Looking California, Feeling Minnesota
Seattle-based band Soundgarden were formed in 1984 by singer and rhythm guitarist Chris Cornell, and lead guitarist Kim Thayil, with other key members including bassist Ben Shepherd (who replaced Hiro Yamamoto in 1990), and drummer Matt Cameron. Because of the time and place they emerged they will forevermore be referred to as a grunge band, but like many categorizations that oversimplifies the range of their output. What is not in doubt is their influence and enormous popularity; they sold well over 25 million records.
Below Guitars Exchange has selected 10 songs that demonstrate why Soundgarden continue to be one of rock music’s most legendary bands:
10. 4th of July – Superunknown, 1994
This song begins as if it is in a corner of hell, with the murmur of dark and ominous de-tuned guitar chords. Cornell’s voice then enters, as if he is on some distant planet, with lyrics that include a thick dollop of graveyard humour: "Jesus tries to crack a smile beneath another shovel load." Cornell talked about the colourful inspiration for the song in an April 1994 interview: "One time I was on acid, and there were voices 10 feet behind my head. The whole time I'd be walking, they'd be talking behind me. At one point I was looking back, and I saw that one person was wearing a black shirt and jeans, and the other person a red shirt. They were always there. It was kinda like a dream, though, where I'd wake up and realize there was no one there. I'd go, 'Oh, fuck, I'm hearing voices.' [The song] is pretty much about that day.'" Or, as he more poetically expresses it in the lyric: “I feel it in the wind, I saw it in the sky, I thought it was the end, I thought it was the 4th of July.”
9. Head Down - Superunknown, 1994
Head Down was written by Ben Shepherd and shows a very different facet to Soundgarden’s sound. It has been described as trippy and its Arabian-style influence certainly adds to that effect. It is dark, like a lot of the other material the band produced, but that is not because of a screaching voice or a screaming guitar; rather it is because of its alienating feel. “Head high, head high, head high, you got to smile,” Cornell sings; but it is clear that ‘the message’ cannot be taken at face value.
8. Pretty Noose - Down On The Upside, 1996
It seems like Down On The Upside is often overlooked as it came after much more successful albums, but the Cornell-scribed Pretty Noose is a good example of why that view is misplaced. Opening with Thayil’s wah riff and leading into a lyric that focuses on regret about past decisions, it is a hidden gem in the band’s back catalogue. This powerful track made the UK Top 20 hit and was nominated for a Grammy in 1997.
7. Black Hole Sun - Superunknown, 1994
Many fans have mixed feelings about this power ballad, as its pop-ubiquity and fame makes it feel distant from what Soundgarden is all about. Additionally, the hook of the title obscures the fact that the lyrics seem to be utterly meaningless; but that didn’t appear to matter to listeners as it stayed at the top of the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart for seven weeks in a row. The title originally came from a misheard line on the news, which is an approach to songwriting that Parliament’s George Clinton has said he heavily subscribes to. “If you read the lyrics to the verses, it’s sort of surreal, esoteric word painting,” Cornell said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t trying to say anything specific; I was really writing to the feel of the music and accepting whatever came out.” On the official video for the song Cornell can be seen playing his famous Gretsch gold sparkle jet.
6. Outshined - Badmotorfinger, 1991
Again penned by Cornell, this is a song that contemplates severe mood swings. As the frontman said in a March 1992 interview: "I suppose there are moments on this LP where I'm being more biographical. I've never really been biographical in my lyrics, so when I wrote a line like 'I'm looking California and feeling Minnesota' on Outshined, it just felt refreshing." Reportedly that lyric came to Cornell one day when he caught himself in the mirror dressed in carefree shorts and a T-shirt, although he felt anything but. The honesty of one of the world’s top musicians admitting that he often felt alienated, along with his self-deprecating humour, struck a particular chord among his listeners. The song also features a great riff and a strong drum coda; all of which make it a classic grunge track.
5. Slaves & Bulldozer - Badmotorfinger, 1991
Slaves & Bulldozers was a staple of Soundgarden’s live act and listening to a few of those perfomances on Youtube you can see why; the song builds into a crescendo that sends crowds wild. One of the versions at The Fox Theater in Detroit, on 17 May 2017, included in our video selection, is thought to be the last song Cornell ever played.
4. Spoonman - Superunknown, 1994
Given that rock stars are often associated with copious amounts of drugs, it is not unreasonable to assume that the spoon in the title might at first be mentally linked with cocaine. But it turns out that this Grammy award-winning song is about a renowned Seattle street artist known as Artis The Spoonman, who literally played the spoons. Cornell wrote the tune and asked Artis to both play on the song and feature in the accompanying video, for which he was paid $8,000. Reportedly he also played with Frank Zappa, appeared on the Letterman show, and performed in Australia, Bali, Singapore, Japan, England, and Germany. One can imagine his schoolteacher saying “you’re never going to make anything of your life if you carry on like that…”
3. Fell On Black Days - Superunknown, 1994
This ode to depression is about as direct as lyrics come but it also connects, much like a Joy Division song. “Just when everyday seemed to greet me with a smile, Sunspots have faded, now I’m doin’ time,” sings Cornell about a whole year in his youth when he reportedly refused to leave his house. However it took a lot of time for this song to come to fruition because he couldn't get in the right musical mood to support the lyrics, until one day he was strumming guitar and hit on the riff he was looking for. “It took me a long time to write that song,” he said. “We tried to do three different versions with that title, and none of them have ever worked. It's about a feeling that everyone gets. You're happy with your life, everything's going well, things are exciting - when all of a sudden you realize you're unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There's no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it's just that you realize one day that everything in your life is fucked" - in case you had any doubt about it.
2. The Day I Tried To Live - Superunknown, 1994
While the album Superunknown deals largely with melancholy, like with Spoonman the title can easily be misunderstood. This is because Cornell penned the lyrics while thinking about how good it made him feel to hang out with his friends, which is why the upbeat chorus line: “One more time around might do it” takes the tune in another direction. As Cornell put it: "The attitude I was trying to convey was that thing that I think everyone goes through where you wake up in the morning and you just don't know how you are going to get through the day, and you kind of just talk yourself into it. You may go through different moments of hopelessness and wanting to give up, or wanting to just get back into bed and say fuck it, but you convince yourself you're going to do it again. And maybe this is the last time you're going to do it, but it's once more around."
1. Blow Up The Outside World - Down On The Upside, 1996
Born out of frustration with his life and the tensions within Soundgarden, Cornell turned this destructive feeling into something creative, which ironically helped the band. It has been said that at this time the whole group were fed up with the business side of the music industry, and that this track gave vent to that feeling. However Cornell gave a different and far more specific interpretation when asked by an interviewer what he would like to blow up, replying: “stupid people, mini malls, racists, and hardcore religious rights people.”