It’s easier to think that the whole alternative music scene was born the minute Nirvana hit MTV in 1991. Until then, we were living in the neon bubble of the 80s and Kurt Cobain was about to all wake us up. and let us know what the music was about again.
If you look in the rearview mirror a bit longer, the alternate scene was more than able to hold its own in the daytime as well. Back when the hair metal scene was taking its toll across the world, there were also bands that were only picked up on college radio stations or stuff that was a little more to the left of the dial.
Although you could easily have called this new wave in the 70s, there was something very different about what was going on here, from independent artists who slowly rose to the top, to bands who had to blow the doors off the hinges a time they made their way into the next decade. If you look back on some of those 80s playlists, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that qualifies as alternative rock. Then again, if you knew where to look, alternative rock didn’t have to worry about the MTV generation.
As the 80s progressed, the alternative scene started to expand a bit more. Since the college rock stations were still doing well, there were tons of bands that were a little left of the dial and somehow managed to gain exposure on MTV from time to time. While artists like Motley Crue may have had the big guitars for mainstream fans, Sonic Youth seemed almost anti-commercial in the way they promoted themselves.
Being more of a descendant of the latest wave of punk music, these scruffy New York musicians had a much more art rock approach to what they were doing. Outside of records like Goo and Daydream Nation, the goal was almost to use their instruments as a way to produce weird sounds instead of real songs, with Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo almost at war with each other in a deluge of noise. Combined with Kim Gordon’s smoky vocals, these albums set the stage for the post-punk-leaning music that would become a bigger deal once the 90s passed.
If there’s one thing we have the band to thank for, it’s discovering a small group called Nirvana, with Gordon in particular pushing Geffen Records to sign them after their Bleach album started to take off. While they might not have lit the charts in the 80s or anything, the 90s would have been completely different without their music to begin with.