Book review: Ian Winwood – Bodies: Life And Death In Music
Kerrang! writer Ian Winwood examines the failures of the music industry with startling candour…
Named after Douglas Hollis’ outdoor public art installation at the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, Washington – a dozen 21-foot structures topped by organ pipes attached to weather vanes, which whistle hauntingly when moved by the wind – Soundgarden were at the very cutting edge of the city’s grunge movement through the ’80s and ’90s. Lead guitarist Kim Thayil and vocalist Chris Cornell formed the band’s central nexus all the way back in 1984, with drummer Matt Cameron arriving a couple of years later for the band to announce themselves with 1988’s Ultramega OK and 1989’s Louder Than Love LPs. It was only as bassist Ben Shepherd completed the definitive line-up in 1990, though, that they truly became massive with 1991’s Badmotorfinger and 1994’s Superunknown, staking a claim to superstardom alongside neighbours in Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and Nirvana as the Seattle sound took over the world.
Always heavier and more psychedelically experimental than their contemporaries, with 1996’s Down On The Upside the quartet showcased musicality and lyrical content that was arguably stranger and darker than anything explored during grunge’s heyday. In 1997, they disbanded after a year and a half of volatile live performances, with Matt offering the explanation that they had been “eaten up by the business” of being one of the biggest bands on the planet. The music never went away, however, as Chris Cornell’s solo work and releases with Audioslave in particular (with whom he would perform Soundgarden covers) kept the idea of a reunion alive. That would come in 2010, with the band’s sixth and final album King Animal following in 2012.
Chris’ suicide following a show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre on May 17, 2017 cut their comeback cruelly short, with fans commenting on how remarkable it was that Soundgarden still had the old fire right up until days before. Still, looking out across the catalogue of work that they leave behind, it’s quite clear that their legacy will live forever…
Birthed during a jam session with Greg Gilmore, the French-born drummer for short-lived Seattle icons Mother Love Bone, Never The Machine Forever was Kim’s most notable contribution to 1996’s Down On The Upside. Delivering music and lyrics, the guitarist managed to combine a sense of the shimmering alt. trippiness that had gained so much traction at the time with alternately rumbling/jittery riffs and squalling solos straight out of the metal playbook. ‘I can't live when it lives,’ sings Chris, with a sense of strange foreboding. ‘It won't live if I die / Machine has no heart to give / Heart it takes could be mine.’
Originally released as the B-side to the 1989 single release of Flower, the brilliantly doomy Toy Box gained a little more notoriety when it re-emerged as part of 2014’s Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path compilation. The Black Sabbath vibes are overwhelming here, with the song unfolding like a slightly trippier alternate version of the title-track from the Brummie legends’ self-titled debut. ‘Please take me back to my healing home / Please take me back to my toy box,’ Chris begs compellingly, while Kim’s insidious riffage sounds like it’s dragging him into the abyss…
The single to which Toy Box played second fiddle was just about worth its A-side billing. The only promo cut released from 1988’s debut LP Ultramega OK (indeed, only their second single ever after 1987’s Hunted Down), the Sabbath influence weighs down on the improbably-titled Flower, too, with that fuzzy, snarling main riff taking centre stage. There is a less demonic otherworldliness to its psychedelic proto-grunge, though, as Chris unfolds his tale of a beautiful young girl who one day finds herself old and grey. An unforgettable anthem to raging against the dying of the light.
Given the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of their first 10 years as a band, it’s tempting to entirely ignore the material that followed Soundgarden’s 2010 reunion. To overlook 2012’s sixth LP King Animal would be ultimately unfair, though. Although the moodier By Crooked Steps warrants a mention, that album’s tellingly-titled lead single Been Away Too Long is our pick. Doubtlessly coloured by Chris’ time fronting Audioslave, Kim’s dabbling with Probot and Matt’s work as part of Pearl Jam in the interim, there is a raucous barroom sensibility and a sense of authentic urgency as the frontman insists, ‘I only ever really wanted a break / I've been away for too long,’ over the torrent of smashing hard rock riffs. A worthy welcome back.
The 11th track from Down On The Upside is perhaps the darkest Chris ever committed to record. Delivered at a relatively leisurely pace and running to over six minutes, with layers of vocals and swirling guitar textures, it is entirely possible for more disconnected listeners to simply luxuriate in Tighter & Tighter’s strangely inviting, swampy atmospherics. As we pick apart the lyrics, however, with its imagery of someone who ‘Lost my grip / Fell too far to start again’ and a world where we should ‘Remember everything is just black / Or burning sun’ there is something truly haunting at play. With the benefit of tragic hindsight, that woozy chorus now hits like a gut-punch: ‘And I hope it's a sweet ride / Sleep tight for me / Sleep tight for me / I'm gone.’
