History is written by the victors—one of them being, oddly enough, Steve Albini. In 1993, his infamous article “The Problem With Music” ran in The Baffler, and it was disseminated further in 1994 when it was reprinted in Maximum Rocknroll. Written from Albini’s perspective as a staunchly independent frontman of Shellac who also happened to have produced Nirvana’s In Utero, the essay laid out how the major-label feeding frenzy of the time was fiscally disastrous for the hundreds of underground bands that were getting snatched up in the wake of Nirvana’s success.
Albini writes like an underdog, but he had the last laugh: His predictions quickly turned out to be true. The vast majority of the grunge, noise rock, indie rock, and utterly uncategorizable groups that major labels deliriously signed in the early ’90s wound up frustrated, dumped, and in many cases disbanded due to their traumatic experience of being run through the music-industrial machine. Major labels threw these bands against the wall to see if they’d stick, and they broke like eggs. Or just wound up fodder for ridicule on Beavis And Butt-Head, a show whose relationship to the music videos it mocked become increasingly complicated as the ostensibly moronic Beavis and Butt-Head came to possess more common sense than major-label A&R departments.
Albini’s essay was strictly economic in scope, but its title bore a broader connotation: This new paradigm of major-label plunder wasn’t only harmful financially, but aesthetically. He wasn’t the only one to think that way. Kurt Cobain himself fretted over the damage that Nirvana’s success was having on the underground that he loved, and naturally everyone from musicians to journalists to fans of below-the-radar music decried the fact that their scene was being practically gutted. There were occasional triumphs—who would’ve thought that Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers babbling incoherently on Ministry’s caustic “Jesus Built My Hotrod” could become a million-selling single, or that Cobain hero Daniel Johnston would have a major-label album in the form of Fun, yet they did—but overall, there seemed to be no bright spot to all these inflated hopes and dashed dreams.
Like a real-estate bubble ready to burst, the weird renaissance of the early-’90s mainstream landscape teetered on the brink of extinction in 1995. In hindsight, that phenomenon is often viewed with bitterness and regret, a cautionary tale for young bands who are striking out to seek their fortunes, and a low point for the music industry as a whole—one that presaged its abrupt decline in the new millennium, when file-sharing became, in part, an act of rebellion against an industry that had overstuffed itself on the goodwill of its customers. After all, with so many strange bands being yanked out of the underground and desperately thrown at consumers throughout the ’90s, it was hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Major labels have always been criticized as gatekeepers, but in the ’90s, someone left the gate wide open. The bands that wandered in hit their peak around 1994, when everyone from Green Day to Cop Shoot Cop released albums on major labels after having established themselves on indies. But in 1995, the last of the chickens came home to roost. In a final flurry of weirdness—at least by mainstream standards—bands like Hum released their major-label debuts. Hum’s noise-pop masterpiece You’d Prefer An Astronaut, which flopped by Nirvana standards in spite of a minor hit single in the form of “Stars,” not to mention becoming vastly influential in the years that followed.
Throughout 1995, alt-rock’s last-ditch attempt to annex every corner of underground rock reached peak weird. Jawbreaker may have been a darling of the punk scene, but fans turned their backs in droves on Dear You, the group’s major-label debut, which demonstrated a slicker sound as well as a betrayal, many felt, of Jawbreaker’s professed independence. In any case, there weren’t enough Jawbreaker fans in all the world to turn Dear You into a triumph by major-label standards—and the album, now rightly recognized as a classic, was too vague and poetic to become anything remotely resembling a mainstream hit. Even at its weirdest, alt-rock success stories in the ’90s had to be instantly recognizable; Jawbreaker, on the other hand, was a prog band, a goth band, and a noise-rock band all squeezed into a pop-punk band.
The same can be said, on a less remarkable scale, of Seaweed’s similarly positioned Spanaway, which didn’t even have the potential benefit of a rabidly devoted cult fanbase like Jawbreaker. Not even Seaweed’s Sub Pop pedigree or a Fleetwood Mac cover on the Clerks soundtrack a year before could make Seaweed’s dark, brainy, passionate punk comfortingly familiar enough. Rocket From The Crypt made a better go of it with its brassy, flamboyant 1995 major-label debut Scream, Dracula, Scream!, another record that was just too far outside the realm of accessibility to truly catch on. It wasn’t that records like Dear You or Scream, Dracula, Scream! weren’t catchy—it’s just that were compromised, poised halfway between what those bands used to be and what record-company executives wanted them to become. It almost would’ve been better if these bands had fully embraced the mainstream in both sound and image; by splitting the difference, they were destined to fail.
Even stranger, veteran punks threw their hat into the mainstream ring in 1995, with All and Circle Jerks delivering Pummel and Oddities, Abnormalities, And Curiosities, respectively, that year. Both flopped, and both were those group’s only major-label releases; in Circle Jerks’ case, it was the last album they’d ever make. Oddities was an oddity in the first place, being a reunion album that seemed intent on cashing in the band’s hardcore cachet at a time when the mainstream wanted pop-punk. It’s telling that Circle Jerks—whose fiery frontman Keith Morris (the original singer of Black Flag) once railed against the plastic fakeness of consumer culture—invited Debbie Gibson to sing backups on Oddities. Sure, it was a joke, but on whom? Gibson? The degraded, seemingly obsolete ideals of punk? Circle Jerks themselves? At best, it was really bad postmodern cartoonishness. At worst, it was a cheap stunt from a band that put itself in the weirdest position: a grizzled flag-bearer of the punk anti-establishment trying to leap from counterculture to pop culture in a single bound.
Not that all punk vets failed miserably in the mainstream in 1995. Former Minutemen bassist and singer Mike Watt released Ball-Hog Or Tugboat?, a major-label album of staggering proportions that included guest stars from Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Meat Puppets, The Lemonheads, Soul Asylum, Jane’s Addition, and Beastie Boys, among others. Musically, it was bloated and uneven; for longtime Watt fans, it felt like vindication, although an uneasy one, while the vast majority of those who bought the album had little to no connection to Watt or his music—they wanted the recognizable mainstream alt-rock guest stars who sang lead. It felt more like a show of solidarity, or maybe a circling of the wagons, among former underground weirdoes who now found themselves as figureheads of an alt-rock movement they no longer recognized.
One album emblemizes the weird state of major-label alt-rock in 1995 as it transitioned from overconfidence to desperation: Steel Pole Bath Tub’s Scars From Falling Down. Here was a band that had been toiling away in the armpits of the underground scene for years, cranking out logic-defying noise and belligerent surrealism. Now they were trying to cram sing-along, teen-spirit choruses into their songs—with perversely compelling results—and hoping someone might buy their rebellion. “We’re not stupid / We can see the signs / And we’re not sorry for being fools in your eyes,” goes “Twist,” the abrasively catchy non-hit single from Scars From Falling Down.
Steve Albini had produced Steel Pole Bath Tub in the past; in 1995, though, he was prepping to helm Bush’s triple-platinum sophomore album Razorblade Suitcase, which would come out the following year and consummate grunge’s transmutation from grassroots phenomenon to marketing ploy. Ultimately, that’s what the last major-label spasm of weirdness in 1995 signaled: The freaks that the ’90s had touted to champion finally ran their course. The losers’ day in the sun was over. The victors came home to roost.