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©Copyright 2009-2010 Out Of The Blue.
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Published: June 28, 2010
By 1988, the American music industry began to take notice of those “weird” bands who commanded the
college radio, independent label, and underground nightclub audiences. As the once-popular hair metal and
recycled disco were producing diminishing returns, the major labels were looking for “the next big thing.”
The industry started to focus upon those post-punk artists who had previously been ignored. The question
was how to market them?  Somewhere along the line, the term “Alternative Rock” came into general use
to describe non-mainstream rock acts that were decidedly not heavy metal. This coincided with
sociologists recognizing the demographic born after 1964 as “Generation X.” Alternative rock very quickly
became regarded at the soundtrack of this newly-discovered generation’s lives.  By the end of 1991,
paydirt came as Nirvana topped the US charts with the mega-platinum “Nevermind.” Other alternative acts,
like Toad The Wet Sprocket and The Gin Blossoms soon followed and gave the pop charts a bit of rock
credibility until Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994.  Here, again, is a selection of groups and
solo artists who made this time so wonderful for this elder statesman of Generation X.
THE CLARKS: Ah, Pittsburgh! The Iron City’s no-
nonsense (but never stupid) blue-collar attitude comes
through in this quartet’s unpretentious take on
contemporary rock.  Mixing twelve-string jangle with
bluesy grit, The Clarks’ albums are jammed with melodies
as sweet as a Zagnut and rhythms that hit harder than
Bill Mazeroski.  And yes, The Clarks still make “Pittsburgh
Records,” with plenty of songs about cars, booze and
cigarettes.  What else would you expect from the waters
of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio?  

CRACKER: When ‘eighties college radio faves Camper
Van Beethoven broke up, singer David Lowery and
guitarist Johnny Hickman ditched the fiddler and
redefined Southern rock with the aptly-named Cracker.  
They removed the macho negativity of the style and
substituted irreverent lyrical commentary that cut through
the smokescreen of political correctness.  The anthemic
“Teen Angst” sang praises of Frank Sinatra and gas-
guzzling cars while slamming whiny singer-songwriters.  
Slaughtering sacred cows, “Low” mocked the drug-
induced haze of neo-hippies.  Most audacious was
probably “I Hate My Generation,” a self-deprecating look
at the slacker grunge generation.  When dropped by
Virgin Records, Cracker retaliated with the tastelessly
hilarious “Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself.”  Not for the easily
offended, Cracker proved that there was room for
something other than grunge during the Bill Clinton years.

CROWDED HOUSE:  When New Zealand new wave
combo Split Enz broke up in the mid ‘eighties, singer-
guitarist Neil Finn moved to Los Angeles and took up
company with Tasmanian rhythm section Paul Hester and
Nick Seymour to form a new band.  Their self-titled 1986
debut was chock full of pop melodies worthy of Split Enz.  
It became a minor US hit and produced the smash single,
“Don’t Dream It’s Over.”  The 1988 follow-up, “Temple of
Low Men,” was not quite as successful, but still produced
the classic “Better Be Home Soon.”  The best, however,
came when Finn’s older brother (and former Split Enz
band mate) Tim came on board.  The collaboration
resulted in “Woodface,” a modern rock hit album that
added a little quirk to the nearly perfect pop
proceedings.  For better-or-worse, Crowded House and
their pop leanings were eclipsed by grunge and soon
faded from view.  The band is all but forgotten now, but
left behind one fine musical legacy.

GIN BLOSSOMS:  Jangly Arizona quintet surprised
virtually everyone when their major label debut, “New
Miserable Experience,” went multi-platinum in 1992.  
Then again, anyone with an ear for great pop songwriting
could have told that The Gin Blossoms’ bittersweet
melodies were the kind of songs that would have been
smash hits in another era.  The band was founded by
singer-songwriter Doug Hopkins, whose alcoholic
melancholia fueled the beautiful angst of these tunes.  
Ironically, Hopkins’ drinking led to his firing from the band
shortly after their breakthrough.  Not willing to be another
Pete Best, he took his own life in 1993.  His legacy lived
on, with his songwriting giving the band a handful of Top
40 American hits until 1996.  Even today, Gin Blossoms’
songs sound very timeless and considerably less dated
than the grunge sounds of that same era.

