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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Chuck Klosterman, Alice in Chains, and Grunge

Taking with the author about the legendary Seattle band and his new book, ‘The Nineties’

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Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. This is Episode 60 featuring author Chuck Klosterman discussing Alice in Chains. We’ll be doing a run of 30 more episodes after a short break.

Can I share with you a disturbing fact, this chart I stumbled across like an hour ago? Let’s get back to Jehovah’s Witnesses. I wanna talk about “active rock” again, for just a second. This was not surprising, but it was shocking. So Nielsen, the gargantuan media data company, they measure radio airplay. Here, now, are Nielsen’s Top 10 Mainstream Rock Radio Songs of the 2010s. From 2010 through 2019, the 10 most-played songs on mainstream rock radio are as follows:

10. Nirvana, “Lithium”
9. Soundgarden, “Black Hole Sun”
8. Metallica, “Enter Sandman”
7. Nirvana, “In Bloom”
6. The Offspring, “Self Esteem”
5. Pearl Jam, “Even Flow”
4. Stone Temple Pilots, “Plush”
3. Nirvana, “Come as You Are”
2. Alice in Chains, “Man in the Box”
1. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Anything strike you as odd about that list of the most played songs on mainstream rock radio from 2010 to 2019? The newest song, the youngest song—“Self Esteem”—came out in April 1994. Not even the fall of 1994. The spring. I was a sophomore in high school. How mad would I be about this list if this list weren’t catered to me specifically? Arguably even weirder, is that “Man in the Box” is the oldest song on that list. November 1990. The entire “active rock” radio format, as it exists right this second—I just checked on 99.7 The Blitz, they just played “Daughter,” by Pearl Jam—the entire active rock radio format in 2022 is built on songs from the five-year span from 1990 to 1994. Kids from today should defend themselves against the ’90s. This is why I’m so opposed to nostalgia.

Layne Staley started out playing drums, but as a 17-year-old kid in suburban Seattle, in 1984 or so, he switched to lead vocals to audition for a teenage glam-metal garage band called Sleze. No A, in Sleze. That’s how sleazy they were. One of the guitar players in Sleze, a guy named Johnny Bacolas, did an interview with The Atlantic in 2012, for an article about Layne Staley. The Atlantic! And Johnny says that for the audition Layne wore jeans with band names like “Mötley Crüe” and “Ozzy” written on ’em in Wite-Out. Johnny says, “He came to our jam room and was really shy, real timid. And just as we expected, we were like, ‘Fuck, yeah! This is what a lead singer should look like!’”

Our jam room. I love it. I can smell that jam room. Layne auditioned by singing “Looks That Kill” by Mötley Crüe. I’d pay $20 for a tape of that, to be totally honest with you. This isn’t him. This is the actual Mötley Crüe. This is the best I can do.

Sleze eventually change their name to Alice N’ Chains—Alice capital-N apostrophe Chains. So styled like Guns N’ Roses, but Guns N’ Roses weren’t huge yet. Alice N’ Chains, so, like, it’s not Alice in bondage, Alice imprisoned in chains, this is just chains in addition to Alice—and then they break up. And then Layne Staley joins another band. This band’s Layne on vocals, Jerry Cantrell on guitar and vocals, Mike Starr (two R’s) on bass in this era, Sean Kinney on drums.

And that band can’t come up with a good name, and so they basically just steal Layne’s previous band’s name, except now it’s Alice in Chains. You might think Alice in Chains is a dorky name but it’s an improvement for pretty much everyone: Jerry Cantrell and Mike Starr had first hooked up while playing in what Jerry calls “a really crappy band” called Gypsy Rose, which is the most late-’80s Headbangers Ball–ass band name I’ve ever heard in my life. I can smell Gypsy Rose’s jam room, as well.

The first Alice in Chains album, Facelift, comes out in 1990. That’s skipping over quite a lot but the play-by-play matters less to me than the broad notion that Alice in Chains have some roots in the suburbs—ooooh—of Seattle and have explicit roots in glam metal, in hair metal, in sleaze, both capital-S and lowercase-S, both with and without the A. Eighties promo photos of these fellas are hilarious. They look majestic. They look leonine. They start out theoretically representing everything that quote-unquote grunge would very soon quote-unquote destroy. Grunge destroyed hair metal, and don’t you forget it. Nirvana’s Nevermind (which as you recall contains four of the 10 most popular songs played on mainstream rock radio in the 2010s) is coming, in November ’91. In January ’92, Nevermind is gonna beat out Michael Jackson and be the no. 1 album in America. Whereupon Mötley Crüe and Poison and Winger and Warrant and so forth will be smote from the face of the earth. Quote-unquote. I listen to Facelift now and I hear a band … not so much trapped between the ’80s and ’90s. It doesn’t feel like bondage; it doesn’t feel like a conflict at all, as Alice in Chains embody it. They’re a hard-rock band in 1990. They’re rolling with it. They’re not embarrassed by the past, and they have no fear of the future.

Once Nirvana blows up, and once Seattle magically transforms into Seattle, there’s a great deal of suspicion, and rancor, and derision in the air. Which Seattle bands are real Seattle bands? Who’s doing this for the right reasons? I’ll be talking later with Chuck Klosterman, whose new book is called The Nineties: A Book, and he quotes an old Kurt Cobain fanzine interview where Kurt says, “I have strong feelings toward Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains and bands like that. They’re obviously just corporate puppets that are just trying to jump on the alternative bandwagon—and we are being lumped into that category. Those bands have been in the hairspray, cock-rock scene for years and all of a sudden they stop washing their hair and start wearing flannel shirts. It doesn’t make any sense to me. There are bands moving from L.A. and all over to Seattle and then claiming they’ve lived here all their life so they can get record deals. It really offends me.”

There’s a great book called Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, by Mark Yarm, and he talks to a lot of people who share that rancor. A Seattle rock critic and editor named Grant Alden, he worked at a paper called The Rocket, he says, “It’s indicative of my impotence as a rock critic that Alice in Chains had a career, because I did my level best not to do anything on them at The Rocket, to squash them.” He says, “They were a suburban metal band and decided they would be Soundgarden Jr. We called them Kindergarden.”

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.