As with many artists whose roots lie in underground culture and grow to reach the masses, you can essentially divide Soundgarden‘s career into two halves: pre-“Black Hole Sun” and post.
That’s not to say that the Seattle rock icons didn’t have a robust discography and a dedicated fan base prior to the spring 1994 release of their fourth LP, Superunknown. They’d been a band for ten years; they’d been a major label band for half of that time, following the jump to A&M on 1989’s Louder than Love. They had passionate followers and a rep for a killer live show. What they didn’t have was a song, or songs, that cut through the frenzied noise of MTV and alternative radio.
Even though 1991’s Badmotorfinger boasted classics like “Outshined” (which peaked at 45 on the Billboard rock charts) and “Rusty Cage” (re-popularized in a Johnny Cash cover two years later), the album had the misfortune of being released on the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind and performing not exactly as well. It was embraced by critics, and the industry to a degree, but it didn’t have a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” propelling it, and nobody quite knew how to categorize these four hairy dudes from the Pacific Northwest; the following year at the Grammy awards, they were confusingly nominated for “Best Metal Performance.”
Three years later, Soundgarden finally did connect in that bigger way. MTV and alt-rock were bigger than ever, and the band’s flirtation with heavy psychedelia on Superunknown made their sound incredibly alluring, as well as a bit less intimidating. “Black Hole Sun” dropped as a single in May of that year, and was the third to get the push from the record that had been out since March. Thanks to a dreamy slide guitar lead by Kim Thayil, a hammering hook, and a super weird, apocalyptic music video that was equal parts funny and disturbing, the song was beloved in the alternative world, and pushed the band well beyond it as well, into the collective consciousness of casual listeners and heads alike. “Black Hole Sun” was Soundgarden’s first number one on the Billboard Rock Charts, but was a slow burn over the course of five months.
When Soundgarden played Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Stabler Arena on June 24th, 1994, their wave was just beginning to hit its crest. Continue reading →