Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Meat Puppets as a Case of the Movement from Punk to Alternative Rock

The Meat Puppets as a Case of the Movement from Punk to Alternative Rock

      This paper is about the movement of punk rock in the 1970s, through indie rock in the 1980s, to alternative rock in the early-1990s.  I trace the career of the Meat Puppets, a band that existed for most of this period, as a dramatic empirical case (Glaser and Strauss 1967) of how some artists are part and parcel of the assimilation of new antithetic art genres into mainstream industries.  I show how, following Howard S. Becker’s (1982) identification of art worlds as places where art happens, artists in new and “alternative” music genres make use of outside support personnel to get their art done and, as part of the assimilation process, incorporate mainstream personnel that are part of the conventional art worlds to which the artists aspire into their art projects.
The Punk Rock Art World
      Meat Puppets are part of a cohort of bands (some still playing, others not) whose careers began in the post-punk early to mid-1980s and lasted through the advent of alternative rock in the early to mid-1990s.  The story of this cohort is an important one in both the structural and cultural history of rock.  Structurally the story is of the merging of the mainstream major recording label industry in the 1990s with the independent recording industry started by punk rockers in the 1970s.  Culturally the story is of the formation and crystallization of a musical genre known variously as indie, alternative or grunge.  Meat Puppets are a dramatic example of how both of these stories played out.
As Howard S. Becker states about artists generally, rock bands work “in the center of a network of cooperating people, all of whose work is essential to the final outcome” (Becker 1982, p. 25).  Becker distinguishes between an art world’s “artists” who engage in the “core activities” of actually making art, and “support personnel” who engage in peripheral activities such as staging and promoting artists and their goods that are no less essential to the final outcome of the art product.  In the case of rock music in the period in question, rock bands were the artists who wrote and performed songs, the support personnel consisted of record labels who arranged for other support personnel (manufacturing plants, clubs, recording studios, distributors) to make and distribute bands’ records and live performances.  A fundamental change occurred in the relationship between rock bands and support personnel between the advent of punk rock in the mid-1970s and the crystallization of alternative rock as a mainstream genre twenty years later.  The key change was a movement from an artist-based Do It Yourself (DIY) music-making structure to one in which major recording labels controlled all peripheral aspects of a popularly recognizable music genre.
      Early punk (New York, 1971-77; London, 1975-77; Los Angeles, 1976-79) can be seen as a series of “folk” music scenes “created directly and spontaneously out of communal experience” (Frith 1981, p. 48).  Artistically, it was the expression of communities of youth rejecting what they perceived as the overblown musical styles of their contemporary mainstream music stars.  Early punk bands like the New York Dolls, the Ramones, and Television who frequented Max’s Kansas City and CGBGs in New York City throughout the seventies, for instance, are an example of an early folk scene.  A number of soon to be punk rockers, as well, claim to have been in the audience of a July 6, 1976 Sex Pistols performance at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester.  Mark E Smith (the Fall), Morrissey (the Smiths), and Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks) were part of a community of artists who say that, because of this concert, they started their own bands.  In Los Angeles, the Masque nightclub and Canterbury Apartments, both in Hollywood, were centers of a punk scene where acts like the Germs, the Weirdos, and X would play for and interact with audiences of like-minded people.
But punk as a reaction to the mainstream music industry, as with most countercultural movements, existed only for a moment.  As Frith (ibid) explains,
There are creative breakthroughs, when the music does express the needs of real communities, but it never takes the industry long to control and corrupt the results (p. 51).
My thesis is that the transformation of 1970s punk into 1990s alternative was the transformation of a folk cultural music scene into a mass cultural mainstream marketing genre.  As major label music industry support personnel figured-out how to package and market punk rock bands, and as the bands and their support personnel became more willing to work with major label support personnel, punk moved from a reactionary aesthetic and structural movement into a conventional one.
      As mentioned, punk rock was initially an aesthetic reaction to “the slick, overproduced music of the seventies records by bands like Genesis, Yes and Abba” (Felder 1993, p. 3), it was not a structural rejection of the major label recording industry.  The earliest punk bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols released their records on major labels.  Punk rockers initial rejections of mainstream music were presented through an aesthetic system that emphasized a sameness between artists and audiences and rejected the rock star images of popular rock musicians as phony and formulaic.  The short songs and absurdist lyrics on the Ramones early albums, for instance, were a reaction to the lengthy and lyrically “serious” ones of popular progressive bands of the day.  The Sex Pistols entire nihilistic schtick, from their clothes to their songs to their public antics, was created to present an anti-establishment image, albeit while working within the system.  The point for the punks was to eliminate the idea that rock musicians were “stars” and bands their vessels; anyone could start a band and make legitimate art.  As Dick Hebdige (1979) points out, punk rock musicians expressed this sameness through the use of symbolic objects that were “homologous with the focal concerns, activities, group structure and collective self-image of the subculture” (p. 114).  Aesthetically, from their clothes to their lyrics to their album art, punk bands provided an alternative to the seemingly inaccessible worlds of 1970s rock stars.
