Monday, November 18, 2019

Soundgarden: In Disguises No One Knows

Soundgarden was arguably the first of the Seattle grunge bands that emerged into national prominence the early 1990s. The late Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil, the core members, were making music together as early as 1984, and put out their first recordings in 1986. They will be forever compared - unfavorably - to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but they predated both those bands. They were also the most metal-ish of the major grunge bands, once touring as the opening act for Skid Row.

Like most things grunge, Soundgarden didn’t show a lot of staying power. Their heyday consisted of five studio albums before the band combusted in 1997. Cornell, weirdly, blamed the fans: “You feel like fans have paid their money and they expect you to come out and play them your songs like the first time you ever played them,” he said. “That's the point where we hate touring.” As with every band ever, they did regroup for the inevitable sporadic reunion albums and tours, before disbanding for good following Cornell’s death in 2017.

What Makes Them Different: Soundgarden’s music was melodic enough that my son’s high school marching band once interpolated part of “Black Hole Sun” into their halftime show. Given that, it’s a little surprising that they didn’t have more success on the pop charts, but “Black Hole Sun” didn’t even make the Hot 100, although it was a No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart and No. 2 on the Alternative charts.

There’s a wonderful anecdote in Mark Yarm’s book Everybody Loves Our Town where Cornell talks about Susan Silver, who would later become his wife but who was at the time managing several of the bands on the Seattle scene. The guys in Soundgarden were acting like regular rock & roll louts, peeing against a wall in some rock club, when Silver admonished them that someone very much like the boys’ mother was eventually going to have to clean that up, so they should cut that right out. I read this a long time ago, so if I have some details wrong, please correct me, but this struck me as the grunge version of the famed Motown charm school. That should have been their motto: Soundgarden – we won’t pee on the wall.

At first, the band was a real Rainbow Coalition: Thayil’s parents both emigrated from India, and original bassist Hiro Yamamoto was Japanese-American. Cornell was mostly a boring white guy, but at least he was half-Jewish.

By the Numbers: Three platinum albums, six Number One hits on the U.S. Alternative rock charts, two Grammys (for “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun”)

Will They Go In? Without the cultural impact of Nirvana or the staying power of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden will always be a distant third in the grunge sweepstakes. I’m guessing they don’t go in, at least not yet.

Should They Go In? Their moment passed very quickly, and I haven’t felt a lot of reverberations from their legacy. They wouldn’t lower the standards of the Hall, but for the moment, I’m voting NO on Soundgarden.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. When it comes to bands like Soundgarden or The Doobies we are certainly going 2nd tier. Halls of Fame should be for the genuinely elite. We've reached the point where these artist sare considered just so the hall can have a ceremony every year.