In 1991, the band Sonic Youth asked filmmaker Dave Markey to come along on their European festival tour that included several other bands, and document the goings-on. Having Markey film the tour was a very prescient decision, since one of the bands, Nirvana, had just shot the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and was about to release Nevermind… And then punk broke.
Sonic Youth had signed to David Geffen’s label the year before after a decade of indie releases on SST and Enigma Records, and their album Goo was rushing them along into the tributaries that fed the mainstream. Sonic Youth were musical godparents to many bands, giving advice, encouragement and support–and in the case of Nirvana, literally pulling Kurt Cobain out of the pit and back onstage.
Punk rock and its flannel-clad daughter/sister grunge–along with hip hop/rap–were defining youth culture movements for the last two decades of the 20th century, and they still continue their influence. Punk’s ethos of do-it-yourself/create yourself drew on the earlier 60s rebellion, but with darker, angrier foundation.
The fist wave of American punks was born in the 1960s and came of age during major recessions, human rights abuses in South Africa and Latin America, and twin epidemics of HIV/AIDS and crack, building on Warhol, John Cage, Dada, Glenn Branca, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Johnathan Richmond, the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop, as well as their contemporaries like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys.
Punk rock showed us we could write our own songs, make our own records, and create our own way of life–and hang out with people who did the same. Liberation! Grunge is punk rock, but in a slightly different time signature. The fashion look–now being recycled on runways some 20 years later–is a style of necessity: cheap and keeps you warm, and helps your outsides match your insides. Thrift shops provided used flannel, jeans, and the ubiquitous kinderwhore dresses; musical inspiration was everywhere.
Parts of 1991: The Year Punk Broke reflect the trends of the time. There are references to Spinal Tap and Madonna’s Truth or Dare. In eerie foreshadowing, Courtney Love appears with the full force of her personality, before she and Kurt became an item, sucking the air out of the room.
Did punk break society? Was it broken by mainstream exposure? The lives of Nirvana and Courtney Love were forever changed by success. The lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of teenagers have been altered by punk/grunge for better or for worse. And with the release of 1991 The Year Punk Broke, we see the personalities that helped shape and define the year that punk broke.