Godfather of grunge, J. Mascis and his collective, Dinosaur Jr. have been pioneering the scope of indie rock since 1984
Hailing from Massachusetts, USA, the band originally consisted of Mascis on vocals, acting as primary songwriter and as lead guitarist, Lou Barlow on bass and Murph on drums. After various band departures and replacements, and even a disbanding in 1997 before an eventual revival in 2005, the group continues to create and pave the way for alternative music across the globe.
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In the lead up to the 35th anniversary of their seminal sophomore album, You’re Living All Over Me, we look at some of the countless ways J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. have innovated indie rock.
- Revolutionised distortion with laidback vocals
- Blended country rock and punk
- Inspiration for countless acts
- J Mascis was a pioneer in the straight edge movement’s primordial stages
Distortion and noise
In the mid-’80s, Dinosaur Jr. were an anomaly. Tracks that dominated the charts in 1987 included Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet’, Whitney Houston’s self-titled sophomore album and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
It was the age of hair metal, of glitz and glamour. In many ways, Dinosaur Jr. represented the antithesis of its times.
Mascis’ roughly distorted guitar and heavy use of pedals created a sound that was at once antisocial, but simultaneously ear-drawing.
Think (or listen) to tracks like ‘Little Fury Thing’, the opening track to You’re Living All Over Me. The song begins with a demanding distorted wah that kicks the album into gear.
With J. Mascis’ drawling and laidback vocals, the use of guitar in Dinosaur Jr. counteracts, driving the tracks forward at blistering speed.
Mascis is a celebrated songwriter, but he isn’t known as the world’s greatest singer.
This is not necessarily a weakness of the band, particularly as some of the greatest acts of all time feature a less-than admirable lead vocalist; think Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, or even Bob Dylan.
His vocal delivery has its charm. It’s harsh, laidback, ashy, and even whimsical at times. In a time where popular music had reached a point of perfect production – to the degree of losing the life in music – J. Mascis brought music back to Earth.
One of J. Mascis’ most interesting vocal creative decisions was covering a legendary The Cure cut, ‘Just Like Heaven’. Mascis’ delivery starkly contrasts to Robert Smith’s, with a gritty approach that is distanced from the original. The result: a beautiful rendition of an already perfect song.
This style of vocal delivery can be seen in countless acts following Dinosaur Jr. The most obvious being that of Kurt Cobain, who was such a fan that he requested Mascis to join Nirvana, not just once, but twice.
The abrasive fusion of country rock and punk
Dinosaur Jr. were an undeniable staple of the punk scene during the mid-’80s, but this was not always the case.
In an interview with The Guardian, Mascis described the original sentiment behind the band to be “ear-bleeding country”. This also was the title of their greatest hits release in 2001.
Lou Barlow has also talked of how people were originally “disgusted” with how loud the group played.
The connections between Dinosaur Jr. and Neil Young have been made countless times, but for good reason.
The group took what Neil Young started and ran with it, creating a sound almost unrecognisable to the untrained ear at the time. Of course, 35 years later, this sound has enveloped indie rock, with riffs on songs like ‘Kracked’ inspiring countless hits and much of the The Strokes’ discography.
Straight edge punk
His slow-speech, long hair, and love for skateboards give J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. the manifestation of a stoner image. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Mascis, since 1982, has been straight edge, rarely drinking and never taking recreational drugs.
This movement counteracted the excesses of the hardcore punk subculture and came about after the release of Minor Threat’s 1981 song, ‘Straight Edge’.
Mascis, as a pioneer of the movement, made not doing drugs cool during a period where it was the norm.
Those that followed…
It would be remiss not to mention the effects of Dinosaur Jr. on the decades of music that followed.
The band inspired not only later acts, but their musical peers at the time. One of the most famous examples of this was in Sonic Youth’s hit song, ‘Teenage Riot’, where an alternate reality in which J. Mascis is appointed president of the United States is imagined.
As mentioned previously, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain reportedly asked Mascis to join the band twice, to which he twice refused.
Other acts that have established inspiration from the band include members of The Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine, and Blur.
To check out some more on Dinosaur Jr., check out our interview with J. Mascis.