Chris Cornell: rock star who kicked down the boundaries of sound

The Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman, who has died aged 52, was always the black sheep in the grunge family – he drew on soul, R&B, and James Bond to turn hard rock psychedelic

In May 1989, Soundgarden played their first gig outside America at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. They were sandwiched between a minor hardcore punk band called Murphy’s Law and Mudhoney, the latter then widely believed to be the Band Most Likely To from Seattle’s burgeoning grunge scene; Nirvana had yet to release their debut album. But anyone paying close attention to the main support band might have got a vague inkling they were destined for bigger things.

They were audibly and unashamedly more in thrall to heavy metal than the headliners, and didn’t seem to have any of the angst about rock stardom that marked out a number of their contemporaries. Lead singer Chris Cornell, blessed with a voice that could alternately roar and wail, and that was more obviously founded in the blues than punk – the album they were promoting, Ultramega OK, featured a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning – performed stripped to the waist in classic Robert Plant-ish rock Adonis style. Their sound had the raw, back-to-basics urgency that characterised grunge bands in that era, but you got the feeling they saw themselves less as iconoclastic upstarts than part of a grand hard rock lineage. That night, within seconds of appearing, Mudhoney caused chaos by inviting the audience to climb on to the stage, which promptly collapsed. Cornell ended Soundgarden’s set with the words “we’re Black Sabbath, goodnight”.

And so it proved. Soundgarden were one of the few grunge bands signed to a major label before Nirvana’s breakthrough – they already had a deal with A&M when they arrived in London – and one of the few grunge bands who attracted real mainstream attention before the release of Nevermind. They toured with Guns N’ Roses, and their 1990 album Ultramega OK was nominated for a Grammy.

But there’s no doubt that Nirvana’s success propelled them to new heights of popularity, aided by the fact that Soundgarden’s breakthrough album Badmotorfinger, was clearly their most focused and commercial to date. But Soundgarden’s oft-reviled willingness to court a mainstream rock audience – “Fuck, you sound like Rush,” offered Mudhoney’s Mark Arm disparagingly on hearing Badmotorfinger – was always balanced by a certain strangeness and desire to experiment.

Chris Cornell, backstage at Download festival in 2009.
Chris Cornell, backstage at Download festival in 2009. Photograph: Sessions/Future/Rex/Shutterstock

It was there from the start. Soundgarden’s single Fopp was a game attempt to meld funk band the Ohio Players with AC/DC; their early anthem Flower opened with the sound of Kim Thayil blowing on his strings. Cornell’s songwriting favoured weird time signatures. The sound of their biggest hit, 1994’s Black Hole Sun, has more to do with expansive 60s psychedelia than hard rock: Michael Beinhorn, the producer of the 9m-selling album Superunknown that it came from, claimed its intensity was inspired by the punishing hardcore techno sub-genre gabba, and Cornell’s vocals were influenced by Frank Sinatra. The unusual sense of a band managing to get bigger and bigger while continually pushing at the boundaries of their sound was hard to miss.

The same refusal to stand still artistically marked out Chris Cornell’s career after Soundgarden split. He released an intriguing, underrated solo album – When I’m Down saw him delving, improbably but confidently, into southern soul – and formed Audioslave with three former members of Rage Against the Machine. If their debut album felt a little like a uncomfortable forced marriage, it nevertheless spawned at least one fantastic single in the grinding Led Zep-esque Cochise. Moreover, unlike most short-lived “supergroups”, Audioslave stuck at it until they’d forged a style that was more than the sum of their parts: like Soundgarden, they got more eclectic and intriguing as they went on, drawing everything from Motown to 60s psych-pop into their sound.

Their multi-platinum success couldn’t hold Audioslave together, although they reunited earlier this year at an anti-Trump protest gig. Cornell once more embarked on a solo career, this time so eclectic it made his earlier work seem positively monotonal: his 2007 album Carry On pinballed from stuff that sounded like Soundgarden, to a Bond theme, to mainstream soft-rock anthems, to an acoustic cover of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. Not all his ideas were as great in practice as they were in theory – you could see why he would be fascinated to work with visionary R&B producer Timbaland, but 2009’s Scream, which arrived replete with EDM-flavoured remixes, proved an artistic leap too far. Still, no one could have accused Cornell of resting on his reputation or seeming insufficiently inquisitive.

Perhaps Scream’s commercial and critical failure propelled Cornell back to his past. A Soundgarden reunion began in 2010 – he had just played a gig with them in Detroit when he died – and he released a career-spanning acoustic live album the following year. He also reunited with Temple of the Dog, a kind of grunge supergroup-in-retrospect featuring future members of Pearl Jam who released one album in 1991. Soundgarden’s solitary new album, 2012’s King Animal, concentrated on reanimating the sound that had made them superstars while signaling a certain maturity – at least one song appeared to be about the challenges of parenting, not a subject that was on anyone’s minds the night they supported Mudhoney at SOAS. But it still included the free-form squall of Worse Dreams and the bizarre, sludgy, haunting closer Rowing. Even when revisiting past glories, it seemed, Chris Cornell couldn’t help doing something you wouldn’t quite expect.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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