GREEN DAY:  California neo-punk trio was barely in
kindergarten when The Sex Pistols vomited onto the
scene.  These children of anarchy have learned their
lessons well, turning out dozens of incredibly catchy
buzzsaw rave-ups since their major label debut, Dookie,
in 1994.  Leader Billie Joe Armstrong carries the teen
angst torch beautifully, proudly following in the footsteps
of Eddie Cochran, Peter Townshend and Paul
Westerberg.  In terms of timing, Green Day was the
perfect shot of adrenaline for an alternative music scene
plodding from the excesses of grunge, right as the
original wave of punks hit middle age.  The irony is
astoundingly Generation X!

GUIDED BY VOICES:  How does one judge a musical
artist with an incredibly erratic output?  For every
masterpiece is an equally abhorrent piece of crap.  
Dayton’s Guided By Voices certainly fit this bill.  Led by
the overly-prolific Robert Pollard, the rotating band
recorded many homemade lo-fi albums over a course of
20 years.  While some of it is nearly unbearable self-
indulgence, some of it is truly brilliant and inspired.  
Songs like “Glad Girls” and “I Am A Tree” are power-pop
wonders that evoke the spirit of the 1968 Who, and that
is high praise indeed.  While they never had mainstream
hits, Guided By Voices are well-respected and well-loved
by indie power-pop fans everywhere.

HOODOO GURUS:  Australian garage-rockers got their
start in ’84 with the superb “Mars Needs Guitars.”  Always
playful and never taking themselves too seriously, David
Faulkner’s band graced the Alternative era with two
snarky classic albums, “Magnum Cum Louder” and
“Kinky.”  The latter produced the minor US hit, “1000
Miles Away,” a heartfelt tale of the homesick traveler. Of
course, it was a minor masterpiece with succulent
melody, gripping chorus, and beautifully plangent
arrangement.  Then again, that could be said of most of
The Hoodoo Gurus’ recorded output.

THE LA’S:  Pop music is filled with scores of one-hit
wonders, but even fewer one-album wonders.  The La’s,
a Liverpool quartet fronted by singer-songwriter Lee
Mavers, is one of this rare breed.  Their self-titled release
is an early ‘nineties masterpiece, an early example of the
sound that would be marketed as “Britpop” later in the
decade. Fusing a certain guitar jangle made famous by
another band from Liverpool with Mavers’ gruff voice,
The La’s made beautifully sloppy-yet-melodic rock ‘n’ roll
that seems very timeless some 20 years later.  In fact, the
ever authoritative rock snob publication “MOJO” named
The La’s biggest hit, “There She Goes” as one of the 100
greatest songs of all time.  Not a bad distinction for a
band that broke up after their first and only album!

MATERIAL ISSUE:  Trio of Chicago rock geeks made
some fine power-pop between 1990 and 1994, falling
somewhere between Cheap Trick, The Jam, and Big Star
in terms of execution.  Frontman Jim Ellison’s longing
melodies and pleading lyrics were the broken-hearted
confessions of a gawky young man who wore his heart
on his sleeve.  Minor hits “Valerie Loves Me” and “The
Next Big Thing” were prime examples of this timeless-but-
underappreciated approach.  Sadly, Ellison would take
his own life in 1996 after Material Issue was dropped by
their label.  His method was rather ironic; carbon
monoxide asphyxiation from running his moped in a
closed garage.

MIDNIGHT OIL:  Although recording since the late
‘seventies, this Australian quintet with a social conscience
truly hit their stride with their American breakthrough
album, “Diesel and Dust” in 1988.  The disc produced two
US hits, “Beds Are Burning” and “The Dead Heart,” two
protest anthems of Aboriginal culture that many Yanks
mistook for Native American tales.  The Oils only got
better with their 1990 follow-up, “Blue Sky Mining,” which
used 12-string Rickenbacker jangle to tell the tales of
miners suffering industrial disease and forgotten World
War II vets.  Along the way, totally bald six-foot-five
frontman Peter Garrett ran unsuccessfully for the
Australian senate on the Nuclear Disarmament party and
eventually left the music business altogether in the early
2000’s.  It was the end of Midnight Oil, who left behind an
amazing musical legacy that successfully bridged the
gaps between punk, psychedelia, and prog rock without
actually sounding like any of them.

