Soundgarden got its start in 1984 when two Seattle roommates, singer Chris Cornell
and bassist Hiro Yamamoto, decided to form a band. Needing a guitarist, they tapped Yamamoto’s friend Kim Thayil, who, like Yamamoto, had moved to Seattle from Chicago. To complete the quartet, the group recruited Scott Sundquist to man the drums. They chose the name Soundgarden after a local park sculpture, supposedly because of the sculpture’s ability to produce disturbing howling sounds. By 1986, Sundquist had exited Soundgarden, paving the way for Matt Cameron to become the group’s permanent drummer.
Clubbing heavily in the Seattle area, Soundgarden built a reputation for their melding of hard rock and metal. After two EPs, 1987’s Screaming Life and the following year’s Fopp, the band was ready to release its first full-length record. Ultramega OK, which came out only a few months after Fopp, demonstrated the group’s punk influences, which would be featured less prominently in subsequent releases. Though hardly a blockbuster, Ultramega OK got the band national attention and did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance.
Jumping to the Majors:
Leaping from independent labels to a major, A&M, the band released Louder Than Love in 1989. Though a technical advancement from Ultramega OK, it still emphasized brute (some might say crude) force over precise songwriting chops. One of its most memorable songs was “Big Dumb Sex,” a satire of the misogyny contained in most hard rock songs. As the band was preparing to tour, Yamamoto decided to quit the group. Soundgarden brought in a replacement bassist for the tour, but by the time they were preparing for the follow-up to Louder Than Love, permanent bassist Ben Shepherd was brought into the fold.
Riding the Seattle Wave:
Soundgarden’s critical and commercial fortunes only continued to rise with 1991’s Badmotorfinger
. Though still unquestionably steeped in hard rock and metal, Badmotorfinger
showed the band branching out into psychedelic elements and melodic songwriting. While boasting Cornell’s powerful voice and an accessible sound, Badmotorfinger
was easily outmatched commercially by two other Seattle
groups' albums that were released the same year: Pearl Jam
. Soundgarden hadn’t crossed over yet, but they had nevertheless achieved an artistic breakthrough.
Making a Masterpiece:
The band’s full-fledged commercial explosion didn’t occur until their next record. Musically complex and imposingly heavy, 1994’s Superunknown
is the band’s crowning glory, a 70-minute colossus that brought together Soundgarden’s interests in hard rock, metal, pop, and psychedelic undertones for a cohesive set of dark songs. Reaching the top of the American album charts, Superunknown
spawned five singles, including “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman,” which both won Grammys. Selling more than 5 million copies in the U.S. alone, Superunknown
remains the group’s biggest album.
The Beginning of the End:
Touring extensively in the wake of Superunknown’s success, the band was exhausted by the time they returned to the studio to record 1996’s Down on the Upside. Rumors of band tensions were prevalent and while Down on the Upside generated strong sales and hit singles, those accomplishments were dwarfed by what Superunknown had achieved. In April of 1997, Soundgarden announced they were breaking up.
On January 1, 2010, Chris Cornell announced
that Soundgarden would be reuniting. “The 12 year break is over & school is back in session,” he wrote. “Knights of the Soundtable ride again!”
Matt Cameron - drums
Chris Cornell - vocals, guitar
Ben Shepherd - bass
Kim Thayil - guitar
Essential Soundgarden Album:
"Spoonman" and "Black Hole Sun" were the biggest hits on Soundgarden's fourth full-length album, but Superunknown is the sort of record that rewards an audience's willingness to listen from beginning to end in one sitting. From the slow, apocalyptic despair of "Let Me Drown" to the chronicling of a love affair's end in "Like Suicide," the album rocks very hard as its moves brilliantly from one stylistic adventure to the next.
Louder than Love
Down on the Upside
(greatest hits) (1997)