Pioneers of a Genre: Seattle creates Grunge

Douglas Hollis was a relatively popular sculptor in the USA through the 80s for his wind and water-activated designs. His “Field of Vision” project, a grove of 950 wind vanes designed for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York might have been the most important one in his career, and “Mountain Mirage” at the Denver International Airport in Colorado, a fountain of over 3,000 water spouts that creates a topographical representation of the Rocky Mountains in the later years certainly helped his cause. But the thought of the importance of one of his public arts work for the NOAA as a shrine for one of the most popular genres of music would have hardly crossed his mind as he went on to design and build ‘A Sound Garden’ overlooking Lake Washington, Seattle in 1982. If Seattle could be regarded as the Mecca of Grunge, then ‘A Sound Garden’ is fit to be the Kaaba. serving as both the inspiration for the name of one of the ‘Big Four’ bands of the genre, Soundgarden, as well as the memorial for Chris Cornell after his death in 2017, its importance and contribution is indisputable.

As Glam Metal dominated the scene on the West Coast with flashy on-stage personas and flashier guitar solos, the experimentations at places like Seattle were indifferently ignored, and being cut off from the wave was a blessing for these artists, because they could focus on their music without being blown up to popularity by the major labels early in their careers. This also forms the basis of this genre, the fact that the bands signed with the local label Sub Pop was a big middle finger to the major labels of the time like Sony. The grunge scene was the backdrop in the 1992 Cameron Crowe film ‘Singles’. There were several small roles, performances, and cameos in the film by popular Seattle grunge bands including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. Filmed in and around Seattle in 1991, the film was not released until 1992 during the height of grunge popularity.

Today, the name ‘Grunge’ is understood as well as Hip-Hop, Rock, Blues or any other mainstream genre, but at the time of its development, a lot of the bands had a mostly heavy, aggressive sound that brought together the slower tempos of heavy metal with the intensity of hardcore with a few but certain difference in styles that identified them. The blueprints of Grunge sounds can be found in Thrash Metal and Punk Rock, the British band Black Sabbath though can single handedly claim to have been the most influential act in the development of the genre, with their most loyal followers being Nirvana and Alice in Chains, who featured heavy guitar riffs and a louder sound. The influence of Led Zeppelin is also evident, particularly in the work of Soundgarden. The birth of the genre can probably be traced back to the album Rust Never Sleeps by Neil Young, the Godfather of Grunge.

It has often been said that the context for the development of the Seattle grunge scene was a “…golden age of failure, a time when a swath of American youth embraced the…vices of indolence and lack of motivation”. As the Generation X came to a halting, decaying end, the malaise was reflected in feelings of disillusionment and uselessness. Grunge songs about love were usually about failed, boring, doomed or destructive relationships (e.g., Black by Pearl Jam). Songs also contained explicit references to drug addiction, notably in Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley’s songs Junkhead, Godsmack and Angry Chair. The lyrics are typically dark, nihilistic, angst-filled, and anguished, often addressing themes such as social alienation, apathy, concerns about confinement, and a desire for freedom.

There have been many popular acts in the genre, but there are 4 bands which essentially stand out from the rest. The Mount Rushmore of Grunge, in chronological order of formation, is given form by Soundgarden (1984), Alice in Chains (1987), Nirvana (1987) and Pearl Jam (1990).

Soundgarden was formed in 1984 by Chris Cornell (drums and vocals, who later became the outright vocalist), Hiro Yamamoto (bass), and a very Indian Kim Thayil (guitar). The band released their first album, Ultramega OK in 1988 for which they won a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance in 1990. After touring in support of Ultramega OK the band signed with A&M Records, which caused a rift between Soundgarden and its traditional audience. Thayil said, “In the beginning, our fans came from the punk rock crowd. They abandoned us when they thought we sold out the punk tenets, getting on a major label and touring with Guns N’ Roses. There were fashion issues and social issues, and people thought we no longer belonged to their scene, to their particular sub-culture.” On September 5, 1989, the band released its second album, Louder Than Love, which saw the band take a step toward the metal mainstream.

The band finally had a settled line up in 1991 and went on to release the commercially and critically successful album Badmotorfinger, that was surprisingly ‘cerebral’ for a band wanting to connect with mainstream metal audience, and the album’s lyrics are like reading a novel about man’s conflict with himself and society, and the government, and his family, or anything. The album gets the honor of being the first ever pure grunge album, as it predated other grunge records by at least a year. The album had the members firing on all cylinders, with a cohesion and understanding not seen previously or since. The latticework of guitars on the colossal Rusty Cage struck a chord with the masses, as it went on to be the most popular and successful track from the album (and my personal favorite). Die hard Grunge worshippers will also remind you of tracks like OutshinedSlaves and Bulldozers and the first single from the album, Jesus Christ Pose, which garnered attention when MTV decided to ban its corresponding music video in 1991. Many listeners were outraged by the song and its video, perceiving it as anti-Christian. Although overshadowed at the time of its release by the sudden popularity of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the focus of attention brought by Nevermind to the Seattle scene helped Soundgarden gain wider attention. Badmotorfinger was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 1992.

The success of Badmotorfinger was far exceeded by the band’s next album, Superunknown, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart. Superunknown feels like the kind of album the band deserved, and needed, as they were long due their time at the top of the pile in the world of Grunge. As Pearl Jam found comfort in recluse, and Nirvana struggled to get anything worthwhile done post In Utero, the opportunity that had presented itself to Soundgarden seemed too good to miss. And miss it they did not. In fact, they could not have hit the Bull’s eye more precisely. ‘Precise’ is also the word that you would associate this album with the most, as everything seems to blend together perfectly on the record, during the last few days of the band being able to work together without descending into anarchy. The sounds of the album were diverse and expansive, incorporating various styles and impressions led to by the increased freedom the members gave themselves. Lyrically, the album is quite dark and mysterious, dealing with substance abuse, suicide and depression, Sylvia Plath providing inspiration to Chris Cornell at the time. The single Black Hole Sun was a standout success from the album, receiving a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. Superunknown has been certified five times platinum in the United States and remains Soundgarden’s most successful album. The vast majority of their famous songs are on this single disc, partially because MTV began playing their videos relentlessly. The songs 4th of July and Like Suicide are also worthwhile mentions.

Following the worldwide tour in support of Superunknown, the band members began working on what would become their last studio album for over 15 years. However, tensions within the group reportedly arose during the sessions, with Thayil and Cornell allegedly clashing over Cornell’s desire to shift away from the heavy guitar riffing that had become the band’s trademark. The band’s fifth album, Down on the Upside, was released on May 21, 1996, and was notably less heavy than the group’s preceding albums, and marked a further departure from the band’s grunge roots.

The band disbanded untimely on April 9, 1997, citing general dissatisfaction and ‘being eaten up by the business.’ Chris Cornell went on to release two solo albums, and formed the band Audioslave with three of the band members from punk act Rage Against The Machine. Ultimately, on January 1, 2010, the band announced their reunion. After releasing a few compilation albums, the band released the album King Animal in the year 2012, to generally positive reviews. While working on their next album, the band’s frontman Chris Cornell decided to end his life on May 18th, 2017, attributed to a possible suicide. This has put the band’s future in doubt and leaving Thayil as the only remaining original member of the band.

To be continued.