An Essay on the Differences Between the Alt-Rock of the 80s and 90s

I’m in the midst of writing a multi-part Ongoing History of New Music series on the history of indie rock and in reviewing this wing of alternative music, I’ve become reacquainted with artists that I’d long forgotten. While they were important back in the day, they’ve since fallen off the radar and now languish at the back of record and cassette collections, unloved and unlistened.

What we consider alt-rock today is vastly different from what the scene was in the 90s. It’s even further removed from what the alt-rock scene was like in the 80s. What was big back then became lost as music and music fans moved on.

This essay (forwarded by Christopher) highlights some of the differences between now and then.

Have You Ever Heard of Eugene Chadbourne?

So far, I’ve only ever heard the question in the title of this essay answered with a “no”. I’ve asked several of the most enthusiastic indie and underground music fans I know. “Eugene Chadbourne… Eugene Chadbourne…” Sometimes it rings a faint bell – it did for me the first time I heard it. If your answer to the question is “yes”, or “of course I have!” then my best guess is you’re in the minority of readers, and furthermore, that there’s a decent chance you were born earlier than 1970.

It’s curious that so few have come across avant-garde-country guitarist Dr Eugene Chadbourne, and that his name doesn’t come up a lot more often both today and in histories of independent pop music. Curious because Eugene Chadbourne was – or seems to have been – one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed stars of the independent scene during its nascent phase in the 1980s. In the course of my academic research on that era, his name kept coming up over and over and over again, though I barely recognised it at first.

Chadbourne was described as America’s “only anarcho-paramilitary-electro-folkie-troubadelic-matador”, his music as “gonzo audio journalism” that “pushes traditional music to its edge and makes it jump”. At the height of his fame between 1986 and 1988, you almost couldn’t pick up an underground pop magazine without reading a review, article or news item featuring him, and he never needed an introduction. Chadbourne and his picture made it into the pages of Spin three times, even before that magazine became a bastion of alternative culture. One issue of Sound Choice in 1986 included no less than ten separate reviews of his releases. The same magazine made the (probably dubious) claim that “major labels are falling over themselves to pick up the newest release from guitar/home-tape wildman Eugene Chadbourne.” There were even cartoon strips that relied on his notoriety for effect. Nor was his fame limited to America. Chadbourne toured Europe a number of times, and British magazine Melody Maker reviewed his albums by talking of his “crazed genius”, calling his “analysis of America’s presidency problem… witty and astute.” It’s difficult to compare visibility and listenership then and now, since the internet allows subcultural connectivity and listenership to flow much faster and more easily than it did in the 1980s, but by modern standards he seems to have stood somewhere between James Ferraro and Lil B in underground fame.

Continue reading.


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.

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