Jimmy Brewer looks back at five bands who defined the sound of alt-rock. Listen to the accompanying Spotify mix @cherwellmusic.

Alternative Rock, or Alt-Rock for short, emerged from the late 70s’ independent music scene and its DIY punk ethos. It is characterised by experimentation with texture, timbre, and structure, especially drawing on the raw, distorted punk rock sounds and new wave’s energetic appeal. The genre saw its commercial peak in the 90s, spearheaded by Nirvana and Jane’s Addiction. Here are five artists who advanced alt-rock’s sound before its 90s boom. 

The Velvet Underground

Despite not fitting in chronologically with the emergence of alternative rock as a movement, stylistically, a lot began with The Velvet Underground. Holed away in Andy Warhol’s New York creative hub, ‘The Factory’, in the late 60s, the band released some of the most exciting rock music ever. Take their distorted, lewd and all-around-nasty second LP, White Light/White Heat: comprising just six songs, this is The Velvets at their harshest and noisiest. Or, listen to the latter half of “I Heard Her Call My Name”, with its pounding drums and ear-splitting guitar tone: it is at once unhinged and brilliant. This album distinctively laid the foundations for Alt-Rock’s louder and more extreme sounds.

The Fall

We jump forward over a decade to Manchester’s more left-field, post-punk flavour. Essentially a revolving cast centred around frontman/mastermind Mark E. Smith, the band were known for their repetitive, enraged and cryptic cuts. Try “Spoilt Victorian Child” from their 1985 album This Nation’s Saving Grace: exhilarating and exhausting, a jangly, infectious guitar lead counterbalances Mark E. Smith’s typically outré lyricism.

The band were favourites of legendary disc-jockey John Peel, featuring often on his radio programme. Whilst still firmly within the realm of cult popularity, The Fall made a distinctive mark on alternative music – in particular on Sonic Youth, who recorded three Fall covers for a John Peel session. 

Pixies

Formed in 1986 in Boston, one thing Pixies do incredibly well is to work pop-caliber hooks into their noisy, chaotic sound. This stands out in songs like “Debaser” and “Here Comes My Man”, both from 1989’s Doolittle. They perfected this formula so convincingly that they essentially wrote the rulebook for much of the 90s Alt-Rock craze.  Listen to “Tame” from Doolittle; the quiet-verse explosive-chorus structure prefigures Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In fact, Kurt Cobain admitted that he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies”. Artist after artist cites Pixies as a major influence; they “changed [the] life” of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke; for David Bowie, they were “just about the most compelling music of the 80s”.

Sonic Youth

Bowie’s “just about” is significant; there was another equally compelling group, these New York alternative rock titans. Formed in 1981, Sonic Youth initially dabbled in the scuzzy, nihilistic world of No Wave, before really hitting their stride with their third LP release EVOL  (1986). “Tom Violence” wails with tortured guitars, whilst in “Shadow of a Doubt” carefully plucked harmonics tiptoe around hushed vocals before the second half of the song roars to life. Restrained songwriting makes each track feel like it has got somewhere to go, reeling you in before hitting you with an impactful wall of noise. The band continued to put out music of quality until their disbandment in 2013, so have a discography really worth exploring.

Hüsker Dü

As guitarist Bob Mould said, “Hüsker Dü wears many wigs.” They began as a breakneck hardcore punk act (heard in their 1983 debut, Everything Falls Apart), but had incorporated significant melodic aspects into their sound by the time they released 1984’s Zen Arcade. To a somewhat bleak coming-of-age narrative are set crackling guitars and muscular, percussion; lo-fi production gives the songs a gritty edge, yet moments of melody still shine through, such as the pulsating bassline and anthemic harmonies of “Something I Learned Today”. Ending memorably, the album gives its final track to the 14-minute, multi-phased “Reoccurring Dreams”. Whilst always remaining just south of true mainstream success, never compromised their at times strange, but always exciting, sound.  

Image credit: Verve Records via Wikimedia & Creative Commons.


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