SOUNDGARDEN (1984–97). Chris Cornell (vocals), Kim Thayil (guitar), Hiro Yamamoto (bass, replaced by Ben Shepherd), Scott Sundquist (drums, replaced by Matt Cameron).
Soundgarden were a heavy/metal grunge band from Seattle and one of the most successful bands to emerge from the explosion of grunge in the early nineties. The band started out by pairing the two “black” bands together, adding elements of both Black Sabbath and Black Flag to a sound that became increasingly commercialized as time went on. Their success was largely due to both guitarist Kim Thayil’s chops and the classic metal screeching voice of singer Chris Cornell.
The band started out small, signed originally to Sub Pop, before Nirvana turned Sub Pop into a brand name for grunge. On that label they released two gloriously sludgy EPs, Screaming Love and FOPP, before they moved to indie legend SST records, run by ex-Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, for whom they recorded Ultramega OK, which was enough to gain the notice of major label A&M. In 1990, Cornell and Matt Cameron joined up in what could retrospectively be billed as a supergroup in the Temple of the Dog project. Temple of the Dog was a tribute to the late Andrew Wood, former singer of Mother Love Bone who had died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Cornell, a friend and former roommate of Wood’s, decided to do a tribute record featuring members of Wood’s band, as well as relative unknown Eddie Vedder. The result was a hit single in “Hunger Strike,” which mixed Vedder’s baritone with Cornell’s wails of grief, an unlikely single that helped further the career of Soundgarden and effectively launch Pearl Jam.
The next album on A&M, Badmotorfinger, was an alternative metal classic, which demonstrated Soundgarden’s growing skills at songwriting, particularly in “Rusty Cage” (which was later covered to great effect by Johnny Cash) and the almost hit “Outshined.” This album, one of the last to have a truly “heavy” sound, made Soundgarden one of the brighter lights of the alternative scene. The
next record, Superunknown, was a major hit for the band, particularly from the singles “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman” (perhaps the only hit single to feature a spoon solo), along with could-have-been-hits such as the Buzzcocks-esque “Kickstand” and the lonely “Fell on Black Days.” However, it felt as though the band was playing more for a presumed radio (and MTV) audience, instead of trying to make any musical progress.
Their last album, Down on the Upside, sounds like the last gasp of a band who had run out of steam (although, thankfully, there were no more spoon solos), and it proved to be Soundgarden’s last, as they broke up the next year. Since the band’s demise Cornell made several interesting solo records and joined the remains of Rage Against the Machine for several forgettable records as Audioslave, before that band broke up in 2007 when the other three members left to rejoin the re-formed Rage Against the Machine. Drummer Cameron later joined grunge icon Pearl Jam, whom he had previously backed up as a member of Temple of the Dog. Soundgarden demonstrated both the positive and negative connotations of fusing punk and sludge metal, mostly because they had the songwriting chops. Their back catalog is well worth finding, except for the largely forgettable last record.
Discography: Screaming Life [EP] (Sub Pop, 1987); FOPP [EP] (Sub Pop, 1988); Ultramega OK (SST, 1988); Louder than Love (A&M, 1990); Badmotorfinger (A&M, 1991); Superunkown (A&M, 1994); Down on the Upside (A&M, 1996).