NIRVANA: The heir apparent of Jim Morrison and Jimi
Hendrix came in the form of a lefty guitarist from Seattle
named Kurt Cobain.  Combining the hypnotic qualities of
The Doors and the guitar pyrotechnics of Hendrix,
Nirvana came out of the Pacific Northwest’s early ‘nineties
grunge scene, and effectively bridged the gap between
punk and metal.  Granted, most grunge combos were
little more than recycled Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin,
but Nirvana went one step beyond with a certain pop
sense.  Their songs were actually catchy with
mesmerizing hooks, and in many ways, were a logical
progression of the northwestern garage punk combos of
the ‘sixties.  And just like the two Jims, Cobain left this
mortal coil at 27, what some would say is the modern age
of angst.  

THE SAW DOCTORS:  In the same manner that Los
Lobos spices rock ‘n’ roll with traditional Mexican sounds,
The Saw Doctors work miracles with Irish folk music.  One
of the few Celtic rock bands that really do rock, The Saw
Doctors wear their roots on their sleeves with pride.  
There’s just as much, if not more, Bruce Springsteen in
their sound as The Clancy Brothers.  Singing proudly in
rebellious Irish accents, Davy Carton and company are
not afraid to mix surf guitar with fiddle to produce
standout modern Celtic melodies like “N17,” “Me Heart Is
Living In The ‘Sixties Still,” and “You Broke My Heart;” one
of the few rock songs about soccer!

SHONEN KNIFE: When three ageless Japanese women
misinterpret Anglo-American rock, they prove that by
getting everything wrong, they actually get it right.  
Instead of giving us the usual youthful defiance and teen
angst, Shonen Knife writes bouncy and playful melodies
that are childlike and innocent by nature.  The result is
the perfect rebellion against rock’s bloated excesses of
sex, drugs, and ignorant machismo.  Singing in a strange
mix of fractured English and Japanese, Shonen Knife has
created their own Nadsat, fueling the perfect anti-
bubblegum music for our age.

THE SMITHEREENS:  Power-pop comes and goes like
the seasons, and this New Jersey group of Regular Joes
reached their pinnacle during the 1988-1994 Alternative
Rock era.  Led by the alcoholic melancholia of Pat
DiNizio, The Smithereens mixed heartbroken melodies
worthy of Brian Wilson with Marshall crunch sweetened by
Rickenbacker jangle.  Together since the start of the
‘eighties, The Smithereens reached national prominence
with their superb 1986 full-length debut, “Especially for
You.”  Lead single “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” with its
haunting bass riff, actually cracked the US Top 40 and
was covered by Madonna!  The band only got better as
subsequent releases, “Green Thoughts” and “Eleven,”
gave us tasty melodies that were even more sweet and
crunchy.  Although eventually eclipsed by grunge, The
Smithereens remain together to this day and still make
power-pop that satisfies any musical sweet tooth.

SOCIAL DISTORTION:  ‘Eighties Southern California
hardcore punks finally came of age with their self-titled
1990 major label debut.  Fronted by singer/guitarist Mike
Ness, the band hit upon a sound that was less hardcore
thrash and more timeless roots rock.  Sure, it may have
been centered on Ramones-like chainsaw guitars, but
Ness’ tales of nihilistic loserdom were not afraid to throw
in bits of blues and country in a timeless manner, not
unlike The Rolling Stones.  Some 20 years later, Social
Distortion sounds exactly the same, and are probably all
the better for it.

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS:  Since the early ‘eighties, the
Laurel and Hardy pairing of “Big” John Flansburgh and
“Little” John Linnell has produced some of the finest geek
rock ever.  Beginning as a bizarre sort of folk duo, armed
with accordion and acoustic guitar, the two Johns would
sing about famous inventors and scientific theories.  They
built a following by recording their songs on an answering
machine, and instructing fans to dial in to hear them.  By
1985, They Might Be Giants began making studio
albums.  They fleshed out their arrangements to a full-
band sound, often using tricky cut-and-paste tape editing
to create off-kilter backing tracks that would perfectly
compliment Linnell’s whiny white boy voice.  Along the
way, TMBG has created some beautifully quirky hip-hop-
inspired sounds without having a single funky bone in
their bodies.  White geeks rock!

TOAD THE WET SPROCKET:  Taking their name from a
Monty Python sketch, Toad was the melodic antidote to
the recycled metal sounds of grunge.  Essentially a
classic folk rock band in the mould of The Beatles and
Byrds, this oddly-named combo presented a more
accessible version of the Alternative sound.  Between
jangly acoustic guitars and Glen Phillips’ pensive
crooning, Toad the Wet Sprocket was beautifully poppish,
resulting in tracks like “Fall Down” and “Something’s
Always Wrong” becoming American hits in 1994.  
                                                          -James E. Hutter
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