Chicago guitarist Kim Thayil formed Soundgarden in Seattle in 1984 with bass player Hiro Yamamoto and Chris Cornell, a local drummer turned singer, whose Robert Plant-like mannerisms launched a thousand Led Zeppelin comparisons. Drummer Scott Sundquist joined in 1986, freeing Cornell up for frontman duties.
Sundquist bowed out and was replaced by Matt Cameron, a transplant from San Diego who’d picked up his first pair of sticks at the age of 11.
Major labels were quick to come a-courting, even before the group released its first EPs – Screaming Life (1987) and Fopp (1988) – on Seattle’s independent SubPop Records.
Yet Soundgarden (named after a group of pipe sculptures in Seattle’s Sand Point that make unearthly howling noises in the wind) preferred to take the indie road “until we felt like we and the industry would be musically compatible on some level”, according to Cornell.
After cutting a full-length album, Ultramega OK (1988), for the underground SST label, Soundgarden finally signed with its most persistent suitor, A&M, in August 1988.
Their major label debut LP, Louder Than Love, came out in October 1989, meeting with substantial critical acclaim – along with more than a few catcalls for a track called Big Dumb Sex and its already notorious chorus (“I know what to do/I’m gonna fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you!”). The song was later recorded by Guns n’ Roses.
By the spring of 1991, the members of Soundgarden were back in the studio – with original bassist Yamamoto now replaced by Ben Shepherd – recording the Grammy-nominated Badmotorfinger. It was their first album to go gold.
Their fourth album, Superunknown (1994) gave Soundgarden their first taste of platinum – it entered the Billboard chart at #1 and spawned the chart-topping hit Black Hole Sun, which became the summer anthem of 1994.
Down On The Upside (1996) was a sprawling album, with 16 songs in 66 minutes. But where Superunknown expanded the band’s musical attack into pop and psychedelic rock, their fifth album headed straight for the jugular, eschewing innovation for the simpler payoff of just rocking out.
The album sold only 2.3 million copies (almost 4 million fewer than Superunknown), and the subsequent world tour found the band going through the motions, while bassist Shepherd exploded at a number of shows, flipping off the audience, swinging his bass at people and – in Honolulu in February 1997 – smashing his speaker cabinet, storming off-stage in mid-set and flying home alone.
Soundgarden called it a day in April 1997
Vocalist Chris Cornell was found dead by his bodyguard in the bathroom of his room at the MGM Grand in Detroit after performing at a show with Soundgarden at the Fox Theatre on 17 May 2017. The cause of death was determined to be suicide by hanging. He was 52 years old.