A lot of college professors out there will tell you that the purpose of art is to evoke ancient memories of our primitive, pre-linguistic selves. Well, maybe not a lot of them. Maybe none of them. I was barely paying attention and that was a long time ago. Hey: how about when you're listening to rock music and the singer, instead of singing words, just lets out a real primal grunt? Isn't that the best? Yes, it is the best. What follows is a historical tour through some of Rock's Great Grunts.
The Stooges – “Down on the Street” (Grunts at 0:04)
The opening grunts in "Down on the Street" are the Muhammad Ali of Rock Grunts (they’re The Greatest because they SAY SO), and without them a study of Rock Gruntage would simply not be possible. Iggy definitely did not invent the Rock Grunt, and I'm not even sure he perfected it either, but I'd venture to say he colonized it. Sort of like how Christopher Columbus landed on the new world, got all the Indians sick and otherwise killed enough of them that elementary school teachers in American schools still say that he "discovered" America. Any conversation about Rock Grunts has to include this moment, because history is written by the winners, and Iggy Pop is a winner, at least as far as Grunting is concerned.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell On You (Grunts at 1:16)
The prehistory of the Rock Grunt, like Rock 'n’ Roll itself, is murky and poorly documented. Consider Screamin’ Jay’s inclusion on this list as a placeholder for the great lost Grunters of Rock, who trace their lineage to origins in the blues and R&B. Apologies to Howlin’ Wolf and Big Mama Thornton. This 1956 recording of “I Put A Spell On You” does a serviceable job of encapsulating the Pentecostial shrieking, cropshare worksong intoning, and jook joint hellraising of all pre-Rock Grunting into one shamanistic voodoo extendoGrunt. I don’t mind lazily staking it as ground zero for looking into the past, and it’s got plenty going for it on its own merits.
Another benefit of “I Put A Spell On You” is the pop-heavy arrangement allows for a departure from the highly influential Soul Grunt. There would be no Rock Grunt without the stellar Soul Grunt work of James Brown and Otis Redding, but there’s a certain hilariously transparent showiness to the Rock Grunt that sincere Soul Grunts are sorely lacking. Those Soul Grunt guys weren’t Grunting out some hypermasculine “gotta Grunt to get it right” posture so much as they were Grunting due to actual physical exertion. And because they wanted to get laid. The Rock Grunt is a much more constipated affair than its orgasmic big brother the Soul Grunt.
And now, our caps tipped toward the past, we can move forward into Rock Gruntdom.
The Novas – “The Crusher” (Continuous Grunt)
The Rock Grunt casts a long talon over all facets of rock, and it’s best to tie up loose ends wherever possible. The Novas Grunt-tastic “The Crusher” straddles multiple Rock Grunt genres. First is the Novelty Rock Grunt of the late 50’s and early 60’s, in which several very Grunty tracks were recorded with Grunt-context lyrical gimmicks such as monsters and cave men. “I’m A Grunting Cave Man,” “I’m A Grunting Wolf Man,” and “Hey I’m A Grunting Regional DJ, Please Buy This Record And Get Me Out Of This Shithole” are other illuminating fake examples of this trend, all of which “The Crusher”, well, crushes. Second, the track is also a proto- version of good old American 1966 Garage Punk, a Grunt-loaded genre known much more for its intensity than its lyrical prowess. “The Crusher” serves as a reminder that the Rock Grunt was still not considered an acceptable part of polite rock society, even as late as 1966, as it had to be marginalized to “what if we Grunted” goofs and/or banished to the rumpus room out beside the house.
Bob Seger – “Her Strut” (Grunt at 0:59)
Thanks to Chunklet contributor Mark Konwinski for being much more familiar than I am with the lesser-known work of this God of Gruntage. This track might be from 1980, but it’s a bookmark for all of the grunting of the “classic rock” phase of Rock Grunt from such pioneering blue eyed soul Rock Grunt luminaries as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Mitch Ryder, ZZ Top, and George Thorogood. Add to this mix Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, whose Grunt-heavy blues fetish could technically be squished into the “blue eyes soul” suitcase if you jump and sit on it, and you’ve got a solid case for the 70’s as the Golden Age of the Rock Grunt.
Along with the above Iggy Stooge grunt, the classic Seger “Ugh” calls attention to a divide between the popular FM radio-friendly Jock Rock Grunt and the more underground Punk Rock Grunt that persists to this day. I will do you a favor and not burden you with extraneous links to Stone Temple Pilots, so consider this tribute to the almighty Seges a heartfelt goodbye wave to Weight Room Rock Grunts of all stripes. Just know that in terms of Rock Grunt lineage, there would be no Creed or Eddie Vedder without Bob Seger, which makes him the godfather of the “maybe if I am barely capable of formulating syllables my singing will be somehow misconstrued as overcome with emotion” genre of Rock Grunt. A monolithic achievement.
