The influences that Seattle bands were channelling in the late 1980s and early 1990s weren’t hard to see: Black Sabbath, Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, and Sonic Youth were all touchstones for bands like Melvins and Green River. Conversely, classic rock was distinctly ignored, with Kurt Cobain having to initially hide his love of Beatles melodies and Pearl Jam being criticised for the stadium rock sound of their debut LP Ten.
But almost all of the grunge bands of the time had their foundations in old school rock and roll, whether it was Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, AC/DC, or even Boston. The 1970s were an invaluable time for most of the musicians who would eventually make Seattle the centre of the musical universe in the early ’90s, and grunge acts were dependent on the foundation of classic rock, whether they were willing to admit it or not.
For his money, Keith Richards felt that The Rolling Stones had actually seen the grunge explosion coming. A decade after Seattle was invaded by the MTV crowd, Richards was discussing the Stones’ classic 1972 album Exile On Main Street when he made a novel claim – namely, that it was the first grunge record.
“It’s a funny thing. We had tremendous trouble convincing Atlantic to put out a double album,” Richards reflected during the album’s 30th anniversary in 2002. “And initially, sales were fairly low. For a year or two, it was considered a bomb. This was an era where the music industry was full of these pristine sounds. We were going the other way. That was the first grunge record. Yes, it is one of the (Stones’) best.”
The Stones had a somewhat rocky relationship with grunge. Sensing their status as rock and roll elders, the Stones avoided the changing sounds of rock music and stuck to their signature sonic style on albums like 1994’s Voodo Lounge. Mick Jagger was even dismissive of the genre as a whole, confessing in 1995, “I’m not in love with things at the moment. I was never crazy about Nirvana – too angst-ridden for me. But I like Pearl Jam. I prefer them to a lot of other bands. There’s a lot of angst in a lot of it. Which is one of the great things to tap into. But I’m not a fan of moroseness.”
It’s not hard to see why Richards thought Exile was a major influence – the dingy and muddy sound on tracks like ‘Shake Your Hips’ and ‘I Just Want to See His Face’ were precursors to the darker and heavier tones that would be embraced by a new generation of musicians. The Stones never went full grunge, as they were too indebted to blues and Richards’ sharp guitar tones, but Exile was their dirtiest moment.