Special thanks to Alyssa Giovannangeli for putting together the video, Lauren Thompson and Erin Macintosh for marketing, Katherine Lidtke for editing, Camryn McKay for the playlist, and Elana Yamanouchi the online director.
The second article in a series exploring the music alumni associate with their time at Queen’s University. Find the first installment of the series here.
I started this series off with the 1980s, a period where music at Queen’s was a social activity that triggered movie-like memories for alumni. Moving into the 1990s, the power of music has not diminished, but its sound definitely has. Long-gone are the synths and new-wave of the ’80s, and incoming are the decade-defining grunge bands, rising Canadian stars, and revolutionary groups like Rage Against the Machine. Given that we are currently in a ‘90s revival, where everything ‘90s has become the standard for cool, interviewing alumni has given me a window into the world’s favourite decade. What were students listening to? What was the mood on campus? And does it all live up to the ‘90s fascination?
Canadian music had a significant presence on the Queen’s campus in the ‘90s. Artists like Alanis Morrissette, Sloan, the REO Statics and the Barenaked Ladies were household names for Queen’s students. Songs off Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill could be heard everywhere on campus. Sloan was particularly prominent, a band out of Halifax that “that for 20 minutes people said this was going to be Canada’s Nirvana.” Their song Underwhelmed, “a simple three-chord song with lots of distortion,” was stuck in everyone’s head. They made an appearance on campus, playing Homecoming one year to occupy would-be bottle-smashing students. The Tragically Hip made it out of Kingston and onto the SNL stage in their landmark 1995 performance of Nautical Disaster and Grace, Too. Jeff remembers that everyone was tuned into this performance, with Grace, Too “wafting out of people’s windows on Earl Street.” Alison Chu’s housemates’ boyfriends would play the Hip non-stop. Spirit of the West, out of British Columbia, came through Queen’s multiple times. Their hit song Home for a Rest – a Celtic tune about “getting drunk and dancing” – ended off nights at the bars and could be heard at ‘90s alumni weddings long after their graduation. Local grunge bands like the Inbreds would often play at Clark Hall. Of course, Canadian music wasn’t the only thing being listened to on campus. Alison remembers placing monthly orders for CDs from BMG Records, with a preference for best-of compilations for artists like Queen, The Police, and Janet Jackson.
All of these musicians could be boiled down to distinct streams of music that defined alumni’s undergraduate experience. Dave Mason, two themes define his four years at Queen’s: the folk-rock, ‘60s/’70s jam band music and its antithesis, grunge. When he first came to Queen’s in the early ‘90s, there was a renaissance of bands like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. Folk-rock transitioned to grunge with the rise of new bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Nirvana. Dave first heard Nirvana at Alfie’s, a student bar also frequented by Alison and alumni from the ‘80s. “As a music lover, it was nice to have those two worlds to drop into.” For Jeff, during the ’93, ’94, ’95 Queen’s era, there were three currents: Canadian rock/grunge, dance, and Celtic fused with rock. The surge in dance music was best encapsulated by Jeff’s surprising story of AMS-hosted – perhaps not officially – “raves.” Students packed into a school bus arrived at a secret location, aka an abandoned Home Depot, to find blaring techno music and projections of Tron on the walls – juice smoothies were the only beverage available. The secret location was even once Grant Hall. Dance music at these events also went through a transition, in this case from mellower tracks to aggressive Belgian beats.
It seems that when it comes to music and its associated memories, there are certain constants. Music acts as a social glue no matter the decade. Dave recalls everyone meeting up to listen to their new CDs, hanging out and skipping to the final tracks to get at the artist’s message. In his words, music had currency because it was physical – you were dependent on in-store stock or whatever CDs your friends had. You would go over to someone’s house specifically because you knew they had good stuff to listen to, a part of socializing that has died out due to music digitalization. Dave sums it up best by stating, “it’s not that the music chose your friends, but it helped facilitate certain relationships.” Although CDs were the standard for the ‘90s, the mixtapes that defined the ‘80s weren’t yet obsolete. Alison and her housemates would make mixtapes after completing their exams, bookending those stressful times with all of the good songs from that year. Mixtapes were also a useful way of sharing music without giving away a CD, as Dave says, “’cause it’s gonna get trashed and turn into a coaster by the end of the night.” In contrast to today, music moved around slowly, taking longer to become popular. A potent example of this slowness comes from Jeff, who stated that Nirvana had little presence on campus.
Similarly spanning decades, members of the Queen’s Journal listen to anything with a high BPM on frantic press nights. For Jeff, editor of the Journal, dance track Something Good by Utah Saints stands out as the press night anthem for staying awake and getting the paper out. Sampling Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, this techno song would be blasted over huge speakers to get everyone to keep typing – “I just know something good is going to happen” on repeat.
For both Jeff and Dave, music at Queen’s brings back memories of a political mood on campus. The Rodney King beating and subsequent LA Riots sparked discussion over racism, police brutality, and classism reflected in the music students were consuming. Rage Against the Machine was a powerful force during this time, an exciting new blend of heavy rock and rap with lyrics focused on pressing social issues. Their song Killing in the Name, in addition to their whole first album, captured the mood on campus. Dave remembers walking down Princess Street past the record store House of Sounds and being struck by the ‘Rage album cover on display. It pictured a monk setting himself on fire in protest against the Vietnam War – an image hard to forget. Upon going inside and reading through the CD sleeve, he made the purchase, and Rage became a staple for him and his friends. It wasn’t until they got stoned while listening to the album that they fully appreciated it. For him, their music “sounds as good today as it did back then,” with lyrics being “even more potent now.”
What stood out to me from the memories of ‘90s alumni is the unpredictability of what we will find significant. Rage Against the Machine became a defining group because of the time’s social context but have maintained relevancy as these issues come back to the forefront. Bands that never broke through outside of Canada were the standouts in comparison to decade-defining names like Nirvana. An anecdote that sums this up nicely comes from Jeff’s time as an editor at the Queen’s Journal. Entertainment editors would go to Toronto to scout out bands and report back, and on one fateful trip, had the opportunity to interview Oasis. Far from making the front page, this story was pushed to the back of the paper. “The front page was like ‘ASUS Fee Change’ – inside, interview with Oasis. We were so stupid.”
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: DAVE MASON