in grunge music during the 1990s, like many other Seattle bands. However, they underwent a tragic loss in 1992 when their co-founder and lead guitarist died. Stefanie Sargent had consumed a mix of alcohol and heroin at a party the night before she was found dead in her apartment. She was only 24 years old.
6. Murder Most Foul
An even greater tragedy shook the Seattle music scene in 1993. Mia Zapata was not only lead singer for the grunge/punk band known as The Gits, she was also very good friends with other bands such as 7 Year B***h. To everyone’s horror, Zapata was walking home from a tavern on the evening of July 7, 1993, when she was assaulted, raped, and murdered. Her body was not identified until the medical examiner recognized her from her local concerts with The Gits. Zapata’s murder would be unsolved for 10 years, until a man named Jesus Mezquia was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 36 years imprisonment for the crime.
5. Well, That Escalated Fast!
The most controversial moment of L7’s career occurred at the 1992 Reading Festival, where they were set to perform. When technical difficulties delayed the band from performing, however, the crowd expressed a heightened display of impatience by throwing mud at the band. Eventually, L7’s lead vocalist Donita Sparks had enough of this literal mud-slinging, so she took out the tampon she was using while still on-stage and threw it into the crowd! Unlike many of her rock peers, Sparks has refused to apologize for this action. We can assume that she would simply shrug and point out that they started it!
4. Final Moments
After keeping her silence for over a month, Chris Cornell’s wife Vicky finally spoke about her troubles after her husband’s tragic death. In a heartbreaking interview with Rolling Stone, she admitted that she blamed his death on the specific anti-anxiety medication that he was taking, which was known to have suicidal thoughts as a side-effect. She strongly believes he didn’t want to die—but has confessed the harrowing details of their last phone call together. She could tell that something was "off," and she said that he started acting cruel when she asked what drugs he took. The call ended, and Cornell was found dead shortly after midnight that same evening.
3. Dark Days
It’s well-known that Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots struggled with his painful addiction for decades—what people don't know about was the series of heartbreaking events that preceded his tragic death. In less than a year, Weiland watched his close friend die, found out that his mother and father both had cancer, was estranged from his children, and found himself in crippling financial trouble. These events, coupled with his history of mental illness and addiction, all factored into the grunge star’s death by accidental overdose at just 48 years old.
2. Macabre Memorial
After Kurt Cobain was cremated, his wife Courtney Love split up his ashes, dividing them between a traditional urn and, oddly enough, a teddy bear.
1. New Evidence
In 1994, Seattle Police revealed that Kurt Cobain’s death was “clearly a suicide,” but due to the high-profile nature of the case and the rampant conspiracy theories perpetuated by fans, they decided to revisit it in 2014. Detectives claimed an undeveloped roll of film with photographs of the scene that had sat in an evidence locker for years. These photos provided a clearer image of Cobain’s final moments than the Polaroids that had been previously used. Upon re-evaluation of the scene, the detective only confirmed the finding that Cobain had killed himself, but they initially refused to release these new photos to the public, saying “What are people going to gain from seeing pictures of Kurt Cobain laying on the ground with his hair blown back, with blood coming out of his nose and trauma to his eyes from a penetrating shotgun wound. How’s that going to benefit anybody?” However, some of the photos, including one tragically showing the hospital bracelet he still had on his arm from the detox program that he had escaped from just days before his death, were later made publicly available.