Soundgarden’s History, From Deep Six Upstarts To Reuniting Legends

Grunge rockers move past their acrimonious breakup to do a handful of festival dates.

After quite a bit of speculation and years of saying “never,” Soundgarden have announced that they are getting back together to do a handful of festival dates this year.

It’s been nearly 13 years since the band was onstage together, though we’ve hardly missed many of the members — frontman Chris Cornell embarked on a solo career and fronted Audioslave, drummer Matt Cameron took up sticks with Pearl Jam, bassist Ben Shepherd recorded with a handful of people and guitarist Kim Thayil could be seen skateboarding around Seattle.

Soundgarden are considered one of the “big four” of the grunge era (along with fellow Seattle-ites Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains). While their sound merged king-size heavy metal with gritty garage punk, the group always seemed to be channeling Led Zeppelin more than Dread Zeppelin. They got their first break on a 1986 compilation called Deep Six, which featured a number of first-generation grunge bands (including Green River, Skin Yard and the U-Men) and became a fetish object among the independent-music community in Seattle and across the country.

They scored their next break when Sub Pop distributed their Screaming Life EP in 1987. The band then jumped to SST for their debut full-length, Ultramega OK, which spawned an MTV hit in “Flower” and earned them a Grammy for Best Metal Performance.

Following the completion of their second album and major-label debut, Louder Than Love, original bassist Hiro Yamamoto left the group and was replaced by Jason Everman (formerly of Nirvana). Everman was shown the door following a tour and was replaced by Shepherd, permanently setting the “classic” lineup in stone. He joined just in time for Soundgarden to really blow up, as they scored big hits with “The Ugly Truth,” “Big Dumb Sex” and “Get on the Snake.” Louder Than Love also marked the band’s first foray onto the Billboard albums chart.

As the ’90s dawned, Soundgarden became known as a studly live act, highlighted by Thayil’s guitar histrionics and Cornell’s Robert Plant sex-yowl. By the time Badmotorfinger was released in 1991 (only a few weeks after Nirvana’s Nevermind), the group was still more associated with metal bands than the emerging Seattle indie scene, as they toured with Skid Row and were handpicked by Guns N’ Roses as the opening act for the Use Your Illusion tour. But the growing adventurousness of modern-rock radio made “Outshined,” “Rusty Cage” and “Jesus Christ Pose” into big hits. On MTV, the group became one of the rare bands to have their videos on both “Headbangers Ball” and “Alternative Nation.” Soundgarden’s victory lap came during the summer of 1992, when they appeared on the main stage of the second annual Lollapalooza tour with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam.

But the band’s true peak came with the release of 1994′s Superunknown, a massive hit that went platinum five times. The group had always had crossover success, but “Spoonman” and the melodic, Sabbath-esque “Black Hole Sun” turned them into pop stars. It was during this era that they became true MTV stars, as their videos — especially those for “Spoonman,” “Black Hole Sun” and “The Day I Tried to Live” — were in heavy rotation and turned Cornell into a true object of affection for rock-loving girls across the country.

The band collected a ton of awards for Superunknown (including a VMA for “Black Hole Sun” and Grammys for that song and “Spoonman”), but the long tour supporting the album put a strain on the band’s relationships (most especially between Cornell and Thayill). Cornell wanted to drastically change the band’s sound, which is why the band’s fifth and final album, Down on the Upside, sounds so disjointed. Their general attitude toward rock stardom had shifted as well. When MTV News asked Cornell about playing arenas back in 1996, he responded with a resounding, “No, we probably won’t be. I’ve gone to a couple in Seattle, and they never sound very good.” Shepherd added: “We don’t want to play shows where we wouldn’t like to go to shows, and we don’t go to arena shows.” (The group ended up playing plenty of arenas on what became their final tour.)

Though “Pretty Noose” and “Burden in My Hand” became modern-rock radio hits, album sales stalled and the band embarked on a somewhat acrimonious tour that ended February 9, 1997, in Honolulu. Next to the Pixies breaking up via fax, the end of Soundgarden has to be the most passive-aggressive band ends of all time. But now that all the water has passed under the bridge, the hardest-riffing grunge maniacs are back in the saddle and ready to lay it on thick.