Chris Cornell
Music

What Bands Was Chris Cornell In?

Sujan Tamang 

Take a moment to reflect on the music that Chris Cornell developed with Soundgarden, Audioslave, and other bands as you consider his legacy six years after the tragic loss of the singer.

On May 18, 2017, one of the biggest voices in rock & roll became silent. Chris Cornell, who was most known for being the lead singer for the iconic rock group Soundgarden, died at the age of fifty-two. The music industry was rocked by his suicide-ruled death, and his loss is still felt today. Each year that goes by, more and more people come across Cornell’s songs when he was a member of one of the largest bands of the 1990s, further solidifying his reputation.

Still, Cornell was not limited to Soundgarden. The man who personified the “Loud Love” concept, which is featured on Soundgarden’s Pride t-shirt and the Loud Love Collection, performed with a few ensembles, many of which included his Seattle and grunge peers. A portion of Chris Cornell’s musical heritage is showcased here.

THE SHEMPS

Growing up in Illinois, guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto started performing music together in 1981, which would later become the foundation for Soundgarden. According to Kyle Anderson’s book Accidental Revolution: The Story of Grunge, the two attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, before moving to the University of Washington in order to be nearer to Seattle’s music scene.

Yamamoto started as a bassist for a cover band named The Shemps, and the group placed an advertisement in the local paper seeking a vocalist. Chris Cornell, a young drummer who wanted to give singing a shot, was the man who finally took over as the lead singer.

Back in 1996, Chris told Classic Rock Magazine, “I annoyed the shit out of them by spending my whole childhood beating on things, I drove them to distraction, and I never thought they’d give me a drumkit in a million years. By the time I was 15, my mom had just about given up on me. But she must have figured that at least I had an interest in something other than drugs or being a criminal, so she bought me a snare drum. After a couple of days whacking that, I bought the rest of the kit for $50 from a guy I knew. Two weeks later, I was in my first band.”

According to Anderson, the group performed “mostly classic rock tunes (and by all accounts, they played the tunes relatively poorly)”. After a while, Yamamoto departed the group, and Thayil took over as bassist. Before disbanding in 1984, the Shemps played one more season. After that, Cornell and Yamamoto moved in together and started jamming together before inviting Thayil over.

SOUNDGARDEN

Soundgarden formed in 1984. The Seattle artwork A Sound Garden is where the organization got its name. The band, which was originally a three-piece, brought in drummer Scott Sundquist to help with drumming so Cornell could concentrate mostly on vocals. In 1992, Chris said to Classic Rock, “People hated us in the beginning.”

“I’d come on stage with no shirt on, whipping my hair around and generally being a sweaty young rock guy. I used to have about 50 ribbons in my hair, which didn’t exactly please the jocks in the audience. They were probably worried because they found me a little too attractive.”

In order to spend more time with his family, Sundquist quit the group in 1986. Matt Cameron, the drummer for the Seattle band Skin Yard, was brought in to replace him. Screaming Life, the band’s debut EP, was published by the then-new Sub Pop label in 1987. Before joining the storied punk label SST and releasing their first full-length album, Ultramega OK, in 1988, they followed it up with 1988’s Fopp. After joining A&M Records, the trio started working on their major-label debut, Louder Than Love.

Although Louder Than Love peaked at No. 108 on the Billboard 200, both the music industry and popular culture were changing at the time. The Pacific Northwest sound was beginning to gain popularity as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s. Before the band’s 1991 album Badmotorfinger was set to be released, Cornell told the Los Angeles Times, “Eventually (A&M) is gonna expect us to sell records, but I don’t really feel any pressure at this point.” “I’m satisfied with the idea that every time we release a record it sells more and we have more and more people coming to our shows.”

Cornell told the Times, “I don’t think a band should compromise themselves for anything. Not for an audience, not for a record label. Because I don’t think a fan is gonna believe in what you do, Fans invest a lot into groups they choose to be fans of. . . . It’s identifying with somebody, which can be a real powerful thing in somebody’s life. 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.”

Following the release of Louder Than Love, founding member Hiro Yamamoto left the band; Ben Shepherd took his place. The new starting lineup would hold true until Cornell’s death. The band got a boost from Shephard’s arrival, and Badmotorfinger (1991) demonstrates this. The band’s career took a drastic turn when the album peaked at No. 39 on the Billboard 200. The hits “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage” were mainstays on MTV’s 120 Minutes and Headbanger’s Ball.

Then grunge took off. September 1991 saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, one month ahead of Badmotorfinger. It was “really surreal for us,” Cornell told Rolling Stone in 2014 when every major label was seeking to sign their own Seattle band by the next year. As grunge emerged as a signature sound of the decade, the group started recording Superunknown, their follow-up album, in 1994.

