Profile of College Rock the Original '80s Alternative

CIRCA 1984: Photo of Violent Femmes
Larry Hulst/Contributor/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

College rock took its name from the fact that most music falling under this umbrella during the genre’s mid- to late-'80s heyday could garner significant airplay primarily on independently operated college radio stations. Musically, it extended across a variety of styles, but much of it drew inspiration somehow from the punk, new wave and post-punk of the late '70s and early '80s. In essence, college rock represented the first explosive wave of what would later be termed (ironically, right after it hit the mainstream) alternative rock.

College Rock Origins:

Just as punk rock can trace its roots as far back as the late '60s to the MC5 or Velvet Underground, college rock took its cue from the defiantly unique work of art punkers like ​Talking Heads and Devo. The punk revolution had opened the ears of music lovers who, whether they realized it or not, hungered for an alternative to the bloated, egocentric and often pedestal-resting rock music of the '70s. By the early '80s, executives with dollar signs in their eyes tried to hijack punk and smooth its edges to form new wave, with some success. But truly independent artists were often untempted, seeking a different path.

Early Years:

Perhaps the earliest true college rock band would later become one of the biggest in the world, an irony that is somehow right at home in connection to the quirky, unpredictable nature of the genre. U2 emerged at the onset of post-punk and genuinely and immediately set itself apart from both punk and new wave. The band’s politically charged, anthemic rock was too self-conscious for pop radio, so college DJs gladly took up the cause of great music that might otherwise have gone unheard (for a little while, anyway).

An Underbelly Neither Soft Nor White:

It could be said that while the music mainstream embraced simplistic, safe but successful artists like Bryan Adams and Huey Lewis & the News, almost all the interesting, groundbreaking stuff was going on underground, in small clubs and with a distinct flair for the offbeat. From jangle pop to roots rock to noisy post-punk, the music that fueled the college rock scene refused to subscribe to rules and boundaries in the same way mainstream music did, and that maverick attitude made for some delightfully eye-opening music for anyone daring enough to go looking for it.

College Rock Stars Pave the Way for Nirvana:

By the latter part of the decade, more than a few of the legends that arose from college rock (Husker Du, the Replacements and, of course, R.E.M.) began to sign major-label contracts, decisions that drew gasps from some of those bands’ formerly most ardent supporters. But the slow move to the mainstream was probably inevitable, steeped more in the music industry’s evolution than a greedy urge to “sell out,” a charge leveled at many of these artists by disgruntled fans. Ultimately, this slow shift helped nudge open the door that Nirvana would crash through so thoroughly in 1991.

Key Artists & Albums:

  • The Church - (1988)
  • The Cure - (1989)
  • Pixies - Doolittle (1989)
  • R.E.M. - (1983)
  • Replacements - (1985)
  • The Smiths - (1986)
  • Violent Femmes - (1983)
  • Meat Puppets - (1984)
  • Smithereens - (1986)
  • Sonic Youth - (1988)
  • Jesus & Mary Chain - (1985)
  • U2 - (1983)
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