30 Years Ago: Soundgarden Break Through With ‘Badmotorfinger’
In the fall of 1991, alternative rock on the brink of explosion. Pearl Jam had released Ten in August, Nirvana released Nevermind in September — which is credited as the first spark of the grunge revolution — and on Oct. 8, 1991 Soundgarden stomped in with Badmotorfinger.
Following the release of 1989's Louder Than Love, Soundgarden lost original bassist Hiro Yamamoto and replacement Jason Everman before recruiting Ben Shepherd, who remains in the band to this day. Shepherd started out as a fan of the group, ever since their early days as a three-piece, when Chris Cornell sang and played the drums.
"He's got this real out-of-hand playing style, like Captain Beefheart playing hardcore, and this real frantic way of playing parts and writing songs," the frontman praised of their newest member to Kerrang! in 1991. "He'll just sit down and play really fast and intense and strange. He's really fresh and creative."
With a new solid lineup, Soundgarden headed into the studio in the spring of 1991 to record their third LP with producer Terry Date, who had worked on Louder Than Love as well. The recording process was split between three studios — Studio D in Sausalito, Calif., Bear Creek Studios in Woodinville, Wash. and A&M Studios in Los Angeles.
After a more collaborative songwriting process amongst Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron, the final product can hardly be described in simple terms. With the perfect balance of rawness and production combined with power and trippy elements, Badmotorfinger was the quintessential psychedelic metal album, if there had ever been such a thing up to that point.
The subjects of the songs spanned across a wide array of subjects, but Cornell, the band's primary lyricist, wanted the meanings to be ambiguous. "It's like reading a novel [about] man's conflict with himself and society, or the government, or his family, or the economy, or anything," Thayil described of the record's lyrical content to Guitar for the Practicing Musician.
Soundgarden, "Jesus Christ Pose"
Badmotorfinger peaked at No. 39 on the Billboard 200, which was the biggest feat for Soundgarden thus far. While the album was springing them into success, the attention did not come without its controversy. "Jesus Christ Pose" was the lead single, and was viewed by some as an anti-Christ anthem. "It never got any airplay because of the references to Jesus. And MTV wouldn't play the video because they didn't like the idea of a girl on the cross," Thayil told Guitar School three years after the album came out.
The setback didn't phase the band, as "Outshined" and "Rusty Cage" eventually reached the masses and helped entrench them in the rock conversation. The latter song would eventually be covered by the iconic singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. Experimentation was rampant throughout several other standout tracks, like the jazzy "Drawing Flies" and "Room a Thousand Years Wide," which both featured brass horns.
Soundgarden, "Rusty Cage"
The hallucinogenic "Searching With My Good Eye Closed" starts off with a humorous, narrated intro full of animal noises. According to Cornell, the idea for the intro came from a See 'N Say — a Fisher-Price learning toy for young kids to learn farm animal calls. The singer later explained that he and one of his friends had been messing with one of the devices when the voice failed and faded out, giving him inspiration for the line "The devil says…" that comes right before the first verse.
Speaking on its heaviness, Cornell told Raw, "I think you go through periods where you learn to get that kind of aggression out of you…On Louder Than Love it didn't really come out in what we did, so we decided we wanted to hear more of it. The new album is very close to us as a live band."
Soundgarden, "Searching With My Good Eye Closed"
The song structure varies a lot over the course of the 12 songs, some consisting of unusual time signatures while others follow a more radio-friendly format. Soundgarden had been previously worshipped by fans of the underground scene, and while it was apparent their slightly more commercial sound would turn those fans off, the band were far from sellouts.
"I don’t think a band should compromise themselves for anything. Not for an audience, not for a record label," Cornell affirmed to the Los Angeles Times in '91. "The feeling that you’re true to yourself translates almost every time to your audience. That’s the main point that rings true for us and keeps it inspiring and keeps fans inspired. I’m definitely proud of that.”
Nevermind's immediate success overshadowed that of Badmotorfinger quite a bit in the beginning, but it eventually received the credit it deserved. It was nominated for Best Metal Performance in the 1992 Grammys, and only eight other albums had received nominations for that category at that point. It was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in January of 1993, and double-platinum three years later.
Soundgarden's breakthrough caught the eye of several bigger bands like Guns N' Roses, who would give them the opening spot on part of their Use Your Illusion tour in 1992. While playing in large stadiums exposed the Seattle boys to bigger audiences, they weren't exactly pleased, and were nicknamed Frowngarden. "It wasn't a whole lot of fun going out in front of 40,000 people for 35 minutes every day. Most of them hadn't heard our songs and didn't care about them. It was a bizarre thing," Cornell explained to Raw.
Three years later, Soundgarden would catch up to the likes of Guns N' Roses in terms of popularity when they released Superunknown and the widely known "Black Hole Sun." But Badmotorfinger, to this day, remains the work of art that truly defined Soundgarden as a top dominating force in the '90s rock landscape.