Today’s music has very little substance. With a musical landscape dominated by theatrics and autotune, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when a more pure form of music rode the airwaves: the mainstream music of the 1990s.
This was a time when pop was at its most earnest, rock was at its most raw, and adult contemporary nestled in with grunge. The best example of this magnificent blend of music can be found in Soundgarden.
In 1990, Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, Daniel Jones and Chris Cornell were a struggling rock group, known in their hometown of Brisbane, AU as Red Edge. Although the group had a lot of heart, they were missing one thing – a powerful lead singer. Sure, Cornell could sing, but he had to devote his energies to songwriting and playing the drums. Red Edge needed a versatile singer who could bring Cornell’s words to life. The ragtag group posted an advertisement in “Time Off,” a local Brisbane paper. They didn’t expect much of a response, but when the honey-voiced Darren Hayes showed up, the future of Soundgarden was set. Hayes caressed the mic like it was a long-forgotten, now-remembered mistress. The guys watched him lose himself in the music and shared knowing looks; Cornell slightly bended his eyebrows as if to say, “yeah, this guy’s a keeper.”
With this new addition, they knew they had to change their name. The days of Red Edge were no more. For inspiration, they looked to Cornell’s favorite book, Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Diaries.” Cornell didn’t have a particular passage in mind, so Hayes flipped through the pages and landed on a sentence – “the minds of men are rarely sound gardens…”
Soundgarden. Fate clanged like a broken water pipe. This motley crew gathered their resources and had a great year of jamming, making friends, inspiring Kurt Cobain, and helping out the newborn Sub Pop Records. Their time was not ill-spent, for 1991 saw the release of “Badmotorfinger,” their debut album.
Music critics latched onto their unique sound, digging the way they combined older strains of metal with gospel on “Jesus Christ Pose,” or with a brass section on “Room a Thousand Years Wide.” Thayil noted that listening to Hayes singing Cornell’s words was “like reading a novel [about] man’s conflict with himself and society, or the government, or his family, or the economy, or anything.” This groundbreaking record paved the way for the newly formed Soundgarden, leading them to the ’92 Lollapalooza and a Grammy nomination.
The Soundgarden machine gained momentum at an almost exponential rate. After a few international tours, they headed back to the recording studio to create their very own “Sgt. Pepper.” The result? “Superunknown,” an album which, paradoxically, made them “super known.” Cornell delved deep into his soul, scraped the charcoal off his innards, and made that darkness manifest in such moody songs as “Black Hole Sun” (“‘neath the black / the sky looks dead”), “Let Me Drown” (“I feel the hurt surround me / please dissolve me”), and “Like Suicide” (“I wield a ton of rage / just like suicide”).
“Superunknown” marked Soundgarden’s meteoric rise to fame, hitting the No. 1 spot in both their native Australia and in their adopted United States, and reaching high spots across international charts.
By 1995, fame had taken its toll on the members of Soundgarden. Cornell could often be found lounging around reading “The Bell Jar,” highlighting passages several times over, while Hayes, a man with a sunny disposition, kept on crooning Cornell’s dark lyrics. As Cornell grew increasingly morbid, Hayes decided to confront the other band members with his concerns.
Hayes wanted to take Soundgarden in a radically different direction. Sure, they changed the face of alternative rock; sure, they were megastars, partying with Nirvana and Metallica. But something had to change – this lifestyle had made them listless, morbid, depressed. The once-cheery Hayes, the man with the honeyed voice, had taken to downing endless sodas, turning his smooth delivery into the gruff grunge voice that was all the rage. Hayes saw an opportunity to change.Jones, Thayil and Shepherd looked to Cornell, who twirled his hair and bit his lip, as if to say, “OK man, we’re with you, but you’d better know what you’re doing.” The members of Soundgarden spent the next year and a half holed up in the studio, producing another mind-blowing album.
In early 1997, Soundgarden emerged once more. They released their third self-titled album amidst rumors of a break-up and more than a few death-bets. “Soundgarden” dispelled such swirling negativity with a bombastic lead single, “I Want You.”
Right from the intro, Soundgarden fans knew they were in for a treat. Cornell, new master of the drum machine, let his beat slowly sneak up on you, as Shepherd traded in his distorted bass for a simple pop beat. In the video, Hayes finally looks at home – gone is the manufactured pout, and the voice as sweet as honey is back. On the chorus, Jones and Cornell join Hayes in harmonizing, “Ooh, I want you!” There’s still a hint of the darkness in which we last saw them, as Hayes sings in some sort of post-apocalyptic set, surrounded by machines. But this sort of dark imagery hits just the right notes, not theatrically morbid nor unnecessarily depressing. Another cut on the album, “Break Me Shake Me,” offered fans of their old sound a little recompense with its rowdy distortion. But with such a fresh new sound cutting up the very fabric of pop, few craved the old Soundgarden.
“Truly Madly Deeply” was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Soundgarden’s career. An organ trills softly in the background, and Hayes’ voice hits angelic new heights, dipping heavens’ clouds in his honey. “I want to stand with you on a mountain,” Hayes croons, “I want to swim with you in the sea.” This song unleashes the true romantic buried beneath all those grunge trappings. The chimes re-affirm this with every twinkle before the chorus. In the music video, Cornell and Hayes trade wistful glances, as if they can see the acclaim this song will garner materializing before their eyes (it broke records in their native Australia, some of which it still holds today).
Soundgarden charged on, and by 1999, each of the band members were in a completely different place. Thayil was interested in political punk, Cornell was working on his own solo stuff, and Hayes, as the new mastermind behind the band, was growing increasingly unhappy. His stretch towards sunny pop music was either going to make him or break him. Somehow, Soundgarden made it to the home-stretch – but barely made it intact. By the time “Affirmation” was released, the band was in shambles, and each member was ready to part ways. Despite (or perhaps because of) the strife the band was facing, “Affirmation” was like their “Abbey Road.” “The Animal Song” from this album is probably my favorite Soundgarden song, with a happy-go-lucky synth line, head-bopping beat, and such gorgeous lyrics as: “superstars and cannonballs are running through your head / the television freak, show cops and robbers everywhere.” Even a B-side like “I Knew I Loved You” shines, with Thayil playing a lovely acoustic guitar, channeling more JS Bach than Tony Iommi.
With such a sprawling, decades-long legacy, it is a wonder that Soundgarden is not more widely recognized for their contribution to music. They mirror The Beatles in their innovation, their changes, and even their clash of egos. Kim Thayil himself vocalized the parallel when he told “Guitar World:” “We looked deep down inside the very core of our souls and there was a little Ringo sitting there … when you really look deep inside of Soundgarden, there’s a little Ringo wanting to get out.”
That Ringo was Darren Hayes. Can you imagine Ringo taking over The Beatles? That’s exactly what happened with these guys. Soundgarden, I truly, deeply, madly appreciate you. Chris Cornell hinted at a reunion recently, and we can only hope the “Knights of the Soundtable” will return, bringing their blend of pop and alt-rock back to mainstream music.