Record Bin: How Dinosaur Jr. breathed life into alternative rock on “You’re Living All Over Me”

Authored By pitulah

Some bands come along and simply adapt to the genres within which they work, allowing themselves to be malleable in the hands of those sounds. But other bands make their respective genres bend to their whim, constructing new avenues into these genres by completely tearing down and rebuilding our expectations of what we assume they should sound like. And for Massachusetts alternative rock band Dinosaur Jr., there was never an acquiescence of musical creation, never a time when they were interested in giving in and changing their pummeling and hard-charging rock sound to anything other than what they knew it could be. The genre would just have to change to meet their needs.

Composed of singer/guitarist J. Mascis, singer/bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph (AKA Emmett Jefferson Murphy III), the band was initially conceived in 1984, but the roots of their sound goes back even further. Mascis and Barlow (drums and guitar, respectively) first came together in 1982 under the auspices of Deep Wound, a hardcore punk band they founded while still in high school.

After they graduated, they both began getting into more languid but still aggressive bands such as Black Sabbath and The Replacements. The band’s outlook widened quite a lot when Gerard Cosloy, a college friend of Mascis’, got him to start listening to more bands like Dream Syndicate, who brought in a kaleidoscopic pop aesthetic that fascinated the punk devotee. Mascis in turn showed these bands to Barlow, who also developed an in-depth fascination for their skewed pop rhythms.

Deep Wound broke up in 1984, but Mascis and Barlow were still looking to make music. It was at this time that Cosloy dropped out of college to focus on running Homestead Records, his own independent record label. He promised that if they ever recorded any more songs, he would release them on his label. Mascis went about writing a handful of songs he then showed to Barlow, eventually offering him a position as bassist in his as-yet-unnamed band. He also invited Deep Wound singer Charlie Nakajima and drummer Murphy to join the band.

The resulting lineup called themselves Mogo and played their first show in September 1984 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s campus. But the band didn’t last, as Nakajima used the stage as a platform to voice his anti-police views, and Mascis disbanded the band the following day. It wasn’t long after that he approached Barlow and Murph about creating a new band without Nakajima and without his knowledge. They called themselves Dinosaur, and Mascis and Barlow took on dual lead vocal duties.

The band’s 1985 debut record, simply titled “Dinosaur,” was a lo-fi affair, with the band trying on a host of different genres (punk, garage rock, metal, country rock and even some folk) to see what fit and what should be cast away. It was a rhythmically disparate collection of songs without much of a cohesive identity, but the band would right that on their next release. Released in 1987 and produced by Wharton Tiers, “You’re Living All Over Me” was a huge leap forward for the band, both in terms of artistic identity and creative maturity.

The album was a tight-knit barrage of riffs, colossal vocals and thudding percussive power-but that evolution didn’t come without its own share of problems. Mascis became obsessive about how he wanted the drums to sound, and Barlow would later reveal that Mascis “controlled Murph’s every drumbeat.” This alienated Murph to the point where, according to Barlow, “Murph wanted to kill [Mascis] for the longest time.” But they all got through the sessions and settled on California-based SST Records for the album’s distribution. This decision devastated Cosloy, who assumed the band would continue to release their music with Homestead Records.

Instead of the widely divisive sounds that littered the landscape of their debut, the music on “You’re Living All Over Me” was concentrated and allowed the band to develop its own signature alternative rock aesthetic. Trapped between Black Sabbath-sized riffs and some disquietingly soft moments, the songs displayed an intuitiveness and ability to fashion their own sense of self that the band had never been able to express before. Tracks such as “Tarpit” and “Raisans” would go on to become live show staples, and deservedly so-these songs were harsh and raw, giving no indication that this was only their sophomore album. They were heavy but also curiously melodic in a way that people hadn’t heard. It was the beginning of the alt rock movement all wrapped up in nine songs.

Dinosaur Jr. would go on to release numerous records of staggering rock majesty and blistering intensity, and would prove to everyone that “You’re Living All Over Me” wasn’t just a happy accident of being at the right place at the right time. It was the first step in building a genre that celebrated noise and the speed of music. There were rough spots for the band; that’s not in doubt. After the release of this record, the rock supergroup known as the Dinosaurs, which featured ex-members of Country Joe and the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Hot Tuna, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, sued over the use of the name “Dinosaur.” But subsequently the “Jr.” was added, and a rock legend was born.

These songs would go on to influence countless artists and musicians, paving the way for an entire genre of bands who worshiped at the altar of J. Mascis’ guitar. And though there was a point in 1997 when the band was disbanded, the legacy they left was more than enough to keep them permanently fixed in the minds of their fans. But you can’t keep a good band down, and in 2005, they reunited and have been recording and performing ever since. Their music is as anthemic and arena-sized as always, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on  Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.