I’m watching Dinosaur Jnr. for the first time since their dysfunctional, tuneless, late ’90s swansong at London’s Astoria. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are about to close today’s festival and the Pumpkins due tomorrow. It’s set me thinking about what’s happened to US alternative rock since its ’91/’92 annus mirabilis.
You know, those golden days when albums like Nevermind, the Chilis’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic, Faith No More‘s Angel Dust, and The Lemonheads‘ It’s a Shame About Ray were dropping from the trees.
Looking at what I could see of J Mascis, behind a screen of silver-grey hair more suited to a hillbilly grandma plucking a banjo on her porch than Neil Young’s one true guitar-mangling heir, it was easy to believe it all happened a lifetime ago, when the world and J were still young.
The sounds he rings from his guitar certainly sounds beautifully fresh, a reason to play rock music. Lou Barlow points with wry approval as his old nemesis plays, Barlow’s own on-stage breakdown while playing Reading with Sebadoh at their peak thankfully now a distant memory. “You don’t like us, I can tell,” he says, trying on grunge’s old self-loathing for size, just before “Freak Scene” is greeted like a long-lost, still fucked-up friend.
No doubt the Chili Pepperswill be equally great, Billy Corgan’s metal-goth superheroes too; no doubt Cobain would be, if he was still around.
But the layers of self-pity that came with that generation is what’s really lasted.
You can hear it on the main stage even as Dinosaur Jr roll back the years, where Panic! At the Disco are playing tight, unswinging, semi-hard rock. And, whenever they stray into something lighter, more feminine, more like something Cobain might have sung when he played this place in a dress, the pint glasses start flying at them from the crowd.
Ex-Blink 182’ers Angels And Airwaves invite that, trying to get a violent reaction from a Reading crowd that’s a poor, consumerist relation to the pints-of-piss battalions of the not-really-so-great old days. But, like the young US alt.rockers on the way tomorrow – Fall Out Boy, Funeral for a Friend – musically they’re still scared, narrow, not capable of the flights of Mascis’s guitar.
Listen to the lyrics of some of those bands, and they’re really trying to set their young listeners free. But their music’s so conservative and scared, so different from the ’90s trail-blazers. It gives you a clue to just how oppressive and conformist teenage life must be, up and down America.
That’s why North American bands from Modest Mouse to Arcade Fire (so liberated and great on the main stage just before I sat down to right this) keep crashing into the US top 10 this year, indie kamiakaze pilots trying to bring down Bush’s (and nu-grunge’s) Evil Empire.
The Chili Peppers are just starting up, massive cheers swelling behind me, so I’m running off. Certainly no reason to be down here at Reading. There’s always another golden generation…
Words: Nick Hasted
Pic credit: Andrew Kendall