In late 1987, at the tail-end of the Reagan years, the Berlin Wall was still standing, stone-washed jeans and fringed leather jackets were worn in a non-ironic fashion, and the worlds of alt-rock and heavy metal were still far, far apart. The former was dominated on the high end by The Replacements, R.E.M. and the just-split Smiths; on the lower by dark miscreants like the Butthole Surfers and the just-split Big Black. The metal world was witnessing an insurgency from the fast-rising Metallica/ Megadeth/ Slayer triumvirate but was still ruled — er, ROOLED — by Iron Maiden-style prog-pomp on one hand and pop poofery like Poison on the other (although Guns N’ Roses were just beginning their ascent).
Into that world dropped a six-song EP on orange vinyl from a visually savvy new label called Sub Pop — Soundgarden’s “Screaming Life.” While the cover artwork featured a blurry action shot of the band performing — a look that would soon become world-famous and define the entire grunge era, courtesy photographer Charles Peterson — it was centered around a sweaty, shirtless, unabashed rock-god named Chris Cornell.
The sound mirrored the cover perfectly: The band’s heavy riffs and Cornell’s powerful shriek had a lot of Led Zeppelin, but there was also a scrawny attitude and tempos that showed the bandmembers, like a lot of the people who became their fans, had progressed from the Aero-Zeppelin phase of their early teens to the trailblazing American punk rock of bands like Black Flag. It was indie-rock you could bang your head and pump your fist to; it was hard rock without pomp; it reminded you of what was great about those arena-rock albums from middle school, but without the bloated solos and pretense. And the band, the label and the photographer were all from Seattle, a city that had barely made a blip on the rock world since the 1960s.
Anyone reading this knows what came next: Nirvana! Pearl Jam! “Singles”! “The Fly-the-Flannel Grunge Revolution”!
Soundgarden were first — and arguably none of it would have happened without them.
While Green River (which split into Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone and later Pearl Jam) were the first of the many Seattle-area bands of the era to release an album (1985’s “Come on Down,” on New York-based Homestead Records) but it lacked the eye-grabbing graphics, regional attitude and sense of a scene that “Screaming Life” and Sub Pop had. The label’s posters, press releases and T-shirts were loaded with giant bold typefaces, F-bombs and phrases like “RIDE THE F—ING SIX PACK” and “WE JUST WANT TO GET HIGH AND F—“ and “SEATTLE GROWS HUGE BANDS.”
And as any self-respecting music fan knows, when something new pops up, there’s usually more where it came from. Sub Pop began a barrage of releases from regional bands — Green River, Mudhoney, The Fluid, Tad, Blood Circus and, of course, a few months later, the first single from Nirvana. Soundgarden helped pave the way for all of them.
They were the first act to make a splash in New York, with a sweaty, smokey and jam-packed July 1988 show at CBGB during the New Music Seminar conference. They were the first to leave the incubator of Sub Pop, and they were the first act from the scene to sign with a major label, although they cleverly maintained their “indie cred” — a vital element for bands of that era — by releasing their debut album on the independent SST Records, which was founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn.
They were the first to make a big-budget video — “Loud Love,” shot on the A&M lot in September 1989 — and the first to undertake a major nationwide tour, on the back of their 1989 A&M debut “Louder Than Love” (which morphed into a 1990 nationwide alt-metal extravaganza with Faith No More and Quebecois oddballs Voivod).
They also may have been the first band from the scene to score a gold record — but incredibly, Pearl Jam’s “10,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” were released in August, September and October of 1991 respectively, so whichever album first passed the 500,000-sales mark is all but impossible to call.
And finally, they were unquestionably the first band from that scene to have a bona-fide superstar frontman: Chris Cornell. With his sculpted features, penetrating gaze and undeniable presence — which contrasted jarringly with his friendly and somewhat bashful demeanor — he was the kind of person you knew was a star the second he walked into the room. Onstage in the band’s early years he was shirtless, hair-flailing, stomping around the stage in army boots, climbing lighting rigs and and crowd-surfing with gusto. And while his performances became calmer and more measured by the mid-1990s, his commanding presence and deeply powerful voice remained.
Nirvana galvanized a generation and sold more records during their six-year supernova of a career. Pearl Jam has had a much longer and more stable career, overcoming their own supernova and settling in for a long and self-determined haul, Neil Young-style — and they’re still filling major arenas with slavishly dedicated fans more than 25 years after they started. Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder became arguably bigger stars — Cobain embodying the angst of a generation, Vedder its righteousness.
But Cornell was a true original in his own right. And the sound and culture of the 1990s would not have been what it was without him or Soundgarden, who cut the path that so many followed.