      Punk artists’ aesthetic reactions against the mainstream music industry quickly became an explicit structural reaction against the centralized, major-label market that had come to dominate the rock music world.  Punk rockers rejected major recording and distribution companies, constructing and embracing independent recording and distribution companies of their own.  In England, for instance, the Buzzcocks’ self-recorded, self-financed, and self-released Spiral Scratch (1977) signaled the onset of the DIY movement that quickly made its way across punk art worlds on both sides of the Atlantic.  Independent recording labels, run by punk friendly support personnel, popped-up across England and the U.S., making a DIY ethic as important for identifying punk artists and support personnel as the aesthetics in the music.
From Punk to Alternative
In the eighties and nineties, major recording labels were the cornerstone of the recorded music market.  By 1990 six major recording labels (EMI, Warner Bros., Sony, MCA, BMG, and Polygram) accounted for about 75 percent of record sales worldwide (Baskerville 1990).  In 1989-90, 81 percent of singles and 82 percent of albums on the Billboard “Top 100” belonged to just four record companies, all of which were major labels (Lopes 1992).
Major labels dominated the record market in three ways:  (1) manufacture and distribution of recordings, (2) publishing rights, and (3) promotion.  First, compact discs, records, and cassettes had to be printed, duplicated, and shipped to record stores and radio stations.  Major labels either owned or controlled nearly all record pressing and duplication plants (Frith ibid).  Major labels also handled their own distribution.  Thus, “Most record stores get nearly all their wares from six suppliers” (Dannen 1991, p. 112).
A second way major labels controlled the recorded music market was through publishing.  Songwriters copyright their songs with publishing companies.  Recording companies must obtain license from publishing companies in order to record songs.  Major labels owned their own publishing companies.  Thus they obtained license to record songs from, and pay royalties to, themselves.  “Who owns the copyright?” is an important factor in deciding if a band’s record will be released by a major label (Hirsch 1973).
A final way major labels dominated the recorded music market in the eighties and nineties was through promotion.  Getting a song played on radio or MTV was the most effective way of insuring records’ and band’s market success.  Major labels could “bring to bear 200 or more individuals” to promote a single release (Frith ibid).  National, regional, and local staffs closely monitored the play lists of radio and television stations so that songs from the label’s catalogue received the greatest possible exposure.
      In its reaction to and refusal of mainstream music and the mainstream music industry, labels like SST in Los Angeles and bands like Black Flag and the Meat Puppets, direct descendents of first generation punk rock artists, laid the foundation for the establishment of an independent rock music industry.  By the mid-1980s the “indie” rock world consisted of financially sound independent recording labels (SST, Touch and Go, SubPop) that used independent distribution companies to get their records to retail stores that were likely to be independently owned.  Clubs and halls existed across the nation that featured live performances by indie and punk bands.  There were fanzines and college radio stations whose existence was predicated upon indie rock music.  Finally, in response to the overwhelming popularity of compact discs over vinyl records in the mainstream music market, independent labels found a profitable niche marketing both 12-inch and 7-inch vinyl records.  Musicians and bands could survive, some thrived, in the independent industry.
In one sense the independent recording industry of the 1980s and early 1990s paralleled that of the major labels.  Rachel Felder (ibid) argues that the independent “system has become as efficient as, say, the bigger one of DGC and UNI distribution and national chain stores” (p. 9).  Though on a smaller scale than the majors could provide, punk/indie artists were now, in conjunction with punk/indie support personnel, recording, manufacturing, and distributing their own records.
In another sense, independent and major recording companies cooperated with each other, with independent labels being a minor league to the majors.  Indie label support personnel took the risks of releasing records by unknown bands.  The majors sat back, watched, and snatched up the bands that showed themselves to be money makers.
Baskerville, however, argues that the relationship between independent and major recording labels was not one of parallel industries or of cooperation, but one where the independents were, paradoxically enough, dependent upon the majors for their very existence.
