Bloody hell. It’s common knowledge that rock stars suffer from a high mortality rate. Though superficially glamorous, their lifestyle is an emotionally bruising and dangerously hedonistic one. But if you made your name as a rock star thanks to the grunge movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was centred on Seattle and briefly made contemporary music feel thrilling again, it seems your life expectancy is short even by the short standards of rock stars generally.
I say this after hearing the sad news about the death of Chris Cornell, singer with the mighty grunge band Soundgarden, three days ago. This means that not only the frontman of Soundgarden, but also those of Nirvana (Kurt Cobain), Alice in Chains (Layne Staley) and the Stone Temple Pilots (Scott Weiland) are now pushing up the proverbial daisies. In fact, there can’t be many of those iconic grunge frontmen left now. There’s just Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lannegan. Oh, and that bloke from Mudhoney.
For many years, a debate has raged in heavy metal circles about whether or not grunge music should be seen as a branch of heavy metal – indeed, broadcaster Sam Dunn devoted a whole episode of his TV documentary series Metal Evolution to the question and never quite reached a satisfactory answer. However, Soundgarden were definitely the most metal of the grunge bands, initially at least. While I was living in London in 1992, I went to see them play at the Town and Country Club (now the O2 Forum) in Kentish Town, where they were supported by the sludge / groove metal band Corrosion of Conformity. Shortly before Soundgarden came on, a couple of technicians were on stage performing some last-minute soundchecks and the sledgehammering bass-sound that suddenly reverberated across the floor prompted one of the guys I was with to exclaim: “Christ! I can feel that going right up my balls!” Soundgarden duly took the stage. The ensuing gig was as noise-some as the soundcheck had promised and sent many more vibrations through the audience’s trousers. Afterwards, I felt like my testicles had well and truly trembled.
Two years later, Soundgarden released their finest album Superunknown, which showed they had more strings to their bow than simply being heavy and grungy. It contained such great songs as the jaunty Spoonman and the irresistibly anthemic Black Hole Sun, whose lyrics (“Black hole sun… Won’t you come… And wash away the rain?”) became so ingrained on a generation’s consciousness that nowadays sad middle-aged men with terrible singing voices sing them in the shower when they think nobody is listening. (I should know. I’m one of them.) So compelling was Black Hole Sun that it was later covered by artists as diverse as Peter Frampton, Paul Anka, Anastacia and, inevitably, Weird Al Yankovic. Soundgarden’s next album, Down on the Upside (1996), was less enthusiastically received but it did have the whoozy, trippy and strangely Lennon-esque number Blow up the Outside World.
After Soundgarden split in 1997 – they would reform in 2009 – Cornell’s most notable project was Audioslave, the group he formed with three former members of Rage Against the Machine (Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk). Audioslave never quite reached the heights of either Soundgarden or Rage Against the Machine, though the song Conchise off their eponymously named debut album in 2002 is pretty epic.
And in 2006, as a solo artist, Cornell got to sing the theme song You Know My Name for that year’s Bond movie Casino Royale. Cornell’s song didn’t altogether work as a Bond one, though he was a brave and worthy choice for a movie that took some brave and worthy risks overall – casting a new actor, Daniel Craig, in the role of Bond and also rebooting the entire franchise. And whatever the song’s shortcomings, Cornell was still a thousand times better than Sam f**king Smith.
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