Although Ultramega OK had hinted at their untapped potential, it was on second album Louder Than Love that Soundgarden really began to look like they could be one of the biggest bands in the world. Building on a psychedelic two-note melody and a three-note riff, Chris elevates third single Hands All Over into a mainstream rock anthem. Although the lyrics reveal themselves to be a worthy-yet-barbed cautionary tale against man-made climate change (‘You’re gonna kill your mother!’), the singer could have read from the phone book and still blown our minds, such was his immense, unrefined power.
Cameron Crowe’s now-legendary 1992 romantic comedy Singles has become an unlikely, enduring chronicle of the Seattle grunge scene of the early 1990s and, inevitably, Soundgarden crop up with one of the best songs on its exceptional soundtrack. While Chris also contributed the shadowy, solo-acoustic Seasons – cropping-up for his own low-key cameo, too – the full band make their bow during a chaotic club scene, filmed at the Central Tavern in Seattle, looking like rock outlaws while laying down the fiery Birth Ritual. Six minutes of lurching riffs and near-falsetto screams, it feels like a vibrant snapshot of that magic moment in time when the bands of one northwestern city momentarily took over the world.
From its country-fried acoustic instrumentation and Jake Scott’s straightforwardly stylised music video, to the twangy vocal focus, many fans have likened Down On The Upside’s second single more to Chris’ solo work than the sort of music with which Soundgarden made their name. Buried beneath the rootsy, euphoric sound, however, was the deceptively subversive tale of a man who murders his girlfriend and leaves her body in the desert, with Kim later likening Burden In My Hand to an updated version of Hey Joe for the 1990s. The track would go on to top the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and even found its way into the UK Top 40.
The popular school of thought has it that grunge did much to ‘kill’ heavy metal in the 1990s, but this incredible seven-minute cut from Badmotorfinger makes the case that Soundgarden were committed to folding the old heaviosity into their brave new world. Building up layer after layer of suffocating riffs and ear-shattering feedback, it is a spectacularly heavy composition, with Chris’ lung-busting cries of ‘NOW I KNOW WHY YOU'VE BEEN TAKEN!’ echoing like some irresistibly rousing battlecry. Even with its huge sound on record, though, only those who were lucky enough to experience Slaves & Bulldozers in the live arena can truly attest to its elemental power.
On one level, the first promo track released from 1996’s Down On The Upside feels downright unlistenable nowadays, with its metaphorical imagery (reportedly dealing with romantic regret) striking far too close to the cold reality of Chris Cornell’s suicide in May 2017. On another, it would be a shame to cast aside the track that most compellingly realised Down On The Upside’s experimental ambitions. Powered by wah-wah guitars, tumbledown percussion and Chris’ once pointed, now haunting vocal – ‘I don’t like what you’ve got me hanging from’ – Pretty Noose remains a benchmark for dark, angsty mid-’90s alt.rock.
‘I woke the same / As any other day except a voice was in my head / It said seize the day / Pull the trigger, drop the blade and watch the rolling heads.’ Chris’ wry humour oozed out, right from the very first line of Superunknown’s second single. But, rather than dealing in any kind of pessimism, the track is a plea for listeners not to shut themselves off from the world and to do what it takes to keep connected to normal life, even if some of society’s structures feel positively absurd. The airy guitars and rumbling bass are integral to the enduring aesthetic of The Day I Tried To Live but, ultimately, the song is built on Chris’ absolutely peerless delivery.
Neither as nihilistic nor as incendiary as its title suggests, the third single from Down On The Upside nonetheless captured listeners’ imaginations with one of Soundgarden’s most powerful quiet-loud-quiet compositions. Written during a “fucked up” spell in Toronto, Ontario, Blow Up The Outside World found Chris channelling his everyday frustrations into the imagery of literally tearing down the bullshit existence around him. With the majority of the track coming on with the uncanny oddness of a Beatles ballad, the chorus’ eruptive fury feel all the more explosive for it.
Badmotorfinger’s opening track and third single felt like a pivotal moment in Soundgarden’s introduction to the mainstream with good reason. Delivered at frantic pace – Ben’s bass sitting high in the mix and Kim’s guitar exuding a sense of high tension – Rusty Cage is part heads-down Sabbath worship and part balls-out Krautrock-revival, in a vein that Queens Of The Stone Age would replicate years down the line. Chris explained that the tight-wound sense of claustrophobia was inspired by spending so much of the preceding years cooped up in a tour bus, and you can feel that real need for release in his howl of, ‘I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run!’ The track was memorably covered by Johnny Cash on his 1996 record Unchained, transforming it into the sort of outlaw-country classic that’d surely have gone down a storm in Folsom Prison.
The lead single and sort-of title-track from 1989’s Louder Than Love strikingly set out Soundgarden’s stall at the turn of the 1990s. Emerging from a squall of screaming feedback and into a stabbing riff, we get much of the overblown urgency and arena-sized production of the era passing as well as the wilful awkwardness of the one about to come. ‘There's no time to keep it low / I've been deaf, now I want noise,’ Chris yelps somewhat incoherently. ‘If you've got some time to kill / Slow resistance wins the war / Well I know / But that's no way to go / You can't resist the louder pull / Loud love!’ It mightn’t have made a lot of sense, but that was the sort of irresistible hook that brought thousands of new fans onboard, and still kicks around the back of our mind over 30 years down the line.