Independent labels are almost wholly dependent upon the major record companies for manufacture of their products.  The majors control nearly all the major pressing plants and tape and CD duplicating facilities.  The independent label often has difficulty getting prompt production when the pressing plant’s parent company has the facilities tied up with its own orders.  This bottleneck has seriously hurt small labels when they develop a regional hit, then can’t get records produced in volume to fill the record stores with adequate stocks (Baskerville ibid, 248).
However their relationship with the major labels is characterized, by the early nineties many independent punk and indie labels lacked the resources to compete with major labels in the areas of manufacture, distribution, publishing or promotion.
In reference to the relationship rock music artists had with support personnel, punk and indie rockers used the term “selling out” as a pejorative symbol hurled at bands that signed major label contracts (Smith-Lahrman 1996).  The concept achieved an apex of use with punk and indie rock artists and their adherents’ emphases on a DIY work ethic.  Major label support personnel may have been necessary for the production of high level recorded product, but indie rockers did not see them as engaged in the core artistic activities in which rock bands engaged.  Indeed, punk and indie musicians felt that major recording label support personnel were antagonistic to their efforts at creating genuine art products.
Structurally speaking, however, signing with a major label was a career move for punk and indie artists.  Major labels offered bands the support personnel necessary for taking their careers to a wider audience and for making more money.  Therefore, bands looking to advance in their careers felt the need to leave the minor leagues of the independent labels for the major leagues of the majors.  One time indie artists that signed with major labels dropped “selling out” from their vocabularies.
The release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991 ushered in “alternative rock” as a profitable mainstream major label music genre.  The emergence of alternative rock as a marketing category also signaled the consolidation of the independent label industry into the major label rock music industry as well as the integration of punk and indie rock conventions into the mainstream system of rock aesthetic conventions.  It also signaled the end of “selling out” as a career organizing concept.
Leading up to and in the flood of albums released by alternative artists after Nevermind, a number of bands made the leap to the majors and thus painted a picture of how such artists could create an aesthetic product consistent with punk/indie ideals while working with major label support personnel.  A list of punk/indie bands that released their first major label records during the punk-to-alternative historical moment includes the following:
Hüsker Dü
Candy Apple Grey
Warner Bros
Soul Asylum
Hang Time
Sonic Youth
Daydream Nation
Camper Van Beethoven
Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweethearts
Jane’s Addiction
Nothing’s Shocking
Warner Bros
Dinosaur Jr.
Green Mind
Flyin’ the Flannel
Meat Puppets     
Forbidden Places
Flaming Lips
Hit to Death in the Future Head
Warner Bros
Butthole Surfers
Independent Worm Saloon
Structurally, these bands had similar careers.  They began in the post-punk 1980s and released their first records on independent labels before making major label releases.  Musically they can be grouped together as well.  They are all guitar/drum/bass driven, hard rock, psychedelic post-punk indie/alternative bands.  All of them were making records pre-Nevermind.  In Nevermind’s wake the alternative floodgates opened with major label releases by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Alice in Chains, and the Singles movie soundtrack making Billboard’s top fifty albums of 1992.  In 1993 even more alternative rock bands appeared in the top fifty albums:  Nirvana (with two different albums), Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Primus, Porno for Pyros, Stone Temple Pilots, Soul Asylum, Dinosaur Jr., Paul Westerberg, and Smashing Pumpkins were all best sellers.
Following Nevermind’s success, and the resulting major label success of the indie bands listed above (the list could be longer), the post-Nirvana indie world saw change in the meaning of bands’ relationships with the music industry.  A core defining feature of being indie or punk, dealing with independent labels, was no longer an indicator of a band’s credentials.  After Nevermind, authentic indie bands could make major label records without being accused of “selling out.”  Furthermore, major label promoters figured-out how to package such bands.  They were now “alternative” and marketable.  The Meat Puppets fit this mold perfectly.
Meat Puppets as a Case Study of the Movement from Punk to Alternative
One can understand the first fifteen or so years of Meat Puppets’ career within the story of the movement from punk to alternative rock.  As shown, some of Meat Puppets’ independent label cohorts signed major label contracts before Meat Puppets, and some after.  Some bands that can be considered colleagues of Meat Puppets in this punk/indie/alternative movement released their debut records on major labels rather than starting out on independents:  Violent Femmes released Violent Femmes on Slash (distributed by Warner Bros) in 1982, REM released Murmur on IRS in 1983 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their eponymous debut on EMI in 1984.  The signing of these bands in the early eighties shows that the major labels were catching on to the punk-to-alternative trend at least ten years before Nevermind.  It also shows that not all indie bands were concerned with releasing independent records as a sign of their authenticity to a set of cultural values.
