Chris Cornell’s 12 Greatest Vocal Performances
On the morning of May 18, 2017, rock lost one of its most iconic voices. Blessed with a skyscraping four-octave range that could go from a soothing sweetness to a hellish rage, Chris Cornell left behind a legacy of great recordings by the band he shot to fame with, along with the many projects he pursued outside of Soundgarden. Here’s a look at the great man’s finest musical moments…
SOUNDGARDEN – SLAVES & BULLDOZERS
Sadly, Slaves & Bulldozers would be the last song Chris Cornell would ever sing – eerily bridging into a short excerpt from Led Zeppelin’s In My Time Of Dying as the final encore at Detroit’s Fox Theater on the night of May 17, 2017. Just over an hour later, the singer’s life would come to a tragic end. It was also the song producer Rick Rubin played to the remaining members of Rage Against The Machine to convince them that the Seattle hero was precisely the person to front their next project following their breakup with Zack De La Rocha. Clearly it did the trick. The warm primal roars, high-end shrieking and exaggerated vibrato of his vocal pyrotechnics, climbing to an impressive F5 – and a G5 on live versions – were simply unbeatable at the time and have been ever since.
TEMPLE OF THE DOG – SAY HELLO 2 HEAVEN
(Temple Of The Dog, 1991)
Written in tribute to Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, who died from a heroin overdose only days before the scheduled release of his band’s debut album, the opening track from Seattle supergroup Temple Of The Dog’s record the following year captured Chris hitting some of the highest notes of his career. In 2016 the singer told Rolling Stone about the dark days that inspired the music… “I don’t really remember doing much else after the funeral other than just being swept up in the grief of the moment, but after a couple of weeks I wrote two songs, Say Hello 2 Heaven and Reach Down, for Andy. I don’t remember recording the demos, but I remember the ideas and writing the lyrics because they were really different and they involved a real person. That wasn’t something I’d normally do. I’d normally write a character that was part me and part a fictional character. But these lyrics specifically reflected Andy and my feelings about him. I didn’t let anything else in. It was precious.”
SOUNDGARDEN – FELL ON BLACK DAYS
Revisiting the kind of abject depression that left him housebound for months on end as a teenager, the final single from Soundgarden’s fourth full-length was a naturally difficult song for Chris Cornell to write. Speaking to Melody Maker at the time of its release, the singer explained how it took years to find the right kind of music to do justice to the painfully honest and autobiographical lyrics. “Fell On Black Days was like this on-going fear I’ve had for years,” he said. “It took me a long time to write that song. We’ve tried to do three different versions with that title, and none of them have ever worked. It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting – when all of a sudden you realise you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it’s just that you realise one day that everything in your life is fucked.”
SOUNDGARDEN – BLACK HOLE SUN
During the sessions for Soundgarden’s chart-topping masterpiece, producer Michael Beinhorn would play their singer recordings of Frank Sinatra in order to inspire new ways to phrase his parts. Which may explain why the band’s trademark single was able to connect with so many people beyond the world of rock – its verses delivered with the kind of mature restraint associated with the Rat Pack crooner before mushrooming into a head-melting cycle of doom towards the end. “He did most of the vocal parts in the studio by himself,” the producer revealed to this writer earlier this year. “I set him up so he wouldn’t have to deal with interferences or wonder what people were saying in the other side of the room. He would sing for hours. He would sing until his head hurt so bad, he had to go home. When a person is willing to go that far, you can see the devotion they have to their craft.”
SOUNDGARDEN – BURDEN IN MY HAND
(Down On The Upside, 1996)
It’s easy to see why Soundgarden were often hailed as the Led Zeppelin of the ’90s on tracks like Burden In My Hand. Chris Cornell was more than capable of delivering the gritty howls associated with the Seattle scene, but one of the many things that made him stand out was the ability to summon his inner ’70s classic rock god – wailing in the upper register like Led Zep’s Robert Plant with the upmost finesse and a sense of lung-busting brilliance. The folky, Eastern flavours derived from the open C tuning – a trick out of the Jimmy Page school of guitar – only further supported this lineage to the rock’n’roll originals.
