A Quarter-Century On, the 'Singles' Soundtrack Still Matters
Cameron Crowe's movie flopped, but its OST—with contributions from Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins—was always an alternative mini-masterpiece. Now, 25 years on, it gets a full reissue.
The hottest album of summer 1992 was the soundtrack to a movie nobody had seen. Just as grunge was going mainstream, an original motion picture soundtrack to something called Singles appeared. It was the grungiest thing imaginable. It had almost all of scene's top bands—Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins and Mother Love Bone—except for one, the big one. (More on Nirvana later.) All of the songs were new and unreleased and all of the songs—save for The Lovemongers' cover of Led Zepplin's "The Battle of Evermore—were good. This was an alternative music fan's wet dream come true.
For the longest time, it has been something I have coveted on vinyl, and now after a 25-year wait, the Singles soundtrack finally sees its long, overdue reissue. Sadly, it arrives just days after the recent and sudden death of Chris Cornell, who appears on the album not only with Soundgarden, but also as a solo artist. There will no doubt be a lot of fans revisiting this album to remember his work, but there is also a good story to how Singles became the soundtrack that didn't need its film.
Cameron Crowe's film had already been sitting on the shelf when it was released in September 1992. When it finally arrived, its soundtrack had been out for three months and paved the way for the movie to follow in its footsteps. But that didn't happen.
In 1989, Crowe had hit big with the John Cusack-starring rom-dramedy Say Anything. So a grunge rom-com set in Seattle starring Gen-X icons like Matt Dillon and Bridget Fonda, made by a former music journalist-cum-respected filmmaker, seemed too good to be true. And it was.
Singles has all of the trappings of any 20-something hetero love story, over the backdrop of America's sexiest city and cameos by Seattle's music community (Tad Doyle is the recipient of a sexy wrong number call! Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt appears in the VHS dating service video! Alice In Chains and Soundgarden perform live! Eddie Vedder talks!). It was likely shelved for a year because it simply wasn't good enough. Crowe would have been better off using the opportunity and access he gained to make the ultimate documentary about Seattle's music scene. Instead, he reportedly tried to block another filmmaker from doing such a thing.
Documentarian Doug Pray already had a film in the works when Crowe was finishing Singles. Pray's all-encompassing music doc, Hype! , didn't end up seeing a release until 1996, but that didn't stop Crowe from trying to nip it in the bud.
In Mark Yarm's engrossing 2011 book, Everybody Loves Our Town, Pray says, "Singles came out when we were building momentum to try to film my movie. Cameron Crowe actually called me and tried to talk me out of making Hype! for 45 minutes: 'What can you possibly hope to achieve? The scene has already reached its apex. It's everywhere. People are tired of it. Please don't do a movie about this.'"
If anyone had the right to make such a plea, it would have been Pray. Hype! turned out to be the definitive film on Seattle in the late '80s and early '90s. Although they're two very different works, it's hard to look at Singles as any true indicator of what was happening in grunge's capital at the time. Crowe has even admitted that the film was "not a movie about the birth of the now-hot Seattle scene" but "a story of disconnected single people making their way, forming their own unspoken family." Most people seem to remember it as "Cameron Crowe's grunge movie," but you only have to look at Matt Dillon's bad wig to know that this wasn't a film about music. It was a film about love. And not a good one.
Crowe himself has basically attested it to be a stinker (my word, not his). In 2000, he told The A.V. Club, "I have my problems with Singles. To me, Singles is the least successful of the movies I've been lucky enough to make. It was meant to be Manhattan, a movie I loved, set in Seattle. It stayed in the can for a year until the studio released it on the heels of the so-called 'grunge explosion,' which created some problems of perception. But there were also some casting issues and some screenwriting problems I never quite solved… Singles didn't aspire to define a generation. It aspired to be my tribute to Manhattan. So there's a little frustration there. I hope that someday, as time goes on, it can live on as a snapshot of that period, because Seattle is not the same anymore."
So no, the film neither defined a generation nor came across as a tribute to Manhattan (C'mon!), But Crowe got the music right.
It's hard to express just how much of a cultural impact grunge had at the time, but here goes: On January 11, 1992, Nirvana's Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson's Dangerous off the charts. This was a real David defeating Goliath event. Here was a noise pop band from Olympia coming out of the seedy world of independent music and dethroning the biggest pop star ever with their major label debut. The significance of this moment cannot be overstated.
In 1992, grunge was capturing the zeitgeist. Major labels were literally flying executives all over the world to see bands that were just grungy enough to sign. And so the likes of Tad, Melvins, Babes In Toyland, Cell, and Gumball—anti-commercial, underground bands—were getting lucrative record deals thrown at them, and I was buying all of their records. The fashion world was also trying to capitalize on grunge's plaid-friendly attire. Marc Jacobs dressed Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Tyra Banks, and Kate Moss as lumberjacks for his spring/summer Perry Ellis collection. Sure the idea got him fired, but Jacobs only reinforced that this non-fashion had become fashionable. I donning plaid and Doc Martens daily, growing my hair long.
Even though the film didn't have much of an impact on culture (it respectably doubled its $9 million budget), the Singles soundtrack did, offering up a RIYL assortment of bands at the forefront of this grunge movement. It didn't quite reach the same sales figures as Nevermind or Pearl Jam's Ten, but it reached the Top 10 on Billboard's Album Chart and sold over two million copies. Some of the artists involved might not have wanted to admit it, but Singles definitely benefited them, acting as a promotional tool for their own releases. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and, to an extent, Smashing Pumpkins were already reaping the rewards of Nirvana's breakthrough, but they definitely received a boost in sales for their 1991 albums— Ten, Badmotorfinger, and Gish, respectively—due to their Singles affiliation. And a few months after the soundtrack came out, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney and Screaming Trees all released new albums (the latter's was even on the same label as the soundtrack, Epic).
