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  • Writer's picturePat

90s one-hit alternative rock bands: forgotten and under-celebrated

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

I bet you don't know who the band in this picture is. And why should you? Nobody else does. Even though they were pretty good and are on commercial radio sometimes.

When you form a band like ours, you are predictably compared to 90s alternative rock and jangle pop. [Also, the sooner music writers realise that "sounds like X" is not only unhelpful but also boring, the better.]

They'll say we sound like an Aussie dolewave band (because they read where we’re from). Or, they’ll say it reminds them of some classic alternative band like Pavement or Sebadoh - who are definitely influences.

But the ‘90s alternative’ comparison always refers to the towering giants like those ones and the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr and Guided By Voices. What they won't mention is a comparatively less-celebrated (although for a while, more successful) influence of what might be best described as the "90s alt rock bands with one hit single". It wouldn’t even occur to a music writer today that a 90s sounding band cares about these sorts of songs, but they occupy an unreasonably large place in my heart.

I'm talking about stuff like:

("The Way" was the first CD single I ever bought. The B-side "Are You Ready For The Fallout?" is also great.)

(Game for nerds: compare Jerry Cantrell's "She Was My Girl" to "Bound for the Floor' and see if you reckon it's unconsciously plagiarised!)

(AKA the 'Friends' theme - these guys were formerly called Great Buildings and had a good song called "Hold Onto Something".)

(The Muffs: a great and truly underrated band - should be as big as Green Day)

(I stole this oh so iconic riff when I was 12 and another kid spotted it. Don’t plagiarise, kids. Jimmy Page will be mad at you for stealing HIS idea, which was to steal everyone else's.)

Too many examples, but you get my drift: good stuff, appreciated back then, rarely spoken of now. Some of these songs are arguably mediocre, but I love them anyway. What binds them is in large part nostalgia for that tween-becoming-teen period in my life. This is confirmed by how many of these songs appeared in popular film/TV soundtracks at the time.

The appeal is also in that, being a reverse-hipster (e.g. "I won't move to that suburb. Too many hipsters. That band sucks. Hipsters like them."), I bore easily when it comes to over-celebrating counterculture. As in, underrated artists that hipsters overrate - see Joy Division, Big Star, Rodriguez, Television, Black Flag. As grunge has gradually been unearthed for revival, bands have been nodding overtly to the ‘underrated’ sounds of the Breeders, Mudhoney et al - not the ‘overrated’ Pearl Jam or Nirvana. (To be fair, Pearl Jam are rubbish.) No major label bands your aunt has heard of - only ones with 'indie cred'. To cite influences merely to improve your social reputation among wankers is, of course, stupid, but that’s the music scene in a nutshell. [NB if you’re actually influenced by less popular artists, then saying so is perfectly fine. Dishonesty is the essence of my gripe.] I love exploring the really underrated artists in rock history, who were neither commercially popular enough then, nor critically acclaimed enough now, to be remembered.

But the main reason I love these artists is this: unlike 80% of the material by classic alternative bands, these songs actually sound like singles. They're upbeat. You can tell when it’s the chorus. The production, while still (sometimes) rough-edged, punches you with awesomeness, as opposed to a thin drizzle of impotence that the era’s lower budgets frequently squitted out. Tight pop structures with foregrounded hooks. You can even tell what the song is called just by listening to it. This is the sort of sound I aim for when making Farewell Horizontal recordings. I want to make records that I can turn up loud in the car, sink down in my seat, and think "yeeeeeaaaaaahhhh".

Those classic alternative bands include many of my favourites, and I accept that they are better than pretty much every one-hit band of the time. The 'trouble' with these artists is I very often just want to hear their most single-ish songs. Pavement's “Gold Soundz” grabs me, but "5 - 4 = unity" less so. The Guided By Voices songs like "Tractor Rape Chain" buried among sketchier, more obscure songs. To put it stupidly, these bands dick around ponderously more often than they smash out a pop rock hit. Pavement's Stephen Malkmus said, regarding his epically tangential and weird album "Wowee Zowee", (I paraphrase) "The label complained that it didn't have any hits... I was smoking a lot of grass at the time. I thought they were all hits." I consciously decided to form a band based on what such classic alternative rock bands might sound like if they really were all hits. So I decided to combine alternative rock's rawness and weirdness with the poppiness of yesterday’s hits - power pop, glam/glitter rock, novelty bubble-gum artists (e.g. the Archies).

This whole band grew out of the observation that each 90s one hit wonder had a really strong song - and wouldn't it be nice if they had more? I wanted to be that seemingly non-existent alternative band where the deeper you dig, the more hits you find. That’s why almost all our songs sound “single-ish”. It's meant to be like "A Hard Day's Night" - quick, to the point, all killer - if it were lo-fi alternative rock.

Now listen to this playlist I made containing 3 hours of awesome 90s power pop rock songs, and give them some of the cult fandom they so clearly deserve. {NB not all these bands were "one hit wonders" - these are just great singles]


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