The Album After Grunge Hit: How 16 Rock Stars Changed Their Sound
Nothing was the same after grunge arrived, and rock's biggest artists reacted to the sudden and seismic changes in very different and sometimes surprising ways.
The near simultaneous early '90s mainstream ascendancy of bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains finished the job of killing the '80s that Guns N' Roses had begun a few years earlier. Hairspray, processed studio sounds and lyrics about partying all night long were out; plaid shirts and moody, earthier songs about more serious topics were in.
"I'll never forget walking into [Columbia President] Don Lenner's office, seeing this huge poster of Alice in Chains' Dirt over his secretary's desk," Warrant front man Jani Lane told Musician. "And I thought, 'Hello, Seattle ... good-bye, Warrant.'"
Some successful careers did grind to a halt that quickly, even the ones that tried to fit in with new records that sounded a lot like the ones dominating the airwaves. Some artists cherry-picked a few tips and tricks from their new competition and were able to carry on relatively unscathed. Others welcomed the opportunity to move away from the '80s aesthetic in completely new ways. Some even joined forces with their new peers. And just about everybody got new haircuts.
We take a look at the Album After Grunge Hit: How 16 Rock Stars Changed Their Sound below.
Van Halen, Balance (1995)
Although the serious, darker mood of Van Halen's fourth and final album with Sammy Hagar can partially be attributed to big changes in their personal lives - including Eddie Van Halen's newfound sobriety, fracturing interpersonal relations within the group and the death of manager Ed Leffler - Hagar told UCR the arrival of a new breed of rock star definitely had an impact. Tracks like "Don't Tell Me (What Love Can Do)" show the band adapting to the new climate, but the album is considered the least cohesive of the "Van Hagar" era.
"I think it fucked with everybody’s head a little bit," Hagar said of the grunge revolution. "Because we started getting pushed aside by MTV and the media. Everyone started looking at grunge as the next big thing. When you’re one of the biggest bands in the world, it’s like Elvis [Presley] with the Beatles, I guess, you’re kind of going, 'Do we embrace this, or do we fuckin’ say that they suck?'”
Rush, Counterparts (1993)
Although some fans have theorized that the heavier, more guitar-oriented approach of Rush's 1993 Counterparts album was a reaction to the ascension of grunge, Alex Lifeson told UCR it wasn't that clear-cut. "Maybe a little subconsciously," he noted. "I think there were some moments where we leaned towards that grungy sound or arrangement. I think more so, it was a reaction to the previous couple of records, Roll the Bones and Presto. We changed coproducers, and those records, in terms of sound, were lighter. I was never quite comfortable with that."
Still, the guitarist was quick to praise the younger bands and acknowledge their connection to Rush. "Soundgarden, Pearl Jam - I loved those bands and I thought they were all so good," he said. "I think we influenced a lot of those musicians. Certainly a lot of them have mentioned us in their bios. It's nice to have been a part of it in that way."
Kiss, Carnival of Souls (The Final Sessions) (1997)
Kiss have been guilty of trend chasing more than once in their career, pursuing disco in the late '70s, concept-album pomposity on 1981's Music From 'The Elder' and keyboard-heavy hair metal on 1987's Crazy Nights. But Paul Stanley wanted no part of Gene Simmons' plans to go grunge on 1997's Carnival of Souls. "I was dead set against doing that kind of an album," he recalled in the 2001 book Kiss: Behind the Mask. "I never believed that the world needs a second-rate Soundgarden, Metallica or Alice in Chains.' Although Simmons labeled Carnival "a very brave record" in the same book, 20 years later he told UCR his opinion had changed a bit. "Was it as honest and authentic as our other stuff? No," he explained. "It's like going to another country. You love the way East Indians dance, and you go, 'Oh, that's cool.' Then you get up on the dance floor and you try to do it. Can I dance as well as somebody who has been dancing East Indian dances all of their lives? No."
Def Leppard, Slang (1996)
For Def Leppard, the rise of grunge lined up with an internal desire to shake up their successful but increasingly predictable '80s sound. Singer Joe Elliott said the band first started noticing bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains around the time of 1992's Adrenalize. "They all started looking different, all that kind of L.A. glam-metal thing was going away," he explained in a promotional video. "All of a sudden there was kids that looked like they just got out of bed." Musically, he liked where these bands were coming from: "It's just the Beatles with more fuzz is all it is, there's still melodies."
So, when Def Leppard got together to record 1996's Slang, they decided to make a sonic shift toward rawer, less-produced music and address more serious and personal topics in their lyrics. "We were in a state of arrested development in the band, singing songs like 'Let's Get Rocked,'" guitarist Vivian Campbell later told Classic Rock. "Grunge was very much happening, and our stuff was anathema at the time. ... At least it gave us the chance to grow up a little."
In a 2016 interview with Eon Music, Campbell said Soundgarden provided particularly strong inspiration during the Slang sessions: "One album that we listened to more than any other when we were making that record, which I think is the best record of the grunge era, was Superunknown."