Electric Eels – “Agitated” (Grunt at 1:34)
The song is punk to the point of nearly unlistenable (to hippies and dilettantes), so if you want to skip it I won’t blame you. But before you do, please skip to 1:34 to hear what I consider the Gruntiest Rock Grunt That’s Ever Been Grunted. It slays all other grunts in at least five Rock Grunt measurements, including General Gruntiness, Grunting Ferocity, Song-Defining Grunt, Artist-Defining Grunt, and Context-Appropriate Grunting. If the Iggy Grunt is the Muhammad Ali of Rock Grunts, this is the young Mike Tyson.
Suicide – Rocket U.S.A. (EchoGrunt at 3:55)
It’s now time to look at a few highlights from the Rock Grunt “technical awards” ceremony, held earlier in the week at a Radisson near the airport and hosted by Jude Law. Alan Vega of Suicide took home the “Blood-Curdling Dub Grunt Progenitor” lifetime achievement award, presented by noted Suicide fan and Hall of Fame Rock Grunter Bruce Springsteen. Vega thanked Martin Rev and Ric Ocasek, and attributed his Grunting prowess to growing up in 1950’s Brooklyn, a very special time and place where inarticulate grunting was the primary form of communication.
Danzig – Dirty Black Summer (Grunt at 1:37)
A geographic picture, or at least a socioeconomic picture is emerging now. Glenn Danzig, New Jersey native. One of the all time funniest talkers in the history of rock. A trend to watch in the history of Rock Grunt is the “rust belt” theory that people from places where a majority of income is generated through unskilled labor (northeastern Jersey and 50’s Brooklyn count) are the greatest Rock Grunters. This is due to the nature of the Grunt. A good Rock Grunt is not an effete act. It can only come from a place where grunting is an honest medium of expression. Or else…
Sonic Youth – “Panty Lies” (Grunts at 3:28)
Say what you will about Kim Gordon’s overall talent level, she is at least capable of genuine subversion, which is impressive given the limited tools at her disposal. Witness the 3:28 mark of this feminist anti-fashion screed (“screed” being the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard), where Gordon accomplishes the following: “Ugly” Rock Grunt of a kind usually reserved for dudes only, Rock Grunt OVERDUBBING, and throughout the song an earnest attempt at a Rock Grunt “hook.” I put quotes around the word hook because I’m not sure anybody’s in a rush to revisit “Panty Lies.”
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – “Bellbottoms” (Grunts at 2:16)
The 90’s witnessed a Rock Grunt revival of sorts through fake soul and fake blues throwback artists like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Make-Up, and Dub Narcotic Sound System, each so Rock Grunt heavy they threatened to collapse as creative entities under the sheer weight of their own Gruntage. Put another way, Jon Spencer punctuated his Grunts with occasional lyrics rather than the other way around. The effect was pretty silly, but some overcorrection was in order after a decade of Reagan and synthesizers put the Rock Grunt on short notice, only to have it snatched up and run with by a bunch of self-serious grunge hair apes like Chris Cornell and Lane Staley.
Cannibal Corpse – Pulverized (Grunts throughout, see 2:28)
The late 80’s and early 90’s also witnessed the birth of death metal, an entire Grunt-based genre. This is what happens when you try to suppress the Rock Grunt for too long, as a decade of Flock of Seagulls haircuts most certainly did. You try to keep the Grunt down, and it eventually springs back up like a ten pound goiter on your neck (do NOT Google “goiter”), horrifying everybody but the most D&D-obsessed weirdos. Thanks to Chunklet contributor Dave Hofer for being a sufficiently unflinching goiter-looker to send me this link.
U.S. Maple – Open A Rose (Grunt at 0:18)
The late 90’s and early 2000’s were also a bit of a fallow period for Rock Grunts. In terms of popular music, this period was the last to witness radio airplay for the Rock Grunt, with the Woodstock ’99 nu-metal of Korn and Limp Bizkit ruling the airwaves. You don’t need a link to those guys. They were Grunty. As for the more “arty” crowd in the indie circuit, the late 90’s and early 00’s was when everybody took their Monica Lewinski Pets.com Blowjob money and invested it in song-destroying post-rock, math rock, and glitch. This prime-cut U.S. Maple Grunt is about the only example I could find of a great Rock Grunt emerging from the rubble of the “look at us, we’re deconstructing everything” era. It was tough times.
Black Lips – Family Tree (Grunt at 0:11)
Could I have found a better Rock Grunt by the Black Lips? Definitely. But this is from the opening track of their 2011 album Arabia Mountain, and I’m putting it here to show you that the Rock Grunt is in good hands in the twenty tens. In addition to the Black Lips, we’ve also got our venerable Oh Sees, more Yippers than Grunters at this point, but that can change at a moment’s notice, and Timmy Vulgaris a constant threat to usurp the Electric Eels title for Gruntiest Grunt of All Time. You can just feel the Holy Grail of Ultimate Grunt taking form right now in the depths of his Cheetos-clogged bowels. Call me crazy. I just think this is gonna be the guy. Yes sir, the future of Rock Grunt looks mighty bright.
And of course I’m leaving a TON of great Rock Grunts out. This is just a brief overview, designed to inspire a dialogue about this extremely important subject. Link to your own favorite Rock Grunt in the comment section.
Previously: Steve Miller's Account of Intercepting a Box.