Legend has it that Chris Cornell wrote the 13th track from Superunknown while reminiscing about an acid trip he once took, where he (probably) hallucinated two figures – one dressed in a black shirt, the other in red – following him around all day and whispering to each other behind his back. The song seems to reimagine them as dressed-down horsemen of the apocalypse, with the singer’s declaration ‘I heard it in the wind / And I saw it in the sky / And I thought it was the end / And I thought it was the fourth of July’ amongst his most bizarre and unsettling lyrics. Built on a base of low, tectonic riffs and scything guitar solos, it is the most oddly overcast epic in the Soundgarden songbook.
Artis The Spoonman was a well-known street artist during the Seattle grunge explosion, normally found rattling the spoons somewhere outside the city’s famous Pike Place Market, where vendors would fling fish to each other for the amusement of passing tourists. Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament came up with the name (amongst others) to stick on a prop demo tape for the aforementioned 1992 movie Singles, and Chris took it one step further by recording a set of songs to match. Artis actually performs on the full-band version that would become Superunknown’s smash hit lead single, as well as appearing in the music video, while Chris’ lyrics celebrate his strange sidewalk mystique: ‘Feel the rhythm with your hands / Steal the rhythm while you can / Spoonman!’
Having attended Catholic school until seventh grade, when his wild child personality saw him pulled out, Chris was hardly the type for zealotry. The outstanding first single from Badmotorfinger, however, found the frontman lashing out at the sheer pretentiousness of a cross-section of the rock community who had appropriated the messianic, open-armed Jesus Christ Pose. Creed’s Scott Stapp would make the move his own in later years, but it was supposedly Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell who caught Chris’ particular ire at the time. ‘You stare at me / In your Jesus Christ pose,’ he sings, as the brilliantly jittery instrumentation communicates the feeling of agitated indignation. ‘Arms held out / Like you've been carrying a load.’ Eric Zimmerman’s iconic, desert-set music video (somewhat predictably) kicked up all sorts of controversy when it landed on MTV.
“Fell On Black Days was this ongoing fear I’ve had for years,” Chris told Melody Maker back in 1994. “It took me a long time to write that song. 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.” With the benefit of hindsight, there is a stomach-lurching extra dimension to the fifth single from Superunknown, based on a spell of deep depression the singer suffered in his teenage years. The time spent translating that feeling into sound paid off spectacularly all the same, on a subtly downbeat stream of bruised soul that works its way beneath the skin and still elicits chills years after first listen.
Welding that unforgettable chorus to their most rumbling riff, while also soaring through moments of sun-dappled psychedelia, the second single from Badmotorfinger masterfully mixes many of the finest aspects of Soundgarden into one inescapable masterpiece. There’s real lyrical depth, too, as Chris reckons on the bipolar tendency to tumble from sky highs right into the gutter. The lyric ‘I’m looking California, but feeling Minnesota’ crystallised that phenomenon, becoming one of the band’s most memorable lines and even inspiring the name of the Cameron Diaz / Keanu Reeves 1996 crime drama Feeling Minnesota.
Obvious as it feels, there’s no getting around the fact that Soundgarden’s signature song is also their best. A gauzy power ballad that feel as if its been soaked in LSD, Black Hole Sun is a masterpiece in combining the soft-touch songwriting skill of The Beatles’ finest work with a sense of sublime foreboding. Indeed, it seemed to pre-empt the end of a grunge era that’d burned bright and fast into its supernova state – ripe for implosion. Chris Cornell’s high/low, double-tracked vocals and the surreal, overdriven instrumentation deliver an uncanny sense of disorientation, making the pleas for cosmic annihilation (‘Black hole sun / Won't you come / And wash away the rain?’) feel oddly inviting. Howard Greenhalgh’s even-more-surreal music video completes the package, depicting corrupted suburbia being sucked into oblivion with smiles on their faces. Unquestionably one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
Kerrang! writer Ian Winwood examines the failures of the music industry with startling candour…
How Superunknown elevated Soundgarden to heady new heights and left a legacy that’s lasted almost 30 years…
There have been plenty of absolutely incredible albums released in 2021. Here are all the records that have rocked our individual years…
The 2022 GRAMMY nominations are in – with the likes of Deftones, Halsey, Gojira and more featured in the best rock, metal and alternative categories…
From Superunknown to Badmotorfinger, we chart the recorded legacy of ‘Seattle sound’ behemoths Soundgarden.
’Tallica’s covers of Soundgarden’s Head Injury and All Your Lies from the I Am The Highway tribute concert have been pressed on wax…
American singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile was joined by Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd at her Washington State show on Saturday night…