Soundgarden were one of the original Seattle ‘grunge’ groups, a term the bands involved would quickly come to hate and resent, but which in 1988 Mudhoney’s Mark Arm had used to describe his own band’s music: a dirty, scuzzy blend of mainstream seventies metal, late-sixties garage, and early-eighties punk. Mudhoney leaned towards the punk end of things; in fact, their biggest debt was to Iggy Pop’s proto-punk outfit the Stooges. Early Nirvana was pretty much equal parts punk and metal – plenty of Sabbath, but plenty of Flipper too. Soundgarden shared some of those influences, but in Chris Cornell had a singer with a classic hard-rock voice, which made it easier for mainstream-label A&R guys to work out where the band was coming from.
So it was no surprise when Soundgarden became the first band out of Seattle to put out a major-label record since Heart in the seventies (Mother Love Bone, whose members later regrouped as Pearl Jam, were the first Seattle band to get signed by major, but singer Andy Wood OD’d before the band had released their first LP). Badmotorfinger, released in 1991 on A&M, was actually Soundgarden’s third record, but they’d outgrown Sub Pop’s ability to distribute their records nationally. This problem had plagued the more successful underground bands for years (since Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade at least) and was a key reason why they began signing to majors – if fans can’t find your records in shops and the label can’t press enough to keep up with demand, what’s the point in staying with that label?
Badmotorfinger got somewhat left behind by the Nirvana juggernaut, but in any event it was a little too arty and dissonant for the mainstream. Chris Cornell might have had an accessible, incredibly versatile rock voice (his vocal on Slaves & Bulldozers is a tour de force: one minute he’s out-shrieking Cobain, the next he’s Ronnie James Dio, then he’s Bruce Dickinson), but Kim Thayil wrenched every conceivable noise out of his guitar except conventional ones, like a less schoolmasterly Robert Fripp. Most rock guitarists given the awesomely sludgy bass riff that Ben Shepherd plays in the intro (placed hard to the left by mix engineer Ron Saint Germain) would have chosen simply to double it while throwing their hair around. Not Thayil, God bless him. His was a cerebral take on metal. There is a guitar track that doubles the bass riff, but the listener’s ear is instead drawn to the squonky squealing noises up top. Pure Thayil.
With their frequent use of odd meters, Soundgarden were playing math-rock for a far wider audience than it ever had in the Midwest in the 1980s. They never made a big deal of it though, they simply threw in an extra beat in this measure and took one away in that measure as if it were the most natural thing in the world. On Fell on Black Days and Spoonman they’d even make math-rock into pop music. For this and much else they haven’t really received due credit. Still not enough people talk about how great their rhythm section was. Yet Matt Cameron was a monster drummer (inventive, powerful and groovy, never stiff and always musical) while Ben Shepherd’s bass playing was intense and furious – you can hear how hard he’s hitting his strings on those occasions where he’s not quite tight with Cameron’s snare drum.
Soundgarden’s next album, Superunknown, did get them the big mainstream hit that A&M wanted from them. The shift towards a slightly more commercial songwriting style felt like an evolution rather than a cynical change of direction – like Cobain, Cornell had always been a Beatles fan – and like its predecessor it’s an essential nineties rock record, but Badmotorfinger is the Soundgarden record where they sound most like themselves, the record that only they could have made.
They’re back touring and making records again, and that’s great. They’re unlikely to do anything cheesy or regrettable, but it’s also unlikely they’ll do anything to top the music they made in the first half of the nineties. I’d love to see it happen though.
The Garden of Sound