Cornell told Rolling Stone in 2014 when discussing the album’s reissue, “[When] Soundgarden made Superunknown, we had been a band for a long time – like, over eight years. Superunknown was one of the most dramatic shifts in what we were doing musically. I don’t think I realized it at the time.”

He continued, “I never felt bad about being lumped in with other Seattle bands, I thought it was great. But I also felt like all of us were going to have to prove that we could also exist with autonomy, and we deserved to be playing on an international stage, and we deserved to have videos on TV and songs on the radio, and it wasn’t just a fad like the ‘British invasion’ or a ‘New York noise scene.’ Superunknown was that for me. It was showing what we were [was] not just a flavor of the month. We had the responsibility to seize the moment, and I think we really did.”

Superunknown, which has been certified platinum six times by the RIAA, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 2000 chart and features the band’s most popular song, “Black Hole Sun,” along with a few other very successful songs like “Fell on Black Days” and “Spoonman.” This album catapulted Soundgarden into a new realm of commercial success, ranking them alongside bands like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Pearl Jam.

The group would go silent for a whole twelve years. After coming back together in 2010, they put out Telephantasm: A Retrospective, which featured the previously unheard song “Black Rain.” Their sixth and last album, King Animal, was released in 2012. Up to Cornell’s passing in 2017, the band carried on touring Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and North America.

The last Soundgarden show took place in January 2019. According to Yahoo, the remaining musicians got together for a five-hour memorial show that included performances by Miley Cyrus, Chris Stapleton, Perry Farrell, Juliette Lewis, Brandi Carlile, Dave Grohl, Geezer Butler, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Hawkins, and more. The lineup included Melvins, Foo Fighters, and Metallica. Soundgarden was then officially retired.

TEMPLE OF THE DOG

Andrew Wood, Cornell’s roommate and buddy, passed away on March 19, 1990, after overdosing on heroin. One of the original pioneers of the alternative metal scene in the 1980s and 1990s, Andrew was the main singer of Mother Love Bone. In 2016, Cornell told Rolling Stone, “I don’t really remember doing much after the funeral other than just being swept up in the grief of the moment,” but a few weeks later, “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Reach Down” were written for Andy.

He added, “I initially had this idea that maybe as a tribute I could record them with the band and it could be a cool as a tribute, Also, it would be cathartic and take up some time because from hour to hour it was just sort of difficult to deal with. But then I sort of forgot about it. Two weeks later, I ran into [Mother Love Bone’s bassist] JeffAment somewhere. I can’t recall where. He said he heard the songs, he loved them, and wanted to record them. That made me happy since he had the same idea without me bringing it up.”

The lineup of the band included Cornell and Ament, Matt Cameron, the drummer from Soundgarden, Stone Gossard, the guitarist from Mother Love Bone, Gossard’s friend Mike McCready, and Eddie Vedder, who traveled from San Diego to Seattle for an audition with Gossard, Ament, and McCready’s new band.

 

SOLO CAREER

A&R Records released a statement following Soundgarden’s dissolution stating that the group had “mutually and amicably disbanded to pursue other interests.” Cornell was “excited to start a solo career,” according to a report from SPIN at the time. Chris, who released Euphoria Morning in 1999, would go on to have a successful solo career. It debuted at No. 18 on the Billboard 200 to mostly positive reviews.

During an interview with The Stranger in 2015, Chris said, “My only direction when I recorded my first solo album was I wanted anything that wouldn’t be a Soundgarden song.”

“(A) Because I’d been writing so much in that context, and (B) because I had such a high regard for the band that I didn’t want to corrupt it by doing some slightly more commercial version of the same thing—which is usually what happens, especially with singers of a band.”

Beyond the boundaries of the grunge or alternative labels, Cornell was able to pursue his musical interests. He covered “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson on his 2007 CD Cary On. Justin Timberlake made a cameo on the song “Take Me Alive” from the 2009 album Scream. In 2020, Chris’s first posthumous album, No One Sings Like You Anymore, Vol. 1, was released. In 2015, he released Higher Truth.

AUDIOSLAVE

Rage Against The Machine and Soundgarden, two of the biggest bands of the 1990s, had split up around the turn of the century. Zack de la Rocha, the lead singer of RATM, broke up with the band, which put Brad Wilk, Tim Commerford, and Tom Morello in a difficult situation. The three decided to perform with Cornell when music producer Rick Rubin recommended it, and the outcome was the formation of Audioslave.

Three albums were released by Audioslave: Revelations in 2006, Out of Exile in 2005, and the self-titled debut in 2002. The band realized they had something special when they were producing their debut album.

Cornell told MTV, “Audioslave was a very fresh collaboration because it was very much like a young band, where you all write together in a room, But my experience, in terms of songwriting and record-creating, is not like a 19-year-old guy in a rock band. For me to be satisfied, I think I need to be able to be on my own, in the long run.”

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