While Slang failed to match the commercial success of Def Leppard's previous albums, Elliott stood by the choice to make such big changes. "We had done three massive overproduced albums - in a good way, that's how we wanted them to be - and after 11 years of doing that, we were bored," he said. "So we didn't try to make a grunge album. We just tried to just hone it back a bit and make it something that was bit more honest."
Motley Crue, Motley Crue (1994)
Even though Motley Crue were among the kings of hard rock before grunge's arrival, they were eager to rise to the challenge. "I welcomed that with the biggest open arms on the planet," Tommy Lee told Apple Music in 2020. "I was like, 'Yes. Somebody's fucking stirring it up.' Everything was just sounding the same." Having recently replaced original singer Vince Neil with John Corabi, the band explored more serious sounds and topics on its self-titled 1994 album. The record wasn't as commercially successful as earlier records, but it's considered a creative highlight by fans and band members.
"I don't think that Nirvana and Pearl Jam killed the bands you mentioned," Nikki Sixx told Kerrang! in 2021 when asked about grunge's impact on acts such as Poison and Warrant. "I think they killed themselves. They were making copycat music. We, on the other hand, simply imploded."
The Lovemongers, Whirlygig (1997)
The grunge movement couldn't have arrived at a better time or place for Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson. Although they'd given in to '80s synthesizers and hairspray and were rewarded with multiplatinum albums, they weren't happy. "I just kind of wake up and go, 'Well, you know, if having hit records means I have to be somebody else, then maybe I'll just have records that aren't huge hits," Ann Wilson told The Guardian of the band's early '90s return to a more organic sound. "I'll just do what really turns me on."
Still, Heart was based in Seattle, ground zero for the grunge movement. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were among the bands that recorded at the band's Bad Animals studio, and the younger generation readily welcomed the Wilson sisters into its circle. "I was surprised that there were parties we got invited to, and everybody was like, 'Come on, let’s jam,'" Ann Wilson told Classic Rock in 2010. "And all that '80s stuff that we were involved with just kinda melted away."
Ann Wilson contributed background vocals to Alice in Chains' 1992 EP, Sap, and the band's singer, Layne Staley, returned the favor on Heart's 1993 album, Desire Walks On. Within a year the Wilson sisters formed an acoustic-based side project, the Lovemongers, who released their debut album, Whirlygig, in 1997.
"We’d taken off the corsets and the fingernails and the extensions, and we were walking around in our own shoes again," Ann Wilson said. "It was amazing. A wonderful musical healing that took place.”
Skid Row, Subhuman Race (1995)
Even though Skid Row had success with their first two albums, singer Sebastian Bach said producer Bob Rock pushed them to alter their sound to fit in with grunge on 1995's Subhuman Race. "I remember him saying, 'Everybody knows you can scream, Sebastian,' and suggesting I sing like Scott Weiland [of Stone Temple Pilots]," he told Classic Rock in 2002. "Why don't you just take a thoroughbred racehorse and hit him on the fuckin' kneecap with a baseball bat?"
Subhuman Race received some positive reviews, but Skid Row's commercial streak faltered, and creative differences led to Bach's departure the following year. "Bands like Nirvana and the whole grunge movement put bands like us out of business for a while," bassist Rachel Bolan told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (via Blabbermouth) in 2005. "For a while, you didn't want to say you were in Skid Row. People would say, 'What, the '80s hair band?'"
Dokken, Shadowlife (1997)
"Plain and simple, [it was] us trying to have a different approach ... more modern or whatever," bassist Jeff Pilson said of Dokken's 1997 album Shadowlife, which traded their melodic hard rock for something more brooding and dark. "The world had changed so much, and it was us trying to adapt," he told the Double Stop in 2015 (via Blabbermouth). "Plus, the producer, Kelly Gray, was very much from the whole Seattle world. There's a couple of really wonderful things on there but overall not an inspired or cohesive piece of work." Speaking to Metal Titans in 2020, singer Don Dokken blamed his bandmates: "I hated that album so much that I didn't allow them to put my Dokken logo on that record. ... It just has a typical font. I told the guys, 'I just can't bring myself to put my name on that. I think it's crap!'"
Scorpions, Feel the Heat (1993)
Even without grunge music now on the scene, Scorpions were facing a crossroads while recording 1993's Face the Heat. There was temptation to replicate the success of 1990's political ballad "Wind of Change," but instead the band decided to reestablish themselves in the rearranged hard-rock arena. "The Scorpions never jumped on any trends," singer Klaus Meine insisted in a 1994 Los Angeles Times interview. "We saw in our career many waves come and go. [The ascendancy of grunge] doesn't mean the Scorpions go onstage with shorts on now."
Still, the album's stripped sonics betrayed at least some capitulation to the new musical environment, and Meine had nothing but kind words for the movement. "I like some of the stuff because it's really rough and very close to the street," he said. "It's just real people playing music. I like the new Alice in Chains album, and Stone Temple Pilots is one of my favorites."
Years later, Meine told My Global Mind that another Scorpions album was even more affected by changes in the musical landscape. "It was a time where you had to fight to survive as a classic rock band," he noted of 1999's Eye II Eye, "an album where we experimented a lot. It was not very well received by our fans, but maybe it was the best mistake we ever did. We found out how important it was to go back to the Scorpions DNA."
