You have probably heard the name of the band the Melvins, but can you identify a single song? Probably not, and that’s okay. They aren’t a group you can casually like. You either know their 20-disc plus discography, recognize their name from Juno, or don’t give a shit one way or another. The Melvins, however, created any kind of rock you listen to post-1990.
They created Nirvana, literally. Kurt Cobain was a drum tech that desperately wanted to be in the Melvins. They didn’t want him, though, so he created a band with his best friend Krist Noveselic and drummer Chad Channing. When Chad failed to live up to Kurt’s expectations, Melvins drummer Dale Crover took over the rhythm section, which resulted in standout tracks from Bleach and Incesticide. “Downer,” “Floyd The Barber,” “Aero Zeppelin,” “Beeswax,” and “Mexican Seafood” were all recorded with Dale Crover controlling the beats, and it shows. The tracks have an off-kilter feel, while being perfectly musical. This is because Dale actually went to school for music and had technical skill behind his style of playing. He took the mood of the song and made it his playground to explore. When it came time for Nirvana to find their own drummer, Buzz Osbourne, the singer-songwriter for the Melvins, recommended Dave Grohl for the job. The rest is history. Without Dave Grohl as Nirvana’s drummer, there wouldn’t have been Foo Fighters, a band, for better or worse, that created the sound of contemporary rock that everyone hears on the radio to this day.
The Melvins also created Tool, not literally, but they certainly had a hand in crafting their sound. Creating a dark atmosphere while keeping tempo and time signatures changing was the Melvins’ way, and Tool certainly took their influence and ran with it. This influence is so pronounced that when they combined forces on a fourteen-minute song called “Divorce,” it was hard to tell what band was contributing which part. It is during the extended drum solo in the middle of the track, where Dale Crover and Danny Carey take turns bashing on their respective drum kits, that you learn what is actually going on. The Melvins get one speaker, Tool gets the other. It is a moment in rock history only nerds of the underworld will appreciate.
The Melvins were also appreciated by Mike Patton, the singer of Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, and countless other projects. When they were let go of their Atlantic Record deal post Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Mike Patton picked them up on his own label, Ipecac Records, and allowed them to do whatever they wanted. This resulted in everything from albums that revealed violence through acoustic instrumentation (The Bootlicker) to albums that revealed cathartic calm through violent noise (Colossus of Destiny). The general public may have forgotten or just not “got” the music of the Melvins, but their initial experiments were just beginning to take hold on modern radio, as in the case of Queens of the Stone Age, who were the Green Day to the Melvins’ Ramones. Queens of the Stone Age were more approachable to the masses, but the ideas contained within, such as dirgy, hypnotic repetition, were hallmarks of Melvins’ career.
The Melvins’ influence has recently been brought to light because of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Any lover of rock music knows there are some glaring omissions in this institution, but the Melvins seem too obvious. This year, Pearl Jam is being inducted, based on the merit of their first three albums, but even they ripped off the Melvins. When you compare the riff for Pearl Jam’s “Alive” and the Melvins’ “Love Thing,” released two years earlier, you realize it is only a tweak in a riff and a chorus people can sing along to that separates commercial respectability from artistic achievement. On that particular Melvins’ album, there were no choruses or “hooks” for a person to get comfortable with. The songs were a minute or two long, and as a listener, you were the equivalent of clothes being tossed around in a dryer. The Melvins did to metal music what Captain Beefheart had done to the blues twenty years earlier. They stripped it to its bare bones and let the style’s tone course through in an organic way.
There is a clip that recently appeared on YouTube, of Bill Maher on Jeopardy being asked a Daily Double question: “The Melvins, heard here, were an early band in this rock genre that swept America in 1992.” There is a brief snippet of “Copache,” from Houdini, where the audience gets to witness Bill fidgeting, trying to figure out what he’s listening to. When it is done, he relaxes, smirks, and comments, “Well, that song sucked.” I guess it’s easy to dismiss what you don’t understand.
Charlie Nickles has held jobs painting car emblems, inspecting cereal, and making vegetable trays. He currently lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he writes, works, and beatboxes “Billie Jean” to unappreciative cats.
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