Dinosaur Jr. were largely responsible for returning lead guitar to indie rock and, along with their peers the Pixies, they injected late-’80s alternative rock with monumental levels of pure guitar noise. As the group’s career progressed, it turned into a vehicle for J Mascis’ songwriting and playing, which had the ultimate result of turning Dinosaur’s albums into largely similar affairs. Over time, Mascis shed his hardcore punk roots and revealed himself to be a disciple of Neil Young, crafting simple songs that were delivered at a crushing volume and spiked with shards of feedback. Consequently, Dinosaur Jr.’s ’90s albums — when the group was essentially a front for Mascis — don’t sound particularly revolutionary, even with their subtle sonic innovations, yet their original ’80s records for SST were a different matter. On their early records, Dinosaur lurched forward, taking weird detours into free-form noise and melodic soloing before the songs are brought back into relief by Mascis’ laconic whine. Dinosaur’s SST records laid the foundation for alternative rock’s commercial breakthrough in the early ’90s, and while the band’s profile was raised substantially in the wake of Nirvana’s success, they never really became much bigger than highly respected cult figures.
Mascis (born Joseph D. Mascis; guitar, vocal) formed Dinosaur Jr. in Amherst, MA, after his hardcore punk band Deep Wound broke up in 1983. Hooking up with fellow high-school student Lou Barlow (bass), Mascis initially played drums in Dinosaur, but shortly afterward, former All White Jury drummer Murph (born Emmett “Patrick” Murphy), joined the group and J moved to guitar. Over the next year the group developed a local following, and in 1985 the trio released its debut album, Dinosaur, on the Homestead label. The record and the group’s crushingly loud concerts developed a cult following over the next year. By the end of 1986, a hippie rock group called Dinosaur — featuring former members of Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & the Fish — sued the band, which changed its name to Dinosaur Jr.
In 1987, Dinosaur Jr. signed to Black Flag’s indie label SST and released You’re Living All Over Me, which became an underground sensation, with groups like Sonic Youth championing Mascis’ wild, feedback-drenched guitar. Early in 1988 they released the seminal single “Freak Scene,” a song that captured the feeling and tone of the emerging American post-punk underground. “Freak Scene” became a college radio hit, and it led the way for their acclaimed 1988 album Bug. Although the band’s popularity continued to grow, tensions were developing between Mascis and Barlow, who rarely talked to each other. In 1989, Mascis told Barlow that the group was breaking up; the following day, he “re-formed” Dinosaur Jr., this time without Barlow, who went on to form Sebadoh.
Without Barlow, Dinosaur Jr. relied on a rotating array of guest bassists, including Don Fleming and the Screaming Trees’ Van Connor. In 1989, the group had an underground hit with their non-LP cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” The following year, they signed with Sire Records. After “Just Like Heaven,” Mascis remained quiet for several years as he produced acts like Buffalo Tom and collaborated with friends like Sonic Youth and Fleming’s Velvet Monkeys. Green Mind, Dinosaur’s 1991 major-label debut, was recorded almost entirely alone by Mascis, and its varied, eclectic sound was received poorly in many alternative rock circles. Before the Green Mind tour, former Snakepit member Mike Johnson became the group’s full-time bassist. On the subsequent tour, Dinosaur Jr. were supported by Nirvana, whose success with Nevermind soon overshadowed Dinosaur’s.
Instead of capitalizing on the commercial breakthrough of alternative rock, Dinosaur released an EP, Whatever’s Cool With Me, in early 1992 and disappeared to record their next album. Released early in 1993, Where You Been benefited greatly from the commercial breakthrough of alternative rock, and many of the articles surrounding the album’s release hailed Mascis as an alternative godfather. It became the first Dinosaur album to chart, peaking at number 50, and it generated the modern rock hit “Start Choppin.” That summer, the group played on the third Lollapalooza tour. Mascis recorded the band’s next album without Murph, who unceremoniously left the band; he later joined the Lemonheads. Dinosaur Jr. released Without a Sound in 1994 to mixed reviews, but the album was a moderate hit, thanks to the MTV and modern rock hit “Feel the Pain.” In the fall of 1995, Mascis launched his first solo acoustic tour, which was captured on his first official solo album, Martin & Me, released in the spring of 1996.
After contributing several Brian Wilson-styled songs to Alison Anders’ 1996 film Grace of My Heart — he also made an appearance in the movie — Mascis completed Dinosaur’s next album on his own, leaving Johnson to his solo career. Upon its spring 1997 release, Hand It Over was hailed as Mascis’ best album in years, although it failed to generate a significant hit. By the late ’90s, Mascis decided to break up Dinosaur Jr. and launch a solo career, resulting in the release of More Light in 2000 (under the name of J Mascis + the Fog, a group that also featured former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt). The new group’s ensuing tour was cut short in June of 2001, however, when their tour bus was involved in a serious accident in Sweden, resulting in Mascis cracking two vertebrae. In the wake of their breakup, a pair of postmortem Dinosaur Jr. collections saw the light of day in the early 21st century: 2000′s live-in-the-studio BBC Sessions and 2001′s Ear-Bleeding Country: The Best Of. In addition, the history of Dinosaur Jr.’s original lineup was documented in Michael Azerrad’s excellent 2001 book of ’80s alt-rock pioneers, Our Band Could Be Your Life.
In 2005 the first three albums were reissued on Merge and Mascis announced the original band would be reuniting for a short tour. A year later Green Mind and Where You Been were reissued by Sire with bonus tracks while Rhino released J Mascis Live at CBGB’s, a recording of an acoustic gig from 1993. To coincide with the 2006 reissues, the reunited band began a worldwide tour and announced plans to work on material for a new album, which surfaced in 2007 in the form of Beyond. – Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Greg Prato