With classical-music bastion Tanglewood nestled in the bucolic beauty of Western Massachusetts, most people are entirely unsurprised to hear that some of the most celebrated jazz and folk artists in the world have deep roots in the area including drummers Hal Blaine and Joe Morello, saxophonist Phil Woods, singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and multi-instrumentalist Taj Mahal.
But as shocking as it is to some, the region has also germinated a few of the most ear-splitting, face-melting, head-numbing heavy-rock bands in pop-music history, including Staind, formed in 1995 in Springfield, Killswitch Engage, formed in 1999 in Westfield, and the bone-crushing granddaddy of them all, the ever-brain-rattling power trio Dinosaur Jr., formed in Amherst in 1984.
With a singular sound that’s impossible to categorize definitively, Dinosaur Jr. has been labeled alternative rock, indie rock, noise rock, noise pop, hardcore punk and grunge – and has been indescribably influential in all those genres for nearly 40 years – but actually the band has created a genre almost all its own, towering like some indomitable sonic beast while shredding its screaming audiences to pieces with vicious, unrelenting, almost manic acoustic assaults. Using extreme variations in dynamics, dazzling extended guitar solos, maximum feedback and distortion, pounding bass lines, thunderous drumming and vocalist J Mascis’ ever-distinctive whiny drawl – which he says he developed by listening to Neil Young, Mick Jagger and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty – Dinosaur Jr. is a stadium-filling behemoth that’s staved off near extinction more than once.
Formed in 1984 by Amherst native J Mascis (born Joseph D. Mascis) on guitar and vocals, bassist Lou Barlow, raised in Westfield, and drummer Murph (born Emmett “Patrick” Murphy) whose father was a professor at Smith College in Northampton, the group built a devoted local following by playing gigs at the UMass Amherst campus and Hampshire College before releasing their self-titled debut in on the Homestead label in 1985, for which Mascis wrote all the songs and which was made for $500 in a home studio in Northampton. Though the album was virtually ignored by the press and sold only about 1,500 copies in its first year, the group’s ferocious live shows at venues like the Rathskeller (Boston) and The Living Room (Providence) earned them a devoted cult following across New England.
In 1986, after watching Dinosaur play at CBGB, New York-based alt-rockers Sonic Youth invited the band to join them on their upcoming tour of the Midwest, putting Dinosaur on the map far outside New England. Later that year, the band was forced to change its name following a lawsuit by members of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Country Joe & the Fish who had formed a supergroup called Dinosaur. Not wanting to sacrifice the name recognition the band had built, Mascis, Barlow and Murph simply added “Jr.” in a savvy move of genuine marketing brilliance.
In 1987, after signing with Black Flag’s indie label SST, Dinosaur Jr. released You’re Living All Over Me, an underground smash that they supported with a European tour and shows on the East Coast including one at the Nightshift Café in Naugatuck, Connecticut. In 1988 they released the single “Freak Scene” which became an instant college-radio hit, followed by their breakthrough album Bug, recorded at Fort Apache Studios in Cambridge and which the online publication Beats Per Minute ranked #41 in its list of “Best 1980s Albums.” Critics praised Mascis’ songwriting as “outlandishly great,” noting his abundantly obvious classic-rock and folk influences.
In 1989, following a tour that included Bunratty’s in Boston and The Border in Burlington, Vermont, tensions between Mascis and Barlow were so high that they rarely spoke and Barlow left the group to form the Northampton-based indie-rock band Sebadoh, replaced by Don Fleming of the psychedelic post-punk band The Velvet Monkeys and then Van Connor of the grunge band Screaming Trees. The new lineup had an underground hit with its non-LP cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” then left SST to sign with Sire Records, its first major-label deal.
In 1991, Dinosaur Jr. released a fourth album, Green Mind, though essentially it was Mascis’ solo effort since he wrote all the songs and played all the instruments – including drums, which he’d played since age nine including in his high-school jazz band – with Murph behind the kit on only three of the 10 tracks. Reviews were mixed, and the band toured with former Slash’s Snakepit bassist Mike Johnson as its newest member and Nirvana as the opening act, just after they’d released their seminal second album, Nevermind.
In 1992, Dinosaur Jr. released the EP Whatever’s Cool with Me, followed by their fifth album, 1993’s Where You Been, which reached the UK Top 10 and #50 in the Billboard Top 200 – the band’s first album to chart – with the single “Start Choppin’” hitting #3 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. The group played on the third Lollapalooza tour that summer and Murph left the group later in the year to join Boston-based alt-rockers The Lemonheads, with that band’s drummer, George Berz, joining Dinosaur Jr.
In 1994, with Mascis as the only remaining original member, the band released Without a Sound to lukewarm reviews, reaching #44 in the Billboard Top 200 with the single “Feel the Pain ” going to #4 in the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. In 1995, Mascis made his first solo acoustic tour which he recorded for his 1996 solo album, Martin & Me. In 1997, Dinosaur Jr. released Hand It Over, which critics praised as Mascis’ best effort since Bug but charted poorly at #188 in the Billboard Top 200 and didn’t produce a hit.
In 2000, Mascis disbanded Dinosaur Jr. to start a solo career, releasing More Light under the name J Mascis + the Fog. In the wake of the group’s demise, their songs appeared on the collections BBC Sessions (2000) and Ear-Bleeding Country: The Best Of (2001), and in 2001 the book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991 detailed the band’s backstory and that of Boston-based post-punk group Mission of Burma.
In 2005, after Dinosaur Jr.’s first three albums were reissued and Rhino released J Mascis Live at CBGB’s, a recording of an acoustic gig from 1993, Mascis, Barlow and Murph reunited to play on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, followed by a tour that took them across North America, Europe and Japan and their eighth studio album, Beyond, in 2007. The reunion stuck, resulting in four more albums – Farm (2009), I Bet On Sky (2012), Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not (2016) and Sweep It Into Space (2021) – and the band has made several world tours since.
Asked in a 2019 Rolling Stone interview what sparked the reunion, Mascis grinned and shrugged in perfect synch with his laid-back, devil-may-care public image. “We agreed to do a TV show and a gig,” he said. “It seemed okay, so I agreed to do another thing and then a tour. It’s kind of like, each thing that came up, I’d decide if I felt like doing it or not. And then it just kind of went on and on, and we’re still doing it.”
(by D.S. Monahan – May 2022)
Published on March 2, 2013