This is an excerpt from “Step it Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk” by David Menconi.
When it comes to televised pop-music signposts, there’s February 9, 1964 — the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan” — and everything else. But January 11, 1992, still marks an era all its own, when Seattle grunge trio Nirvana played “Saturday Night Live” to confirm their sudden and unexpected status as “world’s biggest band.”
Just a few months earlier, Nirvana had been playing club-sized venues like Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, yet here they were displacing Michael Jackson from the top of the Billboard charts. Nirvana’s three members seemed as bewildered by all of this as anyone else, so they closed their “SNL” star turn by trashing their instruments. And as Kurt Cobain shoved his guitar neck into an amplifier, feedback rang out as the opening salvo of . . . well, something.
Watching on TV from Chapel Hill, Tom Maxwell — drummer in the local band What Peggy Wants — concluded it signified “the death of grunge,” as he told me in 2014. But the music industry had other ideas, realizing there might be some money in music once deemed too unkempt for the masses.
Nirvana themselves understood this well enough to have adorned the cover of their breakthrough album “Nevermind” with a picture of a baby in a pool chasing a dollar bill on a fishhook. Nirvana’s success kicked off the Great Alternative Rock Goldrush, a pendulum swing away from the previous year, when lighter-than-air pop like Milli Vanilli, Wilson Phillips and Vanilla Ice had dominated the airwaves.
The underground was already bubbling into the mainstream in the spring of 1991, when “Out of Time” became R.E.M.’s first number 1 album. Then came that summer’s Lollapalooza tour of big outdoor amphitheaters starring Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails and other rising alternative bands.
What put it all the way over the top, however, was “Nevermind,” which exploded that fall and turned 1991 into “The Year Punk Broke” — title of a well-timed documentary about the band Sonic Youth, elder statesmen of the American rock underground. “Nevermind”’s calling card was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a perfect storm of churning guitars and mysterious epigrams (“Our little group has always been and always will until the end,” “Here we are now, entertain us”) with an instantly iconic video showing a high school pep rally turning into a teenage riot. Whether intended as such or not, “Teen Spirit” sounded like a manifesto.
Music industry comes to Chapel Hill
Shortly after the video hit MTV, label talent scouts fanned out across America seeking that elusive indie-rock Eldorado: “The Next Seattle.” Having produced Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, in addition to Nirvana, Seattle was a grunge paradise and alternative rock’s ultimate proto-boomtown.
One place the industry’s gaze came to rest was Chapel Hill, a thriving outpost on America’s underground-rock circuit — often mentioned in the same breath as Athens or Austin, with a bustling under-the-radar music scene.
Some months after Nirvana’s “SNL” coronation, Sonic Youth bestowed their blessings with the 1992 song “Chapel Hill.” The band had passed through Chapel Hill as Neil Young’s opening act the previous year, when the local papers were full of stories about the mysterious February 21, 1991, murder of progressive-leaning Internationalist Books owner Robert Sheldon (a crime that remains unsolved to this day).
Sonic Youth wrote a song about it, dotted with local signifiers: “Jesse H” (firebrand conservative Republican senator Jesse Helms) and a pit of Durham hardcore kids getting “the Cradle rocking” at an all-ages show. “Chapel Hill” seemed like a fitting theme song for the time and place.
As the southwest corner of North Carolina’s Triangle region with Raleigh and Durham, Chapel Hill had about 40,000 residents in the early 1990s. It also had a wave of community-minded young bands that would have made perfectly simpatico opening acts for Sonic Youth or Nirvana.
Superchunk, Polvo, Archers of Loaf, Metal Flake Mother and Zen Frisbee weren’t exactly punk and didn’t sound much like each other, but they all played loud and fast, heavy on roaring overdrive guitars. The words were hard to hear, let alone understand, but it was exhilarating to let adrenaline take over and get swept away by a song like Superchunk’s 1990 seven-inch single “Slack (expletive)” — a wage-slave anthem that vowed, “I’m working, but I’m not working for you!”
The idea of somebody’s time being more valuable than money seemed as quaintly old-fashioned as bands passing up an opportunity to sign on the major-label dotted line. But that would become de rigueur in Chapel Hill, where most of the locals seemed content playing for their friends, recording in improvised neighborhood studios like the “Yellow House,” and staying out of the machinations of the big-time record business.
The Chapel Hill scene seemed like a long, long way from the top of the pops — until Nirvana came along and suddenly gave the mainstream a hard left turn and brought it to the outskirts of town.
Once that happened, just like Seattle and Athens, Chapel Hill would also have breakout acts that sold millions of albums. Two of them, in fact. Pretty much the last two anybody would have predicted.