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  November 2015
volume 12 number 2
  home   (archived)
Lynne Thompson
On Pablo Neruda
Carol Smallwood
Jendi Reiter's Bullies in Love
Allie Frazier
Alexis Fancher's How I Lost My Virginity and...
  a personal history of rock 'n' roll
G. Murray Thomas
Alternative vs Metal
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G. Murray Thomas November 2015


Alternative vs Metal

    Kenny, the headwaiter at the restaurant where I worked, had a problem. The radio in the dishroom was too loud; it had been turned up far enough you could hear it out in the dining room. "This used to happen whenever Van Halen came on," he commented. "Now it's Guns N' Roses."
    Who, I wondered, are Guns N' Roses? I had just moved to SoCal from the music desert of Idaho, and was not up on the latest bands.
    Not too long after that, I caught a G N' R video. I think it was "Paradise City" but it might have been "Sweet Child O' Mine." In any event, I watched it and thought, "I get it. They're Aerosmith!" Of course, by that I meant an imitation of an imitation of the Rolling Stones.
    This was the late 80s, and Guns N' Roses were king of the Rock Mountain. Or rather, they were king of one of the rock mountains. For there were two rock mountains in those days: Metal and Alternative. And they were very distinct peaks. They had different styles, different fan bases, even different radio stations. In Los Angeles, KLOS played classic rock and heavy metal, and KROQ played alternative. Except for the occasional U2 or Bowie song, there was no crossover between their playlists. They were two separate worlds, and each had a loyal fanbase who disdained those who listened to the other station.
    No surprise, I sat firmly in the alternative camp. I listened almost exclusively to 91X, the San Diego alternative station. Due to the geography of the coastline, San Diego stations came in much better than L.A. ones where I lived in south Orange County. But 91X played pretty much the same music as KROQ, although they could be a little more liberal, since they actually broadcast out of Mexico. Sure, I'd tune in KLOS on occasion, but my loyalty lay on the other side.
    Jane's Addiction were king of Alternative Mountain. (Both U2 and R.E.M., obvious contenders, had become too popular to be truly considered "alternative" anymore.) I first heard Jane's at a poetry workshop, where one of the other poets played "Pigs in Zen" as an example of poetic lyrics. But my real introduction came from a roommate who would play side 2 of their debut at top volume every day as he showered. Their versions of "Sympathy for the Devil" and Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll" were drilled into my head.
    I must say, that was not the best way to be introduced to that album (or any album for that matter). Especially as that first album is pretty abrasive musically; although I do enjoy abrasive music (as you should know by now), hearing it every day emphasized the abrasiveness. But I had to respect a band which would play those two cover songs, especially back to back. Once I had a chance to listen to it on my own terms, I grew to really like the album.
    In the summer of 1991 I put the two bands, and, by proxy, the two musical camps, in a head to head competition. I saw them back to back, two concerts on two consecutive nights. In my own mind, I made it a contest for the future of rock music. Alternative or metal, which way was it going?
    It was purely coincidence that the two concerts happened on two consecutive days: the first Lollapalooza show on July 24 at Irvine Meadows, and Guns N' Roses on July 25 at Pacific Amphitheater. (It was also coincidence that they took place in the two top outdoor venues in O.C., which were similar in size and layout.) And it was purely my imagination that this was some sort of epic Battles of the Genres. But I couldn't escape the feeling that the future of rock music depended on (or at least could be foretold by) which band put on he better show.
    Despite my taste being firmly in the alternative camp, I expected it to be a close contest. I liked both bands equally. As I said, I grew to appreciate the first Jane's Addiction album. The same was true of Appetite for Destruction. I even liked G N' R Lies (where they actually covered Aerosmith), or most of it (I had no patience for "Patience", which my roommate played incessantly -- the same roommate, by the way, which puts the lie to alt/metal division, but that's getting ahead of the story).
    Furthermore, I had seen what Guns N' Roses were capable of in concert. A couple of years earlier, they had scored the opening slot for the Rolling Stones' L.A. shows. My friends and I considered this a must see show, and managed to score tickets. In those pre-internet days, that meant standing in line outside a record store at dawn one morning to get wristbands, and then going back, again at dawn, the next day to actually get tickets. Something we accomplished only by bringing large cups of bloody marys.
    We caught the second show (out of either five or six, I forget which). The night before, Axl Rose had come out too wasted to perform (or so we heard). So this show was considered make or break for the band. Their biggest stage yet, and if they blew it two nights in a row, they were probably finished as a major act. They had a lot to prove.
    And prove it they did. Slash opened their set with a long statement about how many shows they saw at the Coliseum, and how honored they were to be playing there, and how they weren't going to blow it now. Then they ripped into "Mr. Brownstone" and never let up. They showed true rock' n' roll spirit by putting it all on the line, and then ruling it. It was an amazing show.
