The Summer of 1994: Hard Rock to the Core
Has it really been 20 years? The summer of 1994 was one of the greatest seasons of all time for hard rock music. Yes, it’s true that the grunge era was at its height, with many of the second generation acts in the genre starting to take their place alongside the pioneers. But as happens when any sound becomes dominant, there’s a little bit of a rebellion against it as music lovers try to find the next big thing.
While April of 1994 was witness to the tragic death of Nirvana‘s Kurt Cobain, the summer that followed saw the rock revolution that he helped start reach its musical height. That season, you got a mix of grunge, punk, straight-up rock and even a group of rappers who truly embraced their rock side by picking up instruments. Simply put, the summer of 1994 truly rocked, and when you reflect on the music of the time you’ll see why.
It’s interesting to note that in some cases, not much has changed in 20 years. Back then, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails were arguably the two biggest acts of the summer and in 2014, the two bands teamed up for one of the biggest tours of the summer.
Soundgarden’s ‘Superunknown’ album dropped in March of 1994, fresh off their most successful album, the ‘Badmotorfinger’ album. While the pressure to follow-up their breakout release was immense, the band got off on the right foot in the spring with their lead single ‘Spoonman.’ Though the song would carry over into the summer, it was just setting the table for the band. When ‘Black Hole Sun’ dropped in May 1994, it turned into a contender for the song of the summer. Chris Cornell‘s tongue-twisty turn of phrase and amazing vocal range captured the ears of listeners and the track’s surreal video was virtually inescapable in an era where MTV still played videos. The creepy clip was so cool, it went on to win an MTV Award for Best Metal/ Hard Rock Video.
As for Nine Inch Nails, the summer of ’94 was the perfect storm. Trent Reznor‘s angst-ridden masterpiece ‘The Downward Spiral’ was filled with unnerving energy, displayed by the full-throttle ‘March of the Pigs’ in the spring. But while that track was pure electronic thrash, it wasn’t exactly radio friendly. Oddly enough, it was a song where Reznor belted, “I wanna f— you like an animal” that proved to be the unexpected breakout. The pure synthesized funk of ‘Closer’ was just undeniable and eventually the band’s label offered a censored version to radio. Likewise, the Mark Romanek-directed video needed a TV edit, but neither censorship deterred the track’s radio or TV popularity.
But as big as Nine Inch Nails were getting, the spotlight truly shone on the band at Woodstock ’94. Drawing the largest crowd of the event despite not being top billed, the band took the stage after wrestling in mud and their performance remains one of the enduring images of the event.
Meanwhile, Stone Temple Pilots released their ‘Purple’ album in June, with ‘Big Empty,’ ‘Vasoline’ and ‘Interstate Love Song’ all commanding the airwaves over the summer months. Pearl Jam were going the more mellow route, with the ‘Vs.’ holdover ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town’ and the surprise hit ‘Yellow Ledbetter,’ a ‘Ten’ album outtake that came out of nowhere to finally hit radio in 1994.
Hole went from being the band fronted by Kurt Cobain’s widow to a group that could stand on their own thanks to Courtney Love demanding your respect with her take no prisoners vocals on ‘Miss World.’ And Candlebox emerged as one of the year’s breaking bands thanks to their summer success on ‘Far Behind.’
But as previously stated, grunge’s success led to openings for other genres, and punk had a big-time revival in ’94 led by Green Day and The Offspring. Green Day’s ‘Dookie’ album arrived in February of ’94 and the success of ‘Longview’ carried over into the summer, but they also thrived with the infectious snarl of ‘Basket Case.’ Between the two catchy tracks, you would’ve been hard pressed in 1994 to find anyone who couldn’t sing the lyrics to either song. And those two tunes were just laying the groundwork for a string of hits that would make ‘Dookie’ a 20-million selling album.
As for the Offspring, they’re spending the summer of 2014 celebrating the 20th anniversary of their ‘Smash’ album on tour. That disc arrived in April ’94 and as soon as people heard the Middle Eastern guitar vibe on ‘Come Out and Play’ combined with Dexter Holland’s instantly memorable “You gotta keep ’em separated” line, the Offspring became the latest breakout band. While other songs off ‘Smash’ followed, ‘Come Out and Play’ was everywhere in the summer of ’94.
Also adding to the punk revival was Bad Religion, who released their most popular disc ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ in August of ’94. The songs ’21st Century Digital Boy’ and ‘Infected’ helped give the band their first significant radio airplay of their career. And while we’re speaking of punk, there should be some love shown for Beastie Boys, who strapped on their instruments and gave us the punk-infused adrenaline-filled anthem ‘Sabotage.’
But 1994 wasn’t all grunge and punk. There was so much more that stood out for the summer of ’94. You had the signature guitar line and Ed Roland vocal of Collective Soul’s ‘Shine.’ Aerosmith added the bluesy single ‘Crazy’ to their musical legacy. Music lovers got their angst out with Live’s ‘I Alone,’ and sang along to Weezer’s ‘Undone (The Sweater Song).’ Henry Rollins showed the glimmer of his future spoken word work with The Rollins Band song ‘Liar’ and Helmet gave us the sludgy ‘Milquetoast.’
As you can see, the summer of ’94 rocked for hard rock lovers, and we haven’t even touched what was going on in metal, where you had Pantera rocking ‘I’m Broken’ from ‘Far Beyond Driven,’ GWAR delivering ‘Saddam-A-Go-Go,’ Cannibal Corpse brutalizing us with ‘Staring Through the Eyes of the Dead,’ Machine Head breaking out with ‘Davidian’ and Max Cavalera stepping out of Sepultura to start a project called Nailbomb.
All told, there was a lot of great music in the summer of 1994. Now it’s time for you to offer your reflections. Share your memories in the comments section below and be sure to vote for which song was your “Song of the Summer” for 1994 in the poll provided.