Music History

We’re Coming Up on the 25th Anniversary of the Birth of the Alternative Nation

If you’ve following my scribblings over the years, you’ll have stumbled across my theory of the 12-13 year music cycle. (If not, you can read all about it here.) I bring this up because we’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of the start of one of the biggest and most important rock-dominant part of the cycles in history: the birth of the Alternative Nation of the 1990s.

Many people might place the beginning of that era with the troika of releases in 1991: Ten by Pearl Jam, Nevermind from Nirvana and Badmotorfinger from Soundgarden. Good guess, but the cycle actually began more than a year earlier. And the band who got things going? Depeche Mode. Here’s what happened.

By the end of the 80s, hair metal was on death’s door, killed by its own ridiculous excess and too many power ballads. Recycled classic rock acts (the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd) had enjoyed something of a renaissance, but the public was again bored by them. And after several years of insipid pop (New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson), Generation X was about to age into the time of their lives when they wanted music of more substance.

Add in the anxieties of the first Gulf War and a brutal recession, the time was ripe for a sea change in music. Gen X wanted music that reflected their values, fears, hopes, dreams and anger. But where would that music come from>

Depeche Mode had set things up for world domination with their Music for the Masses album and its massively successful tour. When Violator was ready, Gen X was, too.

Things began in March 1990 with the release of “Personal Jesus.”

It was a giant hit.There was even a riot at a Depeche Mode autograph session at an LA record store.

Record labels, sensing that they’ve found something to fill the vacuum created by the end of the pop cycle and the collapse of hair metal, rushed in. Scooped up for major deals were Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana…you get the idea.

Here’s another example from those days: audio from 91X in San Diego via Slicing Up Eyeballs.

I remember the craziness surrounding the release of the album at CFNY/Toronto (colleague Scot Turner was a rabid fan and nearly apoplectic with excitement) but alas, I have no audio of those days. Anyone have anything on cassette anywhere?

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37808 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

3 thoughts on “We’re Coming Up on the 25th Anniversary of the Birth of the Alternative Nation

  • Alan, I’m a big fan of your 12-13 theory, and I think it’s time we took another look at it.

    I think an argument can be made that the cycle was irrevocably broken around 1998 because of three factors:

    1. The factory-farming of pop stars from kids’ TV to recording contracts
    2. The internet, MP3s and file-sharing
    3. The corporatization of the labels

    Any thoughts?

  • I have quite a few of my cassettes! Not ready to get rid of them yet!

    • Me, too–although I don’t have anything to play them on anymore…


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