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Soundgarden: Rock's Heavy Alternative

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By 1984, the Shemps were history, and Cornell, looking to get away from a flaky roommate, had moved in with Yamamoto. "I was a drummer, and he was a bass player," says Cornell, "so it was sort of like the law that we had to start a band." After jamming around with a number of guitarists, the two invited Thayil into the fold. Christening themselves Soundgarden after a pipe sculpture in Seattle's Sand Point that makes unearthly howling noises in the wind, the trio began gigging, Cornell doubling on drums and vocals. The band's first show was with a New York band called Three Teens Kill Four; its second was with the Melvins and Hüsker Dü.

After enlisting drummer Scott Sundquist to free Cornell up for frontman duties, the band gigged around for a year, and in 1986, they began recording, contributing two songs – "Heretic" and "All Your Lies" – to a CZ Records compilation album called Deep Six, which also featured the Melvins, the U-Men, Skin Yard (with Matt Cameron), Malfunkshun and Green River. (Green River would eventually splinter into Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone, the latter fronted by Malfunkshun singer Andy Wood.) By most accounts, it was Deep Six that sent the first brigade of major-label A&R reps to Seattle in the Eighties.

Sundquist, who had a wife and kids, bowed out of Soundgarden the same year. After some prodding, Cornell, Thayil and Yamamoto lured Cameron away from Skin Yard, and the four began recording their first Sub Pop EP, 1987's Screaming Life. They followed up in 1988 with a second EP, Fopp. Built around droning funk-metal and dub versions of the Ohio Players song, the EP foreshadowed Soundgarden's bent for offbeat covers, the most shining recent example being a bone-crunching treatment of Devo's "Girl U Want."

By this time, A&M had come a-courting, but the band members chose to stay on the indie circuit and sign with SST – home of the postpunk bands they idolized – to record their first full-length LP, 1988's Grammy-nominated Ultramega OK. A&M's persistence eventually won out, though, and the label signed them later that year.

Soundgarden began work on its A&M debut, Louder Than Love, in December of 1988. Just after the album's release, in the fall of 1989, Yamamoto, who wanted to return to school, left the band. Left in a lurch, with a tour already booked, Soundgarden began auditioning bass players. Ben Shepherd was among those, who showed up, but though the band liked his style, he didn't know the songs. Jason Everman, who did know them, got the gig. But after the tour, Everman (who had previously worn out his welcome with Nirvana in record time) was history. "Jason just didn't work out," says Thayil.

It was right around this time that Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood – who had been friends with the members of Soundgarden and a onetime roommate of Cornell's – died of an overdose.

"When Andy died," remembers Thayil, "I started thinking how there was nobody like him. And Chris was thinking this. I remember we were drinking, and Chris goes, 'I've been thinking about Ben a lot, because there's something in his spirit that Andy had.' We said, 'You know, Ben is that kind of person – he's just one, there's just sort of one Ben.' And we thought: 'Jesus, it just makes sense to honor that kind of talent. Okay, let's get Ben.'"

Shepherd joined Soundgarden in 1990, and his band mates say that his vast knowledge of music and skill as a writer have redefined the band. It's also a safe bet that he keeps them fairly entertained. The bassist, who is tall and reed thin and carries himself with shoulders hunched and both hands jammed in his pockets, has the punk instinct written all over him, but his manner of speaking – softly, with a hint of a drawl and a tendency toward out-of-the-blue profundities – gives him the air of some seen-it-all storyteller type you might meet at the racetrack or running a pawnshop. "He has the soul of a true artist," says Cameron. "He just has a unique approach to everything."

The last two months of 1990 were spent recording Temple of the Dog, a stunning Andy Wood tribute album that was a collaboration between Cameron, Cornell (who wrote seven of the ten tracks), Mother Love Bone's Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, and Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder of Gossard and Ament's future band, Pearl Jam. By the spring of 1991, the members of Soundgarden were back in the studio, recording the Grammy-nominated Badmotorfinger, their most recent album. It was also their first to go gold – which is surprising if you consider the band's history of critical acclaim, but not if you consider the music itself.

A&M Records' Greatest Hits: Soundgarden, 'Badmotorfinger' and 'Temple of the Dog'

"We don't make pop records," says Cameron, and he's putting it lightly. While Nirvana's songs are ridden with catchy Beatlesque hooks that make them more palatable for mainstream record buyers, Soundgarden's material is far more esoteric. The songs are less structured – sometimes wending all over the place – and when Cornell strays from his sleepy baritone, his upper-register vocals can be bloodcurdling. With only a few exceptions ("Get on the Snake," from Louder Than Love; "Outshined," from Badmotorfinger), the band's songs all occupy the span of the accessibility scale that stretches from "airplay, are you kidding?" to "maybe on a college station." The songs range from plodding dirges ("Beyond the Wheel," from Ultramega) to wrecking-ball blues ("Incessant Mace," from Ultramega; "Holy Water," from Badmotorfinger) to teeth-rattling hardcore ("Tears to Forget," from Screaming Life, "Circle of Power," from Ultramega). Then there are the songs best just described as "Soundgarden," eccentric loners at the musical party. Most of the band's releases contain a few, but Badmotorfinger has the lion's share, among them the dreamy, mystical travelogues "Searching With My Good Eye Closed" and "Mind Riot"; "Jesus Christ Pose," a track so assaultive and strobelike that listening to it makes you feel edgy; "Face Pollution," a hardcore car chase with a mind-blowing pentatonic guitar break that ping-pongs all over the fretboard; and the majestic, grittily ceremonial "Somewhere," which sounds like "Pomp and Circumstance" colliding with "Wild Thing."

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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