×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Chris Cornell’s Soundgarden, True Pioneers of the Seattle Scene, Paved the Way for Nirvana and Pearl Jam

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.

More Music

  • Spice Girls Open Reunion Tour in

    Spice Girls Open European Reunion Tour With Inclusivity Proclamations, Sound Issues

    Posh Spice chose not to be included, but there was a lot of other inclusivity to go around as the four other Spice Girls opened their reunion tour in Dublin Friday night. “We welcome all ages, all races, all gender identifies, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all religions and beliefs, all abilities,” they [...]

  • Moby attends the LA premiere of

    Moby Apologizes to Natalie Portman Over Book Controversy

    Moby has issued an apology of sorts after writing in his recently published memoir “Then It Fell Apart” that he dated Natalie Portman when she was 20 — a claim the actress refuted. “As some time has passed I’ve realized that many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then [...]

  • Billie Eilish

    Billie Eilish Fans to Receive Perks Due to Chicago Venue Change

    Billie Eilish and her music agents at Paradigm are experiencing what most would call a first class problem. The demand to see the 17-year-old singer live has prompted a change of venue for her June 9 show in Chicago — from the 5,000-capacity Aragon Ballroom to the 20,000-plus-seat United Center arena. The last-minute venue change [...]

  • Moby Natalie Portman

    Moby Accuses Natalie Portman of Lying as the Two Spar Over Dating Claims

    In what’s become a he said/she said spat in multiple mediums, Moby, the elder statesman of electronic music, is now accusing actress Natalie Portman of lying and pleading to those on social media for his safety as “physical threats from complete strangers” emerge. To recap: this month, Moby released a new book, “Then It All [...]

  • Ellen DeGeneres Buys Adam Levine’s Beverly

    Adam Levine Cashes in on Sale of Max Mutchnick’s Former Mansion to Ellen DeGeneres

    Adam Levine and Behati Prinsloo have sold a baronial Beverly Hills mansion with an illustrious chain of ownership for a reported $45 million to Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi. The mainstream radio rock star, who, it was announced Friday, will not to return as a coach on “The Voice,” and the Namibian-born Victoria’s Secret [...]

  • Kanye West Shares a Memory of

    Kanye West Shares a Touching Memory of His Mother in Letterman Interview

    In a preview of David Letterman’s interview with Kanye West, which begins streaming next Friday, May 31, the musician’s wife Kim Kardashian West, tweeted a clip of him sharing a touching memory of his mother, Donda, who died in 2007 after a surgical procedure. While his wife looks on smiling, West answers Letterman’s question about [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content