The Dark Times (1993–2003)

I was born in 1974.

1974
Image borrowed from http://www.localbandreview.com/2012/03/spotlight-on-1974-the-band-not-the-year/

I grew up normally for an only child, the regular average upbringing of a semi-affluent family in Southern England, and some time in my mid-teens I decided I’d like to learn to play guitar. I’d been brought up on a musical diet of crooners (via my Dad), Abba and Elvis (my Mum) and Radio 2, but by this time I had developed a liking for classic rock in the form of Dire Straits, Eric Clapton and Queen. The thing was, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was starting on guitar smack-bang in the middle of a - perhaps THE - Golden Age of Hard Rock.

The year was 1989. Guns N’ Roses were the biggest thing to happen to rock music since the ’70s, Aerosmith had just come out of retirement, Bon Jovi were megastars, and the LA rock scene had exploded all over the face of the industry thanks to bands like Mötley Crüe, Poison, Skid Row, Extreme, Winger and many many more. Hard rock had separated itself from its punk roots - and very definitely distanced itself from its heavier cousin Metal - and carved out its own hairspray-and-spandex-flavoured shelf in the record store.

Poison
Image borrowed from http://www.rockbandaide.com/19827/rock-band-community-nights-poison-giveaway/

Was it utterly ridiculous? Of course it was. But I loved it. In 1991 I played my first live gigs with my first rock band NSK, got my first Ibanez guitar (upgrading from the Fender HM Strat), and the soundtrack to my life was “Slave to the Grind”, “Appetite For Destruction”, “Pornograffitti” and “Skyscraper” over and over. Life was good. It seemed like this would go on forever. Surely, as Bill & Ted foretold, rock music would heal the world and bring about an Age of Enlightenment.

No.

By the end of 1992 the ridiculous excesses of the rock scene were becoming too much for the music-buying public to swallow, and while many diverged off into the saner territories of metal or (whisper it) electronic music, others still railed against the plastic parade.

Enter Kurt Cobain, stage left.

Kurt Cobain
Image borrowed from http://testcopytheme.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/kurt-cobain-biography-legend-singer-of.html

The grunge shockwave that emanated from Seattle in 1993 was the inevitable backlash that the rock music industry needed if it was to survive as anything other than a parody of itself. “No more!” audiences yelled when Axl Rose kept them waiting for three hours yet again. “Shut the hell up!” was the cry when yet another coked-up spandex-clad peacock launched into yet another indistinguishable 10-minute guitar solo. Already the landscape had started to shift with the industrial rock movement (see Helmet, Therapy?, Ministry and others for details) and the (shudder) rap-metal crossover genre gaining thousands of fans by the day, and it was truly time for something else.

Well, something else arrived in the form of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and the like. Grunge turned up, slouched into the party, sat heavily on the sofa and stared at its boots while smoking and not talking to anyone. Gone were the guitar solos, the power chords, the lyrics about partying, the hairspray and the excess, and they were replaced by droning lyrics, dissonant riffs, introspection, flannel shirts and (gasp!) short hair. Flamboyance was out, moping was in.

Or at least that’s how it appeared to me at the time. I hated it. I’m not generally one to use the word “hate” lightly, but this was utter, pure, unalloyed hate. Hate focused like a laser. Hate that gave me energy. Hate that got me up early in the morning just to spend more of my time hating. Grunge killed the music I loved and for that I despised it and all it stood for. Of course, since then I’ve come to realise that was maybe a good thing, and I can now listen to Pearl Jam’s Ten without grimacing even once, but back in 1993 if you’d given me a shotgun I would have gone at Kurt Cobain like it was all his fault. It hurt.

Well, we all know how that played out. Grunge stormed the world and eventually the rebellion against the rebellion became the mainstream. GNR, Poison and Crüe posters across the globe were torn down, Axl, Bret and Vince were replaced by Kurt, Chris and Eddie, and a year later Kurt famously took his own life.

I’m not here to talk about that. It’s a hell of a thing when someone makes that decision, and I can’t claim to feel anything about it other than sad. Musically though, this marked the start of “The Dark Times”.

In 1993 the rock bands I loved were still trying to forge ahead like nothing was wrong. Richie Kotzen joined Poison and they released Native Tongue, their best album ever. Vince Neil went solo and released Exposed with Steve Stevens on guitar. Winger, Mr. Big, Love/Hate and Enuff Z’Nuff released their third albums, a rejuvenated Aerosmith powered ever onwards with Get A Grip, Steve Vai released a hard rocking record with a new singer, and Ozzy pumped out Live & Loud. But the damage had been done, and the public were voting with their wallets. Some people tried to move with the times, failing to notice that the times were trying to get away from them at any cost.

By 1994 if this had been a boxing match, the commentator would have said “THE KNEES HAVE GONE”. Rock was still upright, but everyone could see it wouldn’t be that way for long. Mötley Crüe had a new singer and released their ill-fated eponymous album, Zakk Wylde’s Pride & Glory was a beacon in the darkness, and Enuff Z’Nuff seemingly didn’t get the memo, but elsewhere the bouffants were wilting, the makeup had run and the spandex was getting a bit too tight to bear. The sun was coming up, the booze and drugs were just about out, and people were coming to the harsh realisation that the party was just about over.

The party is over
Image borrowed from http://midnightmoviewatcher.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/can-i-borrow-your-underpants-for-10.html

1995 had similarly slim pickings, Slash’s Snakepit notwithstanding.