      The Meat Puppets have existed in one incarnation or another for more than thirty years.  The original band began in Phoenix in 1980 when brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood met up with Derrick Bostrom over a love of pot, progressive FM radio, and punk rock.  Their punk/indie recording career began when they were asked by the band Monitor to record a song (“Hair”) on the latter’s self-made album (1980), and then recorded an EP of their own (In a Car 1981) on Monitor’s World Imitation Records.  Soon after that the band started making records for the punk/indie SST Records, releaser of albums by bands the Minutemen and Saccharine Trust (they would eventually release albums by Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., and others).  They spent the eighties making records with SST, starting with 1982’s Meat Puppets and ending with 1989’s Monsters.  They then released three records – Forbidden Places (1991), Too High to Die (1994), and No Joke! (1995) – on London Records, an imprint of the major Polygram Records.  Releasing their first major label record in 1991 puts the Meat Puppets within the cohort of bands mentioned earlier who made the leap from the indies to the majors.
      Meat Puppets first two releases, In a Car and Meat Puppets, show numerous signs of a rejection of mainstream music aesthetics ala punk rock.  Musically they are crude, with rough production and rudimentary song structures.  They are loud and fast with out of tune singing and screaming vocals. Curt, in a 2014 interview, says of these records that the singing and playing wasn’t purposefully bad, they just weren’t very good musicians and didn’t know their way around a studio at this point, and punk rock gave them the cover they needed to make a record even though they weren’t yet proficient (Warbie 2014). The point he makes is that punk rock artists didn’t need to be stars.  They rejected mainstream aesthetics and structure by their actions, releasing unpolished records on their own or with labels that weren’t linked to traditional manufacturing and distribution systems.
SST Records was just such an independent label.  Created by Greg Ginn and fellow Panic/Black Flag member Chuck Dukowski as an extension of Ginn’s already established Solid State Transmitters, SST was a model of DIY structural efficiency and aesthetics.  With Joe Carducci and Steve "Mugger" Corbin coming on as co-owners, SST operated out of a number of different locations in the Los Angeles area, with those running it sometimes using pay phones to do business and sleeping under desks at their offices; their office in Redondo Beach, for instance, was one room with a shower in the bathroom for $150 per month (Carducci 2007).  As Carducci puts it the label was staffed by band members and friends, they used independently owned mom and pop printers, typesetters, photo labs, and recording studios like Media Art and Total Access, K-Disc Mastering, James G. Lee Processing and Virco in Alhambra to press their records.  Many of these peripheral art world members were found through word of mouth or the phone book.
The Meat Puppets recorded their first three records at studios regularly used by SST bands.  The eponymously titled first album was recorded at Unicorn Studio (where Black Flag had recently recorded Damaged [1981]) and the next two at Total Access Studio on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.  They also used Spot, SST’s in-house engineer, to help make the recordings. For their next three records – Out My Way (1986), Mirage (1987), and Huevos (1987) – they stayed in their hometown of Phoenix but still chose independent studios (Chaton and Pantheon) and a local, though major label experienced, producer (Steve Escallier).  Their final SST record, Monsters, was originally self-recorded and shopped around to major labels, but when no deal was found, they re-recorded the album at For the Record Studio in Orange, California, engineered by “E.”  The studio and engineer were, according to Curt (personal interview 2012), selected by SST.
The early career of the Meat Puppets follows the trajectory presented in the first part of this paper:  they made records on their own and within the independent music structure.  During this period they were also musically idiosyncratic, drastically changing sounds from record to record.  They began with a Germs-style derivation of hardcore on the first two releases, moved on to psychedelic country for Meat Puppets II (1984), progressive psychedelic on Up on the Sun (1985), loping alt-country on Out My Way (1986), synthpop rock for Mirage (1987), ZZ Top blues boogie on Huevos (1987), and psychedelic hair metal on Monsters (1989).  Such stylistic innovation and change from album to album put the band beyond the commercial rock pale, a key ingredient of their indie credentials.
