The Guide to Getting into Soundgarden
Chris Cornell had a voice unlike anyone else. If you're not familiar, here are five sides of Soundgarden to explore.
Image by Lia K
In one of the most memorable scenes from This Is Spinal Tap, Harry Shearer's hirsute bassist Derek Smalls attempts to clear airport security, but keeps setting off the metal detector. After a wave of the sensor wand strongly indicates a source below the belt, he sheepishly reaches down his pants and reveals his mysterious contraband: a tinfoil-wrapped cucumber stuffed in his crotch. If Shearer's character represented all that was preposterous and pathetic about hard rock, then Soundgarden were kind of like those TSA agents left holding the cucumber—the unimpressed onlookers rolling their eyes at the fallacy (and phalluses) of it all.
Old enough to be raised on 70s prog and proto-metal but young and smart enough to develop punk-honed bullshit detectors, Soundgarden emerged in the late 80s to reassert the majesty of classic hard rock—the bulldozing blues riffs, the Richter scale-busting rhythms, the bleacher-baiting wails—but strip away its ornamentation and ceremony. They saw where their heroes had gone wrong—be it the harebrained concept albums, mindless misogyny, or kimonos—and offered their own course correction back to bulldozing basics. In true kill-your-idols fashion, Cornell told Rolling Stone back in 1989 that "Led Zeppelin are just a bunch of stupid idiots who wrote cool riffs;" accordingly, Soundgarden inherited that band's sense of gargantuan groove while ensuring their songs remained Tolkein-free zones, opting instead to warn us of looming environmental disaster, skewer machismo, and delve into unflinching examinations of mental illness.
At their early 90s peak, Soundgarden seemed so self-assured and omnipotent, it was easy to overlook many of their greatest songs were about feeling weak, lonely, and disillusioned—the cumulative weight of despair hanging over their catalog is more crushing than any of their riffs. Cornell's glass-shattering shrieks may have often been compared to Robert Plant's, but where the Led Zep frontman hit the high notes to emulate orgasm, Cornell did it to convey panic and terror.
Alas, the dark undercurrent of Soundgarden's music may now very well become its defining characteristic, in light of Cornell's shocking suicide by hanging last week. The demons that many fans assumed to be long dormant feel suddenly reborn, making it impossible to hear songs like "The Day I Tried to Live," "Like Suicide," and "Pretty Noose" the same way again. But despite this tragic outcome, it'd be a mistake to consign Soundgarden to the realm of grunge miserablists. Their most endlessly quotable lyric may have equated depression to life in Minnesota, but their music inhabits many different states of being.
So you want to get into: Pop Soundgarden?
Conventional wisdom suggests Nirvana's Nevermind wiped hair metal off the map in one fell teen-spirited swoop, but really, they flipped the detonator switch from a distance—Soundgarden were the ones who bravely planted the bomb from within. They were rock's great double agents, the only band on SST that felt comfortable opening for GNR, the punk kids pissing in the punch bowl of The Headbanger's Ball.
In his 2014 interview with Marc Maron, Cornell described the experience of hearing one of his songs, the 1990 single "Get On the Snake," on a commercial-rock radio station for the first time: "I heard it on the radio in between Tom Petty and something else, and I thought, 'This works!'" Certainly, the song conformed to pre-grunge hard-rock standards: a strip pole-greasing guitar riff; a pelvis-thrusting groove; and Cornell using the least subtle metaphor in the blooze-man playbook to describe his dick. But it's a cock rock song infused with post-AIDS paranoia: "don't worry," Cornell assures his object of desire, "everything's clean."
When "Outshined" turned Soundgarden into MTV darlings in 1992, the band's singular mix of brains and brawn seemed to clear a path for fellow sludge-covered rockers like Kyuss and Monster Magnet to ooze toward the mainstream (if not quite getting all the way there). But these days, their impact on mainstream rock is more profoundly felt through apocalyptic power ballads like "Black Hole Sun" and "Blow Up the Outside World," or acoustic-strummed salvos like "Pretty Noose" and "Burden In My Hand"—songs whose upset-stomach stew of pop accessibility and pure anxiety would eventually get diluted and curdled into the angst-ridden bro-rock of Nickelback, Staind, et al. (And if that seems like a stretch, remember that Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron provided the lumbering backbeat to Chad Kroeger's Spider-Man theme song, "Hero.")
So you want to get into: Heavy-as-Fuck Soundgarden?
Twenty-five years on, it's hard to believe Soundgarden's mainstream crossover was abetted by songs like "Rusty Cage" and "Jesus Christ Pose." These tunes weren't just loud and heavy; they were totally discombobulating, loaded with furious fret-work, sucker-punching structural shifts, and hysterical screams from Cornell that sent shockwaves through your skull like a piece of chewed tinfoil.
But Soundgarden could level you with pure, single-minded pummel: "Loud Love" lurches like Jimmy Page being flattened by a steamroller; the heft of proto-doom dirge "Fourth of July" is compounded by Cornell's devastating double-tracked vocal, which captures the sound of a stone-faced misanthrope who's trying to keep their shit together on the outside but freaking out on the inside. Even after they were firmly ensconced in the rock establishment, they stayed true to their hardcore roots—the dirt-road dust-up "Ty Cobb" has fuck all to do with baseball, other than the fact that it hits like a bat swung in your face. And while 2012's comeback effort, King Animal, was too temperate to measure up to the band's 90s imperial phase, "By Crooked Steps" showed they could still blindside you with a seizure-inducing strut.