    At the time, I felt they had thrown down the gauntlet for the Stones: "Here, top this!" The Stones seemed to see it a little differently. They had nothing to prove, and proved it anyway by basically ignoring the challenge. They just came out and did what they did every night. They topped G 'n' R through pure professionalism. The G N' R set worked through the tension of �Can we pull this off?� and the thrill and release when they did. The Stones, by contrast, had a vibe of �This is what we do, and we do it very well. And we're going to have a good time doing it.�
    They simply put on a great show. They played a number of hits, a couple of cuts off their new album (Steel Wheels), and a few surprises (�Factory Girl� and �2000 Light Years from Home�). Eric Clapton came out and played �Little Red Rooster� with them. They loosened up and jammed on a number of songs. They almost erased the memory of Guns N' Roses by the time they were done.
    But not completely. G N' R had, if nothing else, proved they could put on a great rock 'n' roll show.
    So two years later, I looked forward to seeing them again almost as much as I anticipated seeing Jane's Addiction for the first time.
    Of course, Lollapalooza consisted of a lot more than just Jane's Addiction. The full line up was Rollins Band, Butthole Surfers, Ice-T and Body Count, Nine Inch Nails, Living Color and Siouxsie and the Banshees, plus Jane's. So let me say that, had the contest been which concert overall was better, it would have been no contest. There was no way Skid Row, opening for G N' R, could compete with even one of those bands, let alone all of them. But I decided to only judge the headliners.
    Still, that line-up provided a great afternoon of music. We missed Rollins Band; we had a full caravan going and, as would be expected, it took forever to organize everyone. At the time, I didn't know who Henry Rollins was (and to be honest, kept mixing it up with Rossington-Collins Band, an offshoot of Lynyrd Skynyrd, which definitely did not belong on this bill). It was only a couple of years later, when Rollins emerged as a spoken word artist, that I regretted missing him.
    Butthole Surfers, who I did care about seeing, put in a powerful set of punk rock, with some melodic and instrumental innovation, though they were not as wildly experimental as I had been led to believe. Ice-T played half his set as a rapper, and the other half, with his band Body Count, as a punk rocker. He really got the crowd going in both formats.
    I hate to admit it, but I went to get something to eat during Nine Inch Nails set. This was (I believe) their first major tour, and I had no idea how important they would become. I did get back in time to see Trent Reznor throwing hs synthesizer around the stage (to this day I have no idea if this was careful stagecraft, or if he was genuinely pissed about something).
    Living Color failed to impress me. I found their hits too funky-pretentious, and that's mostly what they played. They did get in some solid hard rock jams, and they covered Pere Ubu's "Final Solution," which I loved (and moved them up a notch or two in my rankings). Siouxsie and the Banshees did a good job of playing their quirkiness live, but just didn't move me. They've always been one of those bands I enjoy when someone else puts them on, but have never chosen to listen to myself. As the first band to play after dark, they did have a good light show.
    Jane's Addiction rocked. Really tight rhythm section, with Dave Navarro's guitar going all directions on top of it. Perry Ferrel put on a real show out front, with nearly naked women simulating sex on stage, and a giant marionette imitating Ferrell's dance moves (no easy feat).
    So Guns N' Roses had a good challenge facing them the next night (even if they didn't know it). But they didn't even try. Don't get me wrong, they put on a great hard rock show. But there was no tension to it. Unlike when they opened for the Stones, they had nothing left to prove. They were on top of the (rock) world, and acted like it. Their show was programmed and predictable.
    Axl tried to make it feel unpredictable by ranting. He spouted off about the press, his ex-drummer, anything he could think of, but it all went nowhere. Similarly, they tried to create excitement through explosions and light shows, excitement which should have been inherent in the music.
    Jane's Addiction won the competition on almost every criteria I could name. First, their music was innovative, while G N' R's was imitative. Second, they put on a genuinely interesting, and unpredictable, show. Finally, although Axl did all that ranting, Perry actually had something to say, about gangs, drugs, and truly freeing yourself.
    Finally, although I did say it wasn't really fair to put all those bands up against Guns N' Roses, even if you include their opener, Skid Row (esp. since Skid Row would have lost, miserably, if put up against any of the Lolla bands), Ferrell does deserve credit for creating Lollapalooza. It showed that his musical and cultural vision was way broader than his own band. Also, the variety of the line-up showed how deep the field was on the alternative side. Skid Row only represented the shallowness of the metal bands available.
    Which is why, in the end, alternative clearly won the day. There was a movement there, a number of bands which shared an attitude, an approach to music, even if they played very different music from each other. A movement with an expanding energy, while G N' R's movement - heavy metal - was actually shrinking, on its last legs.
    Of course, it was all settled within a year or so, although not by Jane's Addiction. No, it came when the rolling bass line and chiming chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" took over the airwaves. At that point, no one could deny that alternative was king.

copyright 2015 G. Murray Thomas


G. Murray Thomas

author's bio

    G. Murray Thomas is the author of Cows on the Freeway (1999), and My Kidney Just Arrived (2011). Although not a musician himself, he has been in two bands: a punk band called MX and the Cruise Missiles in college, and more recently the spoken word combo Murray.
G. Murray Thomas