Perhaps the most accurately titled movie in the entire history of cinema, 1991: The Year Punk Broke chronicles Sonic Youth and Nirvana's two-week long European festival tour, mere months before alternative rock took over the world. In a sense, the tour was a warning shot at the culture of “corporate rock” that dominated the 80s – the first sign that the music world was about to drastically change. In another, very real sense, it was the last moment of innocence before these proudly-underground musicians suddenly found themselves culturally ubiquitous.
Of course like any internationally touring, stadium-ready band, Sonic Youth wasn't completely innocent of commercialism or corporate entanglements even at the time. SY had just released Goo in 1990, their first album with the Geffen label, owned by Universal (at that time still named MCA). This represented something of a switch from their previous work, which had been put out through indie channels like SST and Enigma. While some of those earlier recordings received huge critical success (most notably the 1988 masterpiece, Daydream Nation – which, by the way, was itself distributed by Capitol Records, owned in part by EMI), SY still had difficulty achieving notoriety due to distribution problems and other administrative blunders at the indie labels. For that reason, Thurston Moore and SY went looking for a major label to hook up with and found Geffen. With Geffen's help, they broke the billboard's top 100 albums for the first time and quickly became internationally famous.
It would be too cynical, however, to think that their affiliation with Geffen made Sonic Youth a bunch of sellouts, even under the more stringent standards of the day (these days pretty much anything goes short of joining the Black Eyed Peas, but let's keep in mind that it was a different world then). For one thing, the music remained largely the same as ever – true, Goo was a bit more accessible than Daydream Nation, but the screaming, chaotic guitar sounds, the band's penchant for sticking screwdrivers into their fretboards, and the shouted, sometimes unintelligible vocals remained a pretty big challenge to the mainstream public. One would have to imagine watching Moore smashing his guitar onto the stage at a time when most of the world was still listening to bands like the C+C Music Factory. Perhaps the most difficult thing to imagine while watching a grunge documentary, though, is that Nirvana hadn't even happened yet.
Or, rather, they were happening right at that very moment. At this point, Nirvana had only been a band for a few years, having formed in 1987 in Aberdeen, WA. While their first album, Bleach (1989), received good reviews and moderate airplay on college radio stations in the US, it only managed to sell 40,000 copies upon release, not even hitting the charts. Much as Thurston Moore blamed SY's indie labels for lack of distribution, Kurt Cobain blamed Nirvana's indie label, Sub Pop. After searching for a way out of their contract, Cobain finally decided to follow Kim Gordon's advice and allow Geffen to buy Nirvana's contract and distribute their next album, the now-ubiquitous Nevermind.
The timing of this is important. Nirvana and Sonic Youth were touring Europe in August, 1991. Nevermind was released that September. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn't even released to the radio until August 27. That means that at the time of this tour, all anyone knew about Nirvana, if they knew anything at all, was that they were the angry punk band from Washington that got played on the radio every now and then. No one, not the band, not the labels, not the industry people, not even Sonic Youth, could possibly predict the way Nirvana was poised to take over the universe just weeks after this film was finished. Well, ok, maybe Courtney Love knew, but she's only in the movie for a minute or two anyway.
All this gives the film the uncanny feeling of taking place moments before an apocalypse. There's something desperately strange, for example, about watching Kim Gordon mimic Madonna complaining about the “fat industry guys” in the front row of her concerts. There's something unsettling about hearing Thurston Moore's conversation with a middle-aged off-camera fan asking for autographs for his children. And there's something especially troubling about seeing the relatively unknown Kurt Cobain smiling and goofing around with Dave Grohl and the Dinosaur Jr guys, given how soon he would be labeled the voice of his generation and fall into depression.
Of course everyone involved with the film, including director/camera man/guy-who-did-everything-for-this-movie, Dave Markey, insists that no one had any idea what was about to happen at the time of the filming. According to Markey, the title came from the surreal experience of watching Motley Crüe perform a cover of the Sex Pistols's “Anarchy in the U.K.” on European MTV and stating “1991 – the year that punk finally broke.” Still, given how frequently that phrase was thrown about, and given the way all the band members talk, it's clear that most of them have a sense that something weird is happening. Especially Thurston Moore, whose personal goofiness and general disdain for music journalists doesn't quite manage to mask his surprise at suddenly being so well-known, even in Europe.
All that anxiety aside, though, 1991 is, more than anything, a tour video. It's a cheaply made, cheaply produced movie about now-legendary bands goofing around and rocking out night after night. Even as of the film's release in 1992, few reviewers were ready for the grainy footage, the jarring shakey-cam shots, or the abrupt edits. They were expecting something like the uber-slick “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, and instead they got the Blair Witch of rock and roll. In 2011, though, the genuinely DIY aesthetic is kind of refreshing. This isn't Thurston Moore on MTV. It's Moore, talking into his friend's camera while he screws around in Europe with his wife and a whole bunch of indie rockers.
It's a side of these people that we seldom see anymore, given the canonical place of alternative rock in the world now, but forgetting that is to forget the whole point of the enterprise. They weren't just hit machines, they were young, sarcastic people with a bone to pick.
We're just lucky that for two weeks one summer, they decided to pick that bone by rocking out on camera.
Ben is co-Editor of Network Awesome Magazine and a snappy dresser from Boston, MA. He has a few weekly columns in The Weekly Dig, and occasionally shows up to read his poetry at things. He loves raves, pulp literature, online dating, and looking at pictures of robots on the internet. As co-editor of NAmag, he is suddenly very very busy and he loves every minute of it.