The band members felt that their career was stagnating in the mid- to late-eighties.  The critical success of Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun helped the band sell some records and draw some decent size indie world crowds, but they didn’t see increased sales or audience attendance with their subsequent SST releases.  They also became frustrated with SST’s inability and/or unwillingness to stock Meat Puppets’ records.  As early as 1984 the band members noticed that tour mates and SST label-owners Black Flag had merchandise in tour-stop record stores and Meat Puppets didn’t.  As the eighties wore on it wasn’t unusual for the band to pull into towns as headlining artists and not find their records in stock at the local record stores and not have any promotional items or activities set-up while their major label artist openers would have these things taken care of (Derrick Bostrom, personal interview, 1993).  If they wanted to move forward in their career they’d have to make a jump to the major labels, a place where support personnel are more reliable.  As early as 1986 they had negotiations with Gary Gersh at Geffen Records, a negotiation that fell through when the band wouldn’t or couldn’t sell themselves as another Gene Loves Gezebel (a band with twin brothers in it).
In the early 1990’s the Meat Puppets not only left the more “authentic” world of indie rock for the major labels, they also produced a series of records that incorporated a more accessible sound.  Forbidden Places, Too High to Die, and No Joke! contained (in the case of Forbidden Places) shorter, lyrically more accessible songs while the other two find the band playing a heavier, more grunge/alternative friendly sort of heavy rock.  Curt claims the more accessible sounds on the latter two records were the result of two things.  First, “we figured-out how AC/DC did it” (personal interview, 2012) in the studio.  Second, it was the result of listening to, touring and hanging-out with heavier popular bands of the time like Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana.   All three records feel a bit more conventionally focused than any of their output before or since.
Nirvana, who were arguably the world’s most popular rock band of the early nineties, released Nevermind two months after Meat Puppets’ Forbidden Places in 1991 and, like all other major label rock bands in its’ wake, Meat Puppets were left to figure out how to sell records to a post-Nevermind audience.  Their next two years were spent doing just that.  In May of 1993 the band recorded what would become Too High to Die.  In September 1993 Nirvana released In Utero, and invited Meat Puppets (as well as other founders of alternative rock such as the Butthole Surfers) to open a few weeks in late October and early November of their Fall ’93 tour.  Later that same November, Curt and Cris guest appeared on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged to play three Meat Puppets songs:  “Plateau,” “Oh, Me,” and “Lake of Fire.”  The show aired in December.  One month later, January of 1994, Meat Puppets’ released Too High to Die.  In April of 1994 Curt Cobain committed suicide, predictably increasing sales of all Nirvana releases as well as the name recognition of the Meat Puppets due to their participation on MTV Unplugged; they became forever more linked to Nirvana and alternative music.
      The success of Too High to Die, the Meat Puppets’ best selling album with over 500,000 units sold, was due in no small part to the art world personnel that supported them.  As early as the Summer of 1993 (six months before the album was released) there were signs that London Records was behind it.  Specifically, as Derrick says, label executives were confident that “Backwater,” the first single from the album, would get airplay.
We were being told that “Backwater” was going to do well.  They had decided on the single, probably, by late summer, and they had gotten Butch Vig to do the remix and they had sent out the various prerelease copies. (personal interview, 2012)
All-in-all, as 1993 moved on, it was becoming obvious to Curt, Cris and Derrick that all of the different support personnel segments of the popular music art world were on-board with promoting the record:  record label executives, independent promoters, radio station programmers and others that populate the amorphous business world of popular music.
The record company. . .these different pieces that go into making a record suddenly, kind of, get more attention.  And people dug it, that’s the main thing.  We realized that the record company was focusing on the album.  And then you realize that that’s what it takes if you’re signed, to have it work.  You begin to realize that that’s why it’s the record “business.” (Cris, personal interview, 2012)
With industry support personnel on-board there was hope for the commercial breakthrough that had eluded the band for the previous twelve years.
      A particular segment of support personnel, the promotions department at London Records, was fully behind Too High to Die.  Their strategy for marketing the record, it seems, was to bring Meat Puppets into the mainstream of Alternative Music; make them less idiosyncratic and more standard rock.  In sociology this is referred to as “organizational isomorphism,” the tendency of similar segments within an industry to mimic one another’s successes.  The evidence for such isomorphism in the case of Too High to Die is manifold.  First, as was standard for mainstream rock albums of the time, the label put a photo of Curt (albeit in a dress) on the front cover, with photos of Cris and Derrick (also in drag) on other parts of the CD, rather than have original artwork from the band as was the case for every previous record.  Another isomorphic marketing move was to include a “hidden” song attached to the last track on the CD; this is something that DGC Records had done with success on Nirvana’s Nevermind.  In the Meat Puppet’s case the label attached a reworked version of “Lake of Fire” (originally released on 1984’s Meat Puppets II) to track number 13, “Comin’ Down.”  Derrick and Curt both suggest that this was a label decision, the band having had little input as to the sequencing of the songs.  A third marketing decision which, like adding a hidden track, smacked of Nirvana mimicry, was to add a second guitarist, Troy Meiss, into the band’s live configuration; Nirvana had already added Pat Smear to their live configuration.  It isn’t quite clear how this decision came about, however.  Derrick says it was probably a label suggestion while Curt says it was his own.  Either way, it was an industry isomorphic move.