Winger, Pull (1993)
In addition to suffering as Beavis and Butt-Head's favorite objects of scorn, Winger took a direct hit when grunge arrived. "It was hard for all the '80s bands when that happened, because they were ushering in Rob Zombie, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and all of those bands," Kip Winger told the Lokaos Rock Show (via Metal Wani) in 2019. "All of the '80s bands like us were portrayed as uncool, and I was really singled out by it. We lost all our record deals, and all of a sudden we couldn't get a job."
Before Winger broke up in 1994, they were able to make an album they were happy with, moving away from the glam-metal trappings and subject matter of their earlier work. "There were things that happened on the first couple of records that were absolutely fantastic, but there were also some things in there that didn’t quite represent who we were as a band," Winger told Rhino Insider. "When Pull came, and I was able to work with a couple of different people, I was able to refocus the sound of the band back to what I originally hoped for in the beginning."
Warrant, Ultraphobic (1995)
"I don't know how we survived it," Warrant bassist Jerry Dixon told Eon Music in 2017 of the grunge revolution and the band's drop in sales following 1992's Dog Eat Dog. "We pretty much got blindsided by a whole musical change. I'm not going to lie, we were damaged, and in some ways it tore the band up." But in another interview with Metal Rules, Dixon insisted the heavier grooves and more serious subject matter of 1995's Ultraphobic weren't a reaction to the changing times. "That was the first record that Jani didn't write every song on. We weren't trying to fit in or trying to be grunge. We all got in a room and wrote that record, and we had a lot of different guitar styles and riffs ... so that is why it came out different. I actually love that record. It's just tough when you don't have MTV and stuff like that pushing your records anymore."
Extreme, Waiting for the Punchline (1995)
Extreme had the misfortune of releasing their most ambitious album during the peak of the grunge revolution. "Right when [1992's] III Sides to Every Story came out, which obviously was our most grandiose record, with the 70-piece orchestra and everything we threw in and put on that record, it was right at the time when Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were hitting," bassist Pat Badger told Popdose. "So, all bands of our genre and of our time, we were kind of yesterday’s newspaper and swept under the rug. I think that record came out right at that time where everyone was looking for the next Nirvana or Pearl Jam. The record company kind of lost interest in Extreme." The band stripped down its sound for 1995's Waiting for the Punchline, but the record failed to reverse Extreme's commercial fortunes, and they broke up soon after its release.
Poison, Native Tongue (1995)
Poison's fourth album revealed a distinct shift in the band's music and lyrics. But singer Bret Michaels insisted he never felt competition with grunge artists, even though his band was quickly shuttled aside during the era. "When I heard 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' I'm going, 'Well, goddamn, what a great song,'" he said in the book Everybody Loves Our Town. "Someone forgot to send me the memo that I'm supposed to be hating this or threatened by that. My career didn't end with grunge. My career with the media ended with grunge. Most bands get a couple-year window to slowly die down. The media didn't kinda shut us off. They completely shut us off."
Neil Young, Mirror Ball (1995)
If one veteran artist had nothing to fear from the arrival of grunge, it was Neil Young. His music was a huge influence on the genre, and he just happened to be in the middle of a hot creative streak as the '90s began. He was quickly adopted as the "Godfather of Grunge" and would up recruiting Pearl Jam as his backing band for his 1995 album, Mirror Ball. The partnership wound up helping both acts. "He made it all right for us to be who we were," Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard told Spin. "He's not taking his career so seriously that he can't take chances. Suddenly, our band seemed too serious."
Alice Cooper, The Last Temptation (1994)
Like Neil Young, Alice Cooper was happy to welcome the grunge revolution. He even invited Soundgarden's Chris Cornell to sing on his 1994 album, The Last Temptation. "I really liked 'Black Hole Sun,' and I met Chris Cornell and I said, 'You know, I really like the Seattle sound. It’s a different version of sort of a classic guitar-rock sound, but it’s got some depth to it that I really like,'" he told UCR. "I said, 'Do you have anything like that that I could write lyrics to?' He played me 'Unholy War,' and I wrote the lyrics around that. [He also showed me] 'Stolen Prayer.' I said, 'That’s so perfect for this album.'"
Robert Plant, Fate of Nations (1993)
After proving himself capable of delivering '80s hard rock with the hit "Tall Cool One" and Manic Nirvana album, Robert Plant turned his back on the decade's excesses with 1993's acoustic-based Fate of Nations. The LP looked back to the '60s, both musically and with its environmentally minded lyrics.
It doesn't appear grunge's arrival played any specific role in Plant's stylistic turn, but the timing coincided perfectly with the changing tides in the music world. "I'd virtually forgotten how simplistic and innocent, and yet how honest, the cries were at the end of the '60s," he told the Orlando Sentinel. "I was astonished at how I never had the time to embrace that music for such a long time." Plant's music continued to move further from his hard-rock roots, drawing from world music, folk and bluegrass in a series of well-received albums.