"I think ['Nearly Lost You'] probably sold more copies of the Singles soundtrack than it sold of our album, Sweet Oblivion," Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin told Yarm. "Because Singles came out first and that soundtrack sold at least a million —I think it was one of those soundtracks that did better than the movie did. Sweet Oblivion came out later that year and pretty quickly sold about 300,000 copies."
While Screaming Trees gave Crowe and producer/music supervisor Danny Bramson their forthcoming single, Mudhoney chose to write an original yet tongue-in-cheek song expressing how they felt about the film and its portrayal of their hometown.
"In typical wise-ass fashion, we wrote 'Overblown,' taking the piss out of the glorification and aggrandizement of the scene," Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm told Yarm.
Of course, the soundtrack's elephant in the room is the absence of the band responsible for it all. To the studio heads at Warner Brothers, Nirvana's involvement was a must. So much so that they tried to persuade Crowe to change the name from Singles to Come As You Are, after the band's song. There isn't even a mention of the band in the film, though. According to an Entertainment Weekly piece, "The working cut of Singles was screened with Nirvana's '[Smells Like] Teen Spirit' on the soundtrack, but the song's success made it too costly." But during interviews at the time, the band admitted they just didn't want to be a part of it.
"We opted not to delve in the movie industry," Dave Grohl told one interviewer. "I said 'no' before even asking you guys," Cobain then says to his bandmates. Nevertheless, the exclusion of Nirvana from the album wasn't a devastating blow. In fact, the thought of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" getting thrown onto the tracklist would have completely overshadowed the other material, and diminished the album's magnitude.
Aside from Nirvana, the band that mattered most to Singles was Mother Love Bone, the glam-inspired rock band that featured Pearl Jam and ex-Green River members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. As Crowe was writing the script, the band's frontman Andrew Wood overdosed on heroin and died two days later.
Crowe told Rolling Stone in 1992, "I wanted to write something that captured the feeling in that room. Not Andy's story but the story of how people instinctively need to be together. Is anybody truly single?" Mother Love Bone's hybrid track "Chloe Dancer / Crown Of Thorns" provided the film and soundtrack with a hefty emotional punch, but also introduced some history to new Pearl Jam fans, like myself.
One thing that seems to get lost in the "Seattleness" of Singles is how Paul Westerberg, a guy from Minnesota, ended up anchoring the soundtrack. One year prior to the gig, Westerberg was splitting up his legendary punk band the Replacements, which had basically evolved into a solo project by that point. During a meeting with Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker, Westerberg played a new song called "Dyslexic Heart." Waronker made a call and told the film studio, "'I got a song here that's 'hit-ish'—that was his term, 'hit-ish," Westerberg recalled to Bob Mehr, author of Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements .
Crowe liked the song so much that he asked Westerberg for another, "Waiting For Somebody," as well as using music from both songs as the score of the film. Crowe also directed the video for "Dyslexic Heart," which was released as the first single from the soundtrack. These two songs became the first credited to Paul Westerberg, former Replacement, now solo artist. (In hindsight, this seems like it should have been a big deal, but considering the strength of that final Replacements album, All Shook Down, it paled in comparison to the grunge acts.)
Despite the weak connection to Seattle—even classic rock god Jim Hendrix, whose "May This Be Love" appears on the album, was a Seattle boy—these two Westerberg contributions have always anchored Singles in my eyes. "Dyslexic Heart" might be a little mawkish in its tone and wordplay, but "Waiting For Somebody" was better than anything off those last couple of Mats albums. Naturally, Westerberg doesn't look back fondly on the project. "I didn't feel one bit of pride over that," he told Mehr about the success of Singles. "[There were] ten bands on that thing."
Smashing Pumpkins, another grunge band from Nowhere Near Seattle, contributed another original song, "Drown," and lead singer Bill Corgan still holds ill will towards the experience. "[Epic] were pushing Alice in Chains' song 'Would?,' which is a classic," he said in a 2015 Q&A. "It's a great song. They were pushing that, but 'Drown' actually started to get traction at radio. It was actually our first song that had momentum at radio, and Epic killed the song because they didn't want it to take away from [Alice in Chains]. My only revenge was when they came back 20 years later and they wanted to do the reissue of it, and they asked for their demo, and I told them to fuck off. Slight revenge, I took money out of my own pocket, but that's the way it goes."
Paul Westerberg and Billy Corgan be damned. The 25th anniversary reissue couldn't come at a better time, as the original vinyl version has reached an exorbitant value on the resale market. But the reissue also comes as an extended deluxe edition containing some but not all of the excluded songs featured in the film, including unreleased material that Cornell recorded for Dillon's character, Cliff Poncier. Historians will argue that the most important track though is Truly's "Heart and Lungs," which was pulled from the original tracklist at the 11th hour. According to the band, their song was removed "due to pressure from various managers to ad more songs from the other major label artist. We had heard it was Cameron Crowe's favorite track in the film so we're very glad to see it finally included."
Even after 25 years, Singles has remained a favorite album of mine. I rarely listen to Pearl Jam these days, but their two contributions, "Breath" and "State of Love and Trust" (which received a limited 7" release this past Record Store Day), are constant reminders of their greatness. I feel the same about Alice In Chains' "Would?" and Chris Cornell's "Seasons," which is a song I feel many people will turn to following his death. It's a soundtrack to a shitty film, yes, but also a near perfect snapshot of a pivotal moment in music history that we tend to think a lot about.
Cam Lindsay did cut his hair, eventually. Follow him on Twitter.