Playlist: "Beyond the Wheel" / "Loud Love" / "Rusty Cage" / "Slaves & Bulldozers" / "Jesus Christ Pose" / "New Damage" / "Birth Ritual" / "Cold Bitch" / "Fourth of July" / "Ty Cobb" / "By Crooked Steps"
Apple Music | Spotify
So you want to get into: Psychedelic Soundgarden?
As the old cliché goes, if you remember the 60s, then you weren't really there. But, really, it should say: if you remember the 60s, then you probably grew up in the 80s. Though we lionize the era today as a decade of futurist musical innovation (synth-pop, hip-hop, rave), the 80s also marked the moment when the 20-year nostalgia cycle became a pervasive part of pop culture, from The Big Chill soundtrack to the advent of the classic-rock box set to the ominous strains of "Paint It, Black" accompanying your favorite prime-time drama about the Vietnam War.
By the late-80s, psychedelia had even seeped its way into the once-patchouli-resistant post-hardcore underground, and Soundgarden—a band named after what is essentially the world's coolest didgeridoo—were especially game to illuminate their blacklight brutalism with flashes of lava-lamp radiance. Heck, the first song on their first full-length album is called "Flower," with a grinding groove that's massaged by Cornell's third-eye-prying wordless hums and Kim Thayil's sitar-like guitar textures (a feature that would color subsequent tracks such as Superunknown's "Like Suicide," all the way up to King Animal's "A Thousand Days Before").
But even when they weren't overtly embracing 60s signifiers, Soundgarden delivered hippy-dippy sentiment with heavy-metal menace: "Hands All Over" was certainly fearsome enough to make a humdrum Michael Keaton psycho-killer flick a little more intense, but when Cornell wails, "you're gonna kill your mother," he's actually singing about the ecological devastation of our Earth. And as the swirling centerpiece of the otherwise relentless Badmotorfinger, "Searching With My Good Eye Closed" opened up the kaleidoscopic portal through which Soundgarden began smuggling heavier doses of pop melody into their sound.
Playlist: "Flower" / "Hands All Over" / "Searching With My Good Eye Closed" / "Superunknown" / "Head Down" / "Like Suicide" / "Jerry Garcia's Finger" / "Applebite" / "A Thousand Days Before"
Apple Music | Spotify
So you want to get into: Funky Soundgarden?
Soundgarden emerged at a late 80s moment when "alternative rock" essentially amounted to metal-leaning guitar bands who also liked to slappeh de bass—Jane's Addiction, Faith No More, and the like. And even in their primordial state, Soundgarden had rhythmic finesse to spare—their debut EP, Screaming Life, features the Bauhaus-bowing post-punk dub of "Entering," and their second, Fopp, is built around their louche, wah-wahed cover of the titular Ohio Players track.
But as grunge become the most popular and least danceable style of rock music in America, Soundgarden never lost their groove, even as those grooves got a lot more complicated: no matter if you know or care what a 7/4 time signature is, "Spoonman" still packs the greatest cutlery-clanged percussive breakdown this side of the James Gang's "Funk #49."
Playlist: "Entering" / "Fopp" / "Mood for Trouble" / "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again)" / "Let Me Drown" / "Spoonman" / "Kyle Petty, Son of Richard" / "Dusty"/ "Non-State Actor"
Apple Music | Spotify
So you want to get into: Funny Soundgarden?
There are very few, if any, official press photos of Soundgarden that feature its members smiling. But while the band's early records featured Charles Peterson's severe black-and-white action shots on their covers—which made a Seattle mosh pit in '89 appear as treacherous as Saigon in '69—Soundgarden always went out of their way to remind us they didn't take themselves too seriously. And that included covering Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom" and Cheech and Chong's "Earache My Eye."
But when they weren't mining the comedy-rock canon, they were coming up with their own pranks. The 1988 compilation cut "Sub Pop Rock City" is a punk-rockin' tribute to their first record label that builds a brief dialogue skit out of founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt's outgoing answering-machine messages; the band's first album, Ultramega OK, closes with "One Minute of Silence," a rebranded "cover" of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Two Minutes of Silence" that—thanks to background chatter and jarring amplifier plug-in sounds—isn't actually very silent at all.
By 1990's Louder Than Love, the inside jokes had evolved into cheeky cultural critique, with the butt-rock boogie of "Big Dumb Sex" translating the nudge-wink horny innuendo of so many hair-metal hits (not to mention Soundgarden's own huffin' 'n 'puffin' hardcore stomper "Full of Kevin's Mom") into pure, profane lechery. Such light-hearted moments were more likely to be shunted off to B-sides as Soundgarden records turned more emotionally weighty. (One notable exception is bassist Ben Shepherd's Indian-psych interlude "Half," which, in the context of Superunknown's all-consuming sprawl, is both baffling and a highly necessary moment of levity.) But while the news of Cornell's death has no doubt prompted fans to cue up Soundgarden's most totemic tracks, you arguably won't find a more complete, compact portrait of the singer's many talents than the '94-era castaway track "She Likes Surprises," where the Beatlesque balladeer and raging rocker sides of his personality playfully entangle in a three-minute power-pop battle royale that leaves him looking Minnesota, but feeling California.
Playlist: "One Minute of Silence" / "Sub Pop Rock City" / "Full on Kevin's Mom" / "Big Dumb Sex" / "Big Bottom" / "Earache My Eye"/ "Half" / "Exit Stonehenge" / "She Likes Surprises"
Apple Music | Spotify
Stuart Berman is a writer based in Hamilton, Ontario. Follow him on Twitter.