Soundgarden are the grunge band that never really fit into the tales of late Eighties Seattle as it was written from the very late Eighties onward. It’s strange trying to wedge them in alongside Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Nirvana, et al., they don’t belong to the same wave of music philosophies or sounds. Yet this was a band recording demos in Bruce Pavitt’s basement as early as April 1985; who shoved three songs out on the 1986 Deep Six compilation alongside all the grunge originators; who managed a single and two EPs on Sub Pop (including two of the earliest catalog numbers in the Sub Pop discography); who contributed Sub Pop Rock City to the Sub Pop 200 compilation and, as late as 1991, kickstarted the Temple of the Dog tribute to the late legend Andrew Wood. They were grunge to the bone but at the peak of their fame were never really associated with that lineage; it was Nirvana who were the figure head for grunge, with Soundgarden therefore written up as a deviant strain of heavy metal.
This didn’t mean that straddling the lines didn’t win Soundgarden their successes; along with Pearl Jam and Nirvana, they’re one of the trio of Seattle/State of Washington bands who parlayed their way to multi-platinum sales. Yet it was very visible that this was a band who didn’t get nominated for the rock awards their colleagues were put in for. Instead they were nominated for a Grammy award for Best Metal Performance as early as 1990, again in 1992, again in 1995. It was only at this point in their history, with the grunge bubble firmly burst, that they finally managed to soften sufficiently (or the world had hardened enough) for a Best Hard Rock Performance nomination too to come their way.
That’s part of why the Nirvana/Soundgarden/late Eighties Seattle mix has felt so uncomfortable. Soundgarden toppled over from the garage rock and punk styling of bands like Mudhoney or early Nirvana right into the metal end of the spectrum; until the emergence of Earth as a force in avant-garde metal there isn’t another significant Seattle band who tilted so far that way. The band, despite its heritage, despite the many quirky and off-kilter aspects of its sound and identity and lyrical concerns, made its home in the metal world whereas the bands that followed and overtook them never went that far.
In terms of their sound, the band certainly drew far more firmly than their Seattle peers from the vocabulary of Seventies hard rock. For all the comparisons, none of the other bands had the technical ability to really pull off a Black Sabbath, let alone a Led Zeppelin, tribute barring the downtuning. Alongside that, while a lot of the Seattle crowd drew their vocal heritage from the likes of Iggy Pop and David Yow, Soundgarden had Chris Cornell channeling Robert Plant’s high-pitched vocalizing, a move straight out of the Eighties metal handbook. On both levels, despite the more graveled sound, Soundgarden acted as a musical bridge to the Guns n’ Roses of that world; later sharing a stage with them as a short-lived support act made a theoretical musical sense. Again, the vocals scored Soundgarden as different to their growling peers.
The band also, to some extent, blotted their reputation when it came to applying for entry to the ever-so-slightly holier-than-thou right-on politics of the early Nineties alternative rock boom. Soundgarden could perhaps be accused of having been a bit too clever, their parodying of mainstream rock clichés ended up sounding precisely like mainstream rock to those not looking deeply at the band’s attitudes and public statements. As examples, plans to call their first A&M album (Louder than Love) Louder than Fuck were well known at the time; a promo release (Louder than Live) featured the band playing Spinal Tap’s Big Bottom; while Big Dumb Sex just ended up sounding like a big dumb sex song; Full on Kevin’s Mum didn’t help — it all reinforced the mistaken vibe that this was just another swaggering rock band, even blatant jokes like having songs called 665 and 667 that could be played backwards to find a song about Santa as a parody of Christian fears about concealed messages on rock albums didn’t play so well.
Soundgarden’s parallel path can partially be explained by the reality that the narrative of grunge in popular literature and journalism was tied firmly to the story of Nirvana. While the two bands did share a stage once in 1988, the deep local heritage of Soundgarden still didn’t win them more than a tangential mention in the Nirvana tale. Soundgarden were grunge’s history by mid-to-late 1989 when grunge became something anyone in the world was mentioning. By 1992 they had moved far beyond it when the resurgence of interest in grunge took place with Nirvana’s smiley face stamped over the top.
That issue with the available accounts warping the perceived historical reality has continued; the medium rewrote the memory. The flurry of Nirvana tomes in the late nineties, the regular release schedule ever afterwards, these tales had little reason to acknowledge a band who had gone by the time the ‘heroes’ of the tale were on the rise. Soundgarden certainly had a place in the burst of grunge histories that started emerging around the end of the last decade but it was still Nirvana’s late appearance in the story of grunge that made for the cover images — book after book with a Nirvana/Kurt front cover despite the band’s rather late, and rather dilettantish, relationship with the grunge sound.
The timeline certainly makes a crucial difference. As Soundgarden had departed Seattle prior to Sub Pop’s brainwave of inviting over Everett True to report on the local scene, the band didn’t benefit from the wave of publicity and exposure in the British music press that formed some of the earliest readily available writing on grunge; Soundgarden had stopped being grunge just before the media started discovering grunge even existed. Similarly, their move away from the Seattle labels and onto SST, then all the way out to a major label, A&M, by end of 1988 divorced them from the premier purveyor of grunge right before Sub Pop began to truly gain exposure and notice — a commodity whose worth can be overstated given Sub Pop was nearly bankrupt until the Nirvana money began to flow.
By being on a major label from 1988, Soundgarden aligned themselves with the generation of alternative musicians who started to emerge prior to the explosion provoked by Nirvana’s Nevermind; Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More, Red Hot Chili Peppers even (and yes, all owing a debt to the skuzzy vibe Guns n’ Roses had inaugurated). There was a geographic difference here too with Soundgarden rising in what was a wave of bands dominated by the State of California, not State of Washington. It’s no surprise that in joining the late Eighties version of the alternative Soundgarden lost a good chunk of the indie audience defining the agenda in Seattle at that point, and were never in step with the new alternative, a more explicitly punk-aligned alternative, that came of age just a couple of years later.
By 1994, in an interview with Metal Hammer magazine, father of the alternative nation, Thurston Moore, could chuckle and refer to Soundgarden as “just a bunch of noise”. It was because the band he was referring to had left grunge behind in 1988 and continued on into a sound and vibe that meshed too closely to the heritage of Seventies and Eighties metal to be a ready fit for the punk sound and vibe of the Nineties new wave.
…But still…Badmotorfinger…Superunknown…Bad ass and almighty rock albums; no denying.