- John Fleming
Why Soundgarden was More than a Grunge Band
Photo Courtesy of Porta Flocka
In 1988, Soundgarden released "Ultramega OK," which was followed by an international tour and a Grammy nomination. Next came "Louder Than Love," another heavy metal album, which put the band on the U.S. album and U.K. singles charts.
For the first single off 1991's "Badmotorfinger," Soundgarden opted for "Jesus Christ Pose," a brilliant send-up of pretentious celebrities with the audacity to compare their persecution to that of the Messiah.
It includes some of Kim Thayil's heaviest guitar riffs, Matt Cameron's most powerful drumming and, of course, the late, great Chris Cornell's incredible, howling vocals.
For my money, it is one of the five greatest songs of the 1990s. I was two-years-old at the time, but had I been of a knowing age, I'd have bet anything on Soundgarden being enormous from that point going forward. And I would've been right.
But because of the sheer aura and popularity of Nirvana, whose seminal "Nevermind" came out just a month before "Badmotorfinger," the legacies of the other three members of grunge’s “big four” (Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden) have been retroactively contorted to that of supporting character for Kurt Cobain.
The definition of grunge, as it’s culturally perceived, is probably most closely epitomized by Nirvana. But Cobain's aspirations were firmly grounded in influences, from the Beatles to Black Sabbath to the Sex Pistols, who were contemporarily revolutionary, but had been heard in pop music.
Pearl Jam was more or less a straightforward classic rock band of young guys, making the band more conformable in their skin once Eddie Vedder had the credibility to associate with The Who as more than a hanger-on.
Alice In Chains were heavier than Nirvana or Pearl Jam, but it was Soundgarden who were most clearly a heavy metal band.
Being from Seattle at a time when its music scene was the source of intense public fascination, any band with even a moderate profit motive was wise to associate with grunge.
But Soundgarden existed in its own right and continued to make relevant music beyond the grunge bubble.
Cornell, before his death, was perhaps the greatest rock and roll voice of the last 30 years. While his fame did not quite reach that of Cobain or Vedder, he was probably the third most famous grunge figure (not counting Dave Grohl, who reached a new level of fame post-Nirvana).
Cornell's turns of phrase and his ability to scream like Robert Plant, while projecting a sense of personal honesty made him great, important and impossible to duplicate.
I've long questioned just how influential Freddie Mercury was, because he was such a freakish natural talent, that aspiring to be like him would be like aspiring to swim like Michael Phelps. I think the same could be said of Cornell. And had Soundgarden musically been limited to sounding like a poor man's Nirvana, this never would have happened.
1994's "Superunknown" is most famous for "Black Hole Sun," far more self-consciously anthemic than anything Nirvana or Alice In Chains ever made.
The same could be said for "Spoonman," full of its Led Zeppelin swagger.
Cornell paved the way with a brand of swaggering rock, which fit the 1990s in a realistic way. At the same time, he was revolutionary, and built off longstanding progress in rock music.
The "big four" were able to become huge, not because they stole Nirvana's shtick, but because they simultaneously had Nirvana's ethos -- combine the ways in which you feel like an outsider with the relatively mainstream bands you grew up loving.
The early ‘90s didn't need a new Led Zeppelin, but there was an appetite for bands with their sense of grandeur and hunger for accomplishment. That band was Soundgarden, and Chris Cornell was the perfect frontman for it.