From Nirvana to Guns N’ Roses, how 1991 changed music forever

Written by Andrea Domanick, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

“It was astonishing how it was so picked up so rapidly and became the mainstream success it was,” KCRW music critic Eric J. Lawrence says of Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind.” Photo by Polly Herzeleid Valo.

In 1991, radio stations nationwide didn’t know it yet, but they were shuffling through records that would go on to define the hard rock sound of the decade. College radio stations pushed these albums, looking to buck pop music trends in favor of something grungier.

Bands like Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Metallica released albums that still remain some of the most influential rock records of all time.

Press Play looks at some of the era’s iconic albums with KCRW music critic Eric J. Lawrence, who was the music director at UCLA’s radio station in 1991.

KCRW: In the radio scene at UCLA, how were you getting your music and deciding what to play? 

Eric J. Lawrence: “At the time, there was sort of a distinction. This was in an era when they call it ‘college rock’ as opposed to ‘alternative rock.’ And for college rock, most record labels had a college department and they would actually have a specific representative that would send out copies to all of the college radio stations across the country. 

And we would simply gather all of these records and listen to them all and make decisions about the records that we thought were going to be of greatest interest to be played at the station. Most stations had a ... format that followed more in the lines of kind of commercial radio, versus a completely freeform radio like KCRW has. And that was just using this as a laboratory. If any of us were interested in getting into commercial radio, this was the way it was done.”

Metallica’s hit from 1991 was “Enter Sandman.” Tell us why that song and album took off and basically defined the era.

“They had released a number of records prior to that, that were a little more influenced by punk rock. Their previous record ‘...And Justice for All’ was the first one that really made inroads on American commercial charts. So everybody was highly anticipating this record. And when it finally came out, in the summer of 1991, people were ready for it to really explode and bring a new Renaissance for that style of heavy metal music.”

Pearl Jam released its debut album “Ten” in 1991 and went on to become a mega band. What was it about that album that was their turning point?

“It came out a couple of weeks after Metallica, so there was starting to become the sense that there was this new form of heavy rock music that was coming out. They’re one of the bands that kind of gets lumped into the grunge movement, although probably among the more polished of them. Within the college radio world, it did not make an impact on American charts until the following year. It took a while. Their first two singles, including ‘Even Flow,’ didn't make the U.S. charts at all. It was ‘Jeremy’ that was their first hit. But that wasn't until 1992.”

Did you play that song?

“We did. It came out on Epic Records, a major label release. A lot of college rock stations were a little bit wary of major label releases, wanting to spend more of their time on sort of the lesser known bands. But there was a recognition that this was a sound that was captivating. 

And as I mentioned, there was starting to become this new, heavy rock sound from a generation that listened to their parents’ classic rock records, but also from their own experiences with punk rock, kind of melded the two to create something that was different and was more personal, maybe more political. And so we recognized that it was something that people were going to be interested to hear. And we were, of course, terribly excited when the mainstream caught up with that idea.”

How does Guns N’ Roses fit into that scene?

“Guns N’ Roses was a local band in Southern California, part of the Sunset Strip scene. But they were different from bands like Motley Crue or Warrant. It wasn't just simply a kind of party band. They were a little more thoughtful in their approach. Axl Rose had a real troubled young life. He actually grew up in the same city I did, in Lafayette, Indiana. I beat him out here to LA by a couple of years. 

… They did release their ‘Appetite for Destruction’ album that was sort of their big hit record with ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ and whatnot. And that was a groundbreaking record for sure. It was a number of years later before they released the second salvo, and it was even more of a bigger deal in the fact that it was ‘Use Your Illusion,’ and it came in two double albums … both of which were huge sellers. ‘II’ reached number one, ‘I’ only actually reached number two on the pop charts.”

Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain — you met him when you were at the UCLA radio station?

“Yes. It was actually for their previous record, their debut record which was on Sub Pop, a record called ‘Bleach’ from a couple of years prior. And they had come to the station, it was part of their touring regiment to visit the local stations. And we had no idea that they were going to become as massive as they were. I don't know exactly what ‘Teen Spirit’ is supposed to smell like, but those dudes were the stinkiest guys I ever encountered. They smelled like they had just been living in their van for the past nine months, smelled of cigarette smoke and stale fast food, and sweaty clubs. And that was sort of my most sensory memory of the encounter.

But what was interesting was that the ‘Nevermind’ record was when they were signed to Geffen. It was scheduled to come out September 24. And part of the reason that date was selected is because that was the point at which colleges were back in session. The record label pretty much only considered it to be a college rock success. And so they delayed its release to that point to be able to take advantage of that. ... We could tell that it was going to be a great record. And it was astonishing how it was so picked up so rapidly and became the mainstream success it was. The record label did not anticipate that, and that led to an incredible sea change in the way that major labels looked at signing new artists in the hope of finding the next Nirvana. I mean, that was literally the phrase that was going around.”

It was kind of like a gold rush up in Seattle, people just looking for the next one.

“It was probably the last gasp for traditional record label behavior before the streaming age really put a dent in all of it.”

Let’s talk about another local band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who also released their record “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” in 1991. 

“It's a legacy album, and again, released on the same day, September 24. … They being a local band, they had a whole series of records prior to that that were a little less sort of hard rock, per se. They had a lot more of a funk element to them that kind of made them fun and distinctive. They had an earlier record produced by George Clinton of Funkadelic fame. But this was their first big mainstream success. 

One thing that is interesting to note: All five of these bands that we're talking about, mostly due to the success of these important records, they're all inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This was a very essential moment in music history. And especially for those of us in the college radio world, where we were finally being taken seriously as being able to recognize the talents of these bands before they hit the mainstream.”

But it’s a little bittersweet, though, don't you think? Because when you listen to this music, it is so big, it is so mainstream. It doesn't really have any of the revolutionary spirit of indie music or college radio stations in it.

“Some of it is a contextual thing, to listen to these records and know what had come before and how different they sounded then. I think Nirvana still remains the gold standard of a band that often attempted to be duplicated, but no one has ever quite matched the magic of what Kurt Cobain was able to put in, in terms of these personal, introspective ideas, combined with a very vibrant sound and a very energetic performance. But you're right in that there is this sense that this was a last hurrah for the college rock moment to really feel like we were doing something truly ‘alternative,’ not just simply the industry's idea of an alternative.”