Looking California, Feeling Minnesota: Badmotorfinger Turns 30

Standard

Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger

Released September 24th, 2021 on A&M Records

Produced by Terry Date and Soundgarden

Peaked at #39 U.S., #39 U.K.

Singles:

Jesus Christ Pose” (#30 U.K.)

Outshined” (#45 U.S. Mainstream Rock, #50 U.K.)

Rusty Cage” (#41 U.K.)

Soundgarden were a Seattle band and because of the times and the fact that they were a heavy guitar band they were always lumped into the grunge movement. I feel like I say that about every band from the era. Pearl Jam? No, they were never grunge, they just came out at the same time. Same could be said for Alice In Chains, who started off exploring Black Sabbath stomp and eventually spun off their own, unfortunately imitated sound. Nirvana and Mudhoney were grunge bands. Tad was a grunge band. Soundgarden were off in their own LSD-soaked corner, doing something that met halfway between alternative music and metal and made it surreal.

Consider the guitar that underlines “Jesus Christ Pose”, the album’s first single. Warped feedback, followed by the pummeling attack of Matt Cameron’s drums and Ben Shepherd’s bass – you could call it ‘rib-rattling’ if you like, and then you can draw a line between both them and Pearl Jam and call it grunge. Kim Thayil’s guitar, refusing to stay still and only getting close to conventional on the chorus, where he slams two power chords with explosive force. The trio’s work on Badmotorfinger offers an album that is almost but entirely unlike normal structures. They took the central motif of Black Sabbath – songs formed of modular riffs – and decided that those riffs should be knotted, gnarled lines slathered in effects and played with half a grin. When they slowed down, as on “Slaves and Bulldozers” or “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, they sounded as though they had just ripped a hole into the abyss.

Chris Cornell, the late and lamented, was the final bit of icing on the cake that was the band’s breakthrough album. His searing banshee wail is the stuff of legend, of course, but his ability to convey precise feelings through rather abstract imagery is a somewhat less-noted part of his work. His good looks and voice take up most of the air when people discuss his place in the pantheon of rock gods (#9 on Rolling Stone’s best lead vocalists ever) but his sometimes sinister, sometimes absurd lyrics are what underpins the overall trippiness of Soundgarden’s music. Some of those were Thayil’s, it has to be said, but most of them were Cornell’s. They even got political from time to time; “New Damage” is a subtle dig at the first Bush presidency, which seems like an entire lifetime ago.

The band’s position between metal and alternative helped them blow up as much as they did in 1991-92. On the surface there’s nothing that screams pop hit, but their ability to open up for Guns ‘n’ Roses and Skid Row and then play alongside Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers on the Lollapalooza bill doubled their effective audience. At the time they complained that the GNR audience was largely apathetic, but as the years go on Soundgarden is one of the bands that tends to unite the more disparate strands of post-grunge rock ‘n’ roll. Even the old masters had to give them the nod; before everyone fell over themselves to proclaim “Hurt” forever the property of Johnny Cash, the Man in Black had covered “Rusty Cage” as a headalong death-folk song, which underneath all of Thayil’s galloping guitar it really is.

They would have bigger highs, as you probably know. MTV banned the video for “Jesus Christ Pose” (which of course only helped their popularity) and it would not be the last time they would have weird, memorable videos. Their subsequent albums, Superunknown and Down On The Upside, would make them bona fide rock stars. The rawness of Cornell’s suicide in 2017 is still present, perhaps exacerbated by the plague. He had made his name on Soundgarden and then had fronted Audioslave for the following generation, and Soundgarden’s reunion was greeted warmly by the public. It’s hard to listen to Soundgarden without wondering about the whys, and it makes their weird, lysergic heaviness all the heavier.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s