I don’t even want to talk about 1996.

1997 was pretty grim, aside from The Colour and the Shape. (More on the Foos later.)

After that it went downhill.

By 1999 my CD player was looking at me with weary exasperation every time I approached it with Appetite, Porno or Slave, and all I could do was shrug and say “Yeah, I know. But someone has to do it. Someone has to wait here in the freezing dark and keep the pilot light burning. Rock will come back. And when it does, someone has to be here. Someone has to be here to welcome it back, hand it a beer, and tell it we’re glad to see it again. And that someone is me.”

1999 was pretty much the bottom of the trough. And on a graph, what happens at the bottom of a trough? The curve begins to rise. Things start to get better. The spots in your vision that you’ve become so used to seeing from banging your head on the wall coalesce into something, a blur that eventually turns out to be a light in the distance, so very far away, but nonetheless a light. Is it getting bigger? Closer? What’s that smell... is it... is that whiskey?

Enter Buckcherry, stage right.

Buckcherry
Image borrowed from http:/www.metal-rules.com/

It would be a disservice to all the other hard rock bands that were around at the time, particularly the ones who slogged all the way through The Dark Times without a break (here’s to you, Enuff Z’Nuff, Danger Danger and Thunder, good on ya) to say that Buckcherry saved the rock single-handedly, but they definitely found rock laying ODing in the alleyway and administered the necessary adrenaline shot to the chest. Buckcherry’s eponymous debut album was the first in a long time that felt right. It felt like the good old days might - just might - not be gone forever. Maybe a time could return when one could play a Les Paul on stage and drink a beer at the same time. Maybe songs could once again be about good times, and not so much about how Daddy didn’t come to your ball game. Maybe this time around we don’t need the spandex or the hairspray, maybe just good loud music will be enough?

Evidently others felt the same. 2000 gave us American Pearl, the debut from Hardcore Superstar, and the second and best Slash’s Snakepit album. Then 2001 really got the upswing going with cracking albums from Backyard Babies and Beautiful Creatures, plus the absolutely rockmungous sophomore release from Buckcherry, Time Bomb. This was the record that for me meant that I could finally call it a comeback. The light at the end of the tunnel was the front of an oncoming train... of rock, and I couldn’t wait for it to smash right into my face.

The Train of Rock
Image borrowed from http://kosslo.deviantart.com/art/Rock-n-Roll-Train-183204071

Another big event in 2001 was... wait for it... Nickelback. Yes, I know. But Silver Side Up sold millions and it’s a decent album. Everything they’ve done since then has been worse and worse kinds of shit, but I’ll stand by that album and point out the great riffs and you’ll know I’m right. “This Is How You Remind Me” was everywhere in 2001, and it woke up the general public to the fact that rock was still alive, and it was actually pulling its boots on and about to head out to the next party.

2002 continued the upward trend, if a little slowly, and then in 2003 and 2004 the veil was completely lifted, the mists were parted, and proper rock music was finally discharged from hospital (no more need for the Glambulance), as The Darkness stormed the UK, Evanescence arrived to cater for the moodier customers and Alter Bridge splintered off from Creed to cater for the heavier-minded, Skid Row came out of retirement with a really solid record, Slash’s long rumbling project finally emerged as Velvet Revolver and decent records were delivered from Backyard Babies, Brides of Destruction, Danko Jones, DoubleDrive, Enuff Z’Nuff (quelle surprise), Hardcore Superstar, Josh Todd, The Wildhearts and Young Heart Attack. Hell, even White Lion got in on it.

By 2005 it was open season again, and with the arrival of Crashdïet among others it soon became obvious that the bubble wasn’t about to burst again any time soon, and I’m happy to report that it still - as of May 2014 - hasn’t. Recently we’ve been given The Answer, The Winery Dogs, The Treatment, Halestorm, Slash’s solo stuff, Shinedown, The Last Vegas, You Me At Six, Black Stone Cherry, Airbourne and more, as well as enjoying the continued output of Buckcherry, Alter Bridge, Enuff Z’Nuff (naturally), Hardcore Superstar, and all the others.

Steel Panther almost ruined things by turning rock into a joke again, but thankfully they’re way better than that as both musicians and writers and have somehow turned it into a joke that works.

NB: This whole piece has basically ignored the Foo Fighters, and I don’t have a valid reason for that. Of course the Foos rock, and Dave Grohl will be my first choice for president when the global revolution comes, but the focus of the crux of my thrust, if you will, is the demise of the rock bands I loved and their gradual return to prominence. The Foo Fighters - and to a lesser extent Green Day - were to my mind just kind of always there during the 90s. They weren’t part of the downfall and neither were they part of the revival. They were in between while not really filling the gap, if you get me. Don’t get me wrong, I love FF and GD, but during those dark, cold, lonely years I was longing for Skid Row or GNR to come barreling out the darkness (pun intended), and it was that kind of punch that Buckcherry eventually delivered.

It’s great to have hard rock back, and this time happily co-existing with the other genres. It’s grown up a little, and keeps the hairspray and posing to a necessary minimum while still allowing the required amount of rebellion and raucousness without which it would be pretty pointless music. Things are once again good in the Land of Rock.

Rock - it is back
Image borrowed from http://www.billboard.com/articles/list/469368/the-25-hottest-clubs-in-north-america

It was cold in the dark, though.

So cold.

--c, 09/05/2014.