In a world filled with uncertainty Soundgarden and it’s singer Chris Cornell have been for the most part something to depend on Soundgarden was the first of the Seattle bands to receive national attention. Consequently they were the first group to elicit interest from major labels. When labels came calling for Soundgarden and the band initially passed on the offers, the labels found other bands in Seattle they were willing to sign, like in the case of Mother Love Bone.
In 1991 Grunge became the most popular style of rock in the U.S. and soon in the world. Nirvana and Pearl Jam were two of the largest groups in the world in terms of popularity. Alice in Chains who up to that point had toured and been billed as a heavy-metal band, was associated with the movement and received great success as well. Other rock bands, newer and older that could fit into the new “alternative” rock style of programming found their largest audiences. And Soundgarden, although respected by music peers and knowledgable rock fans as great seemed to be the “lost Seattle band” as far as mainstream audiences were concerned.
Granted this was an odd time for alternative music when success was defined differently. Soundgarden’s last album Badmotorfinger which came out in 1991 was a clear step forward for the band. Apart from the good reviews, it eventually went double platinum, got them on tour with Guns N’ Roses and gave them MTV exposure. Even Beavis and Butthead, at the time some of the most important critics of popular music were commenting on Chris Cornell’s christ-like image and rock sound. “If you go to Seattle, anybody is cool” , decreed Butthead.
But in March of 1994 came the colossus 70 minute album Superunknown. The album showed Soundgarden with the confidence of a band knowing just how good they were. This is coincidentally the moment when Soundgarden would forever be compared to Zeppelin and Sabbath. It was dramatically important. At a time when many listeners were unsure of Cobain’s or Vedder’s long term importance, Soundgarden were already talked of as classics.
Superunknown did not just have the sound, confidence and timing behind it. It had a great collection of songs. As it turned out many of those had the potential to become MTV and radio hits. Spoonman playing with huge riffs from guitar player Kim Thayil and the strange percussion elements that drew comparisons to the Who. The day I tried to live making great use of the loud/quiet dynamic very popular in rock at the time. My wave and Fell on black days were planted in familiar territory for the band but ready to compete for listener’s attention. And then there was the psycho-beatlesque Black Hole Sun. Complete with sunny melodies, an e-bow, free association lyrics and Cornell’s screams in the chorus, it was Soundgarden’s biggest hit and most famous song.
Most of all the other songs on the record featured the same vision and sense of purpose. It also showcased a band where every member had a hand in writing at least some of the songs. Soundgarden seemed designed by someone with the mission to create a band as bombastic as 70’s rock and as earnest as alternative rock. Other standout songs from the record include Mailman, 4th of July, Like Suicide. The band who had been written off and destined to become a cult name were now one of the biggest groups in the world.
In many ways Superunknown was such a large album that it never stopped. It put Soundgarden instantly in a category of classic bands. Grunge as a force in rock music disappeared shortly after. The style was defined by groups with a similar sound, that in many cases came from the same place geographically. But it was also the intervention of record labels that made it a worldwide phenomenon. Kurt Cobain died in 1994. Then Pearl Jam seemed to take a step back and avoid the public scrutiny forced upon them. Alice in Chains were soon to go on hiatus and rumors about Layne Staley’s ill health abounded. Clone bands started to appear and bands that had otherwise nothing in common with the style were given an “alternative rock makeover”.
Soundgarden seemed to stick it out the longest. The band called it quits in 1997. They had released a top album, Down on the upside, but it sold less and got less attention then the previous record. Also, their association with Grunge was now not helping the group. Their creative out pour was also less due to touring and additional engagements their new stature now entailed.
Thankfully the group did return in 2010 and have been officially operating as a band until this day. By now the band firmly enjoyed the reputation of one of the most important alternative rock bands and Superunknown was held in an almost unanimous view of “classic album”.