      With the looming success of Too High to Die, 1994 proved to be one of the Meat Puppets’ busiest years.  The record was released on January 25 and, as is customary, the band embarked on a year-long series of concert tours to promote it.  First, however, some housecleaning was in order in the form of reorganizing their support personnel.  One action they took was to find new management in the form of big-time managers John Silva and Tami Blevins of Gold Mountain Entertainment.  Silva had managed Nirvana, the Beastie Boys, and Sonic Youth, among others.  According to Derrick, the band’s old manager seemed to be asking them to do more of the work than they felt was justified, work that they had been doing for more than a decade as an indie band but that now, as a successful major label band, they wanted to have handled by professional support personnel.  The band also hired new tour management in early 1994 in the form of Ben Marts who had managed such alternative acts as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour, and Jane’s Addiction.
In February the band made a professional-budget video for “Backwater,” directed by established videographer Rocky Schenck who had already made a name for himself making videos for alternative artists Alice in Chains, the Afghan Wigs, and Paul Westerberg.  The video received ample airplay on MTV, helping propel the song to #47 on Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the Billboard Album Rock Charts.  It also received a nomination for Best Editing in a Video at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards.
      After making the “Backwater” video, Meat Puppets embarked on the first of numerous tours as a supporting act for commercially more successful alternative acts.  This one was with Blind Melon, a band touring on the multi-platinum success of their eponymous 1992 debut full-length record and its chart-topping single and video “No Rain.”  The tour made stops at theaters and ballrooms such as the Kuhl Gymnasium at SUNY Geneseo (capacity 3,000), The Sting nightclub in New Britain, Connecticut (1,200), and the Roseland Ballroom in New York City (2-3,000), venues slightly larger than Meat Puppets might command on their own.
      Next up was a trip to Europe consisting of two legs.  The first was a March through early-April opening slot for Soul Asylum, another band with its beginnings in the 1980s finding success in the alternative era with the multi-platinum record Grave Dancers Union and its smash single, “Runaway Train.”  This tour took them to the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany.  The second leg of the European tour was to be an opening slot on Nirvana’s Eastern European tour, starting in Prague.  However, Nirvana cancelled the rest of their tour after Kurt Cobain’s overdose in Rome on March 3.
      The remainder of April, 1994, saw the band touring the East Coast of the United States as a headlining act.  They also appeared on MTV’s 120 Minutes on April 17 as Guest Hosts where they played “Backwater” and “Lake of Fire” live and then on Late Night with Conan O’Brien two days later where they again played their increasingly popular “Backwater.”  All of this activity is evidence of the formerly punk/indie Meat Puppets being accepted into the mainstream world as an alternative rock band.
      Meat Puppets began May of 1994 by again touring as an opening act, this time for Cracker, the band formed by former Camper Van Beethoven member David Lowery.  Like most of the other bands Meat Puppets were connected with in this era, Cracker was enjoying the commercial success their 1993 alternative album, Kerosene Hat, and single, “Low” (#64 on the Billboard Hot 100/#3 on the Billboard Modern Rock tracks), were receiving.  At the end of May, Meat Puppets played a few more headlining gigs, this time on the West Coast.
      Sometime in late May/early June (after their tour supporting Cracker and before the next one supporting Stone Temple Pilots) the band convened at a movie ranch near Los Angeles to shoot a video for their next Too High to Die single, “We Don’t Exist.”  The video had “a good budget” (Curt Kirkwood, personal email, 2012) and was directed by Josh Taft who had already directed commercially successful videos for Stone Temple Pilots (“Plush”) and Pearl Jam (“Alive”).  It was nominated in the “Best Metal/Hard Rock Video” category at the 1995 MTV Video Awards.
      Next up on the band’s 1994 itinerary was a three-month opening slot on Stone Temple Pilots’ Summer tour promoting their soon-to-be mega-selling record Purple.  Meat Puppets actually played second on a three-band bill, with the glam-rocking first-wave Los Angeles punk band Redd Kross opening the first part of the tour and D.C. indie/alternative band Jawbox opening the latter part.  The bands cris-crossed the country on this tour playing venues of widely varying sizes from the San Diego State Open Air Theater (4,900 capacity) to the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington State (23,000 capacity).
