Dave Markey’s 1992 documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke captures Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and other contemporaneous alt-rock and grunge bands touring Europe mere months before Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, would come out and change the lives of nearly everyone in the film. Even Sonic Youth, which had been around for a decade by that point—and was already one of the alternative scene’s most respected and critically acclaimed bands—would make the leap from beloved cult act to semi-regular MTV rotation in the wake of Nevermind, during the years when major labels and radio programmers were throwing everybody with a flannel shirt and torn jeans onto the air to see who’d fly. This was the era when the Grammys added an “alternative music” category, and the hot new radio format was “modern rock.” Popular culture was thick with weirdoes.
And when the dust cleared, college rock was no more.
One necessary clarification: “college rock” does not mean “college radio.” Radio stations on college campuses continued to exist, and to be meaningful, after 1992 (inasmuch as any form of radio has continued to be meaningful since the ’90s). But just as “indie rock” designates a sensibility and sound as well as a business model, so “college rock” is also a genre, defining a set of bands and labels that thrived on a small scale in the ’80s, at a time when there was little place for them outside of college radio and the club circuit. Sonic Youth and Nirvana were played on college radio, but weren’t really college rock. Though hardly uniform in style, there were commonalities between the college-rock acts. Not really punk, hard rock, or art rock, most of these groups played conventionally hooky songs, heavy on jangle and twang, with lyrics steeped in poetic Americana.
The rock press and the music industry at large can share credit (and blame) for what happened to the genre, such as it was. In the late ’70s, punk and new wave were the hot stories, covered with great interest and more than a little skepticism by critics and reporters who’d been writing about popular music since the heyday of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But those genres failed to catch on commercially, outside of the handful of technopop and New Romantic bands that broke through thanks to MTV (where their sense of style and catchy songs helped give the new channel a brand). The edgier and artier acts found a home on college radio, where screaming noise, retro country, avant-garde electronics, and power pop could coexist, linked by cheap-sounding singles recorded by local bands, often peopled by college-radio DJs and record-store clerks.
Those local bands—drawing on a hodgepodge of influences, and not immediately reducible to any distinct subgenre—formed the spine of college rock in the ’80s. These bands weren’t necessarily non-mainstream; they just weren’t polished enough or connected enough to get mainstream radio play or MTV exposure. They constituted rock’s minor leagues, recording for indie labels while waiting to be called up to the majors, hoping to follow the career path of the kings of college rock, R.E.M.
What happened to those bands along the way was, in some cases, a damned shame. The common arc was that of distinctive roots-rock acts like Green On Red, The Rave-Ups, and Jason & The Scorchers: They’d record thin-sounding but tuneful LPs and EPs for some local label and get a little attention from the national press while building up a fan base by incessant touring. Then they’d make their big mainstream push, working with producers who beefed up their sound to late-’80s standards, obliterating much of the bands’ personalities in the process. Old fans rebelled, the rock press shrugged, and the records tanked. And this wasn’t exclusively an American phenomenon. A lot of U.K. bands would become college-radio darlings in the ’80s based on an exciting, unusual debut album, only to sand off all their edges (and shed supporters) in their subsequent bids for the Top 40.
Blame the times. In the ’80s, a lot of the major acts of the ’60s and ’70s were still around, and still viable hitmakers. College-rock bands were competing with the surviving Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton… and not just in the marketplace, but in the eyes of the press and the fans, who’d compare the youngsters hopefully to the greats. A big wave of ’60s nostalgia hit during the ’80s, and a lot of people were looking for the bands that would be “important” and zeitgeist-defining in the way that, say, Jefferson Airplane once was. (Meanwhile, Starship was still topping the charts.)
What was so surprising about Nirvana’s breakthrough—and what left the music industry scrambling—was that there was little indication pre-“Smells Like Teen Spirit” that this is what the record-buying public had been waiting for. Yes, some harder-edged rock bands like Guns N’ Roses and Metallica had bulled their way through the pack of power-ballad-wielding glam-metal acts, and R.E.M. and U2 had been successful on its own terms; but who’d have guessed that a band that openly acknowledged the Pixies, Meat Puppets, and Daniel Johnston as influences would go platinum? And who’d have guessed that it would pull so many like-minded musicians up with it? Anyone listening to college radio in 1987 would’ve been stunned to learn that Dinosaur Jr. would eventually become a bigger deal than BoDeans.
Meanwhile, as some of college radio’s more aggressive acts went mainstream, university stations moved on, too, and started programming more music from a new wave of quirky, fannish, lo-fi amateurs who were self-releasing cassettes and 45s. Thus indie rock became the new college rock: a business model that was also, to some extent, a sound. (And then eventually indie rock grew slicker and went semi-mainstream, thanks to bands like The Shins, The Decemberists, and The Arcade Fire. But that’s another story.)
And what of Miracle Legion, The White Animals, The Judybats, The Connells, True Believers, The Long Ryders, The Del Fuegos, Rank & File, Translator, Game Theory, Guadalcanal Diary, Fetchin’ Bones, or 54-40? Some of these bands survived, re-classified as “Americana” or “adult alternative,” or under new names. Most are remembered only by those who were active in the alt-rock scene in the ’80s, and not as pioneers or innovators, but rather as the cool shadows beneath the established pillars of rock ’n’ roll.