CHRIS CORNELL – FLUTTER GIRL
(Euphoria Morning, 1999)
Eschewing the heavier, near-metallic sounds of Soundgarden for a quirky and Beatles-y psychedelia on his debut solo album, the 12 tracks of Euphoria Morning showcased a very different side of Chris Cornell. Interestingly, Flutter Girl was actually one of the older compositions on the release, originally appearing on his 1992 EP for the movie Singles – where Matt Dillon’s character, Cliff Poncier, is seen peddling a tape of his solo music. After Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam invented a fictitious tracklist for four songs, Chris wrote and recorded the music using a four-track tape machine. It’s a rough and raw early version of the track, though the notoriety gained from the small run of CDs known as The Poncier Tape led to the singer reimagining its power pop fully at the end of the decade.
CHRIS CORNELL – STEEL RAIN
(Euphoria Morning, 1999)
The words ‘mournful’ and ‘lamenting’ can be used to describe much of the singer’s work, though on a scale of sheer misery this closing track from his solo debut takes some beating. Opening with the line ‘And so we start another day together / You and I and the million miles between’, it’s a song that demonstrates how the ability to draw from the darkness within himself was precisely what made his lyrics and melodies so moving, powerful and, ultimately, real.
AUDIOSLAVE – COCHISE
The first taste of a Soundgarden-fronted Rage Against The Machine is one that remains unforgettable to this day. While many supergroups would drown in the hype of their own lofty ambitions and lack the potency promised by their pedigree, here was one that most definitely worked – fusing together some of the best elements from two of the greatest ’90s bands into one powerhouse package. The singer’s scream after the middle eight three minutes in remains not only one of the best of his career, but arguably one of the best in the history of rock music.
AUDIOSLAVE – LIKE A STONE
The supergroup’s second single was notable for its sonic minimalism from all four members, with Chris singing in a much lower register compared to his usual lines – embracing intimate quiet truths over the outlandish swagger he was known for. Dramatically understated and powerfully tender, it’s become the song Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk use to pay tribute to Chris in their most recent exploits with Prophets Of Rage – performing it instrumentally and relying on the crowd to voice the legendary words written by the now-late singer.
CHRIS CORNELL – YOU KNOW MY NAME
(Carry On, 2007)
Though it never actually appeared on the Casino Royale soundtrack, this single co-written with composer David Arnold is easily one of the best things Chris Cornell lent his voice to. Heralding the edgier, updated version of 007 portrayed by Daniel Craig, it’s also one of the greatest Bond themes ever recorded and the first to be sung by an American male artist. “Lyrically, it was really easy,” he said in 2009. “It was the only book where Ian Fleming wrote this vulnerability into the character, not yet this invincible super spy. On one hand, I was unlucky that I was given this film that had a really shitty title to write a song to, not like Thunderbird or Live And Let Die.” Which explains why, in contrast to most Bond themes, the film title was absent from the lyric sheet…
CHRIS CORNELL – BEFORE WE DISAPPEAR
(Higher Truth, 2015)
With its simple chords, soulful ingenuity and soaring chorus hook, this could be the closest Chris Cornell came to writing a straight pop track. The idea came to the singer after having a dream while in Seattle with his wife Vicky, waking up with feeling that life was precious and sacred – a sentiment which hits even harder with the hindsight of the tragedy that would strike only two years later. “As I woke up it was like I was sort of flying away above us,” he told Yahoo Music. “I remember feeling like our whole life is wrapped up in moments, but we have to be really aware because it’s so short. That was kind of what the song was about to me. We have to be really aware of every moment together. All we really know is that we have this life. Who knows what else is gonna happen? Let’s not let it suddenly be over and we didn’t appreciate it from day to day, from hour to hour, ’cause life’s gonna fly by.”
CHRIS CORNELL – NOTHING COMPARES 2 U
As he grew in confidence as a solo artist in his own right, Chris began putting his own stamp on famous songs by more mainstream artists including Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and U2. But of all these reinterpretations, it was his take on the Prince-penned Sinéad O’ Connor hit Nothing Compares 2 U that seemed able to stop any listener in their tracks. It would be one of the last songs recorded by the singer – the final being The Promise, from the film of the same name. “Prince’s music is the soundtrack to the soulful and beautiful universe he created, and we have all been privileged to be part of that amazing world,” he stated. “I performed his song Nothing Compares 2 U for the first time a couple months ago. It has a timeless relevance for me and practically everyone I know. Sadly, now his own lyrics in this song could not be more relevant than at this moment, and I sing them now in reverence as I pay tribute to this unequalled artist who has given all of our lives so much inspiration and made the world so much more interesting. We will miss you Prince!”
Words: Amit Sharma