      The Stone Temple Pilots tour lasted from mid-June through mid-September.  On September 12 the band appeared on MTV’s The John Stewart Show playing again, as they had on 120 Minutes earlier in the year, “Backwater” and “Lake of Fire” (Derrick, personal email, 2012).
      Meat Puppets spent much of October 1994 on a headlining tour in which they hit theaters in the Midwest and East Coast of the U.S, across Canada, and down the West Coast of the U.S. (Derrick, personal email, 2012).  Somewhere along the way, remembers Cris, the band received some exciting news:
I do remember, I think it was Ben Martz, our tour manager at the time, he got a phone call as we were driving along and he told us, “Too High to Die has gone Gold!  Certified Gold!” (personal interview, 2012)
      MTV Unplugged in New York, the CD version of the November 1993 show Meat Puppets played with Nirvana was released on November 1, 1994.  The record debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and went on to sell multiple millions of copies.  This was, yet again, a nice boost for the band brought about by their serendipitous relationship with Nirvana.  Every Unplugged in New York contained three Curt Kirkwood-penned Meat Puppets’ songs.  In early 1995 this relationship would pay-off.
One day in early 1995 we got the call saying “We need to go to New York, we’re gonna have our Gold Record party, and we’re gonna sit down with the accountant and go over just what you guys got.”  That trip was like, we had a party, got our Gold Records, and the accountants told us that we were gonna see millions of dollars.  So that was nice. (Derrick, personal interview, 2012)
Meat Puppets recorded No Joke! in the Spring of 1995; Derrick remembers the Oklahoma City bombings (April 19) happening while it was being recorded.  Unlike the period leading up to the recording of Too High to Die where the label was very hands-on, rejecting demos and sending A&R people to Memphis to check on the band’s progress, with No Joke! London was hands-off and fully supportive of whatever the band wanted to do.  In one sense the band felt label support in the form of more money.  The budget for No Joke!, for instance, was twice what it was for Too High to Die.  Also, the band was allowed to pick a recording studio of their choice, choosing Phase Four Studio in Phoenix, which allowed them to live at home while recording, a move that made it possible for Cris, especially, to live with and take care of his ailing mother.  They received no flack from London in their choice to once again employ Butthole Surfer Paul Leary as co-producer, a “no brainer” decision according to Derrick.  And, “They gave us a lot of money to do the ‘Scum’ video.” (Curt, personal interview, 2012)  So, as Curt says, things seemed to be going pretty well at this point, at least in terms of the band’s relationship with London Records and their hopes for a successful follow-up to Too High to Die.
We were getting a lot of attention from the record company and from the press and the budget was twice what Too High to Die was, for No Joke!.  They really threw-down for that.  There was definitely a lot of internal hype there at that record company.  So, yea, it seemed like stuff was going pretty good. (Curt Kirkwood, personal interview, 2012)
Derrick also recognized that London was taking a hands-off approach to the new record, but rather than a good thing, he saw it as a sign of not caring, the label was done with Meat Puppets.
It seemed like they were just giving us enough rope to hang ourselves.  They gave us a big budget and let us do whatever we wanted whereas previously they were really engaged in what we were doing.  This time they let us go on our own.  Then they just released it without any argument, without any oversight. (personal interview, 2012)
Continuing, he argues that involvement is a sign that the label cares and are still interested in the band’s project.  In the case of Meat Puppets, argues Derrick, the label’s close involvement on Too High to Die showed that they were behind the record, their lack of involvement on No Joke! showed that they weren’t.
Say what you want about our conflict with the label over Too High to Die, but that’s the way a label shows that they’re interested in a project.  When you got a label looking over your shoulder that means that they’re involved.  And they weren’t involved in that project.  They let us make it in Phoenix.  They let us choose our own shit.  They let us choose our own cover. (personal interview, 2012)
      The label was moving on, says Derrick, leaving Meat Puppets behind, “They had other things that they were working on.” (personal interview, 2012)  In Derrick’s view it was a matter of a saturated market that brought London to the conclusion that Meat Puppets were irrelevant.  Meat Puppets were just one of many bands to get major label push in the post-Nirvana alternative rock signing frenzy that characterized the early ‘90s.  Alternative had become the new mainstream.  The proven money-makers were kept on board, the rest were set adrift.
They wanted to bury the underground artists.  They had other artists that they could make money with.  They had people like Stone Temple Pilots.  They had found their hits.  They already had their successes and they were no longer in an experimental or adventurous mode.  They were going with the tried and true.  They were gonna do another record with us; they were obligated to, contractually.  But they didn’t have any stake in having it succeed.  They had already had their successes. (personal interview, 2012)
      No Joke! was released on October 3, 1995.  As Curt says, London Records was prepared to throw their heavy guns into promoting the record (Derrick isn’t so sure about this).  They pushed the first single, “Scum,” getting it in rotation at a number of mainstream rock radio stations early on.  Then they pulled the plug.  No Joke! reached #183 on the Billboard 200 charts (compared to Too High to Die, which reached #62).
      Three days after the release of No Joke! Meat Puppets played Wavefest in South Carolina for a second time.  They also appeared on Conan O’Brien in October, playing “Scum” with new second guitarist Kyle Ellison, and on MTV 120 Minutes.  In September they shot a video for “Scum” with long-time friend and filmmaker Dave Markey.  They gave us a lot of money to do the “Scum” video.  We got to do that with Dave Markey.  He and I wrote it and they pretty much left us alone with that” (Curt, personal interview, 2012).
No Joke! was the last record released by the original Meat Puppets.  Their final tour was an opening slot for Primus in late 1995; their final gig was New Year’s Eve in Chicago.
      Based on their association with Nirvana and other early-1990s “grunge” bands, Meat Puppets will forever be remembered as an “alternative rock” band.  The fact that the original lineup of the band began a twelve-year hiatus at the same moment that alternative/grunge rock began its recession from the top of the charts makes their association with it all the more poignant.  In 2007 the Kirkwood brothers reformed the band, this time without Derrick Bostrom.  Importantly, they have maintained a DIY work ethic and rely on relatively few outside support personnel to accomplish the peripheral acts necessary for the production of their art.  They have released four records, all on independent labels.  Unless opening for larger acts such as Stone Temple Pilots or Soundgarden, they play small, off the beaten path bars and clubs.  They drive their own van, employ a single roadie who has been with the band since the early 1990s, and use friends across the country to man their merchandise table at gigs.  They are by all accounts a structurally punk/indie rock band.
      In this paper I have described the career of the original Meat Puppets as a case study that exemplifies a larger movement in rock history that ties together punk rock of the late-1970s, indie rock of the 1980s and alternative rock of the early-1990s.  I have shown how the Meat Puppets career mirrored the careers of a number of other bands of the same time period:  the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Jane’s Addiction are a few.  All of these bands, the Meat Puppets included, released their first records on independent labels before moving to major labels.  All of them were considered “underground” and “alternative” before the latter was crystallized as a recognizable genre.  The smashing success of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1992 completed the chrystallization of the genre, consequently bringing about the beginning of its decay.
      There is some theoretical importance to my argument in that it shows, through a dramatic empirical case, what is a basic social process (Glaser and Strauss ibid).  “Alternative” genres appear all the time in popular music worlds:  the first rock and roll, rockabilly, rock, psychedelic rock, funk, disco, metal, straight edge, emo. . .the list goes on.  My hypothesis, based on the story told in this paper, is that all of these genres began outside the major label music industry, made use of independent support personnel, and through a process not dissimilar to the one presented here were assimilated into the mainstream.  Similarly, within any of these genres one can find artists like the Meat Puppets whose careers mirrored the movement of the genre as a whole.  Indeed, one can probably find similar movements in art worlds outside of popular music:  in painting and “primitive art,” for instance (Fine 2004), or dance, or literature or. . .the list could go on.  The question that remains is empirical:  Where, when, and how do these movements occur?

1.  Significantly, these three songs are all from Meat Puppets II, a nod by Cobain to the Meat Puppets early punk/indie years.
2.   Other videos nominated were “Everybody Hurts, R.E.M. (winner), “Amazing,” Aerosmith, “Human Behaviour,” Bjork, “Sweet Lullaby,” Deep Forest, “Kiss the Frog,” Peter Gabriel, and “Disarm,” Smashing Pumpkins.
3.  Other videos nominated were “More Human than Human, White Zombie (winner), “Basket Case,” Green Day, and “Interstate Love Song,” Stone Temple Pilots.
4.  To be clear, the end of the original Meat Puppets was not brought on solely by the end of alternative rock.  Personal issues in the band, especially Cris’s escalating drug dependencies and the impending death of the Kirkwood matriarch played no small part in their dissolution as well.
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